Contagion

Part 1
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Fire Mountains of eastern Caevalonia were infamous for their wild weather with sudden, violent changes and the past few days had proved no exception. The terrible storm of the previous night had left its mark upon the land. Where the narrow forest road had not been turned into heavy mire it was under ankle-deep water as it wound its way through the foothills down towards the distant city of Mull.

Four riders struggled through this treacherous, slippery muck as the suns, glimpsed only through the briefest of gaps in the sombre clouds, arched gracefully across the sky now nearly reaching their rest at the western horizon.

“I can’t believe you picked this route for us!” complained Soul. Of all of them her mount Gor, a massive gorrta, had the best footing. Even so the huge black feline had fallen several times and his rider was now almost covered in mud having neither reigns nor saddle to hold on to during the slips since gorrta were steered using the thighs. She had to make a sudden grab for her cat’s massive shoulder hump as he lurched again on the steep path.

“Oh, I beg your pardon. Though I don’t believe it was me who complained at the idea of having to hack our way through the jungle and demanded we cross the mountains instead!”

Meccha glared at the owner of the sarcastic voice behind her, “I only said that the mountains would be more direct!” She reached up to wipe the sodden auburn hair from her eyes and did her best to tuck it behind her long, pointed ears. She was certain there were other routes across the mountains and this particular one had been chosen just to spite her. Soul reflected that it would have been easier travelling if she had adopted her were form to travel on all fours herself and leave Gor free of trying to balance a rider, but she suspected such wilful use of her lycanthropy would upset Shade who lacked her control over his bestial side and feared his own transformations.

There was no reply for a few moments as the rider behind her struggled to remain upright as the dire unicorn he rode, Knightmare, skidded and had to open his green-membraned wings to retain balance, almost getting them caught up with his rider’s own black wings. Blackjack used his tail to maintain balance and, once seated more comfortably, continued the ‘discussion’, “Why are you complaining then? This path led us straight across the Fire Mountains. How much more direct do you want?”

“That wasn’t what I-” She was interrupted.

“You two have been harping on for hours! Give it a rest. Please?” Shade implored.

The blue-scaled lizardman half-breed behind him fully supported this notion, “Look, we’re all cold, wet, muddy, tired…” he glanced at Shade’s back in front of him, “Well, those of us capable of being tired are tired – no offence, F’lair – so kindly would you two just be quiet?” He was renowned for never losing his temper but after today’s long hard slog of a journey Darkclaw felt he was in danger of ending this record. His equila, Pomo, a two-legged equine creature had suffered the hardest time with the atrocious footing.

“Thanks Darkclaw – and none taken.” Shade replied, pleased to have someone on his side for once. Even his mount, the supernatural Steed – a being that resembled a fully armoured warhorse though that was where the similarity ended – had fallen today and Shade, dirty, wet and thoroughly miserable, was fast losing his sense of humour. He looked around at the sodden party, “We should start looking for somewhere to rest; it’s only a few hours until the suns set. It’d be nice to try and get cleaned up a bit before it gets dark and even colder.”

“If you want to stop up here and get eaten by manticores then that’s fine by me. I’m not stopping until I’m out of these foothills,” replied Blackjack from the back of the group.

“I thought they lived at higher altitudes than this,” Soul mused, remembering one of the many bestiaries she had read back at their base, the desolate city of Uth Nagor, currently half a continent away.

“You’re thinking of griffins and don’t believe everything you read, especially when it’s been written by a human.” Blackjack wrinkled his furless muzzle as the breeze shifted to bring with it a new scent. He looked south, into the wind, trying to see its source. Both Shade and Soul, their senses keener than a normal human had caught the spore as well.

“Civilisation,” Soul beamed, “I’ll bet they don’t have manticores there!”

Blackjack snorted derisively. “And I bet they wouldn’t like the likes of us in there either.” He said, indicating towards himself and Darkclaw, “We’re in the Empire here, remember?”

The assassin pretended to look offended, “What? Are you implying our charm and good looks aren’t enough to ingratiate ourselves with the humans?”

“Sure they would,” replied Shade, “You get wyrds and all sorts out in remote places like this. I’m sure anyone’s money is good at the inns here.” He tossed his coin purse in the air to illustrate the point then almost dropped it in the mud as he fumbled the catch.

