"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 TEN <=== / ===> CHAPTER TWELVE
Bluff was the first to swing his blade at the creature opposing us. The lizard hissed cat-like, let go of Cardsleeve’s arm – the man, relieved of his single support, collapsed, cradling his arm, staring at nothing – and slammed its flank into the broadside of the sword. It hit more than the broadside, thrusting Bluff’s arm forward, forcing him to leap aside lest the entire mass crash into him.
By that time Torrindas had joined in, stabbing at the creature. His sword tip brushed off the scaly armor, and then he had to dance away when the lizard jaws went after his arm as well.
A lizard? It seemed so much like a tiger! And also like a dragon. I thought about that while trying my own attack – all too afraid of the jaws and clawed feet, so my blade missed the beast by a full yard.
Scraps had recovered from his shock, remembered his bow and fired an arrow at the beast. It did no more good than Torrindas’ stab. Neither did Red, who also sped an arrow.
“Dammit,” he cursed, a brief word before he cast his bow aside, drew his bow.
Cardsleeve howled, finally recognizing the pain in his arm.
The dragon-tiger, the driger, as I came to think of the beast, swiveled its head – on a short neck, rather than the sinuous affairs of true dragons -, and it sniffed at Cardsleeve, as if marking him. It had little time for more, since Bluff and Torrindas attacked in concert. The driger reared up, instinctively avoiding Bluff’s low blow – but instinct failed for Torrindas. The driger’s head drove straight into the head laborer’s blade – but from below, on the less sharpened edge.
Enough to nick the beast, drawing a howl from it. Along with a swing of its forepaw. And I realized that the paw was rather long, set high on the body, giving it good reach. As Torrindas noted with a shout when the claws slashed over his breast.
Thank the gods for our armor! It hadn’t helped Cardsleeve against the jaws, but it was enough here and now.
I shouted, fortified by that realization. I ran forward, next to Bluff, taking care to be well away from the head. My blade went down, my full force behind it as I was set on piercing the driger’s flank.
The beast had a different plan, as I found when it shot sideways, gliding out of the way of my blade – which wound up embedding itself in the ground, my body following it as if intent on empaling itself on the hilt. Before I could curse my ill luck, something slammed against my chest, thrust me upward. I was in the air all of a sudden. For just a heartbeat or two, then I crashed into something barely resistant – and shouting.
Red went down along with me, flailing his arms as wildly as I did. “Abyssal fires!” he yelled, while we hit ground, and while he pushed me off him. My head swam, my vision was spinning. I saw Red jump up, about to attack anew. I heard the roar of the driger, the shouts of my comrades – fortunately none of the latter showing pain.
My helmet had flown off. I wasted several heartbeats grabbing for it, as it rolled away from me.
A scream came from behind, a distorted voice that I took to be Cardsleeve’s. The others shouted abuse, and the driger roared – not in triumph, but in pain. I was sure of that, and I had to grin.
My helmet was still rolling.
I launched myself forward, reaching for it, but it rolled away, into a crevice in the ground where several flowers lay buried under fresh dirt. “Dammit,” I muttered. Another roar – more a whimper now, I thought – reinforced my grin. Dirt fell on my helmet. I crawled closer, reached down to pluck my helm, shook it clean, then put it on my head.
The fight was still going on, I heard, rolled around to see.
My comrades had surrounded the driger now. Their blades were flashing, stabbing. Such a beautiful sight to see, if it weren’t for Cardsleeve, leaning against the stalactite and the cadaver. He was still alive, thank the gods, but he looked so pale. Blood was flowing from his arm. Somehow he had the presence of mind to wrap something around it, as well as he could with only one hand, and the pain. He wasn’t doing a terrific job of it, I saw.
Better that I attend to him, even though I had precious few clothes left to spare for bandages. I rushed over to Cardsleeve’s side. His arm was seriously mangled, but still fully attached to the body – one good thing, surely. Maybe, the thought brushed through my mind, a prayer to Decalleigh would now work!
Of course! “Great healer above, grant us the boon of healing,” I began the formal prayer, as I gently pushed Cardsleeve’s good hand away. The remains of the armor were in the way of putting a good bandage on the wound. Fortunately it broke away quickly, and a few heartbeats later it was gone, revealing the grisly sight of my comrade’s arm.
I suppressed a curse, rather continued praying fervently, “Grant that my hands may relinquish pain and give succor!” Something had to happen! Something better happen. Once more, just as it had been with Carter, blood drenched my hands. I wound the shred of cloth around Cardsleeve’s arm. He moaned, not having the strength to yell anymore.
