(What happened to Chapter 17? It tentatively describes another dream Iaren has with semi-prophetic visions. It hasn’t been written yet, and I’ve forged on ahead to other chapters (presently wrapping up Chapter 25) and haven’t yet gone back to it. Will add later).
For the preface, click here.
For the previous chapter, click here.
I startled awake as the door to my room swung open, rebounding from the stone wall of my chamber it had been pushed so hard. Aryden, fully dressed and armed, flanked by Savlo and Gamven, entered imperiously.
“Get dressed,” the lord said.
I looked to the window. Dark. The faintest tinge of light peeking around the far edge of the Avar with the promise of a morning still distant in the coming. “Huh?” I managed, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.
“We’re going hunting.” For his sudden energy, the lord looked like he hadn’t slept during the night, his hair wild and only cursorily brushed into something approximating a tuft of wild weed, wet with dew. He wore a breastplate and tassets, just as Gamven did. Savlo, though, wore only a simple hunting jerkin, long knife in his belt and a linpiped hood pulled over his head and shoulders.
“Hunting?” I repeated slowly, still in the daze of dreams not yet forgotten.
“Disposing of the people in the Close didn’t work, lord thaumaturge,” Aryden said,the dubiousness of my title fully evident, “so we go to the next possibility, yes?”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“Good. Get ready and meet us in the stables.”
As suddenly as they’d entered, the three departed, the door rattling as it slammed home in its frame. Only then did I remember the missing woodsman and the reason for the extemporaneous hunt.
[Potentially expand this in line with Outline, where Iaren takes his time and Aryden fusses and berates him.] I took little time to ready myself, splashing enough water over my face to gain some modicum of wakefulness, arming myself much as I had for the Close the day previous, but leaving my pistols empty of charge and shot. Before I left, I pulled the drawstring bag of runeshot from my backpack and secured it on my belt. The other foresters had claimed to have seen some unnatural beast, and I thought the shot might prove useful.
The light at the horizon seemed to have moved only imperceptibly as I left the keep for the stables. Outside the building, Aryden and his two trusted retainers sat astride their horses already, not proud and haughty warhorses, but lean and nimble palfreys, suited to the hunt. A recurve bow occupied a wide sheath set against Savlo’s horse’s flank, forward of the saddle. Aryden leaned a wheelock musket over his right shoulder, reins held loosely in the left. Gamven held a light lance aloft, a banner with Aryden’s crest on it flapping in an early breeze. Varro, astride his own mount, waited patiently at the edge of our group, looking the mounts up and down to ensure his satisfaction with them.
Vitella amn Esto stood nearby, back turned to me and dressed in a tight-fitting riding jacket with impressive decolletage and flared at the waist, the tails drawing attention to her hips. A cigarello hung from her lips, the end of it blooming into reddish-orange life whenever she drew upon it, which was frequently as she checked that her horse’s girth and stirrups had been properly configured and tightened. No servant assisted her, which might have been a point of pride or a matter of her family’s diminished wealth—an issue soon to be rectified if the amn Vaini and Valladyni had their way. Like Aryden, she had brought both a single-edged, curved hunting sword and a wheelock musket, the sword hanging from her side and the musket in a sheath near the saddle.
Behind her, Edanu mounted his horse, a jet black destrier he must have brought with him from elsewhere—the kind one might find in the Ealthen Empire or the Tatters but only rarely in Altaena. He had traded his Artificial crossbow for a matchlock musket, perhaps Medryn’s—we’d decided as a group that he ought not recover those bolts expended in the Close, just for good measure. He sat a good deal higher than the others on his beast of a mount, the thing stamping the avar impatiently and snorting derisively at its company.
Part of me had feared that I’d be riding behind on Windborne, chagrined at the poor choice of name and eating dust all day. Fortunately, one of the grooms led another palfrey to me, a brown beauty of Altaenin stock, perhaps not powerful but with a comfortable gait that made long riding tolerable to the ass.
“Iphadrex,” the young man told me, handing me the reins.
A name from the Cantic Empire, dead and gone long before the rise and fall of Ealthe as the dominant power. And I thought I could be pretentious.
I mounted the horse, who shifted easily under me, ready but not impetuous, and neither so sluggish as the horse I’d rode in on. With a click of his tongue, Aryden started his mount moving. The rest of us exchanged looks with one another, trying to calculate who had rights to follow closest to our host lord. I motioned for Vitella to pass before me once she’d mounted; she directed her palfrey to a position behind amn Vaina and angled his right, waiving for me to come alongside her on the left. The others formed up behind us so that we made a wedge, like some gallant charge in ages past. Gallant and foolhardy, no doubt. And much slower.
