Child of Eidolon

Chapter 1. 'Rescue'

 

The road leading south from Boundary was, at best, poorly maintained. That is to say it was a pothole-filled rut full of sucking mud and opaque brown puddles of unexpected, ankle-twising depth. There were much better roads located further inside the Empire but these were patrolled by the armed forces deployed at its edge in case any of the Independent Kingdoms (more commonly and less politically correctly referred to as the Renegade Kingdoms within the Empire itself) should decide to try and claim any of these much-disputed outer lands.

The Independent Kingdoms were something of a thorn in the side of the Empire. Millennia ago, for times change little on a world where magic rather than technology reigns, when the human races first thought they had conquered Caevalonia, the Old Empire (as it is now called) covered almost the entire continent. Even during this time certain kingdoms within the Empire felt dissatisfied with centralised rule. This sense of unrest generally increased proportionally with distance from the hub of the Empire, Fortune City, resting place of the Emperor’s royal rump itself, right up in the north of Caevalonia. History records uprisings quickly quashed as some of these sought, unsuccessfully, independence.

Then came the Dragon Wars and the collapse of the mighty Old Empire at the claws of just a handful of dragons.

After the dark times of the Demon Incursions that followed, the Empire was slowly rebuilt from its tattered ruins. Though greatly diminished compared to the Old Empire it was still the strongest of Caevalonia’s nations. Over the centuries it slowly spread like a giant phagocyte, engulfing outlying kingdoms that had thought themselves independent until it reached the point where its advance was halted by fierce retaliation from those kings who did not wish to swear fealty and pay their taxes to the Emperor. Some of these wars were still ongoing, others had settled into uneasy truces, whilst other kingdoms not in contact with the Empire’s boundaries had their own little ongoing dramas, often stemming from their borders encroaching on the territories of Caevalonia’s animalistic ‘half-beast’ native species.

“But they were there first.” said Soul, thinking this terribly unfair. Shade had been recounting this potted history as their mounts splashed and snorted their way through the aftermath of the previous day’s and night’s weather. The heavy clouds that had threatened more rain earlier that day had dispersed without incident and now the two were enjoying the warm spring sunshine as it filtered through the narrow gap between the trees that formed their path.

“Yeah but since when did that bother humans? They’re bad enough at ousting indigenous peoples of their own kind, never mind other species.”

“Sometimes I’m glad I’m not exactly human anymore.” She replied ruefully.

Not sharing Soul’s opinion, Shade said nothing. He spent a lot of effort trying to cling to what remained of his humanity: to be human again was a distant dream.

They rode on in silence for a while, listening to the unending murmur of the forest around them: the whispering rustle of spring’s new leaves, the call of birds and the occasional scampering of small animals in the undergrowth by the roadside. After a while Soul asked not for the first time that day, “I wonder where Black’ is. Do you think we should have gone back for him?”

Shade stared at the back of the Steed’s armoured neck, watching the warped reflections of clouds and sky in the steel plates as he thought about this. The day was wearing on, it would be sunsdown in a couple of hours and he was starting to have doubts about his earlier decision to leave their machiavellian companion to his own devices so far as catching up was concerned. Although Shade had made peace with his own anger at Blackjack during the night, he was still the one who had walked off leaving the dracosvulf behind and he was not overly enthusiastic about the idea of swallowing his pride and going back to look for him: it would only make Blackjack feel superior.

Although he refused to admit it to himself, a small part of Shade’s mind questioned whether this disinclination to back down came from him, or from his ‘lodger’, Raven. But the fiend had been silent for days now and there was a small, dark corner of his consciousness that seemed to think this unusual coldness came from within. Either way, this was not a good thing. The Daemonslayer shook his head then replied to Soul, hoping his voice would drown out this disturbing self-scrutiny.

“No. He can take care of himself.”

Soul chuckled, not picking up on the slightly too casual voice Shade spoke in, “Heh, yeah. If anyone can look out for their own interests, it’s our Blackjack.”

