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Chapter 1: Captured

     The first thing Zyr became aware of was how much his head hurt... not as though he'd been struck by a club, but the inner, throbbing pain that he knew came on after drinking too much cider after it had turned (something Zyr had done only once in his young life, one night with Kor, and they'd both vowed never to do so again). Beyond the pulsing pain inside his skull, the rest of head seemed to hurt, too. His ears rang, and what sounds he could hear were painful for him, and his eyes ached as though he'd stared at the bright sun for hours on end. Even pulling breath in through his nose hurt, creating a burning sensation in his nostrils, and his mouth was bone dry and tasted foul. These wretched pains went on, for how long he did not know, and his whole world was reduced to these sensations of agony. Slowly, the waves of pain in his head, eyes, ears, and nose subsided, and he began to become aware of the rest of his body, and the world around him.

     He could tell he was lying face down, and felt cool metal against his wrists and ankles. It felt as though he were lying in dry grass, or straw. He could feel a breeze, but knew he was shaded by something; he felt the warm light of the sun against the soles of his feet and the back of his legs, but around the middle of his broad back and up to his head, he felt the coolness of shade. As his wits returned to him, he became aware of a rocking sensation, and the shifting of the warm light over his legs and feet, and concluded that he must be moving beneath the leaves of the trees, but that something covered him, and moved with him, keeping his head and upper body in shade.

     Zyr could also hear voices around him, from time to time, not close enough to make out what they said, but close enough he could tell they were men. He also heard some unfamiliar sounds; creaking and groaning, clanking and clinking sounds. They were sounds which were alien, but somehow elements of them were known to him. It took him a few moments to realize that the creaking sounds were the strain of leather cords, the clanking and clinking the sounds of metal. He'd just never heard them together, like this. None of the men seemed to be near him, so he chanced opening his eyes.

     Zyr was startled to see the trees and bushes of the Green Tangle rolling by, as quickly as a man walked. With his eyes to associate sights to sounds, he realized that the creaking and clanking sounds came from the cart in which he rode. But what a cart! The small hand barrows which were used in his village to move soil and sand, or smoked meats, from one place to another were small, with one or two wheels, and pushed by men. This cart was large enough to house a big man like himself, with room to spare. There were bars of metal enclosing the sides and top of the cart, with a large piece of hide stretched across the top to provide shade, and through the bars in the direction they were heading, he saw a large horse linked with the cart by heavy leather cords and a wooden contraption, which Zyr realized must allow the animal to pull the cart. If we captured and tamed horses, my people could put them to work like this... Zyr thought about the ease with which carts could be pulled, carrying wood and thatch to build houses, even pulling hoes through the gardens of the village. A great hoe could be built, a far larger garden planted, he thought to himself.

     Zyr turned his attention to the circles of metal which enclosed his wrists and feet. These bracelets were tied to the side of the cart by ropes. By metal ropes! The metal ropes seemed to be made of small ovals of iron, forged one inside the next. Zyr was fascinated by them, until suddenly the last moments of his memory rushed in on him...

     The resounding crash, the bright flare of light... losing track of Kor, hearing him shout with pain even as Zyr himself shouted... the cold voice out of the murky darkness and dizziness, calling for them to be bound...

     Zyr tried to push himself up, fell back to the straw with a groan. His body betrayed him, he felt weak and sore. But then, his rage at being attacked, and his concern for Kor, leant strength to his protesting muscles, and Zyr pushed himself up, sitting back on his haunches. He looked around, seeing that there were other carts ahead of and behind the one he was in, and men rode horses, actually rode them, beside some of the carts. The men seemed to be sitting on seats made from hide and leather, shaped to fit the horse's back, and each man gripped a cord in his hands which ran to a harness around the horse's head. Zyr had never seen so many clever devices in his young life.