The dracosvulf shrugged and smiled inwardly, You’re starting to get cynical, F’lair, he thought of his friend with a twinge of pride. Perhaps the sometimes naïve dire werewolf was starting to learn about the world, “Okay fine. I could do with a few flagons of ale anyway.”

“Couldn’t agree more!” Darkclaw liked this idea and hoped the theoretical inn would serve Linfar, his favourite spirit since he wasn’t a beer drinker. Plus his supply of dried tobacco-like bremulen leaf had been ruined by the damp and he was starting to feel like he really needed a smoke after the last few tiring days.

A small, fast moving form suddenly swooped down from the trees on the right. The three foot long, two-legged red dragon slowed down and glided in a circle just above their heads, “Did someone mention ‘civilisation’? Only there’s a town on a hill just a couple of miles away though it doesn’t look terribly civilised – a bit run down if you ask me.”

“It can’t be worse than another night in a muddy forest.” Groaned Soul, losing what little was left of her enthusiasm.

“There’s a fork a mile ahead. Take the left though I warn you there’s been a mud slide a ways along it.”

“Joy, more muck to fall over in,” said Shade.

Several falls, lots of mud and some very imaginative cursing later, the Daemonslayers and Darkclaw finally reached the outskirts of the town. By now the two suns, the great golden Mired and small, red Derim were almost upon the horizon and a glorious red tinge was touching the sky. The silver moon Isel, only a thin sliver, was already visible in the northeast where soon her two sister moons would be rising. What little warmth the suns had lent the cold winter sky was quickly fading. In a futile effort to keep warm Blackjack had drawn his sodden cloak tighter about him against the chill, damp air, “Let’s find some place quick, eh? Not all of us are warm blooded or beyond caring.”

“Not so sceptical now, huh?” grinned Soul, her smile stretching the tattoo over her left eye and cheek. Blackjack pulled a face at her. She was about to pull one back when Darkclaw appeared close by at her left, making her jump, “Sorry Meccha – force of habit,” the assassin apologised at the annoyed look she shot him as she regained her composure. He had already scouted the immediate area, the skills of his trade making his short absence unnoticed even to his companions, “The buildings here are all empty.” He stated.

“They must’ve known you were coming,” Soul said to Blackjack.

He ignored her and turned to Darkclaw, “What, you mean they’re all derelict?”

“Abandoned, more like,” Shade spoke for the first time in a long while, “There’s a taint in the air here.” His voice was quiet and lacked inflection, making it difficult for the others to tell if he was suggesting there was a threat, or meerly making an observation.

The group fell quiet, taking in their surroundings. Besides the wind only the harsh calls of a single, unseen crow broke the silence. About them squatted low, empty buildings, some of old stone and looking run down but the majority were wood build and of much newer appearance, built quickly as the town, Lekup, according to what little was still legible of their soaked maps, had spilled beyond its walls. Still, though it was quiet, none felt any sense of threat.

“There’s a taint to much of Caevalonia, so much bad magic has been used throughout the ages that it permeates the land itself. I don’t think Shine’s armies ever reached the Fire Mountains , but that doesn’t mean they were untouched by other forces” Blackjack shrugged. Probably some dark magic had been cast, or a daemon had passed through a long time ago and F’lair was just sensing it through Raven’s extreme sensitivity to the supernatural. The Fire Mountains had been one of the last strongholds of the Dark Druids so it was possible remnants of their power would remain here, taking many years to fade.

“I can see lights up in the main town.” Soul peered ahead to the wall where the fortified town proper began at the foot of the hill, covering it and huddling in the shadow of the imposing keep at its crown. The gate was open and unguarded. Darker than the rest of the landscape, the light escaping from windows here and there was easy to see, though the lycan-fay thought it odd there would be so few considering the size of the place.

“There should be an inn there, then. And beer!” Blackjack commented, “Along with our coin, we might just be accepted but our mounts may raise a question too many. Knightmare could cast a glamour but it won’t work on the Steed.”

Knightmare snorted agreement, smoke and sparks escaping his nostrils and tossed his head in the direction of one of the nearby buildings, the movement shaking his mane about the red spines that grew from his cranial vertebrae. Just to add to the point he motioned the twisting spire of his silver horn at the broken double doorway. The others got the hint.

