'Feed the Gods' - part 6
The path down from the high pass had been icily treacherous and the day had quickly slipped by. Now rays of light from the lowering suns peeked from under heavy clouds only to be splintered by the jagged western peaks. Pools of radiant light shone down on the valley below, picking out in golden green parts of the ancient pine forest, shimmering streams and high empty meadow. One shaft of golden light briefly revealed a small hamlet in a clearing near the end of the valley before being snuffed out by the gathering clouds.
Though Shade and Blackjack still weren’t talking to each other after their earlier fall out, the dark mood that had been rife during the three’s descent briefly lifted at the prospect of hot dinners and warm beds. Barely able to believe her prayers had been answered, Soul quickened the pace and led the way down from the head of the valley into the hushed forest. The hamlet was quickly lost from sight, swallowed by the tops of the brooding trees as their sharp, pointed branches reached to scratch the sky as they grew to escape the silent forest floor hidden beneath a carpet of dead and lifeless pine needles.
"Oh please let them have a bath tub!" Soul said, besieging any deity that might happen to listen. Shade overheard as he rode up alongside when the path broadened.
"Sorry hon' but folks out in places like this just use the stream if anything."
"I can hope, can't I?"
Shade just smiled, wondering where she got such optimism from and looked back to the road ahead.
Any such hope was quickly and cruelly dashed. As they drew closer the sigh of the wind through unshuttered windows and the forlorn rattles and slaps of wooden doors slack upon rusted hinges told them the hamlet was empty long before they cleared the trees to see the desolate cluster of houses. Dusk was stealing quickly across the quiet forest but although one of the empty shacks would make an ideal shelter for the night, they hung back, unwilling to approach.
"Plague?" suggested Blackjack. The fallow fields looked to be fertile land - something people did not give up easily and although the huts were modest, peasant dwellings they were well established, suggesting they were not owned by travellers.
Having seen plague-struck towns during his mercenary days Shade knew this wasn't one. "No." Something half-hidden in the overgrown grass caught his eye and he dismounted for a closer look. "Looks like they left in a hurry," he picked up the child's toy - a straw dolly in a carefully stitched dress, the painted face weathered but not yet worn away.
"I see no sign of violence so it wasn't a raid," Blackjack remarked. Assured that it was not disease he slid off Knightmare's back, leaving the beast to wander, and went over to inspect the hovels. Long-rotted meals left out on tables, half-knitted woollen leggings left mid-stitch and unmade beds supported Shade's assumption, but the fact things had generally been placed neatly suggested to him the villagers hadn't left in a panic. Rather, it looked like they had popped out for a moment fully expecting to return to their tasks. He was sniffing at the charcoaled remains of a burned stew, the pot evidently just left over its cook fire when Soul poked her head through the hut door, making him jump.
"What're you creeping round for? There's no one here!" he snapped, angry less at her than the fact he hadn't noticed her coming. He didn't like letting his guard down.
Soul ignored his question and the way his tail slashed from side to side, "I checked out back - all the animal pen’s are empty. "
"No easy dinner then," Blackjack sighed. He was about to follow Soul back outside when a chance glimpse of something under the threadbare, dusty rug stopped him. Catching the roughly made rug with the spikes on his toecaps he flicked it aside to reveal a strange design carved into the floor, the little trenches then filled with rounded pebbles and gravel taken from the nearby stream bed. Like sorcerers, Dragons could summon magic without the need of words or symbols to channel it so he had no more than a passing knowledge of sigils. He could not tell the design's exact nature but so far as he could determine it was an earth magic sigil, one associated with fertility from the parts he recognised. He shrugged to himself - it was harmless enough, perhaps the hut's owners had been trying for a child or praying to the Oracles for a good harvest. However, using the old ways of magic within the borders of the Empire was a dangerous gamble; here where the Council of Mages governed the use of magic with an iron fist, guarding their precious power from those who might learn to use it for themselves and thus endanger their position of extreme influence over the Empire's affairs. The Council behaved as a benevolent, moderate society these days but Blackjack was plenty old enough to know they had not always been such, and suspected it could very easily slip back into its old ways. He replaced the rug and went back outside.
Soul had chosen one of the more intact as their night's shelter and was setting up a cook fire outside it. Meanwhile Shade was failing at trying to get the saddle bags containing their food supply off Knightmare. The dire unicorn shied away or kicked and flailed whenever he came close. Blackjack chuckled and watched Knightmare's little game with amusement but did not let it continue for long since he was hungry too. "Knightmare get over here!" he snarled. His steed cast him a vicious glare, eyes burning dark like dying embers of coal, then reluctantly lowered his head and walked over, taking the opportunity to knock Shade into the stream with a bat of his wing as he went.
