'Feed the Gods' - part 5
The marshy land became increasingly dry and firm over the next few days’ journey. Peat bogs and fenlands were replaced by mile after mile of featureless heath and moor land until on the seventh day an increasing number of huge, irregular boulders lay strewn across the landscape and broke up the Evermoor’s flat, empty terrain. They looked as though some giant of obscene proportions had hurled them at random from the Griffin Peaks still far distant to the north. Common folklore suggested this was not so far from the truth. The persistent wind still blew and moaned sadly as it swirled past the black, lichen-mottled rocks.
“These mark the end of my territory,” stated Blackjack as they passed a particularly large boulder, at least twenty foot high and well over fifty in length. It lay right next to the narrow, overgrown path and he leaned over Knightmare’s folded wing to touch its black, pitted surface, letting his claws scratch into it as he passed.
Meccha looked back at the incongruous stone, finding its presence curious “Volcanic rock? Where are these from?” She had journeyed this path once before but with F’lair only and had not thought to ask until now.
Shade pointed toward the rugged line of shadows on the horizon “Mount Silent in the Griffin Peaks. Apparently it was a devastating eruption: all that’s left of the mountain is a huge caldera. That’s where Clearwater Lake is now. It was thousands of years ago, anyway.”
“I remember that,” said Blackjack suddenly.
“Really?” Meccha looked back at him, noticing the dracosvulf’s face had an almost wistful look as his gaze drifted to the faraway mountains.
His eyebrows drew together in a slight frown as he concentrated on long-forgotten memories, “It happened at night. The whole of the northern sky lit up and the noise was awful. Then the next day the suns didn’t rise, nor did they the day after. Then the next few winters were really bad, a lot of creatures died – even some other dragons I knew… I was able to expand my territory a lot, thanks to that.”
F’lair had slowed the Steed until he was riding abreast with Blackjack, curious, “When did you get those memories back?” he asked. He felt pleased for his friend: the amnesia Blackjack suffered thanks to Shine and her curse was a constant thorn in the dracosvulf’s side. Although the cursed dragon had regained some recollection of his life prior to his transformation, there was still a long, long way to go.
Then again, it’s entirely possible Syrax recalls more than he lets on, suggested Raven’s insidious voice. F’lair pretended to ignore this, his mood darkening at the monster’s soul eavesdropping on his thoughts.
Blackjack wasn’t paying attention, his gaze still on those distant mountains. He smiled and half-laughed to himself, “I was little more than a wyrmling: in human terms, a child. Y’know, I actually thought that the legends were true: that Prophecy had been fulfilled and Ultharis had finally returned and swallowed the suns. I was shitting bricks for the first few days – I didn’t know it was an eruption so I thought the Age of Darkness was upon us already and with it the Turning of the World! I spent three days hiding in a cave until the skies cleared enough for sunlight to come through again.”
Shade looked at him quizzically. Somehow it was hard to imagine the ‘worldly wise’ Syrax as a naïve ‘kid’, cowering in a corner believing in a myth like the Return of Ultharis.
Unaware of the scrutiny Blackjack shook his head and said to no one in particular “What a waste of three days.”
“The naivety of youth, huh?” smiled Meccha, thinking she would probably have felt the same if something like that had happened when she was a child, before she had learned more than she ever wanted to of the world and what lay beyond, “I can’t believe you, of all people, just admitted to that though.” She added.
“Everyone has a learning curve to scale, Mech” he replied archly, “At least us dragons don’t require potty training, unlike your species.’ The unhidden contempt of the last three words indicated this rare moment of insight into Blackjack’s inner workings was over.
The boulders stretched on for miles, as far as the eye could see toward the foothills in the distance. Most were small, no bigger on their longest axis than the height of a child. Some, on the other hand, were huge, bigger than houses. They rolled by as the Daemonslayers rode along in companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts. The day wore on as the miles stretched out. By late afternoon the broken clouds whose shadows had dappled the landscape, their shifting patterns lending the rocks an eerie, disquieting sense of movement, were all but gone. The early autumn sky was left cold and clear revealing the brother suns as they dipped toward the horizon.
