“There’s not supposed to be animals here!” Tallow hissed as the eerie howl echoed off the chasm walls. Around them, the sound bounced and redoubled upon itself until it became a cold, mournful wail that chilled the blood as effectively as the northern wind.
“Is this canyon supposed to be here?” Cassanya asked, tugging the apprentice to stand beside Feral, so that she and Balthor could flank the both of them.
“Well, no,” Tallow admitted, holding her staff defensively in both hands, eyes darting nervously from shadow to shadow.
“Wolves?” Archer asked, nocking an arrow to his bow even as his bright eyes roved across the surrounding gloom.
“Too deep,” Balthor shook his head as the keening howl paused. “That’s bigger than a wolf.”
“What else howls like that?” the sciurel looked around.
“Pass,” Cassanya shook her head, swinging her backpack off her shoulder and withdrawing something that had been projecting from it. Two somethings, Feral realised, though both were identical – twin wooden rods, about two inches thick, two feet long, and each with a shorter rod mounted at right angles to the main and about six inches from one end. As he watched, the tall feline grasped these handles, flicked her wrists so that the length of each weapon came to rest in parallel with her forearms, and Feral suddenly realised she was now well armed to catch and deflect incoming strikes as well as deliver some mighty blows of her own with the rounded ends of the batons. It was one of those little reminders that even this least volatile of leonin was better versed in combat than Feral felt he was ever likely to be. He wondered how many other 'tools of the trade' she might be carrying.
“Can't tell where it is, damn cliffs!” Cassanya spared a glance at the uneven rock face as it ricocheted the sound in all directions. One moment it sounded like the beast was in the trees to the left, then amid the boulders on the far side.
“Where they are,” Feral corrected, turning his head slightly, closing his eyes in concentration. “There’s two. Furthest one is larger – or deeper at least.”
“Good ears,” Tallow told him, turning to stand with her back to his, probably the closest she had approached any of her companions since they had first met. “Can I get some like them?”
“I’ll lend them to you some time. I think one’s that way,” he pointed and Archer aimed an arrow in the direction Feral had indicated. Tallow had called him a warrior in training, he thought. What would a warrior do when faced with an attack by creatures unknown? Probably not stand with the girl between him and danger, he decided. Grasping his own silvery stave in one hand he turned to plant himself between the apprentice and the direction he thought the creatures were approaching from – for whatever good his skinny teenage body might do as a shield.
“There’s too much cover for them,” the sciurel declared angrily, glaring at the tortured ground as it rose around them, a mountain range in miniature. “Can’t see the trees for the shadows of the rocks, let alone what’s behind the trees!”
“I’d feel better if they’d just shut up!” Tallow said, glancing over her shoulder.
As if on command, the eerie howls ceased, the chilling echoes fading slowly as they reverberated away down the canyon.
“Uh oh...” Balthor looked around, drawing his sword.
“Uh oh?” Tallow queried.
“Most beasts try to warn you out of their patch before they fight,” the lupari gripped his sword hilt tighter. “We haven’t left.”
“Nor have they,” Cassanya pointed. Atop a large outcropping of rock, some ten yards to their left, a shadowy form moved against the deep blue sky. A deep growl rumbled through the dark air.
“Do I shoot?” Archer asked, his bowstring taught, one eye half closed as he lined up his shot.
“No, wait... it might back off after it's got a look at us,” Balthor shook his head.
The dark creature did not. Instead, it threw itself forwards from the top of the boulder with astonishing speed, a thunderous, wolf-like bark following it. Feral had enough time to register glittering eyes and wet, yellowed teeth before Cassanya had shoved him aside, intercepting the creature’s rush with both arms, sturdy wooden batons taking the worst of the impact though staggering her back a pace.
The beast yelped, landing on its back, but scrabbled to its feet a moment later, crouched against the ground, growling deeply. It might have been a wolf, Feral though, only it was a lot bigger than it should be, almost eight feet from nose to tail. The eyes showed no glimmer of colour or hint of light, seeming no more than black pits in its head – a head that seemed misshapen. The left ear did not match the right, the entire skull bulging obscenely on one side. Grey fur showed missing patches in the twilight, the skin underneath seeming just as colourless as the pelt, displaying none of the warm hues of living flesh. Along the body, too, the creature seemed malformed and misshapen, several oversized ribs forming a ridge around its chest, its hips lopsided, one rear leg thicker than the other.
It crouched on the ground, growling, threatening.
“Behind!” Feral shouted, keen hearing picking up the shuffle of movement at his back, turning in time to see the second creature in mid leap. Bigger than the first, it too was malformed, paws out of scale with the legs, the head twisted, the teeth irregular. Tallow’s scream rang in his ears as he grabbed her around the waist and wrenched them both to one side as Archer’s arrow thudded into the creature’s grey flesh. It yelped, landing where the apprentice had been a moment before, snapping at her feet with yellowed fangs.
Rolling across Tallow, shielding her body with his own, Feral kicked out at the beast, discovering that the silver staff he had been holding moments ago had pulled one of its magical shapeshifts and was now firmly wrapped around his foot. Feral's unexpectedly metallic boot caught the creature on the side of its misshapen head and it staggered, cringing and disoriented just long enough for Balthor’s strong sword arm to settle the matter.
