The sword, new and unblooded, flew into its own destruction, a blast of heat and flame from a ring on the old man's finger melting it into blobs that vaporized before they fell. Janosec took refuge from the heat behind a large cabinet against the wall, curiously undamaged. The fire came nowhere near it, and the old sorcerer turned his attention to Tarkas with no lost time.
But Tarkas had his sword out now, a length of blackness neither metal-so immune to heat-nor natural. If the evil one cast any other spells his way, the Hero did not notice them. He held it like a shield before him as he cast about in his mind for some charm that would kill one without killing all.
Janosec observed this temporary standoff, searching out his own advantage. The cabinet shielding him was large and heavy, its shelves laden with delicate figurines of some queer red crystal. But it was not flush to the wall. He pushed, but it didn't mo-By the Gods, it was bolted to the wall, there up at the top corner! Why would-? Who cares! Jamming his fingers behind the cabinet, he turned and leapt, bracing his feet against the wall and pulling. The fastenings holding the brace to the cabinet were no match for his muscles, but the ones sticking into the wall were less so. Little shreds of wood flew unnoticed as the teeth biting the wood were dragged backwards by main force.
The corner under him came loose, and he almost fell, but he stretched out swiftly and held himself off the floor, until the brace on the opposite corner stopped him. But now he had the cabinet on his side, its twisted weight pulling for him, snapping the sturdy pegs like reeds. His pull now unopposed, the china closet toppled forward, the little pieces of bric-a-brac practically leaping forward to their fate with tinkles of crystalline glee.
Tarkas leapt, not at the old sorcerer trying to destroy him, but at his nephew, just landing in the middle of the room. Also coming to a halt on the floor was the cabinet, the old man's meager strength no match for its weight as it bore him down. But Tarkas ignored that, knowing what would happen and not needing to see any of it. Just needing to be in the right spot, behind his nephew--As the cabinet exploded, the contents of the first figurines claiming their freedom. They could not affect the other ornaments, any more than they could have affected their own, but the flame they brought with them, and the air trapped under the cabinet heated by that flame, moved some of them against the wood. The wood stubbornly refused to move, causing the delicate crystal structures to break and release their own contents, which added to the force moving yet others, until all the fire elementals trapped by the old man were freed within a heartbeat, or perhaps two.
Tarkas didn't care about all the steps involved, but he knew what they were. Just as he knew that he need not fear grisly death by impalement from the fragments of wood that had once been the cabinet, for they were being consumed faster than they could fly towards him. Just as he knew that anything in the way would get flung by the force of the explosion, including his nephew and himself. And the only thing behind them was a, perhaps, stout wall.
Not very stout, he judged, as his back burst through under their combined weight. But then, a sorcerer who spent his time capturing and abusing fire elementals had little to fear from fire, or winter's cold. The Hero tensed, ignorant of what might lay beyond the confines of the shack, except for the cold hard ground, grateful that the tough material of his vest would protect him from the sticks and stones--
-Oh, that hurt. He rolled almost instantly, but his nephew's mass had still slammed into his belly like a large stone. Tarkas let him go, guiltily aware that he might come to some further injury. There were not too many stones, though, and the dirt track and ground cover friendly enough; at least Tarkas got no stones in his face, and his clutching hands brought him to a quick and leafy halt.
Janosec fared worse, from lack of both experience and divinely-inspired reflexes, but not much worse. His bulk was a match for his uncle's, but it took up much more space. Tarkas' back had split the wall of the shack, but his nephew's extremities, especially his shoulders and upper arms, took some minor damage from the splintered sides. His uncle's body cushioned the impact with the ground, and his guilt at the distressed noises puffed into his ear prompted him to move sideways, separating himself from Tarkas as they rolled across the ground.
The shack was isolated; a sorcerer would not long stomach or be stomached by civilized folk, so the approaches to the entrance were few and narrow, tracks made by the old man himself. Most of the ground over which Janosec rolled was covered with weeds, bracken, ivy, and similar ground cover. And corpses. Lots of corpses.
