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Paragon Ruin, Chapter 9


The horses tromp over the caravan road, the steady drum of hooves added upon by birds and falkons flitting overhead as if everyday births glory. The approaching jungle warmth breaks through the spring day the further east we travel until my back scorches. Sycain wears a sleeveless shirt but keeps a vambrace on his right wrist. I don’t see why, especially just one, since he only conducts cart maintenance and care for the horses. Protecting the caravan is mine and the rest of the Wheel’s job. Though curious, I don’t ask Sycain to explain his choice of clothing. He’d give me some ridiculous reason like he does for everything else.

The cool of the evening couldn’t have arrived sooner. I work the second shift this time and I don’t waste any time stripping off my leathers and cooling off in the jungle-warm Bay of Flerr while others stand guard. Scrubbing off three layers of dirt, I dry and dress back in my extra change of clothes I washed over last night’s fire.

I walk into camp speckled with waving pillars of campfire flame and sit next to Sycain who sharpens his sword. I dish food out of the community cauldron. A purple bruise spreads along Sycain’s left temple. I asked him three days ago how he got it. He told me while on guard duty, the Lost God Astrous came out of the trees and wanted to, apparently, wrestle. So Sycain obliged him, though Astorous cheated and punched him in the face.

“You didn’t ask him why he’s been absent from Eternal Earth for eight hundred years?”

“No. You don’t ask a man such personal questions.”

Sycain spits on the blade and lays the steel across one knee, sliding the stone along the blade’s edge in a single, smooth motion.

“That’s an interesting sword.” I notice engraved characters along the blade and turn my head to see them straighter.

“Mine?” Sycain laughs and slides the sharpening stone along its edge. “It belonged to my father. I would fancy ridding myself of it if it wasn’t the only heirloom I have from him.”

Animated character faces are carved down the blade. The tip of the blade shows a carving of a round happy face with big eyes, and a smile stretching ear to ear. Below that face follows another, not as big a smile, but with bigger eyes. The third face definitely frowns. The disposition of every face down to the hilt becomes more somber and sickly until the last face positioned above the hilt dangles a tongue out an open mouth with X’s for eyes.

Questions must have been popping out of my eyes because Sycain replies with, “My father liked gruesome humor.” He runs the sharpening stone along the other edge. “He was not an honest man and in an even more dishonest trade. He had the sword made for him so he could gauge at what point a man died upon his blade.

“If the man was barely stabbed, covering just the first happy face, the man was still generally happy because the blade had not gone in very deep. But the deeper the blade slid into his body, the more grave the man’s disposition became, thus reflecting the faces on the blade. So my father would know at what point the sword’s depth into a man’s body became effective. Or so he told me. I believe he did it just to amuse himself every time he stabbed someone. It’s most embarrassing.”

I snort and cover my mouth. Sycain continues sliding his stone as laughter breaks out of me in half-contained chunks. “Why do you keep it if it embarrasses you?”

He looks at his sword as if seeing the weapon for the first time. “I suppose I have gruesome humor, too.”

I like him. Like his honesty; everything inside him, the good, bad, and troubled. He said I smothered something inside me. Well, I know he smothers something too. But I don’t judge him for it. I’ve grown fond of his “everyone lies and everyone dies”. His honesty.

His fearless expression to say and do whatever comes to mind without regard to consequences. He’s handsome, too. In his thirties. Brown hair with blond tips, a growth of hair contained to just the bottom of his chin.

“What does Dusutri Rage feel like?” he asks, still bent over sharpening his ridiculous blade. “When you activate it? Does it summon the spirits of your ancestors to fight with you, like I’ve heard?”

“I’ve never activated it.”

He stops sharpening. “That makes sense.” He resumes.

“What makes sense?”

He sets his sword and stone next to him, facing me, resting both elbows on his knees. “Three nights ago I told you I felt like you were smothering something. Now I know what it is.”

“Okay?” I can’t track what he’s getting at, but his posture assumes a serious tone as he looks at me and directs his dialogue with both hands.

“So you’re telling me you’ve never activated it.”


“I know dusutri, talking to them every cycle and other run-ins with them over the years. You only just joined them two years ago. They didn’t force you into a trial to prove your dusutri heritage?”

