The evening chorus, an everyday phenomenon yet without a single familiar note amongst all its myriad threads of song, echoed and trilled throughout the timeless forest, a gentle lullaby to the suns sinking in the west.
The thick gnarled and knotted trunks of ancient trees loomed tall and imposing all around. In this lowland area of the vast Greater Wilds that spread across several entire countries from southern Kaborea to the empty land of Silon the silent and gloomy pines allowed for little light to reach the damp and musty forest floor. Though the suns had not yet completely set it was already deepening twilight here in a small clearing where two travellers through this darkened secretive world were setting up camp beside a gently babbling stream.
Looking up from washing her face in the small brook, Soul gave a start when she saw another pair of eyes staring back at her from the opposite bank. Squinting in the waning half-light she leaned forward to more closely peer at the little creature regarding her.
“F’lair?” she said, her tone enquiring.
Shade looked up from where he was piling sticks and whatever dry leaves he could find to make a campfire behind her, “Yeah?”
“What’s this thing?”
“What thing, Mech’?” he asked absently, not looking. Finishing the pile to his satisfaction he cast about for some rocks to ring the fire.
“There’s this weird animal here. It looks a bit like a little rabbit with no ears, big eyes and a huge mouth.” The big, reflective eyes blinked dolefully at her. Soul thought the little beastie was sort of cute in an ugly frog-faced rodent kind of way. It closed its eyes and started to open its mouth, “Aw, look it’s yawning.” Soul smiled, but her expression faltered and her smile faded as the yawn got bigger and bigger, “Aw… oh. Should it be doing that? It’s… ew…” she trailed off as the creature’s lips popped back and its gums turned outwards as its mouth turned almost inside out to reveal long, thin, wickedly sharp and venomously dripping fangs. Suddenly it leapt. Soul squealed and scrambled backward as the thing launched at her face. She shut her eyes involuntarily and felt something breeze past with a meaty, slicing sound. When she opened them again the creature lay on the ground with its head neatly severed. Shade was stood beside her, wiping blood off his katana with a rag before he sheathed it, “That was a Gill’s tarl. You might want to steer clear of them, love.” he said helpfully before returning to the campfire.
Soul stared at the tarl’s bloody remains, feeling a little shocked. Part of her mind absently recalled reading about tarls in one of the extensive bestiaries back at the library in Uth Nagor. They weren’t classed as rodents although their family name sounded a bit like it. Rhododendron familiy? No, that wasn’t it. She shook her head, not really caring anyway. Why did everything here have to be so full of unpleasant surprises? Even listening to the now fading dusk chorus she wondered which of those nearby birds might suddenly swoop from a possibly carnivorous trethak masquerading as a tree and attack her.
The campfire set alight with a flare of magic fire from his sword, the aptly named Fireblade, Shade came over again and picked up the Gill’s tarl’s body, “Nasty buggers but they make damn good stew,” he commented, apparently oblivious to Soul’s worried musings, “Do you want to help me with this?” he trailed off when he finally registered the dejected hunch to her posture and noticed her bottom lip was starting to tremble. He sat down next to her, concerned, and put a protective arm round her shoulders “What’s wrong, hon’?”
“Why is everything in Caevalonia so weird and nasty?”
“I can’t even wash my face without some horrid frog-rabbit thing turning its head inside out and trying to bite it off! Is there anything that isn’t out to get us?” she asked, feeling lost and forlorn. Soul had only been on the road for a few months or so and although the southern continent bore many similarities to her own home, in the lands to the north she was starting to realise just how different the differences really were.
Suspecting such feelings, Shade pulled her closer to him and gave her a comforting squeeze with his arm, “Aw, c’mon Meccha,” she sniffled and leaned against him, nestling her head against his neck almost as if she were taking shelter in his long blonde hair, “I guess it can be pretty overwhelming huh?” he continued, “It doesn’t help that the Greater Wilds aren’t the friendliest place.”
Soul looked up, “You’d say that about your own homeland?”
