Authors: M. R. Mathias
“I’m going to draw them after me, Dostin,” he whispered. “When they start chasing me, go straight to the boat and push off. I’ll swim out and join you. You got that?”
“What are they?”
“They are Zard-men,” Corva answered. “They are just two-legged lizards. If one of them tries to stop you, bash him in the snout.”
“I wish I had my staff,” Dostin said. “Father Blegish always says I’m the best with the staff.”
“I’m sure you are, Dostin,” Corva said with a forced smile. “Now wait just a moment after I’m away and then go straight to the boat.”
Dostin nodded and rose to all fours so that he could take off quickly.
Corva darted straight through the thickest part of the grass. He made sure to make plenty of noise as he went. As he hoped, the Zard turned their lizard mount and started after his obvious trail.
Dostin broke. He ran as fast as his plump, middle-aged body would carry him. He got to the boat, and with a mighty heave, he pushed it out into the still water. Once he was underway, he stood and began searching for Corva.
A few moments later he spied the elf swimming toward him and smiled as he saw how well Corva could move through the water, almost like a snake. It wasn’t until he reached down to help his companion into the craft that he saw it wasn’t Corva. It was one of the Zard-men.
Fist-sized bulbous eyes, as black as pitch, transfixed him while the thing pulled itself up into the boat. Dostin was so afraid that he couldn’t even bring himself to scream.
Sir Hyden Hawk Skyler charged over the snow-covered precipice and dove headlong into a slide down into the icy valley. The angry shagmar beast was right on his heels. Its huge teeth snapped so close behind him that Hyden felt the impact of their clacking together. The over-hairy mammoth bear tried to slide like Hyden had, but its big forelegs splayed out before it, and its weight dug into the mushy snow, scooping up a small hill that helped grind it to a halt.
Hyden was glad for the distance he gained. The thing had gotten too close for his comfort. When he slowed his descent and took to his feet again he somehow busted the leather strap that had been holding his long black hair out of his face. He nearly clothes-lined himself on a branch as he charged down the slope into the trees. The angry mountain creature behind him was already back on the chase. Hyden cursed. He kept having to brush the mess of his hair out of his face as he ducked under branches and leapt over shrubs and deadfall.
The unmistakable shriek of his hawkling familiar pierced the forest from nearby.
“Yeah, I know that was close,” Hyden answered as he ran. He slowed his pace a bit, knowing that the density of the trees would slow the shagmar enough that he could get his second wind. He still had a long way to go.
The hawkling’s flight was slow and ungainly. Seeing this made Hyden think about Phen. Both Talon and the boy had been petrified. It was a wonder that the bird could even fly, weighing three times what it should. Luckily, only Talon’s body was affected, not his feathers. They were bleached of their normal golden brown color, though. Spotting Talon in the snow caps was nearly impossible.
Hyden wondered how well Phen was getting around. Thank the goddess that he’d had the presence of mind to call Claret before making Phen take the dragon tear medallion. If it hadn’t been for the old dragon, both bird and boy would be completely statuesque. The last time he’d seen Phen was just before he leapt onto Gerard’s malformed body and dragged him back into the Nethers of hell. Phen had been about to destroy the Silver Skull of Zorellin, which amazingly he did. How he managed to get himself and Talon turned into statues, not even the hawkling could convey. According to Talon, Phen had already been invisible when it happened.
Hyden glanced back over his shoulder and saw that the shagmar was still coming. He picked up his pace again and pushed his hair back out of his face.
He had no doubt that Phen would come bearing the news that the staff hadn’t been retrieved. Hyden had felt its power being used recently, and not for good. Since he had put on the ring he took from his malformed brother, he now understood a wealth of things he hadn’t before. The amount of magical power he could command now still amazed him. The mysteries of the world unraveled before his eyes, and his senses were keener than those of any creature alive. If he concentrated on the source of it, he could even feel magic being used by others thousands of miles away.
Suddenly he felt the shagmar closing on him rapidly, and from a new direction. It was flattening trees and shrubs alike as it came bearing down. Hyden did the only thing he could to avoid the huge beast’s devastating course. He stopped. It went barreling past where he would have been and howled in frustration. He didn’t stick around. Hyden bolted full speed ahead, darting and dodging obstacles and fighting his blasted hair as he went. The thing had passed by so close that he smelled its raw, musky scent. It reminded him strangely of this dwarven friend Oarly.
