Merrin

by John Hertel

 

My earliest memories are of darkness, damp caves, and of a Monster who sometimes fed me.

Sylvorum Elf-stalker was a flying black cloud of teeth and talons. His mastery of the silent glide made him the terror of the Sentinel Spires Mountain range. That dragon’s reputation was so fell that no intelligent beings would deliberately enter his territory.

This was my father.

I was a disappointment to my father. His habit of tormenting his prey before eating it nauseated me. His treasures—a bed of cold hard stones and bits of metal—were of no interest to me. Causing forest fires for their own sake seemed pointless to me. This, and other things, caused a deepening rift between us as time crawled by.

I was half grown by the time my father summoned me from my favorite waterfall to guard a new treasure he had acquired. It was called a Barbarian Princess, something he intended to trade for its weight in gold. How wonderful.

I soon confronted a strange sight, a little pink biped with a mop of fur atop her head and clutching at scraps of other furs that were obviously not her own. Annarinda was small and dark of hair and eye, but her spirit was strong enough to confront me directly. I was not nearly as terrible as Sylvorum, yet it must have required considerable courage to face me and ask “Are you going to eat me?”

The very idea of eating something that could converse with me was so repulsive and ridiculous that for a moment I was non-plussed. What in all creation would make her ask such a question, I wondered. Being somewhat innocent, I thought about this, and eventually came up with a perfectly reasonable answer; this little talking beast must be close to starving! Why else would she be wondering what I would like to eat?

I foraged about the forest and soon returned with a collection of things that I thought might be edible. I really had no idea what humans were at this point, let alone what they might eat. The collection I placed before her was somewhat… varied. She took a few things, ate a little bit and placed the rest on a rock shelf behind her. Then, she thanked me and complained about nothing, introducing me to the concept of politeness. When she was done, I cleared the mess away (some of the things I had brought were noisesome, even to me) and shooed away something that I had thought was a truffle, but was now leaving the cavern under it’s own power. I then settled down to guard duty, although it was unclear to me what I was supposed to be guarding her from. She told me her name was Annarinda, and engaged me in conversation.

Her people had lived on the northern plateau for many generations. Drought and a series of other natural disasters had driven them south. In the lowlands they had not found the terrible armies that their grandfathers had warned them about, but soft, fat simpletons who fell like wheat before their axes… when they were not running away. The barbarian warriors were so overjoyed at their success that they sent word back for their families to join them. So Annarinda had come south to join her chieftain father, and rejoiced in his prosperity. The bounty of the south would see her people through the winter. For a change, none would starve or freeze to death. I had no objection to any of this; it was nature’s way that the strong would survive, and her people seemed happy enough.

And then Sylvorum had happened along…

The barbarians had not been interested in gold or gemstones, these things being inedible. Now, driven by my father’s ransom demands, they would have to attack strongholds they had earlier bypassed, and take terrible risks for this “treasure”.

I was intrigued by this.

For her part, Annarinda absorbed the details of my rather staid and boring life with rapt fascination. She even commented on my command of her native language, she said she could practically see the meaning of my words in her mind. I was too amazed to speak for a moment. Command of mannish tongues was the first step in learning spell magic, something that my father had continuously postponed. I corrected her, it was her facility with Draconian that allowed us to converse. Annarinda thought about this for a moment, and then smiled in a sly and secretive way.

“Can you hear me?” she asked. I had, of course, but then I realized something, a crucial fact that stopped my heart for a moment.

Her lips had not moved.

A witch! I nearly fled from her; I almost barged out of the cavern and brought Sylvorum down on us both. Before I could move more than a few feet, she explained it all to me in a strobe of mental images and ideas, and made the truth known to me in an instant. I sum it up in one word: Psychic. All creatures are supposed to have this power, although nearly all are latent as stones. Nearly all beings are deaf to the wonders that their own minds are capable of. One in a million can call this power forth in useful forms, and bend it to their will. Annarinda was one such being.

The next few days were a learning experience that was more like an unfolding, a revelation. It is impossible for me to tell you what it is like, this process of discovery. (Spend the first half of your life at the bottom of a well, and then climb out and tell me what the sun, the stars and the world around you looks and feels like. Do that, and you will have taken the first step in understanding me.) Annarinda’s mental energy was far less than my own, yet her power flowed like a mill stream, with every available erg of it available for useful employment. At first, mine was like a rushing flood, crashing about with no purpose. She trained me to bring it forth, and I shall never forget the day that I stacked three rocks on top of each other without touching them.

My father occasionally observed us, but all he noticed was that our conversations had ended, and that we seemed to be just sitting there, staring at each other. He was glad of this, the old fool; he took this to mean that I had finally become bored with her. I knew this because I had taken to reading his mind… what there was of it. Thus, I was instantly aware of the night he drank himself half-mad on an intoxicating mixture of fermented griffon’s milk and pixie blood, and he resolved to send Annarinda back to her people the same way they were delivering her ransom; one little piece at a time.

Annarinda was still half asleep when she found herself perched on my back, my mental directions clamping her hands tight on my scales as we flew off into the night. Our nocturnal escape was exhilarating at first, then confusing, then dreary and ultimately utterly frustrating. Barbarians move, you see, and it was not until dawn that we finally found them. The sight they presented was yet another life-changing experience for me.

My father’s outrageous demands had driven the barbarians to extreme measures. When we arrived, they had just stormed the walled city of Visograd, and sacked it. I say without hesitation that this was a fortress that no dragon ever born could have taken down, and these tiny yet vehement creatures had razed it in a matter of days! It had cost them dearly, but they had learned something about themselves in the process.

Annarinda’s mental shout saved us from a shower of arrows as I swept in and landed in the midst of them, staring about me with the same shock and curiosity that has being directed at mine own self. I had never understood just how many human beings there were in this world. Annarinda dismounted and ran to her father, and soon our story was known to them, as was my name. Soon I was experiencing what no non-psychic can ever understand. I basked in the admiration of the little souls all around me. In that moment, I think I came close to understanding something important… and then the moment was gone.

I sensed him before they saw him. I heard the cries, the wails of despair before I could even turn to face him. Sylvorum scythed his way through the crowd with the sun at his back, his wings making hardly a sound. He was focused on me, and his eyes promised nothing but bloody murder for me and mine. I snatched Annarinda up in my weaker claw and vaulted straight up into the sky.

My father, now determined to be my killer, heaved his wings and his breath started blowing through his nostrils like an ox. He would have caught us eventually, but escape was not my plan. I cast my new-found power over the old monster’s skull, and his thoughts were mine! Then, with one claw burdened and useless, with half his mass and none of his experience, I turned to battle Sylvorum Elf-stalker to the death.

Much has been written of this battle, songs were sung of it. My own recollections are hazy, and cannot do the bard’s tales justice. I was wounded seven times, blows struck by reflex that I could not possibly dodge. Other moves, such as a brilliant snap-roll that should have put him on top of me, were turned against him. Soon he found himself with shredded wings, flying so low that a stall would surely ground him. He attempted to marshal his fiery breath against me. At the moment when a dragon must release his breath, I wrapped my tail around his throat and kicked him in the stomach as hard as I could. I can testify that he felt a taste of the horror he had visited on so many others, as I intended he should.

His throat and chest erupted, and I was swatted out of the air. Sylvorum landed in the forest, where his corpse burned and smoldered for two days. I crash-landed near the place I had taken off from. I was weak and bleeding from half a dozen places, but before I could surrender consciousness, I had to check on my precious passenger.

Historians and apologists have had much to say to excuse me at this point. It is all garbage and nonsense, of course. I looked at the pulped and bloody mess in my claw, and I knew the truth at once, I knew that I had killed her.

Was it quick, too sudden for her to cry out to me? Did she hold herself quiet in some transcendental triumph of willpower over pain, not wanting to distract me from a battle that would determine the fate of her people?

Dragon’s tears are said to have interesting qualities, some of them becoming gemstones. Do not make the mistake of showing me any jewels; I give such baubles away for a reason.

 

Note: These words come from a never completed, never published autobiography of Emperor Merrin himself, apparently as part of his campaign to create a cult of personality around his throne. After his disappearance 1100 years ago, a memorial stone was erected on the shore of Lake Iztra. His epitaph is a suitable list of his accomplishments;

Merrin the Gray
The Great Gray Dragon of Lista
The Killer of Kali and that Bane of the Streegoi
Founder of the Ulistarii Throne
Litch-Breaker

He is worth remembering, not only because of his impact on history, but because rumors of his return now seem to be more than just rumors…

 

Karl Goes to Hell

by Justin Markland

 

Karl hawked a fat one into his hand, smeared back his flaring red hair, and smoothed his beard. “I swear to Thor, young Regin, the longer I’m here, the crazier Valhalla gets.”

“I am forced to agree with you,” said Regin, his youthful face contemplating the oncoming army of restless Vikings.

“For instance, take Grimnir over there.” Karl pointed to a crazed man with long blonde hair, screaming naked at the wind. “Old timer. We’ve since learned the value of clothing.”

“Yes, but he is Berserker.”

“Can you not berserk with clothes on?”

“Hm. I suppose you’re right. I’d much rather not see that flaccid piece of flesh flapping in the wind, nor the wrinkled prunes it shelters.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

A great horn blast pierced the morning air, long, wailing, and vibrating with the anticipation of thousands of warriors. A thunderous cry rose from the ranks on both sides of the field.

“Ah, the horn sounds,” said Karl, fitting a pointed helmet on his head.

“Yes, let us thank the great tree for life and the gift of everlasting combat.”

To either side, the line of warriors stretched over only a small part of the infinite plains.

The horn blasted again, and everyone charged.

The two men moved together, flying over the short grasses, and a tidal wave of steel and flesh swept towards them. “Have you your man?” asked Karl.

“Yes, the bald one, straight ahead.”

“Ah, I know him well. He’ll initiate with a low spin move. I’d stake my life on it.”

“Thank you.”

Masses of bodies clashed, and the air was filled with screaming and sounds of metal on metal. Sure enough, the bald man spun and swiped his sword low. Regin would have lost his legs had he not expected it. Instead, he hopped over the blade and came down with his sword, chopping easily through the surprised face.

Karl was already on his second man. “Stay away from Grimnir, lad, he can’t always distinguish friend from foe.”

Regin turned to see the naked man foaming at the mouth and charging with a large axe. He took his cue and dove aside. Grimnir continued past, hacking at the next body in line.

Something flickered in the sky. Arrows stuck into the fray, jutting from necks and torsos. Regin raised his shield. Karl had only a large sword, and instead picked up the nearest body. An arrow struck the corpse where his heart would have been. “Lucky bastards!”

Another wave flew threw the air. Another arrow planted itself next to the first. “Best of five!” he shouted. The reply was another arrow in the same spot. Karl grunted, dropped the body, and charged in the direction of the shooter, shoving, hacking, and climbing his way through. At last he broke through enemy lines. There were a few archers scattered a short distance away, firing into the crowd. But then Karl made eye contact with his assailant. The archer’s eyes went wide as he realized that his target had found him instead. Karl sprinted, and the archer drew. The arrow zinged straight into Karl’s shoulder.

“Goat-mongering son of a whore!”

The archer decided that he would not have enough time to draw again, so he ran. The man was tall and long legged, and moved far faster than Karl could ever hope to. But Karl chased him nevertheless.

They ran through the infinite field, and the battle behind them got smaller and smaller. Every now and then, the archer would have enough distance to turn and fire, though Karl would simply turn and take it in the arm. Eventually, the archer’s entire quiver of arrows was bristling from Karl’s shoulder and bicep, so he stopped a good distance from the swordsman.

“Truce,” shouted the archer.

“There is no truce in Valhalla. Only death and victory!”

“I will keep running, and this battle will never end. Accept my forfeiture, and you may have your victory for the day.”

Karl tried a burst of speed to catch him off guard. It didn’t work, so he slowed to a stop. “Come here and offer me your head if you wish to forfeit.”

“Thank you, but I’d rather enjoy the delights of the hall this evening.”

“Losers may not partake in the evening festivities.”

“Says who?”

“Odin.”

“No he doesn’t. This isn’t even real battle. It’s training for Ragnarok.”

Karl slumped. “You’re not supposed to say that.”

“Well, I did.”

“Damn it.” Karl took a deep breath. “Fine, I accept your forfeiture.”

Three omnipresent horn blasts echoed through the plains, and distant cheers met them.

“It appears that your side claims victory,” said the archer.

“Indeed.”

“Shall we return?”

A smile crossed Karl’s lips. “Sure.”

“If you wish my company, you will have to throw your sword.”

“Absolutely not.”

The archer shrugged, “See you tonight.” He ran off.

“I forget nothing, archer! I shall remember and smash your face in tonight!” Karl looked about, and saw nothing but grass on all sides. He grit his teeth and started running.

The hall was crowded when he finally entered, and he met with debauchery of every sort. Not a single man stood without his mead. Some were sparring to the death, many were singing and carousing with their comrades in arms. Karl picked out Regin from the masses and approached him with a grin. “Regin! I see you’ve made it through the day yet again!” The two men threw an arm around the other’s neck.

“Karl! Where’ve you been?”

“I’d rather not speak of it.”

“No matter. Here, this will cure what ails you!” Regin grabbed a horn from thin air, and filled it with a pitcher.

“Your wisdom exceeds your youth, young man.” The horn emptied. “I hope that we shall share the same side yet again on the morrow.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

They each downed another horn.

“And if you see an archer tonight, a long-legged hawk-eyed man, I’m going to pull his eyeballs from his head.”

“Aye.”

* * * * *

In the morning, Karl blinked his eyes and pulled himself from drunken stupor. Men lay about the hall in every manner and place, from face down to upside down. He stood and squinted at his surroundings.

Something was wrong.

In his hundreds of years in Valhalla, he knew only one thing was for sure: the hall only got fuller as time went on. But this morning, he could see bare spots on the floor that should have been occupied.

“Regin.”

Snort.

“Regin, get your worthless arse up!”

The man stood quickly. “Wha.” He rubbed at his eyes.

“Tell me, young one, is there anything odd about the hall this morn?”

He took a good look. “Why, yes. Yes there is. I do not have a mead horn in my hand.”

“No, dullard. Look at the count.”

Somewhere outside, a rooster crowed.

Regin’s lips moved silently as he counted bodies, though it became more difficult as everyone began to stir. “Yes. Yes, I suppose you are right.”

The puzzled looks and murmurs of the other warriors confirmed the suspicion. It wasn’t long before the entire hall was alive with gruff chatter and bewilderment. Then, the voice quieted all. It rumbled like thunder, and shook the walls.

“SILENCE! The great and powerful Allfather has decreed that combat shall be delayed indefinitely. No one is to leave the hall at any time, except for the four I have chosen! Disobey, and I shall have your skin flayed daily!”

There was silence in the hall. Suddenly, Karl felt the touch. “Young Regin, I feel that I have been chosen. For what, I know not.”

Regin paused. “I too, have been chosen.”

Karl’s face brightened, and he extended a hand. “Then I would have none other were I to choose myself.”

The two strode with great importance to one of the entrances, but they stopped the moment they stepped out. There was only one other time when Karl had seen Odin, except that then he was disguised as a frost giant who was by all means the most imposing character he had ever seen. But here, in his natural form, Odin was the only figure to ever compel him to soil his britches. Somehow, he managed to overcome the urge, and the two of them rushed before Odin to take a knee and bow low. The great king of Asgard towered above them, dark cloak and wide brimmed hat flowing in the wind, spearhead glinting. He sat upon his steed, Sleipnir, which snorted and flexed its eight legs. Two black birds circled in the sky.

Karl heard rushing footsteps nearby. He glanced to the left and saw Grimnir, no longer naked but wearing animal skin. Next to him was a man he did not recognize. Footsteps on the right. Karl glanced, and his eyes opened wide.

“Foul beast!” He shouted.

The archer shied away.

“SILENCE!” The voice cracked through air and slapped each of the men into submission. “Did I not say four?” Odin’s voice boomed.

Silence.

“Am I speaking to myself?”

The eager cries of the five men met Odin’s ears. “No, Allfather.”

“I didn’t say four?”

“Yes, Allfather.”

“YOU!” Odin raised his spear and pointed it at one of them.

All five men glanced up to see if it was himself. Four of them sighed with relief.

The man Karl did not recognize rose to his feet.

“Did you not hear my order?”

“Yes, Allfather, but I wished to help.”

“Well, faithful servant, helping shall be difficult… WITHOUT YOUR SKIN!”

“But—Nooooo!” Two monstrous ravens swept from the sky and carried the man away, his screams dying in the wind.

“Now, on to business. I need you four to run an errand for me.”

“Yes, Allfather.” They said.

“I need you to go on down to Eljudnir and get me a little something I forgot.”

The four looked up.

“Look not upon your Master!”

They looked down.

“It’s a funny story, really. You see, just the other night, me and Hel had a few, and we were playing bones, and she won some, and I won some, and then she says, ‘Hey, how about we make this interesting’. So I says, ‘what exactly are we talking about here?’ And she says, ‘well, if—DON’T MOVE, MORTAL!”

The archer stopped scratching his neck.

“And so she says, ‘well, how about if I win, the losers of your battles in Valhalla stay down here, and you get no more warriors for Ragnarok. But if you win, I’ll let you have, oh say, another one hundred thousand for the final battle’.

“And if there’s anything I know, it’s how to play bones so, obviously, I take the offer. Well, of course, she cheats and wins, and now everyone that died in battle yesterday is stuck in that whore’s castle.” Odin took a deep breath. “So what I need you to do, is go on down there, find my rune, and bring it back so we can keep on fighting. I’d get it myself, but I’m bound from entering her domain. Anyhow, before I send you, I will grant you three questions.”

Karl stood. “Oh great Odin, grant me this first question. What is this rune you speak of?”

Odin sighed: an immense rushing wind. “Though I have told no one, I will tell you four. It is my eighteenth rune, and it gives me the ability to raise those that die in combat, so that my warriors may fight day after day in preparation for the end times. Tell no one, or I will reserve for you the greatest torment which, on the pain scale, is a ten out of ten. Your friend back there is getting a four out of ten. Got me?”

Karl grimaced. “Yes, Allfather.” And he kneeled.

The archer stood. “Why us, great Odin?”

“I have chosen you because you four are my second best warriors. In case you all meet with doom, I will still have my first best for the end times.”

The archer stood with his mouth open for a moment before kneeling.

Finally, Regin stood. “Allow us to take your steed, Sleipnir, oh great Allfather, so that we may hasten to our destination.”

Odin squinted, and his head danced from side to side. “Mmm… No. Last time I let Hermod borrow it to go to Eljudnir he brought it back tired out and it had a scratch on its side.” Odin twisted to the side and started lifting tufts of fur on the horse. “See… it’s right… around here…” He turned back. “But this is of no consequence. You will be taking a shortcut on Yggdrasil’s root, and will not need the swift hooves of Sleipnir.”

“Thank you, Allfather.” Regin knelt.

“And now, my companions will take you to the beginning of your journey. And remember, fear not failure, for my greatest warriors will still survive to Ragnarok if you do not return.”

The four looked up, stupefied. There was a great wind, and the ravens snatched them up, one in each claw. The fields flew by beneath them, dotted by the halls of the gods. They could see the rainbow bridge and the great wall, and beyond, far below, Midgard.

Already the world tree appeared monstrous, and only grew larger at their approach. When the ravens finally dropped the four at its base, all they could see was an unending red wall and a green sky. There was wood everywhere, except for forward. They stood bewildered on a road, which wound downward, over the side of Asgard, past Midgard, and into oblivion. The road before them was one of the tree’s three roots.

“By Thor’s hammer,” whispered Karl, “have you fellows ever seen the likes?”

“I’ve scarce seen anything but Valhalla,” said Regin. Three of them stared. Grimnir began to relieve himself over the side.

“It’s a rainy day in Midgard,” said the archer, with a smirk.

The others couldn’t help but smile.

“What’s your name, archer?” asked Karl.

“Svipdag. Svipdag son of Iving.”

“Well, Svipdag, we may be on the same journey, but we have yet to be on the same team.”

The archer waved him off.

Regin interjected. “This is Karl, I’m Regin, that’s Grimnir, though I doubt I’ve ever seen him talk.” They looked at Grimnir, who snorted and wiped his nose. “If we are to die together, we should at least know the names of our comrades.”

“Though old Svipdag here, would rather run like a coward than meet his fate,” said Karl.

“If I had met my fate yesterday, I would not be here today.”

“I’m sure the third best archer in Valhalla would have sufficed.”

An arrow zipped through Karl’s beard.

“Dung eating beast!” Karl’s flashing sword accentuated the curse. Svipdag was already jogging down the road, laughing. Karl screamed and chopped at the road with his sword. He eventually sheathed it, red-faced and sweaty. “Let’s go.”

Hours later, the four were nearing Midgard, chewing at the air to clear their ears, lulled into complacency by peaceful surroundings. And that’s when Svipdag saw the beast. A tiny squirrel came scampering up the road, and zipped right between the archer’s legs. “Hello, little one, having a nice journey?”

The squirrel stopped and looked up at him. “Vomitous puss bag! Vomitous puss bag!” The voice was high and musical.

Svipdag froze, eyeballs locked on the squirrel.

“Pay him no mind, it is merely Ratatosk, who runs between the dragon and eagle delivering insults,” said Regin.

The squirrel turned to him. “Eater of feces! Motherless son of two fathers!”

Grimnir looked at the squirrel and grunted once, grunted twice.

“Uh oh,” Regin watched as Grimnir became agitated. “Someone should shut that squirrel up. Now.”

“Wretched bile-filled mucous chewer! Mucous chewer!” The squirrel began to clean itself.