“Looks like we’ll save on stabling costs,” said Blackjack, always happy for an excuse not to spend his gold. Knightmare held his wings back for his master to dismount. The others followed suit and led their mounts into the abandoned building. Inside was a large open room, possibly once used as a meeting hall. It was in a state of disrepair but the roof was still intact so it was dry and, sheltered from the breeze, slightly warmer than outdoors. The companions saw to their beasts needs, rubbing down flanks and cleaning off mud best they could. Garth offered to use his breath to set a fire and remain there for the night, “Fine, just don’t burn the place down.” Blackjack warned. With that they set off on foot into the gathering dusk.

The wind dropped and it started to rain again; an unpleasant, misty drizzle that somehow penetrated even the thickest of coverings. Huddled beneath their cloaks the companions trudged into the town, tired and miserable. The fact the first inn they found was locked and boarded up did nothing to lift their spirits as they quested further amongst the quiet buildings in search of someplace warm (and open) to stay.

The narrow, cobbled streets were slick with rain and devoid of life. Given the onset of twilight surprisingly few lights glimmered dully in the close buildings and the only sounds were the occasional far-off bark of a dog or mewl of a baby behind shuttered windows.

They were just starting to get unnerved by the quiet when, glancing down a claustrophobically tight alley to their right, Blackjack spotted a likely-looking inn.

Inside it was appreciably warmer but there was no one in sight. The low-ceilinged bar room was fairly small and cosy with dark-stained wood furnishings and a big, currently unlit fireplace set in the wall to the left of the bar. The light was provided by wall-mounted lamps containing auld tree oil, a popular and economic fuel due to its long burning time although the oil in these was burning very low. To the bar’s right were two doorways, one with a sign above it proclaiming ‘food served all day’ that led into backrooms and the other to a staircase that turned a sharp corner out of sight up to the boarding rooms.

They called out for the innkeeper and sat themselves around one of the larger tables but soon became restless when anyone failed to appear.

“I’ll check out back. Maybe the barkeep is out of earshot,” suggested Darkclaw rising with graceful fluidity to his feet.

Soul shifted uneasily in her seat and beside her Shade looked equally on edge. Blackjack just looked bored but that veneer did not necessarily correspond to what went on behind his expression.

“Maybe we should have stayed the night out of town. I don’t like the feel of this place” said Shade, looking about warily.

Soul shivered, clutched by a sudden, evil sense of foreboding, “There’s something foul in the air.” She whispered cautiously.

“That’ll be the curry you tried to cook last night.”

For a moment the chilling spell broke, “Shut up, Blackjack. You’re not funny.”

“You think I was joking?”

“Blackjack, please.” Shade glared at him reproachfully, fingers drumming on the table “Mech’s right – there’s something wrong here.”

“Yes. The sign outside says ‘food served all day’ but there’s no one in the kitchen.” Darkclaw complained, slinking like a shadow back into the bar room.

Blackjack sighed. “Please tell me they at least have some barrels on tap? Anything else to report?”

The assassin appeared perturbed, the end of his tail twitching and the feathery strands of his indigo hair had spiked up, “There’s movement in the adjacent buildings but there’s no one outside. As for the kitchen and store room; there’s plenty of food but much of it's rotten.”

Just then a loud thud sounded from the floor above, followed by a slow series of lighter thuds, footsteps, which tracked across the room. The companions turned as one to look at the stairs when it became obvious this was where the cause of the sounds was headed. Then there was silence.

“Someone’s up there.” Whispered Soul, her eyes wide as the sense of something ominous looming returned tenfold.

“Thank you, Soul. None of us would have realised if you had not illuminated that little fact for us.”

“Shut up, Black’.”

“Perhaps it’s just the innkeeper.” suggested Darkclaw, throwing stars in hand and red eyes on the stairs, belying his suspicions to be otherwise.

“Someone should go check… What? Why’re you all looking at me?” with a sinking feeling Shade realised he had just volunteered. “Fine,” Slipping off his cloak he stood up and climbed off the bench. He loosened the Fireblade in its scabbard and tied back his long hair. With a final reproachful glance back at his friends he went to the bottom of the wooden stairs, the only sound in the room the slight creaking of his black chimera leathers and the occasional clink of a belt buckle. He put a foot on the bottom step. The warped wood’s creak was like a piercing scream in the silence and Shade flinched back. “Hello?” he called tentatively, realising all hope of surprise had just been lost. No response. He looked back to the others again.