I recall, with clenched heart, that day as if hovering above sixteen-year-old Mianda while she lay on the ground, holding her head, screaming at the dusutri for them to stop…stop—STOP! “They did. It didn’t activate. They blamed the dysfunction on my weaker human blood and accepted me anyway.”

“It didn’t activate? Or you didn’t activate it?”

I tense my neck muscles. But why am I ashamed? Not activating it is no more strange than a dragon withholding fire, or someone refusing to transfigure into common. The Rage is a skill I have but don’t want to use. “I didn’t activate it.”

“Why not? Rage is the single most important racial pride dusutri have.”

“And withholding it is the single most important racial pride humans have.”

“So you are smothering a natural, instinctive part of you. You do know that if you smother one part of you, you smother all of you? I think that’s why—”

“Let’s play a game.” My insecurities heat inside me. “A question for a question. You’ve asked yours. Now I get to ask. We’ll stop playing as soon as one of us refuses to answer.”

Sycain had leaned forward on his log to stress his point but sits back and purses lips now. “Okay.”

I don’t know what to ask him. I just don’t want to be interrogated anymore by what he thinks is my character flaw. “Why did you join the caravan?”

He looks relieved. I watch the muscles in his face relax. Now I wonder what question he’s afraid I was going to ask. “Two years ago I was traveling and bandits attacked me.

They left me half dead on the road and the caravan found me. The Caravan Master allowed me to recover in the sick wagon since we were nowhere near a common city. She then offered me a job. I’ve worked for her ever since. Why do you refuse to activate your Rage?”

“Because I don’t want to. Where did you work before you joined the caravan?”

“Wait, wait, I asked my question.”

“And I answered it. If you want a better answer, ask a better question. Where did you work before you joined the caravan?” The atmosphere shifts between us. No more the giddy, carefree humor about his ridiculous sword. We’re both now biting blades — Sycain to cure what he thinks is my flaw, and me protecting myself from his judgment.

“I was a librarian.”

I look at his sword resting at his left hip, then back, and watch the lie betray on his downward glance. At least for humans, no one carries swords. Maybe a knife for a last, desperate means of protection because knife-fighting requires no training. A child could pick up a knife and cut something. A sword requires lessons and practice. Rangers and knightlords carry swords. The caravan guards carry swords if they have common hands.

The caravan attendants don’t carry swords. Sycain does. Has been carrying a sword since at least when I first met him two years ago. Has had this, his father’s sword, for unspeakable years.

I don’t tell him his sword-carrying contradicts a librarian or the general public still doesn’t train or travel with swords. Instead, I laugh, attempting to lighten the mood again. “You must have been a terrible librarian. I haven’t seen you read a single book on this cycle.”

“It’s because Sycain doesn’t know how to read,” Hindor Kila says as he passes behind me.

Sycain follows Hindor Kila’s path with his eyes, then returns a smile to me. He grabs his sword, stands, and shoves it back into its sheath. “I’m going to dress down for the night. Maybe I’ll write home to my father. Might even read a book.” He walks away from the fire.


I’m ten minutes into my shift, sitting on the ground, leaning against the wagon wheel when a horn blast rips through the air somewhere in front of me. The random sound is so out of place, I stare into the jungle to discern the cause, instantaneously remembering the horn blow is the signal for an attack.

“Undergod’s demons!” I lurch to my feet, unhinging my iron knuckles from my belt, and drop one in the dirt. I scoop it up, slipping the pair on as I run into the jungle along with my fellow Wheels. Having been hired as the caravan guard, I never expected I’d have the occasion to prove my pay. I don’t know what I’ll do if I catch whoever is attacking us. My living room training with Aunt Mordabur never incorporated killing anyone, though my aunt likely assumed the dusutri in me would think ripping someone in half is instinctive and so never stressed to train that into me.

Other Wheels (newly named today by the Original Guard as the Wheels because of the symbol on our leather vest, and despite its lack of originality and tackiness, it stuck) run through the growth with me. Ahead, moon-glanced black armor runs away. I give chase, but soon lose them in the foliage. I stop, holding my breath to listen to any movement.

A Nightmare crashes through the trees, further and further out until I don’t hear him anymore. No one else is pursuing after the lone Nightmare. An ox-headed way to walk straight into an ambush if we did. We consent to disengage and head back to camp.

