Authors: Michael Reynolds
The next morning greeted the Dernegart
camp with no more hospitality than it had for the last few weeks. The winter
storm had long been over, but her effects sat blindingly on the ground. As the
sun finally peaked over the eastern mountains, the light bounced in from all
directions. Jaxius squinted, stepping out of the large public tent.
"Are you ready?" he called
back to Tolian.
"I suppose, if I absolutely just
have to be," Tolian said.
Sensing the reluctance in Tolian's
voice, Jaxius said, "Perhaps we will get lucky and find a nice town in
Feldrovia where we can get some horses."
Tolian's head jerked up and he raised
a confused eyebrow. "You are talking about Feldrovia? And you say 'nice
town'? You are joking right?"
It was Jaxius' turn to be confused.
"Feldrovia's haunted. Great
wicked evil lives at th' heart o' Feldrovia. Been tha' way fer o'er a hunerd
year." Grundar answered for Tolian who nodded in agreement.
"All of Feldrovia?" Jaxius
"I just assumed you knew. Our
illustrious clan leader here is correct. Over a hundred years ago, a great
plague swept through Feldrovia, and now all of her population belongs to the
Undead Witch." Tolian explained.
"Great. So, not only do we have
the curse on Bergar from the Undead Witch to deal with, but now we are hiking
right past her greatest armies."
"No time to go like the present,
eh?" Tolian asked wryly and shouldered his pack for yet another journey.
Jaxius flung his wood and iron shield
over his back and took up the spear that Tolian tossed at his feet. Just after
the sun came to full over the horizon, he and his companion were off again.
This time not simply for the sake of traveling to a new land to find adventure,
but because adventure was leading them onward.
They set their pace as brisk as
possible, just short of jogging. They traveled through the day, not stopping to
rest until it was time to make camp for the evening.
"Like old times again. Eh?"
Tolian asked. "Just the two of us."
Jaxius knew the words had special
meaning when Tolian spoke them, wondering if it would stay "just the two
of them" for long. He also mused about whether or not Tolian had fully
considered his word choice as he set up the tent that they had brought from the
"I am surely glad that we got to
bring a tent this time. Otherwise, we might get cold." Tolian said not
trying to hide his sarcasm.
Neither man dared to allow himself to
fully sleep that night. They alternated dozing, wrapped tightly in warm furs,
and watching for trouble through the barely opened tent flap. Hours passed
without so much as the wind making a noise.
"You are watching the wrong
way," an all too familiar voice squeaked from nowhere, startling Jaxius.
Jaxius spun from watching through the
cracks of the tent flap to face the direction of the little girl's voice.
Tolian leaped to the side of the tent like a farm wife startled by a mouse. He
hugged the edge of the tent, his chest heaving, and beads of sweat forming on
his face despite the cold.
"The danger that you should be
watching for is coming from further west, not the southeast. Your man-tent is
facing the wrong way. Not that it would do you much good, anyway. What you
ought to be looking out for simply will not care if you are hiding behind some
deer skins." Chlora continued. "And I hope you don't expect me to
save your lives again. Not this time, anyway. You still haven't thanked me for
the one hundred thirty-five times that I saved you last time. But... perhaps I
have come again to save your lives."
She shot Tolian a sidelong glance and
returned her mischievous look to Jaxius, "Well, I have at least come to
save your life, Upuchwe."
"What are you talking about
Chlora?" Jaxius asked.
Her gaze locked onto his eyes and a
wide, toothy smile spread across her suddenly beaming face. She leaped into his
lap, "You remember! You remember! Yay. He remembers! I thought you lost
forever, Upuchwe. But now you remember."
"No, Chlora, I don't fully
remember. I just have a couple of pictures. A scene or two, but nothing I would
call memory. Besides, I don't have any context to put it to." He, in fact,
did not. But now that he had heard it a few times, the name Upuchwe seemed
familiar to him.
"Oh, then, in that case, I guess
I will have to eat him," she said flicking her thumb at a dumbstruck
Tolian. "I would be doing you a favor too," she continued to the
muted bard, "because I would do it quickly. If the followers of Hopush get
to you then they will enjoy eating you too much."