Hastily looking up, Feral found Cassanya repeatedly bashing the first beast across the head and face as it made lunge after lunge towards her. Its attention so focussed, Archer was firing arrow after arrow into its flank, but over and again they simply stuck in the creature's oversized ribs, doing no significant damage. Just as Balthor was about to take a running charge, Cassanya managed to deal the animal a massive blow with both fists, twin batons crashing down upon it's skull. It staggered, then jerked as Archer found a weak spot in its neck, his arrow sinking half its length into the grey flesh.
The black eyes gave no sign of pain as the creature pitched forward onto the ground, its strength ebbing as its lifeblood stained the dirt. It gave several wheezing gasps, forelegs ploughing the ground in an effort to rise before it finally collapsed and lay still.
“Are they dead?” Tallow asked shakily as Feral rolled off her, scrambling to his feet, looking around in case there were more of the animals hiding somewhere in the surrounding shadows. Feeling a tug on his leg he glanced down to find the Dragon's Ward flowing upwards in a silvery ripple. He held out his hand and it moved into his grasp, forming a rather non-committal short staff, neither edged nor lengthy. Hopefully such a neutral shape meant it didn't think he needed a weapon any more.
Balthor said nothing, merely kicking a head and watching it roll away from the body.
“Same for this one,” Cassanya agreed, looking down at the unmoving creature at her feet.
“Thank goodness,” Tallow sighed, hesitating for only a moment before accepting Feral’s hand, allowing him to help her to her feet.
“You ok?” he asked.
“Yes,” she nodded, looking at him for a few seconds. “Thank you,” she added. “That was very brave.”
Blushing suddenly, Feral rubbed the back of his neck. “Not really, I didn’t have time to think about it, I just kinda...”
“Then it was doubly brave,” Tallow interrupted, hovering her gloved finger an inch before his lips as if she had momentarily thought to make contact but thought better of it. Feral thought she suddenly looked more feminine than usual. Her tunic had twisted so as to emphasize her waist, and her expression held a hint of vulnerability and a soft smile that made a curious counterpoint to the boyish cut of her hair and clothing. Overall it was slightly confusing, and Feral had no idea how to respond.
“Wot is this thing?” Archer asked, and Tallow turned towards him, somewhat to Feral’s relief. “Ain’t a wolf, is it?”
Tallow knelt down next to the larger of the two corpses and examined it with apparent interest, prodding at the lumpy body.
“Just a dog, I think,” she concluded. “A big one admittedly, but it’s got a collar!”
“Someone’s pet?” the sciurel raised an eyebrow. “Better ‘ope the owner ain’t around...” he notched another arrow to his bow, glancing around the dark boulders and shadowy trees that surrounded them.
Wondering if the collar might give a clue to the animal’s identity, Tallow tried to pull it from the creature’s neck, but paused. Frowning, she dug into a pocket and produced a thin metal probe, prodding it into the bloody flesh.
“Uh, Tee?” Cassanya peered down over her friend’s shoulder. “What are you...?”
“Look at this,” Tallow held the metal probe up, and the leonin recoiled in disgust. It looked like the back end of a large slug. Grey, slimy, and covered with the unfortunate dog’s blood, it dripped unpleasantly. “This was against its spine,” Tallow said, frowning. “I need light.”
“Gotcha,” Archer swung his pack off his back, producing torch wood, oil, and flint. A few moments later, he was holding the burning torch up to illuminate Tallow’s find, which now rested on a white handkerchief.
“This is only half...” Tallow said, looking towards the severed head. She stood and moved over. “Borrow your dagger?” she held a hand out to Archer as he followed her. Feral put his hand over his mouth as he watched the apprentice set to work on the back of the dog’s head, a wash of blood draining into the grass, shining wetly in the flickering torchlight. Swallowing a surge of nausea, he turned away, shaking, wishing it weren’t so dark in every other direction. It was oppressive and uncomfortable.
“Hey,” Cassanya nudged him, her hand against his back. “Come on, boy, you can’t tell me you’re thinking about fainting now,” she smiled as he looked up at her. Or maybe you can, she thought, noticing his face was exceedingly pale, a startling contrast to his rich russet hair.
“Oh you oddball,” she told him, but her tone was kindly. “One minute you’re brave as a leonin guard captain, then a bit of blood comes along and look at you. Come on, let’s go over here and have a bit of a sit down, then.” Putting her hand on his elbow she led him away from the makeshift autopsy.
“Does she have to do that?” Feral asked, wincing as an unpleasant cracking of bone reached him, his ears flattening back.
“I see her point, yes,” Cassanya nodded, sitting the half-race down on a sensibly sized boulder, facing him away from the activity behind him. “If there’s more of those things around, it’d be well to know more about them.” She sat down next to him, patting his knee firmly.
“I doubt there’s more,” Balthor shook his head, standing beside them, his eyes nonetheless scanning the near darkness around them for movement. “Dogs stick with their packs. If there’s only two attacked us, it’s likely they’re the only ones around.”
“Good,” Feral sighed shakily.