“An infiltrator!” Someone shouts — Hindor Kila? — distantly, back toward camp. I break through the ring of trees to see Hindor Kila has locked onto Sycain’s arm like a trophy. “I found an infiltrator! Someone grab the Caravan Master!”

“Hindor, you idiot!” I shout. “That’s Sycain.”

He, nor anyone else, heads me. Wheels and attendants alike swarm Sycain and disarm him. They force him onto his knees.

“I’m not an infiltrator!” he shouts.

“Let him go!” I can’t recall an earlier occasion in my life when I raised my voice and demands. “He’s Sycain!”

Kitannia approaches the swarm. They part for her. Someone twists Sycain’s right arm and now everyone can see the…

A fuzz clouds my eyes. I look away, look back, but the black tattoo of a chained crow holding a money bag in its beak remains embedded on Sycain’s wrist. A simultaneous gasp almost sucks all the air out of the clearing.

“Entangling Crow?” someone asks.

“Sycain?” That’s me. The pleading in my voice forces Sycain to look at my unblinking gaze.

“I’m not an infiltrator.” He loads his voice with desperation. “I…I have the tattoo, yes, but…but I defected from the Entangling Crow…” He must feel that no one, even me, who likes him the most in the caravan, doesn’t believe him.

“You defected?” The Caravan Master asks.

“Yes. I defected.”

“But you were. Once.”

“I was with them once, but I defected two years ago. I can’t as easily remove the tattoo. Have you had any reason to doubt my honesty?”

I watch an achingly desperate exchange of glances between him and the Caravan Master, both balanced on an edge with no guessing if they’ll fall down the same side.

“I suppose that depends on what Malandore says,” the Caravan Master says. “They’ve been looking for everyone with the Crow tattoo. Prepare him for departure in the morning. We will let Malandore prove his innocence. Hindor, come to my tent and brief me on this Nightmare attack.”

Sycain lurches forward. His captors jerk him back. “Caravan Master.”

She turns her back, walking toward her tent.


She stops as if she hit a wall, and though it’s not my name, I taste the impact of this importance, of this first time since I’ve known Sycain the last two years that he called Kitannia by her name.

“They will kill me if you turn me in,” he says.

“If you want to use real names, should I call you Ranique now?” She lets the statement hang like a noose around Sycain’s — Ranique’s? — neck. His head droops with the weight.

She pushes through the crowd of kindred.

Sycain’s captors tug him to his feet, binding his arms. They usher to the edge of camp and force him to sit with his back against a tree. He doesn’t fight when they wrap a rope around his chest. The rest leave but one stays to keep watch on him.

I cut a straight line to him. “It’s not true.”

He looks me in the eyes with final acceptance in his gaze. “It’s true I defected, but yes, I was once a member of the Entangling Crow.”

“As their librarian, right?”

I’ve scrambled his line of thought so thoroughly, his eyes screw up and he laughs.

The mood lightens and I’m no longer sickened with a tight gut. Sycain, my friend, will be alright after all. “I’ll talk to Kitannia. I’ve known you long enough to believe you.”

“But you haven’t known the Caravan Master long enough to know once she gets an idea, she’ll hold on until absolute proof shows she’s wrong. And I’ve never seen that happen. Let her take me to Malandore, let her see my trial and see my innocence. I’ll be back in no time. You’ll see.” He smiles. “While I’m gone, promise me one favor.”

“What favor?”

“Promise first.”


“It’s not painful, I promise. It also costs no money and only a tiny bit of effort. Do this for me in case…in case Malandore does not receive me well.”

“You’ll be just fine, Sycain. You’re a good man.”


“I promise.”

Leaning as far forward as the ropes around his chest allow, he says, “Roar.”


“Move along now,” says the ecthore guard posted to watch Sycain, who was allowing some conversation for anyone who knows Sycain, but no one else stands in line.

I frown at Sycain, fear smothering the tone of hope I attempt. “I’ll see you soon?”


“I’ll take care of your belongings until you get back.”


Angry, I force myself away. I post again at my spot outside the wagon ring where I can still see him and send him smiles. That is until the caravan healer kneels next to him and injects a needle into his skin. Sycain’s head flops to his chest. Unconscious.

Roar, he said.


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