“Definitely,” Shade replied, his expression darkening a little with distant memory, sometimes he still thought he could hear his brother and sister’s screams… “Anyway” he added more brightly, though his tone was perhaps slightly forced, “there’s a town another day’s ride from here. We’ll be in a real bed tomorrow!”
“With a roof?” Soul asked hopefully, her voice still small.
“With a roof.” Shade affirmed, smiling into her wide, teal eyes.
“And no tarls?”
“And no tarls. In fact, we’re not even having this one.” He said and threw the tarl’s body far into the trees. He was glad when she started to look more cheerful. She got up and went over to the fire.
“So, since you just threw dinner away.” She began. Shade kicked himself, realising what he’d just done, “Do you wanna go hunt while I tend to the fire? That tarl head doesn’t look too appetising and it sure isn’t going to go between the three of us when Blackjack gets back!” she laughed, starting to take heart again. The promise of a night or two in an inn was a good boost for her morale after two weeks of camping out in the open.
Shade nodded then took up his knives, sequestering them in various pockets about his black chimera leather clothing. He paused at the edge of the clearing, “Black’ should be turning up soon. You’ll be okay on your own ‘til then?”
“Sure. Just don’t be too long – I don’t fancy being stuck with just his company!” she grinned.
“I’ll try” he replied with a wink and headed back down the trail they had reached the clearing by.
As he headed along what was barely more than a hunter’s track, following the Steed’s hoof prints slightly deeper than normal since he and Soul shared his mount, Shade reflected on the way Soul must be feeling. He truly felt the weight of responsibility for the circumstances that had brought her here and felt more than a little wretched in the knowledge there was nothing he himself could do to repair or compensate for the damage done save help her find what she had lost. He shook his head and wondered if his woman would ever have even considered him a year ago if she had known she’d end up having her soul stolen by the demon prince Saragoth and being turned into a lycanthrope, leading her to join him and Blackjack more permanently in the hopes of one day finding the demon city of Khisan and recovering it. The answer? Probably not… he heaved a sigh. He knew he would give the same answer if he, his brother and sister had known of the dangers that lurked in the forest beyond their village, then they might never have boldly ventured so far into its silent bowers that day…. He shook his head: dwelling on ‘if onlys’ and ‘might have beens’ was a sure way to drive one insane and he already had Raven doing that for him. He wondered how Blackjack managed. Though cursed to remain different physically he was still a black dragon on the inside and a creature with enough in his past to regret yet somehow, true to his kind, he never seemed unduly bothered by things that would leave anyone else tossing and turning throughout their restless nights.
Speak of the devil.. Shade paused a second when he saw the dark shape appear round a bend in the path but realised immediately who it was. There weren’t exactly many dracosvulfs out there who rode dire unicorns called Knightmare, “Meccha’s in the clearing just up ahead.” He said to Blackjack as he rode past. Blackjack acknowledged this with a single upwards nod; a gesture with many different uses across the continent of Caevalonia, in this case as a sign of recognition for what the dire werewolf had said. Shade did not need to ask if he had completed the task he had left him and Soul earlier to accomplish: the stink of goblin blood on him said all that was needed.
They had been sitting quietly for an hour or so now in the deepening night, neither saying much. Soul munched on a stale bread roll as she tended the fire. or, rather, sat and poked absent mindedly at the sticks at its edge with a knife. As Blackjack washed the blood from his fur she felt just a little sympathy for the goblins that had been stalking them all day – they simply had not had a chance – but she was not exactly going to lose any sleep over it: after all, if the dracosvulf hadn’t gone back to deal with them, then they would no doubt have tried to kill them as they slept.
Blackjack suddenly spoke up “Can I borrow that knife?” he asked, undoing the calf straps that held the metal shin-guard of his boot in place so he could reach the laces with his left hand. With his right he reached over to her, palm up, fingers open expectantly.
“Yeah, sure” Soul took a bite from her bread roll then leaned over to hand him the blade, hilt first, “What for?”
“I need to trim my toenails. They’re chafing a bit” he replied matter-of-factly as he expertly pulled the laces out with a hooked finger and then yanked the boot off. Normally dracosvulfs did not need to trim their claws but because he wore boots most of the time, Blackjack’s did not get worn down as they grew, hence the need to trim.
