A Game of Chess – Checkmate (2 of 2 concluded) April 28, 2012Posted by techtigger in flash fiction.
Tags: #fridayflash, flash fiction, Nox and Grimm
Loki had abandoned himself to the elements as he chased down his uncle, becoming more a being of fire than of flesh. He raced through the mountains like a wildfire and the peaks glowed scarlet as he passed. He could see Balor’s rear guard, their horses struggling to make it over the pass into the valley beyond. Loki knew if he let them reach it he would be in for a fight – right now they were in the shadow of the mountains, but the other side would be in full sunlight. They were still too far for a warcasting to reach them, however.
He could feel the dragon mark coiling restlessly around his arm. These mountains were riddled with magma chambers, seething with the raw, untamed power of the earth’s lifeblood. Loki could have dropped the entire mountain on their heads, but when fighting with Fire it was not so much a matter of what he could do, as it was deciding how much collateral damage he was willing to cause. The House of Ice and a city of thousands lay just to the north and west of here, and they would suffer far more than those he pursued if the mountain blew. So he kept the dragon quiet and drew only on the energy nearest the surface.
The chase wore on, up and up into the snow clad peaks, with Loki steadily gaining ground. A group of New Dawn soldiers wheeled their horses around and stopped at the top of the pass. The sun was slowly rising at their backs and they raised up their golden discs to capture its rays.
Loki shook his head. “You poor bastards. You’re in my way.”
From the look of shock on their faces they must have expected him to slow down to fight. Instead, he took two running steps, planted a boot on a rock and vaulted into the air, his blades flashing out to the sides as he passed. The two lead cultists toppled from their horses and the rest shot wildly at him as he darted through their ranks, hitting their own people in the cross fire. It took all of a moment for him to break through and take the higher ground. He sketched a quick warcasting mark in ground with his saber and pockets of sulfurous gas trapped beneath the surface exploded in their midst. Their horses went wild with fear and ran off, throwing their riders in their haste to escape.
Loki did not wait to see if any of them survived. His uncle was getting further away with every second he wasted here. He turned and raced up the last few switchbacks of the pass. The bright sun blinded him for a moment as he crossed out of the shadow of the peaks, and he stepped back behind a boulder to let his eyes adjust.
It was well that he did, because it was the only thing that saved his life. An army waited on the slopes beyond and the impact of their mass warcasting knocked him to the ground as it hammered into the mountainside. He scrambled further behind the spur of rock as more beams of light shattered the stones around him. “Bloody Hel!” Loki cursed. “Where did he get all those men?”
He risked a quick glance around the edge of the rocks to assess this new enemy force. New Dawn soldiers were ranged out across the mountainside in small blocks, with robed priests shouting commands from the back of each group. A second barrage started eating away at his cover, forcing him to dash to a more secure spot. He took another quick look as he ran and let out a string of curses. Only the priests had golden hair, all the rest had shades of red and silver and copper and brown. These were men and boys like the ones he had rescued months before; prisoners, tortured and stripped of their elements and given no choice but to allow themselves to be ‘converted’ into Sun kindreds if they wanted to live. And now they were being forced to fight for their captors. Anger caused his control of the dragon to slip again, and the snow around him vaporized from the sudden heat.
One of the priests called out to him. “We know you are there, unholy prince. Surrender, or you will surely die here in the cold, bitter north!”
“Unholy prince?” Loki said, perplexed, and yelled back down to them. “The title is Lord Dragon. You know what that means, and if you have any sense you will lay down your weapons and leave while you have the chance.”
“Do your worst, demon! The Sun will always prevail over the power of the underworld!”
It finally dawned on Loki what the priest was talking about. His uncle must have cast him as the villain in his crackpot mythology –which was annoying, but it gave him an idea to get out of this mess without having to fight those poor conscripts. He grinned and placed a palm on the ground. “The sun is a long way away. You might want to rethink your allegiance.”
The mountain grumbled as Loki let loose an Earth casting, sounding like a crochety old man being woken from slumber. It growled its displeasure, shifted and belched out plumes of ash and gas from a host of fissures that opened like gaping maws. Cries of dismay told him his gambit was working, the warcastings dying off as the ash slowly blotted out the sun. “I’ll give you one more chance,” he said, his voice roaring like a blast furnace. “Lay down your weapons.”
