The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 16

The four adventurers approached an opening in the ground. Instead of a cave, as Dreekt had expected, there was just a tunnel mouth flush with the ground. It wasn’t a hole in the ground, but instead it sloped underground at a 40-degree angle. If they didn’t know it was the opening to the Dark Under the entrance would look like a jagged, oval hole in the ground.

“So,” Julian said, “this looks like the entrance to Dark Under the governor described.”

“Right.” Gaemacirch shrugged his pack from his ferret form. “Hey, Dreekt, can you put on my armor for me?”

With a quick nod Dreekt kneeled at the bag next to Gaemacirch’s head. “Sure, but you’ll need to talk me through it.”

“What,” Gaemacirch whispered, “is wrong? You keep looking at Julian like you’re seeing a specter.”

“Remember when I used the dagger?” Dreekt whispered back, pulling the armor from the pack.

Gaemacirch glanced at Julian who was arguing with Burner about something. “Yes, but what’s that have to do with him?”

“Well, I remember being at Hereweald and Wassa’s house for that, first, and the events in the forest seem to be different.” Dreekt started sorting the armor to the best of his ability. “Head or tail?” He pointed to a triangular piece.

“Head. See the concave rounded spots? Those go next to my ears.” Gaemacirch sighed deeply. “So, in the forest Julian got killed? I assume it was Mad Cedar. It knocked him out against a root, did he hit harder and break his neck?”

“No, that would’ve been quick and clean. He was impaled through the chest with a branch. I don’t know what happened to his heart, but it was gone.”

Gaemacirch shuddered at that. “Ok,” he said louder, “that’s the correct arrangement. Start putting it on starting at my tail and working toward my head.”

“So that from the front it’s harder to get under the plates.” Dreekt was clearly making a statement and not asking a question.

“Exactly.”

The work of attaching the armor went quickly. The leather tabs had been designed to easily clasp but would take more work to remove them. Dreekt knew, however, that if Gaemacirch transformed into his humanoid form the armor would be forced off and only his undergarments would remain on his frame.

– – –

“So, Gaem, why stay in the ferret form?” Dreekt suddenly ducked under a low-hanging rock. “Question withdrawn.”

Gaemacirch chuckled. “Exactly why.”

After a few minutes of traveling along a winding, branchless tunnel Burner, Dreekt, Gaemacirch, and Julian found themselves in a large cavern. Looking around they spotted at least four exits from the cavern.

“Well, what direction should we go?” Burner spoke softly, but in the silence of the cavern it sounded much louder.

In the distance they heard the scratch of claws against rocks and the sound of rushing air.

Julian turned the dimmer down on his hooded lantern. He spoke even more softly than Burner had, “I’ll try to keep the light down, but I need this to see.”

A large sack of flesh with tentacle-like tendrils growing from the sides floated over a rock and into view.

“Shast.” Burner swore under her breath. “Looks like we’re going to have to deal with gaseous tendrils whether we like it or not.” She pulled her short bow from her back and nocked an arrow wrapped in cloth. “Give me some of that flame, Julian.”

With a sigh Julian opened the lantern enough for Burner to light the arrow off the flame. The arrow burned a strange green color, close to Julian’s skin tone.

“This is a little something I picked up to deal with these guys.” Burner loosed the arrow at the gaseous tendril and when it struck the creature exploded in a purple light. “Oh, that was more intense than I expected.”

The skittering grew louder as the group looked for cover. They quickly realized there would be no cover as more of the gaseous tendrils floated into view.

“Can they give away our position, Gaem?”

Gaemacirch nodded at Dreekt. “Yes, the gaseous tendrils and the skittering creepers have a symbiotic relationship. The creepers follow the tendrils around because they’re drawn to creatures that the creepers see as prey and the creepers attack them, protecting the tendrils. Then, when a gaseous tendril gets old enough, the gasses inside can no longer provide enough ballast and the skittering creepers get a free meal.”

“That sounded nice until the end, then it got dark.” Dreekt shuddered.

“Welcome to Dark Under, where the name says all.” Julian readied a hatchet, brandishing it menacingly while still holding the lantern in his other hand.

