Marc H. Wyman & Chris Bogues
days later Cornell was still seething over the high price he had had to
pay Zhivahad for the new horse. One hundred gold pieces! One hundred! Back
home in Cayaboré he could have bought a battlehardened charger for the
same price, including a good chain armor on the horse. And what had he
gotten here? A miserable, emaciated mare that would drop dead from
heatstroke if someone were to put real armor on it.
well, he had to admit that the mare put on good speed in the desert. It
easily kept up with Gabe’s dappled stallion, a fine horse that looked to
be of Tonomai stock, and the yellowish pony that served as Flink’s
mount. The pony was least burdened of all the horses, for the alreu rode
without a saddle or any luggage save the knapsack on his back. Though he
obviously enjoyed being bounced up and down constantly, he just as clearly
had not fully learned how to ride. His hold on the beast’s back was
precarious enough that he might slip off any second. Somehow he had
managed to hang on this far, yet that piece of luck couldn’t last much
longer, Cornell was sure.
be around here somewhere,” Gabe called from his horse, ranging a little
ahead of the group. His shaggy mane flew in the air, trailing his head as
wildly as did the mane of his stallion.
had a point. The dunes were occasionally dotted with lichen, as well as
the sandpurple topping sand heaps. While the latter might as well be found
in the very center of the Elfadil, the former was proof they were getting
closer to the desert’s edge, closer to natural water sources. Bowler
plants gathered in a longer stretch of even sand, their membraned blueish
tops pointed at the sun.
was even a distant scent of water in Cornell’s nose. A river sprang from
a minor mountain chain south of the Elfadil, growing stronger and stronger
until it became the mighty Cheselain. On the other hand, maybe he was just
deluding himself. The Cheselain’s waters should be quite too far off.
suddenly reined in his horse and held up his hand. “What’s the
matter?” Flink eagerly called out, leaping up to stand on his horse for
a better view of what was ahead. “I can’t see anything good, Gabe!”
he promptly shouted disappointedly. “Shouldn’t there be some monsters,
the barbarian nor the warrior paid the alreu’s chagrin any heed while
Cornell joined his friend at the top. Ahead of them, the dunes stopped
flowing as freely as they had before. Like the waves of a sea rolling onto
the shore, they evened out, lapping softly at what once had been a good
sized building surrounded by a plaza of marble. The marble was cracked,
had lost its sheen a long time ago to the grind of sand washing over it.
The building had also suffered. It was indeed dome-shaped, with a blocky
rectangular base of mansized stones. Little damage had been done to the
base, except for paint having been scratched off. Gaps tore through the
dome, though, gashes of stones that were smashed from their positions,
exposing the inside of the building.
unease tingled Cornell’s spine. Whatever this place had once been, it
certainly had not been built for the desert. It looked like a temple or a
palace – a minor one, given its size – that would have better suited a
Tonomai city. Obrosvek, for instance. Had there once been a town here, one
that the desert claimed centuries ago?
sign of the caravans,” Gabe muttered. “Should be scattered all around
nodded, frowning. “Maybe the patrol was wrong, and it was bandits who
took the caravans. Buried the wagons, took the loot off with them.”
bastards.” The barbarian looked grimly at the dome, not at all aware
that he had been planning to steal the loot himself. “Could be they
shoved the goods into the building, be they monsters or thieves.” Fire
returned to his eyes. “Let’s take a look, shan’t we?”
shrugged. “We’ve come this far…” He didn’t like to admit it, but
a share of the blonde man’s fire was burning in his heart as well. Life
on the edge of poverty was fine for monks or seeker elves. The Cayaborean
was neither. Besides, after Zhivahad’s lightening of his purse, he
really could use a few more gold coins.
they picked up their pace again, both fighters carefully scanning the
plaza and the building for any sign of foes appearing. Flink, of course,
only focused on the dome, curiosity burning in his bulging eyes. When they
reached the entrance of the blocky base, a square metal door, he was
frustrated yet again. No creatures had shown their ugly hides, and the
alreu wondered why he had suffered through the boring last two days. Well,
maybe the inside of the dome would offer something interesting, he thought
to himself and bounced off the pony, racing to the large door to inspect
it for an opening. It was clearly too heavy for his slim body, yet…
Cornell shouted in exasperation when the alreu suddenly vanished through a
tiny crack at the door’s hinges. He didn’t bother to look at Gabe,
slid down his steed and paused barely long enough to hobble the horse to a
pole near the entrance, unsheathe his sword and head for the metal plates.