 

Speaking of which, several miles down the road…

The treetops swayed like an emerald sea in waves of movement governed by the will of the wind. All shades of the spring greens of new leaves intermingled with darker evergreens their colour made radiant by the golden light of the late afternoon sunshine, fluttered and rippled a few feet below Knightmare’s great hooves. With his rider recovered enough from last night’s hangover to withstand greater movement the dark unicorn proceeded at a sufficiently gentle canter. The air burst into unnatural flame were his burning hooves trod and hanging behind in fiery hoof prints, blown and extinguished by the wind a few paces behind. He beat his great wings lazily; not needing to invoke much effort to stay aloft for the rules of physics meant little to a magical being such as him.

Looking down Knightmare was able to catch glimpses of the darkness of the forest floor through gaps in its verdant crown. He snorted a great cloud of smoke and sparks from his nostrils and tossed his head in scorn against all earthbound creatures.

“Knightmare! What did I tell you about sudden movements?” Knightmare rolled his eyes and snorted again, this time in the equine equivalent of a sigh. He considered pointing out to Blackjack that it was his own damn fault he had a hangover, but chose not to bother.

“I thought you were feeling better.” The small red dragon that had been circling dark unicorn and rider swooped in close, regarding the dracosvulf with his beady black eyes.

“I am. More or less.”

“So, what’re you going to say to Shade and Soul when we catch up to them?”

Blackjack paused, taking his hand from clutching his stomach to scratch absently at the back of his neck, his grey short-furred fingers disappearing into the thick black hair of his mane, “Probably nothing. Shade’s reasonable: he’s probably realised by now I had my reasons for what I did.”

“Perhaps, but what about Soul?” Garth asked, hovering just ahead of Knightmare. He noted Blackjack did not look too pleased at being questioned whilst Knightmare’s slightly mad red eyes glinted with amusement at his rider’s discomfort.

Blackjack shrugged, shuffling his leathery wings “It’ll be okay.” He shifted his gaze from the hatchling-sized dragon to the landscape before them. An edge had appeared to the forest, bordering a stretch of broad grassy meadow about two miles long and a mile across to where the forest resumed at the foot of a hill. A narrow sunken river split it and there was a small group of buildings on its near side. Blackjack was happy to change the subject “We’d better land.” He said, reaching into a pocket to check the Ring of Illusion was still there, “There might be someone I can ask how long ago the others passed through here but I don’t think the country bumpkins’ll be that receptive to a flying horse.”

Both Garth and Blackjack received a telepathic message in response to that, leaving them with the strong impression of the word ‘Unicorn!’ in their minds as the white glow around Knightmare’s horn faded. Blackjack just smirked, knowing full well that Knightmare objected to being compared to what he considered a lowly animal. He paused a moment, “Or an obvious dragon for that matter. Isn’t it time you got back to Uth Nagor? You were supposed to be watching the place for me.”

Garth muttered something then said, “Fine, I know when I’m not wanted.” He gave a theatrical sniff, climbed a few meters into the air then simply popped out of existence. Blackjack eyed the space where the diminutive dragon had hovered moments before, quietly envying the ease with which the runt could use his inherent magic before returning his attention to current events.

Knightmare ceased ‘walking’ on the air and let his wings do all the work, gliding with stately grace into the narrow gap in the trees that marked the road and landed with surprising lightness for his heavy build.

Slit pupils dilating greatly as they were swallowed from the bright sunshine into the cloying shade of the close set trees, Blackjack’s eyes quickly became accustomed to the cool gloom. Peering at the muddy mess that was the ‘road’, he could just make out the great paw prints and hoof marks of Soul and Shade’s respective mounts.

He urged Knightmare into a trot. The dire unicorn snorted in distaste at having to splash through the sucking mud when he could have flown instead but Blackjack shushed him, patting the side of his muscular neck. The gesture was not so much aimed at quieting Knightmare’s temper as it was to tell him just to be quiet to let his rider listen. The forest around them was still and oppressively silent. No birds had uttered alarm calls from the looming trees during Knightmare’s descent and as the two looked out into the dark bowers nothing moved.