We processed thus through the courtyard, those servants already set to work in the wee hours abandoning their tasks momentarily to watch us pass by with a mix of awe and fear. They’d already heard tales of our misadventures in the Close and certainly some of them would be mourning the absence of Errys and Medryn. Myself, I tried to push them out of my mind for the present, lest distractedness send some of my present company to join them.
Our handsome wedge condensed into a small clot of horses and riders as we passed under the gateway from the inner courtyard to Old Vaina, Edanu falling behind to avoid his horse biting one of the others. Warhorses and their knights have far too much in common—both full of violence and without sense enough to know when it isn’t warranted. That Edanu pretended to such a status surprised me, given his preference for foppish dress and feigned nonchalance—and yet didn’t. There’s not a member of an Artificer House I’ve ever met who wasn’t cold, calculating and ruthless, ambitious at any cost. Subtler on the whole than men-at-arms, but equally deadly and uncaring.
Although the craftsmen bustled about, already setting to their daily tasks, and the merchants had already begun to open the windows to their storefronts and set out their prized wares, the townsfolk of Old Vaina paid little attention to our hunting party, and I enjoyed the lack of wary looks cast in my direction followed by the sign of the Tree or apotropaic spitting—not that either had any effect.
The gates to New Vaina had not yet been opened, and the night watch, perhaps only moments from a changing of the guard, scrambled to pull the winches to raise the portcullis and open the doors before they forced us to stop and wait. The constable Daedys waited for us on the other side, atop a working horse arrayed in simple but well-made tack. A matchlock musket occupied a sheath next to the saddle in the same fashion as Vitella’s and he carried a boar spear in his hand, a heftier companion to Gamven’s light lance.
“My lords,” the constable nodded, letting go the reins for a moment to remove his flat cap in deference.
Amn Vaina nodded back, barely, without breaking stride, leaving Daedys to fall into the last row and sort out a position for himself.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your men,” I could hear Daedys tell Gamven behind me.
“It was a close thing.” the master-of-arms returned. I fought a smile as cold and bitter as a new tomb.
“Anything you can tell us about the creature the woodsmen claim to have seen?” I asked, turning in my saddle to look at the constable and straining in the effort.
“Only that they agree that it’s an unnatural thing. Everyone’s story is different, and I’m inclined to believe that they are just that—stories.”
“Then what of the missing man?”
“Kalvor, his name. As I said before, most likely wolves or some other natural predator. It’s not unknown for them to take a stray woodsman who’s wandered too far from his fellows. Hasn’t happened in several years—until now, I suppose—but it happens ever so often. If he’s dead at all. Timbering is hard work, and there’s always some who find they haven’t the mettle for an honest living.”
“And you think Kalvor was such a one?”
“Perhaps. He was young, hadn’t been at the work for too long, no wife, no children. Nothing to hold him down if he decided to leave.”
“That’s the same story I’ve heard of your nephew Orren, Master Daedys.”
Savlo joined in. “I spent the day yesterday looking for tracks in the area Kalvor supposedly went missing in. No wolves.”
“What did you find?” I asked.
“So what are we fucking looking for?” Gamven growled.
“Whatever there is,” Aryden spat without turning, an equal amount of gravel in his voice.
“Of course, my lord,” Gamven corrected.
We took a side path through New Vaina that led along the hillside to the stream running parallel to the town, providing running water to the larger homes in Old Vaina and supplying the New Vaina wells at the base of the hill. But before they did either of those things, the flowing water supplied a trio of mills, the fast flow steadily turning wooden wheels and the gears connected to them. This flow had evidently been diverted after a stone channel,complete with sluice gates to control the water had been built into the hillside with a drop above each waterwheel, making them more powerful pitchback mills. The lowest of the three, most accessible to the townsfolk, was a gristmill for the products of the many surrounding farms. The second mill emitted the steady rhythm of blade against wood while the highest sang with the bass thump thump of pounding. Industrial music, of a sort.
We made for the timber mill in the middle of the trio, where men already stripped to bare chests in the heat of the summer morning and of exertion worked in teams to remove branches and bark from felled trees before carrying them to the mill’s hungry mouth. A foreman, less sweaty than his fellows, bowed to his knee upon seeing our approach. The gesture, somehow both overwrought and embarrassingly amateur, made me uneasy, though Aryden and Vitella both nodded with satisfaction.
“My lord,” the foreman began, “I had not expected you to come personally to see to the loss of our man. We were thankful that you sent your master of hunt to search yesterday, especially since Master Daedys’…inquiry…turned up nothing but tales from the men and, I presume, no indication of where to search for Kalvor, since he made no effort to do so.”
Daedys shifted uncomfortably in his saddle while Vitella grinned at the man’s brazenness to speak so poorly of his landlord before their mutual liege lord. Aryden remained stonefaced.
“My brother had just been put in the Close, my lord, and I had to make sense of his papers to step into his place as the head of our family,” Daedys offered, driving his boar spear into the ground next to his horse so that he could push his hair back under his cap, looking away from amn Vaina as he did.
