THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS || CHAPTER 6

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Submitted Date 05/05/2019
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Tarlos led Krastos through the halls of the dungeon in the dark, and the door opened with a creak on metal hinges. On the other side stood the guard who had escorted Tarlos there, and he started as the two princes came through the door.
"Princes!" he said, coming to attention and standing upright. "I beg your pardon, but prince Krastos is not to be let out of his cell, by order of the king."
"You'll speak not a word of seeing us leave," Tarlos told him, "or I'll suck the air from your chest and leave you squirming."
For a moment it looked as if the guard might respond or call out for help. He opened his mouth, then closed it, looked from Tarlos to Krastos and back again. There was a certain sad light in his eyes. He loved Krastos, as all guards and soldiers and slaves loved Krastos. Krastos was a kind man with a gentle soul, and no one wanted to see him executed. The guard stepped aside.
"I'll take the blame," Tarlos said, hoping the guard caught the thankful note in his voice.
The guard gripped his spear and stood straight. He gave Tarlos a nod, and the twins took off through the cedar wood hallway.
The palace was beginning to stir as the sun rose higher in the sky, and people were emerging from their rooms. Tarlos and Krastos paid them no attention as they sprinted past them, and suspicious eyes turned to follow them.
As they ran, Tarlos fought the urge to laugh. His smile was big enough, but he had to suppress his joy and excitement that was rising from his belly and through his chest and up to his throat.
Tarlos had never told anyone, but he had kept a secret desire in his heart to hunt down and kill Bawa since he was a child. The exact reason for it, he could not pin down. He told himself it was for his mother. He would kill Bawa to avenge the death of Ninsun, the death of his father's true love, the death of Kesh's queen.
But running through the palace, ignoring the shouts of his and Krastos's names, and ignoring the guards that jogged after them for a few yards and then gave up, Tarlos realized something that he had never admitted to himself. He wanted to kill Bawa for the sport of it. For the glory of it. So that for all eternity people would remember that King Tarlos son of Lakaeus, then prince of Kesh, had slain the dread beast Bawa, offspring of Ablis the Discarded One.
He grinned as he imagined it. Parades in his honor that took place every year on the same day. His birthday celebrated long after he was departed from this earth. His death-day mourned with reverence and remembrance of the one man brave enough and powerful enough to accomplish such a deed—
"What's so funny?" Krastos asked as he ran beside Tarlos.
Tarlos snapped from his daydream and shrugged with his hands. "Just anxious, I guess. Getting my mind ready for it."
Krastos shook his head, never perfectly confident with their decision.

The armory was a small building beyond the courtyard, across from the palace. It was attached to the blacksmith's house, and the blacksmith worked solely for the royal family and their guards.
Nekhte, the blacksmith, was awake and already working, scraping a wooden tool at an antelope hide stretched on a wooden frame. At the sound of the princes' running footsteps, he turned from his tanning and greeted the twins.
"Majesties," he grunted. Nekhte was a huge man, with a bushy black beard that he kept tucked into his belt. His shoulders were massive and made his already large head seemed small in proportion. His right arm was a degree more muscular than his left, as was the norm with all hammer-wielding blacksmiths. "What brings you to my humble establishment?"
"We need armor and weapons," Tarlos said. "And we'd appreciate it if you were quick about it."
Nekhte nodded and waved an arm, inviting them into the small building that was the armory.
"May I ask what it is you'll be fighting?" Nekhte asked. "Or would you settle for some cheap practice armor? I know how you two can get. Wake me up almost every morning with your wrestling." His tone was gruff but lighthearted. Neither Tarlos nor Krastos had ever known Nekhte to harm a person, verbally or otherwise. When they were out of the palace, they sometimes caught Nekhte slipping sweet-rolls to children, whether royal or slave.
Nekhte rummaged around the place, opening wooden chests and sifting through them.
"We're just going for a quick hunting trip," Krastos said. "For a day or two."
Tarlos punched his twin on the shoulder and Krastos drew back. "Don't lie to the man," he said, then turned to Nekhte. "We're going to kill Bawa."
Nekhte stopped what he was doing and faced them, looking at them both in turn. He was silent and expressionless for a while, and the princes glanced at each other, uneasy.
And then, like a sudden clap of thunder, Nekhte exploded in a heavy booming laughter that could only come from a man his size. Tarlos and Krastos waited patiently for the blacksmith to catch his breath and wipe the tears from his eyes.
"Are you done?" Tarlos asked. "How about the weapons and armor?"
Nekhte cleared his throat and sighed. His breath was shaky. "You aren't serious."
"When I said before that we were in a hurry—"
"Gods!" Nekhte bellowed. "You really mean to walk into the Cedar Forest and get killed by a demon?"
Tarlos rolled his eyes. "It's not a demon."
"Yes it is," said Krastos. "I told you."
"It's just a monster."
"Demon or monster," said Nekhte, who was now frowning with concern, "it's a child of Ablis! Do you know what that means?"