"Chlora, explain what you mean,
please." Jaxius said already somewhat exasperated with the little faerie
girl's riddles but liking the way that she turned them on Tolian.
"Well," she started,
putting her hands together in front of her face mimicking eating motions.
"First they would strip away all his skin and set that aside. Then they
would suck his eyeballs out. And, I would imagine, do some really nasty things
with his bowels...."
"No, I mean explain why you even
bring them, whoever they are, up," Jaxius said.
Tolian interrupted before she could
open her mouth, knowing if he let her then he might not get a chance, "Hopush
is the cruel demon prince of carnage if you are to believe the legends."
"No, not legends," Chlora
scowled at Tolian before turning her attentions once again to Jaxius. "You
faced his followers before, Upuchwe. They were decimated by your mighty force.
But," she began to pout, "you've forgotten how to make a tremendous
power. The world has to settle for a tiny thump."
"You are getting sidetracked
again, Chlora. What does Hopush have to do with us now if, as you say, my
mighty power defeated his followers before?"
"Maybe he's coming back for
revenge. Maybe he doesn't like you," she shrugged devilishly. "Or
maybe it's just a coincidence that they are less than a mile from here."
"Less than a mile? Why didn't
you say something before?" Tolian asked, frantically starting to pack his
"I did. I said I came to save
your life again, but I wasn't speaking to you. I was speaking to Upuchwe."
"So these demons are only a mile
away?" Jaxius asked.
"Well, they could possibly be
closer now. I mean, they were only a mile away when I came to you and woke up
sleepy head here. But neither of you listens, so the skin-ripping,
people-eating demons are probably much nearer now."
As if in reply to their conversation
a blood-curdling howl ripped open the night sky. Jaxius and Tolian dove out of
the tent just in time for a streak of purple flesh to tear it from the ground.
"Chlora!" Jaxius shouted,
overcome with concern for the little faerie.
"What?" came the little
voice from beside him.
Jaxius grinned as he remembered that
the mischievous thing was full of surprises.
"Never mind," he said.
Jaxius looked up into the night sky
to try to see what could possibly loose a howl so evil. The moon was blotted
from the sky by a cloud of demons. Instinctively he dove for his weapons that
were now scattered across the snow. Jaxius stood,
in hand, and
silently lamented the loss of the protection that his shield would give.
felt more and more comfortable as the days passed
Tolian had already drawn his fighting
daggers and dropped to a defensive crouch, inching his way to Jaxius' position.
A wall of demons swooped down and
landed in the middle of their camp, cutting Tolian off from his friend. The
snarls and growls coming from the demons caused the short hairs on Tolian's
neck to stand straight. The monsters' thick shiny skin was deep purple,
virtually black. Their bright yellow eyes bulged from their misshapen heads,
and the things' bright red pupils shone as foul as the fires of the Underworld.
The demons seemed to taste the bard's abject fear and they turned their whole
attention on him. One grinning behemoth licked its lips and grinned wider. Its
mouth stretch from that grin into a gaping maw, exposing row upon row of tiny razor-sharp,
Taking the barely perceptible quiver
as a signal, the gigantic demon threw himself upon Tolian. Tolian's reflexes,
remarkable as ever, were barely enough to keep him away from the lunging
monster. The purple demon narrowly missed the arm he was aiming for.
Tolian continued his movement,
turning in a sharp circle and sank three daggers deep into the monstrosity's
heavily muscled side. Two more daggers snapped into the bard's hands at lightning
speed to replace the ones now quivering in the beast's hide.
The brute howled at the injuries, and
blue-green ichor trickled down its side. The snow sizzled when the blood
splashed down onto it. The monstrosity reached a clawed hand up and yanked one
of the steel daggers from between its ribs and flung it angrily to the hissing
and spitting snow. The demon threw back its head and howled its imminent
victory into the winter air.
Tolian leaped and slashed both newly
readied daggers across the fiend's bared throat. More of the alien blood
flooded out, staining the white snow. The shocked creature fell limp and
gurgled its life onto the ground.