“We’re here now,” Aryden said simply, “and, as you see, with capable assistance.”
Turning to me, he continued, “Well, lord thaumaturge?”
I dismounted and handed the reigns to Savlo before approaching the foreman. “This man, Kalvor, do you have anything that belongs to him?”
“Hmm, let me see.” The man wondered off to talk to those in his charge.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Gamven asked. Behind him, Edanu smiled knowingly.
I ignored them both. “Savlo, how far did you range from here in search of the missing man?”
“A mile or two in every direction from the farthest reaches the woodsman work at.”
“And you found no sign of Kalvor?”
“No prints, no broken boughs, no blood?”
“It’s been too long since his disappearance to expect much of that, hasn’t it?”
“Has anyone seen a dragon or drake in these parts in recent memory?”
“Only closer to the mountains, days from here, and even then only rarely. Why?” Aryden interjected.
“No griffins, anything like that?”
“No. No signs of flying predators, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“It is,” I affirmed. “Doesn’t give us much to go on.”
At this point, the foreman returned, holding his closed fist out to drop something into my hand. I held it out for him and two knucklebones fell onto my palm, blackened pips delicately marked on each of the faces. “Kalvor’s lucky dice,” the foreman said.
“Not that lucky,” Vitella remarked, Edanu smiling along with her.
“Why didn’t he have them?” I asked.
“Lost them in game a few days before he went missing.”
“Perhaps lucky is too strong a word,” Vitella continued.
“How long had he owned them?” I pressed.
“Long time, I guess,” the foreman said. “Talked about ‘em a lot. Big on games that one. When he won a decent haul from the others, he’d not show up for days after, spending it all on drink and women in Vaina. He’d always come crawling back when the drink went dry and the whores turned him away.”
“How do we know that he’s not somewhere drinking and cavorting?” Daedys asked.
“Because he lost his dice,” I said flatly. “He hadn’t won anything before he disappeared. And I imagine that no one’s seen him in town for some time, or he wouldn’t be called ‘missing.’”
“Hmph,” the constable responded.
I continued my interrogation of the foreman. “You’re sure that he owned these for a long time?”
“Yes, what of it?”
Rather than respond, I took the bones, smooth on the edges from long use or from nervous rubbing, and moved away from the mill’s activity, my companions and the foreman all following behind. Where I found a flat- and large-enough stone in the ground, I placed the dice down upon it, procuring the chalk from my belt pouch and drawing a set of circles around the objects followed by glyphs at the edges. I heard the foreman spit behind me and turn away, but I continued unperturbed. Once I’d drawn the symbols for my working, a bastardized hybrid between a theurgy and a thaumaturgy, I returned the chalk to its pouch and pulled my wand from its small sheath. Touching the tip of the wand to the dice, I closed my eyes and focused, muttering soft words to guide my mind through the structure of the working.
I know not how my fellows reacted to this, my concentration drowning out all sense of the world around me. My use of the Art complete, I opened my eyes, swept up the dice into my left hand and clutched the want lightly in my right. I waited for a moment before feeling the first subtle twitch in the wood, its pull turning my hand, the wand now pointing as a compass arrow, straight into the woods to the east. To be sure, I deliberately turned the wand away from the direction it had indicated and felt it pull back to true.
I began to walk, not fast, but steadily, waiving with my free hand for the rest of the hunters to follow. We proceeded in this manner for at least an hour, passing near the old road I’d followed previously to Falla’s cottage, buried amidst the ruins of a that forgotten Aenyr outpost. No one spoke as they followed, or if they did I could not hear them, but as we neared that maligned practitioner’s abode I heard amn Vaina and amn Esto pull the hammers of their wheelocks to a ready position, the snick of the retaining pin snapping into place unmistakable. The sound of a friction striker followed as Edanu lit his matchcord.
Still convinced that Falla had nothing to do with the Vaina castle haunting, or the disappearance of Kalvor for that matter, I cringed at those sounds. The wand tugged us along a path that soon diverged from the Aenyr road and Falla’s cottage, and I breathed a little easier at that. For several more miles I walked, my mounted companions followed behind but leaving an increasing berth between me and them. The forest became thicker the farther we progressed, the hills leaving the ground broken and treacherous, forcing everyone to dismount.
“Iaren,” Aryden said softly, the hunter’s concern for noise having taken him at some point along our journey. I turned with my torso and head, leaving my feet still aligned with the wand and careful not to move it from the direction it currently pointed. “Should we leave the horses?” Lord amn Vaina asked.
“They’re not my horses,” I returned. “You do as you think best.”
“What are we going to find in these woods?” Savlo asked.
“Hell if I know,” I told him. “I’m just following the direction the wand points. It should lead us to Kalvor, but I have no idea what we’ll find along with him.”