“It’s a bit quiet, don’t you think?” he remarked after a minute or two.

Knightmare whickered softly in concurrence, feeling uneasy too. Blackjack was just about to shift position so his hand was within quick-grabbing reach of his axe when they rounded a turn in the road and almost rode straight into another two riders. Shade and Soul.

 

“Hi.” Shade was the first to speak.

“Hail” replied Blackjack coolly, “Had a good night, F’lair?”

“No. You?” he sounded almost sullen.

Soul looked from one to the other. She was as annoyed with Blackjack as Shade but even so she still had to hide her amusement at the male Daemonslayers’ attitudes: they looked like a pair of sulking children who had been told to make friends again by a stern teacher.

“Yeah. It was great… I love having the shit beaten out of me by people whose problem’s lie with you.” Blackjack’s caustic tone could have eaten through solid steel.

This seemed to shake off Shade’s mood, “What? You had a run-in with Kutsin?” he asked, concerned.

“I thought you were looking rough. Well, rougher than usual that is,” interjected Soul with a small smile.

Blackjack gave her A Look before replying to Shade, “He won’t be bothering you again.” Or if he does, it’ll only be the bits that weren’t externally digested, he thought.

Shade was quiet a moment then just shrugged, “The world’s better off without him. Thanks, I guess.”

A brief silence fell, heavy with the topic everyone seemed to be avoiding. Blackjack regarded Shade and Soul, wondering if either of them would broach the subject of his ‘dishonesty’ because he was damned if he would. The silence became increasingly uncomfortable until he suddenly said, in an affectedly nonchalant tone, “It’s very quiet around here, don’t you agree?” inwardly thinking ‘wusses’.

Shade nodded, trying not to look too relieved to have a new subject to clutch hold of: a life raft in the sea of impending arguments and rankled feelings, “Yeah. That’s why we stopped here, actually. I know it usually goes a bit quiet around us, but never this much. Something’s up.” He cast his gaze warily about the close forest as he spoke but the still shadows yielded nothing.

“Then we’d better proceed with caution. I caught sight of a hamlet or a farmstead up ahead, maybe there’s something there.” said Blackjack as they started off down the mucky road again together. The only sound was the faint clinking of the Steed’s bridle and armour and the thudding and sucking of their mounts’ footsteps. The shadow of the previous night’s little ‘revelation’ still hung heavy in the air but all three of them were happy to avoid its promise of further confrontation for now.

As the Daemonslayers rounded the next bend the edge of the forest finally came into view. The woods to either side became noticeably lighter as they approached the bright oblong of freedom from the close, overhanging branches but they still remained eerily silent.

Blackjack suddenly frowned and cocked his head, ears pricked forward “You hear that?” he asked, thinking he had just heard the clank of metal striking metal, though greatly subdued by distance.

“Hear what?” asked Soul, straining her long, fay-like ears to hear anything beyond the group’s own sounds.

A male, human scream cut through the air. Though some distance away the pain and terror it conveyed was loud and clear. “Sounds like someone’s in trouble, come on!” Not waiting to see if Blackjack and Soul would follow Shade spurred the Steed into a gallop, splashing muddy water all about with each hoof beat. Soul followed immediately, Gor’s lighter footfalls barely disturbing the water.

“What’s wrong with letting people help themselves?” Blackjack asked of no one in particular before reluctantly urging Knightmare on.

The first out of the trees, Shade charged past the farmstead. The buildings looked empty and abandoned, the overgrowth of wildflowers and grasses suggesting they had been in this state for a couple of winters at least. Beyond them lay a wide, gently rolling expanse of meadowland bisected by a sharp dip at the bottom of which he assumed lay a small river. On the other side the source of the cry was clearly evident: Five humans on frightened horses, a hunting party by the looks of it, were being pursued by a group of black, ragged-cloaked and hooded riders on gaunt, equally black steeds. Shade recognised them instantly: shadow riders. In their wake lay the bodies of two more human riders and their unfortunate horses.

