The fire grew and we had to move. Kuzeyli and ‘her men’ jumped the fire while I ran along the ledge, getting myself up on the viewing platform, returning to the entrance of the sacrificial chamber. My robes caught fire, robes given to me by my father and the regalia of my faith. But the fire was spreading down below and there was little time to worry about cloth and feathers when Kuzeyli and Zeynep was still down there.
Kuzeyli and I helped Zeynep up after which my little sister helped me to put out the fire. Thanks to her help the damage was not too bad. Then we had to help hoist up of the Hyperboreans for what seemed like an eternity until finally Kuzeyli allowed me to help her up as well.
The smoke was becoming worse and it started to get difficult to breathe but me and my sister finally managed to lift the gate allowing us to enter the room. Me and Zeynep went in first as Kuzeyli led the others in one by one.
As we entered the room, a large roar shook the room and not long after an enormous paw emerged from the path forward, followed by a seemingly endless row of sharpened teeth as it climbed up towards us. No true name exists for such beings; servants, remnants and afterbirths of beings from beyond the veil of this world.
True terror threatened to settle in, but before it could do so my body had already begun to move. I yelled at Zeynep to fall back as I ran towards the creature. There was no time for plans or strategy, I had to get that thing away from Zeynep and I had to kill it or die trying.
I knew which of those scenarios were more likely as my knives bit into it. The beast roared in what I hoped was agony, but even so, anything vaguely mortal should have died, yet the creature seemed barely affected as sickly white blood poured out of it as we fell down into a large chamber. Some of that blood sprayed on to me, and with a ghastly realization, it dawned on me that this was the source of the abominations from before. The blood burned and burrowed, trying to change me.
I cut away my robes and armour, clearing away the taint as best I could. The loss of my robes pained me, not simply due to its connection to father or its protection, but the simple reassurance wearing it provided me. I would have to continue without such luxuries, but even despite all that, I felt a smile slowly forming on my face. I was still there. I had faced it and I had bled it. My smile grew wider as saw Kuzeyli leaping from above to join me.
Time and time again, did she draw the monster’s attention, giving me time to prepare my attacks, but it cost her. The creature caught her and tried to pull her away. I rushed in to attack, but I missed yet something curious happened. The monster, backed away, releasing its grip on my sister. I didn’t know if it was because I had been able to cut it before or if it was the runes and markings on my knives, but… the monster was afraid of them.
Bolstered by this we pressed the attack, until finally as the creature finally seemed near death, it turned its attention towards me. Kuzeyli refused to give the monster even a chance to get at me and once again made to block the attack, but at the last hurdle not even she could withstand the violent thrashings of the creature as she was slammed into the cave wall. But, even as she did so she had given me the chance I needed and I drove the knives into the creature as deeps as they would go, until finally I reached something that gave way and cracked.
And just like that, whatever power that sustained the creature was shattered and without it, it quickly withered away before my eyes, leaving behind only the remains of old human sacrifices buried within it. None of that mattered however. I rushed over to Kuzeyli. She was passed out but otherwise not too badly wounded. The real danger was the creature’s blood which was still trying to crawl its way into her, albeit with less vigor now that the monster was dead.
After cleansing her of the rest of the taint, I carried her up to see how Zeynep was doing. What greeted me was one of Kuzeyli’s dogs, restraining a weeping Zeynep. For moment I thought the man had snapped under the pressure and had to be put down but it would seem he had meant to prevent the girl from running off in panic.
He released her and she practically threw herself on me, hugging me tightly. There was no shame in her reaction and I held on to her just as tightly. We stayed like that for some time, letting Zeynep take the time she needed. Then I settled Kuzeyli down against one of the walls and rested.
The Hyperboreans did as well but we kept to ourselves, waiting for Kuzeyli to open her eyes. I kept an eye on Zeynep as she began to tend to Kuzeyli’s wounds. The same girl who had been crying in panic and desperation just a few moments ago was now calmly caring for her sister. She wasn’t really calm of course, and given the chance, the tears would flow again but she knew what needed to be done, she wanted to be useful, and so she got to work. I’m sure Borchim would be proud if he could see her, I certainly was.
In time, Kuzeyli awoke. She asked about what had happened and about the creature but Zeynep sternly put such inquiries to rest before I could. The less such beings are spoken about the better. She also surprised me by pointing out that Yefimov was likely using the creature as a font of power and would likely be weakened by its death, and he would know that we had killed it.
This statement worried me somewhat, what she said was true but such knowledge was dangerous and normally guarded closely. What other shamanic knowledge did Borchim learn and how much did he pass on to his daughter? But these were questions for another time as Kuzeyli went to attend to her soldiers.
In the end, two of the Hyperboreans were dead and they decided to heave their bodies in the fire to keep them from a worse fate at the hands of the remaining abominations or whatever other evil dwelled within the cave network. I tried to persuade my sister to at least take one of the men’s armour as I had to destroy her own when clearing away the tainted blood. But she refused, honoring the Hyperborean tradition of wasting precious metal and sending the men into the fire dressed for war.
We continued, back into the room where we fought the creature. Zeynep was wary about going in there but followed our lead. I looked over my ruined regalia, much of it had been ruined and defiled but some parts of it had somehow remained untarnished. I considered this to be a good omen, and chose to excise the tainted cloth and wrapped what remained across my arms.
Kuzeyli gathered her fallen weapons and we climbed a stair that would lead us to the bottom level of the keep. A door had been chained shut, but Kuzeyli and one of the Hyperboreans took their axes to it and it soon gave way.