Hyden focused his concentration on what was before him as he ran out of the trees into the rocky streambed at the bottom of the valley. In the spring and early summer the wide lower part of the valley would be underwater, but it was fall now and only a meandering channel flowed through the rocks.
The shagmar let out a savage roar as it gained the relatively clear stretch of washed-out valley bottom.
Talon fluttered down across Hyden’s path, calling and chirping his concern.
“I am hurrying,” Hyden yelled back at the bird. “Go slow him down if you’re that worried.”
The hawkling banked away and started into a shrieking dive. He crossed the shagmar’s path just a few feet ahead of the beast, letting out a piercing call as he went. The shagmar faltered its step and nearly went tumbling headlong across the rocky riverbed, but it didn’t stop. Two heartbeats later, it was back in stride and only a few dozen feet further behind Hyden.
With his mind, Hyden thanked the hawkling. A critical moment of his madman dash was coming up, and the few feet of separation might make all the difference in the world. The valley narrowed ahead into a V-shaped gulch. There was just enough room on each side of the waterflow for Hyden to run without getting wet. The shagmar wasn’t so lucky. It came down the corridor splashing torrents of spray that slowed it even more.
Hyden glanced back. He was only thirty paces ahead of the beast and just starting to pull away. His breath was running out and his lungs burned with the icy high-mountain air. The shagmar roared and showed its fangs. Hyden almost fell face first into the rocks. The beast, with its wide bearish snout and raging eyes, looked remarkably like Gerard had in the Nethers. Talon shrieked into Hyden’s brain, pulling his attention back from the moment.
“Aye,” Hyden said out loud, as well as in his mind. “Signal Tylen and Little Con so they’ll be ready below.”
With a caw of agreement, Talon soared ahead and disappeared from view.
Hyden studied the terrain. The trick was making the shagmar think he was running ahead, when in fact he had stopped. It was either that, or let the huge mongoloid bear get so close that he could feel its breath on his neck. Hyden didn’t like that idea. Already he’d been close enough to hear its gnashing teeth and smell its filthy fur. He didn’t want one of those arm-sized claws near enough to snag him up. He let the creature get within twenty paces just to make sure it couldn’t slow itself and tear him to shreds. The thing was so big that he could feel its thundering foot falls shake the earth behind him.
He focused on the white-scarred boulder ahead of him, and charged onward as fast as he could until he got there. Beyond the marked stone the river bed fell away a few feet. He leapt down onto the ledge, passing the boulder, and in four strides went from a full run to a hopping walk. He almost didn’t stop in time to keep from going over. When he turned, he found the shagmar leaping in midair at him. It was all he could do to dive up under the monster as it came down with all its forward momentum. The impact of the creature broke the slab from the cliff. Beyond was nothing but a two-hundred-foot sheer drop of waterfall. Hyden couldn’t even scrabble up to get a handhold before the whole shelf went sliding over. He could only shake his head. The shagmar’s momentum had carried it out past the broken flat of granite that Hyden was now riding into a fall.
The idea of leading the shagmar to the cliff-drop was clever. The creatures had the uncanny ability to leap great distances, like across rivers or narrow canyons, but this one had nowhere to go and no purchase from which to leap. The shelf wasn’t supposed to break away, though.
Hyden pushed himself up and away from the falling chunk of rock. He spread his arms out wide as if they were wings. A hundred times he had felt the sensation of flight by putting himself in Talon’s mind and feeling what the hawkling sensed. Naturally, he spread his wings to fly; only Hyden didn’t have wings, nor could he defy gravity with his arms. The thing with Talon was only sensory. He realized this about halfway down when he saw the shagmar smash a crater below him.
Half a dozen of his cousins came out of nowhere to run their spears into the beast to make sure it was dead. All of them, save for Tylen, were looking up at Hyden as he came plummeting toward them.
Hyden had no idea what to do, so he let his mind tear through what he had learned about the ring. At the moment, it was all a confused jumble. Talon screeched by, seemingly panicked, too, but the bird was repeating the same call over and over again. Finally, just as the slab of granite exploded below him, Hyden figured out what the hawkling was trying to tell him to levitate.
He tucked and flipped and forced his feet to aim downward and then cast the spell. His fall slowed and he came to a hover just feet from the ground. The timing of the maneuver could not have been pulled off any more smoothly if he had done it on purpose. Once he realized that he was safe, he stepped down onto the earth, then slumped on a chunk of stone and let his hammering heart slow down.
