Authors: Lucas Thorn
Nysta #2: Duel at Grimwood Creek
My beautiful wife, Kyungsil
First Digital Edition, published in September 2012
Lucas Thorn 2012
Chukshene knelt beside the elf and pressed his palm against her forehead.
An hour ago, she'd been burning up. But now she seemed fine. He couldn't yet tell if that was a good thing or not.
The warlock licked his lips. Wiped his hand on his robe. He'd managed to drag her to the imagined safety of one of the many trenches carved into the ground circling the smouldering embers of Spikewrist, but still wished he could've carried her further.
Unfortunately, she was more muscular, and therefore heavier, than her lean frame had hinted. Not used to the pressure of physical exertion, the warlock found the going tougher than he'd expected.
Resting against the shallow rise of the ditch, he ran his fingers through his greasy hair and wondered how much longer it would be until he knew if she would live or die.
It had been only hours, but it felt like days since she'd lost consciousness. Hours of constant fear while creeping quietly through the maze of trenches circling the ruined town.
He shuddered as he thought of the box opening in her hand. The sight of the thick cables of black flooding into her arm. How he'd watched in horror as a film of darkness spread under her skin like a monstrous wave. It stretched up her neck, across her face, and even inside her mouth.
He'd wanted to run then.
Leave her. Never turn back.
But that part of him which had once spent too long in the tomb of an undead king couldn't turn away. It watched in terrified fascination as the blackness submerged, leaving her skin unblemished. The whole process took only a few minutes of constant screaming from the elf.
Screaming which drew the attention of others he'd worked hard to avoid.
Many creatures haunted the Deadlands. Some more disturbing than others. The ruined town still called them like a beacon, promising dead flesh to feed upon. Living flesh, too, if they could catch it.
Shadowy figures ventured hesitantly onto the shattered plain. They'd come before. And he'd fought them off twice already. But now they were back.
This time they'd even thought to bring friends.
Aware he couldn't stay where he was, the warlock dragged her unconscious body as far as he could and muttered constant prayers to Grim that whatever was coming to feed on any leftover carrion, wouldn't notice him hauling her away.
Wouldn't come looking for him.
Luck seemed to be with him, and he made it further out. Away from where the twisted creatures would likely forage.
Far enough not to hear the sound of them gnawing on raw meat and bone.
Though the fallen god had nothing to do with the shadows missing his position, he thanked Grim anyway. And settled down to wait as the elf writhed in the grip of nightmarish dreams.
She was shorter than most elfs, but harder of muscle than most men he knew. It was the lean kind of muscle that came from years of fighting not only physical enemies, but countless hordes of inner demons. Demons the warlock wouldn't have been keen to conjure even if he could.
Her face, neither beautiful nor ugly, was marred by a vicious scar which began at the corner of her mouth and slashed up to a point just beneath her left eye before jagging out toward her ear. The effect when she smiled gave her expression a cruelty that made the warlock shudder.
Black hair spread wildly in knotted lengths, thin ragged strips of cloth tightly interwoven into the locks. There was something about those strips that made the warlock uncomfortable. He was beginning to think they weren't meant for decoration.
Neither were the many knives and daggers which covered her body. Some gave him the creeps to look at.
In particular, the large enchanted blade which sat at her hip. The one called
A Flaw in the Glass
. He'd placed the blade in its sheath himself. But not before feeling a shiver of repugnance at the venomous green glow which encircled the wide upswept curve of the blade.
The heavily-patched clothes she wore were of black and dark green wyrmskin and the warlock couldn't tell the difference between the original uniform and recent modifications. The many new cuts and tears would soon need her attention.
And looking at those cuts made him think of the new wounds she'd suffered at the hands of the Lichspawn, including a ghastly rip across her rib which he'd tried to cover by using a few strips of cloth torn from an undershirt carried in his pack. Though he'd had no training as a healer, he'd done his best to attend her wounds.
Not that it seemed to make any difference.
With a narrowing of his eyes, the warlock admitted the elf's flesh had knitted quickly and, though he knew little about elfs, he reckoned this wasn't normal. So he'd stopped tearing up his undershirt and stuffed it back into his pack. Chose instead to sit back and watch as blood stopped flowing from the many slashes in her skin. As lumps of shadow swelled and faded.
“This isn't good,” he mumbled, wishing there was enough light to read his grimoire by. Didn't want to make any light for fear of drawing the creatures roaming the plain. But he itched to know what it was that had driven Gaket's shadows from her body and was now making itself a home inside her.
He had his suspicions, of course. Something nagged at the back of his memory but just wouldn't shake loose. But there was a chance he was wrong.
Not much of one, though. After all, she had the cage.
The warlock gnawed on the inside of his cheek, wondering who she would be when she woke.
And the thought terrified him.
A long ragged howl split the silence and the warlock squeezed his eyes shut with a grimace. “Wolves,” he moaned. “I knew it. Just fucking knew it. Had to be wolves. Why couldn't it be goblins? I could handle goblins. Well, two of them, anyway. If they're unarmed. But wolves? Grim's swollen nutsack, I can't believe it. Fucking wolves.”
The howl was repeated and Chukshene drew his robe tighter around himself with a shudder.
