The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept (10 page)

BOOK: The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept
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Gormin retrieved his lamp and held it in one hand while taking a firm grip on the pike with the other
. This weapon had served him countless times in the infantry, and he had no qualms about using it against a bandit or a thieving neighbor. He pushed open the door and stepped outside onto the porch. He looked back at the dog, which remained in the middle of the room.

, come with me!” he hissed. “Wulf, with me!”

The dog met his eyes, curled its lip and did not move.

“Worthless cur!” the farmer snarled, shaking his head. He stalked toward the barn.

The h
acking sounds had ceased, and the figure was nowhere to be seen. Gormin cast about with his lamp, expecting a sudden attack, but could find no one lying in wait. He approached the barn to inspect the damage. A few yards to the side of the main door, several of the wooden stakes had been pulled from the ground and flung aside, and a hole large enough to admit a man had been hewn through the barn wall. So the scoundrel was still here, had made it inside! A closer examination of the ragged edges showed a great deal of strength had been used, but little precision; there were stray marks and long splinters all about. A burly man, then, with scant experience using an axe, or perhaps in the grips of some kind of a frenzy. He would be cautious, but was undaunted. Strong men and madmen, they all died at the end of a pike just the same.

Struck by inspiration, he retrieved one of the uprooted s
takes and propped it against the others still in place, stamping on the end to drive it into the ground and provide a solid brace. He stood back to admire his work. Far from sturdy, but it would suffice for the moment. The stake faced inward at the hole, and with any luck, the villain would flee the barn and impale himself in his haste.

Gormin contemplated the
hole once more. He did not relish the notion of entering the barn this way, as the man could be waiting to ambush him. The front door, however, was heavily barricaded and would require several minutes to open, and he did not wish to reveal to the intruder the hidden mechanism he had devised to raise the inner bar from the outside. There was a splintering sound from inside the barn, and one of the graffas roared in anger or pain. Gormin tightened his grip on the iron-shod pike and ducked under his makeshift trap, through the hole and into the barn.

Once inside, he raised the lamp high, illuminating the interior of the building
. His draft harness equipment was off to the side: the battered plow, the pull-behind gathering rake and basket, and more. Ahead were the stalls, many of them empty, while the broad brown backs of the remaining graffas, each as tall as a man, protruded above two of them. At the back wall was a ladder to the loft, which had served as the living quarters for some of the hired help.

What he did not s
ee, however, was the intruder.

He cast light into the corners near him and peered around the equipment, but saw no movement and nothing out of place
. He advanced to the unoccupied stalls, and lifted his lamp over their edges, but there was no one concealed within. As he neared the graffas, he heard a soft rattling sound, but he could not discern the direction and the meager radius of light revealed nothing. It struck him then that the graffas had fallen silent, except for labored breathing; they no longer bellowed or crashed against the walls. Gormin reached one of the graffas, and spoke to it in soft, soothing tones as he shone the lamp over its stall. The graffa was the only occupant, but something in the hay lining its stall caught his eye, glittering like a shower of rubies. It was blood, he realized with a shock. Tracing its path up the beast’s flanks, he found deep slices crossing its back, and the animal was shuddering and panting, its eyes rolling in terror. The slices did not look like axe marks, he judged, but rather were made by something longer and sharper, like a sword or a scythe.

Why would anyone break into his barn to attack his draft
animals, rather than steal them?

He looked to the graffa in the next stall
. It was not shuddering like the other. In fact, it was standing still, leaning against the side wall. Too still. He took slow steps toward it. There were no marks on its back. He peered over the edge of the stall, and a powerful stench struck him. As he brought the lamp near, he saw that its entrails and blood soaked the pad of hay beneath it, and viscous fluid was seeping under the door. The animal had been disemboweled where it stood and was dead on its feet.

Gormin threw his arm across his lower face to mask the odor
. He continued to stare as he went numb inside.

The rattling sound came again, much closer and louder, seemingly from overhead
. Gormin stumbled back a few steps and thrust the lamp upward. Clinging to the wall, head downward, was a creature the size of a man, but there the resemblance ended. It was glistening black, folded tight upon itself, its claws sunk deep into the timbers and its wide yellow eyes narrowed as it regarded him. It was covered in long, wicked spines that swept back along its body. As he watched, those spines lifted away from its sleek body, quivering in a rapid motion that produced the rattling noise he had heard.

Gormin backed away, keeping the pike leveled at the thing
. Something nudged him in the back, and he stifled a shout. A quick glance showed it to be one of the handles of his plow. Keeping one eye on the creature, he hung his lamp from the plow handle and wrapped both hands around the haft of his weapon. The rattling noise ceased, and the creature dropped from its perch to land on the dividing wall between the two graffas, leaving bloody prints on the wall. The farmer could see its long black claws, each almost the length of a sword blade, digging deep into the wood on either side as the creature stalked forward. The spines along its body flexed outward and its shoulders rolled like those of a great cat as its low-slung head remained riveted on him. It sprang to the ground and stood on its hind legs like a man, studying him, and began to walk parallel to his position. Gormin felt a chill, seeing it walk upright thus, and he knew it to be the man-like form he had seen assailing the outer wall of the barn.

It suddenly fell to all fours and rushed forward in a blur of motion, and the farmer braced his pike for the impact, but at the last moment it veered away and retreated
. It resumed pacing on two legs, and then launched toward him again. This time its claws struck the head of the pike with a metallic clang, knocking it aside. Gormin yanked it back into position, but the creature again withdrew. It was too damned fast, he realized. In this open space, it could sidestep his defense with that unnerving speed. He began to back toward the hole in the barn wall.