Stifling a snigger at the resulting stream of verbal abuse (though it was noticeable Shade was taking care not to accidentally refer to Knightmare as a 'horse' - he knew the cantankerous beast's limits!) Blackjack fished out some rations to cook and tossed them over to Soul who was trying hard to hide her own amusement.
His sense of humour apparently washed away by the stream, Shade glared at them and, with as much dignity as he could muster, wrung out his soaking hair, "You guys eat without me. I'm going hunting." he snapped and stalked off.
"Going off for a sulk's more like." Blackjack grinned but Shade ignored him.
Although he had originally headed away from the hamlet, Shade found he had gravitated back to the stream just outside. His temper had not taken long to calm and converse his earlier proclamation he did not feel like hunting. Instead he just stood and stared into the water, not understanding why it suddenly commanded his attention so. The breeze shifted, coming now from upstream and strengthened, causing little wavelets to form, then as Shade watched a cloud seemed to pass through the water.
He leaned closer, surprised as strains of a darker substance flowed past. As it thickened he realised what it was. Blood. In seconds the stream was red with it and as the wind picked up further he thought he could hear distant screams. Someone was in trouble.
Without a second thought he took off upstream toward the source of the cries. Concentrating on the vision from his unnatural right eye he was unhindered by the gathering dark of the forest, disregarding sharp dead branches and the clawing of thorn-weed as he ran to help.
After half a mile or so from the hamlet the terrain became much more difficult. Shade was forced to slow down until finally he stopped at the steep edge of a hollow to get his bearings. The wind had dropped and he could no longer hear the screams, though by his judgement they should have originated from nearby. He slid down the muddy bank into the hollow and crouched down by the stream, ignoring the cold mud that sucked at his bare feet. The water was pure and clear again. He blinked, surprised. There was no way he could have missed the source of the blood or those terrified cries. Standing up he turn around, scanning the forest in all directions but all he could see were still, silent trees. He was at home in the woods - if there was anyone out here he would have sensed them by now.
Thoroughly perturbed Shade sat down heavily on a lump on the hollow's strangely uneven floor. As he pulled bits of errant foliage out of his hair he wondered what the hells had just happened. For the most fleeting of moments he considered asking Raven, but instantly cast that idea aside, the very idea of asking his dracoliche 'parasite' for anything utterly repellent.
Had he just imagined it all? To him the cries for help had sounded clear though not loud, perhaps Blackjack and Soul had heard them too. He resolved to go back and confer with his friends but as he stood up an insight struck him. This hollow wasn't entirely natural. He looked again at its lumpy floor then at the way it deepened away from the course of the stream. Part of it had been dug out. On an unpleasant hunch he started to dig with his bare hands. After less than a foot he found the body. Not needing to search further he covered it up again. So this explained where the villagers were, but how had they come to lie in these shallow, unmarked graves?
The bloody stream and the cries of the dead played over in his mind and he shuddered as he realised the Spirit World had been calling him again. Even on the mortal plane it seemed there was no escape. Suddenly desiring to be far away from this place, Shade scrambled back up the steep bank, grabbing whatever he could to haul him up. Recent rains had loosened the mud and one of the saplings he'd grabbed at tore free. Loosing his balance he slipped over, landed flat on his face and slid back to the bottom with a resigned stream of cursing. Sitting up he glared at the treacherous tree, only to see it wasn't a sapling at all but a post with a scroll of some sort nailed to it.
"What the-?" he carefully pulled out the nail and unrolled the scroll. It was badly weathered but still just barely legible. However it was not the writing that caught his attention but the crest at the top; a white unicorn, rampant, and a phoenix flanked a plain black shield. It was the coat of arms of the Wizards High Guard, an elite unit loyal to the Council of Mages who would enforce the wizards' decree by 'non-magical' means. Shade barely read the rest of the scroll, something about the villagers found to be using wild magic putting them on a par with dark clerics and demonologists but his mind was no longer in the present.
