Deep within the Evermoors of the Kaborean region of eastern Caevalonia, on an area of raised land within the Fire Swamp stands the dark forest of Ravenswood. Within this dank, overgrown place lie the ruins of a once-proud city long forgotten save for mentions in dusty history books and bards’ tales. Its broken walls and fallen buildings shy away from a great gaping swallow hole at the city centre, and cower under the looming, foreboding hulk of the vast Ziggurat: a great stepped temple-like building at the city’s edge.
The slick black marble surfaces of the Ziggurat seemed almost to glow with a strange radiance in the pre-dawn light. Though this has passed from living knowledge, the Ziggurat predated the Age of Mortals, having been constructed in the accursed time of the Age of Dust. At this time the Veil between the Prime Material Plane and the Netherworlds was torn, allowing the dead to rise and living nightmares stalk the land. But now even the legends surrounding the Ziggurat’s existence had faded into myth and, eventually, obscurity as tales of more recent happenings replaced them.
Several millennia ago the city, once called Uth Lintar, ‘Victory City’, had been razed by Bloodbane, one of the dreaded Seven: a group of dragons who had laid the entire continent to waste as retribution for the near-destruction of their own species by the races of men. Now it was called Uth Nagor, the ‘Forsaken City’. Its once-proud mansions, lofty towers and marble halls lay slowly decaying and unvisited by all but the occasional adventure seeker, searching for treasures spoken of in stories told on dark stormy nights.
Needless to say, these treasure seekers were never a particularly welcome intrusion for the city’s three occupants.
Within the two hundred metre tall stepped base of the Ziggurat, atop of which an obsidian pyramid with four obelisks, one at each corner, rests, a figure was awakening in a huge airy bedchamber.
She was too warm and comfy to want to let go of the fuzzy, hazy world of the half-asleep. But wakefulness was pulling at her consciousness and with it her mind began its day’s work and encroached upon her restfulness. Memories of the dreams that had haunted her earlier that night nagged at her. Memories were stirred of a huge dark place, lit with flame. In this place she had seen something serpentine and alien writhing in a horrible yet transfixing way and her head had been filled with whispers that seemed to drain her sanity. Remembering what she had dreamt she rolled over and reached an arm to the figure sleeping beside her, looking for comfort. But the place was empty. Soul came awake with a start and sat up in the four-poster bed.
In those few moments of post-waking confusion, she stared blearily first at the empty place beside her and then around the chamber. For a split second she wondered where she was before its familiar features resolved themselves. The ceiling was about three metres high and it and all the walls were of green marble veined with black. The floor was black marble with swirls of white. Two of the walls were hung with tapestries dating back to the year dot, depicting battles and monsters, intricately bordered with carrion birds and bones. The third wall opened straight out (via a transparent magical field, to keep the outside out!) onto one of the Ziggurat’s upper steps and offered magnificent views of the city and the swamps and moorlands beyond, stretching away as far as the eye could see. But what she liked best was the view of the sky and the fact she could see the twin suns rise from where she lay in the bed.
It was not quite dawn yet. The sky had barely lightened and most of the stars were still visible. Their strange and fantastical constellations far different from those she had grown up with on another world so many years ago. The room would still have been dark were it not for the gentle glow of the opaque crystal sphere suspended by a wrought iron dragon from the ceiling.
She tossed back the thick furs from the bed and got up, shivering her deeply tanned skin prickling with goose bumps as she pulled on the first clothes she could grab. It had been chilly last night with the approaching winter. Leaving the room she headed deeper inside the building: the dry air was always a little warmer toward the Ziggurat’s core. But it was dead air and reminded her of a tomb.
The corridor had much the same décor as before. It was one of the Ziggurat’s main arteries and was lined with what she considered to be grotesque statues of people and creatures, some of which even she had never seen in her long travels. She paused at a font where water ran from the mouths of two dire wolves, one leering and the other snarling. She drank from the snarling mouth, knowing the water issuing from the other’s maw to be poison and then she headed down a narrow, steeply spiralled staircase leading off from the opposite side of the corridor.
