by Kieran Judge
After she was initially was eyed with reasonable suspicion, Scooti emphatically explained how Miss Orel had appeared like a phantom from the shadows, kept Canishall and herself safely tucked away, and then proceeded to engage in battle once more the monster from the depths of the dark realms, slaying the creature with reckless, selfless sacrifice. Orel stepped in when she was given the fictitious honour of decapitating the monster. “Sorry,” Scooti said, “I get carried away sometimes. Everything else is true, though.”
“Just about,” was Orel’s comment on that.
“Well, I’d like to express my sincerest thanks for keeping our little Scooti safe. And perhaps all of us, for that matter, though our two paladins would have kept us on this mortal plane in the end.” The man in the long green travelling cassock, looking like a wizard of moss and lichen, extended his hand to Orel.
“Just doing what I can,” she said.
“I hope you’re not travelling on in the dead of night?” Moss Wizard’s identical twin, save for a robe of slightly darker green, was on his feet and with an arm around Orel in a flash. “You must at least stay the night with us. You can’t be going with all those monsters out there. Mani, make yourself useful and get a bowl of stew for Miss Orel here.”
Mani, who’d had his back protectively against the wagon in moody thought, silently rose and spooned out some chunky slop for Orel. Mani looked her over with a knitted brow and bit his lip. He turned and clambered into the wagon.
“Don’t mind him,” Scooti said. “He’s a miserable fuck.”
The darker wizard slapped Scooti’s arm. “Watch your language, young Miss!”
“It’s true, though. All he does is stay in there with his musty scrolls. Who does he think will try to steal them?”
“Maybe another one of those monsters,” Orel commented. It was an attempt at humour which died before leaving the stable.
“He’s a very intelligent man is Mani. A scholar, physician, historian; you name it. He runs the library back home in Katring, you know. We’re going to Lorres to deliver some additions to their library. Combining it with a bit of trade work as well, boring old politics between the towns, you know. That’s us; Carr and my good self are the ambassadors for Katring. Got to be diplomatic about this, you see. A show of goodwill. Got to let them know we’re serious trading partners, and that we’d like the library favour returned at some point. You understand?”
Orel nodded. They were there to look good and collect decent wages without doing much.
“Anyway, as I was asking. You’re surely going to stay the night with us? Safety in numbers, you know. Even for a woman of your skills.”
“It’s a very generous offer, sir. And as I was headed to Lorres myself, it seems to be mutually beneficial.”
“Excellent!” Carr clapped his hands together. “And may I just say, I’m sure I’ll sleep much better with three warriors here.”
“Are you saying that Garmez and Canishall aren’t good enough on their own, brother?”
“Of course not, Herr. I’m just pointing out that three is better than two.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Herr conceded.
“And you’ve tried to argue less.”
“Truth in that, brother.”
Over the next thirty minutes, Orel was introduced to the whole party. She sat and listened, mostly, just allowing them to ramble by the firelight. The body-hiders of Garmez and Canishall returned before long, hair and clothes dishevelled and muddy, cheeks flushed. Orel didn’t need to ask what took them so long to move a corpse. Fear sometimes requires a physical release post-trauma.
“I’ll take first watch,” Garmez announced. “We’re leaving at first light, and it’ll be a hell of a trek up into the pass, so let’s get some good shut-eye whilst we can.”
“What about the thing?” Vienthi pointed to the horses. “If they didn’t sense it, how will you?”
“Don’t have much choice. And besides, we know what’s coming now, so it’ll be a cinch for me to slice it up into pulp in a matter of seconds.”
“You think that, darling,” Vienthi shot back.
Discussion dwindled into murmur as the night drew on and blankets were wrapped around bodies. Orel excused herself and lay down a little way from the others. She kept her back firmly to a tree trunk, where she could keep an eye on everyone. Something was nagging at the back of her mind, and she had learned to trust that nagging, tingling sensation over the years.
I must watch for now, she thought. Stay on guard. Something is wrong, and I don’t like it any more than those fleshy, eyeless people-things. I might like it less, whatever it is.
Orel slept well, save for half an eye opening when Garmez and Canishall swapped shifts. She was the first up as they rose with the imperceptible lightening of the sky. They broke camp with inefficient haste, forced down a quick breakfast, and saddled up the horses. The fire was extinguished and they left the dark forest behind.
