Chapter 3. 'The Hunt'
After the previous night’s damp, miserable encampment in the woods beyond Boundary, the warmth and comfort of their double bed (even though it was a little small) seemed like sheer heaven. Soul had been so tired she did not even remember her head finally hitting the pillow and was so sound asleep she did not notice when Shade got up and said he would meet her downstairs for breakfast, mistakenly thinking she was awake. So her luxurious slumber was rather abruptly ended by a hand shaking her shoulder.
“Mech! Get up!”
She grumbled a little and rolled over, sleepily hoping the annoyance would go away if she ignored it. Shade’s voice came again, “You’ll miss breakfast.” Her eyes snapped open and she sat up with a start, flinging back the opulent covers.
“Quick! Pass my trousers and a shirt; no, not that one, a nice one!” At her ‘command’ Shade delved back into the cupboard until he fished out a top to her liking from their wardrobe of loaned garments.
As Soul stumbled about trying to don every item of clothing at once whilst simultaneously looking for her boots and brushing her hair, Shade just folded his arms, lent against the wall and smiled at her, “Good morning to you too, Miss Slug-a-bed.”
Finally ready she paused at the door, doing up the final buttons of her shirt, “Are you coming too?” she asked.
He shook his head emphatically, “No way. Some of those servants kept looking at me funny.”
Soul just smiled and shook her head at her man’s little affectations as she ran off down the corridor, the danger of missing out on food speeding her steps.
“Hey! Me and Black’ will meet you in the stables. And I was serious about that!” he called after her retreating figure before she turned the corner. He closed the double doors after she was lost from sight and shrugged to himself then started to tidy up the room a bit – gathering the items he thought they would need for the day’s hunt as he went.
As he crammed the shirt he had worn the previous evening into a drawer, a sudden voice behind him almost made him jump out of his skin, “Serious about what?” it asked. Startled, he spun around with a feral growl, his fight-or-flight instincts taking hold before the familiarity of the voice penetrated, allowing him to override his reflexes.
“How did you get in here?” Shade asked Blackjack who was stood silhouetted against the bright sunlight streaming through the open balcony doors.
Before answering Blackjack deliberately looked at him, over his shoulder at the open doors behind him then back again, “I crawled up the garderobe.”
“Ha ha, listen to the funny dragon.” Muttered Shade, slamming the drawer shut before answering the original question, “I’m sure half the people at breakfast were looking at me funny and it’s not as if I’d left my flies undone or my eye patch off or anything. I was scared to have the soup in case one of the cooks had pissed in it.”
“Maybe your hair wasn’t adjusted quite to the latest fashion?” Blackjack said with a shrug. He was used to Shade’s occasional episodes of paranoia and disregarded this as one of them, “As for me, I had the ‘pleasure’ of Erile’s company for breakfast.”
Shade quirked a sly eyebrow, “Oh?” he asked, innocently.
“Ecran!” Blackjack snorted, using a particularly archaic curse-word. “Is sex all you humanoids ever think of?” He growled, looking annoyed.
“Whatever, Sy” smiled Shade. Having gathered his and Soul’s things for the day in a rucksack he stepped out into the corridor, holding the door open as Blackjack followed.
The dracosvulf was affecting an affronted look, “Let me know when you’ve decided to join in with the grown up conversation.” He said sourly.
“Aw, c’mon. I’m only ribbing you… and it’s not like you to be so defensive!” Shade shocked himself with what he said next and for a long while would wonder where so barbed a remark came from, “Besides, it’s not like me and Mech’d be surprised by you keeping your ‘little secrets’.” He nearly slapped a hand over his mouth. Too surprised by what he had just said to apologise, it was all he could do to not flinch back from the venom that flashed in Blackjack’s eyes. The incident at Boundary still stung, then. For a moment he thought he was about to get a punch in the face but in the next instant the burning look was gone and Blackjack carried on talking in a perfectly reasonable tone.
“Without giving too much away, I made some circumspect enquiries with her into the ‘blight’ of demons in Gerhan. Although, admittedly she had never encountered reports of shadow riders in the Kingdom, she said demonic activity has been going on since before she arrived here which, might I add, was long before Prince Irik was born, let alone Iance. Make of that what you will.” He said archly, holding the near-human’s gaze. The complete (apparent) absence of the vehemence he had sparked seconds previously was almost as unsettling as the swift storm of anger.
Again Shade wondered whether he ought to apologise for his remark but some mutineering part of his mind wondered why should he, considering Blackjack had earned those words. Shit, he thought, I’m starting to sound like Raven. There was no chance to dwell on this further though as, breaking off from the staring match they were confronted by the sudden appearance of the Seneschal. He was standing with his back to them, apparently inspecting a time candle the golden threads of his large robes of office glinting in the morning sun streaming through an open window.
Shade and Blackjack shared a bemused glance, “Where did he come from?” mouthed Shade.
At which point the Seneschal turned toward them and looked equally taken aback. There was something almost like fear mingled in that expression but it was concealed almost as quickly as it had appeared, “Ah. You two,” he said, voice straining to sound more pleased than surprised and dismayed to see them.
“Ah. You.” Returned Blackjack, not making an effort to disguise his bad mood.
“I was just… looking for you.”
“Well we weren’t hiding behind that candle.” Blackjack said to himself.
“Us?” said Shade more loudly, hoping to drown out his companion’s mutterings.
“Yes. His Royal Majesty King Iance sends his blessings and good wishes for your hunt today… to rid the Kingdom of those foul demons who almost robbed us of our beloved Prince Irik.” He made a chubby fist and struck it dramatically against his equally podgy palm. The gesture did not suit him all and Blackjack almost laughed out loud.
“That’s … nice of him.” Said Shade, feeling confused.
“Then we thank his Majesty,” said Blackjack, taking over, “The shadow riders will be dead by nightfall.”
“Very good. And the huntsman, Hawker, is he going with you?” asked the Seneschal, looking at them through his nostrils.
“Yes, he knows the lay of the land better than us” said Shade, uncertain about the Seneschal’s sudden desire to make polite conversation.
“Well, I must away. I have important appointments to attend.” With that he walked past between the two and quickly turned the corner to be lost from sight.
Shade and Blackjack looked at each other again, “That was… odd.” Said Shade, stating the obvious.
“I’ll say,” replied Blackjack distractedly as he looked at the time candle supported by its mirrored sconce, “We’re running late, come on.”
