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Rip bathes in the shadow of the tall, thin pines that surround him as he relaxes upon the soft, decaying needles of the forest floor and waits to die. He waits, a few birds chirping, a lone stag crossing the golden meadow to his left, and as he waits his sharp brown eyes sweep back and forth across the squat, thinly treed hill adjacent from him.
His clothes are the plain, dull wool of a farmer�s, but he does not resent them in the least, for a farmer he is. Besides, the forest is around him, inside him, and his clothes blend in beautifully with it, this orgy of death and life and everything in between all jumbled into one smoothly functioning reality that this cloth refuses to disrupt. His boots are good sturdy leather, well-worn but good for another few years yet, rising to just below his knees. Their soles are a softer leather than the rest of the boot, which strangers occasionally find disturbing, but they are silent, and he can climb and run faster than any man with wood nailed to his foot. Then again, people from his own village often find the tops of his boots, turned down just below his knee, rather foolish; why would a man want the his boots folded like that? So water could get in, so they wouldn�t go as high? So his feet would begin to rot?
No, Rip would think as they said these things. So that I can have two more knives with me, always, should you ever decide to forget that I am one of you.
Movement on the hill sends Rip smoothly to his feet. Two steps, rustles in the grass, and he is crouching behind a sapling pine, thick with branches to hide him, slender branches that wave in the faint breeze so that when he moves, another eye does not catch it. Two steps, and Rip lowers himself to a crouch, becoming one with the forest, melting into the scenery. Watching.
Rip can�t keep a grim smile on his face as he does this, for this skill is one for which he has a fierce pride. Because unlike everyone else in his village and everyone for twenty leagues around, which is the whole world to Rip, he wasn�t born with this. He is crippled, because he cannot make himself invisible. He cannot whisper to his skin and garb and expect it to change colors for him. Rip has to hide, all by himself, with no help but the forest and the wind and his farmer�s wool, and he had to learn how to do it. Twenty years of wandering the woods and stalking wildlife, and poor crippled Rip has no need of the Change.
But they don�t know that. His family and friends, the blacksmith, the thatcher and the innkeeper, they don�t know that Rip can hunt with them, can disappear as effectively as they. As far as they are concerned, Rip is a man among gods, a dog walking on two legs. But if he ever offends them, does something too terribly wrong, Rip is subject to their wrath. Because he cannot call fire from the sky, or the wetness from a body, or any of the other things the rest of the world can.
Except Rip can hide very, very well, and he has an astonishing quantity of knives stashed about his person.
And right now, Rip is about to save a life and die doing
It had started at the festival last night. One of the two involved was a stranger who had stayed with them for nearly a week now, an average looking man on an average looking horse, with a peculiar object dangling from his belt, but no one much noticed that; foreigners were allowed their little quirks. Thor was his name, and he spoke the Aerlon accent as though he�d grown up here.
The other was Iaabe, one of the loudest men in the village. Too loud was the opinion of most, but Iaabe�s fires could burn through anyone�s Protection, and nobody thought quieting him down was worth the risk of raising the idea that Iaabe was less than perfect.
It was the Festival of the Dyed Winds, when the sky was illuminated in banners of color. As was custom, the bonfires were lit, and as always the power of the Dyed Winds -- and the minds of the Village Council -- burned them higher than any other day of the year, so that to Faith the village would glow as brightly as the sky, making the night even more spectacular. As usual, everyone began competing to prove they had the strongest Protection by seeing who could stand in the beautifully hot fires longest before their flesh caught. As usual, Rip drifted into the shadows to watch; if he stepped inside the fires, if he played this game, he would not only burn instantly, he would feel pain, and would not be able to heal himself. If Rip engaged in the contests, he would die. So, unnoticed by the village, he watched.
And then something odd happened, a flash of a tiger in his mind, and he found himself inside another�s head.
Thor was terrified, but he kept his face smiling and his voice laughing because that was what everybody else was doing. These were friends of Olmaek, and they thought he was too. The old twisted men, shadows flickering across their sharp features, sat before each fire, and each fire rose in a pillar fifty spans high. One by one, the people he had thought were good, kind, real, stepped into the flames, and as the rest cheered, stepped out again. Laughing.
What are you, Thor wondered, that you would do this thing? Sell your soul to Olmaek so you can make fire burn hotter and brighter than it ever should, give up everything good and turn against it, then burn yourselves in the fires of doom.
What twisted perversions are you, Thor asked silently, to sin so greatly and enjoy it so much?
One of the few men Thor both knew and hadn�t liked at all stepped out of the flames after possibly the longest time of all. Laughing at the extent of his evil, at how at home he was in Hell, he raised his arms proudly, and the other demons clad in human flesh applauded. Smiling broadly, his eyes locked with Thor�s, and he moved forward.
"Come!" Iaabe said. "You look to be a strong man! Let�s see how long you can stay!"
Like the fear gripping his heart, Thor�s hand closed around his weapon. It was curved gently, wood, originally with a rock tied in to make it a club. Over the years, its previous owners had taken out the rock and added instead a circular blade.
"No!" Iaabe said. "You can have no aid. It must be your own protection."
"I will not go into the fire!" Thor barked suddenly, harshly, loudly, and he regretted it even more than coming to this Faith-forsaken town in the first place. Now he had more attention from these devils than he would ever have wanted.
"It is our custom," Iaabe growled, "and you don�t want to break our custom."
Thor was beyond thought now. He just raised Friend and pressed its blade against Iaabe�s neck.
"What," the man whispered, "are you doing?"
"I won�t go into your fire." Thor pressed softly, and a tiny stream of blood trickled down Iaabe�s neck.
Rip shook off the feeling and the memory, storing them up for later, for right now things were happening, and Rip needed to see them. Absorbed, he watched as the village protested forcing the stranger into the flames. What if placing him in the flames defies his own customs? What if his soul is contained within The Thing That Makes Iaabe Leak? We do not know anything. Let us not force this upon him.
Enough of the village rallied against Iaabe, gently but forcefully, and Iaabe knew he could not burn them all. But they were his friends, not Thor�s! Thor had turned them! He had seduced them, leapt into their minds, tainted them, Thor was dangerous he was a danger and now....
No. Not now. Now the village was on Thor�s side. Tomorrow, though, Thor would be alone. Somehow, Thor would be alone.
And then there would be no more danger because Thor wouldn�t be quite as alone as he thought. Thor would have Iaabe with him, and whatever power was contained within the thing that had leaked him, surely it could not stand up to Iaabe�s flames.
Rip saw these thoughts clearly as they flashed through Iaabe�s mind, and didn�t bother wondering how he did it any more than he bothered wondering how and why he had become Thor.
Thor will leave tomorrow, Rip thought, and he will go south. When he does, Iaabe will be there, a mile behind, two miles, five miles. But Iaabe will be there.
And so will I, Rip realized, because Thor is like me, Thor is crippled, Thor is a dog pretending to be a man. And Thor too knows how to make the men leak. So when Iaabe is there to kill Thor, I will be there to kill Iaabe.
I will face Iaabe�s fires for Thor because Thor can burn.
Rip turned and moved soundlessly into the shadows. South.