The Karthian, part IV by David Staiger

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Like a man driven to lunacy, Varagos ran through the dark shadows of the defile, the sound of his own shriek echoing behind him like a pursuing banshee. A wild panic commanded his senses. Without lamp or torch he thrust through the blackness like a blind man, stumbling and falling, crashing headlong into the sharp walls of the ravine until his entire body felt bruised and cut beyond recognition. Already wet tears in his knees and elbows hampered his movements, and his palms burned with cruel abrasions. Without warning he tripped over something in his path, fell heavily on top of something soft and wet.

Instinctively he knew what it was he lay upon, but frantically his hands roamed blindly over the form as if to confirm the fear. The body was cold beneath its armor, the wet smear of blood thick and tepid. After a moment his fingers closed upon a hard shaft jutting from the dead torso like a marker of death.

Quailing aloud, he shambled away, found the side of the cleft and pulled his weight upward until he stood. Using the rough wall for support, he started forward more cautiously. Overhead, the dull blue glow of sky appeared like a wavering stripe through the blackness. He used that as well to keep his direction in the dark.

When he came to the gates, he saw that they had been burned to char. Smoke filled the defile, clogged his lungs, and the smell of burnt flesh made him dizzy with nausea. By the light of fading embers he could see the bodies littering the path, hacked and contorted as if the group had been torn into by an army. He could not imagine that one lone warrior could possibly wreak such slaughter.

The Dragon of Kartha was a demon.

Abruptly he gagged and coughed, spitting up bile. The sound of his lungs echoing in the tight space made him wince and cringe. He did not comprehend why she had not pursued him, why he still lived, but he intended to keep moving. Perhaps she had stopped to tend to her kinsman. Whatever the cause, he knew her pursuit would not be long in coming.

Pressing desperately forward, Varagos surged through the remains of his front gate like a vagrant, coughing and sputtering. His toes burned on the hot stones, and he realized that he had lost one slipper somewhere in his flight. He did not stop to gather anything from the dead, did not even pause to grasp a weapon—the sight of so much carnage was too formidable. So he maintained his pace, bumping and stumbling through the long dark bottom of the cleft until at last he came to the northern outlet.

Already the glow of dawn brightened the wide flat between the cliffs and the town. In the distance he could see the flickering colors of life shifting lazily amid the white and brown outlines of the buildings. A feeling of hope sprang up within him. If he could reach the town, he would be safe. The governor would issue safe harborage, and even a Karthian would not be foolish enough to challenge the imperial militia openly. A whole troop of legionnaires waited at his disposal.

But the reassurance faded fast.

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