Grimnir began to shake. Regis and Karl backed away.

“Coward! Coward! Coward!”

Apparently, that was all it took. Grimnir tore the clothes from his body and charged like a rabid animal. His axe sank deep into the road as the squirrel bounded away. He growled and screamed as he yanked the blade out of the wood and took off after the bolting fur ball.

“What do we do?” asked Regin.

Karl shook his head. “Wait until he tires.”

They all nodded and watched as Grimnir arched his massive weapon through the air in great, eager chops, always missing the small creature by at least a foot. It may have been hours by the time the first signs of fatigue began to show. The swings became fewer and farther between, and Grimnir’s breath came in great gulping gasps. Soon, his eyes drooped, and the axe swung in lazy circles just above the ground. At last he simply spun and collapsed in a sweaty, naked heap. His snoring was the only indicator of life.

“Well, what in Thor’s name are we supposed to do with that?” asked Svipdag, motioning with his hand.

“Shall we leave him here, Karl?”

Karl rubbed at his beard. “No, I think not. His slumber will last only so long, and I suspect he’ll be of use later.”

“How, then, would you suggest we carry him?”

Karl whipped off his cloak and laid it on the wooden ground. He grabbed the remainder of Grimnir’s clothing, and threw it on top for padding. Then he pulled the sleeping berserker onto the pile. “Drag him.”

Regin nodded.

Svipdag did a double take. “What? I’m not dragging him.”

“My cloak, your work.”

“I’d have used my cloak if I had thought of it first.”

“Well think more quickly next time.” Karl stepped off down the path.

Svipdag and Regin each held a corner and began to move. The sleeping man jostled with each bump, snoring soundly nevertheless.

Eventually the four of them leveled with Midgard, and admired the sparkling fjords, broad mountains and shimmering plains. They watched the people move like specks of dust rolling across a table. But as the sun was rising, they continued to descend, and eventually they were looking up at the rocky underbelly of middle earth. And even as the light fades in the murky depths of the sea, so it did as the men dropped steadily towards the underworld.

The sky about them took on a bruised purple, and the stars flared up from mid air, floating in clusters only a stone’s throw from their path. Soon the space about them succumbed to the looming darkness, and dimmed to a whispering dark blue. Karl could barely see his own feet, until a strange thing happened. A horizon began to take form, a sickly, dripping green, outlining the black hole of land far below. And finally, they stopped. The great root that the group had traveled on finally narrowed and then dipped suddenly into a great, bubbling pool of water.

They surveyed the roiling circle. The shore lay only a minute’s swim away, dark, barren, and lumpy.

Svipdag crossed his arms. “I don’t swim.”

“Not even doggy-paddle?” asked Regin.

“Not even float above water.”

“This is no problem,” said Karl.

They turned to look at him.

Grimnir floated spread-eagle, face up and snoring, as Regin and Karl held his arms and towed him to shore. Svipdag hugged Grimnir tightly about the waist, eyes scrunched as he kicked spastically. In moments, Karl felt his fingers dig into the coarse, volcanic sand, and he pulled himself onto shore. When the others shook themselves off, they joined him in staring.

Corpses stretched off into the darkness, buried to varying degrees, body parts jutting from the ground at every angle. Mossy weeds grew on them, in them, and around them. Karl approached the nearest: a head and a left arm.

“What in Thor’s name…” He reached out to poke the thing with his sword and, of course, it looked at him. But that was not the astonishing thing. The astonishing thing was when a blast of air knocked Karl back, and a pair of leviathan jaws snapped down on the corpse, pulled it free, dragged it into the sky, tossed it, and swallowed it in a gulp.

The three men stood rigid, and craned their necks toward the dragon. The shining black scales whisped upwards in elegant curves, silent and breathing. All the men could make out for sure were the eyes, smoldering like coals, the fiery outline of the great maw, and smooth trails of smoke running from its nostrils.

Finally, Karl whispered. “Fear not, it is only Nidhogg, the eater of corpses. We should fare well as long as we are moving.”

Svipdag wrinkled his face, and turned between the dragon and the shore before he finally spoke. “What of Grimnir then?”

Almost as if the great beast had read his mind, it whipped around and glared at the unconscious man lying in the sand.

“Damn. Damn it.” Regin began to bite his lip.

“Quickly, pick him up. You two get his arms, I’ll get his waist.” In a moment, Grimnir was upright, and flopping around.

Karl wrapped his arms around the chest, buried his face behind the man’s neck, shook him slightly, and began to shout. “Hello, I’m okay. I was just taking a nap there, dragon.” Regin lifted Grimnir’s arm and waved it at the beast. “Yes, I am not food. I am very, very alive. No food here.”

The three men grunted as they pranced the body across the sand, tripping now and then on a head or a leg. At last, they had moved clear of the dragon’s suspicious stare, and collapsed in a pile.

After they caught their breath, they resumed dragging the man as usual. Eventually, the bodies in the earth became sparser, and the going was easy, until they approached the great wall that surrounded Hel’s lair. Karl grew agitated as they approached the towering fence, which consisted of rusting spikes decorated with impaled body parts. At his touch, one of the spikes cracked and tumbled over. He turned to his comrades with a thin stare.

The others shrugged.

After they passed, they could smell the palace before they could see it. It was an inky blotch, even on the surrounding night. It sat moldering like a pile of fungus-covered squash left in a closet corner. And the vapor it emitted was oily, filling the air about them with a thick, gag inducing reek. Even Grimnir, in his state, had trouble catching his breath.

They passed through the wide entrance, which blew gusts of hot air at them in breaths between giant, yellowed teeth. They traveled down the convulsing throat, and passed a well that drew in and out, gasping like an infected windpipe. They threw aside the wood and iron door and stepped through. Everything went still, and the cold seeped back into their bones.

Dust shimmered in the air, falling through wisps of blue light, settling like snow on cracked stone floor. Decaying, mottled corpses plastered the walls like papier-mache, and their faces contorted and pulled back as they laid eyes on the four intruders.

“It appears that we’ve made our destination,” said Regin.

“Indeed,” said Karl.

Svipdag whisked his eyes about. “So, what now?”

Karl shrugged. “Ask her.”

The others followed his finger to the throne before them, built high from human bone. They had not noticed the thin figure at the top until she moved and stepped from her place. It was hard to tell what stood out more, her beauty or her sullenness. Her cheeks were sunken, and icy blue eyes stared back at them. Her hair, silver blonde, was pulled back tight behind her head, and her clingy black dress glimmered as it slithered along the stone behind. But then, as she neared, they saw her leg for just a glimpse as the fabric flapped, and saw flesh the texture of burnt chicken. Svipdag gagged, and the others had to look away.

“Why have you come to disturb the realm of the dead?” The statement held no emotion

Karl affixed himself upon her, and knelt graciously. “Oh great Hel, Daughter of Loki, we have come to reclaim the rune you have won from Odin, Father of Battle.”

“And what have you brought for barter?”

Karl licked his lips. “Only an appeal to your mercy, our mistress.”

It is best she did not smile; her face may have shattered. “What care have I, that I should give up what is rightfully mine?”

“Ragnarok. The three worlds must have all they can muster in the end times, lest darkness overcome us.”

“Warrior, I am darkness, and I am wondering if I should let you leave here, let alone give you my rune.”

Regin stepped forward. “Allow me then, dark mistress, to assume service in your name for eternity, in exchange for the rune.”

Hel squinted. She turned to look at two dark individuals who stood by the throne, moving almost imperceptibly. “Although it is true that Ganglati and Ganglot are not the most responsive servants, they do have loyalty, which I doubt the lot of you could muster.” She clasped her cold hands around a small bag hanging from her neck. “My price is this: if you can get everything in the three worlds, rocks, trees, animals, and people, to weep for Odin and his lost warriors, then I shall deliver the rune.”

Karl flared his nostrils. “Huddle.”

The three men wrapped their arms around each other. “You two realize that Hermod tried to do the same thing and failed, correct?”

Svipdag and Regin nodded.

“Right. And that was on Baldur’s behalf. Think of how many less will weep for Odin, the Terrible One.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

“There’s only one option. We’re going to have to take this bitch out.”

“Aye.”

“What?” Svipdag blinked hard.

“Well, we can either fail Odin and be skinned alive for eternity, or we can try to steal the rune, where the worst that’ll happen is we’ll be plastered to one of these walls.”

Svipdag threw up his hands. “Well! The choice is simple, then!”

“One more word and you’ll feel the back of my hand, archer.” Karl’s finger floated just before his nose. “Anyhow, I’ll snatch the thing from her neck. You two drag Grimnir out as fast as you can.”

“Brilliance,” muttered Svipdag.

They broke, and the frosty mistress of the underworld met their glances. Karl stroked at his beard, and sauntered towards Hel. “So, it comes to this, mistress. We shall return to Odin and ask him to… wait a second, you have something on your…” Karl stared at the side of Hel’s neck as if a bug was perched there, and raised his hand slowly to flick it off. But then he whipped his hand, snatched the small bag from Hel’s neck with all the force he could muster, and spun about with a concentrated burst of adrenal energy. “Go men!”

Grimnir bounced and flopped on the cloak as they sprinted to the door. They grasped the daunting iron handles and yanked with grunts and growls. It didn’t even think about budging.

Hel spoke in her usual monotone. “Give it back.”

The men struggled at the door.

“Come on. Give it back.”

Finally, Karl turned around and drew his sword. “Or what? You’ll fetch the molasses twins on us?” The two figures by the throne finally completed turning their heads from when the four men had first entered.

Hel sighed and then swept her hand from left to right, and something passed through the chamber. One by one, the corpses on the walls began to shimmy down, fall, and crawl to the floor. Some could only walk on their hands because their legs were gone. Some brandished their own arms as weapons. Some brandished weapons as weapons.

“Gentlemen, may we die honorably in combat.” Regin pulled out his sword.

Svipdag shot a corpse through the face, and it began to strike out at the ones around it.

“Technically, we’re already dead, dear Regin,” said Karl.

“Yes, but, you know what I mean.”

“Aye.”

Another bolt through a face.

“Thor!” Karl shouted. He charged at the wall of desiccated flesh with Regin right beside. The corpses were neither agile nor quick, but their sheer numbers pressed in on the two men as Svipdag fired shot after shot. Already, the men were being pressed towards the door. The charge never gained an ounce of momentum. Karl hacked a limb and chopped a head, and saw Regin beside doing the same. Then Karl saw someone else in the corner of his eye. He turned his head for a glance, and saw Grimnir facing the door, yawning and stretching.

“Damn it, Grimnir, take to your axe!”

The naked blonde man looked at him for a moment, and was immediately clubbed in the head by a corpse’s arm. He grunted and turned to the creature, pushing it back. He made noises like a disturbed ape, until the arm hit him again. Then he screamed. In an instant, the axe was in his hands and flying. Karl only caught glimpses of a flashing axe blade as it swam though waves of the dead. Chunks of flesh and body parts sailed into the air like chaff as the wild man charged through. His path could only be traced in the crowd by the carnage on the surface, like a gopher burrowing through the earth. Again, the three of them were left alone to fight the masses.

“What do we do now?” shouted Svipdag.

“Fight!” Regin replied.

Karl backed up a step and cupped a hand around his mouth, shouting over the crowd. “Grimnir’s mother eats Jormangund’s feces!” The turbulence in the pool of corpses paused.

“She can’t get enough!”

Again, corpses flew, but now the trail of destruction led to the three men. Karl put two spread fingers to his mouth and flicked his tongue in mockery. Grimnir exploded from the fray just in front of Karl, and the rage of Odin’s chosen flared in his eyes. Karl dodged the axe so narrowly that it shaved off his left eyebrow, but the crushing blow continued through the air and shattered the thick wooden door into kindling. Grimnir continued charging into the darkness. Karl shouted, “Run!” but the other two men were already gone.

The hot breath assaulted Karl once more, and the throaty walls flew by. He stepped over some large shattered teeth where the entrance had apparently closed and was finally free of the fortress of eternal damnation. Still he sprinted, and when the palace was far in the distance, it was not far enough.

* * * * *

“So, inconsequential mortals, have you returned with my rune?”

Three of the men knelt before the fear-inspiring visage of Odin. The fourth snored fitfully.

“Yes, great and terrible Allfather,” they chimed.

“Then show it.”

With great care and dignity, Karl rose, never looking the ruler of Asgard in the eye. He held the pouch with both hands, and lifted it up. Odin snatched it away, and dumped the contents into his hand. “Yesss.” The god of war punched at the air. Karl returned to kneeling. “So, mortals, as a reward for your service, I shall grant you each the power of any one of my runes. Except for this one. And the eighteenth.”

The three men exchanged wild glances. Karl spoke, “Oh great Allfather, I request only one question of you first.”

“Fine. What.”

“If that is not the eighteenth rune, which is it that we sought?”

Odin licked his lips and looked about. “Okay, look. I wasn’t completely honest with you. None of our warriors went to the underworld. I just didn’t resurrect them today, you know, for effect. This rune is my favorite though. It’s the one where, you know, a white-armed woman can’t resist my charm, et cetera, et cetera. But it matters not. I’m pretty much god here. I do what I want.”

Karl’s eyes bugged, but he bit his lip, and spoke. “Then I choose the fifth rune, so that if an arrow speeds towards me, I may catch it.”

“Granted.”

Karl made an obscene gesture to Svipdag.

“Then I choose the third,” said Svipdag, “so that I may blunt the weapon of my enemy so that it does not harm me.”

“Granted.”

The vein in Karl’s forehead throbbed, and he balled up his fists.

Regin looked at his companions. “I shall have the eighth then, oh great Allfather,” he said, “so that if hatred takes root in men’s minds, I can uproot it.”

“Granted.”

All three men instantly relaxed.

“And what of the Berserker?” asked Odin.

“Give him the second,” said Karl, “so that he may heal those that he wounds on accident.”

“Granted.” Odin looked around. “Well, I have to go make sure my rune still works, so… that’s it. You may leave.” He turned his steed, and in a flash, the great beast hurled him into the distance.

The three stood and looked at each other.

“Well, I suppose we’d be off to the hall then,” said Karl.

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

Three of them stepped off across the plains, patting each other on the back and laughing. One of them snored peacefully in a small patch of grass.

 

Banshee

by Christie Jeansonne

 

She tucked her dirty blonde hair into a messy ponytail as she flew like a banshee or perhaps a deranged witch child, her gray, patched dress streaming down the hallway, her bare feet slapping the worn concrete flooring that never got even the most threadbare carpet and her fingers brushing upholstery which had long since lost its glory. She could never go anywhere without touching everything, her dark blue eyes opened wide and her hand running along everything in her path as if she were taking in the texture of everything in the world at once. She rapidly devoured the feel of the peeling plaster walls down the hallway and the cold tile on her feet. She paused at the doorway to jam her feet into a pair of worn, ugly boots which looked much too small and possibly left over from childhood or picked up from an old lady at a bazaar. She slammed the door behind her, not looking back…

She walked as a blur of gangly limbs and dirty hair snapping through the air as she ran to her destination unknown. The foreign owners of the jewelry and spice carts, the weather-beaten seafaring men hawking fresh fish, and the fat butcher men watched her race by at all odd hours. They wondered about her, and that odd father of hers, and the strange noises that were sometimes heard issuing from their small, thatched-roof home: just like a banshee, they said. A wild banshee girl with long, dirty blonde hair and eyes that were dark blue haunted the house, except nobody knew her eyes were blue because nobody besides her father had ever been that close to her. The banshee girl screamed sometimes, randomly howling through the small, open-air marketplace, and she always needed to touch everything as she walked by. She usually left a trampled path of things knocked over in her chaotic wake and cart owners scrambled to fix their jarred trinkets.

Mr. and Mrs. Xe watched with curiosity as her fingers, as expected, brushed their ivory elephant that stood guard over their cart of finely carved statuettes and protective amulets and cringed, fearing as usual that she would knock it over. Ordinarily, she had unusual good luck and she certainly hadn’t toppled it yet after the millionth time of it almost tipping off the edge. Ordinarily, she stopped and apologized profusely, then shifted the elephant back to its normal guard position. Today her behavior, normally so predictable, changed. She breezed on by in her dirty old boots, her hair swinging mockingly at the Xe family in its messy ponytail, and continued on her hurried way.

Mr. and Mrs. Xe looked in wonderment at one another and shook their heads. The strange girl was always in a hurry, but it seemed like today she had somewhere especially important to go. “I hope she found a fine, young gentleman,” Mrs. Xe said, “She always seems so lonely and she’s such a homely, poor creature. An orphan, I’d bet. Maybe she’ll get out of this place.” Mr. Xe shook his head and said nothing as he readjusted the ivory statue.

Her destination wasn’t exactly what many would call important, but to her, a fine connoisseur of textures and memories, it was imperative. A new merchant market had opened a few alleyways down: there lay the enticing opportunity for new feelings under her caressing fingers after the same old, tired, worn fabrics and objects under her hand for so long. Even brushing against the spectacular, hard smoothness of the ivory statue had failed to give her a thrill today, and here was a whole brave new world for her to live vicariously through other peoples’ textures and scents.

Though the place was new, it still smelled old and of mustiness from the antique and used wares being peddled. She zeroed in on the very first booth. It was filled with odd glass bottles from some faraway isle, as the man claimed, and other glassware odds and ends he picked up on his travels, he told her proudly. She loved the feel of glass, and the faceted, multicolored prism of glassware glinted at her from all angles. The bright flash of colors invited her hands to touch the cool surfaces. She was especially careful here: she was well aware that her gangly awkwardness could spell disaster here, and she had no gold to pay for the items. The old merchant, his skin as brown and gnarled as an old tree branch, had hung careful hand-lettered signs warning about the high price the unwary would pay for breakage.

The girl’s eyes were wide and faraway with longing as she caressed the silky-smooth texture of a strange, smoky-colored flask wonderingly and noted it’s distinct milky feeling under her stroking fingers. She dreamed of the waves crashing on the distant shore where this lovely bottle had been made. A thin wisp of smoke wafted out of the small opening. A genie?

She gave a sharp, harsh laugh that sounded like a bark, or perhaps a croak; it had earned her the merciless teasing of her peers before her father had taken her with him to the city in the hopes of a better life. It was so funny to her: a genie. How common and quaint! Every day some poor, bedraggled peasant girl goes to a market and finds a pretty bottle that houses a genie. Perfectly natural, she thought. It was a joke to her at first, but became quickly undeniable that something was coming out of the bottle’s thin opening.

If it was a genie, which of course it was, she surmised, because what else would come floating out of a bottle in a smoky cloud after she rubbed it, it didn’t much look like one. No turban, no fancy outfit, no golden cuffs around its wrist. Once, long ago, she had found a cart with old books. The woman selling them, a lovely vision with jangling gold bangles about her wrist, had read some of the fantastic tales to the girl. The girl-child didn’t know how to read, and thus the gold spent on a book would be a waste, but how she longed for that book’s vibrant stories of genies and dragons now. Perhaps it would help her identify this thing; it was a light green hue and almost blurry. She couldn’t quite focus her eyes on it and it slid around her vision. The banshee girl squinted her dark blue eyes but the genie only danced around her line of sight, like a drunken child in a bad masque costume, or a rippling, fetid pond of alkali water.

The genie’s voice sounded like smoke, too: she couldn’t pin it down, or quite feel sure that the voice was coming from the direction of the fumes that formed a body, but she heard it, quiet and whispery, nonetheless. It was very obviously a genie: he asked her in a voice like the southern winds kicking up sand for her wish. She stilled her infinitely moving body, the questing fingers rising briefly to her lips, and she contemplated for only a few seconds.

“I wish that he would die,” she said authoritatively, utterly sure of herself. The genie trembled and his smoky body seemed to waver, then he sighed. “I can’t do that. I’m only allowed to do certain things and murder exceeds the boundaries of certain set laws of nature. There are some limitations, my lady. Wish again.”

She screwed her face up in thought and a split second later wished again, hopefully, “I wish that he would catch a terrible plague so that you aren’t killing him directly, but he would die anyway.” The genie shook his amorphous head, never bothering to ask whom “him” referred to; it was old and wise and knew quite well whom her intended victim was, but he still could not grant the wish. “It’s the same thing, almost. Wish again, my lady.”

She sighed and whispered very, very quietly so that no one around would hear and almost laughed because if anyone had been around they certainly would have noticed a genie hovering in midair. “I wish he would stop coming in my room at night and touching me. I’m not my mother. She died of the fever ten years ago, and when he brought me to the city for a better life, I never thought it would be a life as terrible as this.” The genie, whom had seen a millennia of greedy wishes, swayed slowly, sadly. “I can’t, see. It takes a lot of power to force someone to stop doing something that they want to do and have been doing for a very long time. If I could have my own wish, I would wish that I could make it all better, but it won’t work, and it won’t do any good for you to wish for me to have the power to do it, either. Most people ask for love, and there are plenty of sad young ladies eager to fall in love to be ushered their way. The rest ask for gold, and that’s easy too. Can’t you please wish again, my lady?”

She always looked rushed but collected, and now her face was splotchy and she was holding in tears. What was the point of actually being lucky for once in her life and finding a real genie if he couldn’t do anything to help her?

There was only one wish left in her heart, so she wished it fiercely.

“I wish to sleep an enchanted sleep forever, or until he can’t hurt me anymore. To sleep, and dream forever of all the lovely things in this world I’ve never been to see.”

The genie nodded slowly. He could grant this wish; she was willing.

She closed her eyes, and smiled. Mr. and Mrs. Xe would have gasped at the sight of her: in all their years working down the street from her rickety old house, they had never seen the banshee girl smile.

