“Your Majesty, reinforcements are currently en route from Mal Zeth,” a chubby balding man said, snapping a pointer against a map. “They should be here within two days.”
“Good, Brador,” Zakath, Emperor of Mallorea, replied. “I'm glad I took your advice and had them march early.”
Koga stared at the map, awestruck by the sheer size of the land. It swelled as large as the Continent---but none of the names scrawled across it made any sense. Since arriving in this strange land, Koga never felt more lost. How on earth could he hunt Naraku down when the elusive bastard would have so many places to hide? How could he find Cthol Mishrak? Koga didn't even know where on the map he was.
“The Karands, Grolims, and Hounds have all quit the field, your Majesty. It seems like an unusual strategic retreat---and I think we must prepare for some slash attacks overnight,” Brador stated. “Hopefully the recess will give our troops enough time to recuperate from the heated conflict today.”
“Possibly.” A haunted expression crossed Zakath's face. He stared intently at the map. The Emperor carded a hand through his black hair, tugging in frustration. He muttered softly, “Torak's teeth! How am I supposed to strategize for the undead?”
Zakath paced in front of the map, his hands behind his back. He glanced at it a few times, preparing to say something only to wave his hand dismissively. He looked up, his eyes meeting Koga's.
“Oh! Where are my manners?” Zakath exclaimed. “Koga, you and your companions can make yourselves comfortable.”
Koga cast his eyes towards his pack and the she-wolf. He looked towards the open seats. One sat vacant by the map. Koga sat down, patting the spot next to him for the she-wolf. He said, “You heard the man. Sit, you two. You're embarrassing me with those dumbass expressions.”
Ginta and Hakkaku scrambled into their seats. They said simultaneously, “Yes, Koga!”
The she-wolf's tongue lolled out in quiet laughter. She sat down next to Koga, resting her head in his lap. “One notes that they're quick to follow a pack-leader's command.”
“Not always fast enough,” Koga retorted. He gently stroked her between the ears, earning him a gentle lick on his palm.
“I don't mean to interrupt, your Majesty, but have you heard anything about King Belgarion's progress towards Ashaba?” Brador asked, keeping his gaze averted from the wolf-demons.
“What?” Zakath asked, glancing towards his advisor. “Oh. No. I haven't heard anything about Garion or his party. Belgarath won't want any interference anyways. We need to focus on being a diversion while they move towards Cthol Mishrak. I trust Garion not to destroy all of Ancient Mallorea---well, mostly.”
“Only mostly, your Majesty?” Brador asked, a pained expression crossing his portly face.
“Wait,” Koga said. He sat forward, his arm draped over the she-wolf. “Did you say Cthol Mishrak?”
“I did,” Zakath replied urbanely. He looked at Koga as if assessing him for the first time. The Emperor's dark eyes penetrated the wolf-prince. It made Koga uncomfortable as if he couldn't keep any secrets from this strange melancholy man. “I'm not blind, Koga. You're after Naraku, I'll wager. You're like the demons traveling with Garion. Just what do you want to know about the City of Endless Night?”
“He doesn't ask for much, does he?” Zakath quipped to his advisor. “Brador, this may take awhile. Why don't you brief the officers while I talk with Koga?”
“Certainly, your Majesty.” Brador bowed, exiting the tent.
Zakath sat down across from the wolf-demon, brushing his hands across his black hose. He sighed, the sound weary. “There's a reason it's called the City of Endless Night. My former God, Torak, blanketed it under a permanent cloud bank some five thousand years ago. It happened after he used what we Angaraks call Cthrag Yaska or Burning Stone to crack the world apart. It drove Torak mad, you see---and it burned half of his face off, making him hideous when once he was the most beautiful of the Seven Gods. It's why his priests wear steel masks---to emulate his attempt to hide from his new grotesque face.”
“I don't care about what happened in the ancient past,” Koga interrupted, lightly thumping his fist on the chair arm.