“Unless there’s a mother with cubs somewhere nearby...” the lupari frowned thoughtfully, and Feral looked up at him. “But probably not,” Balthor said quickly, seeing his friend’s pale expression in the twilight. “Hungry?” he asked, producing a stick of jerky. A squelch sounded from somewhere behind Feral, and the lupari paused. “No, me neither.”
It was several minutes before Tallow and Archer joined them again, the apprentice carrying a bloody grey lump in her handkerchief. Feral couldn’t help shrinking back as Tallow held it out for their inspection. The loathsomely grey creature oozed up at them. About six inches in length, slug like, and lacking any sign of eyes, it had a number of thin tentacles and feelers along its presumably blind body.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Tallow said quietly. “It’s like some kind of parasite. All these tendrils,” she prodded a mass of slimy fibres that seemed to come from the underside of the worm like creature. “Were wrapped around that poor dog’s spine. These,” she nudged thicker projections that looked like antennae. “Went right into the back of its brain.”
“Meaning what?” Cassanya looked at the grey creature, her nose wrinkled in disgust.
“I’m not sure,” Tallow shook her head. “But I wouldn’t see any point in a creature that just attached itself where this one did unless...”
“Unless?” the leonin prodded.
“Unless it was using the host for more than just a place to live.”
Swallowing, Feral peered at the slimy creature. “You’re suggesting it... takes control?”
“It might be possible,” Tallow nodded. “There were a lot of nerve connections going on there. Maybe that's why they acted so unusually...”
“But why are they so weird lookin’?” Archer asked, and the apprentice shrugged.
“Can’t say. I doubt that having one of these… attached does anyone any good, maybe it’s a result of that.”
“And you’ve never heard of anything like this?” Cassanya pressed. “Not even in the Sanctuary library?”
Shaking her head, Tallow looked slightly offended. “There might be some information in there somewhere, but this isn’t the kind of stuff I like for my bedtime reading.” She looked up at the sun, which didn’t seem to have moved since entering the forest, still a pale and watery disk in the purple sky. “We should get moving again. We still don’t have that fragment.”
Agreeing, her companions picked up their possessions as Tallow slid the unpleasant creature, wrapped in her handkerchief, into a small leather pouch. Catching Feral looking at her, she gave an apologetic smile.
“Someone should be told about this, the senior magi may know more,” she said quietly, and he nodded reluctantly. “I’ll get some preservative on it when we’ve got a bit of time.”
“Just don’t ask me to carry it,” Feral grimaced, and she nodded, smiling kindly.
Pressing his back against a shadowy, half dead beech tree, Archer held his breath. Feral had been quite right – he had heard voices coming from this direction, and now Archer could hear them as well. Swiftly and silently he ascended the knotted trunk, clambering up into the dark foliage above. Just in time too, as the flickering glow of a torch illuminated the trees at the bend in the path up ahead. It was well that the torn up, boulder strewn, overgrown gorge provided plenty of natural cover, the sciurel decided, else he and his companions would almost certainly have been spotted already. As it was, with the average line of sight was no more than twenty paces the companions might already have passed by other people within a stone's throw and never seen them.
Even illuminated by the glow of their torches, the newcomers barely stood out from the shadows around them. Each wore a thick, night blue cloak that trailed the ground and broadened their shoulders. Underneath, tunic and trousers of black, blurring the line between shape and shadow. On the left shoulder of each cloak, a red symbol glowed in the torchlight, the only colour on the dark uniform.
Clinging to the top of a broad branch that leaned out over the path, Archer watched the strangers approach along the path, straining to hear what was being said.
“Damn forest,” the man on the left muttered. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, his face drawn and troubled and crusted with several days of unshaven stubble. Watery blue eyes darted fearfully from shadow to shadow among the trees.
His companion, a heavyset leonin, laughed harshly, bright feline eyes glittering in the flickering light. “Naught but shadows,” he declared. “What’s to fear in a shadow?”
“Besides those bloody dogs?” the man frowned up at his tall companion.
The leonin snorted his disdain. “Stupid slobbering things, dunno why we’ve gotta put up with them.”
“I do,” the man shivered visibly. “It’s to see whether they can tell friend from foe.”
“I don’t care if they'll roll over on command and fetch my news scroll, I’d still be rid of ‘em if it were my choice,” the tall feline paused, peering into a shadow between two trees on the far side of the path. Archer wondered just how effective leonin eyesight might be in the gloom.
“Don’t say things like that,” his friend hissed, stopping directly underneath the sciurel's branch. “You’ll get us in a right heap of trouble if you go slagging off the First’s orders.”
“You worry too much,” the leonin said as he satisfied himself the shadows were only shadows. “Nobody gonna hear me out here but the birds in the trees.”
“What birds?” the man asked suspiciously. “I ain't 'eard a bird for days.”
“Oh just shut up and let’s get moving. What's the point on patrolling anyway, who’s gonna be creeping around here? Any poor bastard did find the place would run a mile rather than sneak further in.”
“Ain’t our place to ask,” the man resumed walking, following the large leonin. “And I don’t care to either. Just do what we’re told, let the others get on with finding that staff thing or whatever the general said it was, and get out of here to a decent sleep and a fat purse, eh?”