“What if he’s gone a great distance away?” Vitella asked, not so amused now.
“Then it’s going to be a very long walk,” I smiled. The suns had by now risen in the sky, the morning growing warm with customary summer heat. But it was early in the day yet, and I was willing to walk a good distance more before calling my working a failed effort.
“Varro,” amn Vaina began. “Stay here with the horses. If we’re not back within a few hours, make a camp for us. If we don’t return by tomorrow, go home and seek for more soldiers to come after us.”
We paused for a moment as each member of the party transfered weapons and other useful belongings from saddlebags or sheaths to their persons. Those of us with arquebuses carried them at the ready now, silent smoke trailing from Edanu’s match, the chemical sent sure to give us away. Savlo must have had this thought, too, for he continually threw disapproving glances to the Meradhvor dignitary, but decided not to verbalize his complaint.
Once everyone had satisfied themselves with their gear, we set out again. We took heavy steps, the dry grasses crunching softly underneath our feet, that cloud of sulfurous miasma preceding us. Our journey continued until the suns had reached the apex of their daily circuit, their rays piercing the canopy above us like spearpoints that illumined small pockets of the forest with the full light of day, leaving the rest in a twilight liminality.
Suddenly, there came a tap on my shoulder, and I turned to find Savlo motioning for the entire band to freeze in place. We did so, leaving only the tension (and that damnable sulfur stench) hanging in the air. For a moment, I stared blankly at the hunter, waiting for some explanation of our brief respite. Seeing my lack of understanding, he silently tapped his ear and pointed upward. Then I realized his intent: only the tension and smell of burning matches lingered. The birdsong had gone silent, as had the incessant clicking of the cicadas, the occasional tumble and creak of branches from fleeing or pursuing fauna, any of the customary sounds of forest life.
“A predator is close,” Savlo whispered to me, his voice barely the suggestion of speech.
“They’re not reacting to us?” I asked quietly.
“No. This silence just started.”
I took a few steps back to the rest of the party, my feet harsh upon the forest floor, a reminder of my lack of serious experience in the wilds. Savlo followed behind, his presence felt more than heard, another stalking thing in the shadows under the canopy of the old trees.
We huddled together, faces shining now with summer sweat, the clanks and clicks of Gamven’s armor audaciously loud in the relative silence. “Savlo and I will move forward and scout ahead; there’s something up there. Something dangerous.”
“We can’t go around it?” Aryden asked.
“Kalvor is close. I’m guessing we’ve found the creature the woodsmen were complaining of,” I told him.
“When you say, ‘creature,’ what exactly do you mean?” Edanu followed.
“You can’t feel that?” I asked him. “That’s no child of Avarienne. It’s something from beyond the Avar, intruding here.”
“You mean the spawn of the forbidden ones?”
“The get of Sedhwe or Daea, most likely, yes.” Faces sank all around, and our day in the Crimson Close seemed a relaxing stroll through town in comparison.
“How?” Vitella asked.
“Like other spirits, they can sometimes cross the Verge and pierce the Veil,” I told her.
“When they do, they tend to stay here. Whether by choice or by necessity is anyone’s guess. Some are left from dark times past, hidden and biding their time.”
I shrugged. “And, of course, sometimes they are brought to the Avar Narn purposefully.”
“Who would do such a thing?” Gamven asked.
“The power-hungry, the desperate, the mad, the curious, the arrogant. There is a reason the Vigil exists, after all, even if it is not recognized in the Sisters.”
“Is this the source of the haunting, then?” Aryden asked, hopeful.
“Doubtful. At least not directly. If it has killed Kalvor, then I suppose the likelihood that his spirit is haunting your home is increased, but these sorts of creatures are not typically known for subtle action.”
“But if we’re nearing its home—or lair—or whatever you want to call it,” Savlo said, “Then it ranged quite a ways to seize upon poor Kalvor.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Assuming it is such a creature, how do we defeat it?” Gamven asked.
“Such things are difficult to kill, it is true. But anything that has physically manifested in the Avar may be defeated through force of arms.”
“Good,” Gamven responded. “But how?”
“That depends on what it is, particularly. Until we know that, I cannot say. If things are as I suspect, though, you will find that your weapons are far less effective than against other foes. Still useful, but far less effective. The foe will be a truly dangerous one. We will need to be careful and cunning to defeat it.”
“Have you done this before?” Edanu asked.
“No. Of course not,” I told him. The group let out a collective sigh of trepidation.
“Must we do this?” the Meradhvor emissary challenged?
“We’ve come all this way. We know that the creature is a threat to Vaina and will continue to be so, and there is still the possibility that it is Kalvor’s spirit haunting Vaina castle and that we might put him—and this whole affair—to rest by recovering his body and properly honoring it.”
“Alright, then,” Savlo resolved. “Let’s get to it. I’d rather have this done by dark if we can.”