Not answering, Shade looked about, bemused. There were no doors on this part of the corridor, just a long stretch of richly wood-panelled wall interspersed with gilt-framed portraits and the long-dead and lamps extinguished for the day. On the other side was the outer wall of stone, featureless save for leaded windows through which the bright day’s sunlight streamed, one of which was open, allowing in the trills of birdsong from the walled gardens. He stuck his head out of it as they walked past. A sheer two-storey drop ended on a gravel path hugging the base of the wall below. To either side the wall was featureless save for the occasional window but there were no balconies or even handy plants or drainpipes to scale (although the idea of the bloated Seneschal attempting to climb such was ludicrous to say the least). Being on the castle’s eastern aspect he could see, far beyond the grand gardens, the outer battlements and the town beyond to the blue peaks of distant mountains. Shade popped his head back in but caught strands of his long hair in the latch and had to stop to untangle himself. “Where did he come from?” he mused again but Blackjack was not there to listen or answer as he had not stopped to wait. With a final suspicious glance around he quickened his pace to catch up.
When Soul reached the stables there was not yet any sign of the others so she took the opportunity to catch her breath and splash some cool water on her face at a nearby ornamental drinking fountain. Breakfast had been quiet as most people had already been and gone: up early to get good seats for the morning’s ‘entertainment’. She had taken the long way around to the stable yard to avoid the main courtyard where the execution was due to take place and, thinking herself late, had run all the way. Apparently there had been no need for that.
As she bent her head to take a sip of the pleasantly cool water, the tips of her hair slipped over her shoulders to brush the fountain pool’s surface. Just then she caught a movement in the corner of her eye and straightened up, flipping her hair back and sending a shower of droplets glimmering in the bright spring sunshine. She turned and saw Hawker, standing in the shadow by the stable door. He looked like he had been about to say something but then apparently lost all his words. “Oh. Good morning. I didn’t see you there!” she said, surprised at her self for failing to notice him sooner.
“ ‘tis ok” replied the huntsman, his usually stern face breaking into a smile behind his neatly cropped beard, “I oft get accused o’ ‘sneaking around’.”
“Well I suppose that’s a good thing when you’re a hunter,” said Soul, thinking her reply lame but not really knowing what else to say. As she regarded him it struck her that Hawker was a lot younger than he at first appeared: though his eyes seemed old their surrounding face showed little signs of the marks of age.
Getting a bit uncomfortable with the long pause she asked, “Uhm… have you seen Shade and Blackjack yet?”
Hawker shook his head. Then a thoughtful frown clouded his face and by the look of his expression this thought had been troubling him “Forgive me for saying, lady, but you keep strange company. If it is not too bold of me to ask, how did you and your man come to ride with a dracosvulf?”
Soul was surprised, “You know, most people get confused and accuse him of being a demon or a wyrd. How do you know of his kind?” she felt a bit at fault in referring to dracosvulfs as Blackjack’s ‘kind’ but then she was not about to turn around and say ‘Actually he’s a dragon called Bloodbane: you might have heard of him…?’
“Twice in my time a stray has flown up from the fell lands far south of here, beyond the World’s Spine. One, a male, I only saw after soldiers, thinking it a demon, had killed it.”
“Oh,” Soul wondered what to make of that, “And the other?” she asked, greatly intrigued.
“A female, with wings and fur blue as the azure. We came upon her on a hunt with Prince Irik. She did not speak Common Tongue but our wizard was able to communicate with her. She was seeking a place somewhere to the north but Erile did not elaborate further, saying it was ‘wizard business’.”
Soul said nothing, studying Hawker’s face. His eyes were lost in the memory and as she waited politely for him to speak further she wondered what she would say to Blackjack about this. Or if she would say anything at all for again she felt a little flare of the anger she had felt back in Boundary: if the dragon could keep important information to himself then why could not she?
“You know, it’s strange” the huntsman said, suddenly infiltrating Soul’s angry musings, “but neither o’ the beasts I saw had eyes anything alike to those o’your companion.” His piercing, probing stare was back and as Soul wondered whether he sought an answer to this from her some words of wisdom from far back in her past struck her ‘the eyes are the windows of the soul and as such they cannot change’. But then the scrutiny ended as Hawker suddenly looked past her. She followed his gaze and saw Shade and Blackjack crossing the stable yard toward them.
“We had best ready our mounts,” Hawker said, striding into the stables.
Soul followed and was soon greeted by an enthusiastic mewing quite unbecoming for a predatory feline the size and stature of Gor, “Hey, ya big lug” Soul smiled, affectionately scratching at the base of his skull. She glanced up as Blackjack went past, “Morning” she offered and was answered by a half-grunt that could have meant anything, “Someone didn’t take their happy pills this morning, methinks,” Soul whispered conspiratorially into one of Gor’s round ears. The big cat purred at the attention even though he did not understand her words,
The Steed stuck its head out of its stall as Shade approached and stepped out obediently when he took its reigns. Hawker regarded the pair with curiosity as he strapped on his mount’s bridle, “That’s the most well-behaved mount I’ve e’er seen” he commented with a smile, “It stood quiet all night, even in that armour.”
“Oh. Yeah. Steed’s like that,” replied Shade distantly as he patted the artificial warhorse’s neck.
“I fear I can nay say the same of your beast though, Blackjack. He sent the stable boy screaming for his mother last night.”
Blackjack just shrugged at Hawker’s remark. “That’s because Knightmare’s an evil-tempered brute,” he moved to pat Knighmare’s muzzle but quickly changed his mind and snatched his hand back when the dark unicorn tried to bite it. He shot the beast a reproachful glare “See what I mean? So, Hawker, you know this land well?” It was a statement but he left it hanging, compelling elaboration from the huntsman. Keeping half an eye on him, Blackjack mounted up, smacking Knightmare away when he tried again to bite.
“Aye. I’ve led the Prince on many a hunt through these lands. But ne’er for demons such as these dark riders.” He said. Soul raised her eyebrows, wondering who led the King’s hunts, then. But she did not get the opportunity to ask as Hawker continued “Where d’ye believe these creatures will be found?” he asked looking searchingly at each Daemonslayer in turn.
Shade answered, “At dawn and dusk shadow riders tend to linger close to roads and forest clearings - places they will find prey. The rest of the time they keep to dark places, preferably deep forests and especially in hidden dales and hollows.”