The remembered scent of wood smoke and burning flesh. His big sister Sha'ala's arms wrapped tight about his small frame, only twelve winters old, trying with all her might to spare him from witnessing their mother's execution. But she also had to hold on to young Jed who, only a toddler, didn't understand what was happening and so F'lair had caught glimpses of the flames and the writhing, blackening figure at the stake. And around the pyre stood those huge, frightening men with their grim faces and black surcoats with that crest that burned into his memory brightly as the flames. They were led by a tall man, painfully thin even in the grand robes he wore and very out of place compared to his command. It was not until years later that F'lair learned he had been an ordained wizard of the Empire. What had struck him most at the time were his eyes. F'lair had never seen anything so cold and tired, like they had seen far too much.
Their mother had turned herself over but the High Guard had demanded they have her children too. Though the villagers had always been wary of her and the family treated as outsiders, she was still the village healer and many of them owed her their lives so they denied all knowledge of the Hartland trio. Perhaps also the village's position as a new 'acquisition' of the Empire and the mistrust of its authorities also played a part in this insubordination. The wizard had looked suspicious but the villagers were convincing in their protection of F'lair and his siblings.
"She has no husband, no children. I've lived here all my life, I should know!" The blacksmith, his own wife and newborn son saved from nearly dying in childbirth by the healer, had stood defensively before F'lair, Sha'ala and Jed.
The wizard took him by the shoulders and stared hard into his eyes, "You are absolutely certain?"
"Y- yes, sir."
"This woman is a servant of the forces of darkness that threaten our world and it is foretold that her get must die for all our sakes. It is imperative that she has no offspring." There was a strange earnestness in the wizard's voice, almost desperate, that made the siblings fear the smith would turn them over.
"Sir, please. I'm telling the truth." He glanced over his shoulder to the children then turned and put his huge arms around them, "Please. You're scaring my children." The three terrified siblings had never known any of their respective fathers and clung desperately to the smith's protective embrace.
"Very well." The wizard turned back to his guard and their captive, "Burn her."
A sharp pain in his hand brought Shade back to reality with a start.
With a shock he saw the remains of the parchment had begun to glow with a cold blue energy that brought a painful, stinging chill to his hand. He yelped and threw it away. The parchment disintegrated mid-air but instead of scattering and falling to the ground the ever more brightly glowing fragments were caught up in some ethereal, unfelt breeze. They swirled closer and closer together to coalesce into the strange form of an eyeball hovering upon fluttering feathered wings. It had little spindly legs like a songbird and what would have been the optic nerve served for a tail that coiled and whipped about it.
The eyeball fixed on him, unblinking. For a few moments Shade returned the stare, dumbfounded until he realised just what it was he was looking at, "Shit!" He lashed out with his sword but the Ocudaemon was quick and dodged. However it was not quite quick enough and Shade snatched it from the air with his free hand as he carried on forward with the momentum from his sword arm. It was a delicate being and simply catching it in his fist crushed it. The glow faded as the summoning spell holding the daemon in the Material Plane was broken. Within a heartbeat only fine paper dust remained.
A low canine growl rumbled in Shade's throat; he was furious at himself for being so stupid as to let the daemon see him. Ocudaemons were the favoured spies of greater daemons and magic users of questionably loyalties. They were weak, fragile creatures and posed no danger themselves but they provided a direct visual feed to the caster of their summoning spell. With a sick realisation Shade knew that whatever wizard had been powerful enough to booby-trap that scroll with such a spell had just gotten a very good look at him. Worse still, Ocudaemons were visible only to magic users and creatures of a supernatural nature. The fact Shade had easily destroyed it automatically showed he wasn't just some ordinary traveller who had happened across the grave site. The last thing the Daemonslayers needed was for the Empire's wizards to take an interest in them.
Night had stolen up on him. Cursing himself for a fool, Shade scrambled up the bank and for a few moments struggled to get his bearings in the dark forest. After a few moments he picked up the gentle babbling of the stream and, heedless of the awkward terrain, headed back to the hamlet and his companions at a run.
It was possible that, at some point, the small cabin had been a cosy, welcoming home but the Griffin Peaks were not known for their gentle climate and the brutal winter and summer storms had taken their toll to reduce it a squalid, draughty hut. Still, of the abandoned settlement's sad collection of buildings this cabin offered the best protection against the elements so the Daemonslayers had chosen it as their shelter for the night.
Soul had immediately bagged the bed on principle, even though she doubted there was quite enough space for both her and Shade, leaving Blackjack with the floor. Now, the sagging palette and lumpy straw-in-a-sack 'mattress' beneath her, she was starting to regret the decision. The musty smell of the damp straw clung to her nostrils and the uneven padding was uncomfortable even with her heavy cloak spread over it. And then there was the question of the cockroaches, one of which she had just crushed as it crawled up the wall by her head.