Two and one half levels down she froze as a loud bang, preceded by a brief flash of light echoed off the smooth walls. She hurried on, bare feet pattering on the cold stone as the noise came twice more, quieter each time but still making her jump. On the third level down she turned off the staircase into another corridor like the one above. This was lined with tapestries, not sculptures. She stopped at the yawning entrance to one particular room, opened the door silently and slipped inside.
Once in, she smiled to herself and leaned on the doorframe, folding her arms and watching the man working at the huge bench of the laboratory. He was just over six feet tall, with straggly blonde-brown streaked hair that reached down past his waist, loosely tied back in a ponytail and the long bangs kept from slipping into his eyes with an orange strip of material round his head, like a narrow sweatband, its two long trailing ends reaching his elbows. His skin was deathly pale and his pierced ears slightly pointed, although this did not detract from the handsome features of his face.
Finally she spoke, “What on earth are you up to?”
Lost in deep concentration, he almost dropped the glass flask he was screwing shut, “Don’t do that to me, Meccha!” he admonished, recovering from the start she had given him.
“Hm, I thought you’d have heard me F’lair,” she replied, approaching him.
This was not the main laboratory that the Ziggurat’s previous occupant had used: both Shade and Soul steered well clear of that macabre place. However this one had enough chemicals, potions and glassware stowed in the shelves around the room’s perimeter to keep an army of alchemists busy for an eternity as it was! The main laboratory had been used for other, dark and obscene forms of magic. This was just an alchemical lab.
Shade had been standing at the huge mahogany bench at the centre of the laboratory. Its surface was blotched by various chemical spillages made throughout the years. There was an array of large glass flasks and small, delicate-looking test tubes laid out before him along with several stoppered bottles of dark glass holding liquid and some smaller clear ones containing differently coloured powders.
“So, what are you doing?” she asked again, coming to stand beside him.
He smiled broadly and handed Soul the flask. She held it up to the light for inspection, “Hey, there’s a little vial in there.”
He nodded enthusiastically and then pointed to the corner of the room. It had been cleared of all objects, and the black and green marble was riddled with holes as well as being sullied with soot and dirt, “Throw it.”
She gave him a suspicious look, but did as he asked and hurled it into the corner. The ensuing explosion made them both bolt for cover behind the worktable.
“Maybe a little heavy on the nitric acid,” Shade said with a wince as he sank down from his protective crouch to sit on the floor, his back resting against the bench’s solid wood.
“So that’s what those noises were,” Not wearing toughened chimera leather trousers like Shade’s, Soul carefully checked for broken glass and spilt chemicals before sitting down beside him, “How come you’re suddenly the alchemist today, huh?” she asked, letting her hand fall on his thigh. He responded to the gesture by sliding his arm around her slender waist and leaning her into him. Resting her head on his shoulder, she could just feel the external ribcage armour that was fused with his chest. It rose and fell with the ‘breathing’ he habitually feigned when conscious.
“Kinda takes my mind off things,” he replied at length.
With her free hand she gently took a strand of his long blonde-brown hair. It was long enough that she could have played cat’s cradle with it if she had so desired. But she just choose to idly twist it in and out of her fingers as for some reason F’lair, better known to most by his use-name, Shade, took exception to her getting his long pony tail tied up in knots like that. She knew him well enough not to need to ask what ‘things’ he wanted to take his mind off, “And I don’t?” she asked, the tone of her verbal prod lightly teasing but the motive for asking remaining serious.
“Sure you do, hon. But I thought you were asleep.” He said, turning a bit to his left to face her. He gave her a reassuring squeeze with the arm still about her waist. Wearing her brown stitched suede riding pants and a short top, she could feel his pale skin against hers. Cool, not cold and clammy like she had once, long ago, expected the skin of one such as he to feel. She gave the strand of hair she was still holding a tug, drawing him closer and then gave him a soft kiss on the lips. Their coolness was a pleasant sensation in the warmth of the laboratory.