"Nekhte," Tarlos said, "we didn't come here for a sermon. We just want our armor and a sword or two, and we won't bother you anymore."
"His voice is the Flood!" cried the blacksmith. "His words are fire; his breath is death!"
"So I've heard." Tarlos frowned at his brother. Krastos wore a snide expression that said I told you so.
"This is no joke, princes," Nekhte said. His brown eyes were wild beneath his bushy eyebrows and protruding forehead. "Ablis created Bawa for the sole purpose of terrifying Man."
"And once it's dead, they won't be afraid anymore." Tarlos crossed his arms over his chest.
"You'd best fear Bawa if you know what's good for you."
"Can we please have armor and weapons, or are you going to send us out there with nothing but our wits?"
Nekhte shook his head and ran a hand over his face. "Oh, Tarlos. You were always the ambitious one. I could never convince you to stay. And you're right, I can't send you out there with nothing." He sighed. "All right. Wait here. I'll be back." He disappeared into a door in the wall of the armory. The door connected the armory to his house.
Tarlos smiled at his brother. "He's getting old, I think."
"Older and wiser than us, I guess," Krastos replied.
"Don't believe those stories. People only believe things because they heard it from someone else, until no one knows the truth of things anymore. We'll be the first to actually see Bawa since—" Tarlos stopped himself. He knew the last person who saw Bawa, and she did not help his argument.
Nekhte emerged from the door a few minutes later, carrying pieces of armor under one huge arm and weapons in the other. He let them drop to the floor, and the metal clattered against the cedar wood.
"My sons', before they went to fight the Ashurites." He lifted a cuirass up to Tarlos. It was silver, the color of moonlight through a cloud, made from layers of small metal sheets that formed a scale pattern. It would protect everything from his collarbone to his waist.
"It should fit you," Nekhte said. "Just have to make some adjustments to the leather straps. Here, try them on, both of you."
Tarlos dropped the cuirass over his head, and the leather straps fit snugly on his shoulders. Except for some extra space in the chest area, it was almost a perfect fit. Nekhte took no time in cutting slack off the straps and attaching new fastening loops. He tightened the cuirass around Tarlos, and Tarlos felt like it had been made specifically for him.
Krastos's armor was the same as Tarlos's, but several sizes larger. Nekhte's older son had inherited his massive build, but Nekhte still had to replace the straps with longer ones for Krastos. Only ten minutes had passed by the time he was finished with it.
Tarlos and Krastos moved in the armor, testing how they could bend and swing their arms. Tarlos touched his toes, twisted his body above the hips.
"You're a miracle-worker with metal, Nekhte," he said.
"Thank you, prince. Now these..." The blacksmith picked up two sets of shin guards and handed them over. "...should fit perfectly. Let me know if they don't. There should be a finger's worth of space at the bottom, and two fingers at the knee."
They fit perfectly, and Tarlos made a little skip.
Krastos shrugged. "Perfect," he said.
"Good," said Nekhte. "Take care of these." He gave them each a spear and a sword, with scabbards to match. "I made this one for my youngest." He pointed to the one Tarlos had picked, and Tarlos practiced some swings at the empty air. "But this one was my father's, who gave it to me, and I gave it to my eldest. My father never lost a battle with it, and neither did I. Soske, though..." He scratched his beard. "He decided not to take it into battle. Said he was too afraid to lose a family heirloom. I told him he was a fool for it, but he insisted. Well, who's laughing now?"
"I'll take care of it," said Krastos. He slid the sword into its leather scabbard. "And it will come back to you. I promise. Thank you, Nekhte."
"Yes," Tarlos said, putting his own sword away. "We appreciate your help."
"I still think you're damned fools for doing this, if you'll pardon me, princes. But I've been at this a while, and I've watched you go from boys playing with sticks in the mud to men battling monsters in the arena. It's hard for a man to watch a child grow and not care for him just a little." He smiled behind his huge beard, and his right eye twinkled. Tarlos wondered if it was a tear.
"Now get on with both of you," said the blacksmith. "Before the authorities catch you." He winked at Krastos, and Krastos looked away with a frown.
"We'll come back with Bawa's head," Tarlos said as they left the armory. "And the world will know by whose swords the beast fell!"
Something deep in Tarlos's mind told him after everything was over that even as Nekhte smiled and waved them away, he never really expected to see his sons' armor or swords again.
The main city of Kesh was awake long before the palace grounds. Merchants were selling wares and food, and civilians bartered over ingredients and fabrics. The air was filled with the sounds of the city—donkeys pulling creaky carts and the wheels knocking against the grooves in the cobblestone roads, salesman waving their merchandise and shouting at passersby, customers flailing their arms and arguing with vendors, children running about playing with their sticks and hoops and painted streamers. And drifting through the streets was the smell of freshly baked bread and honey-butter, scorpions and locusts roasted and being drizzled with melted sugar or pepper sauce, the smell of sweaty livestock and dung.
