After feeling her body torn to pieces, Thora woke to find herself naked, with only a small fire cutting through the darkness of where she was. She covered herself as best she could, but instantly assumed she was back in Gimli. Waking up in such a stay had somehow become familiar. That assumption came to an end when the man in front of her spoke after walking into the small fire revealing his dark skin.
“So, what’s your name?”
Thora looked at the man and remembered his face. Years ago, she’d seen him for only a moment, on the day her life, no, her death went to hell.
Thora lunged, screaming the name of the monster that killed her. “Bitarr!”
Just outside of arm’s reach, Thora slammed into a barrier she couldn’t see. Not deterred in the least, she smashed her fist against it several times without effect. Seeing brute force had failed her, Thora turned to lightning expecting to easily subvert the spell protecting Bitarr. What she didn’t expect, was for the arcs of power she now was to go out of control, scattering her mind between each crackling bolt.
Thora didn't know how long she was in an electrified state, but welcomed the rocky ground beneath her when she finally reformed. Her vision spun, forcing her stomach into her mouth spilling filth on the ground. She was forced to wait on her hands and knees while the world slowly steadied.
“You probably shouldn't use any lightning spells.”
Thora ignored the words of warning, releasing a bolt of lightning from her palm. It never reached her target. Instead, the bolt struck her square in the chest with enough force to slam her back against the invisible cage.
“I told you so,” the dark-skinned man said with an uncaring laugh. “And I'm not Bitarr. I’m the guy you failed to kill in South Bastion.” His skin shifted from brown to blue then back again. “See.”
“Lier!” Thora shouted. “I saw you that day!” She smashed her shoulder against the barrier as her vision blurred with tears. “You’re the one who killed me!” Thora’s assault on the barrier was now nothing more than random thrashing doing no more damage than a child against a stone wall. “You’re the reason he found me!” Every indignity she was forced to endure flashed before her eyes. Every man that touched her, tasted her flesh as if it were his right, and punished her if she refused could be traced back to the moment she died a hero’s death at the hands of this monster.
Thora threw herself against the barrier sliding down it covered in sweat and panting as she cried. “I was a warrior, and they took that from me.”
“I didn't take anything from you because I’m not Bitarr. I’m just the face it used to kill you.”
The man came closer, leering at Thora with eyes she was sure were filled with hunger. It was quickly reminding her of her nakedness, but a burning desire to kill the creature in front of her overpowered her shame. Without thinking, she attempted another spell but spasms as lightning once again ran through a body without control. The man then entered the invisible cage to stand over Thora who’s anger was quickly turning to fear under his gaze.
He made a hand gesture, somehow banishing her pain, then another that lifted her off the ground. The avatar wanted to shout, to threaten, maybe even to beg, but couldn't speak as another gesture stole her voice and movement. Only her eyes were still under her control, left open to witness whatever came next.
As she expected, the man reached for her breast to sample her before taking what he wanted. But to her surprise, as he pressed against her skin she dissolved, filling the cage with blue mana. He smiled at that, dragging his finger across her torso spilling more magic.
“I can work with this,” the man said as Thora’s panic reached new heights
From the reflection in his eyes, she could see within herself. Her body was made of nothing but mana and free-floating runes shaped into flesh. And with another gesture, she fell to the ground and was whole again, but still felt weak and now that she bothered to look, somehow devoid of something within herself.
The man sat down with his back against the barrier seeming to not care if Thora attacked him. “You’re one of the thunderers that were wiped out four years ago in Vellia. Let me guess, you saw a red light then died.”
Thora said nothing as she covered as much of her body as she could, but the anger in her eyes betrayed her silence. But she attack wouldn't again. There would be no point against something that was obviously so much stronger than her.
“So you died and became an avatar, a very unlikely one to have met me,” the man chuckled. “You’re basically my avatar now.” He spoke with such finality it was hard to think he was lying. “In this spell circle, I can do whatever I want with the body I made for you. If you’re hoping for your god to save you, don't. Whatever connection you had with Magni is gone. I destroyed it when I destroyed you. Nearly got your soul too, but was nice enough to store it away for safekeeping.”