     Coming back to the matter at hand, Zyr searched around for signs of Kor. He found the other Hunter quickly, as Kor was riding in a cart next to his own, similarly built with metal bars. Kor appeared to still be sleeping, though it was a troubled sleep, his features twisted in pain, and metal ropes were also run to bracelets around his wrists and ankles. Zyr tried to reach him, but was unable to reach across the distance between the wagons, through the bars. Suddenly, his fogged mind put the bars and the metal ropes together, and Zyr realized he was being captured, being held by these men for evil purpose. It was a concept very alien to him, as any rivalries between villiages would certainly lead to fighting, but it was honorable fighting and there were almost never any deaths. The village whose men were defeated would bow to the wishes of the victors, and even then the victors would often make compromises with them. Never were any men of the losing village held by the victors. The concept of a prisoner was completely forgeign to him. He only deduced the fact that these mean meant he and Kor harm by the fact that the men clearly expected Zyr and Kor to try to escape or attack them, hence the bars and metal ropes.

     Zyr heard a groan from Kor's cart, and looked over to see Kor putting his hand up, shielding his face from the sun. "Kor? Kor, are you alright?" Zyr asked quietly, concern for his friend making his voice tight.

     "Zyr?... can't... it hurts..." Kor mumbled, the words diffcult to make out. Clearly, his head was still in agony.

     "It will pass, my friend. It will pass soon... just concentrate your senses on one thing at a time, it seems to help, somehow," Zyr said.

     Kor recovered almost as quickly as Zyr had done upon waking (though "recovered", is perhaps too strong a term... each was still laden with a dull pain in his head and stiff muscles), and soon they were examining their surroundings together. It took them some time to recognize where they were in the Tangle, for while they well knew the game trail they were being taken down, the trail shouldn't have been as wide and as cleared as it appeared to be.

     "Zyr, we're only a few leagues from the village," Kor whispered harshly across the gap between the carts. "We cannot let these evil men find our home!" Unconciously, Kor's muscles flexed hard , as though his body was preparing itself for a fight, despite the fact that he was caged.

     "I know, Kor. I'm not sure how we prevent it, though," Zyr said. He didn't want to call down the attention of the men who held them, but being as quiet as he could, he tugged experimentally at the metal ropes, then the bracelets, and finally at the metal bars of the cage. They were all solidly built, Zyr did not think that he could break them without making a great deal more noise.

     "Zyr, I'm sure we could free ourselves, but we would call them down upon us," whispered Kor. Despite their situation, Zyr smiled. Kor had obviously also given thought to freeing themselves. If there's anyone I trust to fight his way out of this at my side, it's you, Kor. Zyr looked around again, studying the men who held them. The horse riders were all similarly garbed, wearing shirts and leggings of thick, heavy leather and covered over in places with plates fashioned of polished metal. Each also carried a long, wide knife at his belt, so long that anyone less strong than Kor or himself would need two hands to balance it properly, as well as a hat made of metal which enclosed their head at the sides and back. Their clothing was finished off by a red cloth cape. As he studied them, he realized one of the men ahead had noticed him watching. The man called to someone further ahead, and in a moment the cart began to slow, and stopped. Zyr wondered what was to happen now.

     ""Well, look who's finally awake," came a voice behind him. Zyr turned, to see an older man dressed in robes of black and blood red, emblazoned in gold with strange symbols, walking up between the carts which held Kor and himself. "I was beginning to fear I had used too much force. I've been told the Hunters of the Uridi are formidable men, but it seems to me that you may be far too fragile to provide any joy for His Imperial Majesty, may Amorat favor him." The man carried a long, gnarled wooden staff, with a large crystalline stone adorning the top, such as one might sometimes find in the caves of the Green Tangle. His hair was fully grey, and his face lined. He might have looked like one of the Elders of the village, but there was a cruel twist to his mouth, and a cold cast to his eyes. It was clear to Zyr that here was a man who cared nothing at all for anyone. Suddenly, Zyr's mind placed the voice; this was the man who'd called for them to be bound at their campsite. Rage welled up inside Zyr, and he glared at the man, throwing himself forward and slamming his fist against the bars of his cage.