"Never sing your success until
you're back home drinking. Old bard's rule." Tolian said. He jerked his
daggers free and looked for Jaxius in the rambling confusion.
After the first demon went after
Tolian, the rest, it seemed to the bard, had turned their attention on Jaxius.
The majority of the host of demons circled and lunged at the half-elf. Tolian
saw only brief glimpses of his embattled friend through the throng of demons.
Sharp, serrated claws thrust in and out of the ring, reaching for the warrior
who worked laboriously to keep the dangerous appendages away.
Jaxius toiled to parry the dozen or
so raging demons that darted in and out of his range. His breathing came
faster and shallower with each thrust of his heavy elven sword. Sweat clung to
him, and his body staved off the bitter cold by producing more heat that turned
to steam in the night air. Jaxius'
sang a nearly constant note
as he fought off the beasts.
The creatures held nothing back. One
managed to get a claw around Jaxius' ankle. The monster howled with bloody glee
when his intended meal slipped heavily to the ground. That one lost his arm to
, wielded with amazing precision by the now prone
warrior. Its blue-green blood spurted out in jets and turned patches of snow to
rivulets of turquoise sludge.
Thick, leafy green vines sprouted
from the ground, lifting Jaxius from the ground to continue his valiant battle.
Chlora stayed in constant contact
with Jaxius, even when he fell or swung his
her way. Her every
action was in concert with Jaxius. When Jaxius swung out at a demon to his
left, she would call up some root or vine to block a demon from attacking his
Tolian helped Jaxius in his own way,
too. Never really sure of Jaxius' next move, Tolian flung daggers at any demons
that strayed too far from the roiling sphere of action. Once, this plan brought
Tolian to the full attention of one of the largest demons. It turned, pulled
the hastily thrown dagger from its rippling shoulder, and dove headlong for
Tolian. Huge leathery wings kicked up loose snow as the demon hurtled toward
the bard. Tolian waited, patiently gauging the beast's approach.
Finally, Tolian somersaulted through
the snow toward the oncoming monster and thrust his blades forward and along a
jagged line. The daggers pierced deep into the creature and sliced the hideous
thing's stomach open from its chest to its thighs. The creature hit the frozen
ground with a thunderous crash. Tolian was on the thing's back before it could
recover. He held onto a wing with one hand and pumped a dagger into the demon's
side with the other. The blood that oozed from the cuts scalded Tolian's
delicate hand and forearm, but he ignored the pain. He was focused on
destroying the foul creature.
Rising to its feet but unable to fly,
the bat-winged thing spun in circles, swatting at the man clinging to its back.
The acrobatic human stung him again and again. Each steely prick stole more and
more of the demon's energy. Bit by bit it slowed and eventually fell to the
ground, dead before it landed.
Now with two of the things dead by
his hand, Tolian posed more of a threat to the demon multitude than he had
previously. Three of the pack abandoned their attack on Jaxius and tore after
Tolian knew that he was no match for
three of the beasts and sought his escape route. If he could make it to the
edge of the woods, perhaps he could slow the creatures down. This was all the
time for thought that he had because one of the monsters was almost at him.
Tolian sprinted off toward the darkened forest. He crashed through the thin
layer of underbrush and skidded around the first large tree that he came to.
Tolian threw his back against the tree, hoping the demons would pass him by. He
forced his breathing to slow and listened.
The first purple-black creature sped
past, quickly followed by a second, smaller demon. Tolian waited for the third
of the monstrous creatures to fly past his makeshift hiding spot. Wind from the
other passing demons filled Tolian with a chill, and a shudder slipped down
Tolian's back. The sound of deep, snorting breaths broke the wintry silence.
Tolian twisted his neck in the direction of the sound. He wanted to see how
close the creature was. He was immediately answered by the creature's foul, hot
breath in his face. Its glowing red eyes flared and its bat-like nostrils
Tolian turned to flee, but the demon
caught him by the back of the neck, jerking his retreat to a sudden, terrifying
stop. Tolian's body slumped bonelessly as the creature climbed on too-quiet
wings, carrying the unconscious bard into the night.