“What about caves?”
Shade gave Hawker a strange half-smile, “Nah, they’re not stupid: Shadow Riders know they’re likely to find worse things than they away from the suns.”
Hawker maintained a studied expression as the dire werewolf spoke, nodding a little as his mind worked quickly with the information given, referring to the detailed mental map he kept of the entire kingdom, “I know of a few such places,” he said at length, “Gerhan is nay a vast kingdom and it will take us no more than two full days at most to visit them all. If your mounts are up to long distances…?”
“They’re used to it,” said Soul with a smile as she joined them. She had lead Gor on foot into the yard where the others already waited.
“I didnae doubt it,” replied Hawker with an equally warm expression.
“One day would be better,” said Blackjack darkly, thinking on last night’s exchanges, “Take us to the nearest such place to where Iri- The Crown Prince was attacked.”
Hawker nodded and swung up into the saddle of his piebald mare, “As ye wish. Tell me though, how can ye be so sure they’ be so close by? After a defeat such as yesterday I would think them to have flown this land.”
Blackjack shook his head, “Shadow riders are vindictive bastards. Though they may flee a losing battle, once they’ve licked their wounds they will seek vengeance for their fellows: they’ll be around. With any luck they’ll be dumb enough to attempt an ambush and save us the effort of hunting them.”
Their preparations completed the four started toward the iron-reinforced wooden gate of the stable yard which a youthful guard who looked far too young to be wielding a pike quickly opened. As they passed through and angled toward the north gate of the castle’s great outer wall, a round of jeers and applause sounded, echoing about the stone walls and slate rooftops of Castle Aldoc from its main courtyard. Soul shuddered a little and the others turned their heads toward the unseen source of the sound. The expression on Blackjack’s muzzle was unreadable as usual but Shade’s less than happy look said it all. Hawker actually stopped his mount, scowling until the sound died away. As he started off again he said, quiet enough so that only his immediate companions (and none of the castle guards) could hear, “The disease in this kingdom runs deep: hear how they take pleasure in the public torture and execution of innocents. Surely the peoples of no other land visit such cruelty upon their subjects,”
“You’d be surprised.” Replied Blackjack dismissively. He slowed Knightmare so he did not overtake Hawker to maintain his customary place at the back of the group (from where he liked to ‘keep and eye on things’).
Hawker looked saddened and hunched a little in the saddle, “Then I be ashamed for all my race… what your species must think of us.” He said gloomily.
Blackjack looked at him, one eyebrow raised, the gold ring piercing it glinting as it caught Mired’s light with the gesture, “My race has never exactly been accused of being goodly and kind, human,” he said with a faint trace of amusement quirking the corners of his mouth.
“Still, such blood thirst has ne’er run rife so in Gerhan before” replied the huntsman resolutely, his voice the sound of a heavy heart.
Blackjack just shrugged noncommittally. Another chorus of jeers came, signalling the appearance of the ‘accused’ before the baying masses. The dracosvulf did not even give the sound a second thought as they left the castle keep.
The group followed Hawker out through the ‘tradesmen’s’ gate in the north-facing section of the Castle Aldoc’s imposing wall rather than through the entrance they had used the previous day with the injured prince. It led out into the narrow, winding streets of Aldoc itself.
Those who did not have the luxury of time to go to the execution thronged the streets, set about the daily chores of their livelihoods. Their warmly returned nods of greeting or respect to Hawker turned to looks of bemusement, suspicion and even fear as they saw first Shade upon the huge Steed, then Soul on Gor and finally Blackjack who they shrank away from as Knightmare, taking the opportunity to show off, snorted sparks and smoke, tossing his head and baring his fangs at any who dared linger too close. Blackjack drew the line with a sharp reprimand when he tried to bite passers-by.
Catching sight of this behaviour as she glanced over her shoulder when a smile child screamed as it hid behind its mother’s skirts, Soul remarked pointedly, “Way to go, Blackjack. It’s not like we want to be friendly with the locals or anything, is it?”
Drawing up alongside when the street broadened enough to allow them to ride abreast, Blackjack replied “You’ll learn one day (f you can squeeze anything else into your already overstretched brain cell) that it’s better to be feared than to have people think themselves too familiar with you. Especially when you are unfamiliar with them in return.”
Aldoc was not a vast city and it was not long before Hawker and the Daemonslayers passed through its outskirts into the forested countryside beyond. Unbeknownst to them, they were not the only occupants of Castle Aldoc not in attendance at the execution. From a high window silent, baleful eyes watched them go.
Within well under an hour the group reached the meadowland where yesterday’s blood had been spilled. The bodies of the fallen servants and mounts had been taken away and, save for some black, dead scars in the vegetation where the demons had died, the land was untouched and basked still and peaceful in the light of the midmorning suns.
Hawker stopped his mount and shook his head, “When the suns shine on days like this ye could almost be forgiven in thinkin’ Gerhan free o’ its blight once more.”
Shade stopped beside him and nodded, not really listening. Though it was warm for early spring he sensed a chill in the air and… a presence in this place. He considered consulting Raven but decided against it: he had not felt the dark soul make his presence known for some time and did not want to end the reprieve so soon if he did not have to.
When Soul and Blackjack joined them Hawker snapped out of his own reverie, “There’s a hunter’s trail just up there where yon demons escaped into the woods,” he said, pointing at a spot about half a mile from where they stood now. The break in the trees marking the trail’s position was barely visible and the Daemonslayers would probably have missed it altogether if Hawker had not told them it was there.
“They didn’t ‘escape’, they merely delayed the inevitable…” growled Blackjack, “Where does this trail lead?” he asked, leaning forward and patting Knightmare’s neck as the dark unicorn ruffled his wings and stamped his feet in anticipation of the hunt.
“There’s a hidden dale two miles hence. Before sickness took the land it made good trapping ground for ylles. But now no one goes into the deep forests.”
Sat high in the saddle Shade hawkishly scanned the horizons as he listened. Although his right eye was visibly ‘infected’ by Raven’s presence he hated having to cover it: the detrimental effect on his depth perception was off-putting and even though his enhanced senses of hearing and smell helped a little, the blind spot it created made him feel vulnerable. He glanced sidelong at hawker before looking back at the skies, not sure if it was a good idea to reveal to the rather superstitious hunter he had the eye of a liche and thereby give away his undead nature. Such a thing could lead to ‘complications’. “There’s a storm coming,” he said to Soul, sat quietly on Gor beside him.