     "Why have you done this?" snarled Kor, coming to his knees and gripping the bars of his cage. Clearly his rage was a match for Zyr's own. "No one with any honor would hold a man so! What purpose have you?"

     The old man laughed, an empty, harsh laugh. "Why have I done this? Because you cannot stop me from doing it, young Hunter. Because it amuses me to see your impotent anger. Because the Lord Emperor of Kuur wishes new blood in his games, and I wish new subjects for my research." He paused a moment, as if waiting for a reaction from them. Zyr and Kor both continuted to watch him, anger etched on their faces. "I see you are unimpressed... perhaps you've never heard of the Empire of Kuur?"

     "The name means nothing to us, nor does your talk of a lord emperor," growled Zyr. "From how you fawn over his name falsely, he must be the leader of your tribe. It is also clear to me that, whoever he may be, you have no real respect for him. You're a dog without honor. Perhaps if a foul animal such as you hates him so, he may be a man of honor? Perhaps we need only slay you, and he'll be thankful." Across from him, Kor laughed, and nodded agreement. They might be worried about their current lot, but neither Zyr nor Kor would give this old man the satisfaction of seeing it.

     The old man's eyes flashed, and his features twisted into a mask of open hate. "I am Valtoth Quen, Court Sorceror of The Emperor of Kuur, His Imperial Majesty Haddan VI! You worms, you ignorant savages, you know nothing of my power, nothing! Shall I show you? Shall I teach you how feeble your minds are?" With that, Valtoth drove one end of his staff into the ground, and spoke words fearful to hear. The crystal at the top of his staff began to glow, to shine and pulse with a sickly red light. He pointed at Zyr, and spoke the words again. "Look into my eyes, young Hunter! See how weak you are!" It seemed as though darkness gathered itself around Valtoth, despite the fact that it was near noon on a sunny summer day.

     Zyr had never seen such things, and in truth he felt fear at the strange magics of this man. His people knew of magics and mysticism, but they were all things of nature, practiced by the priestesses and given by the Great Father, things to help cure sicknesses, find hidden springs, bless bondings. Nothing as powerful or evil as this had he seen. Nevertheless, he would not let this cruel old man get the best of him. Allowing his rage to swallow his fear, he met Valtoth's gaze. The sorceror's eyes seemed to flash fire, to bore into his soul. Suddenly, he could feel Valtoth, as though they were connected somehow. He felt the old man reaching into his mind, trying to overwhelm Zyr with fear, with terror. Trying to break his spirit, make him beg for mercy. Zyr's body responded subconciously, even as his mind fought Valtoth. His huge muscles flexed with power, his big hands gripping the bars of his cage. I will not give in to you, foul creature! he screamed inside his mind. Outwardly, his gaze never left Valtoth's, the young Hunter's face a study in focused anger.

     Valtoth laughed, feeling Zyr's resistance. The fire in the sorceror's eyes grew more intense, and Zyr felt the pressure on his mind increase. In his mind's eye, Zyr saw the fear and weakness Valtoth sought to impose upon him as a great weight, a huge stone, pressing downward. Zyr fought the weight with all the strength of his soul, pressing back, holding the great stone up. As though connected to the battle in his mind, His powerful body flexed harder, strained, and sweat broke out on his skin. The weight grew, but so did Zyr's might. The bars of his cage bent where he gripped them, easily overcome by the Hunter's powerful muscle.