“Agreed,” Gamven said grimly.
Savlo and I moved forward cautiously in the direction the wand pulled; I tried to follow behind him precisely, stepping where he had stepped and matching his movements in avoidance of obstructing branches or brush. My lack of skill proved plain, and Savlo shot me constant looks of silent frustration combined with exasperated hand signals I did not understand. The undergrowth complained with nearly ever step I took, and the heavy feeling of being watched by an unseen predator fell upon me.
Despite the height of summer, the foliage over which we passed had become brown and dead despite the regular rains. The trees bore no leaves and showed signs of dry rot, bark cracked and peeling with decay. The very life of the woods had been sucked away here, a sure sign of some malevolent presence manifested across that dark divide of the Abyss. I noticed that my knuckles had become white over the grip of my wand, the fingers of my free hand nervously contorted, stretching in anticipation of urgent need of them. The pallor of corruption filled the air, and as we continued onward the trees became not only bare and lifeless, but twisted into unnatural forms, bulbous knots protruding from unexpected locations, the tips of dry branches sharply pointed.
Savlo noticed this, too, of course, and his hands quietly slid an arrow from his quiver and knocked it against the string of his bow. He never stopped or looked down as he did this, working by practiced instinct as he continued to sneak quietly forward, scanning the gaps between the now-sparse trees for threats.
We moved forward like this for several moments, the dead grasses and shrubs under our feet giving way to dry dirt. Only then did my feet agree to silence as we moved. Presently, we reached a rocky clearing at the base of a rising hill topped by a copse of thick trees. The wand trembled in my hand in indication of immediate proximity; Savlo pointed to a cave opening in the side of the hill’s ascent before returning the hand to its position just behind the arrow’s flights.
We stood at the edge of those final trees that had not yet been corrupted to oblivion by the monster’s presence, neither of us ready to move into the clearing itself, despite the fact that we had no concealment where we stood nor any to be found in the vicinity.
Only a short time passed before a shadow moved within the darkness of the cave’s mouth. For a moment I remembered the dream I’d had when I’d arrived in Vaina; the thought that such an unrequested divination seemed to have foreshadowed present circumstances steeled me somewhat—or at least kept my feet from turning and moving despite my will to stay.
A long, snakelike neck emerged from the obscured interior of the cavern, scaly and tipped by a sharp beak not unlike the kind you’d find on a falcon or some other bird of prey. Above that daunting protrusion sat two clusters of eyes, spider-like, their dark pupils searching independently of one another briefly. When the thing had spotted us, all of the interior eyes shot into formation, piercingly focused on we intruders. Those eyes on the outer edge of each cluster continued to sweep about, searching the thing’s peripheral vision for hidden dangers.
Satisfied that only the two of us had come, the monster emerged fully from its lair. Scales became dark feathers of a shadowbending sheen where the protruding neck met the corpulent and misshapen body, seven legs, some like those of a wolf and some like those of a chicken—each tipped in deadly claws—moved the thing along in a waddling gait of unnatural speed. A long, leathery tail, like a newly-shorn sheepskin, trailed from the darkness of the cave, ending in a set of bony, mace-like protuberances. A creature out of some fever-dream, sharply defiant of the natural order of Avarienne’s children, and one that I would not soon forget.
We thought that the thing’s size might allow us some protection amongst the more closely-spaced trees, though in retrospect their rotting and dying condition would have left them crumbling and broken with even the slightest force. But this mattered not, for the monster squeezed and contorted itself in its pursuit of us, body bulging at one end and then the other as it effortlessly moved between obstacles without disturbing them.
I dropped my wand and drew my sword; it had decided to kill me first. I waived to Savlo to make use of the distraction; he dodged back and withdrew, dropping his bow and arrow as he did. At first, I thought he’d lost his nerve and run, but I had no time to revel in anger or despair over that—the monster struck at me with withering fury, neck weaving between and around trees with unnatural celerity to strike first from my left and then my right, unrelenting in the assault. I warded with blade and dodged as best I could, the sword’s edge having little effect on the beast’s scales but at least knocking that striking neck enough to purchase a short space between that beak (which I now noticed was lined with a predator’s teeth within) and my flesh. My saving grace was that it was a duel of sorts, the kind of fight to which I was most accustomed, and my feet proved agile and steady enough to keep injury, if not the monster itself, at bay.
A horn sounded, loud and nearby; Savlo had chosen to sound the alarm and call our fellows to our aid rather than to take a shot of unknown efficacy with his weapon. A wise choice, though it called the attention of our otherworldy foe to him. As it turned its neck I struck a blow, one that left a shallow line across its scaly neck. It turned and snapped at me, with annoyance rather than fear or anger, and then turned to Savlo, strange form waddling and yet passing gracefully between the trees again.