The she-wolf ducked her head down, a soft whine emitting from her throat. She lapped at his fist, her tongue soft. Koga gently stroked her back, her soft black fur gliding through his fingers. He found her presence soothing.
“You wanted to know everything,” Zakath calmly replied.
“I want to know how to get there,” Koga said, his voice strained.
“I see.” Zakath pursed his lips, looking down at his folded hands. He lifted his eyes, meeting Koga's. Their solemness struck Koga. He said quietly, “But it is always wise to know about one's destination. Torak hid from his ugliness under that cloud bank, and he turned the very earth around Cthol Mishrak into a foul cesspool.”
“You ever been there?”
“Never? Then how do I know you're not trying to scare me off with some bullshit story? You could be making the whole thing up,” Koga scoffed.
“I am telling the truth,” Zakath replied. “Even if I wish I weren't. I'm the secular leader of Mallorea. I leave that festering wound on my country to Torak's Church. They worship it as sacred ground to the Dragon God of Angarak. I don't love my former God by any means. I feared him. The only way I'd go to Cthol Mishrak is if a Grolim had me bent backwards over one of their grisly altars. If I had to choose between being sacrificed or going to that wretched place---maybe.”
“It can't be that bad. You're exaggerating,” Koga said, snorting. “I'm not afraid of this place like you pathetic humans.”
“Koga, maybe you should listen---,” Ginta began. He bowed his head and shut his mouth as Koga glared angrily at him.
“You should be,” Zakath said firmly. He rubbed his hand across his face, looking through his splayed fingers. “You don't get it. For thousands of years, Cthol Mishrak bore the weight of Torak's malice, hatred, pain, and endless suffering. His weight was that of a God's. And then Torak tore his iron tower down in a fit of rage after Belgarath and the Alorn kings stole Cthrag Yaska from him. He destroyed Cthol Mishrak and left it to fester. But the damage was done. Torak's tainted the land forever---and those that live in the Forbidden Area are loyalists to a fault. Nothing lives there but the Hounds. No one goes there without reason.”
“I have reason to go there,” Koga said between clenched teeth. “I hear Naraku is hiding there, and I'm going to kill him for slaughtering my pack.”
“So that's it,” Zakath's expression hardened. “You're after Naraku for revenge. You most likely won't get there on your own.”
“I know that, you ass,” Koga snarled. He slammed a fist down on the chair arm. The she-wolf scrambled to the other side of the seat, her ears pinned to her head. “Look, I'm glad I could help you end that battle, but just tell me how to get to this City of Endless Night and we'll go.”
“I can't do that.”
“Why the hell not?” Koga shouted. He stood, towering over Zakath. “You'd be a dead man if not for me.”
Ginta and Hakkaku exchanged stunned glances. They whispered simultaneously, “Did he just tell Koga no?”
“Perhaps.” Zakath remained stoic, his posture stiff. “If you were meant to go there, you'd currently be with Garion's group. Instead, you are here. Besides, I need someone with your skills and knowledge. Something tells me a force larger than you or I agrees. I've learned it's far easier to accept its imposition on my plans because I'll do what it wants in the end anyways.”
“Just what is all that bullshit supposed to mean?” Koga asked, growling. He clenched and unclenched his fists. “Who the fuck is this Garion and why the fuck should I care? I've never even heard of him. Besides, you can't keep me here. You're just a weak human and if I want to leave for this City of Endless Night, how do you plan on stopping me?”
“But I can---and I will stop you.”
Ginta and Hakkaku both gasped, their eyes wide in shock as they watched the exchange. Not only had this insolent human blatantly told him he wouldn't help them get to Cthol Mishrak, Zakath had embarrassed him in front of his pack. Koga was Prince of the Eastern Tribe. Who was this Emperor of this land he'd never heard of to tell him no---more than once no less?
“Ginta, Hakkaku, leave us. Go hunt for something to eat,” Koga ordered, his anger boiling.
“Yes, Koga!” They both scrambled out of the tent, the flap snapping back in place in their hasty exit.
