"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER SIX <=== / ===> CHAPTER EIGHT
I was in the back of our group – mind you that I don’t speak of any formation. Whatever semblance to one Red had instilled in us by that time fell apart when we heard the obnoxious sounds from up ahead and Slim Tim’s light vanished. But I wasn’t very fast, and I fell behind, Valanda still next to me – even though she wasn’t encumbered by any unfamiliar heavy armor, and for a moment my sight was consumed by the sight of her long, nearly naked legs moving.
Had Slim Tim disappeared from my awareness for that moment? Yes, that is true. No matter that my blood was pounding and I had been utterly consumed with concern for my comrade, the sight of Valanda’s legs swallowed me hook, line and sinker for a heartbeat or two. The realization of that would smart we for a long time to come.
Red was in the front of the group, one of the first to see the round, dark boulder about seven steps into the cave where Slim Tim had been. In the light of the breastplates it seemed at first a strange rock – a stone that had somehow formed perfectly round, with some strange appendages underneath, jutting out like ropes, and more limp appendages on top. There was color, yes, but while running you don’t really figure that this thing is a dark brown rather than the grayish tones of stone.
The latter was true of Rymondas, for sure. He kept on running – while Red stopped dead in his tracks, stunned for a heartbeat only. Rymondas had been one full step into the cavern when Red screamed, “Halt! Everyone!”
And the limp appendages on top of the boulder perked up, were revealed to be stalks at the end of which eyeballs opened. Blueish eyes, with large, dark centers – very unlike human eyes, but still recognizable. Their sight tore into Red, into Torrindas, into Cardsleeve who had been at the top, behind Rymondas.
Rymondas didn’t notice. Several breastplate lights were concentrated on the eyestalks, showed them twitching hither and yonder, clear sign of life – no doubt that what Red had thought a boulder was really the carapace of a creature. Later we would see that one of Slim Tim’s legs had escaped it, cut off by the weight and cutting edge of the carapace.
More would remain of Rymondas.
The creatures are called shellcrunchers. By whom, you ask? The people of Guardpeak had never had an idea that these beings existed, much less that they could lurk in the lower ranges of Deersrun Hill. Are they so rare, then, you ask?
Maybe. I am not an authority on that. I have learned of their name, and I have learned far more of their physiology than I care for. Happily not from direct contact. If I had, I would be as unable to write these lines as Slim Tim and Rymondas.
Shellcrunchers lurk on the ceilings of caves, hanging on by the tentacles on their underbellies. The latter are made up pretty much of a single maw, or perhaps I should rather describe it as a fleshy cavity lining the inside of the carapace. Their eyes – on the stalks I already mentioned – are slung around that carapace, tight to the surface, barely visible from below as they twitch and turn in an imaginary gust of wind, observing everything below them. If you were to look up – early enough, that is -, you would see a brown rim, a dark shell, and inside white flesh moving in continuous ripples. And of course the eyeballs, blue things that don’t speak of hunger as an arydog’s will invariably. No, these eyes are empty, seeing things that don’t allow a glance into the beast’s soul. Cold and icy.
Perhaps – if you’re lucky, depending on your definition – you will notice a drop or two falling from the shellcruncher. An acidic liquid that turns into smoke when hitting the ground. Acid. It is exuded by the flesh inside, and it slowly dissolves the victim.
Ahh, but you wonder just how the shellcruncher’s eyes can see in complete darkness? I don’t have an answer for you there. I suspect they can see warmth, register the living beings passing beneath them, and they can judge whether the potential victim’s size is worth dropping from the perch.
That is how they catch their prey. They simply let go of the ceiling, they fall down – the weight of their shell controlling the fall -, and the carapace covers the prey. Any excess is cut off by the edges of the shell. Whatever is inside may still be alive for a while, as the acid boils away skin, exposes flesh underneath, shooting pain through the remaining nerve cells. There’s something in there – a muscle, an interior piece of carapace, I don’t know – which crushes the ribs or armor, making sure that the prey gets the full exposure of the acid.
I will never know about Slim Tim. He didn’t scream – at least we didn’t hear anything. I hope that the pain from the shellcruncher’s initial attack made him black out, and when the Messenger of Death came to take his soul to the realm of the gods, Slim Tim had no idea of the pain his body had suffered.
Valanda pushed Torrindas aside – the head laborer barely resisted -, thus giving me a clear view of the scene ahead. For a heartbeat I had seen a shadow fall through the light of Red’s breastplate. Then Rymondas’ had darted upward, and there was the terrible crunch from the boulder that had now grown on top of the thin man.