She turned to look where he indicated to the south. Back in the direction of Aldoc great dark clouds were bubbling up. Though they had not yet reached the boundary of the stratosphere to form the vast anvil of a thunderhead they were massive and threatening nonetheless. “Looks like we’re in for a soaking,” she sighed, looking away from the sombre horizon to the contrasting blue skies above, “You didn’t happen to bring my cloak, did you?”
“Sorry, I forgot, “ Shade looked apologetic, then fished about in his saddlebags, “Here, have mine.”
“But then you’ll get soaked.”
“It’s not like I’ll catch my death, is it? Go on, I insist.”
Not arguing too strongly, Soul accepted the proffered garment with a smile and a quick squeeze of Shade’s outstretched hand, “Thanks,” she said softly then looked again at the ominous clouds, troubled as was Shade by how quickly they were building. The wind picked up a little, blowing a few strands of hair across her face which she absently brushed away with one hand, “Definitely a storm coming.” She concurred.
Too ill to attend the ‘traitor’s’ execution and having no stomach for his cousins blood thirst anyway, the Crown Prince Irik lay in his bed. Propped up by voluminous cushions and pillows he gazed out of his window with a sigh that spoke of his heavy heart and his ailing body. The southern aspect of his chamber gave him an unparalleled view across the rooftops of Aldoc to the plains beyond. Still further away lay the low line of the Ingram hills, blue and hazy at some twenty miles distant. These marked the southern border of Gerhan; on the other side of the hills lay the larger kingdom of Brae.
Irik’s shaking hands tightened into fists as, once more the knowledge that Gerhan should have been his stirred his thoughts into frenzy. He was certain his mad cousin was a bastard with no true claim to the throne for surely King Randall had been far too old and senile to sire an heir at the time of life when he had. Yet Iance had been proven his child by Wizard Erile. Oh, what spiteful pleasures fortune could sometimes take.
His breath caught and he erupted in a fit of hacking coughs. Once the spate had passed and breath was regained, Irik shook his head, trying to cleanse the anger from his mind as it seemed only to exacerbate his current condition.
But then it seemed fortune was playing her own games. The mysterious attack by the shadow rider demons, beside nearly delivering him to his death-bed and costing him useful servants, had brought those strangers, the Daemonslayers, to him; like shipwreck-spilt provisions washed up on a castaway’s beach it seemed fortune had sent them to him.
Irik put a hand to his lips, a concerned frown creasing his already worry-lined brow. He hoped he had played this new hand well. Gilson had assured the Prince he had been most convincing during last night’s ‘audience’ in the Bird Room. Irik prayed so. If he could use the preposterous rumours about his cousin being possessed as a tool to his own ends prudently enough, then Gerhan could be his. And then he, Prince, no, King Irik would be just the medicine his ailing, demon-infested country needed. He would forge a glorious alliance with the Empire and with their protection and arms would forge new borders for Gerhan.
A great storm was brewing in the south and grey, black-bellied clouds sped across the sky toward Gerhan from the south, “Weather’s changing,” he mused, “And so, perhaps, is Gerhan.”
A knock sounded at the door, making him jump. For a second he felt a flash of guilt for his treasonous thoughts and worried he had been found out. He told himself not to be silly, “Enter.” He called weakly.
As the door opened the first of those laden clouds reached the castle, blotting out the suns and darkening the land more than a single, normal cloud should. A cloaked figure entered the room.
“Ah. Here to give me my medicine, are you?” he asked the familiar figure as it approached his bedside.
“You could say that…”
A sudden crack of thunder rolled across the leaden sky startling animals and sending flocks of birds skywards as they uttered their alarm calls. Its resonant boom died away only slowly and was answered by another more distant rumble.
Shade gave a start and snapped his head up from watching the Steed’s footing, on full alert before the cause of the noise reached his thinking consciousness.
“Got your cloak?” grinned Blackjack, quickly pulling his from a saddle bag, unrolling it and throwing about his shoulders.
“I let Mech’ have it.” He replied, not regretting his generosity. At a guess his friend already knew this and was just asking to be spiteful.
Blackjack just snorted and fiddled with the plain silver clasp, carved with a simplified design based on the coat of arms of Uth Lintar. Once secured about his shoulders he set to making the heavy leather sit comfortably on his wings, “You give too much. A little rain won’t hurt Soul – only magic and silver’ll do that. You should try looking out for yourself more.”
Shade shrugged, not about to take up the black dragon’s advice, “So long as I know she’ll be warm and dry I’m happy.”
“I bet you’ll whinge once you get a soaking.”
“No I won’t!” Shade protested, offended, “And I don’t ‘whinge’, thank you.” He added crisply.
“Oh. My mistake. ‘Complain with extreme petulance’, then… Actually, no, I’m wrong again,” he corrected himself snidely, “That’s Meccha I’m thinking of.”
“Hey. No fair making jabs when she’s not here to join in.”
“C’mon, Shade, I’m sure she bitches about me when I’m not around.” Replied Blackjack with a half-smile.
“That’s beside the point!” Shade exclaimed.
“Ah-ha!” the dracosvulf smirked triumphantly, “So what does she say, then?”
“Uh, uh. I’m not even going to grace that with a reply,” said the dire werewolf looking sidelong at Blackjack riding abreast to his right. Away from Hawker he had taken off the hated eye patch and so no longer suffered a blind spot there. He caught the gleam in his friend’s eye and realised – as had been his suspicion already – that Blackjack was just provoking him for fun. With an inward shrug he rose to the occasion. The semi-serious, and to be honest, pointless, bickering continued on for a short while. For the time being Shade forgot the seeds of misgivings about his friend planted back in Boundary.
Shade and Blackjack had split up from Soul and Hawker a while ago to inspect the circumference of a great mile-wide crater deep in the forest. They had taken the northern rim while Soul and Hawker had taken the southern part of the circumference with the aim to reconvene at the far edge, keeping their eyes on the ground for possible signs of the shadow riders’ passing. They would have been riding in stealthy silence if the twilight world beneath the dense crown of fresh green had been as quiet as it was when they had entered several hours ago, but the weather had grown increasingly foul and along with the black, glowering clouds that had chased quickly across the sky a fierce gale had blown up. Now the forest creaked and groaned whilst the wind roared in the canopy above, rendering the need for silence superfluous.
