By noon the Daemonslayers had broken free of the twisted, tangled forest of Ravenswood and were now picking their way along a narrow, difficult path through the marshland that surrounded it. The whole region they were in was formed from a vast impact crater from a meteorite that had hit Tymaera when the world was still young. Ravenswood stood on an area of raised land at its centre, then the land dipped down forming the Fire Swamps encircling the forest. Eventually, as the sides of the crater were scaled, the wetlands gave way to moorland toward the crater’s ridge. These moors, punctuated with treacherous bogs and marshlands, carried on for hundreds, even thousands in some directions, of miles.
Having hatched and grown up in the Evermoors, Blackjack had taken the lead. A traveller who did not know the paths as he did would have taken days to escape Ravenswood and then would more than likely perish in the surrounding swamp. As it was the cursed dragon knew the quickest and safest path to take him and his companions in the necessary direction. It was little more than an animal track with a channel of water on one side and a much wider expanse to their left, so narrow that they had to ride in single file. But the ground was solid and they were making good progress.
“We should reach Galder’s Ring before nightfall.” Blackjack remarked referring to the name of the ridge encircling the swampland, “We can rest there before going on to make camp further on.”
Meccha breathed a sigh. She wanted a rest now but knew the Fire Swamps were not an advisable place for it. The pools of still water were deceptively deep, their black depths home to all sorts of fell creatures: Most of them predatory. Although it was from a distance, she had already seen one lurker today, pointed out to her by F’lair as they passed a canal. She had not seen one before and now had no desire to see another up close. So they had to keep moving.
Behind her Shade was scanning the vegetation and waters for signs of movement, feeling more edgy then usual and had been since they had left the higher ground. He had the distinct sensation they were being stalked but had not yet seen proof. One major disadvantage from riding the Steed was that it was more like an automaton than an animal, in that it did not get ‘feelings’. If a normal horse caught wind of something it did not like then it would react, but the Steed would not unless danger was clear and present. This being the case, F’lair was keeping an eye on the actions of Gor and Knightmare up ahead. It was while he was watching them that the great cat Gor suddenly turned his head to the waters in the channel at their right and growled.
A movement caught his eye and his hand snapped to his sword. Meccha drew hers a moment after. As they watched, the channel’s sluggishly flowing waters were disturbed and a dark green fin protruded above the surface for a moment then disappeared back into the murk.
“I hate to disappoint you kiddies, but it’s just a dewfish,” said Blackjack, settling back into his saddle after curiously leaning over to see what their ‘stalker’ was. He had recognised the mottled pattern on the scaly fin identifying it as one of the seldom seen species.
Shade relaxed. Dewfish were of no danger unless you were hapless enough to be in the water with one. He had seen Blackjack catch one once, dragging it clear from the pond it had haunted. Dewfish were basically swimming mouths: their huge maws were always gaping and larger fish could swallow a horse whole. On the one his friend had caught, the body seemed too small for the mouth it carried but Blackjack had explained that its stomach could be distended so room would always be made, no matter how large its prey. This one had probably been sweeping the channel beside them, or may have been following their shadows on the water; hoping one of them would fall in.
As he and Soul watched the channel intently, wondering if the creature would surface again he failed to notice Knightmare toss his mane and dance away from the edge of the mere to their left. Nor did he see the sinuous, writhing tentacle rise stealthily from the water. A warning shout from Blackjack came too late as Shade turned and saw it unfurling and snapping whip-like toward him. Its slimy grasp caught his right arm before he could reach his sword and then it recoiled violently, taking him with it.
With a surprised canine yelp, Shade was pulled clean off the Steed’s back and landed in the shallows as the thing pulled, dragging him toward the deeper waters. He tried to stand up, to gain some sort or purchase, to resist the pull, but foundered as hidden roots and vegetation tripped him.