 

Death From the Frozen North

by Adam Janus

 

Thousands of years ago, the elven lords of Thantwilanoria fought alongside humans and dwarves, to stop the encroachment of the demon high lords out of the southern wastes.

A great battle ensued, and the evil armies of the demon demi-god, Zaranoth were defeated, and Zaranoth was banished from earth’s material plane, back to hell from whence he came.

One legion of brave elven fighters cut deeper into the tainted demon lands than any other, the warrior legion of house Timbor, led by their patriarch, Sarel Timbor.

Even after the war was won, the demon hunters of house Timbor hunted Zaranoth’s defeated, earth-bound minions far to the south and east, all the way to the great pyramids of the Ikpycgen desert, and the spired cities of the sultans.

Three years after the war was won, the warriors of house Timbor returned north, through the blasted, evil tainted wastelands, coming home to Thantwilanoria, where they received a hero’s welcome. Many in attendance said, even through the jubilation and celebration, the returning heroes seemed changed somehow. Most argued it was just exhaustion, and the horrors of war, while others whispered that they had become tainted by the very evil they fought so hard to cleanse. While fewer still whispered of demonic possession.

House Timbor was awarded nobility and Sarel Timbor a seat on the elven council of nobles for his house’s heroics during the war, despite the whispers.Over the next few centuries, house Timbor grew in power, outwardly to most, they seemed normal elves, worshiping nature and Illunar, god of the sun and creator of the elves. But behind closed doors, House Timbor guarded a dark secret. Under the cover of darkness, the noble Timborians worshiped pleasures of the flesh, depravity, deviance and the dark goddess of the blood red moon, Zareesha, mother of the banished demon lord Zaranoth.

At this time, Thantwilanoria was open to all the free races of the world. Its markets were open to outside trading, as well as its museums, libraries and amphitheaters. On occasion an outsider would mysteriously disappear, kidnapped for the followers of Zareesha’s blood rites and deviant pleasures.

There was sporadic finger pointing, and accusations, as house Timbor grew bolder, the disappearances more frequent. But the ruling houses refused to believe that the Timborian war heroes were anything but upstanding, productive members of elven society, albeit a bit reclusive and taciturn, but they had endured such horrors during the war, that was to be expected.

Eventually, the finger pointers grew, and the whispers turned to shouts, too loud for the ruling council to ignore, and they called for Sarel Timbor to answer the accusations leveled at his noble house, and its members.

Sarel Timbor answered with spears and swords, and a bloody coup attempt ensued.

Elves fought elves in the streets before the ruling house of Dalinora forced house Timbor to retreat to their walled compound, in the northern quarter of the city.

To avoid any further bloodshed, house Dalinora, agreed to allow Sarel Timbor and his followers to leave the city, under order of exile, never to return.

Sarel expected this, and the following night, under the full red moon, the patriarch of house Timbor and two thousand of his followers rode forth from Thantwilanoria. Stripped of its nobility, and cursed with mortality by the arch elven wizards, house Timbor and the followers of Zareesha went into exile.

Most headed northwest, across the wilds of Brynhalla, and through Graode Pass, skirting the then small human trading outpost of Ravenholt. Legend has it that many in Ravenholt awoke to find loved ones mysteriously missing.

Five hundred of the outcasts, led by Sarel’s nephew, Gilperion Timbor, headed south, to brave the southern wastes, and the great Ikpycgen desert, to return to the lands of the sultans, where pleasures of the flesh and deviance was more accepted.

Sarel led his exiles far to the north, and east, where they eventually settled in the Black Pine Forest, on the outskirts of the Frostbite Mountains. There was an abundance of small human fishing villages and fur trading towns to the south upon which they could prey, and the Timborian elves used their inherent magic, stealth, and mastery of nature to become scourges of the north-eastern coast of Ta-Teharun. They took human slaves for their depraved rituals and rites, and over the years their elven blood became tainted. Only the immediate Timborian family kept their blood line pure, becoming insane and more depraved from generation after generation of inbreeding.

Frost elves, they were called by the humans of the region. Not only because of their homes in the northern climes, but also because of their nocturnal activities, avoiding daylight. The Timborian elves became pale, their adaptability to their surroundings gave them an ice blue hue, while more and more of them were being born with snow white hair.

Purely by accident, while colonizing their new home, the frost elves stumbled upon a slumbering white dragon, sleeping atop a clutch of unhatched eggs, deep within the Frostbite Mountains. Taking this as a sign of fate, and a gift from Zareesha, Sarel’s direct descendant, Garel Timbor, and his sorcerous warriors fell upon the dragon’s lair.

At the cost of many elven lives, the dragon was enslaved, her eggs nurtured, and her knowledge extracted by frost elf sorcerers, before the wyrm was sacrificed to their dark goddess. Without the influence of their mother, the dragon hatchlings were raised to serve the frost elves, molding their minds and bending their wills over the course of hundreds of years, until they reached maturity.

This the Timborian lords kept secret, not only from the rest of the world, but from most of their own people, a secret known only to those of pure Timbor blood, and the dragons’ sorcerous handlers.

Those who remembered the fight in the dragon’s lair, who were deemed untrustworthy, were silenced, permanently.

Of course there was a rumor here, a sighting there. Occasionally a frost elf renegade, not of the same mind set of their people, would escape out of the Frostbite Mountains, seeking their own destiny.

But who would believe the insane ramblings of a decadent frost elf? Most were hunted down and lynched for the crimes perpetrated by their people, their warnings un-heeded. Rare sightings were passed off as wayward eagle rider patrols out of Ravenholt, which had grown over the centuries to become the largest open city north of Brynhalla.

After all, there had not been a confirmed dragon sighting north of Kothopia for thousands of years…

Until now…

* * * * *

Like vultures circling a carcass, six dragons circled the burning city of Ravenholt.

They soared on the early spring currents, spiked tails slowly wagging behind them, as if swimming in the chill pre-dawn air. Snow-white scales reflected the roaring fires beneath them that burned so hot even stone melted. Two leviathans remained on the ground, leveling buildings with their tails and fiery breath, and feeding at will.

Frost elf warriors, mounted atop great, saber-toothed polar bears, rode through the ruined north gate unchecked, their curved swords dealing death—women, children, the old and infirm, they spared no one.

On the eastern side of the city, in a partially collapsed temple dedicated to the nature goddess Trinia, two yet lived.

One, a human named Bron Straker, was clad in partially scorched eagle feather cloak, and black riding leathers of an eagle warrior. The leather breeches and boot of his right leg were burned away, exposing red, blistered flesh. In places, the leather had painfully melted to his skin.

He knelt before his dead avian mount, the flesh and feathers of its underside and tail scorched by dragon fire.

The other was a magnificent male eagle called Screech, its valiant handler ripped from the saddle and torn asunder in the initial attack.

Initially, eighteen eagles, the pride and joy of Ravenholt’s military and the last of their ancient breed, had taken to the skies in perfect phalanx formation. They sped their way north, to gather information on the advancing frost elf army, and to give Ravenholt’s military leaders and militia time to prepare the city’s defenses.

Led by three wooly mammoths with huge tusks, the invading force was easily seen from the air, as it thundered across the tundra. Fierce, white-haired elves and their polar bear mounts scouted the land ahead of the horde, and protected its flanks.

Aiming for the Timborian royalty, and frost elf generals riding the great mammoths, the eagles and their warrior handlers swooped in for the attack.

They never saw the dragons coming.

Their scents and presence cloaked by dark magic, and guided by their warlock riders, the dragons descended from the clouds at breakneck speed, slamming into the unsuspecting eagle ranks with claws and teeth, killing seven of the giant raptors instantly.

Bred to combat dragons since before recorded history, the remaining birds recovered quickly. Instinct took over as they regrouped and went on the offensive. Their brave handlers drew enchanted swords, the rune-covered blades folded hundreds of times during the forging process, and heat tempered harder than dragon scales. These magnificent weapons were handed down from generation to generation of eagle riders.

Sentries atop Ravenholt’s walls and watchtowers cheered as the eagles quickly brought down two leviathans in their counterattack, the overcast night sky briefly lighting up with wyrm fire and wild multi-colored sparks from eagle rider swords and iron shod eagle talons impacting dragon scales.

But their jubilation was short lived. The dragons’ superior size, savagery and fiery breath won out over speed and agility.

Several dragons, broke away from the fight, and turned their attention to the city below. They leveled the north gate, creating access for the charging frost elf army. This done, they began eliminating the resistance, incinerating soldiers and civilians alike, seeking out ballistas and catapults before engulfing them in fire, and feeding ravenously on the terrified population.

Bron’s grievously injured mount exerted the last of its energy, and life, valiantly carrying its injured rider to safety, closely followed by the riderless Screech, and a hungry dragon.

The two birds winged their way through the ruined city streets using the thick haze from the roaring fires and their smaller size and agility, to navigate their way through avenues too narrow for the hulking wyrm to follow, as its wings and tail battered and destroyed buildings in the effort keep up with its intended prey.

Bron’s back arched as he sobbed in grief and agony. His long brown hair hung down around his head, obscuring his face.

Tearing its gaze from the smoky sky, visible through the ruined roof of the temple, Screech hopped over debris toward the grieving human, nudging him with its beak before speaking in its own, clicking, cawing language that was understood by all eagle riders.

“Get up human,” said the eagle. “The wyrm that pursued us from the sky is still searching for us, I sense its vile presence.”

Somewhere in the distance a building collapsed, sounding like distant thunder, rolling over and drowning out briefly, the sounds of battle and the screams of the dying.

Bron looked up at the bird looming over him, tears had cut rivulets through the soot and ash covering his face, he could not hold the eagles piercing gaze, for shame, and quickly turned away before replying.

“All is lost—my wife, my child, my kin and my city.” He drew his muscled forearm across his face, wiping away tears and soot. “Leave if you wish, bird. Save yourself. “

In reply, the eagle dipped its feathered head, and nudged Bron again, this time hard enough to knock him over. “I do not wish to save myself, human. I too have lost my home, my mate and my brood.” Anger flashed behind the raptor’s dark eyes as its temper flared. “I am the last of my kind, as are you eagle warrior, and I will not go down in the annuls of history as a coward that died while cowering in the temple of a human god like a rat.” The bird hissed, while Bron pulled himself to his feet, despite the pain in his right leg.

“And who is left to write this history, eh?” Bron dragged his sword from its sheath, and used it for support, leaning on it like a cane. “No one!” Bron spat through gritted teeth, in answer to his own question. “No one is left to tell the tale because we have failed them. Who will know?” His voice trailed off to a whisper.

“We will know, and when we stand before our makers, they will know.” Before continuing, the bird took a step closer, iron shod talons clicking on the rubble. “Will you be able to hold your head up proudly when you meet your maker, human? Or will you hang your head in shame, your vow to protect your city and your people unfulfilled by your refusal to fight to the last, your failure ringing through eternity? It’s your choice, but I choose to die in the air, not in a dragon’s belly, or as a pile of ashes on the ground.”

Bron adjusted the grip on his sword, clenching it so tightly that the knuckles of his right hand turned white. He briefly considered striking the bird as the eagle’s insults rang in his ears. The heat of shame he felt in his face was replaced by anger. The archaic runes etched along the length of his blade glowed and pulsed, reflecting the human’s rage.

“Let your fear and sorrow fuel your rage,” goaded the eagle. “Use it to guide your sword arm, to avenge your perceived failure.”

As Bron shook with barely contained fury, the eagle cocked its regal head to its right.

“Prepare yourself human, a dragon approaches.”

A short second later, the pair felt an almost imperceptible rumble beneath them as the leviathan stalked closer. Boom…boom…boom…boom…occasionally followed by a short pause and the intake of air in short bursts as the dragon tried to sniff out its prey.

Leaning in close to Bron’s ear, Screech whispered some last minute advice.

“When the wyrm finds us, stand perfectly still. It is hunting for food, not kills. Do not act, only react. It will think you are paralyzed with fear.” The eagle raised its beak to sniff the air before continuing, its soft breath rustling Bron’s hair. “A dragon’s night vision is so good it can see the shadows of shadows. Its day vision is equally proficient, but like all creatures possessed of night and day vision, the varying depth of shadow and patches of light from the fires and rising sun will make it impossible for it to focus on us both if we move from shadow to light. When you react, let your instincts guide your actions and be precise. If the battle drags on, the beast will incinerate us. I will take care of the sorcerer on its back.”

The great bird once again lowered its head to nudge Bron in the chest, this time companionably. “Remember, human, you are an eagle warrior, and a dragon slayer,” it said before hopping away, and taking to the air, and the deep shadows of the partially collapsed, high-domed ceiling of the temple.

Muscles taut, standing perfectly still, Bron waited, the seconds feeling like hours.

Finally, after several agonizing minutes, the reverberations beneath his feet ceased, and the dragon’s massive, reptilian head appeared above the ruined eastern wall of the temple. Its eyes, easily as big as Bron’s head, flicked back and forth between the eagle perched near the roof, atop a partially collapsed support pillar, and the human, standing stock still on the ground.

Pulling its gargantuan head back and down, the dragon slammed its horned skull against the already weakened granite and marble wall in an awe inspiring display of power, creating its own entrance, and showering the interior with dust and stone shrapnel. The temple groaned in protest as its crumbling foundation threatened to topple the entire building around them.

Through it all Bron held his ground. He could taste his own blood as it trickled down his face, and into his mouth, from the many nicks and cuts inflicted by the tiny stone missiles sent flying throughout the cavernous temple.

As the dust cleared, the behemoth came into view, directed by an armored sorcerer seated between its folded wings. The frost elf scanned the shadows above in search of the eagle, while silently mouthing the words to a spell.

With deliberate, almost feline ease, the dragon stalked toward the motionless human, huge head held low to the ground, flattening its serpentine neck like a cobra’s. Its forked, snake-like tongue flicked out of its bloodstained maw, savoring the salty taste of fear that rolled off the terrified human in waves.

But the wyrm sensed something else, something unfamiliar boiling below the surface, permeating and mingling with the fear. Curious, the dragon flicked its tongue toward the human again, not noticing the deadly intent burning in its prey’s eyes.

As the leviathan’s tongue flicked mere inches from Bron’s chest, close enough for him to smell rotten meat and sulfur on its breath, he reacted.

His sword arm sped by revulsion and adrenaline, he sliced through the dragon’s forked appendage like it was hot butter. The severed slab of meat fell to the floor with a wet plop.

Surprised by this sudden burst of violence, the dragon pulled its head back as its mouth filled with blood.

Bron acted on pure instinct, bellowing in defiance as he stepped below the beast’s rising head and swung his sword upward, from right to left. Sparks flew as the razor edge of his ancient blade cut through the scales of the dragon’s neck, neatly slicing through the soft flesh beneath, severing veins and laying open the creature’s wind pipe. Blood and noxious fluids flowed from the gaping wound, igniting as they rolled across the floor like liquid fire.

Unable to draw breath, or breathe fire, the desperate, injured dragon slammed its head back down in an attempt to crush the puny human.

But Bron had already stepped aside. Drawing his sword over his head, the eagle warrior hacked down on the dying behemoth’s exposed neck, cutting through scales and bone. His blade passed clean through, ringing on the stone floor. He cut an inch deep into the granite, numbing his arms to the shoulder.

The wyrm’s tail lashed in a final death twitch, bringing down another section of the exterior wall, further compromising the temple’s already crumbling structure.

As Bron’s first stroke fell, the eagle leaped from its perch. First flying around the high -domed ceiling, passing in and out of shadow, hoping to disorient the dragon’s sorcerous rider, before folding its wings in and taking a nosedive directly at the warlock.

Finishing his incantation, the frost elf cast a black bolt of energy directly at the speeding eagle. Dipping its head, the raptor passed beneath the bolt, feeling the searing heat along its back.

Before the spell caster could ready a defense, Screech was on him. As Bron’s final stroke fell, the eagle slammed into its unfortunate target. Iron shod talons punctured the mage’s breast plate and skull, killing him instantly and tearing his broken body free of the harness that held him securely to the dragon’s back.

As quickly as the fight had started, it was over.

Bron stared at the dragon’s lifeless body through a blood red haze as he pulled his sword free from the stone floor. Battle madness and blood lust began to fade, replaced by the pain of his forgotten injuries, and a throbbing in his head from adrenaline hangover.

Wasting no time, the eagle unceremoniously dropped the limp frost elf corpse to the floor, and hastened to Bron’s side.

“We have to take to the air, now,” stressed the bird. “The wyrms are aware of their brethren’s demise. They have sensed their clutch mate’s mental death howl.”

Grabbing the pommel of the saddle, Bron painfully swung upon the eagle’s back, instinctively grabbing for the absent retainer straps, ripped from the saddle and still connected to Screech’s previous, unfortunate rider.

“Keep your feet firmly in the stirrups, hold on tightly with your legs and anticipate my movements,” instructed the bird. “Recall your bareback training. I will not let you fall.”

Nimbly hopping on the dead dragon’s back for a launching point, the raptor spread its wings and did one final lap around the ruined building, picking up speed before shooting out through the gaping hole in the roof.

“What do you plan to do?” asked Bron as they ascended into the smoky haze that obscured the dim light of dawn. “Fly right into the maws of several waiting dragons?”

“I intend to accomplish our original objective, to wreak havoc and cause chaos among the invaders’ ranks,” answered the eagle gruffly. “If we can distract them long enough to allow even one refugee to flee and seek aid, then our deaths will not be in vain.”

Once again the heat of shame colored Bron’s soot and gore covered face. He noticed the dragons had widened their circle around the city, surveying the surrounding countryside, searching for escapees.

Two behemoths spiraled down over the ruined temple of Trinia, investigating the cause of death to one of their own, while another broke away to pursue the eagle and rider now speeding their way northwest.

Bron tried, without success, not to look down at the burning city, its citizens lying dead and dying in the streets. Pockets of resistance still remained, but few and far between. Mounted invaders atop their saber-toothed white bear mounts pointed to the skies in his direction. His will almost quavered again as he tore his horrified gaze from the carnage below to focus on the dragon racing across the sky to intercept the fleeing pair.

Unable to utilize its fiery breath at high speeds, for fear of incinerating itself, the leviathan aimed to smash directly into the smaller, more fragile eagle.

At the last possible second, Screech banked its wings, rising just enough for the winged giant to pass beneath them. The eagle then went into a nosedive, descending on the lumbering dragon from behind before it could turn, and landing directly between the leviathan’s outstretched wings. Screech’s iron shod talons sunk into the wyrm’s hapless rider, pinning the frost elf sorcerer face down to its back.

Bron leaned forward and slashed down with his sword. He felt his weapon grind off the beast’s spine as his slashing blade opened a gaping wound on the dragon’s back, which quickly filled and spilled over with blood.

Roaring in pain, its movements becoming uncoordinated due to the damage to its spinal cord, the injured wyrm tried bringing its head around on its long neck, huge jaw snapping open and shut.

Bron met the snapping jaw with steel, swinging his sword with two hands, cutting roughly through the creature’s bony snout. His blade rang almost lyrically as he withdrew, scraping along teeth and bone.

Disengaging its talons with an audible, wet popping sound, Screech once again turned northwest as the grievously injured dragon, its bat-like wings flapping out of sync, tumbled ponderously toward the ground.

“Hold on human,” the eagle said over the roar of the wind. Picking up speed, they quickly outdistanced the larger, slower dragons.

Bron held his face up to the cold, moist morning air, his hair flying wildly about his aching head, and his eyes watering with the force of rushing air.

The warrior’s feeling of invigoration was short lived though as he saw the smoking ruins of the farms and homesteads outside the city proper. Rage once again welled up inside him, as they raced closer to the frost elf royalty and military command, their silken black banners, bearing the red moon insignia, flapping in the wind.

Unchallenged, they looked down on their conquest from the foothills that overlooked Raven’s valley.

* * * * *

Aganariel Timbor felt invincible, seated high atop his black wooly mammoth mount, surrounded by his personal bodyguard of axmen and war sorcerers, casually looking down on the ruined human city of Ravenholt, as his elven reavers raped and pillaged at will.

Shielding his light-sensitive eyes from the rising sun, Agnariel noted a pair of dragons break from formation, and swoop down on the eastern quarter of the city.

Looking to his hooded personal sorcerer, who stood behind him on the platform built over the mammoth’s back, the frost elf king impatiently nodded his head in the dragons’ direction.

Unlike the sorcerous dragon riders, who where armed and armored in traditional frost blue, Timborian magic users stood out, preferring to wear flowing, blood red robes trimmed in black. The sorcerer bowed before replying to Agnariel’s unspoken question.

“I have sensed the loss of another wyrm my lord,” answered the spellcaster. His eyes down, he didn’t notice the fleeting look of annoyance flash across his lord’s pale, frost blue face.

Before Agnariel could ask his next question, the answer shot up through the smoke in the form of eagle and rider.

All watched eagerly as another dragon broke formation to engage the renegade eagle, confident that the giant reptile would rend the bird to shreds, ending any resistance.

They watched the eagle dodge the dragon’s clumsy attack, then turn on the offensive. Sparks flew as the eagle warrior’s blade made contact with dragon scales once, and then again. A collective gasp of disbelief escaped their lips as the raptor disengaged itself from the injured beast, and headed directly at them.

“The human must be mad or suicidal my lord, surely he does not intend…” The sorcerer never finished the thought as Agnariel lost his composure, and backhanded the stammering elf across the face, sending him flying off the platform, to the ground below.

Fists clenching and unclenching in frustration, Lord Timbor screamed down at his battle sorcerers. “I have lost half my dragons this day, and you make feeble excuses!” Spittle flew from his mouth as he vented his insane fury on the assembled spellcasters. “Your warlocks have flown six dragons into oblivion!”