Tarlos took it all in and smiled. He hardly ever had a chance to go down into the city, to mingle with the people and taste the street food. But all that would have to wait until he and Krastos returned. The guards—and by now the king, no doubt—would have noticed that Krastos was not in the dungeon, and they would be searching for him. The princes had but a few minutes left to leave the city walls.
They made their way through the main street that led to the gate, and the crowds grew denser as the minutes passed. They tried their best not to bump into anyone, but Krastos was the largest man in sight and he was having trouble getting through without a struggle.
"Watch yourself!" spat a man after Krastos knocked into him. The man was carrying a basket full of naan, and a few loaves spilled over onto the ground. "Now see what you've done! I should have you pay for these. I can't sell them now!"
"I'm so sorry," said Krastos. He bent down to help the man pick up the naan. People walked by and stepped on his hands and bumped his head with baskets and coin purses. Wincing, Krastos gathered the bread and stood, rising above the crowd. He gave the loaves to the man, who scowled at him in return but placed the dirty naan in his basket regardless.
"You ought to watch yourself, man of your size," he grumbled. He walked away into the crowd but turned for one last insult. "Damn stupid foreigners..."
Krastos lowered his eyes and scratched his head. The man did not know Krastos was his prince. How could he? Krastos did not make it into the town often, and the people who lived without the palace would not recognize someone they almost never saw. Even the ones who were lucky enough to get front-row seats to their trials would probably not remember their faces after the event.
But Krastos shrugged it off and turned to follow Tarlos. His brother had no difficulty in weaving through the crowds. He used his Power to gently move people aside to create a path for himself. Krastos picked his way slowly through the thick river of shoppers and workers, pardoning himself whenever he bumped into someone, which was often.
Close up, the city walls were enormous. Sixty feet high, the color of amber. The sun, not yet at its noon place, peeked over the edge of the wall like half a gold coin. Behind him, Tarlos heard Krastos mutter a prayer to Shar, his grandfather, to watch over them. Or perhaps he was begging the god to change Tarlos's mind about the whole thing. Tarlos never asked, so he would never know.
They came to the stables, which sat nestled in a dirty corner of the city wall, not far from the gates. Tarlos waved at Krastos, hurrying him along, and he jogged up to the stable master. The man was leaning against a fence, with one foot resting on a horizontal plank, watching a young boy ride bareback on a grey short-neck.
"Ease up on the reigns, you little fool, or she won't know what you want!" the man yelled. "And quit squeezing her with your knees. She's solid; you can sit on her without falling through, trust me. Hello." He saw Tarlos approach and took his resting foot off the fence to face the prince. "What can I do for you, young man? Oh! As the sun witnesses, princes Tarlos and Krastos are here to inspect my stock. To what do I owe this honor?" The man kept his thumbs in the waistband of his tunic, and he wore an open vest over his muscular torso. A long piece of straw hung from his mouth, and it twitched as he spoke.
"What are we doing here?" Krastos asked Tarlos, standing at his side.
"You didn't expect to walk to the Cedar Forest, did you?"
"No, but...well, I guess you have a point."
Krastos could sprint faster than a horse when out in the open, but he grew tired like any other man. He could cover at least twenty miles before having to slow to a walk. Tarlos could fly, but using his Power cost energy just as any other exercise. If they did not take horses across the desert—a two-day journey—they would be too exhausted to fight Bawa by the time they reached his lair.
"Those two will suit us just fine," Tarlos told the stable master. He pointed to the grey short-neck that the boy was riding and a similar brown horse tied to a post nearby.
The stable master nodded, and the straw in his mouth bobbed upward as he spoke around it. "Two of my finest. They'll serve you well, princes."
"We'll need saddles and tack too."
"Of course you will. I'll fetch them for you." He cupped a hand over his mouth and shouted, "Boy!"
The boy on the horse, who was perhaps twelve years old and small for his age, half-jumped half-fell from the horse and sprinted to the stable master. His face was smudged with dirt and his bare feet were caked in mud and horse dung.
"Saddle these two," the man told him. "And be quick about it. Have you finished mucking out the place?"
"No, Father, but I'm almost done. Duck is still walking funny, so I have to redo her shoe before I—"
The stable master clouted the boy on the side of his head, and the boy drew back in pain. "How many times do I have to tell you to stop paying mind to that mare? She's good for nothing but breeding, and I don't need you wasting time on making her comfortable!"
The boy nodded, and Tarlos noticed that he never looked straight at the stable master. "Yes, Father."
"Go saddle these two and be quick about it. And while you're at it, how about minding your manners in front of your princes?"
The boy turned to the twins but did not look at them, and he bowed low and quick. He ran into the main stable building and ran out a moment later with two light leather saddles and two saddle blankets.
As the boy saddled the horses, Krastos said to the stable master, "You can send the bill for the horses and saddles to the palace. Rihat, the money-handler, will take care of it."
"Nay, and say no more," said the man with a wave of his hand. "Kesh is yours, and everything she has to offer, including whatever horse and saddle finds its way within the walls. Take them. I'll say they're gifts for your coming-of-age."