“What did you say!” Koga shouted, his voice vibrating with rage.
The she-wolf growled softly, crouching in the corner of the seat. Her ears were pinned tightly to her head, her hackles raised. Her green eyes warily darted between the two of them, her lips drawn back in a snarl.
“You heard me,” Zakath replied civilly. “Judging by your tail and the she-wolf, I'm guessing that you're wolf-demons, yes?”
“You---you've seen a wolf-demon before?”
“Never. But after traveling for months with a pair of dog demons and seeing you now with a wolf, I put two and two together.”
Koga glanced down at the she-wolf, his eyes meeting hers. Her ears remained flat against her head, her stance tense. She averted her gaze first, clearly showing her submission. Needing to reassure her, Koga reached over, stroking one ear.
He glanced back towards the Emperor, assessing him. So this Zakath knew Inuyasha and the strange dog demon that Koga had seen with the little girl, Rin. Just who was he?
“So you know what I am. Then you know that I can leave anytime I want. I'll take my pack, and we'll find the stupid city on our own,” Koga said, his arms crossed tightly over his chest.
“I'm afraid not.” Zakath's expression hardened, his lips forming a thin scowl. For all his politeness, the Emperor's stiff body language betrayed his exasperation. His palms gripped his knees, clenching in obvious anger. “Trust me. I can keep you from ever reaching Cthol Mishrak. This is my country, and I can have your description posted in every single town, village, and city from here to the farthest reaches of my Empire. Every single officer throughout Boundless Mallorea would harry you every single step of the way. They could tell you how to get there---only to lead you to Darshiva or Gandahar. Or, and only as a last resort you understand, I could simply hand you off to some Grolim priests. My guess is wolf-demon heart would burn just as well in offering to Torak.”
“Grolims? Whatever. You're full of shit. Even if these soldiers tried to track me down, I'm way faster than them.” Koga crossed his arms. “Like any human could cut my heart out anyways.”
“I wouldn't be so certain of that.” Zakath sighed. A weary expression settled over his features, his angular eyes narrowing. “Look, if I could hold the Godslayer's aunt, the Lady Polgara herself, hostage---along with his bride---I know I can stop a demon like you if I must. I'd rather be willing allies, but Necessity will get what it demands no matter how we do this.”
The longer they talked, the more apparent it became to Koga that he didn't intimidate this man in the slightest. This Emperor didn't seem bothered by who and what he was, either. To this Zakath, his sudden appearance on that battlefield had been routine---as if the strange and unusual happened everyday.
“Godslayer? Who the fuck is that?”
“His full name and title is Belgarion, King of Riva, Bearer of the Orb of Aldur, and Overlord of the West,” Zakath answered. “The last time anyone went to Cthol Mishrak willingly, it was him. He went there to kill Torak. It was a fated meeting between the Child of Light and the Child of Dark. Light won.”
“You're making all of this up,” Koga accused.
“You know that I'm not.” Zakath's dark eyes locked on Koga's. “You could tell if I was lying. You'd smell it. Garion killed Torak.”
Koga's eyes narrowed. He inhaled Zakath's scent, taking a deep breath. No deceit marred it. Either this man was delusional, or he was telling the absolute truth.
“This strange man-thing is telling the truth,” the she-wolf stated quietly. Her eyes remained wary, her posture cautious.
“So you're telling the truth. Big deal. What does this Garion or Godslayer or whatever the fuck you call him have to do with me? I'm after Naraku, not some already dead God.” Koga sat down with a grunt, his arms crossed over his chest. “I need to get there if I'm going to get revenge for my pack. I don't have time for some bullshit story about some stupid dead God.”
“Ah. Yes. Your revenge.” Zakath smiled, the expression icy. “I've been where you are right now, you know.”
“You have no idea how I feel, bastard,” Koga said, growling.