“Grant us the boon of healing,” I repeated over and over. “Grant that my hands may relinqish pain and give succor!”
Was there less blood flowing out? Was it because his lifeforce had spent itself, or because of the prayer?
I didn’t look too closely, worried only that I kept speaking and kept my hands pressed tight on the bandage. “Relinquish pain!” I yelled. “Boon of healing!” The other words I mumbled, punctuating with yells the important parts.
Behind me, beside me, the fight had continued for a while, the noise without meaning to me for the time being. I didn’t want to pay attention to it – no, the driger had been surrounded, about to be skewered by a blade -, and just as little did I want to look up, to see whether Cardsleeve was still alive.
I did, though, only a moment after thinking this. You know how you tell yourself not to do something, and then you go right ahead doing that? It is an ill habit, one that I ought to break one of these days.
That time was not one to make me recant. There was rose color on Cardsleeve’s cheeks, his breath was ragged, but evening out, reclaiming some regularity. His eyes were clear – not glassy at all as I had feared. “Pilgrim…” he whispered, his voice sounding broken, but there was a voice.
He was mending! Thank you, Decalleigh, oh Great Healer! It must have been you, using me as a conduit! Yes! Yes! Yes!
And then Cardsleeve’s eyes widened, his jaw fell down, his face consumed with utter fear.
It was all the warning I had before a massive body slammed into my back. I was torn aside, rolled over, and my face was suddenly only inches away from fangs dripping ichor on my skin. A roar bellowed, deafening at this proximity. The fangs descended – time passed so slowly, they seemed to move an inch in a minute. I wanted to bring my arms up – where was my sword? A bladestroke, right into that maw, and I would be rid of the creature.
But my sword was embedded into the ground, after my forceful attack. It was far gone. All I had left was my helmet.
I remembered how these jaws had dealt with the armor on Cardsleeve’s arm.
My arms still moved, of their own accord it seems, flapping together, slamming the sides of the skull above me.
The fangs continued – no, they… What?
The driger shook its head, roared again – its maw directed upward, away from me. For the most part, anyway. Its head convulsed, and realization slowly dawned that my hands must have slapped its ears, sending a wave of shock through the beast.
Don’t think, act! I followed my advice as best I could, pinned down by the beast’s forepaws. My armor would protect me against the claws – I hoped, though aware that the driger’s strength far exceeded my own. No, it was the jaws I had to be afraid of, really afraid of.
Then keep away from the jaws! I contorted my upper body, rammed my shoulder into the creature’s throat. That did little more than anger the driger – but very well, it didn’t matter. The paws shifted, enough so that I wrapped my arms around the left forepaw, tugging with all my strength. Not much remained, but the thought raced through my head that the driger had only a short neck – it couldn’t turn enough to bite at me, right? Right?
An image appeared before my mind. A dog, one of those large, stocky breeds, gnawing on a chain around one leg. The dog’s neck had been about as short, and I was much bigger than the chain had been.
My head swiveled around, just in time to see the driger coming to the same conclusion, launching its fangs at me once more. They never reached me.
Bluff and Torrindas were behind the beast, stabbing their swords into its back. The driger roar-whimpered, suddenly off my chest. I rolled over, not quick enough of wit to nod thanks to my comrades, I just gazed after the driger as it ran, muscles bulging under it, bloody streaks on its back, dripping more streaks of greenish red into the ground.
It launched itself into the air, perfect motion, flying over the dark cleft in the land, crossing the four yards in seeming ease – and on the opposite side its grace evaporated. The driger landed, its paws entangling itself. It roar-whimpered again, more on the side of a whimper now.
Bluff cheered. Scraps did the same, singing a few bars of a victory song I had heard occasionally home in Mercurham.
Oh, the driger recovered, more or less. After a few moments it got its feet under its body, shook itself, drops of blood flying like the spray from a wet dog. Its eyes glanced at us, then it hissed – a dismissing sound, I felt – and disappeared into the bushes.
I was taken aback. Why had it dismissed us like that? That was… odd. Wasn’t it happy to see us gone? Or…
“Where in all the demons’ abysses did that crevice come from? It wasn’t there before!” Scraps yelled.
The cleft in the ground. The one over which the driger had jumped.
The small ditch from which I’d plucked my helmet. And had to clear it off the clumps of dirt freshly strewn on it.
Because the crevice had widened to the four yards it now had. And continued to widen.
There was no song in the air, but the rock-grinding was louder than I had ever heard it before. It pursued a different beat, a different rhythm, menacing and immediate.
“Abyssal flames!” Scraps cried. “There’s a rift all around us! We’re on a bloody, flaming island!”