"Did you see us?" Tarlos asked.
"I did. Told the boy all about it, too."
The boy led both horses by the reins through the stable gates and handed them over to the princes. Krastos took the brown one.
Tarlos jumped in his saddle and the grey stallion whinnied.
"Woah there, boy," he said, and he gave the horse a pat on the back.
"Her name is Cloud," said the boy with a shy and squeaky voice.
"Oh, sorry, girl," Tarlos told the horse. "You have our thanks, stable master."
"Say no more about it and be on your way," the man replied. "No doubt you have important business and I'm keeping you from it."
"Very important," Tarlos said, grinning from one side of his mouth. "The world will sing of it for eternity! Come, Krastos!"
Krastos eased into his saddle, and the brown stallion leered under his weight. He frowned, and Tarlos could see that he felt sorry for the animal. But there was nothing to be done about it.
They led their horses to the gates, which stretched high and wide before them in the stone walls. Two guards pulled open a smaller set of gates that sat within the larger one, and the princes galloped through them into the dry desert and the ever-brightening day.

Somewhere deep in his mind Tarlos knows that he is dreaming, but the part of him that knows he is dreaming is smaller than the part that thinks this is happening. He is Krastos, and he is fighting the manticore.
He fights the manticore with naught but his godlike strength.
"I don't want to kill you," he tells the manticore in Krastos's deep voice. The manticore laughs and throws him aside.
He lands on his chest. His jaw snaps in two places. He bites his tongue off. He screams in agony as the manticore laughs its mannish laugh and the world dissolves around him into tendrils of black substance that is neither liquid nor smoke.
The manticore remains, and its laughter does not cease, and its spiny lion's body shifts into a mountain of rock with the face of a man.
"I didn't want to kill you," Tarlos says, although his jaw is broken in two places and his tongue lies beside him like the tail end of a dead snake.
The mountain either does not hear him, does not understand him, or does not care either way. It lifts one giant rocky fist into the air, and dirt and plants rain down from it. Tarlos raises his head and watches the club of an arm pummel toward him, and then all is dark.

Tarlos shot bolt upright. He was sitting on the bare ground, and the stars above him blinked. The fire between him and Krastos had fizzled out hours ago, and ashes sat in the pit cold and silent.
Tarlos's heart thumped, and he rested a hand on his chest and took a few deep and steady breaths. He looked to the south-west, and he could see the edge of the Cedar Forest nearing. They would be there tomorrow. He wiped cold sweat from his brow and rubbed at his pathetic stubble.
Krastos rolled over on his saddle blanket and groaned. "Wh...zh...doing," he mumbled.
Tarlos ignored him and lay back down on his own saddle blanket. He stared blankly at the white and yellow stars above him that swirled in a magnificent work of art. A part of him wanted to shake Krastos awake and show him the starry sky and all the beauty it held, and tell him to take it all in and look long and deep like you're drinking from a cool spring in the desert and you know you won't have water again until the gods know when...
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
Krastos rolled over in his sleep again, and his mouth moved like a mute man.
We might be killed if we do this.
Tarlos looked up. A star shot across the sky.
He'll die for sure if we don't.
He lay back down and closed his eyes.
He'll miss the stars.
He fell asleep, and his dreams were no better this time.

They had brought no supplies with them, which Tarlos told himself was smart because it was better that they travel light, but he was only making an excuse for being foolish. He was in so much of a hurry to leave Kesh that he had not thought of bringing food or water. They did not have to starve, though, as plenty of desert hare roamed around, and between Tarlos's Power and Krastos's strength they never wanted for food.
The Cedar Forest was the reason Kesh was the center of civilization in the Fertile Valley, as they shipped cedar wood all over the desert to small villages and other city-states. The cedar wood trading industry had grown large over the years, and many wells had been dug between Kesh and the forest. Tarlos and Krastos were never thirsty as they journeyed.
Tarlos found it difficult to comprehend the scale of the Cedar Forest. Where the Fertile Valley ended on the west side, mountains rose and small streams flowed from their slopes. The air was cooler with more moisture, and he could feel the dust in his lungs turn to mud. Spending his whole life in a hot and dry desert, it was a strange sensation to get used to. But even stranger were the trees.
The Fertile Valley was not called such because of its vegetation. The two rivers that surrounded the lands around Kesh flooded over their banks every year, and the silt that was left behind was ideal for crops. But the only trees in the desert were those in the palace courtyard, imported there by queen Ningal, Lakaeus's mother and Holder before him. The trees in Kesh were sparse, and they suffered in the heat. No tree in Kesh rose above ten feet.
The Cedar Forest could fit three Fertile Valleys within its borders with room to spare. From a distance, the forest was a dark green sea that stretched out to meet the sky at the horizon. As the brothers came nearer and the air became cooler, they saw that this green sea was made up of millions of skyscraping trees, and each one was hundreds of feet high. The tree trunks were thicker than ten men standing in a row, and the wood was sturdy but pliable. The first men to take advantage of this resource died wealthier than kings.