Thora’s eyes widened as she realized he spoke the truth. The presence missing within herself was the blessing she’d received several years ago from Magi. Without it, controlling lighting was impossible, but that didn't matter. She couldn't help but smile just a little, knowing no matter what situation she was in, the thunderer’s claim on her soul was gone. Now all she had to do was free herself.
Thora’s smile of relief did not go unnoticed. “What part of this are you happy about?” the man asked incredulously.
Thora took a deep breath, stealing her nerve for what was to come. “This man isn't Bitarr,” she decided. If he were, he’d take Magni’s form. I can handle one man, I've handled more. Then I’ll be free as soon as I kill him. Even if I can’t, he isn't immortal, so I'll just wait a few decades.”
Thora decided to not resist spreading her legs slightly. She felt weak, her strength barely that of the mundane masses. A beating would do her no good, and she could hopefully find an opportunity to strike sometime down the road. “Just get it over with.”
The dark-skinned man looked puzzled for a moment, then his dark features reddened before he shouted. “Wait! Wait! Wait! That is not happening!” His voice lost its confidence and strength replaced by anger, disgust, and plenty of embarrassment. He even backed away a few steps with his hands held out as if to show he meant no harm. “Not that you aren't pretty, but I don't force myself on women.”
“You have me bound and naked,” Thora said, stating what she thought was obvious.
The man shrugged. “I rebuilt your body using the enneagram of your soul. Clothes weren't included and I’ve only got my trousers.”
“I tried to kill you,” Thora stated.
“And I killed you back. That doesn’t mean I’m going to rape you!” Realization appeared across the man’s face as he remembered her words, repeating them in a whisper. “You used to be a warrior.” He then backed away from Thora with a sorrowful look on his face. "You just stay over there, and I'll stay over here. We're stuck here for now, so let's not make the situation worse than it already is."
Two days had passed since Brand recreated the avatar’s body, most of it spent filling her with enough mana to sustain her form independently. He was still stuck in the same cave trying to puzzle out a way to survive the cold outside without the mana to keep himself warm for more than an hour. Gathering mana with runes drawn on his body was not enough. Only a large stationary spell circle had enough power to keep him warm. He could abandon the avatar, collecting what magic he gave her for himself. Unfortunately, with the biting cold outside, he’d need to make several stops to gather more mana several times. That, or spend several days forming spells to contain the mana for a long trip. There was a better way, but it required the days spent in the cave to implement.
In the meantime, he’d asked the avatar a multitude of questions without receiving a single answer. In fact, within the last day, it seemed more like she was the one doing the interrogating. Brand gave her nothing of consequence, offering no explanation as to what he was doing in South Bastion, his plans in general, or even a name. She granted just as little, but didn't have to for Brand to know her afterlife was far from enjoyable.
The avatar scoffed as she sat cross-legged; still naked as the day she was born. She’d given up on covering herself and watched a projection of Brand’s fight with Vara. He told her of the battle after she finally believed he wouldn't assault her, but she didn’t believe him. Needing someone to brag to, Brand opted to show the passive recordings kept in marble small crystal balls in his body.
“You’re afraid of the cold, but somehow bested the mother of fire,” the avatar said. “You should come up with better lies.”
Brand groaned. “I bested you easy enough.”
“So you caught a mouse in a trap and think facing a lion is possible.”
“Come on,” Brand cooed. “You’re at least a squirrel.” The avatar threw a pebble that Brand didn’t bother to dodge letting it bounce off the back of his head harmlessly. “I liked you better when you thought me a rapist.”
“And I liked me better when I was alive and not starving in a frozen wasteland.”