An island that was shrinking.
“Where’s Valanda?” Red asked calmly, as if the earth wasn’t crumbling away from under us. I admired his calm, wondered how he could possibly maintain it.
And then I realized the contents of his question. The wizardess had been right behind me when I had inspected the Tyrant’s warrior’s body. She had… That had been the last time I had seen her! She hadn’t moved far away from me before, but I couldn’t place her anywhere in my memories of the driger’s attack, of my helping Cardsleeve – surely she would have assisted me there, or, no, she would have cast a fireball at the driger, and –
“Valanda!” I yelled, frantically scanning the island we were on.
“Val?” Red joined in, his voice less frantic.
My comrades looked about, to no avail.
Until we looked across the chasm around us. There Valanda was, in her underwear, alluring with or without a glamor on her face. But she wasn’t on her feet. She was hovering in the air, on her back, her head lolling around as if semi-conscious.
In the air. Hovering. Under a magical spell.
The cause of that spell was standing a short distance away from her, twisting his fingers, murmuring to itself what might have been a song.
“A dwarf!” Scraps yelled unnecessarily.
The small man was of the same kind as the wild dwarves we had encountered above, the same cut of gray face, the same build – but it wore a tunic of cured leather, with burnmarks like sigils and signs all over it. He didn’t look like a fighter, more cerebral – if one could attribute that to a cúchulain.
Had I been able to hear his voice across the rift, I knew it would have been the same we had heard singing throughout our descent. The one that had now fallen silent. That was the wild dwarves’ bard.
“Shoot him,” I whispered. “Put an arrow through him.”
It was all I could do at that point, frozen as my muscles were.
It was enough for Red and Torrindas. Both men drew their bows in unison, knocking arrows and speeding them towards the dwarf. One missed the bard completely, bouncing off a tree. The other was true, aiming for the dwarf’s eyes.
The bard didn’t pay any attention to it. With good reason, for the arrow suddenly slowed down, as if moving through liquid, losing speed bit by bit, finally, gently, sinking to the ground well before the cúchulain.
“Shoot him,” I repeated. “Please.”
The dwarf finished his spellsong. Valanda’s prone body started moving, sliding on a cushion of magic and air towards the bushes, away from us. The bard followed at a short distance, oblivious of us. It took both only a heartbeat or two to disappear from sight.
All our glances sank down then, towards the rift consuming ever more stable ground around us, eating its way toward us. The rift was deep, diving away to a floor further away than our eyes could see. Enough to shatter any bones we had in our bodies.
Was that how I would end? At the bottom of a chasm? Would my last moments be spent flailing my arms about, trying to find some purchase on soft dirt walls? Tumbling head over feet? Seeing the ground come ever closer each revolution of my body? And finally the impact?
I didn’t want to believe that. The gods had finally accepted me. Me, who had never really thought of seeking them. And yet, and yet they had accepted me.
This couldn’t be the end. I refused it! There had to be a purpose for me! The gods couldn’t possibly have been playing with me! No, I was meant for something, for something more!
The chasm kept widening. A bush lost its roots, tumbled down. I watched it fall for interminable heartbeats until it disappeared out of sight. There wouldn’t be any noise of it hitting the ground, it was too soft. Besides, I had now become aware of the noise of the ground slipping away, too. It would cover pretty much anything.
Not any screams, of course, but…
There was a lizard squirrel close to me, hanging on valiantly to a small bush. Raspberries, well before ripening. They would never become good enough to eat. And the squirrel, it would…
Well, kind reader, I should not bore you with the despondent meandering of my thoughts. Obviously I didn’t perish there, or else how could I write these lines? How could there be more pages left in the pile you are holding? (Or is it a book? Printed and bound? Dare I hope for such an expense to be made for my meager words?)
While I was losing myself in the conviction that I would survive, my comrades were more concerned with doing something about that.
Bluff suggested felling a tree, so we could tramp over it to the other side.
Torrindas countered the suggestion. “It would only slip off, with the rims trembling as they do.” Scraps joined in, unwilling to say as much, “Besides, look at the speed of that thing. It’d eat us up before we can get a tree down.”
“Rope,” Cardsleeve groaned. “Use a rope.”
Yes, that was Cardsleeve. My newly found healing powers had brought him back to enough livelihood that his mind was working. It was our gambler comrade who realized that the rim on the other side of the chasm wasn’t trembling half as much as that on our side. The bushes and trees – especially – were firm in their rooting.