The forest's border closest to Kesh was dotted with stumps and toppled trees. It was this way for several miles until the lumbermen chose to spread out to the sides of the forest instead of going farther into it. Growing up in the Fertile Valley, anyone would know the reason for this.
Tarlos and Krastos halted their horses where the stumps ended and the healthy full-grown monstrous cedars began.
"Well," said Tarlos, "we're here."
Krastos said nothing, and Tarlos looked at his brother's pale face. Krastos's throat bobbed up and down, and he swallowed.
"You okay?" Tarlos asked.
"I was just thinking about Shala," Krastos said. His voice was quiet and reverent. "What if I never see her again?"
Tarlos leaned over to hit Krastos on the arm. "Hey. She'll love you even more when you return with Bawa's head. She'll leave the temple and marry you for sure."
"That's not allowed."
"I'll be king."
Krastos looked at his brother, and his eyes were worried. "Aren't you thinking about Katla?"
This question surprised Tarlos, and he frowned for a moment, then gave a reassuring smile to Krastos. "The same goes for her."
Krastos said nothing and did not move for several seconds. He only stared into the forest, seeing how the light faded within the trees not more than a hundred yards away. The Cedar Forest was massive, and its trees were huge, and the brothers did not expect to feel so small standing in its shadow.
"I can't," Krastos whispered. "I just can't do it. Tarlos, let's go back while we still can. Please."
Tarlos leaned over once more and slapped Krastos across the face.
"Quit being such a coward!" He had had enough of his brother's anxiety and lack of confidence in himself or in Tarlos. They had come so far, and revenge was in sight. "This isn't the Krastos I know! What happened to the man who fights lions with his bare hands to protect shepherds' flocks? What happened to the man who dug a trench a mile long in a single day to irrigate farmers' crops? What happened to the man who killed a manticore with its own stinger?"
"You helped me kill the manticore," Krastos said, and he stared at Tarlos with hurt in his eyes after the slap. "I'd be dead if it weren't for you."
"And I'll be dead if you don't stay." Tarlos was not turning back. His pride would not allow it. And what would he go back to? A furious father and a battalion of soldiers waiting to place Krastos under the axe. "Do you know what happens when you die? People forget about you. They don't talk about you, they don't care what you did—it's like never having been alive in the first place. Mother's been dead for eight years, and I've heard more mention of her in the last three days than in these past eight years combined. If you go back, you will be executed, and Father will make sure that there is a blot on your legacy so large and dark that no one will be able to look back and remember you."
Tarlos felt heat rise in his neck, and he could hear his heart beating in his ears. He took a breath to calm himself.
"Krastos," he continued, "I'm going to kill Bawa for your freedom and to avenge Mother's death whether you help me or not. But I need you by my side. What can he possibly do to both of us together? We've already come so far, and death is waiting for you in Kesh if we return without that monster's head."
Krastos was trembling. The sword at his waist vibrated against his armor. "I'm terrified."
Tarlos was also frightened, but he would never let Krastos know that. "It'll be over before you know it, and we'll be laughing about it in a few days, beer up to our eyeballs and bellies full of meat; men and women gathered around us asking to hear again and again how we defeated the monster they said no man could kill. Our names will never be forgotten." He punched Krastos on the shoulder. "Stop crying."
Krastos wiped his eyes and took a deep and shaky breath. He stared up into the cloudless sky and closed his eyes, and Tarlos imagined he was praying to every one of the gods to protect them, but especially his father Moleg.
"Fine, brother," he said at length. "I'll go if you'll be at my side."
"Always," Tarlos said, and he gave his brother a reassuring smile.
They rode on.

Once they passed the boundary that separated the stumps and hewn trees and crossed into the full green and living Cedar Forest, the mood and atmosphere changed. The sun was blocked above the thick canopy, and strange animal sounds drifted through the trees. The twins never saw an animal, but they heard plenty of chirping birds and yowling cats and singing crickets that sounded just out of sight. But they did not care about any animal except one—and it was not a mere animal.
Five miles into the forest, a clearing opened up in front of them. They stopped there to give their horses a break and to stretch their cramping legs. There was a gap in the trees several yards across that spread from north to south, end to end of the forest. Tarlos squinted at the sun above them, feeling its light and warmth on his skin for the first time in hours.
"What do you think?" he asked Krastos. "How do we find him?"
Krastos looked around and scratched his beard. "Follow the trail, obviously. The question is, north or south?"
"What trail?" Tarlos turned and peered around, looking for some footprints or broken branches that would have been evidence of a passing monster. "How are we going to find its trail? The forest is massive. He could be anywhere."
Krastos raised an eyebrow and extended an arm outward. "The trail, brother."