In a flurry of motion it
came at him again, and he felt the force jar through his arms as the pike was batted aside. He threw himself to the side, frantically swinging the pike around, and he felt contact as the haft struck a solid mass and knocked it aside. He came up into a crouch again and felt a wetness soaking his arm and side. Whatever had scored him, claws or spines, had been so sharp that he was only now feeling the associated pain, but the bleeding was profuse. The creature was near the stalls again, pacing back and forth on all fours as its claws dug long furrows in the hard-packed earth of the barn floor. It made the peculiar rattling noise again with its quivering spines.

Gormin backed another step toward the hole, but as soon as he moved, the
black thing hurled itself forward, coming at him in a circular motion to his left. The farmer did not brace the butt of his pike to the ground this time, instead keeping it free and quicker to maneuver into place. The creature swerved at the last moment and launched itself at him from a different angle, and he leaned away, trying to swing the point of the pike into its trajectory. Such speed! Sparks dazzled his eyes as claws struck the pike, and he fought to retain his grip. He fell back as its weight bowled him over, and his leg went numb as the spines pierced through clothing and into his flesh. He shoved with the pike haft, hoping to lever it away from him before it could reach anything vital, but it clung to him. The farmer saw gnashing teeth flash at his face, and he twisted aside––and then suddenly the thing’s weight vanished from atop him.

He struggled to his knees to find the dog, Wulf,
thrashing on the ground with the creature. The dog had crashed into the thing from the side and worked his muzzle behind the spines to rend and tear with powerful jaws at its neck. The black creature writhed and spun in place, raking at the dog’s flanks. Gormin knew that if the creature could bring its deadly claws to bear against Wulf’s underbelly, the dog would suffer the same fate as the dead graffa. He lurched to his feet, circled for the right angle, and then plunged his pike through the creature’s side and into the ground. The monster convulsed wildly, flinging the dog away from it, and scrabbled at the weapon with its talons. It tried to roll and twist away, but was pinned through to the firmament, and Gormin held resolute to the other end of the pike. The thing turned malevolent yellow slits upon him, and, wrapping its claws around the pike, began to pull itself along the haft toward him.

Gormin stared in disbelief
. Retaining his grip on the pike with one hand, he drew his old infantry saber with the other and struck at the thing’s neck. The creature lashed out at him with one claw, but being transfixed and trying to climb the shaft, it lacked the freedom of movement to fend him off. His first strike glanced from the spines, but then he slanted beneath them and struck home, hard. The blade bit deep into the creature’s neck, and a second blow followed true, all but severing the wedge-shaped head. The monstrosity shuddered, spines clattering in a sharp crescendo, and went still at last. It slid back down the pike to land in a heap on the ground.

The farmer prodded the body with his saber, studying the greenish ichor spilling out, and then turned away
. Wulf was a few paces away, panting and lying on his side in a pool of blood. His dark muzzle and ears were torn to ribbons, and one eye was pinched shut while the other was fixed upon the black creature’s corpse. Gormin started toward him, but a surge of dizziness reminded him that he was in no better condition. His shirt and pants hung in tatters, and blood flowed down his side in liberal amounts to leave red footprints on the packed ground. He took a steadying breath and went to the dog, falling to his knees at its side. Its eye swung to him.

“Worthless cur,” he said
in a gentle tone, reaching out to ruffle the thick fur at the dog’s neck. Wulf curled his lip in a faint snarl, but his tail gave a few tentative taps on the ground. Gormin blinked away an unaccustomed burning in his eyes. “I cannot lift you now, boy, but the house has clean water and cloth for bandages. I will have you back to your ornery self in no time.”

With a last reassuring pat, he pushed himself to his feet and headed for the hole in the barn wall
. As he neared it, he heard something outside that froze the blood in his veins: a chorus of dry rattling sounds, many strong. He spun and crossed to his pike, still jutting from the ground, and wrenched it loose. If he could defend the narrow opening, perhaps he could keep them at bay long enough to––what? They were alone out here, far from deliverance of any kind. Anyone with a speck of sense, he realized, had fled to the city.

sudden, fierce gratitude washed over him that his family was safe within the city walls. His jaw tightened. Perhaps the morning light would scatter these foul creatures. They had only to survive the night to know the answer.

ven as he turned back to make his choke point, however, several of the black creatures crawled through the opening and went skittering up the wall. Their yellow eyes were burning slits in the shadows. Gormin’s heart sank as he swung the pike from one to another, and more of the monsters poured in through the hole. The farmer seized his lamp from where it hung on the plow handle and retreated to the dog’s side. There he laid aside the lamp and his pike for a moment, and dug his fists into the thick fur to drag Wulf back with him to the corner where the stalls met the outer wall of the barn. He braced his pike there in the corner, and laid his saber within easy reach on the ground, preparing for the rush that would come. The lamp guttered and flickered beside them but held. A detached part of Gormin’s mind wondered when the oil would be exhausted, how much light remained to them, but he knew it would not matter.

The dog strained to its feet, crimson beads
dripping from its fur, and pressed against the man’s side with a rumbling growl at the creatures. Gormin felt a surge of pride at the animal’s courage. The farmer heard a distant hacking sound, and surmised that more of the spiny creatures were invading his house. He hoped they would not damage the charcoal picture. He wished he could have seen it once more.

And still the creatures swarmed into the barn, spreading across the walls and ceiling
: a dozen, then twenty, then more. Outside, the last of the ember tinge faded from the western horizon, and true night fell.




“Varkhuls. A great many of them.”

Amric nodded
, though he did not need Bellimar’s words to recognize the tracks covering the ravaged floor, or the deep furrows left by their claws in almost every surface of the barn. He and Valkarr were familiar enough with the repulsive creatures.

relish digging their prey out from entrenched positions,” Bellimar continued, “and they quite excel at it.”

BOOK: The Essence Gate War: Book 01 - Adept
13.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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