The shellcruncher had misguessed its drop, or maybe Rymondas had had an inkling at the last moment, throwing himself to the side, enough that the cruncher got only his legs and a part of his torso. The top wasn’t cut off, not entirely. Blood was spilling from his wound, his breastplate was cracked, the magical light in that area erratic, while the rest was shining clear and straight up to the ceiling – revealing a dozen or more of the hollowed-out, acid-dripping shells clinging by their tentacles to the rock above.
“Rymondas!” someone screamed. Carter stepped forward – halted at the last moment by Red who was shouting about the beasts at the top of the cave.
Scraps dove under Bluff’s stretched out arm, screaming in a voice that sounded little human. Frantically he jumped over a rock, escaped a combined capture attempt by Bluff and Carter – neither of whom dared follow Scraps into the cave.
And meanwhile Rymondas was screaming, wailing, crying. The agony pierced through the rocky music from below, through our own shouts, reaching deep into my bones. He was still alive. His arms were flailing. With some ebbing sense he was pushing against the carapace on top of him, trying to lift it, upend it, something to free his legs. I was staring at him, wondering how he could still be alive.
A cheer – how strange in the situation – made me focus my eyes to something closer to us. Scraps. There was a shellcruncher only a foot away from him, tentacles squirming about in confusion where their prey had vanished to. The eyestalks quavered on top of the creature. Not for long, though. Just when I realized that Scraps must have been keeping track of the crunchers on top, leaped out of the first one dropping – just then his blade flashed, cutting two of the eyestalks off.
The noise came from inside that creature, taken up a heartbeat later by those two that had found prey of their own. Rymondas screamed at a higher pitch.
Our cheers died down. So did the ferocious grin on Scraps’ face – bigger than the entire man was, it seemed. “Come on!” he shouted. “Ain’t any more up above if you follow my steps!”
He was right. I directed my breastplate to the top, checked the ceiling for more of the shellcrunchers. There weren’t any. Surprisingly enough, I was the first who did so, and only when I started moving did the others look more closely at the ceiling.
Nobody tried to stop me. (Not that they didn’t care for me, they were simply too stunned. I’m sure that Red would certainly have done so, had he been close enough to me. Or Valanda.) I ran through the cave, half thinking that I must have missed one creature – yet if I had that one missed both me and the others coming after me.
Scraps had reached the carapace on top of Rymondas. The latter noticed him, through the tears in his eyes, the blood from his mouth, spewing out, joining the salt of his tears. He screamed something that might have been Scraps’ name, or maybe a plea to help him.
If it had been that, he needn’t have bothered. Scraps immediately started hacking at the eyestalks, which trembled, tried to get out of the way. The tentacles underneath shot out, and Scraps had to leap out of their way.
That was when I joined him. I have never done more with a sword than look at it – at least not that I can remember. On the other hand I had used a club, and my mind did its best to reason that a sword wasn’t much more than a club with a very sharp edge. That was my thinking – or the closest thing to it – when I brought the blade down on one of the tentacles, one that had been trying to snare Scraps’ foot.
The blade cut straight through it.
Crunch! that creature made.
Crunch! Crunch! the other two that had dropped chimed in.
“Damn…!” Scraps cried, then slashed down at another tentacle. That one had been forewarned – an eyestalk was watching the wiry drummer closely.
It hadn’t yet caught on that I held a blade as well, and mine took out another tentacle. The cut off piece kept writhing for a while before it died. (Truth be told, I remembered tales about cut off limbs staying active, that they will catch you, choke you. Tales of zombies, I suppose, but I wasn’t taking any chances and stayed away from that writhing tentacle.)
Angrily Scraps swept his blade at that eyestalk closest to him. Crunch! the creature triumphed when he failed. (Was I starting to assign meaning to the awful noise? Gods, please, don’t let me think too much about this!) Red was by us, then, and a step later Carter. We hacked at the tentacles, at the eyestalks, anything that we could see moving.
“Upend the damn thing!” Carter roared. Some of the tentacles were left, but they were writhing on the opposite side of the creature. Carter inserted his blade into the tiny space between carapace and ground, shoved it in as far as he could. “Help me, damn you!”
Red understood, did the same, pushed his sword into the edge. There was a scream, a wailing, piercing scream. Somehow my subconsciousness decided that had to be the shellcruncher, but in retrospect I know it had been Rymondas.
The two of them heaved on their swords, using them as impromptu levers. Crunch! the creature complained or triumphed again. I caught one of its eyestalks then, and the next Crunch! surely wasn’t a happy one.
Bluff and Cardsleeve were then with us, joining Carter’s and Red’s efforts. They were heaving and heaving, but the carapace didn’t come loose.
“The fornicating tentacles are holding it down!” someone yelled. I have the tempting idea that had been my voice, yet I can’t quite remember if I had been that smart.