The big feline snorted again, evidently less than satisfied with this, but said no more. The two swiftly vanished into the shadows at the far end of the path.
Watching carefully from the branch, Archer slowly relaxed, allowing himself to breathe freely again. “Well now,” he murmured under his breath. “That were interestin’, weren’t it?” Quietly, he descended from the tree, and made his stealthy way back to his companions.
As Archer had predicted, nobody was happy to hear they had company.
“How many?” Cassanya had asked, to which he could only say he didn’t know. In the absence of information about numbers, Tallow had suggested, quite sensibly, that they turn back for help, but as Feral rightly countered, by the time they had found any, the fragment would most likely have left the area in the hands of the enemy. If they wanted it badly enough, there seemed little to be done but press on.
Around them, the forest had become dark as a moonlit night, but fearing discovery they had refrained from lighting torches. Instead, they moved onwards in near darkness, following the canyon, senses alert for any sign of company.
It was Cassanya who first saw the first sign of the magefort proper, her feline sight cutting through the darkness, glittering eyes roving across the shadows. As the gorge seemed to be spreading out a little, a dark shape rose against the near side. Grey stone caught the feeble light, an aged, mossy tower rising towards the dark sky.
“The gatehouse,” Tallow whispered. “But it’s terribly run down, there should be an arch clear to the other tower.”
“What other tower?” Feral asked, looking towards the other side of the canyon. Nothing rose above the treetops all the way to the black, rocky wall.
“Well there was one once,” the apprentice sounded apologetic. “I don’t know what could have happened... this one’s none too well off, either,” she added, looking up at the dark edifice. Several stones appeared to be missing from the tower’s looming walls, now lying half buried in the dirt below, overgrown with moss and lichen. Black windows peered blindly into the surrounding darkness. “Cass, if we can get up there, can you see to the ground?”
The leonin inclined her head upwards. “Maybe,” she said. “But it’s pretty dark out here, even for me.”
The entrance to the tower proved to be intact – a little too intact. The shadowy doorway contained a rotten looking door. Balthor pushed experimentally on it, hoping not to create too much noise. With a dull crack, it gave way, and they soon gained entrance to the dark interior.
As they entered, Feral found himself standing rather closer to Cassanya than he quite meant to, bumping the back of her hand with his elbow. It had been dark outside, but now the only light that did get in came through the few small windows high above, casting a darkness so deep that he couldn’t see the floor under him. Here and there, he could make out an edge, or a corner, but no more. Far too dark.
“Are you sure we can’t light a torch?” he asked.
He thought he heard Tallow shake her head from the way the hood of her tunic rustled. “We can’t – in this darkness it’ll shine like a beacon and bring them right to us.”
“If I thought they’d bring the fragment of the staff with them, I’d chance it,” Feral said. It was a stupid statement, and he knew it, but it was also true. Anything that got some light would be a good thing, in his opinion.
“There’s stairs in that corner,” Cassanya said quietly. “Let’s go, Tee. Can the rest of you wait here?”
Feral couldn’t even see the stairs, so he felt he had little choice but to agree. He heard Cassanya move towards Tallow, guiding her through a darkness no human could have navigated.
“Gotta admit,” Archer sighed. “I wish I had eyes like that.”
Feral nodded in agreement as he heard their two friends slowly climbing the wooden stairs, ascending what sounded like a spiral staircase, their footsteps circling overhead. He shivered as a cold breeze came in through the open door, pulling his cloak tighter around himself and hoping they wouldn’t take too long.
“Careful, there’s a step missing,” Cassanya said, keeping a firm hold of Tallow’s hand as they ascended the ancient staircase.
“Where?” Tallow hissed, looking at the blackness underneath her feet.
“Next one. Foot up and forward, there, you’re clear.”
Tallow sighed, a little shakily. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I can’t see a damn thing!”
Cassanya chuckled quietly. “Don’t worry about it, we only need one eye that works, and I have two.”
“I’m not even going to speculate about ways of sharing them.”
“Probably for the best. Another missing one. Two, even.”
Tallow swore softly, then gave a quiet and quickly stifled scream as Cassanya picked her up, stepping over the large gap.
“Sorry, seemed easiest,” the leonin said, continuing up the dark staircase, easily carrying her friend’s relatively slight weight.
“I’ll second that,” Tallow giggled, putting her arms around Cassanya’s neck, discovering that there was a strong sense of of security in being held close to the big leonin. “But is it me, or is it getting a bit lighter?”
Rather strangely, it seemed it was, and by the time Cassanya set her friend down on the stonework of the lookout balcony, the darkness had receded from that of near-night to something nearer early twilight. Indeed, Cassanya could now see upwards to the edge of the gorge in which the eerie forest lay. Receiving no reply when she echoed this realisation aloud, the leonin turned to find Tallow leaning out over the balcony wall with the distinct posture of a child who's just seen a sweet shop. Lightly tugging her friend back into a less precarious position, she followed the apprentice's line of sight.
Ah. Yes, well, that was quite odd.