“Ergh! No! Give it back!” Soul sputtered, spraying crumbs across the fire as she scrabbled to get her knife back.
“Too late: you already gave it me.” He put the blade to the first of his three toes and snagged off a chunk of the ebony talon. It went flying like keratin shrapnel and Soul was sure she heard it ricochet off a nearby tree.
She pouted sulkily then screwed her face up with a look of distaste, “You’ve got loads of daggers and stuff: why can’t you use one of your own?”
“Besides having magical properties, my ‘daggers and stuff’ as you so eloquently put it are finely balanced, precise and above all expensive instruments of death. They are most certainly not nail-clippers. This, on the other hand,” he stopped trimming his talons and held up her knife, “I’d be embarrassed even to refer to this as cutlery.”
“Well have it then. I don’t want it back now.”
“You don’t want what back?” Shade asked, joining them at the fire, a good-sized rabbit in one hand and some herbs he’d picked on his way back in the other. In answer Soul just pointed at the dracosvulf indulging in his pedicure. Shade sat down between them and put down their dinner “Oh. That’s a good idea, actually. Can I use it after you, Black’?”
“Fat chance. I don’t want your toe-crap on my knife.”
“Your knife?” Soul snapped in disbelief.
“I don’t have toecrap!”
“Your memory’s that short? I distinctly heard you say ‘have it’ because you didn’t want it back.”
“Well maybe I changed my mind.”
“But I wash my feet almost every day! I’m undead – how can I get ‘toecrap’.”
“You should have thought of that before you said it.”
“And just what is that anyway? I bet you just made that word up!”
This fascinating, highbrow discussion was interrupted by a sudden sound from the gathering darkness beyond the circle of warm firelight. It had been a vaguely feline sound, starting with a horrible, unearthly keening that turned into a dreadful sharp, throaty bellow that had ended abruptly.
Soul jumped to her feet and stared about “Did you guys hear that?”
“No, because we were both sat with our fingers in our ears singing very loudly.”
“Blackjack, that’s too purile to pass even for sarcasm” Shade growled. He too was on his feet, scabbard in one hand, the other gripping his katana’s hilt ready to draw it at the first sign of trouble. He stared around at the dense trees that lined the clearing, his gaze finally settling on a north-westerly direction, “It came from over there.”
“What do you think it was?” Soul shivered and wondered what new horrors this hostile world was about to reveal.
Blackjack shrugged, “How should I know? I’m not a woodsman.” He pulled his boots on, hopped to his feet and fetched up his battleaxe. The noise had not sounded natural so he wanted to investigate, just in case there was something demonic out there that needed slaying, “Shall we?” he asked, looking over to Shade who was frowning as though he could not quite place a familiar but forgotten memory.
Reluctantly Soul followed, eyeing with suspicion every dancing shadow sent by the campfire in case there lurked within something poisonous, carnivorous or simply vicious waiting for the opportunity to snap at her.
Off the narrow track that passed as the ‘path’ the three had been following that day the woods were thick and passage difficult. Although the acidic resins of the pine trees kept the forest floor mostly clear, there were clumps of thornweed to avoid and sharp, dead twigs and branches sprouting from the trees’ lower levels that clawed at skin, eyes and hair. The meagre slivers of moonlight which filtered through the whispering pines did little to illuminate the way and the light made strange effects in the shadows that did little for already frayed nerves.
As they approached the source of that initial startling noise another became audible, a quiet, unhappy sound somewhere between a whimper and a mew.
“That sounds so sad,” remarked Soul, feeling a little more confident now, “Anything that makes a noise that pitiful surely can’t pose much danger to two weres and a dracosvulf!” she joked.
“Trust me: me and Black’ve had more than enough experience of the lures used by certain demons and netherbeasts. Don’t let first impressions fool you.” warned Shade.
“Oh, we won’t” Blackjack’s heat-senstive vision had already revealed what lay in a clearing only a few yards ahead, “F’lair? Can we have some light? There’s no danger here.”
