Marc H. Wyman & Chris Bogues
was a topic that Cornell rarely thought about. To him, it was just another
battle, another monster to be fought one distant day. In his travels he
had met many people who were terrified of death. People who took
precautions of the most bizarre sort; hiding in mazes through which
Death’s messengers might not find their way. One rich lordling in a
province of Kraznyczar had hired an elf who was supposed to bring the lordling back to life after death.
had tried to explain to him how ridiculous this prospect was. Elves
themselves could be resurrected – one of the reasons why they were such
fearsome warriors -, but humans would never be affected by one of these
spells. Not even one such as the lordling who may have had an elf or two
in his ancestry, judging by the blueish tinge of his fingertips. Then
again, it might have been ink.
of these days, Cornell might travel back to Kraznyczar to find out whether
the lordling had recognized his folly.
of course, that he did not have to start worry about death today first.
corpse of his horse lay some four yards away from him, his belongings
scattered over the desert sand in the rough direction that Cornell had
been thrown. The crossbow was half buried in the ground, the saddlebag,
split along its seams, a little closer. A slight tumble down the dune that
had broken his flight, and he could grab the leathercase with his throwing
would not be particularly helpful against the hulking shadow huddling on
the horse’s body, a broad mass remotely like a frog – if said frog had
about the height of a man and was considerably wider, covered with a
yellow-ockre crust of sand and spittle that no longer perfectly disguised
the creature’s leathery skin beneath, the powerful legs drawn close to
the body, the tiny arms that tried to counterbalance the massive jaws
digging deep into the horse’s carcass. Blood spurted freely, washing off
the spit-and-sand mélange, drenching into the yellow sand.
now, the crustmaw was occupied with Cornell’s steed, tearing off whole
chunks and swallowing them right away. The head was already gone, as were
two legs, and the remainder would probably not take the creature very
which time Cornell would become a nice second course, just to round out
scanned the ground more closely now, continuing the search for his sword.
It had been in his sheath during the ride, but when the crustmaw had
lunged at them, the blade had fallen out. Where had it gone?
was his diary, the valuable pages fluttering in the desert wind. Half
buried lay the dragonrod from Modayre, valuable beyond imagination,
rendered useless now. Oh, yes, if it were still functional, the crustmaw
would be fried in an instant’s motion and firing… Keep looking,
he admonished himself. There was his waterbag, the cork sprung from the
top, liquid seeping into the darkening sand. The crossbow seemed to mock
him, sticking out of the sand, two of the bolts right next to it, as if
they had been laid out for loading.
is it?!” Cornell coughed – and suddenly froze. The crustmaw stopped in
mid-crunch, raised its bloody head, and the dark disks of its eyes locked
onto the Cayaborean warrior on the dune. Another tasty morsel, the
creature’s tiny brain registered. For a moment, the muscles of its legs
tensed, readying for the leap that would bring it on top of Cornell. He
felt his own body slacken, wondering how long his arms might keep those
jaws from closing around him.
the crustmaw dropped its head and continued to crunch the bones of its
Cornell noticed something in the air over them. Flying just low enough to
be seen in the rich blue, there was a light brown speck circling. More
than a speck, he knew right away, with the wide wings attached to the
elongated serpentine body. Desert dragon!
was just gliding over the desert, looking for the day’s catch. Staying
on its present course, Cornell guessed, it would pass him and the crustmaw
by some three hundred yards. Too far… if it wasn’t attracted…
he stretched his hands, began to crawl or rather sink down the dune, a few
inches at a time. The crustmaw continued its meal, the dragon slowly
continued its approach, looking ever more like a strange sort of bat with
its leathery wings. Cornell had little time to appreciate the beauty of
the dragon, keeping track of its motions and guessing the moment when he
would have to hurry.
little more, just a little.
made it to the bottom of the dune, past his saddlebag. A quick glance
upward showed that the crustmaw had nearly finished the horse. Only a bite
or two of the massive jaws remained, and Cornell saw the dark eyes staring
more and more in his direction. But the creature took its time, hopefully
long enough for the warrior to set his plan into motion.
breathed deeply, ignored the stench invading his nose, then reached out
for the crossbow and one of the bolts. No fast movements, he told himself,
nothing to make the crustmaw cut loose any sooner. He loaded the bolt into
the groove, methodically wound the string back with the wheel set at the
side. The bolt slid further and further backward, the string grew tauter
and tauter, enough to propel its projectile a long distance.
a little more.
was close enough to hear the crustmaw’s stomach grumble, even as the
last remains of the horse found their way into the insatiable belly. Bones
were still crunching, a single hoof stuck out between the teeth.