“Why should they, when we all know you will not kill my new recruits.”
Balor’s voice was unmistakable. At the sound of it something inside Loki snapped, and he drew in so much energy his skin turned molten. He jumped up onto a boulder, heedless of the fact that he was making himself an easy target. “I’m shocked to see you uncle, considering how fast you were running. Feeling a little more brave with an army between us?”
Balor strode to the front of his troops, the bright gold of his armor shining despite the ashen gloom around him. “You have something of mine, nephew.”
“If you want the dragon mark, come and get it!” Loki said, pointing his saber toward Balor’s head. “If you ask nicely, I’ll even make it quick.”
“So be it. A duel then,” Balor said, and to Loki’s surprise he drew his sword and walked up the slope. “Winner takes the dragon.”
It had to be a trap. Balor never risked his own neck; the man was as yellow as his armor. Loki did not have anyone to stand as his second to watch for treachery either. But here was the chance he had waited sixteen long years for, to take down the man that murdered his family. “Done!” he said. He flung out his hand and flames shot across the ground, marking the boundary of the dueling ring. Balor raised his hand and the sun burned through the haze, bathing the entire circle Loki had marked out in light.
As far as Loki was concerned that ended the formalities. He launched himself at Balor, his saber crashing down on his uncle’s hastily raised sword with all the weight he could put behind the blow. Balor staggered back, but used his greater weight to push Loki away.
Loki went with the shove instead of fighting it, landing perfectly balanced with one foot behind him in a fencers’ stance. He advanced again, his saber flicking in to test his uncle’s guard. They exchanged a flurry of blows that ended with Loki putting a gash in his uncle’s vambrace. Balor responded by twisting his sword to catch the sunlight. Casting marks engraved in the polished metal blazed forth, and a flick of his wrist sent them flying at Loki’s feet.
The ground heaved, and a spur of rock surged up between Loki’s feet even as the ground directly beneath them fell away, dropping him downwards. He threw himself backwards to avoid being un-manned. “Now that’s just mean,” he said, rolling up rolling up to one knee. “But if you want to fight dirty, so be it!”
He formed a chain out of flames in his left hand and flicked it at Balor’s face, surging to his feet as his uncle flinched. He whipped the chain out again, tangling it around the cross guard of his uncle’s sword and yanking it out of his grip. Balor was pulled forward as well, but he turned the stumble into a spin and formed a short spear out of light, jabbing it at Loki as he passed. Loki sliced across in a draw-cut with his saber, and they both backed off with a small gash in their sides.
Balor struck a heroic pose as he aimed the spear at Loki, no doubt trying to impress his followers. A single thought from Loki reshaped the dragon mark. The saber melted as the dragon moved, coiling about his hand to form a gauntlet. The spear screamed toward him, burning the air as it passed but Loki caught it with contemptuous ease. The golden light turned into scarlet flames as he spun it around and hurled it back. Balor was ready though, holding a shield made of light. The spear smashed against it, the flames only licking around the edges.
Balor created another spear and stood poised with it raised in the air. “Now brothers, join with me!”
“Leave them out of it, uncle!” Loki said, reforming his saber and advancing again. “This is between you and me.”
Balor ignored him, a wild light in his eyes. “Join with me, and we will unleash the light that hides in the heart of the world!”
The priests started chanting and Loki could see them raising their sun discs out of the corner of his eye. Loki braced himself for the impact, but their enchantment was not aimed at him. Beams of light ripped through the gloom and the conscripts froze, trapped like flies in a web. The beams shot out further, connected to each of the priests stationed behind the troops to form one massive casting mark. The conscripts began to collapse as the construct slowly drained them.
Balor laughed as Loki moved to help them. “Go on, boy. Cross the dueling circle. Forfeit the dragon to me.”