The eldritch illumination of the Fireblade revealed to them a clearing, about forty foot across with one great gnarly and ancient soash tree growing near its centre. At the base of the tree a deep pit had been dug and, judging by the remains of broken branches and leaves scattered about, at some recent point it had been camouflaged. One low branch of that singular tree reached directly over the pit and from it hung a wooden cage which appeared to contain the source of the miserable noise.
“A cat?” Soul said confused as to why someone would put a household pet in a cage dangling over a pit in the middle of nowhere.
“More than that.” Shade went to the edge of the pit for closer inspection, “It’s a gorrta cub!” The black ball of miserable fur squealed and crushed itself into the furthest corner of its prison as Shade waved the Fireblade toward it. The better illumination revealed it to be a three foot-long creature of feline persuasion, covered in thick black fur. It had touchingly reflective eyes and the big humped shoulders that indicated a physical prowess despite its small size were offset by its nigh-comically oversized paws.
“Aw! Look at it!” Soul beamed a smile and came closer, “Hey little guy, don’t be scared: we’re not going to hurt you.”
“We’re not? Gorrta skins fetch a fair price, you know. A cub’s fur is especially sought after.”
“Absolutely not, Blackjack!” Soul cast him a withering glare then looked back to cub, “I bet he’s missing his mum.”
Stood right at the edge of the pit, Blackjack peered into the shadows beneath the broken camouflage. It was lined with long, slender spines not even half the thickness of a matchstick. He crouched down, leaned far as he dared and just managed to pluck one, sniffed the needle-sharp point and pulled a face at the acrid scent. Poison. “No, Mech’. I think he knows exactly where his mother is. He was being used as a lure for her.” He said, looking down at the large, unmoving black form at the bottom of the pit. The body was still warm.
“Soul pushed him out the way for a look, “Oh no! He’s an orphan!”
“Fur trappers.” Shade mused thoughtfully.
“Doing it the lazy way,” added Blackjack, handing him the spine. “These are loaded with enough lantrik oil to down a manticore, but they’re slender enough not to cause noticeable damage to the desired product. (That’d be the fur, Soul).” He added unkindly.
Soul set her jaw, “Well they’re not having that cub! Blackjack can you fly up and release him?”
“What do I look like - a cat rescuing service? A cub's too dependant, it’ll be a liability.”
“But they’re also impressionable at this age, Sy. Soul, you could train it to ride so you don’t have to be with me on the Steed all the time.”
Shade’s words made Blackjack think, “Well ok, if it means an end to your griping about not having your own mount… But you’d better look after it.” Rather than fly up, Blackjack went round to the tree trunk and climbed, digging in with his claws and the spikes on his toecaps for grip and occasionally using his wings like a crawling bat on difficult parts of the ancient tree. Reaching the branch he walked easily along it then sat down carefully, one leg dangling either side and his long tail wrapped wround it for balance and hoisted the cage up and cut through the rope. “Catch” he said and tossed the cage complete with terrified cub down to Soul who barely managed to catch the wooden construct, almost falling under the weight. She swore at him then checked to see if the cub was safe.
“Hey! You there! What the hells do you think you’re doing?” yelled an angry voice. Shade and Soul spun round and saw three men enter the clearing; two humans and the third, who had spoken, a burly canid. His alsatian-like face was contorted into a fearsome snarl.
Soul ledged closer to Shade, “Is that one a ranwulf?” she whispered, recognising him as one of Tymaera’s half-beast races.
“Yeah.” Shade replied then raised his voice to address them, “In what way is that your business?” He already knew the answer but wanted time to take the men’s measure. He made a careful point not to look up to Blackjack since the three were apparently oblivious of his presence.
“That’s our fur in there, human.” The ranwulf stepped menacingly close, “I’d like to think you weren’t planning on stealing our pelts.”
“You know, they did catch it first,” Shade murmured quietly to Soul, changing to the Kaborean dialect he had started teaching her as the trappers were unlikely to understand.
“But they’ll kill it!” Soul blurted, clutching the cage tightly to her chest.