This crater was the third place Hawker had led the Daemonslayers, the previous two candidates being a secluded dale and a hidden gorge, its damp walls lined by moss and ferns. In the gorge there had been signs of it being some fell beast’s abode but there had been ‘no one home’ when they were searching it and the place did not hold the sense of any supernatural presence.
“Hey look!” Breaking off from the half-hearted argument, Shade pointed at the great bole of an auld tree. The thick flaky bark, known for its antiseptic properties, had strange writhing yet geometric symbols burned into it, “What’re those markings?”
Blackjack stopped and frowned, “What markings.”
“These. On this tree here.” The werewolf leant over to point again, his finger hovering inches from the tree. He avoided making physical contact with it as touching unfamiliar magical symbols was not the ideal way to increase your life expectancy on Tymaera. He could not believe Blackjack could not see them even when he frowned and said,
“I don’t see anything.” Though inclined to trust Shade, he still could see nothing untoward about this particular bit of tree. He urged Knightmare over for a closer inspection. Still seeing nothing out of the ordinary he looked from Shade to the tree then back again, “Cover your right eye.”
Shade looked quizzical for the moment before realisation dawned. Closing his liche-infected eye and putting a hand over it for good measure he looked back at the tree, “I don’t see anything now either.”
“So witchsight is good for something after all…” mused Blackjack quietly, “Can you tell me what the sigils look like?”
“Yeah,” Shade uncovered his eye, “They’re all squiggly but there’s this geometric pattern to them. There’s three individual sigils: the first looks…uh, ow.” He stopped and rubbed his eyes with his fists, “Sorry Black’, I can’t focus on them.”
The dracosvulf’s expression darkened, “Can you keep your eyes trained on them, or do they seem to writhe away without actually moving?”
Shade looked at the invisible markings again, “I’ll go with Option Two.”
“Chaos runes,” growled Blackjack growled. “This is our place." He glared at the tree as if his fierce gaze would make the runes come out of hiding. Such runes did not appear by themselves and the implications of this were racing in his mind.
“We’d better warn the others.”
“How do you propose we do that?” Blackjack asked, having to raise his voice to be heard above the howling gale coupled with another frightful boom of thunder.
“Uhm.. oh. We didn’t include that in the ‘let’s split up’ plan, did we?”
“We’d better ride round and try to meet them.”
Soul pulled her hood up as the first, fat drops of rain pattered onto the forest floor, making the leaves and debris jump and flinch as though alive. Within a few moments this intensified into a solid downpour, instantly soaking all caught in its shadow. The rain made her feel a little bad for taking Shade’s cloak, but not bad enough for her not to be thankful for the shelter it provided.
Beneath the belly of the heavy clouds the forest had already darkened to a weak twilight and now the grey curtain of rain made visibility poorer still.
“Good weather for a hunt, huh?” Soul called to Hawker, trying to maintain a sense of humour in the face of the appalling conditions.
He shook his head, not getting it, “We can shelter under this tree: ‘tis not the tallest around so, gods willing, the lightning will not find it.”
They had to duck a bit to get beneath the thickly intertwined boughs of the compact erres tree Hawker had indicated as a likely shelter. They were showered in petals as its early, delicate blooms suffered from the onslaught from above.
“A storm like this can’t last long.” Hawker remarked as they sat in their saddles. Soul watched him with a spark of amusement as he tried to pick some petals from his beard after brushing them from his cloak. Beneath her, Gor grumbled deep in his throat and shook his head, scattering water droplets from his sleek fur. Hawker had missed a petal. Unable to ignore it, Soul said, “There’s one in your beard. No, up a bit. No, left. Here, let me.” Lacking the patience to play the ‘pick the bit off stuff from your beard with vocal commands only’ game she lent over and picked out the offending foliage. Blushing bright red to his ears, Hawker looked away and mumbled something along the lines of a thank you.
She smiled and shook her head, thinking him kind of sweet. She peered out through the leaves of their shelter and the smile froze on her face. Had she just seen a glint of steel in the shadowy rain?
She strained her ears, trying to catch any suspicious noise at all, but the howl of the storm drowned all sounds. She was turning to ask Hawker when a flicker of movement, a shadow amongst shadows, caught her eye. But when she turned to look at it fully it had gone, “Uh, Hawker?” she began hesitantly.
Suddenly the covering of thick leaves about the tree exploded inwards and a black beast ridden by a fiend cloaked in darkness burst into their shelter. The shadow rider reared up, flailing hooves narrowly missing Hawker’s mount and the demon steed tossed its head, rolled its burning eyes and screamed its horrible scream as the rider struck.
Preoccupied with more stray petals, Hawker’s hands were not close enough to his weapons to have a hope of parrying the blow from the curse-bearing blade. Reflexively he lifted his arm in a doomed defence but just as the fierce blade swung toward him there was a resounding clash of steel as Soul blocked the attack. She grunted with the effort, leaning too far in her saddle she was off-balance and slipping but at least she had bought the hunter precious moments to stage his own attack.
In a flash an arrow was notched and let fly, point blank into the demonic horse’s head as he remembered the Daemonslayers’ method of attack the previous day.
The shadow rider wailed as it was destroyed but, chillingly, its unholy voice was echoed by others out amongst the trees.
“I thought there were only two left,” gasped Hawker.
Soul looked grim. “I guess not.”
Cantering around the rim of the hollow, the storm raging above and the foul wind chasing through the trees and whipping about them Shade and Blackjack froze in their saddles as an unholy sound reached them even above the howling gale. Without needing to exchange even a glance they spurred their mounts into a gallop, heedless of the foliage that clawed and tore at them as they rode, knowing only that they had to reach their friends and fast.
A shadowy form flashed across their path twenty foot ahead and vanished over the rim into the crater. Blackjack pulled to the left so hard on Knightmare’s reigns that the dire unicorn reared with a roar, wings spreading open as he wheeled to turn. “Keep going!” he yelled to Shade, brandishing his axe, “I’ll deal with that one!” Then he was gone, down into the darkness of the hollow.
Shade briefly debated following, but knew finding the others to be the more urgent matter in hand. The Steed had not even broken stride and as they galloped past the place Blackjack had disappeared. He wiped rainwater from his eyes, riding on and hoping he would reach Soul and Hawker before any shadow rider did.