“Hya!” he spurred the Steed to gallop yet faster but even as he thundered toward the stricken humans, a shadow rider caught up to one who had become separated from the others. There was a brief clash of steel as wraith-like figure and human crossed swords but the demon was too fast, driving its curved, wickedly-gleaming blade up into the man’s ribcage, slicing beneath the his poorly-aimed thrust. There was a gasp of pain and the man crumpled then slowly fell from his jittering mount.

The demon’s vicious black horse looked down at its victim whilst its rider stared impassively ahead at the three remaining humans and their attackers. Then the drumming of hoof beats approaching from behind caught its attention. Shade drew the Fireblade with a sharp ring of steel and with barely a thought willed the potent magical fire within the ancient weapon to life. The shadow rider turned and started to charge, raising its own blade but to no avail. Not even slowing, Shade charged past the demon, swinging the Fireblade in a lethal, searing arc that left a trail of fire flickering in the air. The shadow rider’s blade melted an instant before even touching the magical sword and, unimpeded, the Fireblade sliced cleanly through the rider’s midriff. With a grating, unholy scream the creature’s cloaked body dispersed like tattered rags thrown to the mercy of the winds.

Not far behind, Blackjack clapped a hand over his eyes and sighed a curse of exasperation, “Same mistake every bloody time” he said, then at the top of his harsh voice yelled “Go for the horse, you idiot! The horse is the true demon; not the rider!” Even as he spoke the fluttering rags were piecing together to reform the demonic horse’s ‘rider’.

“Oh, right,” Shade yanked on the Steed’s reigns, making it stop so hard it reared on its hind legs to turn sharply to face the unvanquished foe now charging again to attack. He kicked his heels against the Steed’s flanks to charge again and raised his sword. Like knights at a joust demon and Daemonslayer thundered head-on. His target being horse, not rider, Shade’s chance to strike came first and this time his well-aimed swing seared clean through the horse’s neck. The rider, about to thrust with its blade, dropped the weapon and screamed once more in its awful voice as the headless beast started to tumble forward, carried by its momentum. The dreadful sound was choked off into silence as the shadow rider – both steed and wraith, vaporised and dissipated like so much dust thrown against the wind. Stopping and turning more slowly this time, Shade surveyed his handiwork before it completely vanished, “That’s more like it,” he smiled.

At which point Soul and Blackjack overtook him, “What’re you dithering for?” Blackjack called over his shoulder as he passed, “We’re not done yet!”

“Right” Shade said quietly, once more spurring his mount to a gallop. By now the four remaining humans had realised newcomers had joined the fray and one of them, in a purple cloak, stopped fleeing and turned his mount to fight. Too far away to have heard Blackjack’s reminder to Shade, he readied to engage in hand-to-hand combat with his pursuer.

“No don’t!” Soul called out, seeing what was about to happen. Sensing his mistress’s urgency, Gor closed the distance between them and the combatants in the space of a few heartbeats, his feline agility carrying them with deceptive ease across the uneven terrain but even this did not get her there soon enough. The clash of steel against steel was followed by a brief gasp of pain, drowned out by the great cat’s roar as, at Soul’s instruction, Gor launched at the shadow rider claws unsheathed and great teeth bared. The human’s mare skittered away with a frightened whinny, nearly throwing its rider as the sheer power of the impact snapped the demon’s neck.