From their vantage point high up in the tower, Cassanya could now see that the reason things seemed lighter up here was that the darkness was deeper nearer the ground. Shadows shifted and rolled like a black fog upon the land, an unwholesome miasma that seemed to be sucking the light into it. Gazing out across the canyon floor, the remains of buildings could be made out through the gloom, some rising high enough to poke into the slightly lighter reaches higher up.
Some were small, hardly bigger than houses. Others were larger, running a hundred or more feet in length, and two or three floors high. All were crafted out of the same grey-brown stone as the watchtower they stood on, cut from the enduring rock by skilled hands whose work still stood hundreds of years later.
For the most part. Despite the differences in shape and size, all the buildings had one thing in common. They were all broken. Tumbledown walls displayed gaping black holes, roofs were crumbling, bare timbers poking up like bony fingers clawing at the purple sky. Trees grew up between and sometimes through the shattered buildings, dark branches lacing through the rotting timbers in their quest to reach the heavens.
“Is that safe?” Cassanya asked, gesturing to the shifting black murk below. From this height, it completely obscured the ground.
“I think so...” Tallow answered hesitantly. “Magic like that often looks worse than it is. The absence of light doesn't necessitate the presence of anything evil – it's a negative state, rather than a positive one. And it hasn't killed the trees and they've been here ages! Not that trees should be growing in the dark,” she went on, looking puzzled. “Oh my, Cass, look!” she pointed suddenly, grabbing Cassanya's sleeve, and the leonin followed the gesture towards a large building on the far side of the ravine. It looked like it was made of white stone, perhaps marble, because it showed up clearly against the darkness of the rock face behind it, the pale peaks of its spires rising into the thinner layers of the dark mist. It was clearly something special.
“The library...” Tallow breathed, and Cassanya felt a twinge of disappointment. “I have to check it out!”
Cassanya frowned at her. “Why?” she asked. “Won’t it be empty?”
“I don’t know,” Tallow admitted. “But I'm less and less sure this place was intentionally abandoned. This isn't how a town looks when it just falls into disuse, this was something pretty catastrophic. It may be that nobody has come back here since then. If that library is still stocked, it could have loads of useful information.”
“Like what?” Used to her friend’s enthusiasm for collecting random data, the leonin had long since learned to insist on knowing what they were trying to find before making any arrangements to actually go and find it.
“Something about dragons, for one,” Tallow said. “This place was in use before and during the dragon war, there might be something we can use against them. The Sanctuary library is somewhat sparse on the subject.”
“Maybe...” Cassanya said thoughtfully. “But we need that fragment of the staff more. Where would that be?”
“If it’s here, it’s not on purpose,” Tallow said. “This place was abandoned before the end of the war, and the staff hadn’t been broken yet.”
“So it could be anywhere?”
“That makes three problems, then.”
“What are the others?”
“There’s a campfire over that way,” Cassanya pointed. “And there's a light in that building over there.”
It wasn’t news that Feral wanted to hear. He could, he felt, have coped with searching this dark and creepy broken down town enshrouded in its weird, dark, magical mist that didn't seem misty when you were stood in the middle of it. He could also, he felt, have managed to avoid detection by the other search party that was looking for the fragment of the staff, thanks to his own keen hearing and Cassanya's leonin eyesight. Put together however, he felt that it was a bit more than he was quite ready for.
What came out of his mouth however, was, “So how do we start?” and then wondered why it had done so as everyone looked at him. “Well, we still have to find the fragment, don’t we?” he added uncertainly.
“Actually, I had a bit of an idea about that,” Tallow said, looking unexpectedly cheerful under the circumstances. “Cass, do you still have that pointer charm?”
“Of course,” the leonin dug in a pocket. “I figured it was still useful if Feral... if we ever got separated,” she smiled at the half-race, looking slightly embarrassed, but Feral felt as if the darkness lifted a little around them.
“Which way it is pointing?” Tallow asked as the tall feline held the small metal disk in her hand. She frowned, and Tallow repeated the question. Cassanya tapped the pointer with her finger a few times, still glowering at it.
“That way,” she gestured somewhere to the left of the dark watchtower, indicating a direction that didn’t even come close to Feral. “Now that way,” she moved her arm left. “That way again! Stupid thing,” she tapped it again, and looked about to shake it when Tallow stopped her, taking the metal disk and looking at it closely.
“What’s wrong with it?” Feral asked.
“Nothing, I think,” Tallow told him. “The Dragon Staff is a tremendously powerful artifact – it’s not something you want to leave just lying around unshielded. Not if you expect other spells to work correctly in the vicinity.”
“It’s pointing the way to that fragment?” Feral’s ears rose visibly in excitement.
“If you call this pointing the way,” Tallow showed him the arrow as it oscillated over an arc of about an eighth of the dial. “It might not even be that way, maybe it’s thrown the charm off completely...”
“But it’s a start,” Feral nodded, trying to sound more confident than he felt. “It’s worth hoping.”
“Best get movin’ then,” Archer suggested. “Might be lucky and that lot ain’t found it yet.”
“So what if they have?” Balthor rested his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“We don’t need a fight,” Cassanya reminded him gently, laying her hand on his sturdy shoulder.
