In a ring of brassy candlelight, the Meer and the Juka charged one another with howls of animal rage. The dense gloom of a forgotten cavern echoed the furious sounds.
In the style of the Meer, Dasha faced Kabur unarmed. She struck him like a hailstorm, pounding the warlord with a stream of relentless blows. The impacts resounded through the blackness of the cave. With every potent kick she landed, the anger in her belly roared hotter. With every punch she felt an inferno like the forest Kabur had destroyed. She whiffed the tang of Jukan blood, tasted the sting of adrenaline. The percussion of combat rebounded through her body, a primal, seductive sensation that fueled her hunger for revenge.
Somewhere inside she prayed, Ancestors, forgive my weakness of discipline!
Yet the warlord's heavy armor resisted her attacks as if designed for a Meer's unique tactics. She could not crush its weak points as she had done against his soldiers. His massive body absorbed her blows with terrible ease. In response he wheeled his halberd in a swift, skillful display. She ducked the polearm like a mongoose evades a cobra, always inches from its lethal touch. The constant motion challenged her agility. A single mistake would end the battle.
A chill tore through her when she sensed a misstep.
The spike of the halberd rushed at her back. She sprang above its arc but the weapon slashed her hip. She kicked one foot into Kabur's face, pushing into a somersault that carried her away from the Jukan warrior. She tumbled over the rocky ground, rolled into a crouch. Her right side burned with pain.
Kabur spat blood, caught his breath and barked, "Where is the mouth of this cave?"
Dasha squinted. "You're withdrawing from the duel?"
"Another blow finishes you. I would rather not waste time searching in the dark."
She grunted and rose to her feet. The soft light of a spell drove the ache from her wound. The familiar tingle of healing magic streamed through her body. For a brief moment the spirits of the ancestors quelled her rage to a simmer. In that rush of calm she examined Warlord Kabur anew. Streaked with sweat and blood, he was a wild apparition in the golden flutter of candlelight, huge and fearsome and stubbornly arrogant. Despite the crimes he had committed, Dasha admired his warrior's ego. The Juka were brutal creatures but their nature was proud and honorable. It had allowed them to transcend their primitive origins and develop advanced arts and industry. They were no equals of the Meer, of course, but some, like Dasha, appreciated their sophistication. The Juka formed the only true civilization with whom the Meer shared this world.
Yet the ancient balance between the races was quickly falling apart. Something wicked was dragging the Juka back to an honorless condition. Master Adranath, the Meer Lore Master, claimed that the mysterious sorcerer Exodus had corrupted them over the last decade. Dasha agreed that only sorcery could account for the startling change. She had come here to learn from Warlord Kabur how the transformation had occurred, so that she could plan a response to the Jukas' devastating attack on her people.
She swallowed her anger and steadied her breathing. "Tell me, Kabur, how did Exodus murder the Jukan Way?"
He glowered past the blade of his halberd. "It is not the concern of a Meer."
"Has your new lord cast a spell to enslave your minds? Nothing less could separate a Juka from his honor."
"The honor of the Juka is intact, woman! Though it has changed since Exodus came to us." His eyes narrowed with contempt. "But your kind has no knowledge of evolution, do they? You pretend that time has no teeth."
She chuckled without humor. "Your honor is suspect if you use the Black Duel as a ruse to ambush me."
"Just as you used it to lure me into a private conversation. The Black Duel is obsolete, a relic of a primitive age. The Way you know is dead. The Meer shall soon die with it."
She shook her head. "Exodus has ensnared you. But perhaps the corruption can be undone."
"I shall not discuss it further," rumbled the Juka. "Take your delusions to the grave!"
He hoisted the polearm for another blow. Dasha lowered herself into a defensive stance. In the next instant the dark cave shook with a thunderous growl. Both combatants froze. Something large and bestial was passing through a nearby corridor. With a grimace she thought, It seems that humans are not the only beasts lurking in these mountains.
Kabur's halberd swept upon her. Too late she threw herself backward. The blade tore across her chest armor, parting the flesh underneath. Blood glistened as it flew through the candlelight. She cried out and attempted a handspring but her injury rendered one arm useless. She crumpled into the dust. The Juka's next stroke hit like a landslide on her shoulder, smashing her against the hard ground. Agony seized her body. Her limbs turned icy and refused to move.
Fury rampaged inside her gut but the injury had paralyzed her body. She cursed her flesh for disobedience as blood tumbled out into the cave. Silently she screamed You have failed me, ancestors! though she knew the reverse was true.
Above her loomed Warlord Kabur, his weapon poised for the final cut. Though she could barely lift her head, she sneered up at the emerald-skinned giant, "You defile everything the Juka have achieved!"
The general's eyes lit with anger. "I am defending the future! But the Meer are too self-absorbed to see the coming danger. What you call a 'balance between two races' is nothing more than useless stagnation. We have squandered generations on unresolved conflict. In the meantime the gargoyles and the humans have grown smarter and more numerous. Soon they shall threaten us. The world is changing, Dasha. The Juka must adapt or we shall perish. That is why we have discarded the Way and resolved to crush the Meer. To survive, we must dominate. This is the wisdom Exodus brought to us."
"Dishonor wears noble plumage," she rasped, "but the wise man is not dazzled."
Kabur snorted. In a quick action he raised his halberd above her neck. Then he paused. His pointed ears twitched. A heavy sound plodded in the darkness. The beast in the cave was lumbering nearer.
"Judge me how you will," grumbled the warlord. "Delusions will not save you."
Then he vanished into the shadows. She sensed his footfalls receding as something much larger approached. The creature's breath snuffled in the thickness of the gloom. Its claws brushed the stone with a sharp, repeating sound.
She could not muster the strength for a healing spell, much less for defense. At best she might crawl to the center of the ring of candles, to keep the monster at bay for a few seconds more. But the effort would be moot. Her mission here had failed. Exodus had a powerful hold on the Juka. Kabur was so corrupt that he had even denied her a quick death, leaving her instead to be devoured by a predator.
Reincarnation awaited her, of course, though in what form she could not guess. Perhaps not as another Meer, if Kabur's genocide succeeded. Master Adranath seemed convinced that it would. Dasha was not so pessimistic. The answer was moments away. As firelight twinkled on the scales of the reptilian creature, she closed her dark eyes and looked ahead, a sigh of frustration spilling from her lips.
From the Britannia News Network - The Journal of Ultima Online, December 10th, 2001.