Whatever, Scraps and I raced around to the other side, did our best to cut those tentacles off. One, guided by the last remaining eyestalk, slammed into my side – with more force than I would have expected -, and then I felt myself jerked off my feet. The bloody thing was sticking to my breastplate! I fell forward, my head impacted on the hard carapace. Fortunately I had a helmet on. The gods alone know what would have happened otherwise, the thing was so blasted strong.
Scraps’ blade cut through that tentacle, while he brutally kicked me away from the shellcruncher. Just in time. Out of the edges of my eyes I saw a pair of tentacles reach for me.
My sword had fallen from my hand. I threw my arms out, searched for it. Crunch! That must have been another tentacle that Scraps had taken out.
Then I found my blade, did my best to turn around, get to my feet, and –
“Move over, you two!” Carter’s voice sounded, seconded by Red screaming, “Back! Now!”
Scraps and I did.
We were followed by a terrible, moist sound that sickened me, and the Crunch! Crunch! was almost reassuring in its familiarity. The carapace was moving. Toppling. The four men on the other side were puffing hard, groaning, but they succeeded. The shellcruncher fell over, away from Rymondas, and its hollowed shell, with the boiling, smoking acid was revealed.
No. It wasn’t the acid that was smoking. It were the pieces of flesh sticking to the cruncher.
I didn’t care. I didn’t even look at Rymondas. My mind was turned off. All I recall is that I got to my feet, tightened my grip around my blade, and then I stabbed the sword into the shellcruncher. Something hard and brown moved inside it – Crunch! -, jerking my blade to the side.
Then the others chimed into the frenzy. Their blades stabbed down, slashed in, turned and twisted inside the creature. More smoke rose. One last time something Crunch!ed in there, then the only noises of that kind came from the other creatures.
We kept going. How long? My only guess is what Valanda told me.
Oh, you’re wondering what Valanda did at that time? Don’t ask me for particulars but I understand she was working to disable the shellcrunchers on top. All right, particulars – the effects I could ascertain. All the shellcrunchers dropped from their perches, well away from us, more or less harmless. Their tentacles snapped inside, the eyestalks crouched as close to the carapaces as they could, making the creatures look much like natural boulders.
We only knew this by the cacophony of Crunch! Crunch! Crunch! around us. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was destroying this one shellcruncher.
We succeeded. At one point the carapace was parted by a blow of our blades, or maybe a combination, and that stopped our frenzy.
Red looked over to Rymondas. Our comrade was dead. Bled to death, much like Longstick. His breastplate, covered with blood, was still lit, of course, shining an eerie, ruddy light on Rymondas’ broken, twisted face.
“Stop it,” Red said softly.
None of us listened. Scraps and Bluff turned around, ready to attack the nearest shellcruncher – the one under which Slim Tim had vanished. Carter kicked one half of the carapace, sent it spinning and tumbling over the floor. I stabbed at mine again, luxuriated in the smoke that rose when my blade hit it.
“Rymondas is dead,” Red said. “Stop it!” he suddenly yelled.
That did it. We looked up, over to him, and then at our comrade. We stopped.
“Blast it!” Wharfrat growled. “Ought to’ve been faster with this sucker.”
Wharfrat? When had he shown up? And had he… I don’t know why but I glanced at his sword. It was clean, uncovered by the shellcruncher’s gore and acid. You little dungheap pisser, you stayed away, and now you pretend you’ve been one of us! That thought flashed through my mind, but before I could step forward and smash the hilt of my blade on the seaman’s head, I stopped. When had I started thinking about myself as “one of us”?
I was staring at the remains of Rymondas. Somehow Wharfrat had vanished from my consciousness. Instead memories were tumbling through my mind, of Rymondas. I had only met the man last night. (What time was it anyway?) Yet there was so much I remembered of him. Walking ahead of me. Next to me. Behind me. His eyes glaring when I put on Longstick’s armor. A joke he told to Theralas; I had only gotten the gist of it, and it hadn’t seemed very funny to me. Perhaps the wording was what had been special. I thought that I ought to ask Theralas about that joke, that it would be fitting to understand at least that part of my memories a bit better.
Of course I never got the chance.
Scraps was the one who moved first. He yelled something, an invocation of dread forces – Shenaumac’s minions -, as he threw himself at the shellcruncher that had consumed Slim Tim. He hacked at the tentacles, keeping well out of their reach himself. At least he thought so.
When one of the tentacles managed to smash his blade aside, and more started to snare him, the rest of us came over to his aid. We worked methodically, destroying all the tentacles and the eyestalks. Simple butchery. There was none of the fury with which he had tried to rescue Rymondas. Had we been faster? I can’t tell.