Shade was returning the kiss when suddenly he flinched back with a muted yelp.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Soul asked in concern.
He held up a hand indicating for her to wait a minute as he pinched the bridge of his nose with the other. The action made the ring piercing that part of his face stand up a bit. His eyes were closed and he wore a frown of concentration. Deep within the levels of his mind a presence, almost always unwelcome, had stirred.
What are you doing trying to do? Destroy my home?! hissed the voice inside his head. The dark soul had awakened with the noise of that last explosion. This is my domain. You should respect it.
‘This is my body…if you want to use it as your home then in return I, at the very least, get to use your place as mine!’ thought Shade back, angry at the unwanted interruption. A few terse words later and the disgruntled being began to sink back into whatever deep dark corner of Shade’s subconscious it was he inhabited. After a moment he opened his eyes again and gave Soul an apologetic look.
Now she could pinpoint exactly what thing it was he was tying to keep from his mind, “Raven.” It was not even a question, “Don’t apologise F’lair, it’s not your fault. We’ll find a way to get rid of him one day.” She said gently, looking at his right eye. It was completely black save for a point of greenish yellow light which served as a pupil. This and the ‘extra’ ribcage where the two outward signs of the presence of Raven’s soul within him. She looked quickly back to his other eye, which was more human but still held a faint greenish glow in the dim light.
“Yeah, and some day we’ll both get our souls back,” he muttered ruefully. Then he turned his eyes from Soul and stared into the middle distance for a moment, “Raven’s gone for now.”
“Alone at last,” she smiled as he slid his arms round her once more. She did not reply to his previous comment as that subject was always a depressing one.
He returned the smile, pulling his lover closer. There was a certain glint in his eyes that Soul liked to see, “Damn right. Now, where were we…?”
“I believe you were about to say ‘Why hullo Blackjack. What interesting and important news do you bring us at this hour?’”
The two of them nearly jumped out of their skins.
The third, and by far the oldest, Daemonslayer was standing at the end of the bench, casually leaning his weight on it through his left arm. His right hand was on his hip. He was looking down at the near-humans with a ‘your species only thinks about one thing, doesn’t it?’ expression on his furless muzzle, totally unabashed at his interrupting the moment.
“We’re busy, Black’, go away,” growled Soul, half-heartedly as she knew that wasn’t going to happen. Blackjack was not the sort of person to take notice of what someone else wanted.
“No can do, Mech’,” he replied, “We ha-” he stopped mid sentence with a frown and sniffed. There was a trickle of blood just starting to run from his black nose. Shifting his weight from the table he wiped it with his finger. From where the others sat on the floor, they couldn’t see the bloody mark left where his left hand had been. Noticing it he quickly lowered his arm again and, using the back of his hand smeared the mark so that it was lost against the dark wood. Customarily he wore a black finger-less glove on his left hand, so the stain did not show. On his right hand he wore a red one of the same style, covering the scars on his palms. The blood was gone from his nose, but there was still a stain on the gold half-ring he wore through his septum, “Hm, that doesn’t normally happen.”
Shade looked up, an expression of concern for his friend on his face. As a matter of course dragons, even cursed ones, did not usually get nosebleeds without reason, “You okay, Sy?” he asked, using the abbreviation of Blackjack’s real name, something only those very few closest to him dared to do.
“I’m fine. I was divining,” He would not have added the latter elaboration for most people. The curse Blackjack was under not only kept him trapped in a semi-humanoid form; it also prevented him from using any of his own dragon magic. To attempt to use it put a great strain on him as he fought against the powerful curse, and trying usually resulted in him getting a migraine. Even so, he had recently discovered one way to make the casting a little easier on himself, even though it still took its toll. Flexing his left hand he felt the sting as the wound across his palm stretched open beneath the glove, “We have to head northwest before the suns rise.”
The other two looked at each other then back to him, “Why?” asked Shade.