We continued inside, following the most well-trodden paths until we finally reached the stairs leading up to the heart of the fortress. The fighting was well underway and served to hide our presence. Zeynep went on ahead to scout out the path to the gate so that we could open up the path to Manduhai and the other warriors. She soon returned, looking pale. She had found the path to the gate but she had also seen Yefimov working his magic from atop one of the towers. He had either completed or cancelled the project he was working on and had now committed himself on wielding his sorcery to defend the fort.
If he completed his spell, it was likely it would not matter if we got the gates open or not. There was no time for further discussions. I told Kuzeyli to go ahead and finish the mission without me, I was likely the one with the best chance of surviving Yefimov’s magic and Kuzeyli was needed to lead the assault on the gate. Neither of us was likely to succeed yet we both had to.
I wanted to appear strong and confident in front of my family this last time, but instead all I could give them was a sad smile as I said my farewell. Kuzeyli swore that she would come for me should I need to and she meant it. Having her face her attacker once more was not something she would agree to easily, and was something I would try to prevent from happening as best I could. She would come to my aid, although I suspect we both knew that if she had to do so, I would likely already be dead or worse by the time she got to me. Then it would be up to her to finish the job.
I ran up towards the tower where I could see Yefimov gathering dark clouds to do his bidding. I came across a couple of guards, private mercenaries by the look of things but I had no time to worry about them, I circled around them and continued to run up the stairs of the tower.
I could hear them chasing after me but there was no time. I continued until I reached a large hall with even more guards barring the way to a large oak door leading to the outside of the tower. They were not guarding the windows however and I barreled through them, continuing to run forwards.
Before me stood Yefimov and two guards and the remains of a further two, recently sacrificed to fuel his ritual. A large eight-pointed-star covered the way across and I could feel the hum of power even from a distance.
Everything had led to this point, since the very beginning of my training and all the choices up to this point. And to my surprise I found that I was surprisingly calm. I was still afraid of course, terrified of the man in front of me but the realization that this had been the culmination of my own choices, choices taken freely, served as a new font of energy.
Ever since I stepped into Hyperborea I had been plagued by uncertainties and worries. I had tied myself down in chains of my own making in an attempt to make sense of things. I had let my fears of ineptitude and lack of knowledge weigh me down. But there, at that moment I felt those chains break apart, feeling truly free for the first time since entering these lands.
I moved forward, I danced around the two guards. I could still not hear the spirits to guide my steps, not within these walls but my feet followed the music just the same. In its wake, one of the guards died, his blood disrupting the ritual enough for me to dare entering the circumference of the ritual circle to get to the sorcerer.
Yefimov had no intention of letting me go any further. He gave me a taste of the powers he had been wielding against big sisterJeshid, his thoughts clawing inside my mind, trying to make me submit to his will. But with my fetters broken and the new sense of freedom that came with it, not even his powers could bind me. But it was a close thing. Every step was hard fought; the blood beneath my feet erupted into fire , the burning rain pelted my naked flesh as the sorcerer wielded his magic to wrench the blood from my body. The pain was excruciating, my sight darkened as blood vessels burst but I was still able to move forward.
Right before I was in range to strike he made one final assault on my mind. He told me that he recognized me and that my father was already theirs, urging me once again to submit to his will. His words were meant to startle me and they did, but they did not have the intended affect. I did not sense lies in his words nor did I know who ‘they’ were. I did not know what had happened to my father, but I at least knew one thing he did not.
He did not own my father, nor Jeshid or any other Khazari; we are and always will be free. As his failure to bend me to his will dawned on him it was already too late. My knives sank into him, piercing his decrepit heart. He died with the name of the people who would not bend to his will on his lips, as I kicked him off his ivory tower.
It was over. Somehow Grigori Yefimov was dead. I turned, suddenly remembering the second guard. He removed his helmet and revealed a Khazari face. He asked if they were finally free. He, a Khazari had been a part of this. He had been a mercenary and ended up in Yefimov’s service. He had sacrificed people in service to him.
I very nearly slew him then and there, his crimes justified as much. But I chose not to. There had been enough death that day. I heard the screams of triumph as the fortress gates were opening signaling Kuzeyli’s success.
I suddenly felt very tired, every small cut and bruise making themselves known. The guards who had been chasing me arrived but there was no need to slay them as the man who had once been Khazari seemed to tell them what had happened. A mixture of fear and relief washed over them as they looked at me and one of them offered the key which led to Jeshid on the floor below.
I walked through them, making them move to make way and took the key along the way, making my way to find my sister. She had been hung up in chains, cursed gold piercing her flesh and binding her hands and feet. She was weak and I feared the worse until she opened her mouth. She was battered and bruised, but not broken. Her mind was still her own.
But that did not mean she was well. After confirming that the sorcerer was dead, she asked, pleadingly if her duty was finally at an end, if she could finally die free, a wished it would seem she had held for a long time and fearing would remain out of her reach.
I could not judge her or argue against her. Not after what she had gone through and not after swearing to set her spirit free should I have to.
Still, I told her of her clan and their need of her and it was with no small amount of guilt I saw the pain that caused her. In the end she left the choice to me, perhaps a greater sign than any other of her frayed state of being. If I told her to serve her people, she would, but she wished for death.
I told her I would take her away from this place; this was a foul place and had a corrupting influence on people even in death. But I promised her that if she felt the same after leaving I would honour her wish.
Even if it meant returning to Khazari lands empty handed.