“F’lair! Hang on, we’re coming!” Meccha leapt off her gorrta and was splashing into the water after him, Blackjack hot on her heels. It was another lurker. These things were dangerous: lying submerged near paths and tracks, lashing out with long tentacles at unwary prey that strayed too close to the water’s edge and then dragging the victim to a watery death. And now one was trying to make a meal of her lover!
As she charged forward she drew her fire sword, willing the blade to ignite. But the momentary shift of her concentration from running to creating the brightly burning flame meant she was caught by surprise and not prepared to compensate when her foot caught on a submerged root. She went headfirst into the dank water, which hissed and steamed where her sword went in with her. Coughing and uttering an unrepeatable curse in her own tongue, she pulled herself up again, then ducked involuntarily as something flashed through the air past her face. So close that she felt the breeze of its passing.
“Hey! Are you trying to hit the monster or me?” she snapped. Despite the situation Blackjack still found time to be flippant and just shrugged at her.
The throwing knife hit home, thudding into the tentacle holding Shade and a burbled shriek sounded from the waters ahead. Dark green blood spurted out as the blade vaporised, returning to its owner’s hand. But this only seemed to anger the beast and a second tentacle writhed up, catching the stricken Daemonslayer about the waist and pinning his left arm to his side.
“Guys! Pull your freking fingers out and do something!” there was a rising note of panic as he yelled desperately, a second before being dragged backwards under the water.
“Nice one, Sy!” growled Meccha out of anger and fear for her man, “All you did was piss it off!”
But the cursed dragon wasn’t listening. Snapping his wings open, he swept them down, launching himself into the air with a loud slapping sound as their leathery membranes hit the water. A few beats brought him ahead of the place Shade had disappeared and about twenty feet above the surface. Suddenly folding his wings he plummeted, streamlined, into the water and was gone, leaving only a foaming turmoil of bubbles in his wake.
Meccha watched the water grow still again, wondering what she should do. Then an idea struck her and she turned and ran back to the path.
The cold silence was deafening. At first Shade had gasped for air, only to draw in a lungful of the brackish water. A natural reaction that could have meant doom, but luckily for him he was long past actually needing to breathe. Although his strength was greater than a living human’s (or, indeed, a lycanthrope’s) still he could not struggle free from the lurker’s iron grip. So now he watched helplessly as the sunslight filtering through the surface slowly dimmed, eclipsed by the murky water. The speed at which he was being pulled down had decreased. He guessed the monster probably waited for its prey to drown before bringing it to its mouth.
Even through his rising panic he felt a detached part of his mind wondering what a lurker actually looked like, having only ever seen them from the surface. Then he shook his head. He had seen one: they were squid-like creatures with mouths like a pike and four huge luminous eyes, sensitive to movement. So why was he thinking – ah, he wasn’t.
The lurker will tear you apart, F’lair.
Shade did not even grace the remark with a ‘Well, d’uh.’
Let me deal with it. You will be back in daylight in no time. Raven’s voice was soothing, insidious. Shade did not doubt that the dracoliche could make short work of the monster. As the watery darkness swallowed him, the notion was becoming appealing. Just sit back and give me control.
“No!” Shade snapped out of it. It was hard enough wresting his body back when the evil soul had taken over on the occasions he involuntarily lost consciousness. He never voluntarily gave Raven control. To do that could result in his being lost. He would not give up on his friends’ aid yet.
His trust was answered. He looked up and saw a shadow darker than the surrounding green-brown murk closer to the surface. It was indistinct at first, gaining definition as it approached. Within the last metre he saw who it was by the approaching balefire luminescence of his eyes, the left fire red, the right icy blue. Blackjack! The cursed dragon hovered for a moment in the water beside him then indicated he was going to swim ahead. F’lair nodded his understanding, then found himself alone again, unable even to twist round to see what his friend was doing. By now the surface just seemed like a distant dream.