“You don't know me, Koga. They used to call me Kal Zakath, Dread Emperor of Mallorea. I used to have a highly inflated ego---Kal means King and God, after all. The dread was just for my rather, shall we say, glacial personality---and extreme cruelty. I once had King Gethell of Mishrak ac Thull flogged just to prove a point.” Zakath shook his head, a rueful glint in his haunted eyes. “You see, I spent twenty years trying to get revenge on the mad King of Cthol Murgos. Taur Urgas wronged me in a most unspeakable manner.” Anger boiled in his dark eyes, making his olive skin darker. It made Zakath's face harsh, borderline malicious. “I vowed I would kill him someday. I would wipe him and the whole of Murgodom from the map. But my revenge---like yours---was never accomplished. Oh, that crazy mad-man is dead, but I didn't kill him. Someone else got to do that.”
“Didn't that piss you off? If someone else got to kill Naraku, I'd be fucking pissed,” Koga said.
“Believe me. I was.” Zakath chuckled softly. “Sure, I was denied the pleasure of destroying the crazed Taur Urgas, but I decided I'd destroy his kingdom and wipe that vile race out just to soothe my frustrations. Until Garion stopped me, that is. As Overlord of the West, he didn't want me tearing up any part of the western continent---even stinking Cthol Murgos. When it came out that King Urgit was half Alorn, well, he fell directly under Garion's protection. I was forced to abandon that, too.”
“I think you just don't have the balls to stand up to this Garion fucker,” Koga said, snorting in derision. Absently, he stroked the she-wolf's shoulder. It earned him a gentle lick.
“Oh, I wouldn't say that. At one time, I thought we were fated to face off and determine a victor---only one of us could reign supreme in the world. Power was everything, after all.” Zakath sighed softly, shaking his head. “You see, I was on the opposite end of a conversation like the one we're having right now. I was once just like you---until the truth was revealed to me. Isn't that right, Garion?”
“You know, Zakath, I think Beldin still has a copy of the letter you wrote to Taur Urgas somewhere in his tower. He's rather proud of that keepsake.” From the corner, a shadowy figure emerged. A sandy-haired man joined Zakath, his plain face serious. Power radiated off of him, making his blue eyes glow eerily. He said, his tone amused, “If I remember it correctly, we had a huge shouting match---one that I won rather handily, I might add.”
“Braggart,” Zakath said, fondness in his voice.
Koga jumped to his feet, staring at the man in wonder. This man appeared hazy, as if transparent. The wolf-prince felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Was this Garion even human? Koga growled softly, his hackles raised and his tail swishing wildly.
“What the fuck? He doesn't have a scent!”
“Oh. Sorry about that.” A boyish smile crossed Garion's face. “See, I'm not really here. It's just my shadow. I knew Zakath would need my assistance in persuading you, but I can't just leave the group on the way to Ashaba. So, next best thing?”
“Shadow?” Koga asked, his blood running cold. This being exuded such raw power. His legs trembled with the need to flee.
“It's usually a Grolim parlor trick, but I've found it useful once or twice. Grandfather will berate me later, but it won't be the first or last time.” Garion glanced toward the she-wolf, inclining his head politely. He said, his tone respectful, “Well met, little sister. One hopes the hunt has treated you well.”
Koga blinked, shocked when he realized that this shadow man had spoken in wolf.
The she-wolf bowed her head in submission. She replied, “One is pleased to meet you, revered pack-leader. The hunt has been fair.”
Koga sputtered, stunned. It felt like meeting the wolf-woman all over again. He shouted, “Who the fuck are you?”
“I'm Belgarion, King of Riva,” Garion replied. He stepped closer, face to face with Koga. “I'm here to tell you what Zakath said is true. You can't go to Cthol Mishrak. You're needed here.”
“I don't give a fuck who you say you are. You're just a shadow. He's just a human,” Koga said. He crossed his arms and glared defiantly. “You don't impress me. Obviously, you're a trick. I've never even heard of you and this Torak asshat.”
“You sure are a stubborn one, aren't you?” Garion sighed. “Takes one to know one, I guess. Now I understand why Grandfather gets so frustrated. I wish it didn't have to be this way.”