Beneath the closely interweaved bowers of their shelter Hawker and Soul sat with their backs to the hugely thick trunk of the stout erres tree as they stared through the gaps in its foliage into the raging storm beyond. Their eyes sought any hint of the demon attackers that seemed to surround them but all they could see were petals torn by hailstones and heavy raindrops, falling like a more gentle kind of rain.
“I think I only count two but they’re moving around a lot.” Said Hawker suddenly, his frown of concentration as he had listened to the demon’s cries lifting a little. Soul nodded, thinking the same. “One there and one over there.” He said as quietly as possibly and pointing to illustrate. With no need to confer further they automatically turned their mounts to face where Hawker believed the Shadowriders to be.
“On three?” suggested Soul, raising her sword. On the short count, they exploded from their shelter, each yelling their own battle cry.
Soul saw the fleeting form of the demon she sought disappear into the rain and held on tightly as Gor sprung after it with a fearsome growl. The shadow rider turned to fight as it sensed the challenge, bringing its sword up to meet Soul’s wild attack but there was nought it could do to fend off Gor as he surged forward slashing with his forepaws. The demon steed, bleeding in many places across its scrawny flanks and desiccated chest, backed away then reared screaming again, its iron-hard hooves driving Gor and Soul briefly back.
On the other side of the erres tree Hawker found he faced more than he had bargained for; there had been three shadow riders, not just two. As he charged to attack his original target, some sixth sense made him duck low in the saddle, just as the wicked blade of the third, previously undetected demon slashed through the air in a blow that would surely have killed him.
He gasped and turned swinging up his readied bow as he drew back an arrow to touch his cheek but the demon had gone back into the darkness, disappeared like a spectre. He turned back and loosed the arrow at its original mark but it flew off-target and struck the demon in the shoulder. The shadow rider hissed, enraged and came to meet the attack.
Soul had to lower her blade and hang on tight as Gor, yellow eyes flashing with predatory instinct, took the melee into his own paws. He bellowed and leapt: six hundred pounds of enraged feline sent demon steed and rider flying. Falling from its mount the rider began to lose its substance away from the demon and it screamed, an awful yet plaintive sound wrenching from its cloaked form in despair at the separation, it was the sound of the damned. The demonic horse wailed in return and the stricken rider crawled along the muddied ground toward it, dragging itself with its arms seemingly stripped of the use of its legs. For a moment Soul felt a wave of pity for the wretched creature in its torment and more still for the stolen, doomed souls it was created from. With a cold look on her face she rode slowly up to the demonic steed as it struggled to regain its feet on the slippery wet leaves and plunged her sword into the side of its head.
Like its fell kindred the demon turned to foul, black dust as its body withered and died but, separated from its captor at the point of death, something entirely unprecedented happened to the rider. It wailed again, this time at its demise but through that sound other voices could be heard. Soul stared, transfixed as countless white mistily glowing nuclei became visible shining through the rider’s now translucent form. Their luminescence was not blinding to look upon directly yet it was painful to behold and she had to turn her head and shield her eyes. Still she stole glimpses and listened in wonder as the wispy lights broke free of the rider’s fading shadow of a body, their cries the joyous song of release. Soul’s breath caught as she realised what was happened, “They’re free,” she whispered as the lights drifted upward and faded into the storming sky.
She sat staring at the point where they had disappeared for a while longer, lost in wonder until a small negative voice of nagging doubt got through to her, trying to bring home the real implications of this revelation. Lost to the moment she did not notice the fiend appear from the shadows behind her.
“Soul! Look out!” cried a voice from nearby.
She gave a startled scream as an arrow whistled past her, thudding into something just behind. Hawker’s own fight had carried him close enough to Soul to see the demon creeping up on her and Gor even through the dim rain. His hastily loosed arrow stopped the demon’s attack as it struck the rider in the chest and it screamed in pain, briefly dissipating only to reform again with a chilling cackle. The demon he had originally been fighting used the distraction to make good its own attack. Hawker saw it coming and turned his body, sucking in his stomach as the demon blade sliced across his abdomen, tore his tunic and passed a hair’s breadth from his flesh. Unblooded the sword continued its cruel arc to find a victim instead in his mount. The mare’s equine scream of pain was cut short as the blade bit deep into its neck, severing the vertebrae, killing it instantly. Hawker cried out as the corpse tumbled and fell took him with it and trapped his legs beneath where it fell.
“Hawker!” it was Soul’s turn now to come to the rescue. Momentarily forgetting the demon behind her she raced over. She was unsure whether he had actually been cut or not but it had looked very close and even if he had escaped the blade he was trapped and helpless as the demon that had felled his mount came back to finish him off. She intercepted and bravely defended Hawker, felt with relief when he answered her query as to whether he was okay and then froze in panic when he shouted that the forgotten shadow rider was almost at her back.
At which point Shade appeared, his timing never more perfect. “Meccha!” he shouted, forgetting about her usename as he saw the danger she was in. With the Steed still at a full gallop he charged in and with a single blow felled the second shadow rider. As Soul heard its dying screams the worry that had nagged her previously blossomed with a sickening weight of guilt in her mind. Before she could form the words to tell him, Shade was already upon the last demon. She shouted for him to stop but with his unnatural speed more than the shadow rider’s match she could only watch as he slew it and the demon died, dragging the souls that could have been freed down with it. Down into whatever red hell its spirit was to be banished to upon destruction of its form upon the mortal plane.
She swore to herself and when the hideous screams had faded, “Why didn’t you listen to me?”
Shade gave her a confused look as he dismounted to assist Hawker “Sorry love, I was a bit busy killing those demons. What is it?”
Soul bit her lip and shook her head, “I’ll tell you later. Hawker? Are you okay?”
“Aye. Though I fear my ankle’s twisted,” he replied, voice only a little strained as he tried again unsuccessfully to release himself.
With his supernatural strength, Shade easily hauled the piebald’s corpse aside and Soul helped Hawker to his feet. “Where’s Blackjack?” Hawker asked after thanking them.
“He chased off after another shadow rider heading down into the hollow. Actually, we’d better go.. find.. him.” He trailed off as he realised the huntsman was not actually listening to him, despite the fixed, horrified way in which he was staring at him.
“Gods, man. Your eye!” he gasped.