“We may not get a choice. Better to be ready to do what’s needed. ‘Sides,” he chuckled and patted Feral on the shoulder. “We do have a secret weapon.”
“We do?” Feral asked, then realised the lupari meant him. “Oh...”
Cassanya didn’t look happy, but apparently couldn’t think of a suitable response, because she sighed, muttered something about, “Going to kill me if he gets hurt,” and started back towards the shadowy path that would lead them into the depths of the ruins.
“You go,” Tallow said, hanging back as the others moved to follow. “I need to visit the library.”
“Tee,” Cassanya sighed, rubbing her temple and looking thoroughly irritated. “This isn’t the average road trip, I don’t think we have time...”
“I need to,” the apprentice repeated icily, somehow managing to look quite dangerous, her feet planted firmly on the spot, her staff gripped tight in both hands. Perched on her shoulder, Woodward fluttered his wings supportively. It was quite clear that neither of them were going to back down on the matter.
It was, Feral kept reminding himself as he huddled in the darkness under a patch of thick bushes, only logical to split up. Tallow did have a point that the library might contain useful information, and from what she had said it seemed likely that it might just be of as much use as the fragment of the Dragon Staff. After all, who could say what the ancient magi had known about dealing with dragons? Perhaps there was even knowledge relating to how the staff had been created. Maybe they could even make another with the information Tallow found in those books.
It was this reasoning that had led him to support Tallow’s decision, an action that had earned him the second frostiest glare that Cassanya had ever directed at him. It had been a tough thing not to change his mind on the spot, but he had held firm, and faced with both his and Tallow’s insistence that it was the smart thing to do, the big leonin had finally agreed. Then Feral had suggested that Cassanya should go with Tallow, due to her eyesight being more suited for reading in the dark, and she had given him the frostiest glare she had ever directed at him. Still, the end result had been as desired, and Tallow and Cassanya had headed off towards the library, the logical choice for that particular mission.
Quite whether he, Archer, and Balthor were the logical choices for their mission was something Feral hadn’t decided yet. It was probable that they now stood less chance of detection now than with all five of them bunched together. And this too seemed to be working. The four people in dark cloaks did not seem to have noticed him as they walked past, two of them holding torches above their heads.
“Blasted map’s wrong!” one of them said roughly. “Where’s the damn gateway then?”
Feral wished the cloaked vulpani hadn’t stopped right in front of his bush. His heart seemed to be beating loudly enough to be heard by all four of the strangers, especially since at least one of them probably had hearing as acute as Feral's.
“That way,” the shortest of the four directed, pointing with difficulty around the spade, pick axe, hammer and chisel he had clasped in his arms. The muscai’s cloak trailed the ground, as if nobody had thought to cut it for his small frame.
“Shut up!” the vulpani snapped. “I didn’t ask you! Get moving.” Nonetheless, he turned and headed in the direction indicated, the muscai hurrying after him as the other two exchanged amused glances.
“Phew,” Archer exhaled as the dark strangers left. “Thought they’d see us for sure then.”
“Just lucky, I guess,” Feral said, standing slowly, looking the way the others had left.
“Why are we hiding from them, anyway?” Balthor grumbled, brushing dead leaves off the front of his vest. “Could’ve taken them easy, you know. Easier to do this with them tied up quiet somewhere.”
He was probably right, Feral thought, but... “We don’t know how many more of them there are, or what they might have at their disposal. I could do without meeting another dragon.” A chill memory swept down his spine, making him shiver.
Balthor paused, then nodded reluctantly. Even the strong lupari might struggle a bit with a full size dragon.
“Which way?” Archer asked as Feral lifted the pointer charm.
“There, maybe,” the half-race inclined his head towards a towering black edifice some fifty yards away. Both long and tall, it had a turret at each end, the grey slate roof shining wetly in the light fog that had started to form. While it was comforting to feel that real, honest weather seemed able to make its way through the magical murk surrounding them, the strange twilight turned the reflected light the disconcerting colour of drying blood. “Hard to tell though,” he eyed the wobbling arrow dubiously as it rocked on its mount. The entire building occupied only about half the arc of movement. “Guess we should check it out anyway.”
Oh yes, Feral reminded himself again, looking up at the dark arching doorway as it loomed over him. Splitting up was the faster search method, and it was logical to search as quickly as possible. The knowledge didn’t stop him missing Cassanya’s presence just a little though. There was after all, something comforting about seven feet of friendly feline, especially when the surroundings were cold, dark, and creepy.
The grey stone arch showed only occasional highlights in the feeble glow of what was theoretically the sun. Feral wasn’t quite convinced anymore, since it was now dimmer than the moon, so dulled that it seemed slightly mottled, far from the uniform, white hot blaze that he was used to.
“You all right, mate?” Balthor rested his hand on Feral’s shoulder, making him jump. “Look a bit out of it.”
“Fine,” Feral nodded quickly, not wanted to give any impression that he wasn’t. Stupid creepy place was making him jumpy. To emphasise that nothing was wrong, he shoved the door forcefully. It swung open with mercifully little noise, a kindness that wasn’t really deserved. A breath of icy air washing outwards, ruffling Feral’s hair and flattening his ears back against his head. He shivered convulsively, turning his face away from that chill breath.