later Gabe was by his side, his waraxe bwyell solidly fused to the
barbarian’s paws. “Push,” Cornell muttered who had already put his
weight against the door. To no avail, thus far, but when Gabe added the
strength of his thick sinews, it gradually creaked open. Both men
tightened the grip on their weapons, then they bounded into the dome –
cried out happily as he slid down a pile of silk drapes, arranged against
a crumbled pillar in the reversed bowl interior. The warriors stared
incredulously around, not least at the alreu who did a series of joyous
flic-flacs amidst rows of half-broken crates before he started to climb
back on top of the drapes.
of the roof lay all about the floor which probably was a mosaic, as well
as could be judged through the layers of dust and debris. More than that,
there was a plentitude of other objects that had nothing to do with the
defragmentation of the dome. Wooden crates, some opened and their contents
spilled negligently: jewels, gold, other valuables; weapons and armor,
arranged artfully on the remainders of pillars to look as if their owners
had placed them there, waiting to pick them up again. Which seemed rather
unlikely, considering the bones and skulls scattered across the entire
circular floor. Many were smashed to splinters, white chips dotting the
Gabe sighed and managed to sound at the same time frustrated as pleased,
“looks like we’ve found the treasure. Let’s gather as much as we can
load on the horses. Flink!”
bellow reached the alreu just as he had reached the ground a third time
since the two men’s arrival. “Isn’t this marvelous?!” he yelled,
stroking one of the silk drapes. “Softer than my mother’s seidenkissen!”
that,” Gabe muttered irritatedly. “Gather as much treasure as you can
and get it to the horses.”
alreu’s eyes lit up. “Sure!” he cried, then started scanning the
ground for the most sparkling and pretty objects he could find. Gabe
mumbled something incoherently while he stepped across to a pile of
the two of them started gathering their loot, Cornell held back and
indifferently pushed the nearest handful of coins into his beltpouch.
There was a smell in the hall, more than just ancient dust and sand mixed
with bone. Mouldy was the closest he could describe it – and a half open
dome in the desert was not a place where mould could flourish.
couldn’t tell where the smell came from, not from the entrance. Slowly
he wandered forward, through one of the meandering paths between the
mounds of treasure chaotically strewn around. Closer to the center, there
was an especially large pile, made up mostly of cloth like the silk piles
Flink had so enjoyed a bit earlier.
the smell was stronger here, Cornell thought and tightened the grip on his
sword. He could use a shield about now, but… there was one right in
front of him, at the base of the central mound. Larger than a buckler, it
looked to be made of dark, polished elfwood, stronger than steel, the
hardest material one could find on Gushémal. The boss at its center was
metal, bronze apparently, decoration more than anything else – and as
far as decoration went, it had suffered all that one could expect from the
soft metal. Scratched and dented, the inscriptions once chiseled into the
surface were unreadable today. It didn’t diminish the value of the
shield, that after all came from the elfwood.
shield was ancient. More than a millenium had passed, the sages of Cayaboré
told, since bronze was used for weapons. And it was beautiful. The sheen
of the polished wood reflected in Cornell’s eyes, drawing him on,
tempting him to pick the shield up and strap it to his arm.
sir, those are mine!” The tiny figure of the alreu darted past him
toward the pile of silk, toppled the shield in its haste as it started to
climb the mound for another slide.
blinked, disconcerted. He’d been looking for the source of the mouldy
smell, hadn’t he? Now this pile was where it probably came from.
“Flink,” he hollered, “can you smell something?”
first answer was a roll of silk clashing down to the ground, then he saw
the alreu leaping to a more secure position on the mound, holding on to a
horn that looked like the wicked lance of a shaggy unicorn. One more
trophy the caravans had carried, Cornell thought and readied himself to
yell again – when the horn began to rise.
didn’t notice at first, too glad he was not to have fallen a rather
uncomfortable route to the ground. He dangled on the horn, turned himself
around to peer at Cornell and smiled as he saw the Cayaborean storm up the
silken mound with his sword drawn. “I go first, sir!” he yelled
imperatively, relishing the prospect of the next slide.
warm, musty air rushed at his back, and he twisted around for a glance.
