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Authors: David Wells

Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction

Thinblade (18 page)

BOOK: Thinblade
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All three waited for a moment in the dark before they collectively breathed a sigh of relief. They started for the east side of the plateau to see if the rest of the Reishi hunting party had been alerted. They came up alongside Lucky from his left, moving low and quiet. Abigail approached from the right. The remaining six men were busy making camp. They appeared to be unaware of the death of their scouting party, but Alexander knew they’d be missed soon enough.

“Alex, how’s your shoulder?” Abigail sounded concerned and relieved at the same time. She knew firsthand how well Lucky could heal if given the time and his bag of tricks, but she wanted to hear it from her brother.

“Still a little stiff, but better than I have any right to expect,” Alexander said. “We killed the six that were headed up to scout the plateau. I expect the rest will become suspicious sooner rather than later.”

“We left a couple of them back on the trail,” Jack said. “If we tossed them over before any more came up the path we might be able to use the same tactic on the rest. I’ll run down and tidy up if one of you will keep an eye out for me.”

“I agree,” Anatoly said. “You head down the path and I’ll keep watch from the north side. Lucky, let us know if any of ’em head our way.” He waited until everyone nodded agreement before moving off into the night. Jack disappeared into the dark, leaving Alexander and Abigail with Lucky to watch the enemy camp.

The soldiers were cooking dinner over an oversized fire. The night air was getting cold and the moon had risen, casting its eerie glow over the world. It was more than enough light to see by.

One of men got up from his seat around the fire and walked out of its circle of illumination to peer up toward the plateau. Alexander was sure the man couldn’t see them but he felt uneasy just the same. The man returned to the fire and spoke to the only man dressed in robes. The man in robes nodded and took one last bite of his dinner before walking a few paces from the fire. He stood facing the plateau and started chanting.

A chill raced up Alexander’s spine. He relaxed his vision and saw the man’s aura flare as he called his magic. “He’s casting a spell,” Alexander whispered tensely.

In unison, the three of them turned and sat with their backs to the wall. A moment later a white-hot streak of flame rose high into the sky above them, casting a harsh light that threw hard shadows as it moved overhead. Moments later it faded into nothingness and the world plunged abruptly into darkness again.

“A signal, I suspect,” Lucky said. “He’ll be expecting the scouting party to answer soon.”

They heard Jack before they could see him. The flare had ruined their night vision.

“It’s me,” he whispered, moving up next to them in the darkness. “What was that?”

“Lucky says it was a signal,” Abigail whispered to Jack, who crept up alongside her, making sure to stay low.

“They’ll be coming soon then. The path is clear of bodies. I’ll go find Anatoly.” Jack disappeared into the darkness again.

Sure enough the six men at the camp were all standing and watching the plateau, waiting for a signal of some sort. Alexander knew that they would come soon. He was worried about the wizard.

After a few minutes, the enemy began to gather their gear. Each of the five men in armor lit a torch and all six started for the plateau. They hadn’t made it ten steps when the night was shattered by an otherworldly howl that stopped the men in their tracks and made Alexander’s blood run cold. Before the first terrible howl went silent it was joined by another and then another. Alexander broke out in a cold sweat. He knew in an instant what they were.

Nether wolves.

Creatures summoned from the depths of the netherworld, the plane of death. Beasts brought forth into this world by Phane Reishi for the singular purpose of hunting Alexander down and killing him. Before the shrieking yowl from the beasts in the distance ended both Jack and Anatoly were at his side.

Alexander’s night vision had once again adjusted to the light of the moon. He looked Anatoly in the eye and for the first time in his life he saw fear there. The big man-at-arms could stand before any human foe with a good chance of living through the fight, but this was something else. The quality of the noise the nether wolves made spoke to Alexander’s life essence. He knew at a visceral level that they were not of this world. They were not bound by the rules of life and death because they were already dead.

Lucky sighed, “This may be a problem.” He sat down and started rummaging through his bag.

Jack was almost calm except for a slight tremor that ran through his voice. “Well, at least the Reishi have decided against an attack.”

The Reishi had indeed stopped heading toward the plateau and were instead busy setting out firewood at points in a circle surrounding the main fire of their camp. The wizard was urgently directing where each stack of wood was to be placed.

“Whatever made that noise sounds like it’s still a long way off. We have some time to prepare.” Anatoly had quickly regained his composure. “Lucky, tell me you have something in that bag of yours.”

Almost as if on cue, Lucky produced a small metal canister about two inches in diameter and four or five inches long with a metal cap screwed and wired tightly in place. “I’m afraid this is all I have capable of defeating such a beast.” He looked at it almost fondly.

Abigail frowned, “What’s it do?”

“Ah, my dear, this is a very rare creature of great and terrible power. It looks like nothing more than a puddle of thick black water but when it comes in contact with nearly any other thing, save glass, stone, or dirt, it will transform that which it touches into more of itself. It’s really quite dangerous. If I were to cast it into the forest it would transform everything for several miles into nothing but more of itself. All of the trees, bushes, and animals would be lost to it. When the rays of sunlight touch the creature, it turns to ash almost instantly.”

“That sounds awful. Why would you have such a thing?” Abigail asked, wrinkling her nose.

Lucky smiled good-naturedly, “Sometimes your enemy is best defeated by introducing him to another enemy.”

Anatoly chuckled softly.

Jack looked like he was taking notes in his head again.

“Sounds like we’ll have to be very careful about how we use that stuff. I don’t want to destroy the forest and I don’t want to get any of us killed by it either,” Alexander said while he watched the Reishi make preparations for the coming threat. It seemed odd to him that they were clearly just as afraid of the nether wolves as Alexander was. He wondered if they might kill each other but thought it was too much to hope for.