Not far from the final thinning edge of trees were a few drifting plains with cattle grazing peacefully, wild and tough with large twisted horns. The party followed the dirt track, the wagon’s wheels leaving muddy tracks on the clean but ill-maintained road which meandered through the grasslands. Up ahead, the fields bowed to hills, which submitted to distant mountains which, in turn, surrendered themselves to those shadows shrouded in the morning mist and fog, the ghosts of impossible heights in all their majesty. Through this ridge lay their road, the main track to Lorres and its catchment kingdom.
Within fifteen minutes of entering the plains, after quickly admiring the scenery, the party settled into a regular rhythm. Garmez took the lead, the wagon captained by Vienthi behind. Mani stayed in his home-from-home for much of the time, stepping out to stretch his legs every so often before darting back in again as if scared of the sun. Herr and Carr huddled themselves in the middle of the pack, and Scooti and Orel fell into step next. Canishall took up the rear to keep a watchful eye on proceedings.
“Katring’s nice and all, but when you live there all your life, it gets boring,” Scooti said to Orel around noon. “You know everyone, all their routines, and, except the odd traveller, it’s all flat. Not physically; there are some hills, but... yeah.”
“Do you get many travellers?”
“Occasionally the circus passes through, but they don’t count because you don’t get to speak to them. They don’t mingle.”
“Is that Mr and Mrs Sale’s Circus Extravaganza?”
Scooti put a hand over her mouth in an expression Orel thought reserved for bad public theatre performances. “That’s the one. How did you know?”
Orel smiled enigmatically. “I’ve seen them around.”
“Where? You haven’t said much about yourself. Why are you going this way? Where did you come from? What do you do?”
“Too many questions that should be saved for another day,” said the stranger, laying a hand on her pack. “This is all I have, and it’s enough. This is me.”
Canishall watched as Scooti probed further with little luck. Won’t even open up to the kid. Maybe she can’t say, or we’d ditch her. Maybe we should ditch her anyway.
As midday gave way to afternoon, the elevation began to rise. The nice smooth dirt and mud became plague to an infestation of rock, and almost without noticing, creeping up on them, the going became harder. Spurs sloped on either side as they followed their gentle curves up to the dark mountains.
Unawares to all but Orel, the party closed together. Eyes were cast to the looming ridges on a more frequent basis than before, and any casual conversation was desperately trivial. The terror of the night before had seemed all but a dream in the dawn’s light, but now, with the day’s glow beginning to fade...
Garmez and Canishall had their hands on their blades more often than not, and Orel didn’t leave them alone in their paranoia.
When the sun was finally swallowed up by the peaks, the party stopped by a small clearing to set up camp. Dinner was cold meat cuts and a little bread. After eating, Orel offered to refill them from a pool not far off. “Never know when a quick escape might be needed.”
With canteens clattering from her fingers, she walked the few hundred yards to the pool. The edges were damp and Orel bent down to inspect the mud. A few hoofprints from Vienthi’s earlier trip. A smattering of small animal tracks. Nothing out of the ordinary.
She scuffled round the edge. She didn’t see what she expected, and that raised the hairs on the back of her neck.
A foul smell drifted on the wind through the rock.
“What are you looking at?”
Mani wandered to the pool with his canteen.
“I thought I’d got them all,” Orel said. “I did ask.”
He shrugged. “Thought you’d already taken it. My bad.” He knelt down and refilled the canteen. “What were you looking at?”
Mani’s eyes lit up. “Oh? Are you a geologist? I know a little about rocks myself. Not too much, but I’ve actually got a fascinating manuscript with me if you can read at all...”
Orel leapt across the pool and shoved him up against the underside of an overhanging lip of rock.
“Just what do you think...?”
“Quiet,” Orel hissed.
On a ridge a hundred yards away, across a small but thankfully impassable gully, was a humanoid shape. Its three appendages floated like snakes tasting the air. It squatted, eyeless head twitching. In the last light of the fading day, every ridge and vein and fold of flesh was defined, the deeps thrown into hideous shadow.
Then it turned and leapt out of sight.
Orel kept Mani pinned to the wall for an additional thirty seconds before letting him go.
“We can’t stay here. We have to go.”
“We won’t get anywhere in the dark,” Orel replied. “The horses need rest, and where we’re camped is at least defensible, huddled together. If we’re on our guard, we should be fine.”
“No. We should leave now. That’s what I want, and I’ll do it.”
Orel shrugged. “You want to convince the others of that, be my guest.”
Mani didn’t take kindly to the sarcasm and stomped away. Orel followed him after checking around to make sure the coast was once again clear.