With an unholy wail the beast started to vaporise, but not before its rider made one last strike with its cruel blade at Soul: a wasted effort which she parried easily with her own sword. Gor huffed and snorted and shook his head as the black cloud of dust swirled about his face, carried upon some ethereal wind. Soul started to turn him to go after another demon but in the corner of her eye caught site of the man she had just rescued clutching his arm in pain: he had been cut by the demon blade. “Not good,” she thought as she glanced away out over the meadow to review the state of play. Shade was chasing down one shadow rider, with another on his tail. As for Blackjack, well, he was not in view but she could see Knightmare trotting unhurriedly along the edge of the riverbank a short distance from a drifting cloud of black dust. Something was flying through the cloud, flashing the colour of steel as it caught the sun and by squinting hard Soul just had time to identify it as the Unbinder before it dropped out of view into the tall rushes and grass of the bank. She smiled: it looked like the guys were taking care of themselves so she turned back to help the stranger.

 

Using Knightmare as a lure, Blackjack had hidden in the dip of the river waiting for a nearby shadow rider to attack. It was the largest of the group; a trait easily identifying it as the leader. Shadow riders were interested not only in consuming the souls of ordinary mortals, but in ensnaring those of creatures of a magical nature as well. Concealed by a clump of tall rushes he crouched silently, battleaxe clutched in both hands, the chill water of the river’s edge lapping gently at his ankles and tail, boots leaking slightly. His notched ears twitched, alert, listening to the surrounding hoof beats, shouts and cries of the skirmish, waiting for Knightmare to warn him of the shadow rider’s approach. The warning came as the customary rush of images and emotions that pieced together to show the fast-approaching dark form of the demon.

Charging at the tempting bait, the shadow rider launched itself across the river with a powerful leap, completely oblivious of the figure hunkered down in the foliage beneath its airborne path. As it passed over Blackjack swung upward with a snarl, plunging the axe head straight into the demon steed’s belly. It screamed as its momentum buried the lethal half-moon of one of the twin blades further into its body, wrenching the weapon from its killer’s grasp even as its corporeal form became dust.

“Shit!” rubbing his wrists, which had almost been dislocated, Blackjack watched his axe gracefully rotating end over end as it completed the arc the evaporating body had been making. It fell through the fading dust and thudded into the long grasses on the brook’s far bank, lost from view. Abandoning his cover he waded into the freezing water retrieve it. About halfway across the river the water became waist-high with a strong current making the going slow and it was then that he heard heavy hoof beats splashing through the shallows upstream. Turning around Blackjack saw a second charging shadow rider approach and this time used a more colourful curse-word, one most people could not even pronounce.

He tensed flexing his claws and lifting his tail above the water, ready to whip it round if he had to. It was too late to try to take off, and the water and sucking mud would not help, nor could he readily manoeuvre. He narrowed his eyes as it bore down on him; if he was lucky he could get at the demon horse’s throat before the rider could strike him with its blade. If he was lucky. It was almost upon him; Blackjack drew a breath then crouched, ready to at least get his attack in first when a huge black shape dropped from the sky between him and the demon.

Veiny wings extended threateningly, Knightmare reared up before the foe. With a rushing intake of breath he blew a great stream of roaring fire at the demon, forcing it to back up against the steep riverbank. Clouds of hissing, spitting steam billowed up where the water instantly vaporised only to have their twisting fronds torn apart as Knightmare charged at the demon through them.

With a deafening multi-layered sound between a whinny and a roar the dark unicorn reared up once more, iron-hard hooves pawing the air as they lashed at the demon horse. There came a satisfyingly heavy thud as one flailing hoof caught the beast’s head, knocking it sharply to one side with a spray of blood. It staggered, stunned, then tripped and fell on the uneven ground trapping its unholy rider by the leg as it landed on its flank. Tossing his head and snorting sparks Knightmare followed it down, dropping back to all fours and smashing his front hooves down onto the demon steed’s head as it hit the ground. He stomped mercilessly until the creature’s skull cracked with a dull meaty popping sound. With death both demon and rider evaporated as the others of their kind had fallen; first their flesh turned to dust to be carried away on some ethereal wind, then the skeleton crumbled to nothing.