“I agree,” Lucky said. “It would be best used in a place where it can be contained, like the gatehouse tunnel. There isn’t any grass there, just stone and dirt. If we catch one of the creatures in the tunnel, it would be consumed in just a few moments. The puddle of slime that remained would have nothing to feed on so it wouldn’t spread and it would offer the added benefit of effectively sealing off the gatehouse entrance. Anything that tried to pass would be consumed as well. Of course, our horses would be trapped up here and we’d have to climb over the wall and drop down to the path to get out ourselves.”

“Let’s call that a last resort,” Alexander suggested. “The more you talk about that stuff, the scarier it sounds.”

Abigail nodded her agreement.

“Let’s try to get some rest while we wait. It sounded like it’ll be a while and those Reishi certainly don’t look like they’re going anywhere tonight. I’ll take first watch,” Alexander said, pulling a blanket from his bedroll to ward off the chill night air.

For all the impending threats, the rest of the night was quiet. Those who could sleep did so fretfully. Mostly they waited with a sense of dread weighing down on them. The watch kept a close eye on the Reishi camp down on the plain below but none of the Reishi strayed from the protection of their firelight. About an hour before dawn, the still night air was shattered again by the keening, shrieking howl of the nether wolves. This time they were much closer.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

 

 

 

 

 

Alexander sat bolt upright from his half sleep. He was on his feet, moving to the low perimeter wall in a blink. His heart pounded in his chest, so he schooled his breathing to calm his near panic at being abruptly awakened by such a terrifying noise.

Anatoly had just relieved Lucky on watch and was looking intently into the darkness in the direction of the otherworldly howls. Alexander came up alongside him quietly, still keeping low to avoid the notice of the Reishi. He didn’t really care much who or what planned to kill him, dead was dead, and he’d learned a hard lesson the day before. He was determined to be mindful of every possible threat. He scanned the plain below and relaxed his vision. He reminded himself not to take his ability for granted. It had saved him more than once. He saw the nether wolves almost immediately.

Out in the darkness, he saw the opposite of life. The three beasts coming for him were holes in the world to his second sight. Their auras were not the rich colors of life, but instead splotches of impossible blackness moving through the night and they were coming fast. They bounded toward the fire of the Reishi camp faster than any horse could run.

All of the soldiers in the camp were up with weapons at the ready and the wizard was chanting. Alexander saw his aura swell when he sent his intention into the firmament and commanded reality to bend to his will. It happened suddenly. His aura abruptly collapsed back in on him and a stream of white hot flame arched from his outstretched hands and leapt to the first of the piles of firewood that had been laid out in a circle around their camp. The flame flared, grew into a blaze, then arched from the first pile of firewood to both of the piles on the left and right. Fire flowed from the wizard’s hands, jumping from each pre-positioned pile of wood to the next until the flames formed an unbroken circular wall surrounding and protecting the Reishi camp.

By now, everyone was up and looking over the wall with Alexander. A week ago he’d been hunting wolves on the north range of his father’s estate. So much had changed in such a short time. His brother was dead, murdered. His family home had been set ablaze. He didn’t know if his parents still lived. He’d been chased from his home and hunted. He’d been nearly mortally wounded. He’d killed. And now wolves were hunting him.

“They’re coming,” he whispered as he watched the darkness bound through the night. “Three of them.”

They held their breath.

And then the creatures arrived.

Three inky black beasts. They looked almost like wolves except they stood five feet at the shoulder and their impossibly black, leatherlike skin was pulled taught around their skeletons. They were completely hairless and ran on oversized feet with claws like the talons of a giant raptor. Their heads were large and their snouts were long and wide. It looked like they could easily fit a man’s head between their huge jaws lined with razor-sharp teeth and fangs.

They stopped at the edge of the firelight thrown off by the circle of protection cast in flame by Wizard Rangle. They walked around the camp, staying just at the edge of the light, gnashing their teeth and snarling toward those behind the fire. The soldiers were terrified. They stood huddled around the central fire with their crossbows loaded and cocked.

The nether wolves made a complete loop around the fire ring before they stopped suddenly. All at once, their heads snapped toward Alexander. He felt an icy tingling of dread flash through every fiber of his being when the glowing yellow eyes of the nether wolves locked on his position. They tossed their heads back and howled in unison.

And then they were coming.

Anatoly was up and running for the north edge of the perimeter wall, barking orders as he went, “Lucky, Abigail, get on top of the gatehouse. Jack, Alexander, to the west wall.”

Alexander and Jack raced past the frightened horses to their post at the west edge of the wall. Alexander heard the crash of rocks as Anatoly ran along the north wall pushing pre-positioned stones over the edge.

“They’re coming!” he bellowed while he ran to join Jack and Alexander at the west end of the plateau. He arrived just before the first pair of eyes came around the bend on the path below. In the darkness, all that Alexander could see were glowing yellow eyes the color of hate looking up at him. The beast seemed to laugh as it slowed to peer at its prey.

Alexander and Jack tossed stones in unison, followed a fraction of a second later by Anatoly. The beast dodged the first two stones with ease by sidestepping a few feet closer to the edge of the path. Anatoly cast his stone exactly where the beast would have to go to avoid the first two. He caught it squarely in the hindquarter and knocked it over the edge. It caught the stone curb with one of its claws and managed to stop its fall until the stone itself gave way. The beast shrieked in rage, plummeting to the ground thirty feet below. Unlike the soldiers they’d killed earlier, this beast bounded to its feet only a moment after it hit the ground, gave one angry look up toward its prey, and started running around the plateau toward the base of the path.

BOOK: Thinblade
12.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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