Wolflike fangs glistened a foot away from his face, behind them a maw of
absolute darkness. “Phew, what a breath,” he complained, then angled
for a better look at the fangs, completely ignorant of the danger.
Gabe roared twenty yards off, when he saw the central mound suddenly
disintegrate, silk and jewels and coins exploding in a colorful rain,
brushing off Cornell like a fly – and in its place, a giant creature
rose, with a squat, doglike torso resting on six broad, long legs. Thin,
yellowish fur covered the body, changing to dark bare skin at the neck –
wolfheads, each as large as a pony reared up from the squat body, attached
to long, sinuous necks. Each head bore a long, slightly curved horn at its
forehead, between two vicious, slitted eyes and above a wide maw rich in
wasted about half a second being shocked and gaping at the appearance,
then his waraxe flew through the air, aiming for the head to whose horn
Flink clung. Bwyell spun about itself once, twice, then its
halfmoon blade dug into the side of the head, ten inches beside the right
eye. A scream issued from the wolfmaw, the head shook in pain – and
Flink let go, whooping wildly during his fall.
the ground, Cornell had been half buried by silk. He’d just made it out
of the soft trap when the alreu landed on his back, pressing the air from
his lungs. “This is great, sir! Now that’s what I call a real
Cornell shoved the alreu out of his way, rolled on his back, raised his
sword – just in time to see a row of teeth aiming for him. He twisted
aside, rammed the blade upward, straight into the creature’s jaw – as
furry, booted feet jumped mercilessly close over him. “Ryelneyd!”
recovered bwyell in mid-air, using the stuck war axe to swing
himself onto the back of the head, straddling the bucking skull with his
legs. Bwyell hammered down, drawing a deep gash into the head,
blood spurting out. The creature roared – and another head darted
around, aiming for the barbarian.
feet below, Cornell ripped a dagger from his belt, let it fly at the
attacking head. He didn’t have the chance to see whether his aim was
true, as a third head snapped at him, forcing him to roll out of the way,
straight into Flink. The alreu toppled on him, a mess of more arms and
legs than he should have possessed.
food! The large one belongs to Beavral!” a voice roared, foreign and
second, similarly distorted, joined, crying, “Kill me! Kill me,
eye! My eye!”
up and eat him, Phindar!”
won’t you kill me? Please! Please kill me!”
was a chorus of voices echoing in the hall, voices that came straight from
the maws of the creature, each head speaking in a different tone, each
snapping wildly about.
stared. There was Gabe, still on top of one head, whirling his war axe
about to keep other heads away, three of them performing a macabre dance
about him. The head he was sitting on was thrashing wildly, dark blood
covering its skin, its motions growing weaker by the second. The eye of
one of them had a dagger impaled – Cornell’s! And the heads were
didn’t know monsters could speak,” Flink marveled calmly. “Do you
have any idea where they learned meantongue, sir?”
that thing’s killing us! Can you fight?” Cornell snapped at him.
words took the alreu aback. “Fight? Why? Do I have to?”
shrugged, pulled the backpack around and started to search its contents.
Cornell would have loved to squeeze the manling’s neck right about now.
Unfortunately, other necks – and the attached heads – called for his
attention, as two of the remaining three shot down at him.
warrior rolled aside, slashing his blade blindly topward. No resistance
met the sword, no score, only…
that’s it! Kill me!”
up, Nev, bloody Cayaborean coward!”
up yourself, Beavral. Here, warrior, slay me!”
came back to his feet, sweat covering his forehead, his breath still
coming easily. One of the heads darted forward – Cornell ducked, cut at
the jaw, rammed his left elbow into the neck. Then he leaped aside – or
tried to, as the second head smashed into his ribs. The Cayaborean warrior
suddenly found himself flying through the air, pain exploding in his side.
ducked for the landing, rolled out, came to his knees. Already he had to
raise his sword again, both heads rushing at him again. “Will you
finally kill me?!” the left one cried – and its jaws raced down
towards Cornell’s leg.