     "You think you can fight me, worm?' thundered the sorceror, the glow upon his staff throbbing brighter, faster. Zyr felt the terror and weakness that Valtoth was trying to push upon him battering down, but his strength and rage were holding it back. He felt his body responding as it did to the hunt, the power of his own might loosed in his blood, the great rush of bloodlust. Dimly, he was aware of his thick manhood growing huge and rigid between his thighs, swinging upward, thick and meaty, veins pulsing and the tip stretching past his navel, revealing the big, heavy fist-sized balls beneath. He smiled triumphantly at the sorceror. You shall not best me, old man, and I know it! Suddenly Zyr was aware of Valtoth's emotions, as well as his own, as though the link worked both ways. Outwardly, Valtoth was haughty and masterful, his hate and power clear. But within, he was fearful of Zyr's might! Zyr suddenly knew that never had the sorceror encountered a man so strong in spirit, and so powerful in body... the old man could not overwhelm him! Even Valtoth knew it!

     "Give up, you weak old beast," Zyr said harshly. "You know you cannot best me, I am far too much man for you." With the battle won, he released his grip on the bars of the cage and sat up on his knees. Zyr smiled, and flexed his huge arms at the sorceror, then bounced and flexed his massive chest muscles, allowing his big, throbbing manhood to pulse at the sorceror, mocking him.

     "ARGH!" the sorceror screamed, and suddenly, the light winked out, the darkness dissipated, and all was as it had been. Zyr felt the pressure leave his mind, and glanced over at Kor. Kor could not have fully understood the way in which Zyr was tested, but Kor gazed upon him with love and admiration, not as if he were surprised Zyr prevailed in the mystic battle, but as though his expectation that Zyr would win had been confirmed. You have nearly as much faith in my strength as I have in yours, my friend, thought Zyr, smiling and nodding at his mate. Valtoth turned his attention to Kor, but Kor just stared a challenge at the old man, flexed his thick pecs at him, and smiled.

     "Don't think to test Kor, demon," called Zyr confidently. "The strength of his spirit is greater than my own. You'll only be beaten again."

     "You think you have had some kind of victory, savage? I will show you victory," snarled Valtoth. He turned, and walked to the edge of the wide path. "Have you worked out where you are? Perhaps you don't recognize this trail, as I've made it civilized enough for wagons. If you have determined where you are, then you know your home is but a short distance this way. We stopped to say hello to the people of your village, that's how we learned that the two greatest young Hunters of your people were out hunting the Plains of Charnock. I'm sure they'd be happy to see you again...". Valtoth turned to the forest, and pointed his staff ahead of him into the trees, speaking more strange words. There was no glow from his staff this time, but the forest ungrew before their eyes. Trees and grasses and brush shrank down, as though becoming younger, until they vanished and opened a path of bare dirt which widened enough to allow the wagons through. The path shot out ahead of them, winding its way through the forest. Zyr and Kor were both startled, never had they imagined that such powerful magics existed.

     "You stay away from our home, monster!" shouted Kor. Zyr could hear in his voice the same apprehension which he himself felt. They've already been there? What have they done to our people? And why would any of our friends and family tell this foul man where we were? Now, Zyr felt a naturally born measure of the fear which Valtoth had tried to force upon him earlier, and knew that Kor felt the same. The old man just looked at them and smiled, cruelly.

     "Turn the wagons!" he called out to the men following him. They began to move, but Zyr could see on their faces their hesitation. Perhaps Zyr had had more of a victory than he knew, for these men were shocked that Valtoth had failed to cow him, had been bested by him, and some of them wore that shock on their faces. Nevertheless, they began to turn the wagons to move down the newly opened path. "Allow our young friends to be first in the line of wagons! I want them to have the best homecoming they can!" Valtoth shouted, then began to stride down the path. The horses pulling their carts were tugged on by two of the men, and then they were rolling down the path just behind the sorceror.

     "Kor, what do you think these evil men did to our people?" Zyr called across to his mate. Now that it was known they were awake, Zyr felt no need to whisper any longer.

     "I do not know, Zyr... but if they hurt them in any way, I will destroy these honorless dogs," Kor ground out, not breaking his gaze from the path ahead.