Freed from immediate danger, I sheathed my sword and pulled free the pouch of runescribed shot from my belt, pouring the metal balls into an open palm. I searched for those with runes effective against either the spawn of Sedhwe or the get of Daea, dropping the rest onto the dusty ground, for there was no time to return them gently to the pouch nor were they of any use to me at present.
Which was it? A child of that demoness of deceit and damnation, or a corrupted creation of the archenemy? I struggled to remember my days of instruction at the hands of my first master, the piles of dusty tomes I’d read as a student at the university, separating the thoughts that arose into their proper categories—or so I hoped. They are so closely related, Daea being a creation of Sedhwe and his intended spouse, she the fallen spirit of the direst of fallen spirits. But Sedhwe learnt his craft from the One, or from watching the other Firstborn work; he wrought his spawn first from the darker side of imagination and later from the nightmares of the naming peoples. Daea had inherited some skill from her creator and would-be husband, but had stolen more from the secret arts of the other Firstborn, twisting them and grafting them together like some primordial fleshcrafter to create her progeny, for she could bear no child herself. This creature, then, an amalgam of parts taken from Avarienne’s children, must have belonged to that archdemoness. How it came to dwell here was anyone’s guess, but I had neither time nor care for the answer.
In his precarious flight from the snapping beak of the monster, Savlo had abandoned his bow, pulling his hunting sword from its sheath and hacking wildly to hold the beast at bay, much as I had done only a moment before. Daea’s child showed no sign of fatigue, no indication that it might offer any respite or quarter, while Savlo breathed heavily and took steps of failing soundness, rolling on his ankle painfully and hobbling thereafter, carried only by the adrenaline that no doubt crashed over him like an angry tide.
There came the crack of an arquebus, the thud of its projectile smashing into the feathery torso of the unnatural predator with little effect. “Fuck me!” I heard Edanu’s voice. “The thing shrugged it off like I’d spit at it!”
It had. The ball had rebounded from the leathery hide or bony plate or whatever foul armor lie beneath the coat of feathers, which now raised up somewhat, like the spines of a porcupine, their iridescence a visible sign of the thing’s rising ire. The beast turned to glare at our oncoming fellows, outer eyes still watching Savlo and I from the corners of their bulbous windows.
A deafening screech bellowed from the creature’s elongated throat, stopping all of us in our tracks as we vainly attempted to stop up our hearing. I let fall the runic shot from my hand as I covered my ears, the little balls rolling this way or that according to the whim of the dirt at my feet where they mingled anonymously with the ones I’d dropped before in hopes of efficiently sorting out what I needed. Now I’d have to search out each in turn and check its rune—if I could find the right ones at all. I dropped to my knees in the search.
Occupied as I was, I did not watch the battle unfold around me. I’ve pieced together what follows from the scraps of my recollection and the tales told by my companions after the fact.
Aryden, Gamven, Vitella and Daedys drove the assault, splitting apart from one another and each darting in and out of engagement from various angles to confuse and harry the beast. Their attacks did little more than distract the creature as it snapped back and forth between them, always just too late to catch one. They bought Savlo enough time to limp away from the fray; he circled back around at a safe distance to join me as I crawled along the ground searching for shiny objects.
“Shouldn’t I be the one crawling around?” He said flatly.
I smirked, though he couldn’t see it. Daedys flew past us suddenly, picked up and tossed through the air with a violent snap of the creature’s neck. He took a moment to recover the wind that’d been knocked out of him and then rejoined the fight.
Savlo must have picked up the arquebus his lord had dropped when charging in, for he held the ornate wheelock delicately. The dogleg rested tight against the flashpan; Savlo had no intention of firing the weapon at present.
Edanu joined the two of us, planting his feet and muttering to himself before he began the long course of actions to reload his own arquebus and being especially careful not to bring his powder horn close to the waiting match.
“Wait,” I whispered to him, more than a little nervous that the three of us standing together and moving but little might draw the attention of the creature to easy prey. “You’re going to need something better than regular shot to stand a chance of seriously injuring that thing, and it looks that we’ll tire long before it does if we try to do things the hard way.”
I’d been grasping at the metal balls one by one during all of this, checking each rune and tossing hard and far those with markings unhelpful to the present struggle. So far, that had been all I’d inspected. Now, though, I chanced upon the first projectile bearing the proper marks. I held it up over my shoulder to Edanu and said, “load this one.” I could hear him pulling the ramrod free of his weapon to tamp down the powder and wadding before loading the ball I’d given him.
The grunts and shouts of our companions provided a constant harmony as I searched, Edanu loaded and Savlo waited.
“What the hell are you three doing over there?” came Aryden’s voice, thunderous and imperious.
“Looking for our balls!” Edanu shouted back with a smile.
“When you find them, we could use some help!” the lord returned. A grunt and a scraping sound followed his words as the creature’s beak slid across Aryden’s breastplate, a bite than might otherwise have proved fatal.