Garion reached behind his back, drawing a monstrous blade. It flickered a brilliant blue, igniting. Its radiance cast ultramarine shadows throughout the tent. Garion held the fiery sword aloft. The sword's aura engulfed the shadowy figure, making him seem solid. Power crackled around Garion, making him appear larger and terrifying. His eyes locked on Koga's, pinning him in place.
His voice became hollow, booming with authority. “Hear me, Koga, Prince of the Wolf-Demon tribe, for this man you see before you is my instrument---the one foretold to be the Godslayer. I, the Purpose of the Universe, have need of your assistance. If you should take up the tasks I lay before you, young wolf-demon, you shall be well rewarded. Turn away from revenge. If you do not, you will only meet your end. Do you understand?”
Koga trembled, clenching his fists to his sides. He averted his eyes, unable to take Garion's penetrating gaze. “How---how do I know you're not just a trick? How do I know you're not lying?”
A suffering sigh escaped Garion's lips. “Koga, I am no trick. I am the one that stopped Inuyasha from outright killing you. Why would I harm you now?”
Koga gasped, his head snapping up. “What do you mean you stopped Inuyasha? How do you know about that? You weren't even there.”
“I was there---in a way.” A soft chuckle rumbled from Garion's chest. “You know, it took a lot to stop Inuyasha. He doesn't like you very much.”
“Well, I don't like that fucking mutt.”
“I gathered that.”
This new presence felt immense. It felt endless and old. This entity crackled with overwhelming power. It dwarfed anything he had ever encountered before. Koga lifted his eyes, meeting Garion's. The longer their gazes met, the more Koga felt his will begin to weaken. His stubborn drive to fight ebbed away. Instead, Koga's will became its will.
“Do you understand?” Garion's hollow voice asked dryly.
“Yes,” Koga whispered.
“Good. I'm glad we could come to an understanding.” A small smile crossed his face. “Koga, I need you to work with Zakath of your own free will. If you choose not to, I won't punish you---you'll be punishing yourself. No, you're not my instrument against Naraku, but you do have your part to play. You're the only one that knows anything about Kagura. She's the one that did the actual slaughtering of your pack. Call this a compromise.”
“You---you know about that wind bitch?” Koga asked, stunned.
Garion laughed softly. “Of course I do. I must say, your language is as colorful as my current instrument's. I need to know, Koga, will you work with Zakath? Will you do whatever he requires? Will you take on the tasks I lay before you?”
Koga bowed his head. “Yes.”
“You agree of your own free will?”
“Done and Done!” A beaming smile crossed Garion's face, making his blue eyes twinkle. “Trust me, Koga. It'll be worth it. I'm glad we could come to this arrangement.”
The Rivan King shuddered, the overwhelming presence disappearing. The young man blinked and shook his head. He took on a shadowy appearance again---and while he didn't feel as powerful as that other entity, Koga sensed a level of puissance that boggled his mind. Garion let the blue light of his sword flicker out. He slid it back into the sheath behind his neck.
“That always wears me out,” Garion said. He patted Zakath on the shoulder. “I'm glad I could help.”
Zakath shook his head, a fond smile crossing his lips. “You'll never cease to amaze me, Garion. Every time you do something like that, I'm glad I never went to war with you.”
“You and me both.” Garion grinned, the expression boyish. He looked towards the she-wolf and said in wolfish, “One hopes you'll keep an eye on him, little sister.”
“One will do one's best, revered pack-leader,” the she-wolf replied, bowing her head.
The Rivan King outstretched his hand towards Koga. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Koga. I hope next time that it'll be in person.”
Koga stared at the shadowy hand. He clasped it, finding it surprisingly solid. “Yeah. You, too, Godslayer.”
“Garion. Just Garion.” He smiled, flickered, and disappeared.
“Well, now that we're on the same page, Koga, how about you tell me more about Kagura over some supper?” Zakath asked, his tone light.