Tagnariel Timbor, Lord Timbor’s general, and younger cousin, as well as Agnariel’s chief rival for the frost elf throne, shouted a warning to his king from his own wooly mammoth mount. “Agnar, you need to dismount now!” He pointed at the feathered missile and its human rider bearing down on them, leaving the slower, pursuing dragons far behind. Tagnariel then turned to his archers and battle mages. “Archers, fire at will, sorcerers, prepare defensive spells, protect your king!”

Glancing sidelong at his rival, angry at the use of his childhood nickname instead of proper title, Agnariel drew his curved sword and faced the hurtling eagle. His confidence grew as he felt protective magic begin to ripple around him.

“You would like that, wouldn’t you cousin?” The king muttered aloud, spitting the word cousin as if it tasted bad. “For my people to see me leap out of danger’s way in some undignified manner. Not this day, Tag. You will not steal my thunder. Today I carve my niche in history.”

* * * * *

“Brace yourself human!” Screech yelled back to Bron, as its acute, binocular vision picked up the waves of magic rising like rippling heat tendrils from the hot coals of a forge, and surrounding the frost elf king. Screech’s trained sight also noticed that the spell was not complete, and the casters would not have time to finish the incantation before impact.

Extending its talons, the eagle felt the protective spell give way, almost as if hitting water at high speed to snag a fish from the river.

Passing through the invisible barrier, Screech’s right leg made solid contact with Agnariel Timbor’s breast plate, as the elf tried to twist away. Even blunted by protective magic, the force of impact sent the elven monarch hurtling from the back of his mammoth, and broke Screech’s leg like a dry twig.

Worse than that, the raptor felt the elf king’s razor-edged blade drag along its underside, and a crossbow quarrel puncture its lung.

Momentum carried the bird and its rider past the assembled frost elves to the edge of a small stand of pine trees, where it hit the ground with bone-jarring force, sliding across snow and muddy earth.

Even though the jolt was cushioned by the body of his mount, Bron was stunned, and not aware of the full extent of the eagle’s injuries. He used his sword, still gripped in his right hand, to stand woozily on unsteady legs. His entire body aching, he shook the fog from his brain, and stared down at the prone eagle, noticing the red mess spilling from its abdomen.

“I am the last of my kind Bron Straker,” rasped the dying bird in a barely audible voice, using Bron’s name for the first time. Dark red blood flowed from its hooked beak and nostril holes. “Do not let the death of my race be in vain.”

Bron continued to stare in dazed disbelief, as the light faded from the proud bird’s fierce eyes. Then, the harsh reality of his situation slowly sunk in.

“This is where I am going to die,” he said out loud.

But for some reason, he didn’t feel the way he would have thought he should feel. No fear, no regret, and no panic about his current situation or sadness welling up from deep within. Just cold, calm rage.

Hearing shouts in a language he did not understand, and the accompanying footfalls of those issuing the shouts, Bron gripped his gore-encrusted sword, and slowly turned to meet his death.

Looking up the slight rise he and Screech had just slid down seconds before, he saw at least a score of archers, crossbows and longbows leveled at his chest, and twice that number of foot soldiers, frost elf axmen, spreading out in a semi-circle as they advanced down the hill, finely crafted, double-bladed axes in their gauntleted hands. The remaining six dragons now circled above, awaiting their orders.

* * * * *

Dabbing blood from a gash in his forehead, suffered from his collision with the now dead eagle, Agnariel Timbor looked down into the slight depression at the pathetic human, and briefly admired the man’s tenacity. Scorched from dragon fire and bleeding from at least a dozen injuries, the warrior from Ravenholt still stood, ready to battle to the last.

“Take him alive,” ordered the frost elf king. “I will enjoy torturing this one at my leisure.”

As he spoke, the human’s head snapped up, and their gazes locked briefly. Agnariel could see the fiery determination in the man’s eyes as he suddenly charged his frost elf attackers. The cornered prey had turned on the predator.

* * * * *

Even though he didn’t understand what was said, the imperious, pompous tone in the frost elf’s voice set something off in Bron’s head.

Growling incoherently, like a feral animal, his vision waving in a red haze, the human laid into the surprised elven elite. Wielding his sword with both hands, the berserking human hewed through foes like a lumberjack hewing through saplings.

He fought with the desperation of the damned, with the strength of someone who has nothing to lose. Dead elves piled up around him as he dodged and weaved through their defenses, taking many hits but refusing to relent.

With every deadly stroke of his blade, Bron thought of a lost loved one—his wife, his son, and his parents, all the good people of Ravenholt who lost their lives this day. All the while keeping Agnariel Timbor in his sights, the source of his ire, and cause of his pain.

As the frost elves continued to fall from the human’s ferocious attack, a red-robed sorcerer appeared on the hill, and began to mouth the words of a spell. The mage’s high-pitched crooning became a rhythmic wailing that sent chills down Bron’s spine. Axmen retreated, gratefully, as he continued his peculiar incantation, leaving the savage, blood-covered human alone amongst their dead.

Knowing he was doomed if the sorcerer finished his spell, Bron desperately shouted a challenge to the frost elf king in the common tongue spoken throughout the continent of Ta-Teharun. “You need foul sorcery to bring me down, frost elf pig? Is that pretty sword at your side just decoration?” Bron bellowed up the hill. “Is there none among you who can face me in honorable combat, or has all the honor been inbred out of your vile race?”

Bron saw anger flash across Agnariel’s face and spat up the hill, punctuating the insult.

Holding his hand up, stopping the sorcerer’s incantation, Agnariel responded in broken common. “I am not bound by hollow, baseless codes of honor embraced by the lesser races. We follow no moral creed. Honor and morality is a weakness possessed by the Illunar elves, that weakness is the only reason you humans have been allowed to thrive, and overpopulate this earth. That same weakness allowed my ancestor, Sarel Timbor, to ride forth from Thantwilanoria in exile. Thantwilanoria will feel the consequences of their weakness, as you and yours have felt them today.

“Sounds like a lot of fancy excuses, thrown around by a cowardly fop of a false king!” Bron responded. “Human kings earn their thrones through the strength of their sword arms, not some questionable blood claim. You are a cowardly dog, and your victory will be short lived.”

Some of the assembled soldiers were visibly angered by the insults directed at their king and their lineage, but Agnariel also noted a large number of thinly veiled smiles, and the paranoid king had to wonder if there was already a plan to usurp his throne.

“Allow me to part this filthy human’s head from his body, Agnar!” This from Tagnariel, who spoke loud enough for most of the onlooking elves to hear, subtly showing up his cousin once again.

Now, Agnariel would have to accept the human’s challenge. Some among them already looked to Tagnariel as the stronger of the two, and the king’s refusal after his cousin’s acceptance would be political suicide. It would seal Agnariel’s fate, thus paving the way for a coup.

Glaring at his cousin, Agnariel drew his sword, while making a mental note to get rid of his rival as soon as possible. “I accept your challenge human,” he said, and smiled as cheers erupted from his bloodthirsty soldiers.

Shoving Tagnariel out of his way roughly, the king gracefully slipped his white, fox fur cloak from his shoulders, letting it fall to the ground, revealing the signature ice blue armor and chain mail of the Timborian elves.

“Hold my cloak, Tag.

Now it was Tagnariel’s turn to be embarrassed, as he subserviently bent to retrieve his older cousin’s discarded garment.

Bron shrugged off his own scorched, eagle feather cloak, and spun his sword on its wrist thong as he watched his opponent saunter down the hill.

The elf moved with catlike grace and speed, also spinning his sword, while pulling a broad, curved black blade from his belt. The edge was crusted with a noxious green substance which could only be poison.

Bron circled to his right stepping over frost elf corpses, taunting his adversary as he moved. “It would seem your rule is more fragile than you think, eh, pig?” Bron grinned wolfishly at his own humor. “Political climate a bit stormy?”

Agnariel answered the taunts with steel, attacking with magically enhanced speed, so fast that Bron barely had time to parry the overhead slash aimed at his head. As their two blades met with a ringing clash, the elf swept his knife in front of him from left to right. Bron used his greater bulk and strength to push the elf back, feeling the poisoned blade cut through his leather vest, but not reaching the skin of his chest.

Anxious to keep the elf on the defensive, Bron launched an offensive flurry—slashing and hacking, back and forth, up and down, while keeping his feet moving, trying to gain the higher ground.

But Agnariel was skilled, he expertly parried and dodged, giving ground, but not retreating, all the while keeping his poisoned blade poised to strike, waiting for an opening in the human’s ferocious assault.

Determined to wear the elf down, or shatter his sword, Bron continued to batter his smaller opponent, until the elf went down on one knee, holding his sword up before him in a desperate attempt at defense.

Seeing his opening, Bron stepped in and swept his sword low, aiming below Agnariel’s upraised weapon, only to feel his blade cut through nothing but air. It had been a ruse.

The elf leaned back and brought his sword down on Bron’s blade, pinning the tip to the ground, while crossing his left hand over, cutting deep into the bicep of the human’s right arm.

Bron felt the blade tear through his flesh and muscle, cutting tendons and ligaments, rendering his sword arm useless, his sword falling from his limp grasp to dangle from its wrist thong. He could feel the poison coursing its way through his blood stream, at first tingling, then burning. His legs suddenly felt weak, and drawing breath became difficult as his chest began to constrict. He took a couple of staggering steps backward before falling to his knees.

Sheathing his sword and dusting himself off, Agnariel watched as the poison took effect. Almost as if strolling through a rose garden, the frost elf approached the dying human, bending over and grasping his hair with his right hand, and placing the bloodied blade of his knife to Bron’s neck, leaning in close he whispered:

“After I kill you, I will have my necromancers reanimate your filthy, lice-ridden corpse, then I will tear your spirit to shreds and hunt down your soul, and deliver it to Zareesha myself, to torment for eternity in hell.”

Hatred burned in Bron’s eyes as he slowly slid his left hand up his thigh, and met the frost elf’s gaze. “I’m not dead yet, pig,” he growled. With Herculean effort he brought his left arm up.

Protruding from between his pointer and middle finger was a short, sharp push knife, carried by all eagle warriors, primarily used to cut away the saddle straps in a hurry if need be. The blade punched through fine chain link, into Agnariel’s abdomen, between his belt and breast plate.

Bron twisted the blade, searching for the elf’s vitals as the first arrow hit him in the chest. He fell back as Agnariel sought to hold in his bowels, a look of shock on his pale blue face.

Through a blurry haze, Bron saw Tagnariel Timbor’s arm fall, and another arrow hit him in the shoulder. He fell to his back, reaching to the sky with his left hand.

In his delirium, he thought he saw the ghostly image of an eagle before everything went black, and Bron Straker, last of the eagle warriors of Ravenholt, breathed his last shuddering breath.

* * * * *

Far to the south of Ravenholt, under the protective boughs of the great pines bordering Raven’s Valley and the outskirts of the Graode Mountains, Argemon the blind seer stood facing the burning city of Ravenholt.

His aged, milky white eyes turned to the sky as if seeing. At his side was a woman, cowl pulled over her chestnut brown hair, covering her pretty face and captivating dark eyes, which were moist and red around the rims as if she had been crying. In her arms she nestled a child, a boy, no more than a year old, contentedly sleeping in his mother’s safe arms.

“He will never know his father,” commented the woman softly.

Argemon reached out and stroked the boy’s dark hair, guiding his gentle hand as if he could see. “He will know of him Shianna,” the old man responded, turning away from the valley, and turned his sightless eyes to the sleeping child. “They will sing songs of your father’s heroics, Grom, son of Bron.”

Argemon put his hands on Shianna’s shoulders. “You saw the dragons were widening their circles over the valley, searching for survivors. If not for your husband’s heroics, we and our precious cargo would never have made it out of the valley. It’s almost as if he knew,” the old man finished softly, as if talking to himself.

“That does not make it any less painful, Father,” Shianna responded, turning toward the woods and the rest of the refugees from Ravenholt, elders, woman and children mostly.

They walked in silence for a little while, before reaching their despondent comrades and their cargo. Argemon leaned over and whispered in his daughter’s ear.

“You need to be strong now Shianna, not only for Grom, but for them,” he said, nodding toward the hundred or so escapees from Ravenholt, and pausing before continuing. “And for the unborn daughter you now carry in your womb.”

Shianna snapped her head around, eyes wide with surprise from the revelation. “Are you sure, Father?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

“Yes my dear. Now, let’s get started. We have a long day, and perilous journey before us.” The old man then started walking down the trail that led through the wooded foothills of the Graode Mountains, sweeping his gnarled staff before him.

Most of the refugees were unaware that, buried beneath the dried food, medical supplies and water skins of the small, mule-pulled supply wagon, packed with warm furs and hay, were fifteen unhatched eagle eggs.

 

The Guardians

by Nikolas Everhart

 

The rogue dragged the small boat ashore, and hid it among the boulders littering the craggy beach. Drayse drew out the map, laughing to himself that something so precious was won in a backroom card game, but the gods moved men in strange ways. He just hoped the worn vellum was as genuine as it appeared. His mouth watered as he imagined holding the fabled gems of the Guardians. With those gemstones he could buy his own duchy.

Long fingers swept his shoulder-length dark hair from his eyes. His angular features animated with amusement and more than a little anticipation. Drayse threw back his head, and laughed, his black leather trousers and white silk shirt out of place on the stony beach. He smoothed his dark vest as the wind blew in from the tumultuous sea.

Turning inland, his hand fell to the slender long sword belted to his waist. The gray sand shifted beneath his tailored boots, crabs scurrying underfoot. Silver rings glittered in the noonday sun as he hitched the pack higher on his shoulders. Sighing, he followed the map inland, cutting through vines that encroached upon the fading trail. After a few hours he cursed the oppressive heat, tangled flora, and buzzing insects. It would be a long journey to the tomb.

Heedless of the beauty that rose around him in colorful jungle flowers, he did notice a curious lack of animal life. Drayse wasn’t certain whether that boded fair or foul. The swordsman made camp after a long day of hacking through the dense underbrush, his limbs leaden. The coming of darkness brought with it a biting chill he combated with a fire that threw up green smoke.

Morning came, finding Drayse stiff after a restless night of sleeping under the stars. He was no lover of wilderness even under the best of conditions. Renewing his trek inland, he frequently referenced the tattered map. Midday came and went without incident, but shortly afterward Drayse heard a clamor in the brush. He crashed through the foliage to find a tall beauty entrapped by vines as thick as his wrist. Overwhelmed by her predicament, he doubled over laughing, his sides threatening to burst. Pale blue eyes glared at him from a face contorted with fury. A northern barbarian wench, she was tall and lean, with ivory skin and as muscular as any lancer.

His laughter evaporated, however, as Drayse noticed that the vines writhed with a life of their own. The gambler felt his stomach lurch as he saw barbs twisting into the flesh of the pale haired woman. Anyone else might have surrendered to the inevitable. From the woman’s fury, he doubted she knew the meaning of the word. Drawing closer, he could see that the savage bled from scores of puckered wounds. Her lips curled in a snarl, refusing his aid. Drayse was never one to swoon over a maid in distress and he turned to walk away. Most of those maids would put a knife in his back as soon as they were rescued and this one seemed more dangerous than most of the men he’d crossed steel with.

Frowning, he turned back to the woman. Despite his better judgment, he couldn’t leave anyone to die alone in the jungle. He stepped forward, leather hissing against steel. He raised the thin blade and a look of fear stole over the woman’s face. Sinuous muscle rippled beneath his shirt and the blade came down on one of the tendrils, cutting through it easily. It was short, unwholesome work with sap spurting as he struck at the rubbery vines. He cursed as he continued chopping and finally the vines sought easier prey. She flopped to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut, and Drayse wondered if his efforts had been in vain. He noticed the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest though, and fell to one knee to tend her wounds as best he could. As he cleaned blood and sap, he was struck by her beauty. She was a full head taller than any woman he had ever seen before and her arms bulged with hardened muscles. Her face was a plane of angular features that seemed angry even in unconsciousness. Even more shocking was her lack of clothing. She wore only the briefest of leather garments, barely covering her ample bosom and waist. No woman of his lands would ever walk the streets in clothing like that, but then again she was a godless savage. Shaking his head, he tried to put thoughts of the odd woman out of his mind as he sponged blood from her pale cheek.

The young gambler’s thoughts were interrupted as a calloused hand snaked upward to seize his throat in an iron grip. He had time to mutter one strangled gasp as the air was forced out of his body. Her pale eyes snapped open to gaze into his own darker ones with the anger of a wild beast. He found a round-bladed dagger thrust under his chin as she forced him to his feet. She released her grip and air surged back into his lungs.

“Well, I now see where the phrase, ‘Hospitality is a red blade in the north’ comes from,” Drayse said, his mouth turned upward in a sly grin. His humor was lost on her as he only found her dagger shoved that much further into his throat. He gave way before it, until the woman had him backed into the base of a broad tree.

“There is never hospitality for a thief!” She spat, shoving her dagger into his throat till a drop of blood trickled down his chest.

Drayse brought his knee up into her abdomen and then punched her in the jaw. The woman sank to her knees, clutching at her mouth. Smiling to himself, he sauntered over and delivered a lazy kick to the side of her face. The barbarian woman was thrown up and over by the force of the blow. She did not attempt to rise. Satisfied that she was out cold, he retrieved her strange weapon.

Clucking to himself, he stuck the dagger, along with its mate into his pack while retrieving several thick strips of leather. Rolling the inert woman onto her face, he bound her wrists. Yet again he was given reason to regret his soft heartedness.

When the savage woke, she maintained a cautious silence, eyeing her captor. Drayse felt a small measure of guilt for the ugly bruise that crept from the base of her neck to her high cheekbone but it was short lived. He remembered her dagger digging into the flesh of his neck. For her injuries she gave no regard, but only spat a desperate oath at him, which he didn’t think was altogether possible, even for an agile man. Drayse smirked. He grabbed her silken braid and pulled her eyes close to his own dark orbs. His face darkened as he demanded her name and the reason for her coming to the island. As if he didn’t already know.

“Kesira,” she grunted, and spat in his face.

The infuriated rogue wiped saliva from his face as he resisted the urge to cleave her head from her shoulders. Instead he pulled her to her feet. It was a shame he was without a steed. He’d relish dragging this hell cat over a few leagues of rough ground. Not that there was a league of land on the whole of the island.

“Come on then, wench, we’re only hours away from the tomb,” he said as he consulted his map again. From her surprised expression, it was evident that she had no similar guide. Most likely he’d been betrayed by one of the cartographers he’d consulted to find the location of the island. It was getting harder and harder to a buy a man’s loyalty these days.

“You should kill me, thief!” she snarled, stumbling before him.

“If I wanted your death, I’d not have saved you from the vines. After saving your life, I would expect a little appreciation,” Drayse murmured.

“Appreciation? For a thief? That’s grand. What respect is there for a greedy burglar or a cutpurse, or footpad? You’re no better than any other.” She spat on the ground as she sidestepped a root.

“So you berate me for being a treasure seeker, eh? To what great and noble purpose would you ply the gems of the Guardians?” He asked her, layering his words with the proper amount of sarcasm.

“Revenge!” the pale barbarian snarled as she trudged on without missing a step.

“You buy your revenge with jewels?”

“Spoken like a true thief!” she exclaimed. “My village was sacked by a rogue who pressed my entire clan into slavery. It was there they died. I have sworn to take his life, but he is too well guarded. However, I found the legend of the Guardians when I studied on the eastern islands. With them I can tip the scales in my favor.”

“How so?” he inquired, his curiosity piqued.

“Whosoever wields the stones, will also wield godlike powers. It was said that swords broke on the Guardians’ skins, their weapons clove through armor and stone alike, and they could rain fire from the sky. With the gems I can crush Balthis’s horde. That is if not for your meddling.” Scorn dripped from her lips like a stream of venom.

“You are young for a heart so cold,” he said, his voice tinged with regret. Kesira lapsed into a sullen silence that the rogue was loath to break.

Finally the grim duo arrived at the sepulcher which was little more than a long low slab of granite. It was set with a door leading down into the earth, covered with thick rope-like vines and dense lichen. Rats scurried along the top of the age old stone. A thick bodied serpent, roped in broad orange bands, slithered off as they approached. The young man swore, raking a hand through his shoulder-length ebony hair.

“If I cut those bonds, will you give me your word not to slit my throat until after we recover the gems?” He turned and asked the woman, as he unsheathed his dirk. “I’ll walk with you as an ally, but I’ll be damned if I’ll leave you at my back as an enemy.”

She looked at him, her pale eyes shifting from his face to the glittering blade. Woodenly, Kesira nodded in assent. His eyes betrayed just a hint of uncertainty before sawing through the leather cords. He took a step back, tossing her daggers to her. She caught them and slid them into her boots in one fluid motion.

“Aye, but after we are safely away, we battle for the stones! I’ll hear nothing of splitting them between us. One stone is useless to me without its mate.” She massaged feeling back into her hands as she spoke and Drayse did not doubt the sincerity laced in every syllable.

They grunted over the panel for several minutes before managing to heave it free. As they laid it aside, Drayse found himself mesmerized by the intensity in the pale woman’s eyes.

The pair looked down into a ten-foot drop to a bare stone floor layered with dust. Drayse withdrew a knotted rope from his voluminous pack and lowered it into the inky darkness. Together they scurried down, and lit torches.

The air in the dank tomb was fetid and despite years of experience wandering similar haunts, Drayse’s nose wrinkled. Kesira’s more acute senses left her choking in the foulness. The swordsman swept cobwebs from his dark hair. Drayse had expected to find the walls washed in gold and jewels but this seemed more like a dreary corpse hole.