"If it wasn't for you, we'd be staying in luxury in Crystal Lake!" Soul muttered with a bitter scowl as she flicked the remains of the cockroach at the perceived cause of her woes.
Blackjack deflected the missile with the back of his hand, "At least you've a roof over your pointy-eared head. No one's stopping you from sleeping outside. And you have the bed."
"That's hardly compensation." she turned her back to him, not in the mood to argue or, heaven forbid, let on that the bed had been a bad decision, "G'night. See you in the morning - if we haven't been eaten by 'roaches by then."
Despite their weariness sleep did not come easily. Blackjack could tell Soul was awake and did not doubt she was equally aware of his wakefulness but neither was in the mood for the effort of conversation so he lay quietly, gazing up through the broken shutters into the night sky. The earlier rain was long gone and through gaps in the low clouds he snatched glimpses of Tymaera's glittering blanket of stars. Their constellations shone cold and clear, impassive watchers of the night. He could just make out the tail of Nissin the Rat; the sign he had hatched under. Blackjack had always thought this a bit ignoble and wondered why he had not instead hatched under the sign of Kalganos the Father of Dragons or one of the more impressive dwellers of the heavens. Over the centuries though he had come to appreciate rats for their smart, adaptive ways. And they have their uses, he thought with a wry smile for the Rattikin under-society that reached all parts of the world and survived and flourished when 'greater' races had fallen.
The gap in the clouds drifted, revealing a different constellation and Blackjack's smile faded as he stared up into the four glittering eyes of the dark goddess Anshu, her dual heads and the tips of her wings just becoming visible. He had never been a fan of astrology, preferring to read signs in more earthly things, but it seemed here the Mother of Lies had been brighter in the skies of late. He scowled and looked instead at a patch of faintly bioluminescent fungus growing in the corner of the ceiling.
A small sound from outside snapped him to full alertness. He sat up, wings sweeping back out the way so he could easily jump to his feet.
Soul swore at him, "Get that damn wing out of my face!" he glanced back to her, obliged, then gave a start when he looked back to the door. Shade had appeared, his expression grim.
"We have to go." he said.
"And it saw you? Please tell me you had your eye covered!" demanded Blackjack. He and Soul had listened quietly to Shade's account of the incident in the woods but now the dracosvulf felt compelled to interrupt.
"Shit!" Shade swore as he realised his oversight. His unusual right eye, black as the abyss with its glowing pupil, raised eyebrows at the best of times... and given Ocubeasts saw using magic it was possible it had revealed to its master far more than a mortal eye might see.
"Do you ever think, you dozy fuckwit?"
"It caught me by surprise, ok?"
"You can have that on your epitaph! Should the Wizards Council find out about you and Raven or who I am then... Well, what they'd do doesn't bear thinking about but being undead certainly won't save you!" Blackjack snapped. He got up and began to gather their gear, along with any of the hut's contents that looked either useful or worth a few coppers.
From her itchy, uncomfortable bed Soul let the argument wash over her. The mattress may well have been lumpy, crawling with insect life and suspicious of smell but the prospect of having to get back on the road again so soon suddenly made these forgivable foibles. Even more so as she knew they had to get as much distance between them and this hamlet as possible. It was going to be a long night.
In slaying these people beyond the Empire's borders, the High Guard was operating far beyond its jurisdiction which suggested they were becoming more proactive in dealing with ungoverned and therefore 'dangerous' magic users. With all the evils she had seen alongside her strange companions Soul could see the Wizard Council's reasoning - the power of magic in the wrong hands was a terrible thing - but surely these villagers had done nothing so evil as to deserve their shallow grave. The elemental druid magic they had used worked in harmony with the world, unlike the high magic wielded by spellcasters such as the wizards themselves.
Shade and Blackjack's bickering had meanwhile calmed into a discussion following the same lines as Soul's thoughts. "The Council's going too far. They won't be happy until they've either slain or enchained every eldritch-awakened on Tymaera!" Blackjack was saying, using the archaic term for beings with magical capabilities, be they learned, as in the case of humans, or innate like dragons or creatures of supernatural nature.
"The unmarked graves're a pretty bad sign too. The sentry spell on the scroll tells me they're keen to make sure the villagers stay unaccounted for." Shade was usually given to project things in terms of worst case scenarios but in this instance his ominous words carried weight.
"Yeah," suddenly feeling a lot more nervous, Soul now found it a lot easier to drag herself out of bed, "How about we save the talking for later and get ourselves lost on some forest track, huh?"
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.