The jaws of the trap had shut. If Loki crossed that line the law would be on his uncle’s side and he would have the Lords of every House to back up his claim to the dragon. There was only one way out of this. Loki exploded into action, closing in on Balor so fast that he no time to get a defense in place. He smashed the spear out of his uncle’s hand and body slammed him, knocking the bigger man back on his heels. The second Balor was off balance Loki moved in to grapple with him, twisting Balor’s arm behind his back and holding the saber across his throat.
“Stop that casting!” Loki shouted.
“Finish it!” Balor said, still wrestling to break free of the arm lock. He twisted and the saber sliced a thin line across his neck, splattering Loki’s arm with blood. It sizzled as it hit the dragon mark and Balor shifted his grip to dig his hand into Loki’s forearm.
A pain like nothing Loki had ever known brought him to his knees. His saber disappeared and the dragon mark began to rip itself away from him, the ink rising to the surface of his skin and beading like oily black blood. Loki convulsed uncontrollably as it slid toward Balor’s hand – the mark had been embedded in his psyche for so long that each drop of ink lost felt like a piece of his soul being ripped out.
“Our blood commands the dragon, boy,” Balor said, wrestling Loki to the ground. “A pity your father did not live long enough to tell you all its secrets.” He held out his free hand to the priests, “Now, brothers!”
The clouds boiled away as the casting was unleashed, and the skies opened. A solid beam of light shot down into Balor’s hand, forming a new spear. Energy from the dragon filled its core and the shaft turned scarlet . Balor drew the spear back, triumphant, and slammed it into the ground.
That moment would remain burned into Loki’s mind for years to come. The sound as the mountain exploded. The force of the blast that sent house sized boulders miles into the air. The look of horror on both the priests and the conscripts faces just before the pyroclastic cloud rolled over them. His uncle standing amidst the chaos, laughing like a madman.
Balor reached down and grabbed Loki by the throat. “Now you, Lucien, and everyone who has defied me will die screaming, just like your precious little half-blood did.”
Nox. His vision started to black out as Balor tightened his grip, but he could still see Nox in his mind’s eye. It was the last day they spent together, and she had a mischievous smile on her face that put dimples in her cheeks. She had taken his shirt off, supposedly to study the dragon mark. “Careful luv,” he had said. “It’s got a mind of its own.” She laughed and ran a hand down his arm. “It’s just psycho-reactive ink, silly. It only acts sentient because you think it should.”
His head was spinning from shock and lack of oxygen, but he held onto that thought. The dragon mark would do whatever he told it to. Loki quit trying to free himself and grabbed a chunk of rock, slashing his own palm. Then he slapped it against his uncle’s forearm and sent his will surging through the dragon mark.
Balor reeled back but the dragon coiled like an ouroborus around their wrists, tying them together. He stared at the dragon, a hint of fear in his eyes. “What are you doing, leave him!”
“You forfeited any right to it when that casting broke the dueling circle.” Loki ordered the dragon to dig in, playing on his uncle’s fears and planting the doubts that would make him believe he could not control it. “The dragon is mine.”
“You’re wrong. It came to me!” Balor said, but his eyes were wild and he started to shake as the claws tore into his wrist.
A single thought from Loki made the dragon rear up, its jaws agape. “You broke the law. The dragon will never serve you now.” Its head darted forward and sunk its teeth into Balor’s veins.
Balor screamed as his own fears broke what little control he had left. All of the glamours he wore disappeared – his armor turned dull and his hair fell away, and lines sunk deep into his face leaving him a withered husk.
Loki looked on in disgust at the wreckage of a man that huddled before him. “This is where the Sun gets you?” he said. “I could almost pity you. Almost.” He steeled himself to finish the job, reforming the saber. “I did say I would make it quick.”
Something overhead shrieked. An oily black shadow swooped down and landed, crouching over Balor. Its leaf green eyes bored into Loki’s, radiating such an aura of evil that he instinctively stepped back.
It hissed at him and bared needle sharp teeth. “Not today, dark prince. I’m not done playing with my golden toy.”
“Shadowkin,” he said, radiating enough heat to incinerate the poison it spat at him. “It was you behind everything, wasn’t it? Balor, Serenna, New Dawn. They are all just Shadowkin in training, even if they don’t know it.”