The light of their torches revealed a squat stone room with rough hewn walls. The only exit seemed to be the hole above. Kesira snorted as Drayse swung his torch around the room. They faced three blank walls, while the fourth held an austere seal of corroded metal. Frowning, Drayse leaned forward to inspect it. The seal was encrusted with lichen and verdigris but it clearly depicted a thin-bladed sword. Coiled around the blade was what appeared to be a snake. He cleared his throat, thinking that he’d seen enough snakes already to last a lifetime. Looking more closely, he perceived glyphs scrawled in an inexpert hand. The symbols etched onto the wall did not seem as old as the seal itself, and unless he missed his guess, they’d been inked in blood or some other viscous liquid. Touching the greenish seal, he felt the aged disk give beneath his fingers. He rotated the disk to the right with no results and then turned it to the left.

Drayse took a cautious step back while Kesira eyed him as the chamber began to vibrate. The wall with the seal shook and sunk into the floor with a crash. Drayse smiled, but his blood turned to ice as a mechanism shot down from the ceiling. Kesira dived at him, carrying them both to the floor as something whistled overhead.

Drayse got to his feet and inspected the passage that had opened up before them, while the barbarian sighed, holding her torch to the opposite wall where dozens of barbed darts were embedded.

“Something is out of place, thief.” The pale northerner commented, and she pulled one of the projectiles from the stone. Drayse glanced at her curiously, as she continued. “These darts are like new. That launcher is a few years old at best. This tomb has been entered since the Guardians were laid to rest.”

Drayse only nodded and held his torch before him as he started to descend through passage. Kesira followed, as he proceeded by the steady light of his torch. Gray walls crowded the pair, capped by a low ceiling that barely allowed them to walk erect. The rogue frowned, thinking it more like a dungeon than a tomb.

Hours slipped by while the pair wandered the cramped tunnels skirting pitfalls and traps designed to deter treasure seekers. Dusty stone crowded them on all sides as their progress came to a crawl with each dead-end. Curses filled the age-old passageways as they were forced to turn and retrace their steps dozens of times. Soon even Drayse was daunted. In a half day of searching they had yet to find even a single clue that these dank walls held the bodies of the ancient rulers.

Just as the duo was near surrender, they came upon a wide room decorated with vast friezes running from floor to roof. Misty red swirls marred the ancient artwork as Drayse ran a probing finger along their surface. The immense renderings were of such intricate detail that a single handspan held centuries of lore. The rogue exhaled at the beauty of the etchings. Behind him, the pale barbarian gasped, drawing his attention from the antique mural. She pointed to the fore of the chamber and Drayse felt his breath hitch in his chest.

A large bronze disk the height of a man bore the same seal they saw in the entry room but in finer detail. The serpent he thought coiled about the blade was actually a whip. Even the savage gaped in awe. The stone was seamed and on either side of the broad disk was a life-sized depiction of one of the guardian. Dalan was on the right and Sepsis on the left. Beside each startling image was a palm-shaped depression. The intention was clear; he pressed his palm to the space beside Dalan’s head, motioning Kesira to follow suit. She did as he asked, but not without complaint.

The stone behind the seal rumbled and rose into the ceiling. Kesira threw herself to the floor in preparation of an attack that never came and Drayse bent double grinning at her. She kicked at him playfully after she had risen to dust her self off. The rogue’s mirth died down to a few stifled chuckles as he gazed into the darkness.

Then, they heard a soft slithering behind them followed by an angry hiss. The two whirled to face six creatures cast from the mold of a nightmare. They stood a head and a half taller than any man on elongated tails. Each had four sinewy arms with hooked talons in the place of fingers. Their skin was a pasty grey, like the underside of a snake’s belly. Set upon bony shoulders, they had spade-shaped heads ending with snake-like snouts, forked tongues darting in and out of their lipless mouths. Hell had spewed forth its demons to protect this foul place.

Kesira faced the serpent-men, brandishing the torch in her hand, but they paid it no more mind than if it was a burning twig. Like lightning a barbed tail shot out, sending the lanky woman flying through the air. A snake man darted at her, eager for the kill, but her arm shot up, dagger in hand, to impale it through the chin. It thrashed in its death throes, chaos erupting among its brethren. Drayse lunged into action, drawing his blade and spearing one monstrosity through the eye while Kesira crawled to her feet. He withdrew his sword a moment too late, as its talons raked furrows in his chest.

Drayse and Kesira fought for their lives against the serpent men. Drayse distracted one with his blade, while Kesira leapt to its back like a mad woman. She sank her daggers into its tough hide until it shuddered. Another lost his head to Drayse’s blade, though it cut the thief with a wide gash along his torso. Exhausted the warriors backed toward the yawning doorway, seeking a respite. The serpents spat and hissed following them as Drayse swung his blade in wide arcs, his left arm hanging limp at his side. Nearly beaten, the pair retreated through the open doorway.

Almost before their heels crossed the threshold, the enormous stone rumbled and slid back into place. Drayse sighed with relief in the darkness as he put his back to the wall, blood flowing from his arm. This was more than either of them had bargained for. Leaning against the cold stone, Drayse thought he could feel a slight tremor and hoped that the serpents didn’t have a battering ram.

Piercing the black veil before him were dual glimmers of light and he felt his skin prickle in response. Beside him, Kesira muttered a prayer, while Drayse uttered a few less pious epithets. His hands shook as he drew the last torch from his leather pack, cursing as he dropped the tinder and had to stoop to fetch it. Light soon flared in the small chamber illuminating it with flickering flames. Kesira gasped as the bare walls of the room leapt in stark relief to the figures on the floor.

A man and woman lay bound with hundreds of chains designed to restrict even the most basic of movement. The two were beautiful beyond description, bronze with golden hair and frosty eyes. They were laid side by side, with barely a hand span between them but instead of serenity those bronze faces held agony. On the brow of each tortured visage was a glittering gem, one an emerald, the other a ruby. Garish light spilled from the jewels even as his torch showed walls, ceiling and floor of featureless stone.

“Thief, what deviltry is this? This is no tomb but a prison.” Kesira breathed in a whisper. Though the guardians appeared as alive as she, they neither moved or drew breath.

“Gods that I knew, woman. Gods that I knew,” was his only response, as he inched forward, sheathing his sword. Behind him, came the rasp of Kesira replacing her weapons.

Drayse knelt beside the silent pair reaching out to touch them. At his back, the faint vibrations behind the hidden door had become steady hammering. He jumped with every crash, as if the stone might give way at any moment.

Steeling his nerves, the young gambler wiped perspiration from his brow and reached out again to touch the golden brow of the male guardian. The flesh that his fingers found was like nothing he’d encountered in his entire life. It was warm to the touch, but felt hard as steel. Drayse shivered, as the ruby on the man’s brow pulsed with a life of its own. When he looked over his shoulder, he thought he could perceive a faint tracery of cracks spreading from the top of the stone wall.

Kesira knelt over the woman, evidencing none of the wonder that befuddled her companion. She perused the golden woman grabbing a length of chain in her pale fist as if to pull the Guardian to her feet. Though the northerner’s muscles bulged with strain, the dead woman did not raise so much as inch from the floor.

Kesira might have been tugging on a slab of granite as the body of a woman. Grunting her frustration, she withdrew a dagger from her boot and waved it at the unseeing eyes of the Guardian. Drayse raised a gloved hand to reprove her, but the words died on his lips as Kesira struck the statue-woman’s cheek with the pommel. The sound of metal on metal rang through the room like an iron gong. The warrior woman shook numbness from her arm. When she checked the head of her dagger it was warped from the impact, but the smooth face of the long dead woman was unmarked.

Drayse shook his head at the barbarian and turned back to Dalan, the male Guardian. A chuckle escaped him, as he ran his leather clad hand over its skin with the texture of metal and the feel of a boiling sun. His hand trailed past the chained chest, along the smooth neckline to the high forehead as he ignored the cursing savage. His finger caressed that glittering jewel that broiled with the fire of a sun at Dalan’s brow. His entire body was enveloped in scarlet light that burned his senses and he fell to the ground. The warrior woman screamed beside him as her own body was wreathed in emerald flames. In moments the light withdrew to leave them both shuddering.

Shaking like a leaf on the wind, Drayse rose to his knees, barely noticing the blows which now rained on the door outside. Cracks crawled from floor to ceiling but he had no mind for them. Kesira gasped beside him, fighting to draw breath. He saw two glowing forms rising over the bodies of the Guardians. Illumination wreathed them as if sunlight given life. Their brilliance blinded the treasure seekers.

“Malah’s ghost!” Kesira exclaimed, as she scuttled back on her palms. Behind her, the cracks widened in the time worn stone. The ghost-like form of the woman snorted, as she gazed down at her body. Her paramour bore into Drayse with luminescent eyes that peeled away flesh and blood, to regard his soul.

“Silence!” He commanded. “The gauntlet has passed.” His words were like the rumble of a god. Drayse felt his heart thundering in his chest. He and Kesira were like gnats to these beings who had lingered here for centuries.

“That which you sought, will now be yours,” the female said and laughed. “The gods have mercy on you.” As the woman spoke her final words, the pair drifted into nothingness. They were left alone in the room as chunks of stone fell onto the floor.

Drayse rubbed at a painful swelling in his wrist, only to find the glittering ruby embedded in the underside of his forearm. Shocked, he looked over to see the emerald pulsing at the base of Kesira’s throat. She clawed at its eldritch glow, trying to pry it free to no avail. He wondered how he’d ever manage to fence this lot but it would give him an excuse for separating the woman’s head from her shoulders.

Kesira shook his arm, pointing to the bodies on the floor. The pounding of the serpent-men was like a drumbeat in his mind as he saw the bodies crumpling to dust beneath their heavy chains. In moments there was no sign that they had ever been there, except for two fine weapons left in their place.

He crept forward by the glittering light of his torch, to withdraw a magnificent rapier from the pile of chains. The fetters fell away with the sound of broken crystal, as he brandished the weapon in the dim light. The sword was a dazzling blade of some metal as dark as night with glittering flecks of silver. A sword of the night sky. Beside him, Kesira uncoiled a glittering whip of interwoven silver links, crisscrossed with filaments the color of blood. She flicked her wrist and twined the whip around her arm.

Rubble crashed to the floor and serpent men slithered into the chamber, like death’s harbingers. As they saw Drayse and Kesira, they drew up short, hissing and spitting. The swordsman fell back, mindful of the ferocious speed of the serpents.

“’Ware! The Guardians are reborn!” The serpent spoke as if venom dripped from its darting forked tongue. The rogue crouched low, his blade outstretched.

Drayse felt power flowing through him and he swept his blade in a broad flourish, slicing the creature’s arm from its body. Beside him, Kesira’s whip was like lightning and a moment later the spade shaped head tumbled across the floor. Smiling in unison, they advanced on the remaining serpent man who screamed, hurling his blade at them. Drayse parried the spinning sword without even thinking. The creature began to speak in a series of clicks and gasps that made little sense to the advancing warriors.

By the time they had backed the creature into the large anterior room, realization dawned on Drayse. Snakes, by the hundreds, converged on the serpent man, who laughed with a fury that made the swordsman’s sweat run cold. Soon, the creature was covered in thousands of writhing serpents that doubled its mass, insuring no bite of blade or whip would reach it. In turn, every square inch of its body was alive with a hissing, spitting mouth.

The adventurers now began a wary dance with the beast, one they seemed fated to lose. Drayse whirled and cut at the creature like a dancing butcher, his blade raining gore throughout the spacious chamber. Kesira’s whip sang like an angel’s fury slicing snakes from the writhing reptile fury but like her companion, she couldn’t harm it.

Drayse parried a blow from the creature, only to find tiny fangs trying to wrest the blade from his hand. Infuriated, he struck with his other fist but his arm was scored by dozens of tiny mouths. Screaming in pain, he ripped his blade free and hacked with desperation, while Kesira looked on grimly.

For hours the battle was waged like that, with their strength waning by the moment, until Drayse noticed something that took him by surprise. While dodging away from the monster’s tail, Kesira brushed his arm and he felt a rush of power. Startled, he jumped back, but then gave a wondering glance to the ruby at his wrist. Biting back his dislike for the woman, he grabbed her hand and felt wonder like never before. The pair was suffused in boiling light. She looked at him with terror in her eyes, but didn’t try to break away.

Energy burst from them, a maelstrom of scarlet and green that arced toward the serpent creature. Flame, hotter than any natural fire, burned flesh and bubbled blood. Snakes fell by the score from the writhing mass. Charred and blackened, they continued to fall, as the energy came brighter and hotter from the two who now flowed together in an unearthly gestalt.

The last snake fell from the serpent man, still boiling in its skin, and the duo struck as one with blade and whip, until there wasn’t a body that could be recognized. They made short work of the remaining serpents in the catacombs who threw themselves against the pair in hopes of overwhelming them with sheer numbers. Like dervishes of myth, the Guardians reborn swept through the tomb, leaving a trail of blood and severed limbs in their wake. Hours later, the pair crawled from the tomb covered in blood, sweat, and stinking green ichor.

As Drayse got to his feet, Kesira eyed him in deadly earnest. He returned her gaze, as he fingered the hilt of his newfound blade. The rogue attempted to brush past her, but found himself shoved to the ground. He clambered to his feet, burning with embarrassment.

“I’ll have that gem now, city man. Give it freely or I’ll carve it from you,” she said, fingering her whip. Drayse gaped at her. “That bauble at your wrist holds the key to my destiny, and I mean to have it, one way, or another.” The whip uncoiled from her arm.

“Witch! Do you miss the very point of the Guardians?” he said, sweeping his blade before him.

Almost quicker than thought, the silvery links of the weapon flashed, but just as quickly his blade parried in the fading sunlight. A twist of his wrist twined the glittering weapon around his own and a fierce tug of war began. Lightning raced along their weapons to envelop them in an explosion that sent them hurtling away from one another. A dozen times they tried and a dozen times they were rebuffed in the same way. Drayse sat up and regarded his unwilling companion.

“Looks as if we are stuck with one another, barbarian.”

“Do not speak to me! Do not look at me! Oh the gods, but I am cursed with this lout!” She retrieved her whip from the ground, grinding her teeth. Drayse bent to fetch his own blade with a wry grin.

“The Guardians are dead. Long live the Guardians!”

As they made their way back to the beach, and an uncertain destiny, the sound of the woman’s curses mingled with the laughter of the dashing rogue.

 

Shining Armor

by James Scotte Burns II

 

From the gates of an immense fortress rode a resplendent knight, sunlight glittering off the burnished steel of his fine plate armor. Cheers from the walls and towers embraced him as his mount tossed its head and stepped high through the flowers cast under its hooves. Amidst such revelry, the warrior’s first real battle beyond the spires of his home proved to be with his swelling pride; a struggle in which the outcome at that moment seemed uncertain at best.

Leaving the old stone keep behind, he took to a road through the nearby forest, reveling in the sounds of the wood and the smells of leather, horse, and newly oiled steel. His harness creaked slightly as he reached into his saddlebags for a small wineskin and waxed roll of hard cheese. Although he had broken his fast not two hours since, a simple meal taken on the trail completed his vision of the soldier perfectly, and he had been anxiously anticipating fitting that figure for so very long. The moment’s satisfaction of his martial desires was made even sweeter by the nobility of his cause—the rescue of an innocent and the slaying of the wretched beast that had taken her. His training was superb, his bloodlines beyond question, and his weapons, armor, and mount the finest that his house could provide. His attention, however, was at that moment not all it could have been, as a steel bolt glanced off his gorget and embedded itself, quivering, in a young tree beside the trail.

Choking on surprise, he spun his horse in time to see the next missile fly from a stand of thorny flowering bushes. With no time to pull his shield from its saddle harness, the knight’s left hand raised quickly to protect his face so that the bolt took him in the gauntlet, punching between its fine scales and lodging in the mail and flesh between his fingers. At the ratcheting noise of the crossbow being drawn once more, he bit hard on the shaft of the bolt just below its barbed head, screaming with rage and pain as he pulled it through his hand and spit it contemptuously onto the trail. Snatching a fine dagger from his belt, he let the blade fly in a whistling spin just as the next bolt flew past him from the hedge.

The master-at-arms would have been proud as the knight did not wait for his attacker’s next move, but immediately followed his flying blade in a rush, drawing his long sword and hearing a startled howl cut short behind him as the errant second bolt found another mark behind him. The knight’s dagger flew wide at the last, but caused the crossbowman to leap sideways and up to avoid its flight, exposing him perfectly to the slash of the knight’s sword. With full arm strength and the momentum of the horse’s charge behind the stroke, the brigand was cloven nearly in two, splashing the horse with gore and collapsing in an unpleasant heap. Wheeling, the knight turned to find the source of the second voice. The other highwayman, a larger and evidently slower fellow, was pinned neatly to the bole of a tree. The bolt through the ruffian’s throat seemed a more than equitable reward for the bruise the knight had suffered on his own.

Assuring himself of no more ruffians hiding nearby, the knight dragged the bodies into better view on the roadside. The detritus having been cleaned from his mount as best he could manage using the shabby coat of the crossbowman, he disdainfully tossed the rag on the midden pile and washed his hands from his water skin. Some woodsman would no doubt alert the sheriff and the mess would be disposed of properly. Lamenting the damage to his accoutrements, not the least to him the distasteful stains on tabard and horse blanket, he still congratulated himself on his martial skill, his field dressing—the bandage stopped the bleeding while the salve took nearly all the pain—and his luck with that final bolt. Luck was not something one could learn after all, but was certainly a part of any successful warrior’s desired equipment.

Clear of the forest, the knight took to wide plains that stretched out like the parchment of a tale waiting to be written. On the horizon lay the mountains that were his destination, their folds harboring his fearsome fate. No one knew from where the würm had come, but its travels in this realm were well marked in burnt countryside and the scorched remains of partially devoured livestock. Some thought that it had wakened from a long sleep, angered to find its lands now in the hands of a human king and peopled by his subjects. Others believed it the conjured horror of some amoral dabbler in arcane arts, no doubt slain for his efforts and leaving his creation without purpose or direction. Whatever the truth of the matter, the beast had developed a curious taste for the company of young ladies of high birth. The latest was the daughter of a noble of his father’s protectorate, hence the mission upon which the knight now found himself. A righteous cause indeed, but one that caused him no little concern, his armed prowess with brigands and the like notwithstanding.

Several evenings under the stars, pious prayers, meditations, and reflection upon his cause and his nobility fortified not only his faith, but also his righteous pride. He felt the very essence of chivalry and valor as he ascended the foothills and began the final days travel to his destiny. The hills gradually rose, becoming slopes too steep and rocky for his mount, so he found a small glacial valley with good fodder and a small stream carrying runoff from the heights. Removing harness and saddle, he curried the horse and picked its hooves, speaking gently to it of its part in his righteous mission, and his hope that it would wait faithfully for him to return with his rescued maiden. Then he hobbled it, not as a question of faith, but in goodwill toward the stablemaster, whom he knew held less stock in the horse’s honor.

The day’s climb in armor to the lofty cave mouth was difficult, the sweat running off his chest and back dampening the breeches underneath his leggings, his boots chafing at the heel as he scrabbled for purchase once the path became little more than a rocky cliff. Panting lightly, he finally pulled himself over the lip of an outcropping and spied the objects of his quest. While lying prone behind a slight rise that hid him from the cave mouth, he saw a young woman, plump and pretty for all the dirt that smeared her face, hints of tiny rivulets under her eyes showing the flow of tears now dried. Aside from her battered clothing and nearly matted hair, she appeared unhurt. Coiled about the stone pillar on which the lady was somehow fixed lay the würm.

Scales shifted as the creature breathed deeply with a broad rushing sound like distant wind through an olden forest. Wings folded along its back, the skin a golden leather, it stretched thirty meters or more, blocking the cave entrance behind and nearly encircling the small hill on which the pillar stood. Dreaming, its claws scratched narrow furrows in the soft stone. For a moment, the knight was taken with its beauty—a creature of immense power and legendary grace in flight. The maiden’s quivering sigh, cast from the depths of her own tortured sleep, broke his reverie and the knight cursed himself a fool for finding anything worthy in such an evil beast. It would die by his righteous hand, and he would return the young woman to her father.

Gently, the knight circled the cliff edge to his right, hoping to slip behind the beast’s flanks and take it from behind. Such a creature surely knew nothing of honor and deserved no better. The good leather boots he had donned for the ascent made for surprisingly quiet and swift passage as he rounded the little hill and silently drew his blade from its scabbard. A few more steps and he could clearly see the back of the beast’s head, the great horned crest protecting the softer flesh of the neck and throat before scales took that duty for the balance of its sinuous body. As he neared the creature, carefully choosing the place from which he would drive his steel into its tremendous skull, he could feel its heat, smell the ancient musk of its body. He envisioned the grateful kisses of the maiden and the gold her father would lay before him at the banquet in his honor. With great humility, he would at first gently protest, then accept graciously and later use the gold to purchase land and keep suitable for a slayer of dragons. He hoped he did not have to buy another horse, but that remained to be seen. For now, he raised his blade in the thrusting form he judged best, preparing the stroke that would see him into the ranks of heroes.