About an hour before sunset the ancient road had dwindled to a track, barely more than an indentation in the grass. It ended abruptly at a t-junction with a wide, much better maintained path (on a relative scale). The new ‘road’ consisted of two sets of cart tracks that someone had once attempted to spread gravel over. To the west the road showed signs of the same cobblestone build that the Uth Nagor road had once had. Much of the original stone was missing or worn to almost nothing, but that which had gone had been replaced with bricks and seemed to be in good repair. To the right, carrying on eastward, there was no sign at all of cobblestones, and the road was simply a track of bare earth with the occasional lump of eroded stone embedded in the earth. This suggested the eastbound road was much newer. That said, however, both roads looked to be pretty old.
There was a single signpost of dry, bleached wood coloured only by bird-droppings. The paint that had once filled the grooves of the engraved lettering had long since cracked and flaked off but the indentation of the words could still be made out with some imagination. To the east was the word ‘Southrot’; to the west, ‘The Empire, Stobell, Maldeep, Clearwater’ though it looked like the word ‘Maldeep’ had been scratched through. Back the way they had come was ‘Uth Nagor, enter at your perril’. They chose the western road.
Shade rolled his eyes as they rode by, “Why didn’t they just put ‘Adventurous Morons Go This Way’ on it instead?”
The day wore on until finally, as the shadows lengthened and reached out like crooked fingers toward the night in welcome to the approaching darkness, the three left the road to make camp in the lee of a giant boulder.
Pomo trotted over the encroaching autumn’s first victims, the browned fallen leaves swishing and rustling beneath her hooves. She was a desert-bred equila - renown as the most sleek and graceful of the species. A fan of aesthetics, Darkclaw however valued the fact they were the fastest of their kind above this. Her two hooves were broader than a horse’s and did not need to be shod, giving her rider the important advantage of stealth.
Although he did not travel in a manner indicative of him making haste, Darkclaw kept Pomo at an optimum pace for both speed and to avoid tiring the beast. He had kept this up for the last three days and had now left the Halel Plains behind as they entered the hill country that lay parallel to Mors. The diversion was a roundabout but necessary route and it would be another day at least before he reached his first intended destination.
For now he was enjoying the ride. The deciduous forest covering the hills was just beginning to burn with reds and yellows amongst the last greens of the dying summer. Songbirds and tree rats hopped and scuttled through trees and bushes, helping themselves to berries and autumn fruits. Although no expert woodsman, he could tell he had the path to himself - there was no sigh of anything other than animals passing here for quite some time. Not much of a surprise considering how seldom-used this road was. Some of the animal tracks were quite recent though.
He was leaning forward, idly scratching between Pomo’s ears and horns - a place equilas liked to be petted - when movement to his left snapped him alert. Although already hidden by the hood of his cloak, he pulled his mask up over his muzzle as he scanned the nearby foliage. He felt eyes watching him and did not take long to locate them. Up ahead just to the left of the path the bushes rustled and a large creature stepped out. It was of a vulpine nature but larger than any fox should be. Its anatomy was also wrong for it looked as though it would have been just as comfortable standing on two legs as it currently appeared on four.
Twenty foot ahead it just stood there, staring. Darkclaw returned its gaze and noted the eyes held intelligence beyond a simple animal. Also Pomo was acting strangely, as if unsure whether to treat this creature as a threat or a human. This was neither a demon nor a wyrd then, leaving one possible answer:
‘It’s a while since I’ve met a werebeast. Is there something you want or are you just going to stand there in my way?’
The creature cocked its head, taken aback. Then it gave a short, clipped bark, turned and trotted off into the woods.
Patting Pomo’s neck reassuringly, Darkclaw urged her forward. Some shapeshifters were solitary beings, others gregarious. He knew almost more than he wanted to about lycanthropes and supernatural dire werewolves, but beyond that his knowledge of werefolk – those who could change at will into animal form rather than being forced to like lycanthropes - was sketchy at best and he knew nothing of werefoxes. As Pomo resumed her long-distance trot he kept a sharp vigil in case there were others.
Midday, then afternoon came and went and the assassin sensed he was alone once more. Now and then he felt the gaze of unseen eyes and remained alert but relaxed enough not to get stressed and tired. He was not about to go wasting time and effort charging off into the woods just to find some near-human who was probably only following him because this was its territory anyway. For all he knew, the were might be little more than an animal: tales of shape-changers who were ‘too far gone’ were commonplace in the wilderness.