At that time, I’d found a second ball of the proper marking, which I handed to Savlo.
“I’m already loaded,” he objected.
I opened my mouth to answer the hunter, but Edanu had finished loading and brought the caliver to his shoulder.
“Wait!” I said, louder than I’d meant to. “Wait until we’re all loaded!”
“They’re running out of time,” Edanu replied, his voice firm but trembling with anxiety at its edges.
“A single shot won’t fix that. Savlo, you’re going to have to fire your piece and reload.”
The hunter grunted in response. We all knew that his doing so would bring us unwanted attention; I was thankful he held the ball tight in one hand and bided his time.
While I continued to search, our fighting companions were taking a beating. The monster had struck no life-threatening blow as of yet, but Gamven had been injured sorely enough to be forced to withdraw. Repeated bludgeoning with its strong neck and many close calls with its razor beak had taken a toll on both the vigor and morale of the others. Daedys’ thrusts with his boar spear became ever more cursory and obviously intended to gain the creature’s focus rather than to do real harm. As it realized this, it had begun to ignore him, turning its attention toward Aryden and Vitella.
Where they had begun by distracting the beast and forcing it to maneuver back and forth between them, now the creature had seized the initiative, forcing the pair to suddenly change direction to avoid snapping jaws and to step lively to avoid colliding with one another as they continuously repositioned, Daedys trailing behind in an effort to remain relevant to the fight at all.
Again the monster issued its bloodcurdling screech, driving the combatants back and almost to their knees as the sound pierced their ears and plunged cold and sharp into their very minds. Even somewhat removed from the monster’s presence the shriek filled the three of us with pain, our own cries drowned amidst the sea of sound the beast had created. It was as if the sound pushed my spirit from my body and I looked down momentarily on the scene, unable to act or to think with clarity while the echoes of the sonorous attack coursed through me.
I felt rather than heard the concussion of Savlo’s arquebus firing into the air, emptying itself of its contents to be filled afresh. When only the ringing in our ears remained of that scream, Savlo motioned to Edanu for his powder horn. The emissary passed the container to the hunter without words—or if there were any I could not hear them—and Savlo set to his task more assuredly than Edanu had done with his own piece.
For wadding, Savlo tore a piece from the end of his cloak, already worn and threadbare, stuffing some down the barrel to hold the tamped powder in place and wrapping the ball in a bit before ramming it home, too. As he recovered the ramrod from the barrel he glared at me, nudged me with his foot. I realized I’d been watching him work rather than continuing with my own task, which I returned to anon.
As hearing returned, the shouts of our companions grew louder, more desperate. I’m told that Vitella and Aryden saved each other’s lives more than once, that Daedys’ efforts in spite of exhaustion proved vital. All I heard, though, was the growing doom in their voices and the sighing sounds of the beast as it attacked without ceasing.
Finally, I found a third ball marked against Daea’s brood. I wiped the dirt from it by rubbing it against my vest before popping it into my mouth—the best place I could devise to safely hold it while I loaded one of my pistols. The monster passed close by and I froze, its tail mindlessly swinging near my face as the beast turned in pursuit of one of my companions. Fingers trembling, I fumbled for one of my chargers, pulling it from the string on which it hanged and turning it over the barrel of my piece, held upright in my left hand. Some of the powder spilt around the mouth of the barrel, landing softly on the webbing between thumb and forefinger at the pistol’s grip. Tossing the charger aside, I brushed the grains I could from hand to ignition pan, hoping it would be enough.
After tamping the powder with the ramrod, I pulled a thin patch of cloth from one of my belt pouches and spit the ball into it, pulling the cloth around the shot before pushing both into the waiting barrel and ramming these home, too. Forgetting my own advice and tossing the ramrod aside in my haste, I rose with the pistol to take aim at the beast.
I tracked it with my arm, waiting until I felt I had a proper lead on the moving target, willing a flame at the tip of my index finger, which lay in the pan. A flare burst from the ignition hole, but the pistol failed to recoil in my hand; it had not fired. An agonizing second passed, the pistol’s aim lagging behind the location of the beast, before the powder finally decided to ignite, the shot spinning wild in my unpreparedness and wasted.
Not entirely wasted-the blast had captured the beast’s attention. The monster turned abruptly and charged me. In an act of will not entirely born of conscious thought, I threw up a shield of arcane force, enough to keep me from significant injury but far too little to stop the charge. Without ever touching me directly, acting only through the invisible bindings between my outstretched hand, the shield and the creature’s downturned forehead, it flung me as easily as if I’d been picked up and tossed carelessly aside by the hand of the One.
I hit the ground sprawled on my back, the wind knocked from my lungs. The creature pursued after its charge and forced me to roll away from its lunging beak. The hilt of my sword pushed into my side as I spun, bruising my hip bone but reminding me of its existence.