Shade turned back to the trappers. Arms folded and feet firmly planted in a ‘we’re not budging’ stance he looked the ranwulf in the eye, “Keep the carcass but we’re taking the cub.”
For a moment the ranwulf became uneasy under Shade’s stare – there was something very unsettling about this human but the thought of losing the price the cub could fetch won through over the instincts that screamed at him to run, “A pity we can’t reach an understanding,” he growled. As he spoke he advanced on Shade, towering a full head higher than the blonde.
His attention distracted by the half-beast, Shade did not see the signal he made behind his back or the movement that ensued. The ranwulf suddenly ducked sideways as something rushed through the air at the same moment he heard Blackjack’s belated warning. The crossbow bolt hit square in the right side of his chest with a force that knocked him down coughing on the blood that filled his throat. Behind him Soul yelled in protest as the hunter grabbed the cage, trying to wrest it from her grasp, confident his human companions would finish Shade off.
However, ‘humans’ was about to cease being plural. The two men had heard the warning shout and were looking up into the blackness for its source. The one with the crossbow started to notch another bolt but his hands never completed their task for a fearsome form on bat-like wings black as death fell upon him, breaking his neck with a single clinically efficient twist.
The remaining human started screaming, first at Blackjack (evidently he had never encountered any member of a dragonkin race before), then at Shade as he stood up and pulled the bolt from his chest with an irritated grunt, the wound closing up before the hunter's terrified eyes. He dropped the dirk he had been brandishing and ran gibbering into the woods.
By now the ranwulf had stopped pulling on the cage. He still had his brown-furred hands on it but his attention was thoroughly absorbed by the male Daemonslayers. Soul took the opportunity to deliver him a smart kick to the groin and snatched the cage away as he doubled over with a high-pitched yelp.
Blackjack grabbed him by the hair, yanked his head up and leaned close so they were almost muzzle to muzzle. Ranwulfs were by nature a race of fierce warriors but this one knew against a creature evidently of dragonkin nature he was hopelessly outmatched.
“I hope we’ve reached an ‘understanding’.” Blackjack’s tone was so polite and amiable it even scared his friends.
Transfixed by the mismatched dragon eyes, the left blue the right red, it was all the ranwulf could do to node mutely. Blackjack smiled then pushed him away hard so that he overbalanced and landed on his backside by the edge of the pit. If Shade and Soul had not been around he would have booted him in there and then, but since they were he restrained himself. Instead, with a spiteful glint in his eyes, he hawked and spat off to his left, into the pit. The smell of acid burning the dead gorrta’s flesh, ruining the valuable fur, was unmistakable on the air as they left the defeated trapper to his own devices.
Several days and many hand-fed meals later Soul was able to let the little cub out of its cage for good without fear it might run off, get lost and starve to death.
“Thought of a name for him yet?” Shade asked. He was sat beside her watching with a smile as the gorrta batted a long showlace she dangled before it. It was shortly before sunrise and she had just fed the cub.
Soul pulled a bit of a face, “Yeah, but you’re going to laugh at me.” She said.
“No I won’t.”
“Ok. I was thinking ‘Gor’.”
Shade paused just a little too long as he tried to think of a good reply. “Gor?” he finally said, “Gor the gorrta?”
From where he lay under his cloak Blackjack raised his head, ever ready to stick his oar in “It’s a good name.” He had only just woken up and his voice sounded croaky for it. “Means ‘strength’ in dragonic.” He sat up with a toothy yawn, arched his back and spread his wings to a racket of cracking joints.
“Well if mister know it all here agrees with it then it must be a good name!” Shade laughed. Soul eyed him a little suspiciously; it was sometimes hard to tell when Shade was being ironic but as far as she could tell he was being honest in this instance.
Blackjack just nodded sagely then went to put his sleeveless jacket and boots on, “Hey, where’s my bootlaces?”
But Soul was too absorbed playing with her new friend. She smiled as Gor caught the lace, worried it to ensure it was dead, then came up and dropped it as a ‘present’ in her lap. She petted the purring cub and thought to herself maybe not everything in Caevalonia was so bad after all.
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