dropped backwards again, trying to roll over his back onto his feet. His
side detonated in pain again, aided by the fangs of the right head cutting
skin, barely missing a real bite. Cornell collapsed, immediately
scrambling forward, clawing out of the way of the heads.
of an attack he heard an inhuman scream, followed by a crashing sound and
a whining voice yelling, “Why him? Beavral liked this! Kill me,
trying, just a minute,” Flink muttered. “Hey, let me reload!”
laboring into his lungs, Cornell raised his head and saw the alreu hopping
out of the way of the remaining head, cradling a strange contraption in
his arms. Close by, another head lay on the ground, its top bloodied and
frayed and – boiling? The Cayaborean had little time to wonder. The
second head was still after Flink. Miraculously the alreu stayed out of
the way of the snapping jaws, and the head – Nev? – still cried out to
hold still!” Flink complained.
swallowed, grabbed his sword tighter, pushed his arms down to get up –
and slipped on something round beneath him. The shield! Not one to argue
with fortune, the warrior strapped it on.
he got on his feet, he felt almost fresh again, the pain in his side
dulled by adrenaline. “Here, I’ll kill you,” he yelled.
head spun around, cried happily and charged the warrior with its fangs.
blocked the jaws with the shield, stabbed around it and met resistance.
The head recoiled, yelling in pain and glee. Once more, it charged down,
but this time it came sidewise. To throw me again! Different
tactics, he decided, and ran towards the approaching head, leaping at the
very last second to fly over the head. His sword stabbed down, while his
shield – sliced through the horn.
Cayaborean turned in midair, yet before his feet touched the ground again,
a final roar issued from the head, then it fell down. The horn!
Cornell didn’t understand why the horn could be so important, but he was
happy to use any advantage he could find.
and I was just ready to kill him,” Flink mumbled, standing a few feet
behind the Cayaborean.
glanced backwards and saw that the alreu had his contraption pointed
forward. It had a tubular point, almost like a blowgun, the rest
completely alien to Cornell’s eyes. “Kill one of the others!” he
The alreu’s eyes lit up. He raised the contraption, aimed it at one of
the remaining heads of the monster, then he pulled a trigger, and a blue
ball was propelled from the tube. Cornell’s gaze followed it as best as
he could, the ball arcing up towards the four heads still in the air. None
of the heads noticed the missile, not until it splashed down on one of
them and burst. Blue liquid poured out – and smoke rose from the skin.
The creature yelled, thrashed about wildly.
was dumbfounded as he saw the head suddenly drop like a dead weight, the
acid eating through the skull, boiling it.
remaining three heads, fortunately, were equally stunned. And that gave
Cornell a moment to look for Gabe. He must have killed the head he was
riding, counting the surviving skulls. Perhaps closest to… one of the
heads was a still figure on the ground, garbed in fur that was splashed
deep red with blood. A muscle twitched in Cornell’s neck.
reload and fire as soon as you’re ready,” he said calmly. Hefting his
shield closer, he ran forward and cried the name of Gabe’s tribe,
that he launched himself at the first head darting to meet him, smashed
the shield into the fangs, stabbed his sword in the side and swung himself
upward, copying Gabe’s maneuver. His seat was a lot more precarious than
he had expected, the creature’s skin slick and moist. There was no way
for him to recapture his sword, too much did he need it as a foothold.
Only his shield remained, and that he had to smash instantly at the next
head. Holding it slanted, the shield cut through the fangs like butter,
and the head recoiled in surprise.
head beneath him bucked upward. Cornell lost his seat, found himself
flying once more – and behind him the third head was racing forward. His
best bet, he knew and slashed with the shield for the horn while reaching
razor’s edge of the shield cut off a piece of the horn, Cornell’s
right hand grabbed the rest, held on tight. The head plummeted beneath
him. Cornell stayed on, the fall softened by the skull.
pumping wildly in his veins, the warrior looked up. Two remaining. One was
trying to shake Cornell’s sword loose, the other was coming for him.
“Flink!” Cornell hollered. “Shoot it!”
no more time.