Swimming with wings was a nuisance. In his true dragon form, he was streamlined and underwater they were even an asset. But in this semi-humanoid form, they were a hindrance. It was fortuitous lurkers drowned their prey before feeding or he would not have caught up. It was also a good thing that they were in fact warm blooded. Blackjack kept his transparent inner eyelids mostly closed to protect his eyes, but in this gloom he had to open them occasionally to allow his heat-sensitive vision to work, showing him the cool currents in the water in blues, and the warm mass of the lurker and its writhing tentacles in reds. This ability of his species was really to enhance flight by being able to see air currents but was just as useful in submarine conditions.
As he swam past F’lair, it struck the dragon how the man looked even more ghostly than usual: the dank, wan light seeming to leach the little remaining colour from his already ashen skin. His long hair, come loose, floated weightlessly all about him and his own mismatched eyes glowing a very faint sickly green in the dark. Sometimes he wondered why the lycanthrope even tried to act like a living human: breathing and keeping his heart beating, allowing himself to feel pain like he did. Humans and near-humans were a strange bunch, he thought.
He followed the tentacle wrapped round his friend’s waist a few more metres down, careful not to come in contact with it, and stopped. In the water he would not be able to get a decent enough swing of his axe to sever it and his throwing knives were not ideal for hacking or sawing. He shrugged to himself; this would have to be done the ‘old fashioned’ way, then.
Grabbing the tentacle with both hands he opened his long, canine jaws wide and then snapped shut on the appendage. There was no bone, only muscle and cartilage so Blackjack’s teeth, driven by powerful jaw muscles, tore easily into the flesh. The thing’s blood poured into his mouth, the foul taste making him balk, but instead of reeling he clamped down more firmly and hawked, raising bile in his throat and allowing it into his mouth. The powerful acid had no effect on him but it burned into the lurker and the tentacle began to convulse.
A little more force and finally his jaws met, crunching through the acid-burned cartilage and flesh. His work done, Blackjack released the torn stump of flesh. He kept his mouth open a little as he turned back toward the surface, hoping the water would take away the awful taste. Unlike F’lair, Blackjack had a very definite need to breathe: he could feel his lungs begin to burn and the pressure of the water this deep was making him dizzy as he struck out for the surface.
The water was suddenly filled with the rumbling of the creature’s pain. The grip around him loosened and Shade managed to free his arm. Without warning a violent shudder went through the limb holding him, its sudden constriction crushingly painful until suddenly the pressure around his waist was released. Gratefully he threw off the now flaccid severed coil and kicked up toward the surface, then stopped and looked back down. There was no sign of Blackjack.
Shade was about to dive back into the depths but realised he would be diving blind in the murk, so he went up to the surface for a better look.
About three metres from the surface, something snagged his foot. He looked down to see what it was and then swore to himself. The lurker had not learned its lesson! A tentacle had caught round his foot and ankle. Reaching down, Blackjack jammed his claws into it and dark blood floated away, dissipating into the water like smoke in the wind but still it would not let go. A movement in the cold water below warned him that another was on its way up. Before he could react it appeared fast as a striking snake from the gloom and wrapped around his other leg. Then both pulled with such a violent jerk he let out a gasp. Something he instantly regretted as the air bubbles escaped carrying precious oxygen with them.
The air burned beneath Knighmare’s hooves as he hovered above the lake. His wings were spread, the red skin over their structure contrasting with the translucent green of their membranes, but hardly beating. They were more for show, really, for he was a creature of magic and did not need to obey the laws of physics.
Perched at the nape of his neck just ahead of those wings, her sword back in its scabbard, Meccha now held her solar disc in her hands and was glancing alternately from the blackness beneath up to the heavens above. It had become cloudier and she was praying to any gods that would hear her for the golden disc of Mired not to be obscured. The water was opaque to her so she was looking for any kind of disturbance on the surface that might be one of her companions. Or the lurker.
