The horn sounded, in the distance, like a promise.
skekMal immediately lifted his head above his meal. He knew who calls him, Nowadays, there was no other who would dare to call him that way.
He continued to eat, though, knowing skekSo will wait, as always when the horn is involved. He knew, it’s part of their relationship. To wait.
As soon as he finished though, he sprung into full speed, aiming the castle.
skekSo called him. And he will appear. The only skeksis he has seen as his ruler. The only one he respected.
And the only he would listen to.
The air wa hot and suffocating on the balcony, and the imperial bedchamber were even worse. SkekSo stood alone before the setting suns, counting the stars that come out to watch him as he waited.
He didn’t sit. He didn’t fan himself. And he most certainly did not doubt that his order has been heard and will be obeyed.
It is fine. He can handle it. Even in the middle of this cursed heatwave, he is still Emperor, and a mere sundown is nothing to him.
It is to be expected that skekMal, as fast as he may run, still needs to cover a certain distance to the Castle of the Crystal. If he never wished to stray, he might as well have remained with the rest of them. With him. And eventually faded into a wilted, mindless, boring shadow of his former glory.
By all means. Let the Hunter have his forest, and his trophies, and anything he wished.
As long as he never failed to return.
skekMal entered the castle silently, through one of the windows set near the gate. He didn’t want others know that he is here. He silently passed the gelfling guards and sleepy Ornamentalist, who just was returning from the baths.
The Emperor’s chamber were guarded, as always.
He swiftly entered one of the unused rooms and going on the blanks egain, he crept to the imperial window, to jump from it on the floor, just by skekSo’s side, who was observing world beneath and above him.
“Emperor” he rasped with a voice unused to talk, due to many unum alone.
He layed his taloned hands on the balcony edge, leaning over it.
“You called me” he muses casually.
Despite himself, skekSo startled, which to all but the most observant eye would be easy to miss. He did not hope that skekMal had missed it – he would never underestimate his skills – all he hoped is that he has enough respect his pride to not bring it up.
He eyed the Hunter’s pose most approvingly, and already the rough edge in his voice sended a shiver down his spine. He held his scepter tighter in his hands, as if his life depended on it. In many ways it really did.
“Tell me, skekMal. How are you dealing with this horrid heat?”
skekMal shruged with his arms.
“Bath. Mostly. The streams and lakes use to hold a cold, mostly in the north. Still, the heat in this region is difficult to fight with. It may be caused by the energy of your Crystal.”
He pat the edge of the balcony frame with his talon.
“Yet… the heat has good sides. Scents are more prominent. Animals are more thirsty. Some of these things are… good.”
“My Crystal? I highly doubt it.”
SkekSo crossed his arms. A bath did sound rather pleasant, though, only that he had taken his evening bath already, and it hadn’t done much for him. His neck was stiff and his head ached at the back from resting against the tub, and his smaller arms were so numb that it almost felt like his left and right arm had traded places.
“Wait… lakes, did you say?”
The promise of being able to actually stretch his aching limbs freely in the water, while cooling his skin at the same time, sounded more than a little tempting. Especially in the company of the Hunter, who can turn any journey into an adventure that could end in so many ways…
The Emperor took a brief look behind him, towards his dark, empty bedchamber, and then turned towards the Hunter.
He raised a brow. But saids nothing. Yet…
“I won’t take you anywhere, if you will be in your gown, or in your court robes. You will take the traveling clothes I gave you three trines ago. Your majesty.” he added, with a slight bend of his head.
“I will wait for you before the entrance to the palace. No one needs to know where we ventured and that I visited you this evening. Use the stealth I taught you, gelfling can be talkative.”
That said, he jumped on the balcony edge and descends lower, to eventually disappear between the flanks and darkness the night offers to them both. He was sure that skekSo, even being used to comforts of the castle, will be able to cross the gates with as least curious eyes as its possible.