With another roll augmented by a quick sorcery, I recovered my feet, sword in hand and already slashing at the beast’s face as it turned to strike again. My light blade recoiled from the thing’s scales, the hilt ringing painfully in my hand as if I’d struck a wall. I felt a warm damp on my upper lip and tasted copper, whether a side effect of my sorceries or an injury from being flung, I could not tell—not that it really mattered.
A second shot rang out—I would later learn that this was Savlo’s—connecting with the creature with a wet sound not unlike the sound of stumbling into a deep and muddy puddle. Black ichor sprayed from the monster in response, thick and sticky, accompanied by another of those otherworldly screams that seemed to drive an icicle into mind and soul. I lashed out feebly with my sword in response, what might have been a deadly thrust in another fight in spite of the lack of full intent, again it glanced off the creature.
Savlo’s shot had injured the creature but not slowed it much. I narrowly sidestepped the monster’s riposte, beak snapping close enough that I felt the rush of air around it. It turned now in Savlo’s direction, reaching him in three strides of its unnatural feet.
He tried to dodge, but his ankle betrayed him and he bought dear what little distance he acquired. The creature’s beak, both fast and precise, snatched a chunk of flesh from the hunter, leaving a ragged gap between neck and shoulder, having stolen flesh and bone alike from the poor man. He had only started to turn his head to the wound when he slumped over, falling face-first in the dirt, twitching his death-throes.
Anger washed over me, overwhelming my fear. I took umbrage at the creature’s fortitude, the injustice of its resistance to us, the impunity with which it assaulted us. Without thinking, I flung my sword at the thing’s side, overhand, yelling my frustration as I did.
I expected the weapon to bounce aside, casually and pathetically, but the sword instead penetrated halfway to the hilt, which bobbed up and down happily as the blade flexed with the force of the blow. My shout had not just been some exasperated expletive—it had accompanied a further sorcery, one that had empowered the weapon to do its work. I had no time to recall how I’d extemporized such a fortunate working; the creature returned to press me.
Willingly disarmed, I drew my parrying dagger as a desperate last line of defense; it did me little good. By now, Aryden, Vitella and Daedys had caught up to me, their tired attacks at least pulling some attention away from me.
But the monster had been enraged now, too, and the desperation of its injuries only seemed to have strengthened it. It feinted with its head toward Vitella but kicked Aryden viciously instead, claws screeching as they left long dents in the lord’s breastplate and sprawling him.
In dividing my attention to my companions I had failed to maintain a safe distance from the creature; it knocked me to the ground with a casual turn of its head and neck, not the devastating blow from its previous charge but enough to put me on my ass again. With another flick of its neck it seized Daedys’ spear in its beak, ripping it from his grasp and pulling him prostrate as he attempted to hold onto it. The weapon snapped into two halves and fell to the avar.
Only Vitella stood in defiance of the beast now, it seemed, for I could not see Edanu. I presumed he’d lost his nerve and ran. Like mine, the Lady Vitella’s blade left only light scratches—minor annoyances—in the monster’s hide. But cold determination had replaced the aloof amusedness in her expression and I wondered to myself—inappropriately given the situation, I realize—at a sort of beauty that existed in such a frank display of willfulness.
The monster turned its neck to look at her, and I knew that hers would be the next life taken by the beast if nothing could be done. Still driven more by rage than hope, I grabbed the metal-tipped end of Daedys’ hunting spear and drove its point into the base of the creature’s neck. It didn’t penetrate, instead cutting only a shallow groove where scales met with leathery, feather-covered hide. If only I’d had been conscious of what I’d done to injure the creature with my sword!
The monster turned again, pulling its neck up into an “S”-like curve so that it could look down at me, its spider eyes intently focused upon me. It opened its beak slowly, pointed teeth within glistening with slavering spit. Slowly, it extended its neck, beak and tearing teeth coming ever closer to my face. I pushed against its neck with my hands, but even hale I’d not have had the strength to resist the force with which it approached.
Just as I’d resolved to look it in the eyes as it killed me, to defy it in that one meaningless way left to me, a shot rang out and a black fog exploded from the side of the thing’s head. As it fell on its side, lifeless, I saw Edanu standing there, still holding his caliver at the ready, close enough he must have almost pressed the muzzle to the monster’s face as he pulled the trigger.
I guffawed with surprise that he’d have bothered to save me; I would have expected him to wait until I, too had a massive chunk of flesh liberated from my body before he made that mortal shot. The emotion that followed, irrational as it might have been, was chagrin. I hated that I owed him something, the kind of debt not easily repaid.
My thoughts must have been plain on my face, for Edanu only shrugged. “You gave up your balls for this fight,” he smiled. “You shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything else.”
Despite myself, I smiled, too.
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