Blackjack waved him on, “Unless you can see round corners (and we all know you can’t) you won’t find out anything by dithering there. Stop time-wasting!” he hissed.

“I hate you.” Shade growled back. Cautiously he mounted the shadowy stairs, wincing at each painfully loud creak even though his barefoot tread was light. He paused again at the corner. Hand ready on the Fireblade’s hilt, he moved as close to the wall as possible and cautiously leaned so he could just see around the bend. There was a dark form standing at the top of the stairs. Reflexively he pulled back before realising it was just a man up there. Pulling himself together he stepped round the corner, hand still on sword but a little more relaxed now.

“Uh? Sir? Are you the innkeep?” The figure made no reply. Nor did he make any motion to indicate he had even acknowledged Shade’s presence. “Are you okay?” The man continued to just stand there, swaying ever so slightly. Shade started to get annoyed. Werewolf ‘issues’ aside he was possessed of a fairly mild nature, but he hated being ignored. “Hey!” still no response.

The gloom at the top of the stairs was too dense for even Shade’s vision to penetrate. Emboldened by his annoyance he began to ascend again, nose wrinkled in disgust at the dreadful smell wafting down to assail his nostrils. Just as he got close enough to see the stranger’s face properly a rasping death-rattle of a breath escaped the man’s lips and his eyes, cataract white, opened. Shade froze, uncertain until the man took a step forward to come partly out of the shadows. His skin, slack, grey and rotting split wide open in a gruesome parody of a smile as he opened his mouth to moan and then…

… The horrified shriek almost made the companions in the bar room jump out of their skins. They were on their feet, weapons already drawn before Shade thundered down the stairs. “Everybody out! Now!” he yelled.

Soul was on her feet and halfway through the door before noticing Blackjack and Darkclaw were still standing there.

“Why?” asked Blackjack, wondering what could be so horrible it could send the dire werewolf running (actually, that list was quite long, but usually involved things that inhabited other planes of existence, ruins, deep caves or other places that weren’t the upstairs of a cosy-looking inn.. unless you counted some of the girls of negotiable virtue who worked in Southrot).

“The innkeeper guy! He’s, well, there’s this stuff coming out of his head!” Shade said, running past.

“Stuff?” Darkclaw was also not one to run without good cause. “That covers a lot of possibilities, Shade.”

Soul backed outside as Shade came to the door, “Like this cloud of, I dunno, spores or something,” He looked past them and saw the black cloud that had followed him down the stairs, hugging the ceiling as it spread out across the bar room, “Don’t breathe it in!” shouted Shade, too late as Darkclaw put his hands over his snout and Blackjack started to cough. They ran for the door and piled out, coughing unhealthily.

“Are you guys okay?” asked Soul, watching with concern as they tried to clear their lungs.

“Ugh. Fucking hells ” Blackjack swore after he was done choking. He hawked and spat in distaste. The crisp winter air seemed to burn his lungs now.

“We’re okay, thanks.” Darkclaw replied his usually smooth voice coming a little hoarse, “Shade, what did you see up there?”

Shade looked back through the open door and shook his head “I’m not sure. It looked like a zombie but it was still alive,” as one of the greater undead, Shade knew the lesser dead when he saw them and he was certain that humanoid creature had not been one. “I don’t fancy going back in there to find out, not with that weird smoke hanging around.”

Blackjack gave him an amused look, “What? We’ve dealt with worse than that. You can’t seriously tell me you’re balking at a halitosis-zombie. Let’s get back in there and dispose of it!” His suggestion proved needless as a series of thuds sounded down the stairs and the body of the innkeeper bumped into the wall at the turn then slithered partway down the short remaining flight. The five watched it for a while but it showed no sign of movement.

“I think he’s dead.” Soul voiced everyone’s thought.

Nodding agreement Shade said “We should go check, but that black stuff’s still in the air.”

“You’re the one who doesn’t need to worry about breathing it in,” Darkclaw reminded him as politely as possible. Shade just sighed and, deciding it too much bother to protest this time, stilled his breathing and stalked into the room. A couple of kicks and a poke with his sword later, he was back outside, breathing again and trying to ignore the fact he’d shed his humanity - albeit for a few seconds - just to confirm something everyone had guessed already. “He -it’s dead. It looks like that thing, whatever it was or used to be, just expired.”

They jointly vetoed any suggestion of going back into the bar room’s now unwholesome atmosphere.