“That was fantastic,” Little Condlin said as he charged across the twenty or so feet that separated Hyden and the scattered pieces of the granite slab.
“It’s a shame you didn’t harvest hawkling eggs with us this year,” Tylen said. He had harvested twelve eggs this past season, which was a new record for the clan, and he was proud of it. “You could climb up on the cliffs all day and night and just jump back down.”
“We didn’t make squat with the harvest this year,” one of the approaching boys said. “But that was great, Hyden, even though you got lucky when Talon saved you.”
“Talon!” Hyden sat up. His chest was still heaving from his grueling run. “I’m a great wizard, Shalloo, don’t you know?” Hyden was in fact a dismal apprentice mage at best, at least until he’d gone into the Nethers and taken back the ring from Gerard. Ever since he’d bested the truly legendary wizard Dahg Mahn’s trials and entered his tower, he liked to joke that he was a wizard of the highest order. The jest had more to do with the hundreds of dead magi and masters of magic that had failed Dahg Mahn’s trials before him. The answer to Dahg Mahn’s riddle had been so simple to Hyden that it baffled him that so many wizards had failed at the cost of their lives. The simplicity was what had beaten them. They over-thought the riddle; they tried farfetched logic and just couldn’t get it.
“I saw you at the end, Hyden Hawk,” Shalloo was saying with a knowing expression on his face. “You probably filled your britches.”
Talon fluttered down and landed on Shalloo’s shoulder. The bird cawed out his agreement.
“He did look scared,” Tylen agreed. “But nevertheless we will be eating shagmar steaks long into the winter because of Hyden’s daring.”
“It’s a good thing, too, because Summer’s Day was almost empty this time,” Little Condlin said. “We couldn’t buy, barter, or even steal the supplies we needed for the year.”
“I told you,” Hyden said as he stood. His breathing was getting back to normal. “Next year will be even better, and the keep moss will stop the eggs you harvested this year from hatching, so it will be twice as good then.”
“Are you going to keep the shagmar fur, or sell it?” another of his young cousins asked.
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“It’s yours by right,” Tylen said. “You baited the shagmar over the falls, after all.”
“I baited the falls over the falls as well,” Hyden joked. “I’ll think about it on the way back to the village.” As he spoke, he felt the sudden sense of alarm welling up inside him. “Excuse me,” he said abruptly as he stomped off into the trees, leaving his cousins looking at each other with scrunched-up faces.
“Probably going to clean out his britches,” he heard Shalloo joke behind him.
“Come on, let’s get this thing skinned and cut down into quarters,” Tylen said.
It was the staff again causing the dark feelings in Hyden’s soul. It was unmistakable. And he could tell that it was no small doing either. He felt it sharply and knew without a shadow of a doubt that the staff was being used for something horrible. The more he concentrated on it, the more the feeling of dread came over him. He wasn’t sure what to do about it, if he could do anything at all. Maybe it was just meant to be for he and the beast his brother had become to fight.
No, he decided. He didn’t want to face Gerard again. That thing was not his brother anymore. There was nothing he could do at the moment other than hope that whatever dark magic was being attempted would fail.
Queen Shaella, for all intents and purposes, was a zombie. Her brain, and all the twisted knowledge and memory it held, was wiped away during the preservation ceremony the priest named Eopeck held on her body. Physically, the resurrection worked perfectly. Not even a scar remained where he reattached her head. The spell worked so well that the noticeable bald patch over the Dragon Queen’s ear, where Claret had once licked her with dragon’s fire, was healed. So was the pink dagger scar that once ran down her face like a tear streak. With the full head of dark, wavy hair, and the life essence of the thirteen virgins coursing through her body, she looked like a girl of fifteen, save for her voluptuous womanly figure. Even the devout priest found his eyes lingering too long on his mindless, yet exotically beautiful, creation. It took him long hours of explanation, and many ember-eyed glares from the Choska demon that had deemed itself her protecter, to convince the Zard forces that she was really Queen Shaella. She could barely speak complete sentences, so she could not convince them herself. Eopeck explained that she was still in the process of healing, and that several more ceremonies needed to be performed before she could be back to herself. It was a lie, but convincing the Zard turned out to be as easy as feeding a starving dog. The lizard-men desperately needed a leader. Queen Shaella had literally taken them out of the swamp and led them to a somewhat civilized existence in Westland. They clearly wanted some of that back.