whirled about, sighted the desert dragon and raised the crossbow at the
same time. Barely had he pointed the weapon that he already pulled the
trigger, loosening the bolt – as he threw himself at the dune, dropped
the crossbow. Frantically he dived into the sandy flank, digging in
swimming motions into the dune.
crustmaw had had enough of the constant distractions during its meal, and
it readied itself for the leap onto its dessert. But the sand raised by
the morsel proved further distraction, and the crustmaw had no desire to
swallow a mawful of sand if it missed its jump. At least a little bit of
meat should be included. Still, it was experienced enough to know that
there was little need to hurry. These two-legged morsels had no patience.
None, anyway, like a crustmaw that could lie in hiding for days without
moving a single muscle.
the creature lumbered across the few feet that separated it from its
now Cornell had managed to embed his head and chest into the dune – and
wondered about the wisdom of his decision as the sand covered his face,
destroying any hope of drawing another breath. A few seconds worth of air
were still trapped in his lungs. Cornell clung to them, fervently hoping
the dune came down around him, sand entombed him – the shock and added
pressure forcing the air from his lungs. A casket of sand grains.
drove his arms, pushing him sideward, clawing through the sand, digging,
hoping, digging. The crustmaw was completely forgotten, only the dark, hot
tomb counted, the grave he needed to escape. His lungs burned, aching for
air. He’d ever wonder how he could keep going, how his legs continued
their shove, how his hands pushed aside sand – but finally he reached
air. Hot, musky air reeking of dead horse – but air it was that he
pumped happily into his lungs, thinking the pain would burst him.
had been no more than half a minute since he had jumped into the dune. It
had been enough to dramatically change the scene around him, and Cornell
was suddenly grateful that no more than his head was visible.
crustmaw lay on its head some twenty yards next to him, bloody tracks torn
into its flanks. The jaws were still working, weakly attempting to push
the creature back onto its feet. It was no use, the Cayaborean understood
as he saw the leathery speck gliding noiselessly closer. Desert dragons
didn’t care at all for the layer of sand and spittle that crustmaws
caked onto their skin. Rather than ignore this tasty prey, they picked up
a crustmaw and dropped it from the air, effectively shaking off the crust.
dragon’s claws alighted on the crustmaw’s jaws, tearing another set of
gashes. The crustmaw could no longer pounce, just barely move its jaws.
Cornell supposed that the fall had broken its back, or had that been when
the dragon had first picked up the creature and carried it through the
dune, entombing the warrior in the process?
didn’t matter, he decided, while the dragon proceeded to feed. At least
it wasn’t quite as noisy as the crustmaw had been.
week later Cornell sat at the table of an inn at the edge of the Elfadil
desert, cherishing the mug of Albinavian ale in front of him. The inn
wasn’t particularly big, nor did it look very much like the inns he was
used to from the southerly parts of the world. Instead of wooden timbers,
tent poles were rammed into the ground, beige lengths of cloth separated
the cool interior from the arid drafts of air outside. Three large tables
were set out on the wooden base of the tent, doubling as protection
against surfacing daggerrays; a counter and bar were set up at the closest
end of the tent, looking remarkably similar to the usual inn furniture. As
did the innkeeper, a ruggish looking knightdwarf who cleaned glasses,
calmly sitting on the counter he had imported from the more civilized
regions of Gushémal.
opinion that surely was shared only by the people sitting at the tables,
not by those who used the empty part of the wooden base. Sandmen had laid
out their blankets, laid on them and chatted in their sing-song language
while they drank the transparent, tasteless spirits they so much favored.
me an ale any day,
Cornell thought gratefully and took another swig from his glass.
go on,” the large man opposite him growled, leaning his arm on the
handle of his giant battleaxe. “The dragon chomped down on some
crustmaw, but you didn’t have a horse.”
no water,” a tiny voice piped from under the table. “You’re
forgetting the best part, Gabe! No water!”
frowned, looked quizzically at the large barbarian who shrugged and leaned
over to pull a small humanoid creature from under the table. All in all,
it measured some three feet, wrapped in a tight-fitting yellow shirt with
tan breeches below. The creature’s limbs were longer and thinner than a
human’s of comparative size would be, appearing just a bit spidery. The
tiny rucksack looked very much like an extension of the flattened body,
fitting perfectly into the small of its back. Rounding out the strange
appearance was a large head with curly red hair, an inquisitively cut face
with large, blue eyes that stared at Cornell with innocent gaiety.