Toward sunsdown he allowed himself to relax some more. There had been neither hide nor hair of any watchers for the last few hours and Darkclaw began to think he had been correct about his territory theory. He reached into one his many hidden pockets but unlike most this did not contain a concealed weapon, poison or antidote. From it he produced a pre-rolled bremulen cigarette and a vial of tinder oil. He let a drop of the oxidising agent fall from its special, air-tight container, waited a moment for it to ignite and then took a long, pleasurable drag. He breathed the smoke out in a long steady plume that hung ghost-like in the still, cold air.
A sudden loud, sharp and familiar bark up ahead made him almost choke on the second lung full. It was answered by a lupine howl from less than a hundred yards to the right.
Dropping the cigarette and yanking his mask back on, Darkclaw reined Pomo in and scanned his surroundings. He was in a small clearing but the woods all around were too dense to allow him any hope of seeing in properly. This is why I prefer city work, he thought with a sigh. A growl from behind made him spin Pomo round just in time to see a large form, moving so fast it was a blur, disappear off the path. It must have been at least bear-size.
Poised, hands ready to access any number of instruments of death, Darkclaw sat stock still as the snarls and rustlings went quiet. Too quiet. His hand went to the hilt of one of his silver-edged daggers. He knew lycanthropes to be vulnerable to the metal but he was unsure about other types of shapeshifter. Still, better to err on the side of caution than be dead.
A patter of feet and a snarl sounded from the left. The assassin waited until the last possible moment then jumped. The form of the were-whatever sailed harmlessly through the air above Pomo where Darkclaw had been sat an instant earlier, but it was turning to make another attack before it even hit the ground.
Darkclaw landed in silence, his slender form a gaunt, sinister shade of death in the long shadows and failing light. He identified his first assailant as a were-panther but before it could strike again a second were lunged out of the undergrowth at him. Large, quick and rat-like, the creature still was not fast enough to dodge the assassin’s lightning kick, let alone get its own attack in first. Although Darkclaw twisted his foot to avoid disembowelling the being with his sickle like dewclaw claw, his attack was powerful enough to land the were-rat on the other side of the clearing.
Seeing this, the were-panther hesitated a moment before it charged again, a lunge that seemed affectedly clumsy to Darkclaw as he effortlessly side stepped. The quietest of noises from behind made him realise why - a ruse! He ducked instinctively, almost before his brain consciously registered the second were-panther that had been sneaking stealthily behind. A clawed paw swiped through the air, trimming the trailing ends of his ponytail. It pressed forward with a roar and Darkclaw spun to block the second strike, dodged the third and then attacked with a precision blow aimed at its shoulder with the edge of his hand. There was a sickening crack and yowl of pain as the joint dislocated.
This move did not go down well with the first were-panther. Its eyes narrowed, muscles tensing and Darkclaw readied himself for another attack. In the periphery of his vision he could see yet more animalistic forms moving in the clearing now. Great. The emperor’s menagerie’s after me! A yelp of pain from behind indicated one of the creatures had strayed too close to Pomo. Though no war-horse, the equila knew how to fight!
Surrounded, he let his right hand drift to where some of his throwing stars were concealed. He preferred to avoid using his weaponry if possible but it was starting to look like he was running short on choices.
The were-panther attacked with such a gutteral, furious snarl that Darkclaw wondered if the one he had injured was its mate. He back flipped out of the way. As the world tumbled past he saw the were-bear he had glimpsed earlier. In terms of sheer strength that beast would be a definite threat. Better neutralise it, he decided.
Still airborne, he reached out a hand, twisting his whole form and touching off on the creature’s shoulders. As he pushed down, launching himself into a second flip, he squeezed two certain pressure points at the base of its neck. With a surprised growl that trailed off into an almost human sigh, the were-bear slowly collapsed into an unconscious heap, nearly landing on the were-fox next to it.
Having flipped himself around in mid-air, Darkclaw landed lightly some yards away facing the toppled were. Already the fox and panther were running toward him and he sensed more werefolk circling in the forest beyond the edge of the clearing behind him. Although he considered killing without a contract to be highly unprofessional and bad for one’s reputation, he was not about to make that into an advantage for these near-humans. Adopting a defensive posture, the assassin drew his sword.