Tarlos took another look, and he saw the trail. The clearing was not a natural one. The several yards of bare ground that stretched from north to south was, as he could now see, a trampled path through the cedars. The ground was bumpy and overturned with brown soil and broken branches. Stumps and stunted cedars protruded from the ground every few feet, and none were tall enough to reach the brothers as they sat on their horses. Tarlos felt the blood rush from his face and neck as he realized how large Bawa must be. He did not let Krastos see his concern.
He swallowed to steady his worried voice, then said, "South is the direction of Ablis."
"But he hates his father."
Tarlos nodded. "True, but all things with the innate evil spirit of Ablis are drawn to his ways. Let's follow the trail south for a few miles, and if we don't find anything we'll double back, yeah?"
"Sounds like a plan." Krastos did not look at Tarlos, nor did he smile or nod. He only mounted his horse, kicked it forward, and led the way southward down the path of trampled trees and dirt.
They followed the trail deeper into the Cedar Forest, and the sun was beginning to set by the time the animal noises stopped. The noises may have stopped long before they noticed. The sun's journey cast long shadows on the trampled trail and subdued the princes' moods with a gloomy foreboding. They felt as if they were in the wrong place, and this was the wrong time to be there. It was then that they noticed the birds had stopped chirping, the cats had stopped yowling, and the crickets had stopped singing. The absence of sound was ominous, but the brothers pressed on.
"What if we don't find him before dark?" Krastos asked, his voice barely above a whisper. Even the sound of their horses' hoof beats seemed dampened.
"We find a place to spend the night and keep looking tomorrow." This idea scared Tarlos to no end. Sleep in the Cedar Forest while on the trail of Bawa? But they had no choice.
"I think I see a cave ahead," said Krastos. "It's going to be dark within the hour. We might as well bed down there."
Krastos pointed to a small hole in a rock face on a hill, about a mile away. Tarlos squinted to see it in the low light. It seemed safe enough, and small enough to keep a monster like Bawa away from them while they slept, or at least tried to sleep.
They rode the mile south down the trail until they came to the foot of the hill. It was covered in thick rock, and large boulders lay scattered around the place and in the nearby trees.
"I can barely see in this light," Krastos said. "Are we close?"
"It's just up there a few yards. Leave the horses down here."
They tied the horses to a tree at the foot of the rocky hill and hoped that nothing would scare them away during the night, or eat them.
The hill was steeper than it looked from a distance, and in the fast fading light it was difficult to climb the hill without slipping and breaking every bone on the way down. It took several minutes to climb what was only a hundred yards. Krastos could have jumped the whole way, and Tarlos could have flown, but they were exhausted from riding all day and wanted to save their energy.
When they came to the cave entrance, they froze. The cave was much bigger than it looked from the trail a mile away. Tarlos looked at Krastos and saw that all the color had drained from his brother's face. Krastos opened his mouth and closed it again, and his eyes widened so that they were more white than brown. He tried to say something, but his voice would not come out. Tarlos did not have to ask him what he was trying to say. He heard the breathing coming from the cave, and slowly Tarlos's head turned to see what the sound came from.
Red eyes glowed in the darkness, and they bounced up and down as the creature walked toward them. Tarlos was stuck, unable to turn or run, and he did not have to look at Krastos to know he was the same. The breathing grew louder and the eyes grew bigger and closer, and giant feet slammed into the rock ground as the steps became louder and faster. Tarlos's blood was frozen in his veins.
Bawa made a strange noise, something between a roar and a purr. It was disgusting, and it sent cold prickles over every inch of Tarlos's skin. The monster approached and towered above the twins. It was at that moment that Tarlos instantly regretted coming to the forest at all. He should have stayed home and fought his father, not Ablis's monster-bastard.
There was just enough light from the sun left to see Bawa as he came to the entrance of the cave, and the moon was full and rising behind the twins. Bawa was more or less the shape of a man, with a huge beard and antelope antlers protruding from his forehead. Bawa walked on all fours, his arms were twice the length of his legs, and his knees bent backwards like a dog's. Behind him stretched a whip-like tail, and the claws on his hands and feet scratched the rock as he walked. He was huge, twice the size of Tarlos and Krastos combined.
"What do I see before my home?" said Bawa. His voice was deep and smooth, and it made Tarlos think that this is what a cow would sound like if it learned to speak. "Two young men. One of them with a familiar smell. Both with weapons unsheathed to me. Tell me, young men, have you come to fight me like so many before you?" Bawa grinned, and his smile stretched back to his ears revealing teeth the shape of needles and the color of corn.
Dread surged through Tarlos. Terror flooded his muscles. His heart froze. His legs shook. He forced his eyes to turn to Krastos, and Krastos looked sideways at him. Krastos nodded. Tarlos nodded back and turned to face Bawa.
"We've come to avenge Ninsun, our mother," Tarlos shouted. He was afraid his voice might come out weak and cracking, as he felt on the inside, but his voice was strong and steady, and he sent up a quick prayer thanking the gods for that.
Bawa made four more steps toward them, and every step shook the ground and the entire rocky hill. He lowered his head, which sat on a long slender neck, and Tarlos could see his reflection in the monster's eyes.