Finally we toppled that shellcruncher, and saw that there was nothing except for broken pieces of armor left underneath it. There had been time enough for the creature to completely consume Slim Tim.
Scraps fell to his knees. He reached out with his right hand, in the direction of the armor but didn’t dare touch it. The metal was smoking with the creature’s acid. “Bloody bastard,” he growled. “Just figured out you were a fellow musician, and then you go on and get yourself killed.”
I happened to stand next to him. The words It wasn’t his choice flashed through my mind, but I was smart enough not to say them. Instead I laid my hand on his shoulder and said, “Play your drums for him, Scraps.”
How did I think of that? I have never been good with words – and my first example should prove that sufficiently. Yet what I spoke made the wiry man look up to me, tears forming in the rims of his eyes, and he nodded. “You bet your arse on that, pilgrim. I’m gonna play drums on the skulls of the fornicating dwarves that got us into this mess.”
“Right,” I said.
Red moved next to us. “We’d better get moving again,” he said tensely. “No way of knowing whether the dwarves got something else planned for us.” Louder he followed up his words, not bothering to check with Carter, “Rows of two, folks! The first row keeps the lights trained ahead, the second checks the ceiling, the third goes left and right. Got that?”
Some muttered agreement, some ignored him. At least that’s how it seemed. Red decided he’d better cuff the memories into each one of them, especially Cardsleeve. Then, I suppose, all of us understood.
Carter had been standing off to one side, watching the entire scene from cold eyes. They seemed that way to me, so very cold in a face that was as immobile as a boulder. Valanda walked over to him, spoke to him. Carter didn’t answer. He kept on staring. She said something else, with as little effect, then she walked back to me and shrugged.
Red got us into the formation he wanted. I wound up in the second row, pointing my breastplate at the top as well as I could while still walking forward and seeing something. Valanda was next to me, and on the other side was Wharfrat. Lucky dungworm he is, there was the wizardess between us. My forehead was smarting from when the shellcruncher had slammed me into its carapace, and I was certain that Wharfrat had been a safe distance away at that time.
I wanted to hurt the little seaman, I realized after a couple more steps, more than I’d ever wanted to hurt anybody. I wanted to see him inside another shellcruncher – no, I didn’t. I wanted to be the one applying the hurt to him.
That frightened me. I have always been a peaceful man, or at least not given to violence. What did this mean? That now violence seemed a part of me, and that I was loath to put my sword back in its scabbard?
I didn’t understand myself. I wished I could talk to Valanda about it, maybe she would be able to explain it to me. Yet I would certainly not broach that topic with Wharfrat nearby. No, not because he was the target of my violent thoughts. Or maybe because I didn’t want him to know what I had in store for him.
Or maybe I was simply too confused to think clearly.
An hour later Carter took pity on our weary troops and called for a stop. “Finally,” Scraps muttered. He’d stopped tapping out the rhythm below us for a while, but lately he’d taken it up again, trying to pace his steps with it and ideally stay awake. Now he sank to the ground, not taking the time to move even one step closer to the wall. Scraps just closed his eyes, and the next instant I heard him snoring loudly.
Carter scowled, ready to shout for him to get back up – when Red shook his head. “It’s enough,” he said. “We can’t keep moving. You know that.”
The vintner pursed his lips, cast a quick glance over at Valanda. He didn’t find any help from the wizardess who was busy finding a comfortable place to sit down. “All right,” Carter relented. “We’ll rest. Bluff, you and I will take first watch. In two hours, we’ll change with Torrindas and Red. After that,” his eyes flared, “we will march on. Am I understood?”
A grumble in the back – I have no idea who it was -, that was all the answer he got. Aside from the better part of us following Scraps’ and Valanda’s example. What was it that kept Carter going? The man had been awake and active as long as the rest of us. In fact, longer than all, excluding Red. I had gotten the short reprieve of sleep while the vintner had been drawing up his battle plan.
I suspect it was because he’d sent Grapes off. Now he needed to prove that he’d had good reason – not to mention that he didn’t want the rest to think about not coming back up to Guardpeak. He’d spoken of that before, had an inkling that he wouldn’t see his boy again. That was probably the reason. I’ll never know.
As you can imagine, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the proceedings around me. When I sat down, I thought I’d fall asleep like a candle snuffed out. Sleep enveloped me slowly, though – slowly enough that I saw Wharfrat watching Carter. The seaman was curled up, pretending to sleep, but his eyes were open a slit, focused on the vintner as Carter walked to one end of the cavern.
I was wondering what Wharfrat was planning, but then I was whisked away to a far, far happier place in dreamland.
An all too short time later I woke up again when a scream echoed through the cave.
Read on in Chapter Eight!