“So what d’we do now?” asked Soul as she shivered and stamped her feet. She realised with dismay this probably meant there was little to no chance of her having access to a bath tub this night.

Shade shrugged, “See if we can find someone whose head doesn’t split open, I guess, and find out if there’re more of those things.”

They left the dark alley and headed back onto the town’s larger arteries. The fine, cold drizzle still hung in the air and as the dim late afternoon turned to dusk the travellers found there was still no one to be seen.

“Maybe this is some holy day and everyone has to stay inside?” mused Soul, feeling cold, wet and humourless. Shade, equally quite and sullen, just shrugged. The other two trailed silently behind, coughing occasionally and generally the worse for wear. It was some time before Shade and Soul realised one of their number had vanished.

“Where’s Darkclaw?” Shade asked suddenly.

“Uh?” Blackjack stared blearily at the lycanthropes for a second before he turned to see that the assassin had indeed disappeared.

Shade and Soul exchanged concerned glances while he looked away, Blackjack looked terrible; his eyes seemed glazed and his overall appearance was dull and haggard, “Are you feeling okay Blackjack? Black’?” He did not notice the question and Soul had to almost shout his name to get his attention.

“Yeah,” he replied unenthusiastically, then called for Darkclaw but ended up coughing and hacking instead.

“No you’re not.” admonished Soul as she walked back to him for a closer look while Shade jogged easily down the street, retracing their recent steps to look for some sign of their friend. She thought he was looking pale, but since Blackjack’s skin didn’t colour like a human’s, it was hard to tell so she put a hand to his forehead. Since he would normally have flinched away, disliking contact, the fact she managed was an indicator in itself that he was ill, “Shit, you’re burning up.” She said.

“I’m fine” Blackjack growled and pulled back, lashing his barbed tail in subconscious agitation.

Shade rejoined them. “No sign of him, can't even get a scent. Think he’d have gone to scout around again without telling us?” he asked. His worried eyes suggested he did not particularly believe this would be the case.

“Kahzeem!” Blackjack called, using Darkclaw’s actual name, when this got no response he tried again, “Hey, Kazza!” Nothing got the assassin’s back up like the improper use of his real name. When the attempt proved fruitless he turned to the others and shrugged, “He’ll show up.”

Shade looked torn, wanting to look for their missing friend, but also concerned they should get the obviously sick dracosvulf indoors out of the cold and damp. The rain had almost stopped but swift and silent a thick mist had risen to hang chill and heavy in the air, already the end of the lane was obscured by its wispy veil and the thickening shadows under the ruddy caste of the unseen sunset’s dying afterglow. “Let’s head uphill” he eventually sighed, “Maybe there’s more people there.”

With not a few backward glances spared in the hopes Darkclaw would reappear as suddenly as he’d vanished they trudged on, this time staying closer together. Surprisingly, rather than thin as they ascended the mist noticeably thickened into a disorientating fog. Visibility became awful and Shade and Soul became increasingly jumpy as what might have been normal sounds were muffled and distorted strangely. They were equally relieved when they saw the fog lit by a bright glow some distance up ahead.

“Oh, at last!” Eager to reach this one sign of life in the queerly desolate town, Soul picked up the pace until Shade asked she slow down again when he saw that Blackjack was unable to keep up. As they approached the source of the glow, evidently some kind of bonfire, Shade’s request became unnecessary as a sudden unplaceable sense of trepidation fell upon them and they slowed right down, feeling strangely unwilling to further approach the otherwise welcoming light.

“You two stay here and try and stay out of sight, I’ll go on ahead. Something’s giving me a bad feeling here. Again.” Shade turned back to the others then swore “Oh, buggery. Not Black’ too!” he uttered a string of curses as Soul spun round to see they were now down to just two. They tried to backtrack, checking back down the street and side alleys, calling out but to no avail.

“I can’t even get his scent, something about this fog’s weird.” Soul looked worried and perplexed “This is creepy.” She took Shade’s arm, “Pardon me for being clingy, honey but I don’t much fancy us getting separated too.”

“Me neither. Maybe we should go back to the stable, see if the others headed back there?” he suggested but there was little conviction in his voice. Soul didn’t need to reply as they both knew there was more to this than their friends simply getting lost in the mist. He sighed, “All right. Let’s see what’s up ahead then.”