SkekSo simply let him speak, and held his scepter closer to his heart upon hearing that form of address. How odd it sounded coming from the Hunter’s beak. Your Majesty, he said, and yet in that moment, he was the one giving the order, and skekSo … … allowed it. Yes. That is the word.
He finally let out a breath that he was unaware he was holding.
As quickly as he can, the Emperor disrobed, and oh stars, how his limbs crack, how they ache, how pathetic he must seem… and how desperately he needs this!
Wearing his travel robes, he made his way down quietly, hidden from sight, just as skekMal instructed. And somewhere, deep inside his soul, the spark of a wish is lit: the need for approval, the desire to hear that he did well. But of course he did. He is the Emperor, after all. He put out the small flame and advanced towards the Hunter.
“You didn’t alarm anyone, your stealth is very effective, your majesty” said skekMal, looking already at the wasteland and the forest that was looming over it. “The road is difficult, so I will ask first: do you want way faster or more comfortable? The lake will be there to soothe your pain, either way.”
His gaze taxed the Emperor and his traveling robe. He wouldn’t expect an castle skeksis to fit is perfecly, even if it was sewn for the,specifically.But skekSo looked almost graeceful in them.
He nodded, approvingly.
“We will have at least three hours of path to thread.”
“… Indeed I did not.”
“I… am pleased with your keen sense of observation, Hunter.”
That was indeed the sort of thing that one ought to say after hearing genuine praise, was it not? SkekSo did not know. Quite fed up with flattery and worship as he was, it was still the only kind of compliment to which he knew how to react… and what he had just heard was the complete opposite of that. He was sure of it, because the Hunter never lied.
It never failed to amaze the Emperor how skekMal always knew how to disarm him, even when they weren’t sparring.
“Comfortable? Don’t make me laugh. Comfort is for the weak.”
“Yes. I gave the possibility, though” skekMal’s rasped, his eyes not losing contact with skekSo’s. “Every each of us needs to have possibility of choice. Not that I thought you will choose differently.”
He turned fast and sniffed the air. The forest bringing him scent of wildlie – no danger whatsover.
“Good, so, the difficult path.”
Making sure, skekSo follows him, he led him through the wasteland, noticing at once the fast pace skekSo tries to keep up with. He didn’t stop nor slowed down, he was sure that the Emperor wouldn’t like him being too caring. He knew none of his kin would like that.
When the forest showed itself before them, skekMal didn’t stop, yet his secondary arms were making path clear before skekSo would go there. It was a care that the ruler will have to accept. He won’t return him to the castle all bruised and wounded by such inferior things as branches and burning leaves.
The Emperor nodded slowly, a habit he had developed in his many trine of sitting on his throne listening to words which aimed to please. SkekMal never did, of course. His presence was like a long awaited storm, shattering the sky with his claws… and setting him free from his crystal cage, even if for just one night.
How could he not follow him as swiftly as his tired legs allowed?
And yet, why was the Hunter making it easier for him? That was not what they had decided. SkekSo grunted and quickened his pace, so that the two of them were walking side by side now. He tried to push the branches away from his own path … and WHACK.
A branch hit him right in the face. He shut his eyes, and he clung to skekMal’s arm instinctively, his claws all but digging in. He couldn’t decide which was more degrading: this, or falling on his back like a pathetic little insect.
skekMal halted, when skekSo held to his robe. The Emperor looked angered and ashamed and most of all, didn’t want to admit that he made a mistake, So skekMal said nothing.
Allowing skekSo to join him on the path, he looked in the sky.
“Do you feel it?”
He closed his eyes, exposing them on the gusts of wind.
“This is Thra. It may kick and scream when you tear its body. But allows you to walk on it, when you accept its rules. You are emperor of this land. It will welcome you as its owner, as soon as you embrace it.”
Thank the stars for skekMal’s commitment to respecting his dignity, skekSo thought, pulling his hand back.
… feel it …?
SkekSo looked up at the Hunter’s closed eyes. How… unexpectedly serene he looked, and why would he not – after all, he was the lord of the hunt, as sure of himself out here, in the wild night, as the Emperor was on his throne.