After what seemed an eternity, her vigil was rewarded. She saw movement in the water and then Shade broke the surface, coughing and spitting in an effort to clear his lungs so he could speak.
“Has Black’ come up yet?” he shouted. Looking around as he trod water, the absence of anyone else at the surface answered the question for him. Still, Meccha shook her head.
“No! Where’s the lurker?”
F’lair swore to himself then called aloud. “It’s right under me. I’m going back down there.”
“Wait!” from her high vantage point, Meccha could see some bubbles rise to the surface a few feet to Shade’s left. It was the only other sign of movement. With a quick glance up she saw the suns were about to be swallowed by a low cloud. She would have to take a chance, “Stay where you are!”
Holding up the solar disc, she angled the smooth golden face to reflect down onto a spot between F’lair and the bubble.
Shade saw what she was doing but before he could voice a protest, the sunlight caught and a lazer-like beam of brilliant golden light drilled into the water, lighting the whole lake with a yellow glow from within. Shutting his eyes too late he was temporarily dazzled by the glare, and had to swim blindly as the water began to heat and bubble where it hit. Then the clouds came and the light was gone.
“Black’?” Shade looked around as his vision returned. The surface was deathly still again, “Syrax?” he usually only used Blackjack’s real name in full when he was either really angry, or really worried.
Meccha bit her lip, as she tended to do when agitated. What if the beam hit him? She and the dragon had their differences to say the least, but he and Shade where the closest thing to family she had.
An explosion of water near the shallows ended the awful silence. With his first deep, rushing breath Blackjack ended the silence very definitely with a demon curse-word so awful it withered some of the rushes near him.
“Sy! You’re ok!” Meccha exclaimed
“Yeah. Even with your efforts to broil me alive.” He responded flatly after a few moments of coughing up water.
“So much for gratitude” she muttered as Knightmare trotted back down to solid ground leaving a trail of burning hoof prints hanging in the air a few paces behind. Once they landed she jumped off and Gor, who had been pacing at the water’s edge, made anxious by the sight of his mistress suspended in the air upon Knightmare, nuzzled against her shoulder. She watched as the other two lurched their way out of the lake.
Shade was just about able to stand now in the shallows, his long hair flattening against him in straggly strands as he rose, hanging down past his hips. His black leather trousers and armoured vest squelched wetly. Blackjack looked like a drowned rat. His grey body fur and long back mane were plastered against him, looking matted and bedraggled. They looked worse than a pair of marsh trolls.
She said as much and laughed until Blackjack coolly pointed out she looked like an earth golem with a sense of humour to match. Earth golems did not know what humour was, but the first bit was true – she was still covered in muck from her fall and had forgotten in the fray.
In truth Blackjack was just sore from being rescued: despite his complaint he was well aware he probably would have drowned by now if not for Soul’s timely intervention. The laser-like beam from her Solar Disc had either killed or grievously wounded the lurker. It had let go almost instantaneously and all the way up to the surface he could taste its horrible blood in the water.
When he reached her, Meccha flung her arms round F’lair and they kissed. Blackjack just hauled himself back onto Knightmare, “Lets go. Unless of course you want to stay on the menu out here.”
The post-storm relief did not last long. Preferring to be active in the hours of darkness, Darkclaw had returned to his house on the city’s outskirts to sleep the rest of the day through. But as the mid-morning suns had travelled their celestial arc, passing their zenith and burning their downward path to the western horizon the day had become increasingly humid and muggy once more. An almost uncomfortably warm sirocco was blowing north up from the desert.
Being half lizardman – a race accustomed to warm humid conditions, and half hssaar – the snake-like desert dwelling people, this kind of weather did not normally bother him. But today was different. There was something in the air, or perhaps at the back of his mind that left him unable to find rest.