“Gonna need a torch then,” Archer said matter-of-factly, peering into the chilly darkness ahead, and Feral sighed with relief. “Got yer tinderbox, Red? Mine's empty.” the sciurel asked, digging in his pack and producing a wooden torch and a jar of oil.
Feral had, and in moments Archer had vanished with it into the darkness ahead of them.
“Well come in and shut the door!” Archer barked at him as he hesitated. “Can’t light up outside now can I?”
It was a fair point, but it didn’t help Feral’s feet any. It seemed they much preferred being outside in what passed for the daylight and really didn’t want to move into that cold darkness ahead of him.
“Red?” he heard Archer’s voice from the darkness ahead. “Tis all right, guv, come on in.”
Feral felt Balthor standing beside him, and took a deep breath. The lupari’s hand gave his shoulder a squeeze, and he took a step forwards. It was seriously cold inside, he discovered. His breath would almost certainly be steaming in front of him, if only he could see it. Of course he couldn’t, and that really wasn’t making him feel any better. Then Balthor pushed the door shut behind him, and it went really dark.
Completely, utterly, pitch dark.
In the dark.
“Do we get that damn torch?” Feral snapped, more harshly than he quite meant to.
A flare, a wash of light, and there it was. He sighed in relief.
“Thank you,” he said quietly, not looking at Balthor who he was fairly sure was watching him with a degree of concern.
The flickering light shone upon a wide, vaulted chamber of dark stone. At the far end, a broken window reflected the torchlight in glittering shards. Despite the shattered pane, there was no sign of the sky outside, as if the window was draped in black velvet. It was a less than welcome reminder of the enchanted nature of their location, and Feral tried not to dwell on it.
Three doors with barred windows were set into one long wall. The other side of the room had no wall. Instead, the floor fell away into a pit whose bottom limits could only be guessed at. At the far side, a flight of spiral steps lead down to the lower level, as well as up to the floor above.
Archer peered through one of the barred doorways, holding his torch up to illuminate the room beyond.
“Empty,” he said. “Few rags and a bowl... Keeping people here?” he frowned.
“Better hope not,” Feral tried to prevent his teeth chattering. Why was it so cold? “Tee wouldn’t like it.”
“But I wouldn’t put it past them,” Balthor remarked, peering into the second cell and finding it as empty as the first. “From what I know, magi let you study anything you like. Bad business.”
“Up or down?” Archer asked as they approached the spiral staircase.
Feral leaned on the railing by the staircase. At his feet, the floor fell away into a great, light-less chamber whose bottom wasn’t reached by the torch light. A chill breeze seemed to be stirring, an icy breath down the back of his neck. The pointer charm didn’t have any suggestions, simply swinging uncertainly on its pivot.
“Down,” he grimaced. “Let’s get it over with.” He was really, he decided, really starting to hate dark places below ground level. It didn’t help, he thought, looking at the dark window, that not a spark of light came in from outside. He hoped that the darkness would lift once they left the building, swallowing nervously as the question of what to do if it didn’t crossed his mind.
The half-race gasped as he put his hand on the stair rail, pulling it back quickly and blowing on his chilled fingers. Looking at it more closely, he realised that it was covered in a thin layer of clear ice. The steps, thankfully, weren’t quite so bad, and they were able to make their way down to the lower level with only a couple of wobbles.
As they stepped onto the floor, Feral was sure he heard a slight noise in the darkness ahead.
“Prob’ly cockroaches or rats, or summit like,” Archer said. “Nowt to worry over, Red.”
Feral nodded, trying to ignore the cold knot that had settled into the pit of his stomach. Gritting his teeth, refusing to let his companions see how he felt, he stepped forwards into the darkness, Archer following him to light his path. A table emerged from the darkness, two chairs on either side. Atop the table, a roll of leather and dust. Archer lifted it and it cracked, splitting apart in his fingers.
“Scroll case,” he said. “Maybe they were keeping books an’ stuff down ‘ere?”
“Might be worth seeing what we can find for Tee...” Looking around in the flickering gloom, Feral spied what looked light it could be a set of shelves against the wall, he made for it, his shadow leaping in front of him as Archer trotted after him with the torch.
They looked at the shelves, Feral clenching his hands in his pockets against the unwholesome chill. No books were in evidence, but there were numerous jars, mostly broken, the wood stained where something had leaked out. One was full of some kind of liquid, a dark mass floating in the centre. He leaned forwards, trying to make out what it was, finding himself strangely drawn to it as Archer lifted the torch, standing on tiptoes to get a better view of the top shelf.
The dark blob twitched.
Feral swore and jumped backwards, straightening so suddenly that he knocked Archer’s arm. The flame left an arc of light in the air as it was jolted out of the sciurel’s grip, falling as if in slow motion to land on the floor even as Feral toppled backwards himself, hitting the stone with a yelp. The torch sputtered for a moment, then went out.
The small skittering noise sounded again from somewhere to Feral’s left, even as he heard his companions make exclamations of dismay. Backing up, he tried to orient himself, but tripped over something behind him. He was sure he could hear the noise again, closer this time, but now on his right.