The elegant vorpal blade did not reflect light, despite being metal, polished and well cared for. Forged during the time of the Old Empire, using techniques long-forgotten, the unique alloy of the folded blade allowed it to flex like the supplest of saplings. Only dire werewolves were invulnerable to all but silver so he knew this weapon would do the job.
The were-fox that had narrowly missed being used as a pillow by the now-sleeping bear was the first to attack. Its lips were drawn back to show gleaming teeth in a silent snarl. Powerful muscles barely concealed by its well kept russet pelt bunched and then released as it leapt, yellow eyes fixed on the reptile before its throat. Darkclaw brought his sword up, racing to the first and last strike.
“STOP!” A loud, clear and urgent voice cut through his and the fighters’ concentration.
The were-fox contorted mid leap to avoid the assassin while Darkclaw lowered his blade, but not his defences. He looked over in time to see the woman who had spoken as she stood up, in the place the were-panther he had felled had lain. She was clutching her shoulder. Her features were feral but as she stepped forward he saw they were shifting, changing rapidly to reveal a beautiful face, sleek and powerful beneath her dark skin. She looked a little strained from her injury but there was an affable smile upon her full lips that failed to reach her emerald eyes.
“I fear there has been a misunderstanding.” She looked to the panther stood protectively beside her. It growled and then stood, no, flowed upward into the form of a man. Not looking to the assassin the shape-shifter put his hands upon her injured shoulder and with a sharp crackling twist relocated the joint. She grunted in pain as the bone popped back into its socket then nodded to him, “Thank you, Rhaka. The rest of you stand down!” she commanded, looking round the clearing to the other werebeasts.
Darkclaw sheathed his knives and folded his arms in a relaxed stance; he knew his weapons were not far away. All around there were snarls and growls as the beasts he had fought transformed. Although they became human their features still bore feral echoes of their wereforms. The woman spoke to him again and he admired her unusual grace as she stepped forward again, “We have not met but I believe you reputation proceeds you, Darkclaw. I am The Panther and these are my associates.” He nodded in recognition but remained silent. The Panther and her werebeast mercenaries were certainly not unheard of and Darkclaw had suspected the identity of his attackers – how often did such disparate creatures band together in such union?
“Forgive the attack,” Panther continued, “My over-zealous scout, Fenic” she pointed to the were-fox, a young lad now and blushing furiously “thought you were tracking us.”
“How do you know I was not?” he asked, red eyes gleaming.
“None of us are dead yet,” she replied simply, “After all, your reputation as the professional assassin is unsurpassed.”
Darkclaw smiled then and swept low in a polite bow, fancy but not extravagant enough to be mocking, “My lady, I cannot dispute that fact, even if I say so myself! Apologies for the shoulder – our paths seem to have crossed in a most unfortunate manner since we both exhibit a preference for travelling the Empire’s ‘quieter’ roads.” He was no believer in coincidence and though he wondered what quirk of fate had led to this meeting, he was by no means foolhardy enough to try and pry into the mercenary’s affairs. He called Pomo over and was about to swing into the saddle, his eyes still on the shape-shifters but paused when Panther spoke again.
“We’re going to make camp here. Since we travel the same road you are welcome to share our campfire.” She offered.
He smiled again but shook his head, the thin elongated scales that formed his ‘hair’ glittering a little as they caught the dying rays of the suns, “Thank you but no; I have deadlines to keep.” Panther’s smile told him he’d caught the joke he hadn’t been able to resist slipping in. In a fluid motion he bowed again, this time catching her wrist and kissing the back of her hand before swinging up into Pomo’s saddle. The flash of protective jealousy in the were-panther Rhaka’s eyes did not go unnoticed but Darkclaw ignored him disdainfully, “If we are to meet again, may it not be blades first.” He smiled then kicked Pomo into a trot and left the clearing, one eye on his back.
No, he was no believer in coincidence and as he rode on into the forest, one eye on his back, he wondered what future designs of fate had begun with this meeting.