“Very good, dear boy,” it cackled. “You didn’t honestly think this wretch could have planned it all? The first thing I did was have him murder his own brother. Your father was wise to hide the dragon then, or it would have all been over long since.”
Loki’s head was clear now, empty of any emotion. “You would not be telling me this if you thought I could stop you.” The mountain heaved beneath them, and he could sense the pressure building.
The Shadowkin began dragging Balor away. “You really are a smart little duck. You know you’ll get a chance to fight me again. But the mountain?” it said, glancing up at the ash jetting out of the peak, “the mountain won’t wait.”
The fissure Balor had opened with his spear erupted, spewing fountains of magma into the air. By the time it Loki cleared a path through it, the Shadowkin and its ‘toy’ were gone.
Loki looked down into the crevasse, sick and weary to his bones. After days of fighting without rest he wanted nothing more than to lie down and let the mountain do its worst. He wasn’t even sure it was possible to stop a volcano once it started to erupt. The thing was just so bloody big.
A sad smile crossed his face. Nox used to joke that the whole world was bigger than her, but she never let that stop her. And he wouldn’t either. He took a deep breath and let it out, squared his shoulders and headed down into the dark.
Three weeks later…
Anders checked the myriad of protective spells he had draped all around him. If any one of them failed his mission would go up in flames. Literally. He looked up at the smoking mountain with more than a bit of trepidation. “Red, how do you get me into things like this?”
The Storm kin picked his way across the broken ground to a gaping fissure that led down into the mountain’s heart. He paused again at the entrance, mopping the sweat that poured from his brow. “Okay. I only have to go in for a few minutes. Or maybe only one minute. Just long enough,” he said, and shook his head. “I can’t believe I volunteered for this.”
He knew a minute wasn’t good enough though. How could he face Nox without finding out for sure if Loki was alive or dead? He plunged into the dark entrance and half ran down the slope until he stubbed his toe on a stone. A few blistering curses later he was walking more sedately down to the hellish depths.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw at the tunnels end. The rough-hewn chamber glowed, the light pulsing as if it was a heartbeat. Fiery casting marks crawled across the walls, radiating out from a dark figure that stood in the far end of the room. It looked like a statue, its skin black and cracked like the cooled crust of lava flow. Its hands were buried in the rock and every muscle stood out, straining as if it were trying to hold the mountain back by sheer brute strength. But there was no sign of life, only twin beams of crimson light shining out from where its eyes had been.
Anders felt blindly behind him for the wall and slumped against it, horrified at what had become of his friend. “You stupid, dimwitted, pigheaded idiot! What did I tell you about playing the hero? No good comes of it, you know only wastrels like me live to see an old age. But no, you had get a fancy title and let it go to your head.”
He would have kept ranting but his mouth had gone dry. “Damn it,” he croaked. “You still owe me a few beers.”
Something flickered in the dark. Anders blinked, and pushed himself away from the wall. Had the statue just smirked? He moved as close as he dared, the heat making his skin feel as dry as the statue looked. “I have a message for you. Nox sends her love.”
There was no mistaking it this time. The light from Loki’s eyes burned more brightly, and shifted toward Anders.
“I told you she’d make it. Not unscathed, but she’s recovering. She misses you, goodness knows why,” Anders said. “She asked me to pass along a kiss, but neither of us would enjoy that. So you’ll have to take my word for it.”
Bits of ash flaked from the corners of Loki’s mouth as his mouth cracked open. “Tell…her…” he said, his voice echoing hollowly through the chamber.
“Yeah, I know what to tell her,” Anders said, grinning. “Save your strength. Help is on the way, they are sending to House Vulcan for an expert to pry you out of here. So hang on, you hear me, Red?”
Loki’s eyes closed. “Go.”
The mountain began to rumble, and Anders looked nervously around the room. “Gotcha boss, I’m going. But I’ll be back. Someone’s got to keep you from doing anything else stupid.” Anders couldn’t tell if the statue smiled again or not. He was too busy beating a hasty retreat back to the surface. His mission was a success though, and he couldn’t wait to give Nox the good news.