The party, as it happened, were split on the decision to move on. Mani, Scooti, and the ambassador twins wanted to clear off, night be damned, but the two weapons masters and Orel shot down their arguments. Vienthi then evened up the score. “The horses are shattered,” she said. “And even being spooked wouldn’t get them across rocky ground they can’t see. We’d just draw attention to ourselves. We wait until daylight.”
“This is ridiculous,” Mani huffed. “I’ve got a job to do and I don’t want to be slaughtered before I do it.”
“Then go it alone. Nobody’s stopping you. We’ll get your precious scrolls to their destination, and if we happen to come across parts of your corpse on the way, we’ll be sure to bury them when we get to Lorres.”
There was a deathly silence. Mani’s mouth went to catch flies before he closed it again. He went to sulk inside the wagon without another word.
Orel turned to Vienthi. “Thank you.”
“Mani’s an arse. Now you’d better keep us alive. Don’t make me regret leaving the horses unsaddled.”
Orel nodded. She, like the others, had no intention of dying young. She offered to take the watch with Canishall and Garmez, but Garmez told her not to be stupid.
“That’s not your department,” he said. “We’re the protectors here. Well, my wife is. But someone’s got to protect our sense of humour.”
“Be sacking you from your job, then,” was Canishall’s reply, which got a chuckle from the three of them.
Despite not being on watch, Orel slept lightly once again. When she dropped into deeper slumber, dark dreams came and went as quickly as the monstrous shadow on the ridge had.
Before dawn they were up again, packed and ready. Orel and Canishall made doubly sure to erase all trace of their presence, even going back down the slope a ways to get rid of their tracks.
It was then that Orel posed a question. “Who were the last ones to come through here?”
Canishall thought. “To Katring, I don’t know. Probably the last trip Mani made, three months ago or so. Not many people come this way. Lorres is so much bigger, you get there and why leave?”
“This is a major road. Not massively frequented, as you can see, but Lorres is a major town. People must pass this way fairly often to get there, from Blately and the likes. Katring isn’t the most remote place on earth, though it may seem like it.” Orel cast a casual hand around. “You see any evidence of people passing by recently?”
The pair of them looked at their surroundings. A pass through the mountains, rocky walls snug and tight around the road. Behind them, the way back down to the plains, the forest, and onward for several days back to civilisation. No people, save the odd woodsman’s hut, until Katring’s farmlands.
“Okay, I get you. What are you driving at?” Canishall asked.
Orel paused before speaking because she needed to shake a chill off her spine. “Don’t be surprised if those monster things aren’t our only problem,’ she announced.
Canishall stayed her tongue. Her reservations about Orel hadn’t disappeared, but the woman had saved her life, after all. She was silent and watchful, as Canishall herself tried to be. A kindred spirit in the way they went about things. And if Orel was nervous, well, nerves are catching, after all.
They made their slow way on through the mountains proper. A track roughly hewn into what one might consider a path or road of some sort was their only guide through the barren, lifeless oppression on either side. Orel had been to many cities and wandered more dark streets than she could remember, but she’d never felt that sensation of being watched as palpably as she did then. Her knife never left her hand, though the road continued uninterrupted.
“I recognise this bit,” Garmez proudly stated. “We’re a good tenth of the way through the main pass.”
“Only a tenth?” Herr asked.
“Still so far?” was Carr’s version.
“Don’t worry. It only gets tougher for the next eight tenths. The last one’s a doozey.”
Herr and Carr exchanged worried glances. They looked to the blade in Orel’s hand. Orel didn’t know if her guardedness was reassuring or worrying.
An hour later, they came to a fork in the road. The main path carried on into the hills, but the fork went off to the right, heading parallel to the ridge down into a chasm so deep and dark it seemed that no sunlight would ever make it down to the bottom of its trench.
“What’s down there?” Scooti asked, shuddering.
“An old road. Must’ve been used years ago before we worked this one through,” Garmez said.
“It’s the old way through, all right. Before they joined it up from this side it was built to connect Lorres to the laboratory of Grand Alchemist Hallan Fath Veren centuries ago. Been abandoned for at least three hundred years, if not more.”
The party turned to Orel and even Mani stuck his head out of the wagon. “How do you know that?”
“Read it somewhere. A long time ago.”
“A long time ago?”
“I’ve got a good memory.”
“A fellow scholar. I knew there was something about you. What are the chances?” Mani smiled. “I’ll have to show you around the library in Lorres when we get there.”
“I’d be delighted to have such a guide,” Orel said as Mani retreated back into the safety of his chariot.
“And there’s me thinking you were going to walk for once,” Vienthi called as they set off again. “Poor horses pulling enough as it is.”