Now the afternoon had worn into evening and the suns were descending into their place of rest. Having found no peace the Master Assassin, now stripped down to just the black sleeves he wore on each arm and trousers torn off partway down his calves, stood on his balcony watching them sink. Mired was disappearing first, its golden light turned rusty orange. The smaller sun, Derim was right behind. As Mired’s light waned, Derim’s red, duller light bloodied the landscape.
Closing his eyes, Darkclaw took a long drag of the bremulen leaf roll up he held delicately between his right middle and index fingers. He held the slightly spicy smoke for a moment before exhaling in a long blue-tinged plume that was carried away on the breeze. He opened his eyes again.
The cityscape rising on its gentle hill before him was cast into stark red and black relief. Its minarets, white villas and marble towers, though not as impressive as those of Ishter further south, stood tall and graceful. But in this light they seemed to stab at the purpling sky above.
“Not quite a Blood Dawn, but a bad omen nonetheless” he mused, frowning his scaly brow as he leaned with both hands on the carved white marble railing, now touched red. The electric blue complexion of his slender but muscular form appeared dark in the ruddy light and the long, fine scales that made his ridge of indigo ‘hair’, spiky at his brow then tied back in a feathery ponytail reaching past his shoulders, look almost black in the light. However, the sunset intensified the reflective red of his eyes, and the contrast with which his black oval pupils stood out. ‘Not good at all.’ He reiterated to himself.
With the wisdom born of years, none of which had taken a physical toll on his body thanks to a pact made centuries previously, Darkclaw had long ago learned to trust in his instincts. Even the faintest niggle could be of vital importance and now was no exception. All day his thoughts had returned unbidden to the man at the Merchant’s Rest.
Although his glimpse had been fleeting the pendant he had worn troubled him, as did the mention of stealing an item from a wizard, especially one of such renown as Master Kelar. Antonis was a powerful wizard and a well respected one. He sat on the Council of Mages, a select group who governed the use and teaching of magic within the Empire. A select and extremely powerful group. Over the years Darkclaw had been contracted to inhume several of its members (on occasion by other council members!) so being asked to assassinate one was not the issue.
The issue was that these wizards often had in their possession objects of great power, frequently entrusted to their care to prevent their fall into the ‘wrong’ hands. It bothered Darkclaw that had he managed to get a better look at that pendant, he knew he would have recognised it. There were all kinds of churches and cults on Tymaera, serving all the different gods both of light and of darkness. He had a feeling that whichever one this man had belonged to, it was not one of the good ones.
When he had been younger, during darker years in his life, he had served dark gods. Now, though far from a servant of the light, he no longer walked those paths. He was no hero, but he had been introduced to some of the threats this world faced and for some reason this had awoken a moral sense in him. A greater purpose. Although he still followed his clandestine profession, he would not take up every contract offered, and even went so far as to only choose those he thought to be beneficial to the Balance he had learned must be kept. He had the feeling it would be bad news for whatever object it was this man’s ‘associates’ sought to come into their grasp.
Leaning forward further so now his elbows were propped on the railings, Darkclaw steepled his fingers and watched the sunset over them.
Inaction will be your loss and their victory he remembered a teaching from his youth so long ago. To be so bold as to dare ask him to steal something, these people must want the item very badly. If he had turned the contract down, then they would most likely find another to fulfil it for them.
He sighed then took another drag. His plans for tonight had involved wining and dining Eya-Callen, a beautiful lizard woman. Or perhaps meeting up with Leeni, who was a reptilian wyrd but her ‘company’ was delightful. And those massages… Then again, there was always… No. He sighed again, exhaling more hot smoke. Such enjoyable distractions would have to wait. This was important and to be alerted to it meant fate had given him the responsibility to act.
Derim was set. Now a sunless twilight lit the land but would quickly fade. This responsibility did not mean he had to act alone. He needed information and knew where to get it. Extinguishing the cigarette he turned his back, with its deep blue tattooed design, on where the suns had died their daily death and went inside to gather his things.
To Mors, then. But first a diversion he hoped would lead to some answers.
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.