He tried to feel something.
There was wind, but it brought no relief after a day so hot that it could easily rival skekAyuk’s oven. There was grass under his feet, there was a faint smell which his damaged nose could barely register. It was dark, and there was ominous, distant nocturnal birdsong coming from every direction.
“… I do not require it to welcome me. I am Emperor of this world, whether it likes it or not.”
skekMal’s head bowed slightly, yet his words weren’t aimed to please the ruler. They were, at the other hand, words of truth.
“There is nothing degredating in being welcomed by Thra. Thra, the natural Thra, not skeksis empire, not gelfling kingdom, knows no emperors or maudras. Only if you lean to listen to it, and hear its voice, you can claim it like a lover claims his partner. It’s not an act of power, by any mean.”
And opening his eyes, he looked at skekSo, his green hues drilling into his soul.
“Of course, I have no power over you, your majesty. Only you choose, if to listen to my advice.”
And not adding anything but that, he resumed his walk through the wilderness.
There was something quite thrilling in the way the Hunter talked. Harsh yet soothing, commanding yet respectful. SkekSo held his breath when their eyes met again, and paused to focus on what he had to say. As he did so, skekMal continued to walk, leaving him behind. SkekSo hurried after him, repeating his words in his mind.
“Of course”, the Emperor began, and found it difficult to speak at the pace he was going. “Of course that before Skeksis, before Gelfling, before Aughra, there was only Thra. And having no one to govern it, Thra governed itself.”
He finally managed to keep up with skekMal, and his breath slowly stabilized.
“What are you saying I should do, then? Meet Thra as an… equal? Speak to it from one leader to another? … Tell me, Hunter. How do you treat your prey?”
“I kill it. I eat it. I collect trophies” he said, and his eyes glistened with a slight amusement. “The hunt is special territory. It makes equal from everyone and everything. Then, only skill matters, only your body and its traits. Nothing could stop my prey from killing me, if I won’t do this myself” he turned suddenly to skekSo. “When I kill it, its strength is mine. And I raise above equal in this moment.”
Like pointing out his words, something screamed bloodchillingly in the darkness. The Hunter turned to the source of the noise.
“Murnog.” he said lowly. “Good meat, but we aren’t here to hunt or eat” he looked quite curiously and inquisitively at Emperor. “The lake is one hour from now” his voice hung in the air heavily.
“Yes, yes, yes, I am aware. The hunt matters the most.” He stomps the ground with his foot. “This… is my hunt. This is my prize! Thra itself! It is my right to rule, my burden, my sacrifice, I am already superior and I have nothing to–”
The Emperor stopped and covered his head with all four of his hands.
Murnog? What in the name of every star was that? He did not need to know, he did not want to know. Whatever it was, it needed to be silenced at once!
When skekMal turned to him, he couldn’t pull his hands back to their more dignified positions faster, but undoubtedly the Hunter had seen, and possibly found it amusing. In which case, it only made the creature’s death even more urgent.
“We have time if I say so.”
He bowed slightly. “As you wish.”
He already was in hunting mode, his tail slowly swaying behind him, he bent, his nostrils catching scent and head lifted high.
“It won’t be easy, but the better” he said, his voice low and mute, like coming from under a pillow. “They have eight arms, difficult to dodge… sharp claws, thick tail, very good sight, even in darkness. Born predators.”
He lowered even more, his talons ready to tear and severe.
“And it comes at us.” he added, like casually. Then, before they both could say anything more, an animal slowly, like in slow motion, emerged from the leaves. It’s eyes were set just at the skeksis, but it didn’t move towards them, like calculating, how much risk they are worth. It wasn’t big, but skekMal knew to not underestimate.
“It had to sense us” said skekMal, and unsheated the blades. The steel blinked in the light of the moons, making the creature look just at him, his – indeed – very thick tail hit the earth just once.