The mention of hunger made Brand’s stomach growl. He only had a light snack on the day of the festival and was now going on almost three days without food. The interesting thing was that his cave mate was also hungry. It should have usually taken half a century for a living magical construct to mimic life enough to have a need for food. One might enjoy food, but it wasn't necessary to survive so they never felt hunger. To bypass the struggles even Bryers couldn’t overcome, meant the enneagram in his chest was worth more than a mountain of gold. It was almost too precious to fuck with, but he needed to if he wanted to make it back to North Bastion within the week.
Brand turned to the woman. “Have you ever wanted to change your hair color.” Without an answer, Brand took control of the small part of the avatar he understood changing her hair snow white. “I can make just about any change you want. Taller, shorter, perfect skin or teeth, it doesn’t matter as long as you remain anatomically correct.”
“Anatomically?” the avatar asked, confused.
“It’s a thaumaturgy term. The point is, I’ve had a breakthrough. I can leave this cave now, but when I do, you’ll be, um.” Brand took a moment to think of a simple way to explain complex magic theory to someone that only knew a few dozen runes and thought knowing more would make her a pansy-ass mage.
“Why the hells do thunderers think being smart is stupid!?” Brand blurted out in frustration.
“We, they, simply aren’t cowards,” she explained. “Throwing spells around is not the way a warrior battles. And if you have too much mana like I did, use it to cultivate faster.”
Brand brushed a hand across his face at such stupidity, then continued. “That’s fucking stupid, but whatever. Right now you are like wet clay. The second we leave this cave, the clay of your body will dry and any changes I try to make I will break you unless I remake this spell circle. So what do you say, want bigger tits?”
“Change nothing,” the avatar said vehemently, but then she seemed to deflate. “My eyes,” she said after a long pause. “Change their color.”
Thora looked out on an endless expanse of white with her new green eyes seeing faint traces of mana in the air. “Why am I seeing in mage sight?”
The strange dark-skinned man stood next to her, steaming the air with the heat coming off his body. “I made mage sight a passive ability. If you want to shut it off, just concentrate.” He sounded prideful, as if she should be impressed by his work, then looked disappointed when she said nothing. “You can also see through most illusions and the dark. If you add a little mana, you can see as far as a sixth gate scout.”
Thora was indeed impressed by this stranger, but not saying so kept him talking. He had a need to brag like most self-important magi, and went on endless rants when she ignored him. This man certainly had the body of a warrior and several runic tattoos often used by those that refused to learn magic, but he was a mage at heart. It was actually quite enjoyable watching him squirm when she refused to react to his mage craft.
Her silence almost broke when he rid her of the eyes Magni loved so much. He used to tell her he saw the ocean when looking into them. It was the first compliment the god gave in the days before he took what he wanted by force.
“At least it's warm,” Thora said looking down at the melting snow at her feet. “But did you really need to take two days for such a simple spell?” She made sure to lace for voice with disappointment as if let down by a child's effort.
“Simple spell!” he exclaimed. “I had to figure out the never-before-seen spell forms that make up your body, alter them to siphon mana at a faster rate so they powered themselves, create appropriate pathways to use said mana from someone I only met two days ago, and build a passive heating spell around both of us because you don't fucking know how to cast one yourself! I did all that, without a single thaumaturgical tool or laboratory? I'm a fucking genius!”
Thora understood little of what he was talking about, but one detail sent a shiver down her spine. “You’re using me to power this spell! That's why you silenced me!”
“That's partly true,” the man admitted. “But mostly because you would have wasted the power you had on trying to kill me or trying to escape.”
“If you're so strong, why can't you just power the spell? You killed a God after all,” she said sarcastically.
The man shrugged. “As a magical construct, you absorb mana at a much faster rate from around you. I just had to fine-tune the process.” He began staring blankly as an idea popped into his head. “Actually, if I set you up for death magic instead, the results will be even better. Fuck, but then you might become a Raith, and I can’t have that.”
Thora stomped up to the holder of her soul. “So you're just going to leech off me for the rest of my days! Like I'm just a walking beast core!?”