"You are the twins of Kesh," Bawa said with a nod of his huge head. "I wondered if you might come to me someday. Honor would dictate it, after all. Go home, boys. Do not be fools."
"We will not leave without your head," Tarlos cried, lifting his sword. The moon behind him glinted off the blade, and there was a twinkle in Bawa's eye.
Bawa laughed. His breath blew at the brothers and made Tarlos's stomach lurch. It was hot, and it smelled of decay.
"Have you not heard the stories about me? The Mighty Bawa? Child of Ablis, the Discarded One." He brought his head closer to the brothers and spoke softly and slowly, as if to children. "You both stand before me like a pair of frightened pups. I will tear you limb from limb. I will crush you. I will bite off your heads, leave your bloody and mangled husks on the ground, and feed your stinking guts to the vultures and crows."
Tarlos swallowed and whispered out of the corner of his mouth. "If we survive this," he hissed at Krastos, "you don't ever have to follow me again. This was a stupid idea."
"No turning back now," Krastos mumbled back. "Don't hesitate. I'm with you until the end."
For Tarlos, the world became grey as Bawa leapt at them. He did not think about his actions, but his body reacted to the monster's movements. He felt trapped inside his own mind with little or no control, and he watched the fight as a spectator from beyond his body.
Bawa moved like a viper. He swished his tail at them. He moved his huge head on his long neck to avoid their swords. He laughed as the brothers swung at him, and his breath was burning and putrid. His teeth were razor sharp, and he snapped at them whenever they drew near. Tarlos narrowly escaped his jaws more than a few times.
It was all Tarlos and Krastos could do to keep Bawa in the cave. They knew that if he escaped and ran into the Cedar Forest, he would have the advantage of knowing the trees and all the places to hide in the shadows and in the dark of night. There in the cave, the fight was as even as it could be.
Bawa came down at Krastos with open jaws, and Krastos punched Bawa in the mouth with all his superhuman strength. Bawa drew back with a shriek, and for a moment the three of them stopped moving. Tarlos thought that Krastos had stunned the monster, and he wanted to move in with his blade for a finishing blow, but something within Tarlos forced him to wait and see how Krastos's punch would affect Bawa.
Bawa moved his jaw from side to side and spit out a handful of needle-thin yellow fangs. He smiled, and a trickle of blood ran down his chin and into his wiry beard.
"Such strength, demigod," Bawa purred. "You truly are your father's son." He jumped for Krastos, his strange deformed dog legs springing forward, and he reached at Krastos with his long mannish arms, claws at full length.
Using his Power, Tarlos pulled Krastos out of Bawa's path, and Bawa fell on empty ground. He clawed at the place Krastos stood a moment before, and he roared with frustration.
"Did your father ever teach you that using your Power in battle is unfair?" the monster asked. "There is no honor in it."
Tarlos panted. He walked in a semicircle around Bawa and stood at the cave entrance. With the moonlight behind him, he could see Bawa in all his hideousness, tall and gangly, but also somehow brutish and muscular. "I'm not looking for honor," he said.
Tarlos gripped his sword with his mind and forced it at Bawa. It flew like an arrow shot from a bow, aimed at Bawa's slender neck. The monster dodged the sword, moving his neck like a snake avoiding a hawk. The sword planted itself into the rock wall behind Bawa, and it quivered on impact.
Bawa turned his head to watch the sword fly by, and as his head was turned Krastos jumped and landed on Bawa's shoulders. Bawa cried out in surprise and flailed and wriggled like a trout in a fisherman's grip. Krastos held on with all his strength, wrapping his arms around the monster's neck and squeezing its waist with his muscular legs. Bawa shook and convulsed, and backed into the wall to knock Krastos off.
Krastos squeezed Bawa where his head met his neck with the crook of his arm, and with his other arm he drew his sword. Tarlos removed his own sword from the cave wall with his mind, and it returned to his hand, sending white moonlight in Bawa's direction. Krastos held his blade to Bawa's neck, and Tarlos approached with his own sword outstretched. He was going to pierce the damned monster's heart if he had one.
Bawa stopped struggling as he felt cold iron at his throat and saw Tarlos walking toward him with complete wrath in his eyes.
"Tarlos!" the monster cried. "Son of Ninsun! Have mercy!"
Tarlos paused, not because he thought of granting Bawa any mercy, but because he was not expecting the bastard son of Ablis to beg for his miserable life.
Bawa continued, "Let me live in peace in the Cedar Forest. If you spare my life I will be your slave. I will cut the cedars down and deliver them to Kesh, and you may honor Moresh and Shar with a cedar temple, such as never been seen before in all the world! And you will have a glorious cedar palace even more splendid than the one you have now. Men and women will travel thousands of miles from every country just to gaze on your kingdom, and you will be a glorious king with riches and splendor. All this will be yours if you will spare me!"
Krastos, struggling to hold onto Bawa with one arm while keeping his sword at the monster's throat with the other hand, shouted, "Kill him, Tarlos! He's yours! Kill him now!"