SkekSo had not done this in a very, very long time, and he could feel exhaustion in his bones already. Despite taking the more difficult path, he certainly did hope to save plenty of strength for the swim somehow… but this murnog’s grating scream was enough to provoke him to fight. Besides, he was not prone to turning down a spontaneous offer.
And there it was indeed. Such an odd thing it was, the likes of which the Emperor had never before seen. Not that he had ever seen a great variety of creatures as it was – he always had better things to do than peruse the Scroll-Keeper’s books on the wildlife of Thra, and going out exploring was completely out of the question.
Seeing the Hunter unsheathe his blades was always a treat, and even in the beginning of a battle, skekSo couldn’t help admiring his very natural, yet precise pose, and he tried to copy it, although he had no blades of his own. He had his scepter, of course, for he had never once left it anywhere too far from his person ever since he first held it.
He was as ready as he would ever be, he told himself, and he hissed.
The animal attacked.
Not the Hunter, as he sensed his blades can do more harm than scepter. It lunged straight at the Emperor, with blink of not fury in his eyes – but a certain clever intelligence.
Its thick tail kicked skekMal in the chest, sending him off the tree. The Hunter managed to fall on his fours, though, and save himself from being badly wounded.
“Emperor!” he growled in fury, seeing the beast mere few hands from skekSo.
And he fell on the murnog from behind, avoiding the tail which swung again, almost kicking him off again.
The previous imjury will leave a bruise. The Hunter couldn’t matter less, the unsuspected hunt turned to be much more thrilling, adrenaline raising in his veins, as he stuck his right blade in the beast’s leg.
SkekSo roared, locking eyes with the murnog. He almost began to cough. There was no time for that.
He did not even look in skekMal’s direction. The Hunter would get up. He always did.
Eight arms, sharp claws, thick tail, good eyes. The eyes of death.
“Think me feeble, do you, beast? Think you can challenge me?!”
He laughed, displaying his multitude of teeth, and charged, scepter in hand.
Two thin arms in front, two thinner arms behind, claws that caused him pain, tail unused to combat, but his eyes were still swift, and even swifter was his mind.
In a moment, skekMal was upon the creature, just as skekSo had expected. Thanks to his distraction, the murnog had not.
The Emperor stuck the tip of his scepter into one of its eyes, like a hook in a fish’s mouth. The murnog shrieked, but the injury did not stop it from trying to push skekMal off.
The scepter was quite stuck, but skekSo didn’t want to leave it there, not even until the creature’s death. The murnog took the opportunity and swung its tail against the Emperor’s feet, and he fell.
skekMal made a sound that probably petrified a whole village of gelfling, if it reached them.
He swung his largest blade and hitting just in the leg – again – he almost severed it from the bone.
Murnog joined skekMal’s battle roar with the loud cry of pain. Leaving skekSo, but skekMal already was standing between the Emperor and the animal, which tried to cope with the cruel pain and at the same time focus on the attacker.
The Hunter lunged forth, just in the beast’s embrace. He knew he can’t look now at the fallen skekSo, nor help him. His pride was hurt by the fall and he needed to compose himself. skekMal will give him that time.
Murnog would possibly be able to kick him again on the tree or ground, but was too numbed and skekMal was incredibly fast.
Sharp blade sunk in the animal’s chest.
The Hunter turned his weapon inside the flesh, reaching for the heart – and finding it.
He made another groan, this time not as loud but filled with some darkness and longing.
The hunt, the sacred act of measuring forces. It was his element. He felt as born again.
He put his talons on the dying animal, squeezing the fur with his fingers.
Cursed, cursed, thrice-cursed murnog!
Whether the Hunter deliberately sought to respect his pride, or he was simply busy with his attacker, skekSo was relieved that he was not spared a glance as he struggled to his feet with a painful groan.
Ah well. The cursed beast would have to keep his scepter for now. It did not make it Emperor.
SkekSo took a few steps back and observed – few could boast about having the chance to watch the dreaded Hunter fight. It was a privileged sight, which was only proper for him to behold, given his unique and distinguished rank.