They were quite gooey, of course. Most of them had been charred just enough to leave their previous occupants a quick and painful death. Janosec, his eyes still shut against the explosion and its aftermath, didn't even know what they were, except that they felt slimy and smelled bad. He recoiled from the last, only to encounter another, and then another. Then he stopped, frozen into immobility by horror. He raised a shaking hand, reaching up to clear his eyes, but stopped, irrationally convinced that unspeakable gore coated it. He wiped it excessively on his leggings instead, before finally brushing imaginary dirt from his eyes. He looked about, only to find his uncle watching impassively from the patch of scrub in which he had brought himself to a halt.
"Good reflexes. At your age, I would have hit a few more." At that age, he had not yet even been a Hero, but why clutter the issue. Rising to his feet, Tarkas strode over to offer a hand up to the younger man.
Janosec just stared at it. "I don't think so," he said, pushing himself up after checking to make sure he wasn't leaning on any more corpses. "You're going to be in need of aid yourself soon."
Tarkas stared at him, then at his hand. Janosec gestured. "Scratchweed."
Now the Hero understood. The sorcerer had maintained a patch of vines outside his door that would make anyone touching it itch uncontrollably for days. Typical. He was immune to its effects, of course, but it would be better not to-Then again, maybe he should-Hmm. It would save time in many ways. "Let me clean up, then."
He turned to the ruins of the shack, still burning, and walked closer to them, fumbling in his pouch for something. Janosec watched closely, unsure what his uncle planned to do with the disc of wood he finally produced. He looked on with amazement as his uncle knelt at the very edge of the flames, thrusting the disc and the hand holding it into the fire, calling out loudly, "Trent!" He stared in shock as the smaller man stood at the sudden geyser of ... shaped flame? ... and calmly stepped into it.
After all the strange events of the last several moments, Janosec took this with bizarre calm, striding up to the column of heat as far as he dared. It buzzed loudly, in the cadences of someone talking quickly, a few words at a time. There was a darker patch, where he imagined Tarkas stood, and he reached out a hand tentatively.
The column of flame erupted, spitting out a ball of fire that enveloped him from head to foot before winking out. He jumped back, his reaction time pitifully slow as he shielded his eyes from the first missile in time for the second. So he had blinded himself and missed the collapse of the pillar as Tarkas stepped smoothly out of the embers of the shack, perfectly clean. "How do I look?"
Janosec blinked at him. "Clean. Um ... Fire spirit?" he mumbled.
Tarkas nodded. The people of Querdishan had no dealings with elementals directly, instead dealing with the priests in their temples, receiving hints, advice, and occasional orders, making rare requests. The Lords and Ladies with whom they actually communicated were outside their experience entirely, their elemental minions also completely unnoticed. But fire elementals had no Lords, no priests; their dealings with mortals were usually direct, mostly catastrophic. An ordinary household fire was not strong enough to support one, and no ordinary mortal knew their names to call them. The last mortal Janosec had known able to summon them was the old man he had just slain. "Yes."
"A good fire spirit, I guess."
Tarkas froze for a long moment, at a loss to address a statement, essentially true for all the wrong reasons, when the true reasons were either complicated, or worse, untellable. "Yes, he is," he finally replied, determined to stress that point, at least. "But Trent is--" his hands fumbled, just like his brain "-unique. Fire spirits are not usually good or bad, but the people who call them are usually bad, and everyone thinks it's the spirits' fault. It is like a tree blaming the axe that splits it rather than the man wielding the axe."
"Really?" Janosec, at least, seemed willing to listen and accept.
"No, not really," said Tarkas ironically, remembering all the times he'd been on the receiving end of these only-partial explanations. "Fire spirits have more sense than an axe, of course. But really, they just don't care." Not when elementals inhabited their elements, instead of being their elements; the flame had to exist first, before they could come, so they had no interest in what was burning, normally. But he absolutely could not say that, not even to Janosec.
Fortunately, his nephew found something else to think about. "Can they care?"
Tarkas just stared at him, then pointed over his shoulder at the burnt-out hovel before he walked carefully down the path between the patches of scratchweed. "What do you think?"