Keeping to the shadows they approached the light. The scent of wood smoke and meat became much stronger but despite their hunger there was something unwholesome yet familiar about the smell that turned their stomachs.

At the top of the rise the narrow street opened out into a square, the buildings opposite lost to the fog. The firelight was much clearer now for its heat had burned away the water vapour in its immediate vicinity. Dark forms moved about it, slow, shuffling and silent, “They move like that guy in the bar,” whispered Shade. Staying near to the buildings they edged closer for a better look though after a few metres found they wished they had not.

Above the fire, slowly turning upon spits were human bodies, not quite burned beyond recognition. There were other bodies by the fire, piled up like so much meat by the zombie-like creatures. The beings themselves were dressed much like the deceased townsfolk, yet appeared to have degenerated into something much less than human. From their diseased, necrotic appearance the closest thing the Daemonslayers could liken them to would be ghouls or perhaps zombies – their slow, halting actions and apparent obliviousness to one another were more akin to such mindless monsters - but Shade had already confirmed they were not of the undead. Deciding they had seen enough Shade indicated to head back to the street. There was no telling how many of the creatures were out there and picking a fight with what could turn out to be the majority of the town’s population probably would not help their missing friends.

Part eaten remains littered the ground and Soul had to stifle a squeal of disgust when she realised she’d trod in some. Though small, it was the only noise beside the crackling flames and one of the shuffling figures paused to turned in their direction. Shade and Soul froze and as what may once have been a farmer stared blankly they began to get their hopes up it had not seen them but then its jaw dropped slackly open and it hissed a dry, rushing rasp. All movement stopped as the figures turned as one to face them.

One the creatures lurched forward. Clumsy but fast the others followed suit. “Oh, shit.” Soul hissed.

“Leg it!” Shade grabbed her arm and ran. More shadows appeared in the fog ahead, blocking their way back to the side street. The building next to them had a first floor balcony and without waiting to be asked, Shade boosted Soul up then launched up after her, his preternatural strength, brought out by the adrenaline, made the leap easy. He kicked in the balcony door and they ran into the building. The firelight from the square showed them a jumbled scene of upturned furniture and broken pots. Other belongings were strewn haphazard like there had been some sort of struggle. As the smell hit them it was evident someone had lost that struggle; from under the bed pallet a rotting arm protruded. The door into the building wasn’t locked (which secretly disappointed Shade as he’d found kicking the other in rather satisfying) and they found themselves in a grand hallway with a central atrium, the stairs around the outside. However there was no time to appreciate the fine architecture. As they stepped out they heard a hoarse sigh from the end of the landing.

There was another creature on the steps. It did not move to attack but instead just stood there, staring at them. What had once been a woman, its state of decay was more advanced than its more active kin outside – it looked more like the innkeeper. “Those spores Black’ and Darkclaw breathed in came out of that guy… Do you think this one might do the same?” Soul knew just one of these things would be easy to deal with but if it could release the same infection then could not the same happen to her. This thought held her back.

“Let’s not find out!” Shade swept her up in his arms and jumped over the banister. He took the long drop easily, barely noticing the impact as he landed. It felt too easy to put aside the humanity to which he tried to cling to make use of his supernatural abilities but for now he had to push the disquieting thought away. There was no time to dwell on such worries now.

“I could’ve jumped it, you know.”

“Sorry Mech’, I just don’t want to risk you getting infected.”

The door to the street was ajar and outside all seemed quite, for now.

“We need to get out of here, figure things out. Do you remember the way to the stables ‘cos I’m totally lost now?” whispered Shade.

“Not from here. We didn’t come along this street earlier, did we? It’s downhill somewhere”

They set off at a jog, carrying their swords to avoid the sound of too much clinking metal as they moved swiftly as stealth permitted. Figures appeared up ahead and they dove down a side street, praying they had not been seen. The fog was even thicker now and they had to slow right down for fear of running straight into one of the enemy.

Without warning a shadowy form darted into the road before them, wildly chittering in a squeaky, chattering language. Blades drawn in a flash Shade and Soul readied for an attack and then hesitated as they saw through the fog the creature’s unmistakable nature. He was a rattikin, one of the half-beast races closely resembling a humanoid rodent, short even for one of his kind. On seeing their swords he shrieked and brought his paw-like hands side by side up to his thin chest, pink palms up and fingers pointed downward; the universal gesture of peace amongst his species. He chattered some more in the unmistakeable language of his kind.