Canishall watched Orel get harassed again by Scooti, who was now severely disinterested in the tales of Lorres the twin ambassadors had been regaling her with beforehand. Shivers went down her spine.
She took a look into the shadowed pass before continuing after the party.
The shadows did not look back.
A mile of wall-hugging later, they encountered the rockfall.
They’d spent some time with a deathly fall to their left before the crack arced away, leaving the path to head through a closed pass only wide enough for single file. They assumed the same order as they had across the grasslands. The sound of the wagon’s wheels and the clopping of hooves were uncomfortably loud. All hands were at weapons.
Orel heard their own breathing and feared it would bring an army on them in the dead of night, able to shoot an arrow between their eyes from a hundred yards.
“Stay close,” Garmez told Scooti, who huddled up to Canishall without needing a second warning.
Then, around the next bend, they found the blockage.
Part of the canyon had given way high above them. Scree and rock had crashed down to the canyon floor, boulders large enough to hollow out and raise a family in buried underneath it all. It was a good twenty yards deep and easily forty high. You’d need Orel’s imaginary army to get anywhere near shifting that amount of rock and dirt, and even then it would take a while.
Canishall and Orel exchanged looks.
“Well,” Garmez said, giving a particularly large rock a tentative shove. “I can safely say that we’re not getting through here in a hurry.”
“We have to,” Herr whined. “We’re expected in Lorres. You’ll all have to begin shifting the rubble. We can’t be late, you know.”
“If you hadn’t noticed, that’s half a mountain in our way,” said Vienthi.
“Well, do something about it.”
Carr laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Easy there, brother. Keep calm.”
“No. I’m not going to keep calm. This was meant to be a routine trek down a well-used road to the biggest city in the area. Instead we’re being hunted by... well, who knows what they are, and we can’t even get through here. You want me to be calm? I say that this is the exact time that not being calm was invented for.”
“We can go back to Katring,” Carr suggested. “Lorres will clear the pass eventually, or we can send a larger workforce out to do it. Then we’ll go through.”
“But we can’t wait that long. If...”
“You have no choice.” Vienthi’s voice cut the brothers’ squabbles to ribbons.
“She’s right. There’s no way we’re shifting all this. And the longer we stay here, the less comfortable I am,” said Canishall.
The ambassadors huddled together and whispered and muttered. After a quick conference, Herr faced them with head bowed. “We will return to Katring.”
Mani stuck out his head. “There’s the other road.”
Eyes on the scholar. “The other road?” Scooti asked. “The one we passed back there? The one that goes to the abandoned thingy, the... whatsitcalled...”
“Alchemy lab of Hallan Fath Veren, yes, that’s the one. I know it’s not ideal, and I know it’s probably blocked, but we don’t know that for sure. There’s a chance it’s still passable.”
“About as likely as Garmez not making bad jokes for a whole day,” Canishall retorted.
Garmez made a rude gesture with a sly grin.
“If it’s blocked, we’re even deader than we are right now,” Canishall said. “We’ll be bottlenecked even worse than here. I say we go back to Katring and come back with an excavation team.”
“I believe it’s a matter for the men in charge,” Mani said. “Gentlemen. Would you rather go home with your head between your legs, defeated, weak in Lorres’ eyes? Or would you like to impress them by exploring every possible avenue to attend your meeting?”
Conference number two of the ambassador twins was quickly called into session. A minute later they raised their heads again. “We’ve decided to try the old track.”
“Of course you have,” Vienthi mumbled so quietly only Orel heard her.
Mani clapped his hands together. “Excellent! Well, let’s not delay any further, shall we? Vienthi, get this wagon turned around and let’s get clip-clopping.”
Vienthi started to call him every name under the sun, but he’d already gone back to hiding inside the canvas, a turtle retreating back into his shell.
“We’re not really going to go down that track, are we?” Scooti asked.
“My hands are tied, my girl,” said Canishall. “I’ve got to do what I was paid to do, even if I am protecting idiots with death wishes.”
Scooti looked as if she was going to burst into tears any second, and nobody would have blamed her.
“Orel.” Canishall pulled her back when the others had already gone on ahead. “How did you know?”
“Hunches,” she said. “Bad ones.”
“Got any more?”
“Several. None of them pleasant.”
“For the safety of all of us, I want something from you. And I want it now.”
Orel looked to the gaping hole in the mountain. “A rockfall like that doesn’t happen by accident. And neither do monsters.”
CONTINUES NEXT ISSUE…