Silently, the dragon’s calm amber eyes slid partly open. Not that she needed to see the knight to know where he was and what he was doing. His clanking and stink had been a burning splinter in her rest since he began his ascent hours before. Relieved, she resolved to find fresh bait tomorrow. Or perhaps the next day. Her tail whipped around, curling elegantly in a blur of sinewy grace over her back and toward the spot where she knew the knight stood ready. At the moment his thrust began, the small bony mace that was the tip of her tail caught him below the small of his back, snapping his spine and sending the blade darting over her head, splintering itself on the stone pillar inches above the maiden as she woke to the sudden tumult. The force and swing of the dragon’s blow having sent him skyward, the knight’s final vision was a jet of searing flame that caught him at the top of his arc over the far side of the cliff. Trailing smoke as it spun toward the ground, the carcass in its shining—and in places now glowing—armor crashed into a pile of rusting plate and chain, bones and broken weapons scattered at the base of the cliff’s far side. The dragon leisurely reached up and lightly tapped the pillar with a long foreclaw, releasing the maiden from the spell that had held her there. Blowing delicately at the tiny thing to encourage her flight, she hoped the girl would find the horse in the valley below like the others had. Then she closed her eyes once more and dreamed of the glory that would one day be hers when she returned home a great slayer of terrible knights.

 

High Pass Bridge

by Anthony Snodgrass & Bill Snodgrass

 

Based on the world of Siliar created by Bill Snodgrass and Cameron Walker

 

“Sergeant Idryan,” one of the men in the Second Squad declared, “you know you said if we ever had a problem, you’d listen to us?”

“Yes, Tim,” Idryan replied. “I meant it.”

Idryan, Tim and the eight other men of the Second Squad rested on High Pass Trail five miles below their goal. It had been a hard march for the last day and a half, climbing the winding mountain trail from Fox Hollow on the way to investigate a traveler’s claim that a horrible attack had occurred at High Pass Bridge.

“Well, seeing as how Corporal Jessup is off taking a moment of privacy,” Tim replied, “now’s about the only time I can say this…”

“What is it?” Idryan asked.

“Well, Sergeant, the other guys in the squad and me think Corporal Jessup is a coward. We don’t like it,” Tim began. “A few weeks ago back in Fox Hollow, there was a report of baines in the area and the captain told us to go for a short patrol. Jessup looked at the captain, all nervous and such, and said that he had a pain in his stomach. He asked if the other squad could go instead. Now, I know the face of a man having stomach pains, and his face was not like that. He was shaking like a leaf in a strong wind too. This gives me plenty reason to think that he is just a plain ol’ coward.”

“Well,” Idryan started, “this is a serious accusation.”

“I know it is, but I am sure of it,” came the reply.

Idryan pondered the situation for a few minutes, struggling to find the right course of action. His thoughts carried him back to an easier time, before becoming the youngest platoon sergeant in Cliff Haven’s history. Back to a time when he would not have been responsible for such a situation. Yet, despite the burden of being leader of the First Platoon of Cliff Haven’s Third Company, Idryan was glad for the challenge.

Idryan was a large man, which partly explained his rise through the ranks. At the height Idryan stood, the average man’s eyes barely met his chin, and his weight was half again that of a normal man. He was built like an ox, but had agility that some said could match that of the best court acrobat. Yet, for all his strengths, he was humble and a faithful follower of his religious beliefs.

“Sir?” Tim asked, sensing the sergeant’s distant thoughts. “What do you say? Can you do something?”

“I don’t know,” Idryan replied. “There seems a far stretch from declining to take a patrol to calling a man a coward.”

“That was not the only thing,” Tim replied.

“Yeah,” replied Shumglen, another of the soldiers. “Back a month, we were cutting cross-country from Iron Creek to Silver Lode an’ I thought he was going to perish from fear. You know, you have to cut through the woods and all… You know that old farm up on the hill with the fallen down barn?”

“I know it,” Idryan replied.

“Well, coming to that, he got the idea baines or goblins might be holed up in the old house, and led us a quarter mile out of the way to go around it. I’d say he was just flat scared.”

Idryan shrugged, not sure what to think.

“Although I don’t dispute your information, I will have to get Jessup’s story before I can take action,” Idryan stated.

“Well, looks like his ‘private moment’ is over anyway,” Tim declared.

“Alright, tell him that I wish to speak to him. I’d better get to the bottom of this before we go on.”

* * * * *

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Jessup said nervously as he adjusted his belt, and re-buckled his sword.

“Yes, Corporal Jessup,” Idryan said, “before we go forward with this mission, I need to have a word with you.”

“Sure, Sergeant.”

Idryan led Jessup down the path an arrow’s flight from the others in the squad, and confronted him with the charges, mentioning the accounts shared by Tim and Shumglen, but mentioning no names.

“Why, that’s just not so,” Jessup replied. “I mean, I did those things… But it wasn’t fear. It was the not-yet-ripe berries I found on the way that upset my stomach. And you, yourself, are always telling us squad leaders not to take unnecessary risks. I thought the farm up there was an unnecessary risk. That’s all.”

Idryan considered his excuses silently. Jessup fidgeted nervously, swaying his weight from one foot to the other, and looked around, unable to make eye contact with Idryan, as his sergeant processed the information.

Finally, Idryan declared, “Well, I hope you’re telling me the truth. You are the squad leader. The men look to you as an example, and they need to know that they can depend on you.”

“I am telling you the truth.”

“I hear your words now,” Idryan stated with a knowing look, “but I will see your deeds in the future.”

Jessup nodded his head, but said nothing in reply.

Idryan continued, “I used to have a mentor that told me ‘the truth will make itself known.’ Do you know what that means?”

Jessup shook his head negatively.

“Well, it means that, even if someone is falsely accused, or tells a lie, the truth will eventually come out. I have experienced this many times. Once when I was on city patrol in Crossroads there was a string of robberies. When we found the suspected thief he claimed that he was innocent. We put him in a jail cell while we collected evidence. While he was in the cell, we caught another man in the act. We realized we had wrongly accused an innocent man.”

Jessup understood what this meant, and re-stated his innocence.

“On the other hand, I have dealt with people who say one thing, when another is true. Eventually, the truth comes out. My mentor used to say, ‘Hear the words, but believe the actions.’ Your actions will eventually prove if you are telling the truth or not.”

Again, Jessup insisted he was no coward. Idryan accepted his remarks without further comment, and then the two men made their way back to the company and resumed the march.

As they walked up the rugged road to the east, Idryan looked back over his shoulder toward the afternoon sun. Great white clouds floated over the mountains, mounded in the sky like vast bolls of cotton, breaking the blue behind them into intermittent patches. Rays of sunlight, as they looked back over their shoulders to the west, slanted like downward great columns of light descending from the sky to the ridge across the valley. Idryan traced the rays with his eyes down into the valley of Cliff Haven, and, thus measuring their climb, estimated that they would reach High Pass Bridge within the next hour.

* * * * *

As the eleven men—the Second Squad and Sergeant Idryan—drew near High Pass Bridge, they began to see more and more of the carnage that the traveler had described. All along the road was refuse—bones, scattered items, and mangled victims—evidence of the obvious presence of some vicious enemy. Jessup became paler than anyone could ever recall, drawing his sword to give himself some sense of security.

Leading his men onto the bridge, Idryan drew his own sword and said, “Okay, everyone, be alert.”

Just then, a noise was heard, even over the din of the cascading stream below the bridge. It was a sound of rock rolling against rock, as if someone—or some thing—was ascending to the road from the stream below.

Curious as to the source of the sound, one of the soldiers, Jeb, leaned his head over the wooden rail of the bridge. At that, a great claw swept upwards, plunging into the flesh of his neck below his helmet, dragging him instantly over the side. None of the squad paid attention to the sound of his body striking the rocky streambed below. They were too busy clambering to bring their weapons to bear.

No one in the squad had ever seen one, but they all knew immediately that the creature leaping onto the bridge before them was a tain. Towering nine feet tall with sinuous agility, the strength of many men, spines tracing from its wrists to elbows ending in a vicious dagger-like projection, and hands bearing four black claws, nothing else in Siliar matched the lizard-like form of the beast that assailed them.

Moving with unbelievable speed, it plowed into the squad using elbows and claws equally to flail at its enemy. But for Idryan’s skill and swift reaction, the squad would have quickly been slain. Moving to the forefront of the melee, Idryan engaged the tain defensively, fending away its blows with his shield, and blade alike.

“Circle it!” he ordered. “Attack it all together!”

Facing the raging quickness and raw power of a tain, it was all the squad could do to keep one man slashing at the beast’s back. Yet, attacking its back was the only hope they had to defeat it.

As one man after another was struck by the tain’s razor claws or pierced by the elbow spike, Idryan began to doubt their chances. Nothing that walked on two legs under the Siliar sun could move so fast as a tain. Few things matched them in strength. The men of the Second Squad were in peril, and they all knew it.

“Stand fast, men!” Idryan shouted, knowing that their only chance was their advantage in numbers. “Stand fast!”

As it whirled on them, endlessly slashing at them with its fierce claws, the men of the Second Squad heeded Idryan’s words and finally began to get into a pattern allowing one or two men in the back to slice at it, while the rest of the men in the front defended themselves from its ferocious attacks. Despite being outnumbered, the dim reasoning of the tain drove it, like a hunger-maddened animal, to lash out at the men before it.

“Steady, now! It weakens!” Idryan yelled.

Their resolve redoubled by their sergeant’s remarks, the men of the squad held the ring about the tain and, little by little, began to nip at its thick hide with their blades. The last blow that met the flesh of the beast was made by Idryan. When the tain spun away for a moment to engage the men behind it, Idryan stabbed his sword a final time into the chest of the tain, and then beheaded it as it fell past him to the ground.

As black fluid oozed from the many gashes in the tain lying dead on the boards of the bridge, staining them darkly, Idryan surveyed the wounds of the squad. Most of the wounds appeared superficial, but Marshal appeared to have a broken arm, and Trey had suffered from a severe gash to his torso. The fate of Jeb, who had suffered the slash to his neck, and fallen twenty feet to the rocks below the bridge, was obvious.

Idryan told all the men that many of them would likely receive a sickness called “tain’s revenge,” and, unless they did not get their wounds cleaned and then rest, they would die. He told them that they would have no time to lose getting back to Fox Hollow.

Idryan took the head of the beast and—cutting a long straight tree branch from one of the nearby hardwoods—placed the head of the beast onto it, bracing the other end in the ground with large rocks to show all travelers that the bridge was safe from the threat.

Finally thinking the work at High Pass Bridge complete, Idryan surveyed the situation one last time, then turned his attention to his men.

One dead, me and eight others bashed up, Idryan thought. Tains are as tough as they say.

Just then, it occurred to Idryan, and the rest of the squad, that something did not add up.

Eight hurt… One dead… me makes ten. There should be eleven.

Idryan shook his head sadly and looked at his men, glad that no harm had come to them from their squad leader’s betrayal. Idryan’s mentor was right.

The truth will make itself known.

Justice Is Served

by Angela P. Wade

 

“Flesh and blood, what kind of place does she think I’m running here!”

My landlady’s words, uttered in a scandalized hiss I suppose she thought was a whisper, were directed at the woman who had just walked in the front door of the Snake and Egg tavern. I frowned, trying to get a better look at her. I’d assumed she was an elf. She was dressed like an elf: all bright patterns, flashy tassels, and fringes, with every hem and corner of her clothing hung with coins and beads until she jingled when she moved. Her necklaces alone must have weighed nearly twenty pounds. But she didn’t look like an elf. A scarf (also hemmed in coins), covered most of her features, but from what I could see of her face, and her ring-encrusted hands, her skin was nearly as pale as mine.

She was still trying to adjust to the dim light inside the tavern when a couple of drunks, holdovers from the night before, saw her and jumped to the same conclusion Sadie Brewer had.

“Lookit there!”

“Well, it’s a bit early for the likes of her to be going to work!”

“Most likely she’d done working, and looking for a place to rest!”

“She’s a fat ’un—for an elf, leastways.”

“Didja know they eat pig feed? Here, piggy, piggy! Come pig, pig, pig! We’d like a taste of pork over here, we would!”

She held her head up proudly and ignored them. They continued making animal noises at the woman, and even louder and less-savory comments. I felt my face flush in indignation. No one should be oinked at, I thought, not even a whore. I got up from my breakfast and crossed the hall in a few swift strides.

“May I be of assistance, ma’am?” I asked.

She looked me up and down, taking in, I presume, my unusual height, the elaborate nature of my clothing, and my fiery red hair. “You are the man I’ve been looking for,” she said bluntly. The drunks collapsed in giggles. I blushed furiously, despite the suspicion that she was referring to my professional services.

“You are the one they call the Red Mage, yes?” she continued.

“Yes I am. Edward Red Mage. How may I be of service?”

“I have heard that you are a great sorcerer, that you find truth wherever it lies, and that you are a friend to elves,” she said. “I believe a murder has been done. I need proof. Can you tell if a man has been poisoned?”

I was a little surprised by the “great sorcerer” bit—I thought of myself as a fairly competent wizard-for-hire, but that was all. Obviously the stories going around about my activities the previous summer were getting better in the telling.

“Can you tell if a man has been poisoned?” she repeated. “I rode two hours from Portsmouth to find you.”

“Yes, ma’am, I can,” I said. “I can detect the presence of poison, at any rate. It’s quite simple…”

“Then return with me at once. My carriage is waiting outside.”

“Let me get my tools,” I said. I threw one last, longing glance at my porridge, now congealing into a gray clot in my bowl, and bounded up the stairs, two at a time, to fetch my bag and a cloak.

* * * * *

The woman was waiting by the door, an impatient frown creasing her dark eyebrows. We stepped outside into the winter dawn. It was cold. My breath fogged the air, the walls of the tavern were laced with frost, and even the muck of the street was frozen solid. And it was still nearly dark. Normally, I wouldn’t have been awake so early, but it had simply been too damned cold to stay in my cot, and I’d come down for an early breakfast, hoping that warmth in my belly would eventually spread to my hands and feet. No chance of that now, I thought ruefully. Who is this woman? I wondered, as I helped her into her carriage and climbed in behind her, and who has died that she’d have her coachman take her out looking for a wizard two hours before dawn?

She was one of the more attractive women I’d seen, I decided as the light increased. The drunks’ comments notwithstanding, she was not particularly large. She did have, however, a spectacular bosom. The low roof of the carriage caused me to stoop, and, since I was seated across from her, I had a very good view of what cleavage was still visible under the mass of her jewelry. Large breasts and fair skin were not features generally associated with the dark complected, slightly built elves. The shape of her eyes and ears, though, were definitely elven, giving her an exotic glamour. I wondered if she was of mixed race. When she finally spoke to me, as the carriage clattered over the South Gate Bridge out of Belcamp, she confirmed my suspicion.

“My name is Zora,” she began, looking through a gap in the carriage’s window-curtains at the hovels of the elves, which clustered at the foot of the bridge. “My grandmother, widowed and childless at an early age, joined the other elf women who work the South Gate. My grandfather was one of her clients, she never knew whom. My mother, wanting more from life but unable to seek a better trade, gave herself as a virgin to a nobleman who desired a mistress. My father was a Lord among your people, though your law does not recognize me as even existing. I followed my mother’s path, and until last night, I was the mistress of Baron Hubert of Portsmouth.”

“What happened last night?” I asked.

She smiled ruefully. “Hubert got married. And then he died. When I came to him, several years ago, he was a widower with no heirs. I always understood he intended to marry again. I had no quarrel with young Agnes Glazier. Hubert had promised to rent a home in Belcamp for me, and support me until…” She paused. “He owed me nothing according to the laws of your people, but he was a fair man, and he did love me.”

“Did you love him?”

Zora shrugged. “He was good to me. I was grateful.”

“What makes you think he was poisoned?”

The courtesan laughed, a bitter, barking sound. “The servants say he ate himself to death. Now I ask you, does that make sense? That a man would willingly eat until it killed him?”

A couple of my sisters had often avowed that that would be my fate, but I had tried not to take them too seriously. “No, Mistress Zora, it does not. I think you had better tell me everything that happened last night. Don’t leave anything out. Sometimes the smallest details can be the most important.”

As we rode, she told me her story. The marriage of old Baron Hubert to Agnes Glazier had been arranged for some time, and had only been postponed until she came of age. Her father, Arnold Glazier, was common-born but wealthy, the head of the glass-workers guild. I had encountered him before. He was cold, brusque, and businesslike. I could believe he could marry a sixteen-year-old girl to a sixty-year-old widower, if it meant combining his money with a title and control of a prosperous city. I was not sure I believed he could murder. In my opinion he was too much of a stickler for rules.

Zora had been no secret to anyone in the Baron’s court, and although he had agreed to give up her company as a condition of the marriage, Hubert had insisted she still remain part of his household and had even gone so far as to insist she be present at the wedding feast, though seated at the far end of the table.

“I think Arnold Glazier poisoned the truffles,” Zora told me. “He presented Hubert with a gift of rare truffles—to ensure the birth of a male heir, he said.” Zora sniffed. “They were served in a dish with oysters. I remember Hubert saying they didn’t taste right.”

“So he didn’t eat more than a taste of them?”

“Oh, he ate them all right. He would eat anything. But I remember he said he didn’t think the oysters had been cleaned properly. Personally, I think it was the truffles. I think Glazier poisoned Hubert, so that Agnes would become sole Baroness. Then Glazier could control all of Portsmouth through her, and not just Glass Island.

“I was not there when he died,” she continued. “One of the maid servants, who has been a friend to me, came and woke me and told me what had happened. Hubert had gone to his bedchamber with his wife, complaining of pains in his belly. Not ten minutes had passed before Agnes came calling for help, saying Hubert was dying. He was vomiting blood, and as the servants watched, he went into convulsions and died.”

The more I heard about this case, the gladder I was I’d missed breakfast.

“He could very well have been poisoned,” I said. “As head of the glass guild, Arnold Glazier would have access to any number of deadly pigments—the substances used to give glass color. I know as little about the process as anyone outside the guild, but my grandfather is a book-copyist, and he taught us all very early never to get any of the ink or paint in our mouths. I’m sure the glass-makers’ colors are made of the same stuff, and just as deadly when swallowed.”

“So you believe that Glazier murdered him?”

I paused. “I have met Arnold Glazier before. He was serving as a King’s Judge at the time. I thought him to be a man who revered and obeyed the law, if a bit cold. But the thought of ruling a city would be enough to tempt many men.”

Zora looked earnestly into my eyes. “It means everything to me that Glazier not be allowed to take control of Hubert’s household. He will cast me out penniless, I know it. I am too old to seek another place, and besides…” She paused. “I have other considerations. I will pay you whatever you ask if you can prove Hubert was poisoned. I have jewels that are my own,” she said, indicating her necklaces, “gifts from Hubert, and, if they are not enough…” She smiled meltingly at me. “I belong to no man now.”

I’m sure even in the dim light inside the carriage Zora could see my face redden. “Ah… I… um… ah… I would never, um, presume to, ah, take advantage of a woman in her time of bereavement.”

* * * * *

Glazier seemed to have things well in hand by the time we entered the great hall of Castle Portsmouth. His daughter Agnes, a tiny, simpering child-woman, was seated at the head of a large table, as befitted her new rank, surrounded on both sides by nobles and clergy, no doubt dispatched by the King to oversee her succession as Baroness. A sea of parchment washed the table before her, and she was industriously signing everything in sight. But it was Arnold Glazier, standing at Agnes’ right hand, who was reading the documents and showing the girl where to sign. No doubt remained in my mind as to who the new ruler of Portsmouth really was.

Everyone looked up as we came in. It would be impossible for Zora to make a subtle arrival; her coin-spangled clothing made a sound that echoed the length of the hall. Glazier appeared truly surprised to see her.

“You’ve come back?” he said.

“Of course I have,” said Zora. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”

Glazier raised his eyebrows at the woman. “I had assumed you had seduced the coachman and fled with him. You had taken all your wealth…”

“All my wealth?” Zora cried, striding across the hall toward the table. “You meant these?” she said, clutching at her necklaces. “They are nothing! They are trash!” She pulled one from her neck and threw it to the ground, snapping the cord and scattering beads the length of the hall. “How could you think I would leave when my greatest treasure lies here?” She turned to a mass of servants who stood huddled at one side of the hall. I noticed that a large number of them seemed to be elves.

“Evan!” she cried. “Where is Evan?”

A small boy, no more than six or seven, burst loose from a knot of elven servants and ran to Zora, who fell to her knees to embrace him.

“Here I am, Mama!” he said. So, I thought, this is her “other consideration”.

A balding, middle-aged cleric, a priest of Saint Gabriel by his white robes, plucked nervously at Arnold Glazier’s sleeve. “Master Arnold,” he said, “who is this, ah, person?”

“I apologize for the intrusion, Father Reynard. That person,” said Glazier, not bothering to hide his distaste, “was the late Baron’s lover. He had agreed to send her away. You will find it in the marriage contract. The boy is hers. Doubtless she has come to claim he is Hubert’s heir.”

“Evan is Hubert’s son,” said Zora, dark eyes flashing, “but I know the laws of your people well, and I know he can not be his heir. I am not here to try and claim Portsmouth for him. I am only here to protect him, and to seek justice for his father, whom I know was poisoned!”

The crowd began to buzz at this, and a tall, gaunt priest, this one in the robes of Saint Tannis the Healer, stepped forward.

“Please, please, everyone, be silent,” he said. “The last thing the Temple or the Crown wants to see is the spreading of vicious rumors. Mistress, I am certain you are deeply distressed at the sudden death of your, ahem, benefactor, but I can assure you his passing, though regrettable, was natural. I myself have examined his body, and have determined that he died of a sudden seizure of either the heart or the brain. Such deaths are not uncommon among men of his years and, ah, great physical stature.”