Blackjack shook his head. Not telling them he had been divining using his blood, the clandestine art of sanguinomancy, he did however explain that the rest of the reading was too vague. Also his head had hurt too much to make sense of it, “The message came through unusually clear, so it’s probably bad news.”
“Figures,” muttered Soul. “We never get callings to go anywhere for a nice reason.”
“Where’ve you been all week, anyway?” asked Shade rising fluidly to his feet then offering a hand to his girlfriend to help her up.
“Southrot.” The others weren’t surprised and did not bother to pursue the question further. Blackjack spent a lot of his free time at that city: a den of thieves, gamblers and other assorted ne’er do-wells.
Still holding Soul’s hand, Shade looked at the big water clock at the far wall of the room. They did not have long before dawn. “We’d better get a shift on.”
Saying he would meet them outside the Ziggurat, Blackjack turned and headed off down the corridor, the barb at the end of his long prehensile tail twitching from side to side in mild agitation once he was out of their lines of sight. Once outside the oppressive building he felt happier. The city of Uth Nagor and the Evermoors around it were his but the Ziggurat he did not consider to be a part of his territory. It was ancient, built during an accursed time, and had also been the home of the dragon that had inhabited the place where the city now stood. Raven.
He closed his eyes and smiled to himself a little as he felt the cool breeze ruffle the grey fur covering his body, save for his wings, face and tail. The wind tousled the longer thick jet black fur of his mane with its long thin plaits: one starting from each of his temples and hanging down as far as his waist. Putting his upper incisors on his lower lip he let out two short, loud whistles, their pitch too high for human ears to detect. Then he crouched and leapt skyward, black leathery wings carrying him easily upwards. As he flew toward the city centre where the great swallow hole, the entrance to his lair, was he heard another whistle, lower this time. With no need to glance back he knew it was Soul calling for her feline mount, Gor.
It was a brief flight, the ruins blurred beneath his wings. Reaching a clearing about five furlongs across, he stopped beating his wings and glided to its centre. Here, three hundred foot wide, gaped the yawning mouth of a swallow hole surrounded by a broken ring of standing stones. Tilting his wings he circled into its mouth and glided lazily down the eight hundred-foot drop to its dank floor.
At the bottom of the hole he alighted upon the top of a mound of bones and skulls, dried and rotted with the march of the centuries. Down here where the balefire luminescence of his eyes glowed softly in the gloom, the damp walls were riddled with entrances to caves. Some just led into shallow grottoes, others led into the vast, unmapped cave systems beneath this part of the world. The largest led down into his lair. Ignoring that entrance Blackjack went into a small dead-end cove to the right of it, grabbed the travel-pack he usually had stashed there and launched himself upward again, flying toward the circle of light far above.
Soul shivered a little as she waited at the foot of the Ziggurat, her breath escaping in light puffs of steam. With the suns not yet risen the night’s chill still clung to the land. Scanning the overgrown ruins for a sign of movement, she then whistled again for Gor. She turned to Shade as she was alerted by his approaching footfalls. He handed her a rucksack of brown stitched leather, carrying a similar one slung over his own shoulder. Sometimes the Daemonslayers’ profession meant they had to go places in a hurry, so they always kept a travel bag ready. This was one of those times when doing this came in handy, ‘I’m going to go find the Steed’ he announced, walking off and heading round the northern corner of the building a hundred foot or so away.
Alone again Soul stamped her feet to keep away the encroaching chill. Suddenly a flicker of movement in some nearby vegetation caught her eye and then without warning a huge black form leapt toward her. For a split second all her defences came up – a lightning fast instant reaction readying her for a fight, but then mind took over from reflex and her face broke into a smile, “There you are, Gor!”
The hulking feline bounded up to her and nuzzled against her shoulder, almost knocking her over, “I’m pleased to see you too.” she laughed in answer to his enthusiastic purrs – amplified in the big cat’s cavernous chest until they sounded like a distant thunderstorm. He stood patiently as she quickly threw on a saddle, fixed the rucksack to it and then mounted up using the huge hump of the cat’s powerful shoulders to pull her up.