SkekMal’s movements seemed… not effortless, but natural. Quick and lethal, leaving no room for hesitation, no chance of escape. So odd it seemed to skekSo then, to imagine that skekMal was a Lord of the Crystal, who has his own dusty, unused chamber in the Castle, his own ceremonial staff, his place at the table, which he had not taken in countless trine. A creature of Thra he seemed to be just now.
How? How had he made this wretched world bend its knee? Perhaps there was some truth indeed to what the Hunter had told him before.
He was hypnotizing to watch, and had a second murnog leapt out of the darkness upon the unsuspecting Emperor, he would have been caught off guard. But thankfully, the dreadful things did not seem to hunt in packs, or the rest would have joined by now.
SkekSo held his breath and tilted his head watching skekMal squeezing the murnog’s fur as it breathed its last. What on Thra was he doing? … Confirming its death, no doubt? Or was he… absorbing its strength, as he once explained? Or something entirely different, something beyond his understanding?
He wished to say that the beast had been quite a nasty piece of work. He wished to say that skekMal had performed most astonishingly, and that watching him fight stirred a most deep desire in him. He wished to say those two words that almost never left his imperial beak. Thank. You. Yet somehow he felt that any gesture, any word would count as an intrusion between skekMal and the last breath of his opponent.
The Emperor looked at his scepter, searching for the right moment to go and pick it back up.
His fingers felt as the animal gives its last breath, his ears caught the almost whispery moan of departure. Bowing his head, he parted with it, almost reluctantly.
His hand reached for the mouth of the murnog, where it had an array of sharps fangs. Digging deep into the gum, skekMal tore one tooth and put it into one of the satchels, he had by his belt.
“I am grateful” he said eventually He didn’t mean the fight. He was almost sure – yet not entirely – that skekSo may guess he speaks about not interrupting his hunting rite.
He looked at the night sky, filled with eral bats. Their wings giving out an earie yet familiar sound.
“Good meat shouldn’t be wasted” he added. “And it has strong but light bones, great for an armor and handles for knives and daggers.”
SkekSo couldn’t remember seeing any of … this … before. And now that he finally had, he couldn’t get it off his mind.
How solemn it all seemed, and yet not in the organized, rehearsed, ceremonious manner of the Ritual-Master. Yet a ritual it was, right here, in the wilderness of Thra. It occurred to skekSo that the Hunter did this for every single one of his kills – or perhaps just the ones that he thought worthy.
And why not? The Hunter was free to do as he wished.
He could have simply asked skekMal what he was doing. How did he learn to do this, and when? Had Aughra taught him? Those wretched Dousan? As Emperor, he had every right to satisfy his own curiosity. Yet he hesitated. It seemed somehow… too personal.
And there was something else, too. There was always a nagging feeling in the back of his mind whenever he had the chance to witness his fellow Skeksis at work, doing what they each did best. In actuality he knew too little of their crafts, and it reminded him that without the rest of them he would be… quite… lost.
… Grateful. Ahh! He repeated the word to himself. Grateful.
“Indeed.” … was all that skekSo could say. He was still Emperor. “Well then! Let us feast!” He rubbed his small hands behind his back and he weighed his words. “I… hereby order you, Hunter, to keep the choicest parts for yourself tonight.”
First time this night, in skekMal’s eyes appeared something not unlike easyness, like the promise of feast with the Emperor made him more relaxed.
And indeed, it did. It’s good to feast alone, but in this case, company was better.
He swiftly gathered the wood for fire, allowing skekSo for time to gather his scepter and examine the animal. if he wished.
Then, his knife buried in the flesh of murnog and skillfuly started to separate skin and fur from the meat.
He didn’t say anything, but his eyes traveled from his work to skekSo from time to time. The Emperor fought well. As unused to this, he fought with fury, which could transform into skill. If he didn’t choose the life in the castle – but for skekMal, it was obvious, that skekSo will never resign from his title. It was part of him and who he was. He couldn’t be anything but emperor. And he respected that.