“Get away!” he shouted, his hand instinctively searching for something on the floor behind him, hoping to find anything that might generate light. Oh for one of Fellirion’s lightglobes!
“Red? Where are ya? What’s up?” Archer’s voice echoed in the blackness.
Feral’s hand encountered something on the floor, and he gripped it. Fairly smooth, thin but long, a slightly rough bulge at one end... he shouted and recoiled in recognition just as the torch flared again, throwing himself across the floor, rolling and staring back at where he had been in horror.
On the stone floor were markings, a complex concentric pattern carved into the rock, and in the centre...
Arranged in roughly the shape of a skeleton, there was something not quite right about the outline. The lower legs and forearms seemed disproportionately long, the skull stretched and distorted. Around each wrist and ankle, heavy iron rings, chains running to eyebolts embedded in the floor. The fleshless mouth smiled a lopsided rictus grin into the darkness that its empty eye sockets would never see.
“Feral? Feral, it’s all right,” Balthor leaned over Feral as the he stared at the skeleton.
“What... the... hell... is... that?” Feral gasped, his breaths shallow and fast. So now it was dark, freezing, and there was a dead body on the floor in front of him. He felt like the dark ceiling was pressing down on him, making it hard to breathe.
“Feral?” Balthor put his hand on his friend’s slim shoulder, feeling him jump at the contact. “It’s all right,” the lupari repeated, looking at him closely.
“Oh, yes, of course,” Feral heard himself say, aware of but quite unable to prevent the rising note of hysteria in his voice. “All good rooms... should be like this. After all... what’s a home without pitch dark... freezing cold... a few scuttling things and... and a corpse or two. Just for that nice... nice homely... touch...” he panted. It really was getting hard to breathe.
“Red... relax, guv,” Archer brought the torch closer. “Tis just a few bones. They ain’t going nowhere, ain’t gonna do no ‘arm. An’ I got the cockroach,” he said, lifting his leg to show the squashed remains on the sole of his boot.
“Good... good, that’s... good...” Feral panted softly as the sciurel knelt down next to him.
“Remember the river on the way ‘ere?”
“D’you remember the river?”
Not understanding, the half-race nodded, his eyes still on the misshapen bones on the edge of the light from the torch. Balthor had moved over to them, and was prodding them with his boot, looking curious in a way that only strange people with no sense of fear would do.
“Good,” Archer nodded. “D’you remember ‘ow the sun sparkled on the water? The way the grass on the banks waved in the wind?”
“’Ow about the way it smelled?” Archer took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, as, unintentionally, did Feral. “I love the smell of water like that,” Archer went on. “Clean, an’ crisp, an’ full of life. All the plants and trees on the banks addin’ to it, all mixin’ together just right so that when the wind brings it to you, tis like it washes over you, like liquid green.”
Feral closed his eyes, taking a slow, deep breath, momentarily lost in the memory, almost able to smell the water flowers once more.
“Good, guv, that’s good,” Archer said quietly, patting Feral on the shoulder. “You just remember that for a bit, all right?”
Nodding, Feral felt calmness steal over him, soothing the panic that had been gnawing at him. It wasn’t so bad, he realised. It was cold, and dark, but that was all. There was plenty of space, there was nothing beyond a few small insects out there in the shadows... certainly nothing that would hurt him.
“Sorry,” he said quietly.
The sciurel smiled. “Sure thing,” he said. “Now get up before you freeze to the floor.” Standing, Archer put a hand under Feral’s arm as Balthor returned to do the same on the other side, and together they hoisted the half-race to his feet.
“Not a one for dark places, then?” Archer asked, and Feral shook his head.
“When... when we were back in the mines... when the roof collapsed, it threw me down into another tunnel. I wasn’t hurt, but... there was no light. Nothing. I had to... to find my way out blind. Must have been an hour, maybe two. All the way I was thinking that there might not be an exit, or if there was I knew... knew that if I was going the wrong way, I was going to be down there, in the dark, until I died,” Feral said, shivering.
Archer hesitated. “Yeah, Red. That’ll do it all right,” he said softly. “Why don’t you ‘old the torch?” he offered the handle to Feral, and he took it gratefully.
“What was it made you jump?” Balthor peered at the shelves.
Feral felt himself blush. “The light... flickered,” he said. “For a moment, I thought... thought something moved. I guess I kinda reacted on instinct.”
Balthor gave a wry smile. “It happens. Sometimes it saves your life, other times... well, no harm done, eh?” He picked up the pointer charm that Feral had apparently dropped when he fell. “Still pointing that way,” he indicated the wall. “Don’t think we’re gonna have any luck down here. Why don’t we head back outside? Knowing our luck it'll be in the mortar or some such,” he eyed the dark stones that rose upwards into the darkness.
It was of course, still as dark and gloomy outside as it had been when they entered the black building behind them. The fog was thickening, greying the air and blurring edges in the pale twilight. Feral looked up at the tall doorway behind them, making a note to just walk around the next one to see if the arrow was actually pointing into or past it. If there was a next one. He froze as he heard a quiet noise in the shadows to their left.
“You were right, sir,” a voice chuckled from the darkness. “Intruders it is. Should we kill ‘em?”