“Holy brother,” I said, stepping forward at last, “I agree with you that the last thing Portsmouth needs is a flood of rumors. My name is Edward Red Mage, and I have come equipped to prove or disprove the woman Zora’s accusation with a simple test.” I turned to Glazier, the real authority in the room. “Surely you will allow me to lay her suspicions to rest, for the sake of your daughter’s reputation and future rule of this city.”

“I should have known you would show up here,” said Glazier, looking me up and down. “Edward Red Mage, champion of the downtrodden, self-proclaimed savior of helpless elves.”

“Master Arnold, I proclaim myself savior of nothing. I simply want to see the truth known here. May I perform my tests? This worthy Brother of Saint Tannis may observe me.”

“Be my guest,” said Glazier. “I have nothing to hide.”

* * * * *

The test for poison is simple enough. A curl shaved from a bit of unicorn’s horn is dropped in the matter to be tested, in this case the dregs and ends of the Baron’s last meal, and spittle from the corpse itself. If the horn turns black, there is poison present. If it stays blue, there is none.

The horn stayed blue. Even in the drippings of sauce from the dish of truffles and oysters, which had been carefully preserved by the servants (probably friends of Zora’s).

The priest of Tannis and I returned to the hall, where the household was still assembled, with our findings.

“We are pleased to report that the Baron was not poisoned,” said the priest. I wisely remained silent. “The wizard concurs with me. Hubert of Portsmouth died of natural causes.”

Zora, standing near the servants with Evan still clutched protectively to her side, appeared shocked. Baroness Agnes smirked. Master Arnold looked at me in mild surprise.

“You are not going to insist upon your accusation, Master Wizard?” he asked.

“I only insist upon truth,” I said. “I found no trace of poison, either upon the Baron or in the remains of the wedding feast. Mistress Zora,” I said, turning to her, “please lay your suspicions to rest. Your patron was not murdered.”

For the first time that morning, I heard Agnes speak. “The presence of that woman offends us,” she said in the voice of a little girl. “My husband promised me she would leave the household,” she said, standing up from her chair. She was hardly taller. “Get rid of her.”

The servants stood frozen, looking at one another. Obviously Zora had been popular.

“You heard the Baroness,” said Glazier. “Throw the whore out! And take back all that she has stolen.”

“Stolen?” cried Zora in righteous fury. “I have stolen nothing! All that I have Hubert gave me out of love. But if you must stoop to calling me a thief, then I will leave with nothing more than I came with—my flesh and blood.” With that she began throwing her jewels and clothes to the ground in a pile, her necklaces and bracelets, her gold-fringed cape and embroidered robe, her scarves and spangled gown.

“Stop right there!” commanded Glazier before she could pull off her last shift. “Let it not be said that I cast you out naked. Go as you are. And take your bastard with you.”

“I intend to,” said Zora, clutching her wide-eyed child to her with bare, tattooed arms. She turned as if to leave the hall.

“Master Arnold,” I cried. “I beg a favor of her Excellency. May I borrow her coach to return to Belcamp?”

“Certainly,” said Baroness Agnes. “Take that woman with you if you like. I care not where she goes, so long as she is gone.”

On our way to the carriage, I gave Zora my cloak. “You have been most ill-used,” I said to her. “I would not have you take cold and die as well.”

* * * * *

Zora said nothing to me on the long ride back. She sat wrapped in my cloak, looking out at the passing landscape from behind the edge of the window curtain, lost in her own thoughts. Her son sat in her lap and peered out of the cloak at me with huge and wondering eyes. Finally I spoke.

“Mistress Zora, my landlady Sadie Brewer, mistress of the Snake and Egg, will be happy to find a place for you.”

The courtesan looked at me in mild amusement. “As a tavern servant? Waiting tables and scrubbing pots? I, who shared the bed of a Baron and bore him his only son?” She shook her head. “Leave me at the foot of the bridge,” she said. “I still have friends at the South Gate, friends who owe me favors.”

* * * * *

I returned to the smell of bacon grease and a minor disaster at the Snake and Egg. Sadie was back in the kitchen, bellowing at Dick, the youngest and clumsiest of the cooks.

“What’d you have to go and drop that bottle there for?” she wailed. “You’ve probably got shards of glass all in my cookpot now—I’ll have to throw out a dozen chickens, I will, and me with all the pastry ready for pies!”

I was famished, but I knew better than to enter that kitchen.

“Now Sadie,” her husband Nat was soothing, “the boy didn’t mean it. And the chickens are fine. Look—all the glass is down in the floor. Now you tell me how is any of it going to have got way up there in your pot?”

Sadie hrumphed something I couldn’t make out.

“The chicken’s fine. Go ahead and make your pies.”

“Well, all right,” Sadie said, “but it’ll be on you and Dick if I find myself serving broken glass to the good people of Belcamp…”

* * * * *

Some time later I was holed up in my private corner of the beer cellar, quietly enveloping one of Sadie’s chicken pies. I tried, and failed, not to think about the possibility of glass in the filling. I wondered what broken glass in a dish would taste like, if it were too fine to be seen. Gritty, I supposed. Like sand.

Like sand in dirty oysters.

Sadie’s dog was thrilled to receive the leavings of my pie as I dropped it to dart up the stairs out of the cellar and into the street. Baron Hubert’s funeral was scheduled for sunset, and I had barely enough time before that to confirm my suspicions.

Before going to Portsmouth, though, I went to the Great Temple of Belcamp to beg the aid of the Order of Saint Morganna. The Morganites are responsible for the proper treatment of the dead, and I had learned in the past not to go poking too closely at a corpse without their consent. Mother Lillian, the elderly head of the order, was so shocked by what I had to tell her, she not only loaned me her right-hand priestess, Sister Viola, but also a carriage to take us to Portsmouth.

* * * * *

“What are you doing back here?” Arnold Glazier demanded as I burst back into the hall, followed by the black-robed Sister Viola.

“Some doubt still remains regarding the death of the Baron,” I said.

“But you said he died of natural causes!” squeaked Agnes indignantly. “His funeral is to begin in less than half an hour!”

“I have here,” I said, holding out a parchment, “an order bearing the seal and signature of Mother Lillian of the Order of Saint Morganna of the Great Rose Temple of Belcamp to examine the body and do whatever I feel necessary to prove or disprove that the Baron was murdered. The funeral can wait until I am finished. Sister Viola here and Brother Davyth of the Order of Saint Tannis can witness.”

“Father, this is intolerable!” Agnes protested. “Make them go away!”

Glazier, however, had taken the scroll from my hands and was reading it over. “I say, this is preposterous!” he said, rolling his eyes in disbelief. “You and that elf woman are grasping at straws—I swear I’ll find the whore and have her horsewhipped!”

“Zora has nothing to do with this,” I said. “This was my idea. If I am wrong, you can have me horsewhipped!”

“Whip him now, Father,” said Agnes. “He insults our court!”

Glazier shook his head. “I don’t know how he got the clergy to go along with this, but a command from the Temple must be obeyed. Examine the body,” he said to me. “It is lying in the chapel. Do whatever appalling, disgusting thing you must, but you’d better have that body presentable for the funeral when you’re done. Sister Viola, Brother Davyth, and Father Reynard here can all watch you. But I assure you, no one here did anything to harm the Baron, and when you’re finished, I hope you’re prepared for me to bring you up on charges of slander and the sacrilegious mutilation of a corpse!”

* * * * *

In my experience, there are two types of noblemen, active and passive. The active types are obsessed with fighting, riding and hunting, and their vices tend to dueling and promiscuous lechery. The passive sort is preoccupied with money and luxury, is prone to gluttony and drunkenness, and is usually uncommonly fat. Baron Hubert had fallen into the latter category. Cutting into his corpse reminded me of the time I had once seen fishermen butchering a whale. I had to borrow a large knife from the kitchen, as my brass athame was wholly inadequate to the task. It was a bloody, slimy, wretched job, not to speak of foul-smelling, and both Brother Davyth and I found ourselves up to our elbows in the Baron’s bowels before I found what I was looking for. But I did find it.

I decided against cleaning up before returning to the court. I figured the gore would make my evidence more credible. The clerics and I were met with audible gasps as we entered. Both Davyth and I were smeared liberally with blood, and the priest carried a bowl full of some loathsome substance.

“Bring us a large bowl, a pitcher of water, and a white cloth,” I commanded, my usual shyness dissolving under the weight of my discovery. Glazier was simply too appalled to protest, and Agnes had gone pale. After an awkward pause, several servants scurried to obey me. When they returned, and the clean bowl was placed on the table, I had one of the servants stretch the cloth out over it. Davyth emptied his bowl out onto the cloth.

“Now,” I said, taking the pitcher of water from the third servant, “these clerics will all testify that this here,” I said, indicating the noxious mass Davyth had dumped out, “was taken from the stomach of the corpse, and nothing has been added to it.” I slowly poured the water over it. “Mixed with the food he had eaten, we discovered…” I began mucking, very carefully, through the slop with my fingers. “Ground glass.” I poured a little more water, using the cloth as a filter, until a small pile of glittering grains stood out against the fabric. “Someone had put ground glass into his Excellency’s food, probably in with the oysters where it might be mistaken for sand. It irritated his stomach until he went into a violent spell of vomiting, which brought on his fatal fit. I am sorry,” I said, looking around the room at my nauseated listeners, “to have to present the case so graphically, but Father Reynard, Brother Davyth, Sister Viola, and myself no longer have any doubt but that Baron Hubert was murdered.”

Arnold Glazier stood blinking for a few moments, apparently in a state of shock. “And… And I suppose you all assume I did it? Because I work in glass? Has it occurred to you that anyone could have crushed a bottle or jar and put a few shards in his Excellency’s food?”

“I do not pretend to be familiar with the workings of your guild, Master Glazier,” I said, “but Father Reynard, who has the clerical oversight of all the artisans in the kingdom, is of the opinion that the glass is fine enough to be the sort used in enameling figured window panes.”

Glazier’s shock gave way to cold fury. “And don’t you think it’s possible that someone could have chosen this means of murder to implicate me? It’s obvious what’s happened here! That Zora woman did it, so her son could inherit the coronet.”

Father Reynard stepped forward at this point. “Mistress Zora would have found it difficult to steal enameling powders from Glass Island,” he said, “as only guild members and their families are even allowed to set foot on it. It is my opinion that you, Master Arnold Glazier, have murdered your son-in-law, in order to gain control of Portsmouth.”

“That is obscene!” Glazier shouted. “How can you possibly believe…”

“We have already sent a servant with a message to the King,” began Father Reynard. I was just wondering how long it would take the King top get the message and dispatch a troop of soldiers to arrest Glazier, and whether or not Glazier would have ordered his own servants to kill us all before then, when, without warning, Agnes began screaming.

“I don’t care!” she shrieked. “I don’t care! I don’t care!”

Everyone in the hall, who had previously been mesmerized by the argument between Glazier and the priest, turned to look at the girl.

“I don’t care! I don’t care if I die, I don’t care if I hang, I couldn’t do it! I just couldn’t do it!”

Her face was blotchy, her eyes were stark and staring, and her breath came in the ragged gasps of hysteria.

“Agnes, what in God’s name are you talking about?” demanded Glazier. “Pull yourself together!”

But the girl was beyond reason. “This is all your fault!” she shrieked. “You were going to make me, and I couldn’t! I couldn’t!” She was sobbing now. “I couldn’t be the wife of that gross, disgusting old man! I’d rather have died! I couldn’t, couldn’t… He was horrible! I hated him! He made me sick! I’d rather die…”

Glazier stared at his daughter, dumfounded. “Agnes,” he said softly, “what are you saying?”

“I did it! I killed him! I watched him die and I’m glad! I’d rather hang than have let him touch me!”

* * * * *

As the Baroness of Portsmouth, however, Agnes was entitled to beheading. Out of consideration for her age and obvious madness, she was drugged beforehand. Her end was much more merciful than her husband’s had been. Of course her execution left the city of Portsmouth without a ruler. The King’s advisers, after much deliberation and delay, admitted that in cases where a man dies without legitimate heirs, a bastard may inherit. The son of a courtesan became the Baron of Portsmouth.

Zora might not have known as much about kingdom law as she had thought—but as Baron Evan’s guardian, she learned quickly enough.


Author’s note:

Although the memoirs of Edward Red Mage are based in a world wholly fictitious, this particular story was inspired by historical fact, or at least legend. Reay Tannahill, on pages 238-239 of Food in History, recounts that in 1368 the Duke of Clarence was reported to have died of a surfeit of truffles at his marriage feast.

I smell a rat.

Don’t Scare the Demon

by Ivy Reisner

 

Carl decided he knew how ancient man had managed to migrate all over the planet—he kept getting lost. The river in front of him looked enough like the river he’d just passed that he wasn’t sure if he was going in circles. The big rock to his left and the big rock he saw an hour ago, and the big rock he’d seen a few hours before that all looked like giant gray slabs, none distinct enough from each other to tell them apart.

He wondered if abandoning one’s husband on a mountain in the middle of nowhere during a camping trip was grounds for divorce. Alexis’s family went camping every year, and now that the kids were old enough she insisted on taking them camping. Well enough, Carl thought, but did he have to go too?

As for him, he’d never been camping before, never been a boy scout, never been to camp, well, to day camp but that didn’t count. They went to museums, did arts and crafts, swam in a pool and got home by four o’clock every afternoon. About all he had going for him was almost six feet of decent physique from working out at the gym, curly brown hair, dark brown eyes and olive skin, so he looked pretty good in these camping duds. And with that vast experience, off he went, on Alexis’s command, to get firewood.

There were trees near the camp. There were trees all over the mountain. He couldn’t see too far for all the trees in front of him, but “Cowboy Carl” had to find a dead tree rather than pull branches off a living one. Let’s not harm nature, he had said. He wished nature, and the insects that thought he was some kind of roving picnic table, felt the same way about him.

He’d gotten up pretty high. He could tell because the air was cold here, but the slope was gentle and he couldn’t be sure—with all the local little ups and downs of the path—which way was higher into the mountain and which was towards the base. And he wasn’t sure how high they were when he started. There wasn’t much in the way of landmarks to measure distance by past a certain point.

One more (or perhaps the same) river later, he vowed he would kiss the first road sign he saw. He just wanted to find something man-made, something that suggested he hadn’t gotten so lost on this fool’s camping trip that he’d passed beyond where mankind had bothered to venture. Were there such places left in the twenty-first century?

He gulped the last of the water from his canteen and looked dubiously at the river. It was a postcard river, no denying that. Alexis would set up her watercolors and vanish into her painting for hours if she saw it. The sunlight danced on the tiny, wind-blown ripples and lush vegetation overhung the banks. It meandered, no hurry, no worry, in its leisurely, winding way to the sea.

Well, ancient man drank water before filtration systems were available, right? He walked to the bank to refill his canteen.

His heart stopped at what he saw reflected over his shoulder. A demon—a real, red-skinned, horned, pointy-tailed demon—sat in a tree eating berries. It was so incongruous, so impossible, he stared at it for a long time, checking and rechecking that the red fluid on its hands wasn’t blood, and that the item he was eating was a berry, not the torn-out tidbits of some camper. The demon reached for another berry and put it in its mouth.

Carl stood up very slowly. The creature hadn’t seen him yet. It licked berry-juice from its fingers. Well, he meant to get away from it, return to camp, pack everyone in the car and floor it to the nearest town. Then he remembered he was lost.

Still, getting away from that thing remained item one on his “things to do” list. He turned to run and his foot slipped on the wet rocks. Instinctively he yelped and scrabbled in a failed attempt to regain his balance. He landed sitting in the shallow river.

“Nyah!” The demon looked at him and scurried higher into the tree, until Carl couldn’t see it anymore in the thick canopy.

Answering cries of “nee” and “nyah” came from many other surrounding trees, followed by a flurry of rustling leaves and branches.

Carl stood in the river, glancing from tree to tree, his heart pounding and his hands shaking. How far into demon territory had he walked without knowing it? How was there a demon territory? There were no such things as demons! But he’d seen one. He couldn’t edit the image in his mind to be anything but a demon. It wasn’t a red monkey or some other woodland creature. It was too human in appearance and the noise it made was like nothing he’d ever heard on those nature shows on TV or in the zoo.

The rustling quieted and he peered up into the trees, trying to find the demons. Slowly, looking around wildly all the while, he walked down river, not leaving the water. The demons were in the trees. The water was the furthest path from the trees. He was going to stay in the water. He lost feeling in his legs and he didn’t care. Nothing was going to make him get any closer to those creatures. Soon he was shaking from cold as well as from fear, and he hadn’t seen another demon. Nor had he seen a path away from the river that didn’t require him to come within arm’s length of at least one tree and that was something he refused to do.

Small silver fish swam past him. Some of them pecked at his legs. He wished fervently he were anywhere else. In his office. In his house. In a traffic jam. Anywhere other than the middle of nowhere, surrounded by demon-filled trees.

When night came to the mountain, it came quickly. Night this far from civilization was nothing like night back home in Brooklyn. Back home he wasn’t sure why the cars needed headlights. The city was so brightly lit that one could read standing on the sidewalk. Here the night was thick and so deep he could barely see a yard ahead of himself. The stars reached back into the sky, an endless vista of them, but their light wasn’t even strong enough to reflect off the water. The half-moon didn’t provide much real light at all. The river trailed off into the darkness and if there was a path through the trees, or a demon standing just a short ways upriver of him, he wouldn’t see it.

Every noise, every rustle, was a demon out to get him. Every splash of the river meant one had stepped in to grab him. He stood still, listening and unwilling to make any noise with which to give away his position or cover the noise of their approach, and held his fists up at the ready.

About an hour after sundown, the demons sang. It was sweet, melodic, almost hypnotizing. Every voice was a soprano and, had he not known the source, he might have thought of angels singing. Or maybe they were angels and they meant to rescue him. But then, why were they singing? It was getting harder to think. He wondered if this was what possession felt like.

He shivered in the water, but he couldn’t bring himself to move closer to the shore and those… things. He knew it was getting bad when he couldn’t feel his feet. By the time he couldn’t feel his legs he was a bit too mellow to care. Lazily, he lowered his arms, uncertain why a few demons should scare him. They hadn’t bothered him after all…

* * * * *

Carl woke up dry and cocooned in blankets. He rubbed his eyes, laughing at himself. “Hey, Alexis. You have to hear this crazy…”

When he opened his eyes a demon sat beside him, holding out a cup of tea. Frantically, he struggled free of the blankets and fell out of the bed and onto the thatched floor. He was in a small, one-room hut. There were windows in every wall, but too small for him to climb through, and the demon sat on a wooden chair between him and the door.

He looked around for a weapon but the pickings were sparse. There was a table and a bookcase overloaded with books. There were three chairs in the room, which, perversely, brought to mind Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond with its three chairs for society. The bed was the last item in the room. All of the furniture was made of wood, perhaps from local trees. The table had paper, ink, feather quills and a candleholder on it. The candle had all but burned down. The holder itself looked too small and light to be used as a weapon.

“You’re sick,” the demon told him, in a high, squeaky voice. “You need to rest. Drink the tea. It’s good.”

“You talk!”

The demon scratched the top of its nose and nodded. “I’m Peach.” It smiled and pointed its tail at him.

“You’re a demon!”

She nodded again. “I’m a good demon.”

“There is no such thing as a ‘good demon’!”

“Nee!” She jumped out of her chair and backed away from him, clearly frightened.

“What did you do to me?” he demanded.

“Put you to bed,” she said tremulously. “You fell down in the water.”

“What do you want with me?”

“I want you to drink the tea.”

“Is that how you’re going to steal my soul?”

The demon, Peach, looked confused and scratched her nose again. “No. It’s going to warm you up. You caught hypothermia. That’s not good. Please go back to bed.”

He eyed her suspiciously. “I want to leave.”

“Okay. But if you want to stay, you’re welcome to.”

“Are you going to follow me?”

She shook her head. “You’re a human. Humans are scary.”

I’m scary? Look in a mirror!”

She pouted at him. “I’m a cute demon.”

Another demon came in. This one was taller. Even so, he was barely five feet. His tail was longer and where Peach’s horns were curved inward, so that they pointed towards each other, this newcomer’s were pointed outward. Both demons were very skinny, thin-boned creatures, but the taller of the two was a bit heavier. Nevertheless, it looked as if Carl could break him in half if he wanted to.

The newcomer asked, “Is he okay?” His voice, while still high-pitched, was lower than Peach’s.

“I think so,” Peach said. “He woke up and I think I scared him.”

The new demon turned to Carl. “I’m sorry she scared you.”

Carl nodded. “It’s okay. Let’s make a deal. I leave. I never bother you. You never bother me. We’ll both be happy.”

“Okay!”

“You don’t seem so bad,” he said.

“We’re not like the legends, right? I’m Apple. It’s nice to meet you.” He pointed a tail at Carl. Carl wasn’t sure of the gender, but this one looked more masculine than Peach, sturdier.

“Is that how you say ‘hello’? Peach did that before.”

Apple nodded. “You tap the tail.” He held it out, patiently.

Nervously, Carl tapped it gently. It was smooth and warm.

Apple smiled and tucked his tail behind him.

“I don’t have a tail to extend,” Carl said. He offered his hand, palm down, instead. Apple tapped it with his hand. He had claws, but he didn’t scratch Carl. They were probably meant for climbing. The demons he saw last night were obviously very good climbers.

Carl asked, “Do you always name your children after fruit?”

Peach nodded. “I think that’s why people think we eat babies.”

“We’re herbivores,” Apple added.

“You speak English,” Carl said suddenly.

Apple said, “We’re American demons.”

“Oh, so Japanese demons speak Japanese and French demons speak French?”

Peach and Apple both nodded in perfect unison.

He sat down on the bed. Peach offered him the tea again and he accepted it.