“We haven’t time for this” growled Shade, hearing the footsteps of their pursuers not far behind. He started forward, sidestepping to avoid the trembling rattikin.

Realising his attempted communication had failed, the half-beast chittered something under his breath then darted to the mouth of the alley, beady eyes imploring as he beckoned for the near-humans to follow. Catching Shade’s eye Soul inclined her head toward the stranger. He shrugged then nodded and, with a backward glance up the alley to check the ‘townsfolk’ were out of sight, ducked into the narrow alleyway after the rattikin’s vanishing tail.

Many peoples regarded the species of anthropomorphic rats as little more than thieves and dealers in skulduggery but the rattikin were also an ever-sensible species, with self-preservation high on their agenda and the Daemonslayers strongly suspected Lekup’s resident ‘nest’ (as rattikin populations were often known) may well have avoided whatever had befallen the rest of the town. Since rattikin avoided humans except where trade or stealing was concerned it was likely this diminutive little one had a genuine reason for revealing itself to them so, though they remained on guard, Shade and Soul allowed him to lead them through the twists and turns of the foggy labyrinth of passages and back alleys. Presently they reached a dilapidated, shuttered old building, one of the oldest they had seen in this already aged town. Their guide rapped some kind of secret code on the door which after a few moments swung open on silent, well oiled hinges. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust from twilight to almost total darkness but they dimly saw the rattikin cross the room to an open door leading on to a stone staircase that spiralled down to unknown depths down which the guide was gesturing them to follow. The front door closed behind with a muted click and they sensed they were not alone.

The staircase was pitch black and they had to feel their way down the worn, irregular old flagstone steps. The dim yellow glow of torchlight became distinguishable brightening as they reached the bottom of the fifty or so stairs to reveal a torch-lit passageway. The rattikin was much bolder now, even though Shade and Soul still kept their hands on their sword hilts.

The musty scent of rattikin was strong down here. Now and again a shadowy form would dart across the path along a route intersecting theirs through the ancient catacomb of stone tunnels and chambers in which they now found themselves. Soul stared about, fascinated, “It’s like there’s another city down here!”

When their guide didn’t gesture for silence Shade replied, “This is probably the original town, maybe even dates back to the Old Empire. A lot of the ruins left by the Dragon Wars were simply built over and forgotten about.”

“And so provide a safe haven for us.” a tired, cracked and very old voice spoke. They had reached a circular chamber, well lit and lined with shelf upon shelf of moth-eaten books and shiny trinkets. The clutter overflowed from the shelves into wobbly stacks and tumbled piles on the floor, heaped against the walls and around the ancient desk in the middle of the room like the stepped shores of some strange book and parchment-covered island. There was movement at the desk as they entered. A small, stooped individual rose to his feet from behind the literary detritus.

Despite this new rattikin’s obviously great age, the eyes that peered through the thick round lenses of the spectacles perched upon his wizened, grey snout were bright and sharp as could be. The young guide chattered to the aged one in far quieter and reverential tones than those he’d addressed Shade and Soul in. The elder ended the brief exchange and dismissed the guide with a nod before focussing his shrewd attention once more upon the lycanthropes. “You’ll have to forgive young, Itti, I’m afraid he’s never quite been able to grasp Common Tongue. My name is Meir Hetik, and I am patriarch of Family Meir of Clan Hauser. Well, what’s left of Family Meir, anyway.” He added sadly.

The Clan name brought a wash of relief to the Daemonslayers since they were both familiar with its Grand Patriarch, or Danmiti in rattikin speak, Barlone – an old friend and ally of both Blackjack and Darkclaw for he had been one of Blackjack’s dragonthralls before the curse had robbed Syrax of his true dragon form. Hetik did not miss the recognition in their eyes. “I see you understand why you were brought to this place of relative safety – a friend to our Danmiti is a friend to us all.”

“Then you know who we are?” Shade asked, wondering just how much information got passed around the rat men’s networks.

Hetik looked a little embarrassed, “Actually, no. We know of the Master Assassin and of course Blackjack – Clan Houser is ever in his debt. But we saw you with them and know you are their friends. Now both they and Family Meir need your help!”

“’Debt’? I thought he was just friends with-” Soul stopped when she got elbowed in the side and saw Shade’s warning look. She sighed inwardly guessing this was one of those occasions where you should not ask too many questions. In her experience rattikin could be outwardly friendly but were an intensely secretive people.