“A rope!” Red exclaimed. My comrades started digging in their compartments behind their breastplates, excavating the provisions they had thought about putting in. They were good spelunkers – naturally so, since they had all grown up here.
I haven’t mentioned ropes before, have I? Chalk that one up to my own ignorance of the matter. We hadn’t needed any – to the surprise of my fellows, I should add. Not all the areas of Deersrun Hill are as easily navigable by foot as those that we had passed. Passing from one level to another, you sometimes needed a rope and didn’t have a convenient corkscrew tunnel available.
Was it merely luck, or had there been something guiding us? I don’t know – I wish I could tell you that such was revealed to me in communion with the gods, but… No, my friend, I will only find out the truth of that when the time comes for me to travel with the Messenger of Death. Wherever I am headed, perhaps I shall have the time to inquire of the gods what the meaning of our adventure was.
Enough of that!
Red and Torrindas unearthed goodly lengths of rope, coiled, five inches wide. Thick and strong. Other equipment followed, none of which would aid us now. Bluff, Scraps and Cardsleeve produced tinier lengths of rope – enough for exploratory lines, or such that could hold a small person. (Which was confusing, considering Bluff’s large frame. As Red would argue later, our friend had thought he was the only one to think of that thin line of rope. It was useful in many places, no matter that it couldn’t possibly support its owner’s weight.)
By the time the lengths of rope were dropped on the floor before us, with Cardsleeve lucid enough to frown and growl, the chasm had grown to more than ten yards. Its speed of consuming the island we were on had increased slightly. We had, by my own estimate, about fifteen minutes or so left.
We were forced to move further inland, a few paces only. The squirrel accompanied me – vacillating between nervous stares at the rift and at me. Clearly it thought me a lesser danger, licking its scaly lips again and again.
Poor little squirrel, I thought, retrieved a piece of bitten apple from my breastplate and threw it at the small animal. The lizard creature dived for the fruit, took nervous bites. “Yes, my sweetie,” I whispered, only half aware of my comrades’ efforts, “eat up, and enjoy your meal.” At least the lizard squirrel would have a slice of happiness before…
“Weight the bloody rope,” Scraps said. “Else we can throw it only into the chasm!”
“Right,” Torrindas seconded, removed his helmet, and tried to tie the rope around it. Five inches thick, tying a knot was truly difficult.
“Now we could use that idiot Wharfrat,” Scraps commented. “Stupid as he is, he can knot a fence railing.”
Bluff snorted. “Forget that dungworm, here.” He picked up the thin line he had carried with him – fortunately he hadn’t discarded it as the others had theirs, now taken by the chasm crumbling into the abyss. (Demons were down there, I was suddenly convinced, and I discovered myself licking my lips in the same manner that my lizard squirrel companion did. If the latter noticed, it gave no sign. It? No, that wouldn’t do. His name was Jitters, I decided. “Hello, Jitters,” I said to the lizard squirrel. He didn’t seem to mind having a name all of a sudden, so that was all for good. Of course, he probably hadn’t minded going without a name all his life, either. By the way, Jitters is a he, so I was fortunate in that.)
“Let’s tie one end to the thick rope, and we’ll –“ Bluff obviously had no idea of what was going on in my corner of the island, the self-indulgent lug. He threw one end to Torrindas, holding out his free hand to receive the helmet. Torrindas was quick on the uptake, exchanging helmet for thin line and tying it to his thick one. Bluff knotted the helmet into his thin line, let it drop slightly, swinging it in a first try. The knot held, the line swung nicely.
“Throw it at that oak over there,” Cardsleeve said eagerly, pointing across the chasm. “Can’t argue against some good acorns showing in your cards, can you?”
It was a thick, stout oak, standing some four yards from the rim. Some of its roots protruded from the lip of the chasm, a little below it, but they were the tiniest signs of that great old tree’s foundations. Yes, it would hold our entire band hanging from it, that much was sure.
“Coming up all acorns,” Cardsleeve grinned. He was still pale, but he had the look of a man whose cards were about to win him the pot of the evening, allowing him to buy more jewelry for his would-be girlfriend, the tanner’s daughter.
Bluff nodded, checked with Torrindas to see if the thick rope was tied to the exploratory line. It was, the thick one starting half a foot behind the helmet. “All right,” Bluff told himself, feeling the looks of his comrades upon him – save mine, I’m sorry to say. I was rather busy being sorry for Jitters and myself.
“Go!” Red hurried Bluff on. The tall man did as he was told, breathing deeply as he started swinging the line and helmet over his head, slowly at first, picking up speed as the helmet started to circle him steadily. “Go!” Red repeated, and Bluff let go.