Was about to spit another curse when he heard a sharp snap as something moved in the trees nearby.
A low grating moan scoured his ears clean and the warlock held his breath.
Remembering what Rockjaw had said about the land being covered in a blanket of death, he hoped it was twigs.
If it was bones, he was going to piss himself.
Whatever it was, it moved carefully. But at the same time, it didn't seem worried about the noise it was making. Seemed to be trying to track, rather than affect any stealth. He could hear it approaching. Its breathing irregular and wet. As though at the point of choking on snot.
He clenched his fist and tried to remember the most basic spell he knew. The one he'd managed to keep secret from the Nameless Mage. One he'd already unleashed too many times this past few hours.
His mouth moved silently as he practised the words of power needed.
The creature let out a low sound, like a hooting owl.
Rolling his eyes, the warlock cursed his luck.
Then it moved.
It darted from its position up behind the warlock's left. Its heavy feet pounded on the ground so hard the warlock could feel each impact through the mud at his back.
“Fuck,” he spat, rolling forward and spinning around. His robe flapped like the wings of a bat and his eyes glittered in fear as he caught sight of the troll.
Tall and thin, the troll raked madly at the air with malformed claws. If it stood still, it might have looked like one of the many twisted trees behind it, but as it lumbered toward the warlock, it was a nightmare made flesh.
Its mouth snapped wide, revealing dark fangs swollen with poisonous spit.
The warlock nearly forgot his spell right there, but managed to break the curtain of terror to spit three words in quick succession. His fist flared brightly and the troll staggered mid-step at the sudden swell of sickly yellow light before letting out a surprised hoot which echoed across the plain.
The warlock felt the pulse of magic and a gelatinous ball of green shot from his hand like an acid-drenched globe. With a starved hiss, it bulleted into the troll's chest. Punched through flesh. Through bone. Then erupted from its back in a grotesque spray of eerie milky green light and gore.
With two last lurching steps, the troll gave a confused swipe at air and toppled forward. Lifeless, its wedge-shaped head slapped hard against the ground along the lip of the ditch. Blood-drenched snow spattered at his feet.
The warlock grunted.
Magic coiled around his arm. Fused with his skin. Then faded away.
He breathed deeply, exhaustion tumbling down his shoulders. He couldn't cast much more tonight. One more spell and he thought his brain might burst.
Another long howl creased the air. The troll's hoots had obviously attracted more attention.
The warlock glanced at the unconscious elf and sighed. “Sometimes, Nysta, I think you're more trouble than you're worth.”
Then he bent down. Took hold of her legs and started to drag her away from the steaming corpse.
Cursed constantly as he hauled her over the top of the ditch. It wasn't easy for him and more than once her nearly lost his grip. But he willed his muscles to endure the weight of her and managed what was, for him, a titanic effort to pull her free.
Heart beating firmly in his chest, the warlock wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as he paused for breath. Saw more shapes spreading out far on the plain.
Knew they were peering in his direction and felt a trembling in his guts.
They started sprinting toward him, no doubt driven by hunger.
He looked down at the elf.
Back at the quickly approaching shapes.
Over his shoulder to the treeline.
It seemed too far away. At least, too far if he was dragging her heavy body.
He could leave her. He didn't owe her anything. Not really.
If she died, what was it to him? It wasn't his job to keep her alive. And perhaps she was better off dead, anyway.
The warlock's thoughts raced through his brain, torn between fear and an irrational sense of protection. Irrational, because he'd never been much for protecting anything.
So, he decided with a grimace.
Go with his gut. An instinct which had served him well over the years.
Leave her. Run.
His face screwed into a ball of indecision.
One of the creatures in the distance let loose a savage roar of hunger, and the warlock clutched his book tight. Mouth formed a determined line.
“That does it.” He shuddered, turning to leave. “I'm out of here. Sorry, Long-ear. I got nothing left to help you with.”
Then he heard the chains.
“Oh, shit. What've we rattled now?”
As she drowned in the dark envelope of unconsciousness, Nysta was certain she would never wake again.
Feeling herself fade in Chukshene's arms, she'd almost welcomed the release of a lifetime spent in bitter struggle. But another part of her steeled itself in frustration as she realised Talek's murderers would get away.
That Raste would escape her blade.
The shock of seeing him in Spikewrist quivered within her heart. She'd half-convinced herself the wagoner's claim to have seen a red-haired elf was pure fantasy. Or his eyes had played him false.
Had told herself there were more than one red-haired elf in the world. Could even be a dozen in the Deadlands for all she knew. It was a big enough shithole.
Besides, why would Raste be here? It was absurd to think he'd be here just to kill Talek.
Not just absurd.
Because Raste was unique in Lostlight for many reasons, but only one which mattered. The fact he'd once felt the edge of
A Flaw in the Glass
against his throat and lived to tell the tale.
At the time, he'd not known who she was.
But now she felt an explosive burst of guilt and despair as she realised yet again Talek had suffered for her failures. If only she'd cut that red-haired bastard's throat all those years ago. Broke the cursed chains which bound their fates together.
It was this fresh wave of guilt which channelled her to the surface as she rose from the sunken depths of unconsciousness.
Sucked at air as though tasting it for the first time.