Shade realised he had forgotten to put the patch back on. “Oh. That.” He said weakly. “It’s just different, okay?” he snapped suddenly in anger. It was not just this unexpected vehemence that frightened Hawker but the feral, inhuman growl that crept into Shade’s voice beneath his words and the way his eyes flared with a greenish-yellow luminescence.
Soul put a hand on his arm, “Shade-” she began, her voice soft but with a rock solid ‘not now’ undertone.
“What?” he snarled before noting her expression and warning tone. “Oh.. uh, sorry.” He muttered, making an effort to quiet the beast within.
“We need to stop Blackjack.” Soul stepped in close to Shade, putting a hand on his chest and tilting her head back to look into his eyes partly to make sure he was listening and partly to divert his attention from the still-staring Hawker.
“What?” this time he just sounded incredulous, “Why?”
“The demons. The souls they steal make up the rider, right?”
“Right.” Shade said warily.
“When they’re killed the souls get dragged into the lower planes with them.” She saw he was not overly struck by this and realised she had phrased it wrong. Her brow furrowed as she tried to think of how best to put it.
“And…” Shade wondered where, exactly, he was missing the point: everyone who knew anything about shadow riders knew the souls of their victims were damned from the moment they died by the demons’ blades. Hawker, still completely lost for words, just stared at them open-mouthed.
“Well if the rider’s not in contact with the demon then the souls it’s stolen that have not yet been fully absorbed are set free.”
Soul growled in exasperation, “If Blackjack hasn’t killed that demon yet then there’s still a chance the spirits its taken can be saved!”
The penny dropped and Shade’s eyes widened. “All those shadow rider’s we’ve killed. You mean there was a chance we could have saved them…” he said, horrified.
‘Even I could have told you that,F’lair’ Shade felt, for the first time in weeks, the unwelcome intrusion that was Raven stir amongst his thoughts. Apparently the evil soul had not been as dormant as he had thought.
"Then why in the abyss didn’t you say something?” Shade half-shouted, furious as the truth of what they had done came crashing down.
‘You never asked’.
“I just did.” Started Soul, confused.
“Not you, Soul’.”
“Then who are ye addressing as this is all news to me,” Hawker said, eyes dark with suspicion.
Never particularly good under pressure Shade snapped again, “Raven.” He answered. “The fucking dracoliche that lives in my fucking head!”
“Oh, that just does it.” Soul breathed. She grabbed Shade’s arm and started for the hollow, “Come on! There’s no time for this. We have to try and free those people’s souls before it’s too late.” Shade followed with surprising meekness given the sudden temper and she called back over her shoulder to Hawker, “Stay here! We’ll come back for you!” They ran on foot toward the rim of the ancient tree-filled crater.
Both stunned and stumped, Hawker watched their shadowy forms retreat into the rain. His gaze turned to a stare when, just before they disappeared, he could have sworn the girl’s form began to change. He shook his head and tried to convince himself it was just the concussion.
The vegetation within the crater was much thicker that at its rim and hindered Knightmare’s – and consequently Blackjack’s – pursuit considerably. This was unfortunate for the shadow rider because it meant that when the Daemonslayer finally caught up with it in a mysterious clearing at the centre of the hollow he was in a particularly bad, and therefore vindictive, mood.
The knotted wall of intertwined tree trunks and thornweed ringing the clearing was so thick Blackjack wondered how they had actually managed to gain entry in the first place. On the other hand, it meant the demon had nowhere to run. Breathless from the chase, wet mane and fur plastered to his skin with a few new cuts on his face from the thornweed to add to the fading black eye from two nights ago Blackjack still managed to smile cruelly when, evidently realising it was outmatched, the shadow rider changed its mind about standing and fighting and started to back nervously away.
With a menacing snort, Knightmare began to advance on the demon but abruptly stopped when he sensed a magical field in the heart of the clearing. He communicated this to Blackjack who diverted his attention from his target long enough to realise there was a runic circle burned into the ground there. Far from stupid, the dire unicorn started around the circle. Although it could, possibly, have been harmless the runes in which the circle was inscribed suggested otherwise and there was no time to determine its nature.
Realising its foe was not about to cross the circle as it had hoped, the shadow rider carefull kept it between them, deftly turning to match Knightmare’s direction so it could maintain its position of relative (and only relative) safety opposite them and out of reach.
Blackjack clicked his tongue against his front teeth, “This is getting tiresome,” he said in the almost singsong voice of an adult losing patience with a small child who does not realise the game is not funny anymore. Evidently they could go around in circles like this forever so it was up to him to do something about the stalemate. On a single word Knightmare tightly closed his wings, leaving room for Blackjack to unfurl his. He hopped onto his feet, crouching briefly on his steed’s back then leapt up with a single wingbeat for extra boost. Knightmare trotted off in the opposite direction to form a simple pincer movement to cut their quarry off.
Faced with an unenviable choice, the shadow rider charged the smaller foe. Blackjack unhurriedly reached for the axe slung over his shoulder as he watched the nightmare rider brandish its sword in its right sleeve, swinging its arm back for a blow he calculated would be aimed at his head. He stood his ground as it bore down on him, so intent on getting the crucial timing needed to slay the demon and dodge the blade right that he was completely oblivious to everything around him. It was now only two heartbeats away. Two-handed, he slashed with the Unbinder, aiming to cleave open the demon steed’s throat and already shifting his weight to duck aside the wraith’s strike. In that same instant something burst through the foliage in his peripheral vision. In the next heartbeat a huge form smashed into him sending both he and it sprawling. The shadow rider’s blade swept harmlessly through open air and the demon horse shied in surprise both at miraculously being spared the axe and at the sudden intruder to this drama.
With a snarl Blackjack lashed out at the huge canine form next to him before he registered who it was and halted the elbow jab (made all the more ‘pointed’ by the three spines that grew out of each of his arms there) a hair’s breadth from Soul’s head. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he yelled, rolling to his feet and fetching the Unbinder.
The werewolf growled at him irritably then snapped her head up teal eyes on the shadow rider as it came in for another attack.
“Don’t kill the demon!” Shade pushed his way through the break in the foliage caused by Soul’s passage. Ever reluctant to adopt his more dangerous and less controllable dire werewolf form than Soul was to transform into hers, he had fallen a bit behind. Tugging a troublesome strand of thornweed from his hair he quickly assessed the situation, “Oh, you haven’t. Good.”