“Maybe,” the man smiled and pointed into the distance. “I don't really have a plan for you yet, but for now, we head that way, back to South Bastion.” His demeanor then turned serious. “I’m giving you back control over some your mana. Don't try to kill me or run away. It won't end well.”
The man began to throttle his mana, kicking up the stones and ice around him. “What the hells,” Thora thought, observing his display of power. “He hardly has any mana, like some kid on his first gate.” Thora began sliding back as the man’s throttling speed sent waves of force she couldn't fight against. He wasn't trying to hold his aura back in the least, causing the air to shudder from his power.
“Start throttling,” he ordered, his voice rippling through the fastest aura Thora had ever seen. “I’ll slow to match your pace.”
Thora tugged on her mana and was happy to receive a response. She immediately began throttling, but found she couldn't come close to what the man next to her accomplished. Furthermore, she now had a pitifully shallow mana pool. It was many times larger than her captor’s, but that wasn’t saying much. It did give her an unexpected opening.
“And if you think having more mana gives you any kind of advantage,” the soul thief said, walking to a large mound of stone. “It doesn’t.”
Without bothering to make a fist, he smacked his palm on a stony surface, sending cracks through it and a shudder racing across the ground. Thora felt the impact rumble in her chest and heard a distant beat as the mountains echoed. It was a strike she might have been able to manage in her first life but only with an empowered hammer strike. Any hopes of fighting her way to freedom faded, replaced by more questions, like if the battle in the crystal ball was true after all.
With every breath, buildings rushed by as Cull traveled the King’s Road along with what looked like a merchant caravan. At the head of the horse-drawn carriage was technically a priest, but he hardly thought of them as such. The finely jeweled man did speak Vidar’s word without end, but only while traveling with a group that could pay a hefty price. Despite his unending dribble about commerce, the need to expand, and the prosperity gifted by the gods, his presents was worth it. Just walking near one paid for itself.
Every blessed member of Vidar’s cult traveled the king’s road with blazing speed no matter how lazily they walked, road, or sometimes flew. Each step was worth a dozen. Every turn of a wheel sent them zooming, turning a month-long journey into a few weeks or less depending on the escort. These men and women were the pillars keeping Vellia’s economy thriving, for the nobles at least. They also made military campaigns and defense effortless. With the most powerful of Vidar’s blessed as escorts, an army could move from one side of the continent to the next in days. Recently, traveling between worlds was also becoming common with an added fee for the trouble; a fee Cull had to pay if he wanted to reach Brand as soon as possible.
“Gods, I wish I could sleep right now,” Cull thought, tuning out his escort's preaching. “Maybe on the way back I’ll be tired enough.” He thought about how difficult it would be to capture Brand and sighed. “But probably not.”
“Boss,” said one of the strikers masquerading as a merchant’s aid. He was the tracker in the group. With a sample of someone’s mana, he could follow it no matter where in the worlds they were. He was the only reason they’d be face to face with their target in only a few days. “He isn't in Alfheim. He’s here, off the King’s Road in that direction.” He pointed in the direction of far off mountains.
“Thank the fucking gods!” Cull exclaimed standing so quickly he threatened to topple the carriage. “Ok boys, we're moving on foot from now on!”
The beast kin jumped from the carriage right over the castle-like wall bordering the road. Before anyone had time to ask questions, the rest of his traveling band joined him, leaping with magically augmented strength behind their leader. Rumors of rouge magi would spread, but so be it. It was not like simple guards could follow them into the depths of the dragon tooth mountains.
“You’re crazy! You're a fucking crazy son of a bitch!” the avatar shouted in a whisper as she tried to make herself as small as possible. Brand just smiled, rubbing his hands in greed.
After a few hours of running, they heard a roar in the distance, then several more. Brand, of course, investigated hoping to find food or monsters with valuable beast cores. What he found instead were beasts of legend that usually required a large hunting party of magic users to kill a juvenile or a god to defeat one that was fully grown.
“I've already killed a god, how hard can a dragon be?”