“What’s happened here?” Shade asked. He was unsurprised at the confirmation of their friends being in trouble and was certain the rattikin would be able to shed light on the situation.

“A plague, brought upon the whole town by the wizard up in the keep.”

“I thought in the Empire wizards were supposed to be the good guys!” Soul was confused.

Hetik nodded, “He was, at first. My information is incomplete since we learn these things through ‘unofficial’ sources. I suppose you might call it eavesdropping.” He conceded with a little smile, “The red robed mage, Pilan, has lived in the keep for years, researching some artefact he believed to be hidden deep in the bowels of the keep which, you see, was built on a site far more ancient than the town itself. It was something his superiors back in Fortune City thought they could use against the enemies of the Empire. Called the ‘Sphere of Binding’, I believe. Then, just a few weeks ago it all changed and people in the town started to get… sick.”

“Let me guess,” offered Shade, “Pilan found this artefact around then?”

“Yes! After that something was wrong. We used to, ahem, borrow from the castle store rooms – they had plenty and there are ways in through the cellars the humans forgot about long ago. But something happened to the people in the castle, they seemed to stop… being them. I never went myself – I’ve been too old to forage for years - but others saw them and said they had become mindless, doing only what the wizard told them and when they had no task to complete they just stood there and rotted in their boots! In your language we call them ‘Infected’ since the whole of Lekup stinks of disease. The food was left to rot and the stores were not replenished and we were too scared to go back so we sealed the passages to the castle. Then the sickness spread into the town. Some people tried to leave but the wizard keeps a terrible beast – a monster like a big cat with wings and a human face – it hunted them and killed them,”

"Ok so maybe Blackjack was right about the manticores after all," Soul whispered to Shade. Even rarer than dragons, manticores were renown as fearsome, intelligent hunters. They were smart enough to communicate with other races but had a voracious appetite for human flesh which meant they did not make ideal servants for a human wizard. If what Hetik said about Pilan controlling the other townsfolk was correct, then perhaps the spell rendered the beast under his control too.

“As for us, those fit enough to travel escaped to the arms of our Clan brethren in Mull. We’ve lived here unnoticed for generations and were able to leave unnoticed… except for us weak and infirm – we elected to remain; we couldn’t slow down our kin and risk endangering their survival.”

That seemed so unfair. Soul wanted to say something but she also knew about rattikin society. They were there for each other but when it came to life or death, those who considered themselves weaker would never hold back the strong so that their family would have the best chance of survival.

“What about the wizard? Did any of you ever see this thing he found?” Shade asked. His mind was racing, trying to think of what would have caused this sudden misfortune. Perhaps the item had contained an imprisoned demon that possessed the wizard.

“Itti did, though he would not talk for days afterward, poor lad.” Hetik shook his head, his wizened features sad, “Said it was a glowing white sphere and when he looked at it…” he trailed off.

“Yes?” asked Shade anxiously.

The rattikin looked upset and seemed almost unwilling to go on. After a pause though he continued, “Well, Itti said it looked back at him, talked to him with some awful promises asking him to take the ‘sacred plague’ back to us, that it was a ‘blessing’!. Said it near drove him mad!”

“Intoth!” Soul exclaimed.

“Say what now?” Shade gave her a bemused look.

“You know, one of the lesser gods. There’s not much literature on him but he’s the ruler of plague daemons. What if that sphere is to do with him? Maybe Pilan somehow controls those Infected through the sphere (c’mon, the name is kind of a giveaway).” She was on a roll now, “And the carriers are instructed to infect others with those black spores, though somehow releasing them kills them… I guess they’re all used up by then but if there’re enough people under his control losing one or two for the sake of infecting a whole bunch more would be no great loss.”

“The black spores which Blackjack and Darkclaw breathed in.”

“Yes!” and then Soul’s brain caught up with her mouth as the implication of this hit, “Oh, no.” she bit her lip, thinking, “The sphere’s the key to all this, we have to get it away from Pilan and find a way to break the spell before it’s too late for them.”

Hetik put his hands together, “Like I said, we are all in trouble. We need your help!”

Shade nodded, there was no question of that, “And to get into that keep, we’re going to need yours.”

 

End of part 1.

--------------------------------------------------------------------

© I.Davis.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the Facebook page