“Hello, sir! My name’s Flink, glad to meet you! Now how did…”
alreu?!” Cornell glared at his old friend, ignoring the creature
completely. “You of all people are running around with an alreu?”
it’s a very convenient –“ Flink started to say but Gabe quietly put
his large right hand over the alreu’s mouth. “Later,” the barbarian
said, glaring meaningfully at the small creature. “Understood?”
was little to be seen of Flink’s head. Fortunately, there was still
enough to see him nod.
Gabe turned back to Cornell as he let go of the alreu, “how did
them, Flink rubbed his mouth vigorously, sent a venomous glare towards the
barbarian’s hands as if they were responsible rather than the barbarian
himself – then the alreu forgot completely about the incident and
settled down on the table with crossed legs, eagerly looking for Cornell
to finish his story.
warrior sighed. “There isn’t much to tell. The dragon ate the
crustmaw, then it flew off, back to its oasis. Desert dragons never stray
too far from one. Certainly they return straight home after a kill, so I
marked its direction and waited for nightfall. The dragon slept, and I
could refill my waterbag from the oasis water. I left right afterwards,
put as much distance between me and the dragon, and –“
frowned again, watching in surprise as the alreu nonchalantly reached out
for his mug of ale and drank a swig. “Very good, sir,” Flink commented
when he put the mug down. “Thank you for inviting me! And splendid of
you to wait for me to drink before continuing your tale!”
Cornell muttered, reaping a suspiciously bright smile from Gabe at his
discomfort. “Anyway,” he shook his head, “I traveled at night. At
day I fashioned a shade from my saddle. There were a few bowlers for food
and…” He noticed the wondering glances and sighed. “All right,
bowlers are plants. They consist of a large bowl with some sort of
membrane over it that traps water, and the water contains lots of small
animals, like – a cold broth, I guess. It tastes awful, but it’s
after four days, I met the caravan that brought me here. You see, there
isn’t much to the tale at all.”
nodded slowly, satisfied by the explanations. Flink on the other hand
weighed his head side to side. “Uh, sir, you don’t – by any
coincidence – have some of those bowlers left? I’d really like to give
that a try. Cold broth, well, I’m sure that somebody with my expertise
for words could make a better description than that, no offense to you,
dear sir, but –“
Gabe said in a friendly voice that in no way suited the glare of his eyes,
“why don’t you ask the innkeeper about these bowlers? He lives here,
while Cornell is just a visitor like us.”
Oh, Gabe, you always have these terrific ideas!”
instant later, the alreu had vanished from the table and sped across the
tent to pester the innkeeper. Meanwhile Cornell leaned forward and raised
an eyebrow. “I told my story, Gabe,” he said with a wide grin. “No
more excuses. What are you doing with an alreu?”
sighed. He’d grown a thin beard since Cornell had seen him last the year
before. It didn’t fit the barbarian’s craggy face very well, the light
blond layer on his pronounced chin. The hair was a bit shaggier, too, and
now as Gabe leaned forward to fetch something from his bag, Cornell
noticed a new scar on his temple. No sword or axe had scratched his head,
it looked more like a whip. Why, Cornell wondered, would Gabe try to hide
it? The big man usually was very proud of his scars.
new mystery opened up to him when the barbarian threw a metal band on the
table. It was broken, the joint at the front torn apart by an axe, Cornell
guessed. The joint itself had been forged together, with an oval piece in
which red, rune-like markings had been painted.
brood?!” Cornell exclaimed. “The slavers caught you?”
shrugged. “In a tavern. I had too much beer, got into a fight with an
obnoxious dwarf, then the other patrons wanted some sport as well. All I
remember is that everything went dark, and the next day I wore the band,
and Saltek was ferrying me towards Freeport. You do know Freeport?”
heard of it. A harbor town on the Arrufat peninsula, non-aligned with any
call it a nest of smugglers and pirates. Dishonorable. Fortunately I saw
very little of it, for Saltek never brought me there.” A broad grin
burst onto his lips, and his hand unconsciously stroked the handle of his
axe. Cornell needed no more explanation. The brood was well known across
Gushémal, a band of dismal companions of all races that travelled across
the length of the continent and mostly plied their trade as slavers,
occasionally branching out into robbery, looting and pillaging. Villagers
hid whenever they heard of Saltek’s brood approaching, and would-be
heroes everywhere tried to make a name for themselves by stopping the
brood. So far, none had succeeded.