Satisfied the enemy was dead Knightmare swung his great head to and fro looking for his master. He saw him about ten metres downstream, soaking wet and just getting to his feet in the shallows where he had been carried by the current after being knocked over by Knightmare’s tail.

As the dire unicorn trotted up, the dripping Daemonslayer gave him a look somewhere between being pleased and annoyed, then hauled himself up onto his steed’s back and gestured at the running battle in the meadow before them, “Let’s not let the others have all the fun, eh?”

 

With a groan the injured man started to slump forward, at the same time slipping sideways from his saddle. Fortunately Soul was there to catch him and lowered him carefully to the ground where he lay breathing fast and shallow, strands of his auburn hair sticking to his already clammy forehead. Soul looked up to see the final two shadow riders angling in toward her but when Blackjack and Knightmare thundered into their path they veered sharply away and made for the tree line with the cursed dragon in hot pursuit. Too far away to catch up with Blackjack, who seemed to be having a job keeping up with the fleeing shadow riders anyway, Shade rode up to the Soul instead.

The three remaining members of the decimated hunting party galloped up, dismounting once they reached them. There was a dark-haired man, possibly in his mid-thirties with a close-cropped beard, long hair tied back in a ponytail and wearing the clothes of a huntsman: he seemed to be issuing directions to the other two men, but his tone was deferential, as though he were giving instructions to superiors. On closer inspection the other two men, one older and one younger than he, were dressed in much finer, more intricate garb of the bright gaudy and expensive colours often favoured by nobility. Looking at them, Shade decided it would not even be worth laying money down on a bet that they were aristocrats whilst the more plainly dressed man was their hunts leader. The two nobles looked pale and shaken, and stared mutely at the two Daemonslayers. Only the bearded man appeared to have his wits about him, stepping up so he was blocking the way between Shade and the casualty.

“We are grateful for your aid, strangers, but who are ye and what is your business on the Royal Road?”

Soul and Shade exchanged glances, then Shade spoke, “We’re Daemonslayers.” He pointed at the distant forms of Knightmare and the two demons, now right near the far tree line, “and that is our business. My usename is Shade, this is Soul and he,” Shade pointed again before letting his arm fall to his side, “is Blackjack. Look, if your man there’s been injured by one of those shadow riders he’s going to need our help!” he said urgently.

The man regarded first him, then Soul with wary eyes, taking their measure. Then he nodded slowly, glancing at the distant winged figure “That creature you ride with seems very dragonlike to me, but your actions speak true.”

Then the older of the nobles interrupted, “Are you going to let these strangers near the Prince, Hawker?” The huntsman flinched a little. In his injured state with so little protection, it was easy to guess ‘Hawker’ was trying to avoid letting on that this man was so important. Before he could reply Soul spoke up from where she had knelt down beside the prince, as he had stirred back to consciousness.

“Was this cut caused by that black rider’s blade?” she asked him, carefully lifting away the rich, torn velvet on his sleeve to better inspect the wound.

The prince looked at her blankly for a moment, then nodded. When he spoke he sounded groggy, “Yes. ‘tis only a nick, but it bleeds so much!” his brow furrowed with a perplexed expression.

She bit her lip; she had read up on shadow riders back in the great library at Uth Nagor’s Ziggurat and none of the information she held on them was good. She looked around the remains of the hunting party “Do any of you know of a wizard nearby? Unless this wound is cauterised with magefire he’ll be dead within the hour!”

Her dire words were met with gasps and looks of shook. Then Hawker spoke, “Castle Aldoc is just over that rise,” he indicated the hill ahead of them, its silhouette made jagged by the crown of forest. “We have a Court Wizard there.”

“How far?” asked Shade looking into the bright afternoon distance beyond the hill. Great clouds, their edges gilded by the light of Mired, climbed in the skies there.

“Five miles hence, Shade.”

The blonde Daemonslayer nodded, pursing his lips thoughtfully as he looked at the Prince, gauging how fast the injured prince might be able to ride in his weakened condition, “Then we have to hurry.”