"Krastos!" Bawa shrieked, moving his red eyes in their sockets to better see the demigod prince. "Brother! Do not kill me! Let me live in peace and you will have your own kingdom beside Tarlos! Tell your twin to spare my life!"
"Kill him!" Krastos cried. Sweat glistened on his forehead and ran down his face.
Tarlos wondered at that moment why Krastos did not slit the monster's throat. But no sooner had he asked himself the question than he knew the answer. Krastos never wanted to kill Bawa. No matter how evil or corrupt a creature or man may be, Krastos never intended to kill anything. Suddenly Tarlos felt guilty for helping him kill the manticore instead of subduing it as Krastos had originally intended. Krastos would not kill Bawa, although his sword was already at the monster's throat. Tarlos would have to make his move.
"I can feel your fear, Tarlos," Bawa said, and Tarlos paused. "I can see it, smell it, taste it. It is loud in your mind. Death is the end. You know it to be true. And yet you desire to kill me? Your deepest desire is to stay alive forever as do the Ageless, but you do not fear to deal death. Who are you to issue judgement of me?"
"Tarlos," Krastos grunted. "He's reading your mind. Stalling you. Do it! Now!"
"Your mother died for you to be born," Bawa continued, "and you repay her sacrifice by becoming a murderer."
Tarlos had heard enough. He charged at Bawa with his sword stretched in front of him.
Bawa screamed, "Hypocrite!" and Tarlos halted for half a moment.
The monster wrenched his neck and flicked his long tail, bringing it to Krastos and snapping at his back. Krastos cried out in pain and fell from Bawa's shoulders. He landed hard on the stone floor. His sword clattered to the ground—Bawa kicked it away. It soared through the air and out of the cave, never to be seen again. Bawa lifted one huge foot and brought it down hard on Krastos. There was a snap and a crack, and Krastos screamed in hot pain. Bawa picked him up with clawed hands and threw him deeper into the cave, tossing him like a limp doll. Krastos screamed as he flew through the cave, and Tarlos heard another snap as he landed and tumbled. Krastos stopped screaming.
From the deep and dark parts of the cave, the faint voice of Krastos drifted to Tarlos, and the voice was weak and fading.
"Tarlos...my back...broken. Get out...please..."
Bawa picked Tarlos up as he had Krastos. He did not throw Tarlos but instead pinned him against the cave wall. With his tail, Bawa flicked the sword from Tarlos's hand and kicked it out of the cave to join its brother outside.
Bawa laughed, and the laugh was frustrated, exhausted, and relieved all at once. The hot rancid breath smacked Tarlos's face and caressed his nostrils, and he tasted rotting flesh, and his stomach emptied itself all over Bawa.
The monster smiled, and his teeth were long, sharp, and yellow. Tarlos saw the gap where the teeth had been that Krastos knocked out. In their place was a bloody hole, and the blood was so dark it was black, like tar.
Bawa opened his mouth and came at Tarlos, arching his neck like a viper. Tarlos used all his strength in his mind to stop Bawa before he could bite his head off, and Bawa fought against the strength of Tarlos's Power. The monster twitched and shook against the Holder's force of will.
Krastos's voice came through the cave again, and Tarlos almost did not hear the pained and strained whisper. "Get out..."
Bawa's head came closer to Tarlos as his Power drained his strength, and Tarlos could not hold him away much longer. Lights popped in his eyes as he kept the monster at bay.
"Behold..." drifted the voice of Krastos, "the strength...of...a demigod."
With a surge of realization, Tarlos used every last bit of his mental strength to push Bawa away from him, and at the same time he pushed himself from Bawa and out the cave's entrance. The next moment lasted for an hour.
As Tarlos flew through the air, Bawa was forced backwards. He dug his claws into the stone floor to stop his moving, and he lunged at Tarlos before he had even started to fall from his jump. He heard Krastos groan loudly under strain, and there was a sound of an explosion like he had never heard before, but he knew exactly what it was. Krastos had used the last of his superhuman strength and slammed his fists into the cave wall.
Tarlos began to fall to the ground that sloped away from the hill and cracks formed in the cave. Bawa took a moment to look behind him, wondering if what he heard was actually happening. Cracks spread from the inner cave where Krastos lay broken, and they reached the entrance in webbed crevasses. Rocks fell from the cave ceiling, and the floor beneath gave way. As Tarlos landed on the rocky hill and rolled away, the cave and hill above him crumbled in on itself, and Bawa screamed his last.
The mountain above the hill groaned, and the cracks from the cave spread upward to the mountain peak. With no time to think or to process what had just happened, Tarlos flew away from the mountain, not paying any mind to the screaming pain in his head as all energy had been depleted in the last few minutes.
The rock face of the mountain crumbled and fell, and Tarlos hovered a hundred feet above the rubble as he watched Bawa and Krastos be buried alive.
It started to rain.
Tarlos's eyes went dark, and he fell to the ground.
 

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