Gabe would never call himself a hero. A good honorable barbarian warrior,
certainly, but never a hero. A streak of pragmatism ran through him that
had been born in the harsh winters in his southern home. He enjoyed battle
a lot, went out looking when no fighters came by with his name on their
blades – but take up a hopeless battle for no particular reason? No,
that Gabe would never do.
could easily see Gabe as the single warrior defending a village from the
brood, though, fighting until his last breath or until the last foe had
you managed to escape,” Cornell stated. “And the alreu was a slave,
not exactly,” Gabe shook his head. He gathered the slave band back into
his bag, cast a glance across the inn to the counter where Flink was
hopping wildly about the floor, demonstrating impressive agility. The
knightdwarf on the counter had stopped polishing his glasses, watched the
alreu with a deep frown furrowing his forehead. “He was a pet,” Gabe
said in a low voice, sure the alreu could not hear him. “Flink thinks
they liked him as a companion, and he also thinks they wanted to help him.
One night I overheard what Saltek actually had in mind for him. Or rather,
one of the ratpeople in his brood.”
Cornell muttered, understanding dawning on him. “The cookpot.”
barbarian nodded grimly. Together they glanced back to the counter. The
alreu had stopped his antics, had climbed onto the counter and sat
opposite the innkeeper, listening intently as the five foot tall
knightdwarf yelled at him to drop the glasses he was playing with.
Promptly Flink did as he was told. The glasses crashed onto the counter,
splintering into millions of sparkling shards.
I wonder, though…” Gabe grunted as he got up to fetch Flink and pay
for the incident.
innkeeper glowered after Gabe and Flink, seriously enough to make one
wonder whether the next round of drinks would be spiked with a bit of
spittle. The alreu, of course, was completely unperturbed, had already
forgotten about the yelling and was looking for a new source of fun. Gabe
shrugged, then he hauled Flink effortlessly onto the table. “Keep in
sight,” he warned.
Gabe, I won’t get lost, not like last time, trust –“
the barbarian hollered, drawing the attention of a few of the sandmen near
the entrance. The darkskinned locals grinned and chuckled, pointing at the
odd assortment of southrons. One in particular was amused, a young
assistant merchant named Zhivahad. He had been the one to find Cornell
stumbling through the desert, pointing a lance fashioned from a
daggerray’s horns at the starving Cayaborean. Afterwards he had listened
with great enthusiasm to the tale of Cornell’s encounter with the
crustmaw, building a sense of respect that now had seemed to crumbled
pity, Cornell thought. Zhivahad had shown some promise in the way he
handled his lance, his practice shots had been dead on target. The
slightly barbed tip of the weapon would be deadly to a number of
opponents. But there was that youthful swiftness of his moods, the
overbearing attitude towards older fighters none of whom, he was clearly
sure, could ever best him. If Zhivahad survived to grow out of this
attitude, he might become a good man to have on one’s side.
competition to look out for?” Gabe muttered.
blinked, became aware that he had been staring at the sandman too
obviously. “Don’t be silly, I was just… Wait a minute! Competition
for what? Are you trying to drag me into another kind of mess?”
I didn’t call you here just to quaff a couple of ales!” Gabe replied,
raising his mug and staring at it intently for a moment. “Though it’s
not a bad way to spend an evening, mind you.”
frown spread over Cornell’s forehead, furrowing it deeply. “Don’t
avoid the topic. What are you after?”
I tell?” Flink jumped up, cast a hopeful glance at Gabe – his hopes
instantly squashed by the merciless glare of the big barbarian.
“Fine,” he mumbled and sat down again, “you go ahead and have all
intend to,” Gabe nodded. Aware of Cornell’s growing impatience, he
quickly continued, “There’s a legend around here. Maybe one of your
sandmen friends told you about it. The Shield Maiden’s Bane. The story
goes that there once were two nations warring against each other across
the Elfadil desert, situated just north and south of the barbell handle.
Both lands were coming close to a collapse, exhausted from the war
efforts, when the king of the northern country decided to call for peace.
The southrons were suspicious, but he asked for the hand of their
beautiful princess in marriage. The treaty was negotiated for a year, then
the princess was sent on her way north to seal their new-found pact.”
me guess,” Cornell interrupted sourly, “she never reached her
destination. The northern vizier sent a party of warriors, or perhaps a
monster, to kill the princess. The southlanders believed everything had
been a ploy of the northern king, and they revived the war which
eventually destroyed both countries. Hardly a trace remains of them now,
except the legend. Right?”
eyebrows rose slightly in surprise. The alreu on the table was less
restrained. “Goodness gracious, sir, can you read thoughts? That’s
magnificent, sir, absolutely wonderful! Can you teach it to me? It must be
good to read other people’s thoughts, so that I can know right away how
to help them and how to –“
he ever stop?” Cornell muttered to Gabe while Flink continued chattering
for a few moments.