One of the noblemen suddenly spoke up, looking incredulous and addressing Shade, even though Soul had shown herself to be the one with the information, “How? It’s barely more than a scratch!”

“The blood will not clot. As well as bleeding him dry, the wound itself will poison him unless it is magically treated.” said Soul, letting some indignation creep into her voice.

At the approach of heavy hoof-beats, the group turned as one to see Blackjack approach and looks of uncertainty crossed the noblemen’s faces. Even obviously tired and breathing heavily Knightmare and his rider made a fearsome sight to behold. The spire of the great horn sprouting from the blackness of Knightmare’s forelock glinted with pure silver in the afternoon sunlight, its brilliant gleam a stark contrast with the blood red spines that adorned the rest of the beast’s backbone and swishing draconic tail. The red scales of Knightmare’s underbelly and the front of his neck were slightly beaded with sweat running from the surrounding black fur. The elder of the nobles took a step back as Knightmare unfurled his great wings, briefly blocking the sunlight, although Mired was still visible as a glow through the green membranes, then he folded them more comfortably making his rider visible.

They shrank away still further when Blackjack jumped off the dark unicorn and stepped up to his fellows.

“What are you?” Quavered the elder noble.

“A Daemonslayer. Now stand aside, old human.” The man stammered then stepped out of the way, allowing Blackjack to reach the prince. He looked down at the wound Soul revealed by briefly lifting the bloodied staunch cloth. Without it the wound bled freely and profusely. The skin around it was red and angry whilst the edges of the cut were darkening to a gangrenous black, “Shadow Rider?” he asked her.

Soul nodded, “He’s got just under an hour. We need to get the Prince back to his castle. There’s a wizard there.” She said quietly, emphasising the ‘P’ word in the hope Blackjack might be at least vaguely respectful.

Blackjack knelt down and took the hem of the prince’s lavish cloak, “If you’ll excuse this, your highness.” With a sharp, violent movement he tore a strip off and handed it to Soul, “A tourniquet’s the best we can do right now.” Then he stood up and addressed the bearded man, sensing by his composure that although no aristocrat, he was in charge here, “You have to get going. Two of the demons got away so you don’t want to be lingering here.”

Shade interrupted him, getting the feeling Blackjack was not about to be too helpful, “Hawker, you’re still in danger with those things at large. We’ll escort your party back to the castle if you like.” A frown crossed Blackjack’s furless face and Shade fully expected his friend to make some remark about not being an escort service, but the dracosvulf remained surprisingly silent.

The huntsman nodded slowly as he reached his decision, “Aye. That would be for the best.” He and Shade bent down and helped the prince to his feet, then up onto his beautifully groomed chestnut mare. Already he looked pale and a thin sheen of sweat covered his face. Hawker then addressed the noblemen, “My lords, if you could ride closely either side of Prince Irik… in case he falls?”

“Yes, yes of course.” The elder agreed readily and quickly mounted. The other remained silent and barely even nodded in acquiescence of the huntsman’s deferential request. He eyed the Daemonslayers with a suspicious glance, especially as he cast his gaze back at Blackjack who had taken up the rear guard. Blackjack was busy looking out into the forest, scowling at the knowledge the escaped shadow riders were out there. However, Knightmare saw the nobleman’s look and tossed his head dismissively, snorting out a great cloud of smoke and sparks, some of which landed on his mount’s rump, causing it to whinny and dance to one side, nearly unseating him.

From his flanking the far left Shade watched the display with a quiet sigh, wondering not for the first time at how Blackjack and Knightmare simply could not be taken anywhere! He looked across at Soul and she just rolled her eyes, pulling a face. Eager to be off, Gor was pacing a little and she reached forward, ruffling the long fur of his great shoulder-hump murmuring words of patience to the feline. Just then Hawker announced all were ready and without further ado they started off toward Castle Aldoc.

 

End of Part 1

All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2004 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul (c) Elsa Lai 2004

Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragonArt.com forum.