Meccha awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright with a gasp as her consciousness wrestled free from the nightmare that had hounded her throughout the last hour of sleep.
The creature was gone, but even as she looked around the camp, she could still see the image of its writhing coils and hateful eyes. She drew up her knees and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. Her hair fell forward as she lowered her head and made herself take a few deep breaths to slow her rapid breathing and pounding heartbeat. Then she lowered her hands and opened her teal eyes. All was as it should be once more.
A thin mist lay all about, hovering in a soft gossamer layer about two feet above the ground, engulfing the tops of the taller grasses. Above it she could see Shade, still on watch, sitting on a boulder some twenty yards away. A silhouette against the lightening eastern horizon he was sat perfectly still save for loose strands of his long hair whipping about behind him in the incessant wind.
Across the still warm ashes of last night’s campfire lay Blackjack, flat on his back with his wings sprawled open. He was sound asleep, jaw slack with the waning moonlight catching his teeth. Soul entertained the notion of finding a worm and dropping it in but after a quick look around she failed to spot any handy annelids and decided it would be more trouble than it was worth anyway.
She rolled back her blanket and stood slowly, stretching stiff muscles and rubbing at aching joints. Travelling through Caevalonia in the summer was a great experience but in the colder months of the year it was someone less pleasant. Out on the exposed Evermoors the temperature could plummet and despite the tall grasses acting as a windbreak the ground had been hard, cold and lumpy. As she stretched her arms again Meccha offered a quick prayer to anyone who might be listening for her to be able to sleep in a real bed very soon. Her elbow joint cracked loudly and Shade’s head jerked up. Even at this distance she could see the faint glow of his eyes as his gaze located the source of the noise. He beckoned her over in response to her cheerful wave.
In between glances back to the object he had been watching for the past hour, F’lair regarded Meccha as she approached through the tall grass, the mist braking into tendrils and swirls as she passed. He found the unconsciously sensual swap of her hips almost hypnotic though the spell broke when she let out a stifled squeal of surprise as she disturbed a nesting blue-tail. It exploded out of the vegetation, wings whirring and left a trail of downy feathers in its wake. As she put her hand to her mouth and started laughing F’lair realised his sword was already half drawn in a reflex to the sudden movement. He banged the pommel with the heel of his hand to slam the blade home as he reached down with his other hand to assist Soul up onto his perch. He slipped his arm around her waist as they sat together and she leaned in to kiss him but the moment was brief as he realised he must be cold as the stone upon which they sat and despaired that he could never match the warmth of her lips, and nor could he warm her as she shivered slightly in the breeze.
“Exciting night?” asked Soul. She stared toward the lightening east, oblivious to his inner strife.
“Not really,” Shade wondered if she was changing the subject. Had she come seeking a warm embrace only to be reminded warmth was something he could not offer? He told himself to snap out of it and looked back to what he had been studying before, “Except for one thing. See over there? This marsh troll was –.”
“A troll? Why didn’t you wake us?” demanded Meccha.
“I was going to but then it just kinda… died.”
“It just keeled over?”
He nodded, “Yeah. I thought I might as well wait ‘til you two got up and the light was better before checking it out.” Shade was certain the monster hadn’t just had a heart attack and dropped dead. He had the impression something had happened to it but he hadn’t been able to see it and, to be honest, hadn’t much fancied abandoning his watch and going over there without backup.
Leaving Blackjack happily snoring away, Shade and Soul pushed their way through the tall grasses until they reached the troll. It was indeed dead. Its body seemed desiccated though not through dehydration.
“It’s as if something sucked the life right out of it!” said Soul. “But what?”
“And why didn’t it attack us?” mused Shade. He thought back to his discovery of Belline’s corpse – though she had been lying peacefully in her bed, she had looked as if her life force had been removed by something other than a natural death during her (now eternal) sleep.
Their questions went unanswered and neither the troll’s body nor its surroundings offered any further clue. No tracks, no scent, nothing. Baffled, the lycanthropes gave up and went back to break camp. When he finally got up, not even Blackjack could offer an explanation after inspecting the corpse and as they continued on their journey the mood was quiet and tense.