Blackjack looked askance, “What in the hells are you gibbering about? What d’you want me to do: Make friends with it?” he snarled, wondering if Shade was having one of his ‘moments’. But if he was then it must be getting contagious, as Soul seemed to be affected too.
Unimpressed by the sarcasm, Shade patiently explained. “No. Kill it, but not with the rider on. I’ll explain in a minute but just work with us on this.”
“Okay.” The dracosvulf gave him a sceptical look. “If you guys want to piss about like this then you can slay it yourselves.” With an annoyed growl rumbling in his throat he set his axe against his left shoulder and folded his arms, clamping the handle in the crook of his elbow and making it obvious he wasn’t going to be any help.
“Fine. Be like that.” Shade shrugged and drew his sword as the shadow rider charged again. “Soul!” he barked.
Some paces ahead, Soul reared up as the demon charged past. With a leisurely swipe of one paw the near-seven foot lycanthrope knocked away the rider’s accursed blade and then with a massive back-hander she sent the rider flying. In a curious treacle-like effect its robes somehow stretched to stay attached to the demon’s back as it kept running and both creatures set up a terrible keening. She severed this with her claws an instant before Shade, planting one foot ahead of the other and all but going down on one knee as he lunged forward and plunged his sword through the front of the onrushing demon’s chest into its heart. He coughed and held his free arm up over his eyes as the familiar cloud of choking black dust billowed past him.
Blackjack was about to ask what Shade and Soul were making a fuss over when he realised the tone of the wails emanating from the stricken rider had changed from horror to joy. Bringing a hand up to shield his eyes he had to squint as the points of light glowing within flared to brilliance and began to ascend. Looking to the others he saw Shade watching open-mouthed and Soul was smiling at the joy of the freed spirits. There was a haunted quality to her expression and Blackjack did not take long realising why: he had lost count of the number of shadow riders they had slain during their travels and if this end had been a possibility for each and every one of them… well, it didn’t bare thinking about. He looked back to the lights but they were gone.
"Shit.” Shade swore quietly, evidently thinking along the same lines as Blackjack.
“Now do you understand?” asked Soul softly.
Blackjack just sighed. Not even slaying your average bog-standard demon was simple anymore. Deciding there was not exactly much he could do about this, he put the impetus of the revelation to the back of his mind, no doubt to niggle at his generally selective conscience late at night, and returned his attention to the job in hand. Raising his wings to keep them out of the way and provide a little shelter from the rain, he crouched down to examine more closely the runic circle in the clearing’s centre. Whoever had constructed this knew what they were doing and although he could not read most of the sigils, he did succeed in discerning just enough to get the gist, “One thing’s for sure,” he said, “those demons did not arrive here by accident. If I’m not mistaken (which, might I add, I never am) this is a summoning circle.”
“We’d better trash it, then.” Angrily Shade started to kick mud onto it and then, not stopping to consider what he was doing, he scuffed the burnt-in runes with his foot for good measure.
“You realise if there’d been a ward spell on this you would have lost your leg by now, don’t you?”
Shade stopped what he was doing and gingerly retracted his leg.
Giving him a tired look Blackjack carried on scuffing at it himself, “Obviously there isn’t, F’lair, or we’d be calling you Hopalong Hartland by now.” Soul joined in and within a couple of minutes the circle was destroyed.
Remembering they’d left an injured Hawker alone in the woods to fend for himself Soul suggested perhaps they should go fetch him. As they made their way she mused “Who would be summoning shadow riders?”
“If we could work out why then that’d probably lead us to who pretty fast. There aren’t many people who know how to summon demons.” replied Shade.
“Ok, why, then?” asked Soul, keeping close behind him as he slashed through the thick vegetation with his sword. Blackjack and Knightmare were somewhere further back, not partaking of the conversation.
Shade took a while to ponder this. “I’m not sure. Usually people summon demons to commune with or to make bargains and stuff. You can’t get much out of a shadow rider – they’re not intelligent enough – so I don’t know what the advantage would be.”
“It’d scare the locals” Soul half joked.
“That’s for sure.” They fell quiet for a bit then Shade suddenly exclaimed, “Hey, that’s a good point!”
“Yeah.” He looked like he had just come up with a crafty thought, “What if Blackjack’s right about Prince Irik making up his tale about the king being a demon? It could be he – or someone in on the conspiracy – has been summoning demons to scare the plebs and make his story more believable.”
Soul raised a confused eyebrow, the movement stretching her facial tattoo “But then why would his own Summonings attack him?”
“What better way to keep off any suspicion?”
“But the demon actually cut him. Why risk his life hoping some helpful strangers would turn up in time to get him to the Wizard to administer magefire?”
“It’s just an idea.” Shade shrugged, “Maybe Erile was scrying on him to know when to come to the rescue. Even Hawker could be in on this, you know.” He swore as he thought about that, “No wonder he suggested we split up when we reached this crater then!”
“Uhm. Actually that was my idea.”
“Oh. Well anyway we should be careful. Chances are he knows about that spell circle already if he’s in on this, so we’d better say something about it or he’ll get suspicious.”
They found Hawker where they had left him. The huntsman had gone through his saddlebags and found enough materials to bandage and make a rudimentary splint for his injured ankle. He seemed pleased to see them, “Thank the gods! I was startin’ to worry for ye.”
“Why?” asked Shade, instantly suspicious of what the huntsman might have been expecting to happen to them.
Gor had run up to Soul with a rumbling purr of greeting and with the big cat in the way of Hawker’s line of view she punched Shade lightly in the arm, warning him to curb the attitude.
“Well, the demons of course. Did ye get the last?” Hawker replied looking puzzled.
“Yes, we did. We also found where the demons were coming from – it could be you’re more right than you know about there being something rotten in Gerhan.” Soul replied, “How’s your ankle, by the way.”
Hawker patted it gently, “It’ll mend but I won’t be walkin’ fer a while.”
“You’d better ride with Shade, then.” Suggested Blackjack, picking bits of twig and leaves out of his sodden mane as he joined his companions. The two male Daemonslayers helped Hawker up onto the Steed’s back behind the saddle. With the creature’s permanent armour it was not the most comfortable place to sit but far safer than the alternative: He did not fancy his chances with Gor as he had never ridden a gorrta in his life and Knightmare was being particularly cantankerous leading Hawker to suspect he would arrive back in Aldoc with more than just an injured ankle if he rode that beast.
End of Part 3
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.NecroDragon.com forum.