At their tallest point, the top of the shoulder hump, gorrtas could stand as tall as a shire horse. Where the shoulder blades finished sloping down to form the back was where the rider sat. There were no reins as gorrta are steered using the rider’s legs, and the shaggy fur of the shoulder hump provides ample handholds. It was only two years since Soul had rescued her gorrta, Gor, as a cub from a fur trapper and though not yet full-grown he was still plenty big enough to carry a human rider.
Shade rode up beside her on the Steed. A large war-horse covered in rune-inscribed armour and tattered cloth so that almost none of its actual skin could be seen. Through the eye sockets of the skull armour protecting its head she could just see the unnatural blue spark of one of its eyes. The Steed was not a horse. Although it displayed basic horse-like behaviours, it was in truth a created thing. It also transformed if its base horse form was not suitable for the environment it was in but this only happened rarely. On this world, Tymaera, she had only ever seen it in horse form. None of them knew where it came from, just that Shade had ‘inherited’ it from a dark rider some time before he first met Blackjack, but after he had escaped the Spirit World back to the lands of the living. It usually turned up when he needed a mount but it would allow no rider other than Shade unless he gave permission, or was in desperate need.
He scanned the horizons. The skies were clear, a few winking stars still visible except to the east. There the first light of dawn lit the edges of low cumulus clouds, flat-bottomed and heavy as they scudded across the path of the coming dawn. He turned back to Soul, sensing her eyes upon him “Where’s Blackjack? It’ll be suns-up in a minute!”
“I saw him flying toward the Gedreag,” she replied, speaking the ancient name given to the gathering of standing stones ringing the entrance to the swallow hole. The yawning pit in the earth itself had no name. “Tells us to get a move on; then turns up late himself. Typical!”
“He’ll be in time.” Shade was defensive for his friend.
“Whatever. He-” Soul’s words were interrupted by a loud, echoing whinny and the beating of hooves. Along the narrow path that had, once, been a city street leading from the clearing before the Ziggurat to the Gedreag came a winged rider upon a winged horse. The dark form of Knightmare cantered heavily up to the other two, snorting smoke and short-lived sparks into the cool air. The silver horn spiralling up from his brow glowed gently in the dim light. By the way he tossed his head and shuffled his great green-membraned wings the dark unicorn, ever a creature of action, was eager to be off.
“Ready?” asked Blackjack, twisting in his saddle to check that his gear was secured.
“…and waiting.” Muttered Soul.
“Good,” he replied pretending not to hear, “let’s go.”
Shade spurred the Steed into an easy canter followed closely by Soul with Blackjack taking up his customary place at the rear. They left the city on its broken north westerly road just as the large sun Mired spilled its first light upon the land, its golden rays breaking through above and beneath the foreboding clouds on the horizon.
Above the plains-city of Halel, both golden Mired and the small red sun Derim were climbing high in their daily journey from one end of the world to the other. Terrible thunderstorms the night before had cleared the air that for days had been close and humid. Damage to property was being ascertained, adding even more chaos to the already bustling streets as merchants and vendors finished opening their shops and stalls for the new business day.
Out buying food, essentials and, for those lucky enough to have money to spare, luxuries, people of all walks of life crowded the streets, eager to have at least some of their business done before the streets got even more crowded toward midday.
Halel was a city well within the borders of the human dominated Empire, presided over by Emperor Vaal far to the north in distant Fortune Harbour and the majority of the population was human. But, standing as it did on the bifurcation of the Wild Horse River, one of the major trading arteries running from north to south of the populated lands of Caevalonia, peoples of all species could be found here and were well tolerated.
Amongst the crowds walked aloof elves, dwarves, feline degarii, the occasional burly lizardman or centaur. In shady nooks and alleys skittish ratikin fenced their gods. Even the very occasional hssaar, ever drawing wary looks, slid through the masses. Wyrds – mutant humans – too were tolerated here; told apart from the other more animal races by their facial features being more human.