As the days and miles passed the journey remained uneventful and it was the increasingly difficult and rocky terrain that now occupied the Daemonslayers’ minds as they picked their way along the ill-maintained path. Even so, each of them could not help but cast a furtive glance over their shoulders, wondering if these strange deaths would now be left behind on the desolate Evermoors as they ascended the foothills. The fells soon soared into mountains and the looming spires of the Griffin Peaks pressed in around them, the towering shadows driving to the backs of their minds thoughts of other matters.
“Oh, wow! Clearwater’s only twenty miles from here – we could be there by tomorrow!” Not interested in Blackjack and Shade’s discussion of the pros and cons of cursed versus enchanted weaponry, Soul had ridden ahead to the top of the high pass they were struggling up and was now standing at a fork in the road, staring up at the welcome but weathered signpost. The sign to Clearwater pointed north. Pointing north-west was a damaged sign, informing her that Maldeep was thirty miles away and beyond that the city of Stobell. The distance for the latter was missing but she knew it lay on the far side of the Griffin Peaks, many long, cold nights under the mountain stars away.
Gor’s feline paws were far better suited to these rocky paths than Knightmare and the Steed’s hooves and Soul had not even needed to dismount once, unlike her companions who were leading their mounts on foot. She could just see them now as they appeared through the tree line a few hundred metres below. While she waited for them to catch up she looked round for a good stone to put on the cairn below the sign. From the sad look of it this wasn’t a busy road. Still, that didn’t worry her right now as she couldn’t help but smile at the prospect of a warm bed, proper food and a separate room for her and Shade.
“Why’re you looking like such a happy idiot, girl?” Blackjack asked as he and Shade finally caught up. It was bitterly cold up here and that always put him in a bad mood. Although his body fur was a great insulator, his leathery wings and tail tended to leak heat and although he could reduce the blood flow in them it did mean they had a constantly unpleasant ‘pins and needles’ feeling which he found deeply irritating.
Meccha cheerfully ignored his grumpiness, “Because at this pace we’ll be in Clearwater by tomorrow night! Think about it, a warm be-”
“No we won’t” Blackjack said flatly, cutting her off.
“Oh. You think it’ll take a bit longer to get there?”
“No” The unpleasant tone in his voice suggested he was enjoying bursting her bubble… if he was suffering he was going to make damn well sure everyone else did too.
“Shade! What’s this old c*nt talking about?” Meccha asked as he joined them.
“Uhm” the angry spark in Meccha’s eyes made him hesitant with an answer he knew she didn’t want to hear, “Well you see, we, er, we can’t go to Clearwater again. Ever.”
F’lair looked to Blackjack for a bit of backup but the dracosvulf seemed happy to stay out of it now Meccha had focused her rage on him. He cleared his throat, “Me and Black’ aren’t really, uh, welcome there.”
“What did he do?” she demanded, pointing at Blackjack.
“That’s it. Assume it’s entirely my fault why don’t you?” Blackjack muttered. He took a few swigs from his water skein, indifferent to poor Shade’s plight.
Shade glared at him, “But it is! You’re the one who desecrated the temple’s reflecting pool!”
“Those priests should have been more grateful when we offed that shadow daemon. Anyway I was caught short.”
“That’s no excuse! You knew full well how sacred that pool was… the whole damn city’s named after it!”
“They brought it on themselves.” Blackjack remained recalcitrant.
Shade growled and snatched the water skein off him, took a swig then started arguing some more, “That attitude’s gonna bring the wrath of the Empire down on our heads one day! What do you think’s going to happen the day we catch the attention of the Wizards’ Council, huh?!”
“Hard to do when their heads’re shoved so far up their arses.”
The argument continued but Soul had stopped listening. She sat down on a flat rock that had tumbled from the crumbling cairn and stared glumly at the path to the now Forbidden city of Clearwater. It vanished northward behind an outcrop of rock. She heaved a sigh and looked to the other path, signed as ‘Cleardale, 100mi' 'Maldeep, 50mi’. The path veered east plunging down from the pass into a valley hidden below the clouds, “I guess Maldeep’ll have beds, right?”
Blackjack took just long enough out of his argument with Shade to tell her it was an empty ruin as the country had been wiped out by a plague several decades ago.
To be continued...
All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2010 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul created by Elsa Lai
Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragonArt.com forum.