Helmet and line flew across the chasm. Easily they did. Even I had to look up, to see their flight.
Both missed the tree. Of course. That never works the first time, does it? Three’s the charm, or how does the old saw go?
Well, it’s wrong, let me tell you. Bluff grunted, drew the line back, started swinging it again as before, and this time when he let go, the helmet flew straight at the oak tree, heading for the trunk. A great throw! The line hit the trunk, the helmet was stopped, recoiled, going the other side around the trunk – was stopped again -, and the line was wrapping itself around the massive trunk in perfectly tight coils.
Bluff tugged at it. Much of the thick cord had gone around the trunk, too, strenghtening our would-be bridge. “It’ll hold,” Bluff said.
“Let’s see about that,” Red muttered, waving at Scraps. “Go, Tiny. You’re least likely to fray the rope.”
The chasm was eating its way toward us. Jitters decided it was way too close and hurried towards my legs, hiding behind my right foot. I smiled, reached down and caught the little creature. Jitters didn’t fight me – unless you count that one small bite, mind you -, and I put him in the compartment behind my breastplate. He moved around right away, discovering the remaining apples quickly and munching on them whenever he wasn’t peering out, to watch both me and the rift.
Bluff and Torrindas were holding the rope taut. Scraps shook his head, sent a prayer to the heavens, spit on his hands and wrapped them around the rope. He was right at the lip of the rift, didn’t look down, just hurried to curl his legs around the line, then moving across it. Hands first, follow with the legs. A yard or two above the chasm, he changed tactics – rather than relying on his hands, he added his arms, the strength of his biceps to keep him close to the rope.
He was moving with his eyes closed. Just push ahead a little, then a little more.
And he was fast, I can tell you. So fast that he let go a little scream when his helmet bounced against the trunk of the oak, and there were four yards of solid ground under him. “Bloody drums of the abyss!” he shouted, dropped onto the grassy spot, yelling for us to follow him.
“Pilgrim,” Red said. “You’re next in weight. Get on with it.”
“Me?” I stared at him in stupid confusion. Oh. There was a way out of here. I had been watching Scraps, and I hadn’t quite realized that I could take the same route.
“Yes! You!” Red shouted at me, losing his cool for a change.
Cardsleeve chuckled. “Hey, pilgrim, I mean, Ahnfredas,” he said, tugging at his good sleeve and producing a card that he held out to me, “we’re coming up all acorns here, so get going. Thanks.”
I took the card, numbed. It showed an acorn, of course. The others drew sharp breaths, provided with the final proof that our friend wasn’t honest when he sat at the gaming table. As if they needed any proof – why else had they chosen that name?
“I’m going, I’m going,” I hurried to say, took the time to push Jitters’ head back into the compartment, then I wrapped myself around the rope as Scraps had done. (Jitters stuck his head out right after my hand had vanished, of course, but looking at the abyss beneath us, he decided that the apples looked – and tasted – a whole lot better.)
The rope was rough under my hands, but my armor had been chafing me in every other part of my body anyway, now that most of my undergarments had been transformed into bandages. Considering the alternative of staying on our island, I’d happily take some rope burns.
I changed my mind halfway over the chasm. Those burns hurt like all the demonic abysses put together! Just let go, I thought, and it’ll be over. Yes, that would have been easy. And pretty painful, after all.
had done this, so I could do so as well! That thought propelled me for a
yard more, then the pain shooting through my fingers, the ache building in
my arms and legs was so much that I longed for a bit of release. This
can’t be true. This can’t happen to a pilgrim-turned-priest. The gods
have plans for me.
Yes, to meet you very soon.
Oh, Valanda would laugh at that, wouldn’t she?
No, she won’t. She’s been abducted by the dwarven bard, remember?
I did. My mind went cold. Valanda, sweet, fragile Valanda, who appears so hard, and who…
Who needed me. Who –
“Whoa, pilgrim, that oak tree hurts when you hit it!” Scraps laughed. Very close to my ears, and there were his hands prying my arms from the rope.
I was on the other side?!
“Yes, I am!” I cried triumphantly, dropped to the ground, rolled aside and jumped happily up and down. I made it! I was safe!
Scraps laughed. “Is that a squirrel in your breastplate, or are you just happy to see me?”
I looked down. Jitters looked out, licked his lips, then retreated to demolish my store of apples a little more. Oh, he could eat them all, he deserved them! I waved across the chasm, to those remaining behind. “Come on over, it’s easy!” I yelled.
All right, so I lied to myself, but I was safe.
The others weren’t. Not yet. And the ground was still crumbling away, and away.