Through the throng a tall figure cloaked in black rode a sleek chestnut equila. A mutated descendant of ordinary horses, it snorted and tossed its head like one, unused to and disliking the tightness of the streets and closeness of the crowd. Beneath the cloak of finest gorrta fur, the man was wrapped entirely in black ninja garb, even his long tail. The only parts of him visible were large, sickle-like claws protruding one from each foot, and a slit in his mask for his eyes, but this was lost in the shadows of his hood.
Realising this was a rider of ill omen the crowds made way without complaint.
Already familiar with the route they were taking the equila, called Pomo, needed little prompting to make a right turn through the narrow gap between a weapons stall and a fortune-teller’s table into an alley barely wide enough for two horses to pass one another. After fifty yards or so the alley broke out into a small courtyard made pleasantly shady by the broad leaves of an auld tree. There were entrances to houses on two sides, including the side partly taken up by the alleyway. One of the remaining sides consisted of a modest set of stables and the final side was the front of an inn. Its well-maintained woodwork painted green and a sign hanging above the door pronounced it to be the ‘Merchant’s Rest’. Dismounting and tethering his equila to a stall, the man entered.
Inside the inn was clean and well kept. Unlike many taverns in the surrounding district this was no ‘brawl-a-night’ place. If any fight were to break out the clientele would see that it was ended quickly, cleanly and, above all, professionally. For this was a place where assassins came to do business.
Pulling back his hood, but still not removing the cowl and mask underneath, Darkclaw strode up to the bar with his fluid, stalking gait and ordered himself a shot of Linfar. The cost of the fine elven spirit was put on his credit without question. Darkclaw may not have been a member of the Assassin’s Guild, but he had by far the best reputation in all Caevalonia. He headed to his customary booth at the far end of the room.
He did not skip a beat when he saw there was someone sat there already and calmly set himself down opposite. There was only one reason why anyone would choose to sit alone at this table.
“May I help you?” Darkclaw asked, regarding the man coolly. He appeared to be in his late thirties, of local origin, stocky build, greying and balding. Dressed in a plain brown tunic the half hssaar, half lizrdman’s eyes were drawn to the glint of a gold pendant around the human’s neck. It appeared to be some kind of signet, but was half-hidden in his clothing. His eye flicked back up to the man’s when the human began to speak.
“There is a contract my associates would like…completed,” he said. Though quiet, his voice rasped harshly. The assassin said nothing so he continued.
“There is a wizard in the city of Mors in the dukedom of Thelaon. Goes by the name of Antonis Kelar. We feel he has-”
“Enough. I know who he is,” Darkclaw cut the man off short. Assassins learned early not to let clients divulge their reasons for hiring. The best Assassins made themselves aware of what their clients were about without them knowing.
“Very well. My associates wish him dead. But there is one other thing…” he left the sentence hanging, seeming to ask the Assassin’s permission to continue this time.
“Go on,” Darkclaw’s smooth, well-spoken voice contrasted with the human’s gruffer tone.
“Antonis is in possession of an artefact,” the speaker failed to notice Darkclaw’s red eyes suddenly narrow, “a disc of two metals. A handsome price would be paid for its return to its rightful owners, my-“
“-Associates?” Darkclaw interrupted and finished for him, sounding bored. He set down his glass with a deliberate finality, “There is no deal here. If you want something stolen, may I suggest you hire a street thug.” With those calm but icily coldly spoken words, he got up and left. As a Master Assassin, Darkclaw could afford to be choosy and his exclusive, elite services did not include his acting like a common thief!
Still seated, the man’s mouth worked silently in surprise as the assassin walked out the inn. Then he slumped down. His masters were not going to be pleased. They had specifically asked for the best service gold could provide and now it had just walked out the door. As he stared at his glass, contemplating the myriad unpleasant possibilities his future held, he did not notice another cloaked figure stealthily approach. He started when a sultry female voice asked him “Just how ‘handsome’ might that price be, my friend?”
To be continued...
All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2005 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul (c) Elsa Lai 2005
Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragon.com forum.