By now Flink had noticed that Cornell wasn’t paying him any attention,
frowned then started to pout. Gabe sighed, pulled a broken amulet from
under his vest and handed it to the alreu. “Why don’t you try to fix
this one? That fall near Obrosvek must have damaged it.”
thing, Gabe! It’ll be good as new!” The alreu beamed, dug in his
knapsack for minuscule tools. Twenty seconds later he was completely
engrossed in his task and forgot entirely about the conversation around
sour mien had barely eased during the exchange. Now he spoke his mind.
“This isn’t exactly the most original of legends, Gabe. We’ve
stumbled across several dozens of similar tales in our travels, and their
sole purpose usually was to explain why several groups of travelers
vanished or died at one specific point. Maybe a grasstrap or two in the
area that people didn’t know about. Maybe a group of bandits. Poof –
the locals make up a legend. So,” he paused to fold his hands on the
table, “what makes you think this is any different?”
shook his head impatiently. “Because it is different! Look, I
know how many of these tales turned out to be hogwash. Here I have proof,
believe me. Alright, listen, Cornell. What I do know is that there’s a
place about two days’ ride from here, a dome-shaped building, where at
least two caravans have been ambushed by monstrous creatures. The governor
of Obrosvek – that’s one of the trader cities down south in Tonomat
– sent out a patrol to destroy the creatures and reclaim the goods that
the caravans carried. They failed.
and I found one of the survivors, drinking himself into a stupor at a bar.
He told us the entire story, as much as he knew. There wasn’t much of a
mind left in the poor sap, but he was scared to death of that place. I am
confident that those ambushs have taken place.”
barbarian finished by nodding assertively and leaning back in his seat.
response, Cornell’s frown deepened. Monstrous creatures, that was a
description one encountered rather often when traveling in little explored
regions. By its nature the Elfadil desert easily fit that definition, so
the tale of the patrol’s survivor seemed rather credible. Which left
another question. “So, what are you after? The honor of vanquishing
those creatures, or the treasure the caravans have left behind?”
wide grin spread over Gabe’s face. “Is there a difference?”
it to a barbarian to sort out philosophical questions with a waraxe.
Cornell spread his arms. “I get the picture. Now, the real question is,
why should I help you in this… endeavor?”
grin on his friend’s face grew devious. “Oh, I’d been thinking of
appealing to your honor. Clearing a traffic lane, securing it for future
travelers, but then I thought: Why bother? The fact is, I am going to that
dome to take on the creatures. Judging by the tales, they are sure to be
quite a handful for me, even with my trusty bwyell.” He slapped
his axe. “And you can’t let me ride into probable death without
lending your sword to my side, can you, Cornell?”
hate you,” the Cayaborean warrior grunted. Obviously he had spent just a
little too much time in the company of the big barbarian – and once
again, he realized how misleading the term ‘barbarian’ truly was.
that point a cheerful shout escaped Flink’s lips, and the alreu leaped
inbetween their line of sight, holding up a globular object to Gabe’s
eyes. “There, I fixed it! See, perfect? Like it never broke at all.”
thanks,” Gabe muttered distractedly, reached out for his amulet – and
stopped, his eyes widening. Before, it had been a flat bronze disk with
chiseled in inscriptions, bent and battered, a deep tear in one side. What
Flink was holding out to him now, was silvery, with just a slip of bronze
peeking out at the top, like a diadem on an intricately sculpted globe
that fitted perfectly together – yet still seemed to have been fashioned
from several source objects. Of special prominence was a plaque right
below the diadem top, its oval edges a serpent twisted around itself, the
relief of a roaring bear in front of a waterfall displayed inbetween.
finally took what used to be his amulet and showed it so that Cornell
could see the plaque. The warrior swallowed involuntarily. “That’s a
knightdwarf clan’s insignia. Flink,” he turned to the alreu with a
forcibly friendly voice, “this wasn’t in the amulet before, right?”
alreu looked down contritely. “Not… really,” Flink said slowly.
“But it looks so much better now, doesn’t it? I mean, I found it back
on the counter, and I just knew that there’d be a great use for it
soon.” His contrition had lasted roughly five seconds, then his eyes had
quickly slipped upward, beaming brightly at the humans, certain of their
of properly thanking the alreu for his ingenuity, the two shared a glance,
then Cornell said, “Let’s leave. Quickly.”
could not agree more.