“Demons are supposed to be evil,” he said. “They’re supposed to ravage towns and steal souls.”

“That’s just a fairy tale,” Apple said.

“Sometimes humans scare us, and we ‘Nyah’,” Peach said.

“Nyah?”

Peach nodded. “It’s our natural defense. We can make really loud ‘nyah’ sounds. People don’t like that. If a whole bunch of us ‘nyah’ at once, it can make people dizzy and headachy.”

“Well, if you ever find yourself down in Brooklyn, you can look me up. I’m not scared of you, but no ‘nyahing’, okay? I went through something similar with my own two demons when they were small. But I do need to be going. My family will be worried.”

Peach asked, “Are you sure you’re up to traveling?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. Thank you.” He gave her back her teacup.

“You’re welcome.”

“Say, do you know the way back to the main road?”

“I can show you,” Apple said.

* * * * *

Alexis ran to Carl as soon as he came within sight of the camp. “I was so worried about you. You were gone all night. I have the park rangers looking for you. What happened?” She threw her arms around him.

Donna and Gail, too old now to push between their parents, hung back a little, but they looked just a little scared.

“I’m fine.” Carl pulled a twig from Alexis’s long black hair. “I got lost. But you won’t believe what I saw.”

“A bear?” Donna guessed.

“A rabbit?” Gail asked. Gail had an obsession about seeing a rabbit in the wild that started when she heard about this trip and still hadn’t subsided.

“A demon,” Carl told them.

Alexis rolled her eyes and smiled. “Oh, and he stole your firewood?”

“No, I, forgot the firewood.”

“That’s okay. I’ll send the girls out. They won’t get lost.”

“But wait. You have to hear about these demons,” he said, before the trouble twins could run off. “There were a whole bunch of them, and I got to talk to two of them. One showed me the way back to camp.”

“Now I know you’re making this up,” Alexis said. “Men never ask for directions.”

“It’s true. They’re really nice creatures.”

“Demons aren’t nice,” Alexis said. “They are angels fallen into sin.”

“No. Well, maybe those kind of demons exist too, but these were okay. They eat berries.”

“Well, then we’d better hide the fruit. C’mon girls. Let’s show daddy how to get a fire together and then we’ll catch us some fish.”

The girls squealed and ran off with their mother, after each giving their dad a big hug first.

Carl looked up into the berry-laden trees. Perhaps it was better no one believed him, that way no one would bother the demons, either to destroy them out of fear or capture them in the name of science. Perhaps he’d see them again, during next year’s camping trip.

The Dawn of Timeliness

by Danielle Ackley-McPhail

 

Being dead has a way of altering one’s priorities.

Okay… so he was fixated on the “dead” bit, but what else would you expect? It was a big thing to get used to.

Anyway, it was a frigid fall night and all the undead were wisely tucked away somewhere warm and sheltered, anywhere but the middle of the Guy Donnelly Memorial Park. Even the cats and the homeless had found a place to hole up. Frank was certain of this because in the middle of autumn, in the ugly hours of the night, he was strolling in the rejuvenating sun of a spring day. It was nearly idyllic: beautiful, peace and quiet all around, the rebirth of nature as he’d never taken the time to enjoy once upon a lifetime ago. He was lucky to remember such a day as this; he certainly hadn’t bothered to pay attention to them when breathing had been both unconscious and necessary.

But that was the problem. To enjoy what he had once squandered he must do so alone. Or maybe with a cat, he had yet to experiment with that. Anyway, the moment one of the undead happened along his glorious spring day would give way to the actual fall night. This was one of the first things he had learned this side of the afterlife, which briefly reminded him of Nutjob, the one who had taught him the fact. But Nutjob was gone to whatever came after the afterlife, and in a particularly gruesome way, at that, his spirit re-experiencing the death he hadn’t taken note of the first time around. Since he’d gone, Frank had poked and prodded the little knowledge he’d gained before the end, testing the boundaries and discovering the rules of his new existence. Among the things he had learned was that his memory of a place was a fluid thing. When the undead—or the living if you wanted to be picky about it—when they were around Frank experienced the uninterrupted flow of time that made up the other life, with all its changes and actions the majority of people (including Frank) took for granted. When he was alone or with others like himself he saw what he expected to see and only then if it was a place he had been, in this life or the other. This much he had learned from Nutjob. On his own he had figured out that he could decide what and when to see of a particular place. If he remembered it, he could experience it, in every detail, right down to the second. A detective’s dream, actually. Too bad it came now when the job was the last thing on his mind. The other thing he had learned was that his vision had no effect on his fellow haunts. He could see them and he presumed they could see him, but it was obvious by their actions and the expressions on some of their faces that they weren’t enjoying a balmy spring day. Whatever they did see, he was just as glad they kept it to themselves, because some of those faces were testament to suffering and torment he did not care to think upon.

Useful to know, but that wasn’t the purpose of this nighttime jaunt.

Frank put all practical concerns from his mind and lost himself in communion with the memory of a world he’d left behind. One he hadn’t appreciated when it mattered. He slipped off his loafers and ran his bare, deprived toes through the green, green grass, as he hadn’t done since he was a child. The sensation was singularly astounding; the brush of the blades of grass was like a gentle caress from the earth, the dew a moist kiss. The birdsong he could hear must have been a part of the memory, because there was nary a feather in sight, let alone a full bird. Just the same, the sound was like heaven’s chorus and a sense of peace wrapped him like a cocoon, protective and comforting. It was a part of his metamorphosis from unappreciative jerk to, well, something else. He didn’t have a name for it, but he had a conviction that it was a state vital to his eventual transcendence from the limbo he was trapped in. It had taken him he didn’t know how long as a dead man to figure out that his previous life had been just another kind of limbo, an unconscious one and all the more an offense for it because it hadn’t needed to be that way. He had taken the wonders of life for granted. A part of him suspected one of the reasons he’d overlooked the ending of his life was because he’d never really bothered living it to begin with, if not before Maya’s death, most certainly after it. Now was the time to make up for it, because let’s face it, he didn’t have much else he needed to do, and more than enough time on his hands.

Wandering the park and his memories was a way of regaining what he’d squandered, but he couldn’t help remembering at the same time what had brought him here to begin with that long-ago day; a case, of course… on a balmy spring day, a frozen corpse, of all things, was discovered in a grove of trees in the park. The case had never been solved. Murder was a given when the body had obviously been stored in a deep freeze somewhere before being dumped. The autopsy had been inconclusive though, and the dumpsite also revealed no clues, something that had always bugged Frank.

The victim had been Last-Leg, a homeless guy with an IQ of about 75. He had been an institution in and of himself here in town. No one knew his name. They all called him Last-Leg because let’s face it, that’s what he looked like he stood on—yeah, that was cold and insensitive, but it wasn’t like people stopped to think about how a casual reference can follow a person for a lifetime, so the nickname stuck—yet year in and year out, he shuffled around town in all weather with a content grin on his face. He opened doors and helped the overburdened with their bags; he hailed cabs and held buses for those running for them. Last-Leg wasn’t crazy, he was simple. He didn’t yell and carry on, he wasn’t violent, and he didn’t make a nuisance of himself. Many of the city’s residents and all of its service personnel fondly looked out for Last-Leg, just like he looked out for them.

It was bad enough that such a caring soul had been singled out that way, worse to never know how or why. Once the investigation had begun it was discovered that Last-Leg was actually Guy Donnelly, former inmate of the Brooks Institute for Mental Health a few towns over, supposedly he’d been released to a half-way house when he had progressed enough to be reasonably self-sufficient. Further digging during the murder investigation revealed the truth of the matter; poor Guy had been cast out to fend for himself the moment his last living relative passed away and the funds dried up. The institute might not have cared for him, but Frank and the others he helped every day knew how precious Last-Leg had been, so much so that the Mayor, in an effort to boost a faltering re-election campaign, had renamed the city’s park, the place where Last-Leg was happiest, after him. As far as Frank was concerned it was the only worthwhile thing the Mayor had ever done.

In that crystalline moment Frank realized two things: he was fed up with not knowing, and now more than ever he stood a chance of finding out what had happened to Last-Leg. Dare he do it, though? He thought back to the case and the little that the investigation had uncovered; there had been no injury or sign of violence and no discernable cause of death. By all indications, he hadn’t suffered before hand, which meant what Frank was about to do should cause no harm.

“Guy Donnelly?” Frank called in a breath of a whisper. He was drawing closer to where Last-Leg had been found. It wasn’t like he would see a repeat of that day. There wouldn’t be a body on the ground or cops milling around, but the place drew him anyway. Only, he was still alone. Had the man been fortunate to skip this limbo Frank was caught in? Or had he somehow found his way out of it? Either way, Frank could only think one thought: Lucky stiff! Of course, maybe he hadn’t waited long enough, or… or maybe the name Guy Donnelly didn’t hold any meaning or connection for the man.

Frank tried again. “Last-Leg?”

Slam! A violent impact threw Frank to the ground just before he reached the shadow cast by the trees where Last-Leg’s body had been found. He didn’t have the breath to yell. His mind was screaming more than loud enough though. Fortunately the lessons ingrained by over a decade of self-defense training and active duty had him rolling with the impact while throwing his attacker over his shoulder in one fluid move. He didn’t exactly bounce to his feet, but he did manage to gather himself into a crouch, his eyes tracking the threat. Or at least, where he thought the threat was, in the direction he’d sent the other person flying. That was why he tensed even further at the sensation that a thousand spiders were running down his neck… spiders with very cold feet.

He hadn’t spent years on the force and as a detective without developing a healthy set of instincts. They were telling him he was facing the wrong way.

With one eye on Last-Leg, Frank pivoted and stared into the trees. He shivered, or maybe it was a tremble, but either way it was unconscious. Something wasn’t right. His warm spring day was beginning to mutate, something his brief experience had taught him shouldn’t have been possible. Okay, so he wasn’t an expert, but there was that whole instinct thing again and Frank’s “Oh, shit!” alarm was going off big time.

Something drifted below the canopy of the trees: at first lightly, and then not so. On the fringe of the glade it was just random motes that looked like mere dust… or maybe pollen. But deeper in reminded him more of pictures he had seen in National Geographic. Pictures of blizzards in Antarctica.

He hadn’t realized he’d moved forward until a tight grip upon his shoulder hauled him back.

“No, ’Tective Frank, no! Must not… must not!”

Last-Leg backpedaled and nearly pulled Frank back on his ass. The poor guy continued to inch back and Frank let himself be drawn away—again with the instincts—but only to the edge of a nearby fountain.

There was no visible sign of threat. No sign of anything beyond trees and snow. That was enough, as far as he was concerned. Nothing couldn’t explain the localized blizzard, though—even if it weren’t the spring day Frank was remembering, or the fall night actually taking place, in the city’s long history there had never been more than a dusting of snow. There was something ominous and primal about the display before him. The threat and violence it projected; winds justifiably categorized as cutting and snow falling in solid sheets to blanket the ground, and most amazing of all—or shit-inspiringly terrifying, if you wanted to touch closer to the truth—all of it was contained within the grove.

Shaken, Frank pivoted back to eye Last-Leg. “Hey, Leg, it’s been a while.”

The man smiled despite his obvious agitation. “While, while, crock-dial.”

Frank actually laughed. Sometimes being dead wasn’t too bad. It was good to see his friend again. The guy’s innocence was a touchstone, a forgotten way to keep grounded when life exploded around you, or in this case, death.

“So, what’s up, buddy? You took me out like you were the Fridge.”

Last-Leg grinned like an… well… an idiot at the compliment. The Fridge was his favorite football player, though Frank suspected that was due to the misconception that the player opened up to reveal shelves and shelves of food, rather than from any concept of the man’s rather impressive ability to take out the other team. Last-Leg wasn’t saying a word either way. He also wasn’t offering much of an explanation on their current situation but he was looking more uncomfortable.

“Hey, don’t sweat it.” Frank tried to keep it light but Last-Leg was fidgeting and darting glances toward the freak storm. Frank knew how he felt.

“I didn’t hurt you, did I, buddy?”

Last-Leg shook his head without taking his eyes off the trees, slowly crab-walking away, only to bounce back to Frank’s side. Apparently the fountain wasn’t far enough away. Only his concern for Frank kept him there. His expression was troubled and his hand continued to dart out as if he would draw Frank away, but was afraid to touch him.

What was going on here? He had never known Last-Leg to get this worked up about anything. That in itself should have been a sign, freak weather or not. There was no way they should be seeing what they were. This region hadn’t had snow like this since the Ice Age, and Frank certainly hadn’t seen it then, unless you counted CGI images on television or in movies. That left one possibility that he could think of; he was caught in some other spirit’s vision, or something like that. He didn’t understand how, but what else could it be?

A shiver rippled from Frank’s gut all the way out to his extremities and back again. He couldn’t be sure if it was the thought of being snared by someone else’s personal hell, or a psychosomatic response to all that snow, but either way, Frank didn’t like it. His first impulse was to put his arm around Last-Leg’s shoulder and lead the guy further away from the place. Of course, that wasn’t a plan, considering how flinchy Last-Leg was. Settling on playing follow-the-leader, Frank started moving slowly off, knowing his companion would be right on his heels. Still, he looked back just to make sure.

That was his mistake.

Sure, Last-Leg was right behind him, but so was the glade. Frank caught a flicker in that near-whiteout zone. There was someone in there. My God! There was actually someone in there, and they were stumbling deeper in, not out. Even if Frank hadn’t made a career out of public service he would have been compelled to go after the person. No one could survive those conditions long. There was no way he would abandon someone to freeze to death. What was worse, he couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to him the person stumbling around in the glade was too small to be an adult.

“Hey,” Frank tried to get his companion’s attention. “Hey, buddy. Last-Leg… listen, I need you to listen.”

With an extreme effort, Frank finally got the guy’s attention.

“I have to go back, there’s someone there,” Frank went on, trying to keep it simple and still say what he needed to say. “I have to help, okay? Wait for me… wait here and I will be right back.”

He wasn’t prepared for the violence of Last-Leg’s reaction. The guy started yelling and clinging to Frank, holding him back and losing precious seconds while whoever was getting lost in the grove drew closer to death.

“No! No, ’Tective! No! Can’t!” The look in Last-Leg’s eyes was absolutely frantic. Frank wasn’t sure if the guy had enough going on upstairs to grasped the concept of ‘for your own good,’ but he certainly seemed bent on practicing it. If they struggled any harder—Frank to head back down and Last-Leg to prevent him—one of them was going to come away hurt. And yet Frank could hear a note of frustration creep into Last-Leg’s voice as he continued jabbering and had to respect the effort his friend was going to, even if he didn’t understand what drove it.

“Bad! Bad to go, Frank, the ’nowman gets you. Can’t, can’t go!”

Frank thought he could make some kind of sense out of what Last-Leg was trying to say, but it only reinforced his determination to get down to the grove as fast as he could. If there was some kind of threat there, besides the snow, there was no way he could leave anyone, particularly what might be a child, to suffer in such a situation. With a quick move and as gently as possible, he broke Last-Leg’s grip and dashed past him and across the clearing. He’d lost sight of his quarry behind a wall of falling snow and trees. It didn’t matter. He knew where to head in and was certain he would quickly rescue the lost one and be back out before Last-Leg even had time to panic… further.

Thus speaks the confidence of the foolhardy.

Within seconds Frank was lost. Completely and utterly turned around by the solid whiteness of the air he had to admit, if only to himself, snow was not his element… He never even saw a tree unless and until he ran into it. So much for the rescuing hero… who would rescue him? And now that he thought about it, what would happen to him here? Being dead, did he wander aimlessly forever, or until fortune led him out? Or by a brutal twist of irony, could he die again, since he’d somehow missed it the first time? The implications were chilling. Where did the doubly dead go, if it were possible? Somehow he didn’t think the same place as everyone else.

A movement to his left interrupted Frank’s building panic. By chance he had gone the right way. Just a short distance… okay… a very short distance in front of him was a small, shaking bundle apparently trying frantically to merge with a tree or something.

Any shelter in a storm, right? Well Frank couldn’t blame the person… child. The wind was beyond bitter and the one thing he did know about snow, thanks to that National Geographic special, was that if there was enough of it and some air to breath, it made an excellent insulator. Not that Frank wanted to put that to the test. Struggling forward against the gale, he headed toward his intended rescuee. Or that was the intention, anyway.

Frank was forced to revise his plan when the child—for child it was—lifted its head and stared right at him. The gaze was timeless and malevolent. How many had succumbed to the death in those eyes? Bitterness burned there with a heat that would hold off a hundred years of blizzard, or maybe just cause them. It was also enough to snare an unwitting soul motivated by nothing more harmful than compassion. Did the child understand compassion? Somehow Frank didn’t think so. That kid wanted company in misery.

More memories of that documentary surfaced… the one that taught Frank everything he knew about snow conditions in the Ice Age. It taught him something else, too… what a caveman may have looked like. The theorists hadn’t been far off.

In a moment of clarity they say only comes with near-death Frank’s mind made connections that he might never have picked up on otherwise. This child hadn’t wandered into the grove and gotten lost in the blizzard; the blizzard was here because of the child. Ancient and powerful beyond consideration now, the child must have frozen to death before his people even knew what that meant. Victim of what was likely the very first snow, he was trapped here just as Frank was, and thanks to the duel stumbling blocks of language and complex thinking, there was no way for Frank to help him move on.

Now would be a very good time to run. Really. If only he could. But no, endless cold was creeping through him, anchoring him to where he stood. Eventually—quite soon, actually—it would go so far as to do more than anchor, it would draw him down until he huddled like that poor lost soul across from him, forever doomed to Dante’s version of ultimate Hell.

Crap! Why hadn’t he listened to Last-Leg? (Like he’d ever thought he would say anything like that in his life! It was almost enough to make him laugh hysterically if his face hadn’t turned into an ice-sculpture.)

That was it. No way was he getting stuck here freezing his ass off for eternity! Frank fought the lassitude. Through an extreme effort he wrenched his gaze away from the cavechild’s and fought for his life. Stumbling steps turned into a pitiful crawl and heavy wet snow practically cemented his eyelashes closed, cold-drawn moisture providing the mortar. Betrayed by his own watering eyes, nonetheless, Frank struggled on, never quite sure if he was making progress, or even if he was going the right way. Again he wondered why he hadn’t listened? It only went to show that intelligence didn’t guarantee wisdom.

No one would come for him… Last-Leg has been too smart to come into even the shadow of this place. Frank was doomed for sure now. He hadn’t the energy to drag himself another inch.

He lay there in the burning snow dreaming of white-sand beaches and turquoise water, the tug of a warm sea breeze on his shirt and a cool, crisp drink to moisten his lips. What a dream. Um… a dream, right? Only far off in another consciousness, Frank felt rather more than the gentle tug of a breeze, more like the yank of a whirlwind. No, not the storm… Last-Leg, yelling and pulling, with ice dangling from his nose.

Well… that settled it. If the loony bugger could bring himself to come in here after Frank, he would just have to find the energy somewhere to help in his own rescue. How ironic… how humbling. Then another epiphany hit, one Frank would keep to himself until they were clear of the glade.

To Frank it seemed they struggled for forever, but gradually the snowfall thinned and the winds died down and finally they were out in the open, drenched in snowmelt and exhausted beyond imagination. He collapsed onto the frostbitten grass of late autumn, shivering intensely. His spring day was gone because he hadn’t the energy left to sustain it, not after barely escaping eternal winter.

Last-Leg landed hard beside him and Frank reached out to pat the guy on the back. Well… more of a thump actually, as he could only manage to bring his hand down and leave it there, rather than repeat the action in the prescribed manner of a true pat. It was pretty pitiful really, but they were both alive and he owed Last-Leg a debt of honor. One, ironically enough, he might be in a position to fulfill.

“You… you weren’t murdered, w-were you, Last-Leg?” Frank forced out through his exhaustion and chattering teeth. Last-Leg just stared at him dully. “No… it doesn’t make sense… I can’t explain how, but that… um… Neanderthal was strong enough to draw us into his memories. Was he strong enough to draw you in from across whatever divides the other life from the after life?”

Frank didn’t get an answer. He didn’t expect one. Mostly he was just working through the details out loud to try them on for size himself. He thought he was right, in which case, there was no reason for Last-Leg… Guy, to be trapped in this limbo.

“Thank you, my friend.”

Last-Leg managed a weak smile at that. He understood both thank you and friend; those were concepts he could grasp. Now for the rest…

“You are my hero, Last-Leg.” Okay… so that sounded a little hokey coming from a grown man, but it meant a lot to Last-Leg. Frank could tell by the smile on his face. “You saved me, even though you were afraid of those trees… of the snow. You saved me anyway, even though it meant going back into what killed you.”

Frank experienced a moment of doubt as Last-Leg just continued to smile and stare. “Last-Leg,” he whispered, not wanting to be wrong, “you weren’t murdered, you froze to death, because somehow you tangled with that ghost in those trees and he was too lonely or bitter to let you go.”

Was he right? Was a change taking place? It was so hard to tell, considering they’d just come out of the blizzard and still bore signs of its bitter cold effect. Frank held his breath, not sure what, if anything, would happen if he was wrong.

He wasn’t, though. Last-Leg’s smile grew wider. More of a grimace, actually and it was no illusion or wishful thinking that tinged his skin blue. Frank watched as quickly, gently, Last-Leg went to his final sleep until he dissolved into a swirl of glittering dust with a chilling resemblance to the blizzard they’d crawled out of.

Remembering the cavechild and the way the eons of bitterness had twisted its spirit, Frank made a supreme effort to diffuse his own. Not for the first time he thought of Last-Leg as a lucky stiff.