Cayaborean loosened the straps of the shield, pushed them into his hand
– then threw the shield towards the head. It spun in the air, the bronze
boss blinking. The head stopped for a moment, confused by the sight. The
jaws gaped open as if the creature was wondering about the meaning. Before
it could decipher the truth, the shield’s edge hit its aim, spinning
through the horn as easily as if it wasn’t there.
it! You’re doing it, shield bearer!”
Flink’s voice, Cornell suddenly realized, and it was the same voice –
female! – that had warned him before of the third head. But that only
single surviving skull scraped its side against the wall. The blade stuck
too tightly, magically protected against being broken off, even by the
head’s enormous strength, and the skull shook itself in frustration.
“Bah! What’s the use?” it muttered before it turned towards Cornell.
Cayaborean was helpless. No weapons left, no protection, just agility. Of
which there was little left, after pushing his body to the edge and
don’t have much time, shield bearer,” the head told him, its voice
definitely female, and so human the very sounds cut into Cornell’s
marrow. “I cannot hold down the monster’s hunger very long. Get the
shield and cut off my horn.”
was still speaking as the head lowered itself to the ground, turning the
horn into easy reach from the ground. Cornell obeyed the wishes quickly,
not even wondering about the strange scene. The elfwood shield had lodged
itself into a pillar, cutting through half the stone’s width. It took
the warrior some effort to pull it free, but free it came.
shield bearer,” the head’s voice spurned him on, and Cornell hastened
to the creature. The head was quivering by now, the jaws snapping blindly,
interrupting the voice every other word. “The… monster…”
slashed his shield through the horn.
head sighed, then lay still, as did the squat body behind it.
fight was over.
Cornell felt as if he would keel over in a second. But he couldn’t. Not
yet. He wasn’t sure what happened to his companions. He forced air into
his lungs, walked around the head and looked to the spot where he had seen
the fallen Gabe.
was sitting up and waving weakly at Cornell.
grinned. “Sir, that was marvelous! As I was just saying to Gabe here,
and you know, I really thought he was dead when I saw him, because of all
the blood, but it was just the monster’s and not his own. At least not
much, I mean, and I bandaged his wound because that is what my mother told
me to do when people are… What’s wrong, sir?” The mirth vanished
suddenly from the alreu’s voice, replaced by curiosity.
was laughing heartily, no matter how his ribs hurt. The world had suddenly
turned out to be a very bright place after all. Everything was all right.
least until a voice said, in all too familiar tones, “I’m still alive!
Blast it, I wanted to be killed! Can’t this stupid warrior get anything
you bloody idiot, keep your trap shut! Do you want to go on killing
voices were familiar, although they had lost the slurring tones of the
monster. Now where could they be coming from, Cornell wondered, feeling
his mind cloud up.
should I?!” Nev kept on complaining. “You’re that famous great
shield maiden Halla Valfrey, so you’re supposed to like this. But I’m
not! I’m just a simple accountant and –“
third voice cut in, the one that had screamed about its eye before, “And
I used to be the merchant who hired you, Nev, before the monster gobbled
up the two of us. So I’m ordering you to like this!”
to Phindar,” the female voice said again, and two words leaped into
Cornell’s consciousness. “Shield maiden”, Nev had said… Were the
voices coming from his shield?! “The years inside the monster are over!
The four of us are in the shield now, and we have a chance to get our
lives back, with the help of the shield bearer! What’s your name, by the
way, honored shield bearer?”
The voices were in his shield! Now that he paid attention to it, he could
even feel a slight quiver run through the elfwood with every word of the
voices. And the bronze boss… It had been dented before, yet now it
gleamed in perfection, the runes as readable as if a smith had chiseled
them in only a few minutes earlier.
bearer! I am speaking to you!” the female shouted to get his attention
before continuing in humble, though insistent tones, “I wish to know
your name. I am Halla Valfrey, shield maiden of Keroull. Pray tell, what
are you called?”
name’s Cornell!” Flink shouted from a few feet away, clearly
unconcerned with talking to a shield. “Gabe told me he’s from Cayaboré,
I don’t know his last name, but how did you get into that shield? And
what is it with the monster? Did you –“
Cornell decided finally, shutting out the voice of the alreu, this was a
dream. And if it was a dream, he should be asleep. For an instant, he
stopped, wondering about the logic of this thought. Good enough, he found
and fell forward, already unconscious before he hit the ground.
H E E N D