     They traveled for some time, and with each passing moment, Zyr grew more apprehensive. From time to time, he looked over at Kor, and always found him looking back, the anger and fear in Kor's eyes reflecting his own like a still pool reflects the sky. The day grew older, and soon the sun began to sink in the west. Shortly before sundown, they drew very near to the village.

     "Come, see your home, Hunters!" called Valtoth from just ahead of them. "See what true power I have!" With that, Valtoth cleared the end of the path, and Zyr and Kor's wagons rolled out behind him.

     "NO!" screamed Zyr and Kor, with one voice. The scream was torn from their throats, as though their souls had been burned out of their hearts.

     The village was gone, completely destroyed. Fires burned everywhere, still consuming huts and gardens, smokehouses and totems, and evidence that every home and building which was not now burning had already been taken by the flames lay in the smoking, smoldering wreckage of their entire village. Not one living soul appeared to remain, and the smoking corpses of their friends, brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers lay everywhere. Even the shrine was gone, and they could see some of the priestesses, the Sacred Mothers, lying facedown in mud and blood. Some of them still round with child, some of them torn and bloody where the baby had been ripped from them, the body of the infant lying burned and deformed nearby. Those corpses not entirely consumed by flames were already bloated, flyblown and rotting.

     Valtoth's mocking laughter echoed over the devestation, stabbing pain into their hearts as they witnessed the horror that had been their home. "Now, now young Uridi, you know what power is. What my power is... the power to end your people, and your lives, with a word. With a wave of my hand! The fire I conjured roared through your home, whipping the screaming and terrified savages before it! I called down lightning to strike them as they fled! I called death from the very air, and they fell, screaming and dying in agony! When I came here, I found not one man worthy of taking for a slave, to amuse His Imperial Majesty in the games of combat. I decided, as retribution for false stories of the Uridi's prowess bringing me across the mountains to this barbaric land, I would destroy this pathetic wattle-and-daub excuse for a town. But, luckily, your leaders begged me for mercy, asked me what they could do for me to show them compassion, and save them from my might. I demanded they show me the mightiest men of their people, and what did they tell me? They told me that Zyr and Kor, the two most skilled Hunters younger than their thirtieth year, two of the most skilled Hunters of the village of any age, and the two strongest, best fighters of all the Uridi, were out hunting on the Plains of Charnock! Just think, savages... you would still have your freedom if your people weren't WEAK!"

     Zyr wanted to break Valtoth in his hands, wanted to end his life, kill him, snuff him out forever. Never, even in the battles with rival villages, had he ever desired to take another human life. The concept was alien, repugnant to him. Yet, for all that he wanted to rage, for all that his huge, powerful body could tear the wagon apart, break the men who served Valtoth, and beat the very life from the sorceror himself, he was still, large and powerful as he was, a seventeen-year-old boy. Nothing in his young life could have prepared him for the desolate horror, the terrible absence of hope, that he now felt. He had not even yet experienced the death of a loved one from sickness, or old age, and now he'd lost everyone and everything he knew and loved in the entire world, save Kor. Zyr wept, sobbed uncontrollably, giving no thought to the shame he brought himself or the title of Hunter. He was only barely aware of Kor, in the other wagon-cage, howling in pain, weeping his own soul out, locked in his own world of horror and unable to share his pain with Zyr. There was no room in such agony of spirit for another heart, and each man bore the terrible truth of their people's destruction alone.

     Gasping for breath, his lungs burning, Zyr continued to choke out sobs, but quietly now, exhausted from pain and weeping. Over the sounds of Kor's and his own continued crying, he heard Valtoth's voice: "Make camp here for the night! I want these two savages to have a good, long opportunity to consider the folly of defying me!"

     Still weeping over the loss of his people, Zyr vowed at that moment that he and Kor would be free of these demons before sunrise. And that, somehow, despite the horrific power of this monstrous old man, they would destroy him and avenge their people. As he lay in the straw, cheeks and chest damp with his tears, he knew in his heart that Kor was making the same vow to himself.