Dreekt noticed a second hatchet on Julian’s belt and realized that when he was threatening Mad Cedar he had done so with only one weapon. As he was thinking about this Dreekt’s memory split and he remembered what happened in this version of events. Julian had threatened the tree, raised his hatchet against Burner, realized what he was doing before he struck, dropped the axe, and then the tree conked him over the head. He had never struck Burner, and in this version of events Gaemacirch had not arrived to slice through his shoulder tendon with a throwing knife.

“Dreekt! Head here and now!” Gaemacirch intercepted a skittering creeper that had leapt at the distracted skravyn.

Shaking the thoughts from his head Dreekt readied his dagger and started to ready a spell. “Thanks, Gaem. If you can hold them off, I’m going to conjure something.” He turned to address Burner and Julian. “Once I do this you guys can decide if you want to light it or leave it to hinder them.”

Burner lit a candle and used some of the melted wax to attach it to a rock. She nocked another arrow, lit it, and fired at another gaseous tendril. “I’m focusing on the tendrils. You really don’t want to deal with those.”

With an annoyed sigh Julian set his lantern on top of a different rock and opened the hood all the way, creating a large circle of light for himself. He pulled the second hatchet from his belt and hacked through a skittering creeper. “I forget, are these things good to eat?”

“Do you see a paladin or cleric here?” Gaemacirch pounced on a creeper, gouging deep into its hide. “Oh, or a druid.” He bounced off the creature and landed next to Julian, prepared for another attack.

Dreekt finished some chanting and plucked a small spiderweb from the cave floor. He motioned with his free hand at the area the skittering creepers were coming from and a web formed out of the energies he had summoned, covering the ground five feet deep, using various rocks and low-hanging sections of the ceiling as anchor points.

One of the skittering creepers had been mid-jump when the web had appeared and was caught above the ground, unable to find purchase to break free of the web.

Burner put her shortbow away and grabbed the candle. She walked over to the web. “I’m going to light it. The skittering creepers will just follow us later if we don’t deal with them now.” She bent over and put the flame to the webbing. Instantly the immediate web was ablaze and it didn’t take long for the rest of it to catch. There were screeches of pain followed by silence as many of the skittering creepers died at the same time.

“That was eerie.” Julian’s green skin turned a slightly paler shade and he started swaying slightly.

Dreekt instinctively steadied Julian by tossing Julian’s arm over his shoulders and his arm over Julian’s shoulders. “I don’t think we have time to be queasy. I’m sure that fire’s going to attract something else, so we need to move.”

“Agreed.” Gaemacirch nosed Julian. “Look, if you need to ride for a little that’s fine, but I’m wearing armor so it won’t be very comfortable.”

Julian grabbed Dreekt’s staff from his pack and leaned on it a little. “No, I think this will help, if you don’t mind.”

“Go ahead. We’ll move faster if you can move on your own.”

“I’ll give it back in a few minutes, I’m sure.” Julian stuffed some small pieces of cloth up his nostrils. “And this helbs with the snell.”

“Well, which tunnel should we venture down?” Burner pointed at two tunnels that were to the left of the tunnel they entered through. “Left, or right?”

“Heroes go left,” offered Dreekt.

Burner nodded. “Well, that’s fine with me. Left it is.”

“Why would heroes go left?” Gaemacirch asked. “I thought right is always right.”

“I’m left-handed. That’s why.” Dreekt motioned at the dagger in his left hand.

Gaemacirch rolled his ferret eyes and followed behind Burner.

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Medakus Grimoires: Iaceo – Ch. 1

[Author’s Note: I started writing this book…around ten years ago or so? Wow. Anyway, this is the third time I started over writing Iaceo and this is a better draft than the first two, in my opinion. As with the other books and stories here I am working on this wile I post it. Enjoy.]

After school Daren Medakus worked a part-time job at Shadow Trading Cards and Hobbies. The third trimester of his senior year was starting tomorrow, and he was only half paying attention at the register. The shop closed in five minutes and it was empty, so he let his mind wander to his weekend training. Up until recently he had trained with his father every Saturday morning. Now, though, his father was on a long assignment from the council and wouldn’t be back anytime soon.

“Oi, Daren! Pay attention!”

Looking up from his thoughts Daren saw a customer waiting silently in front of the counter. “Sorry, didn’t hear you.”

The customer put a few card packs and a board game onto the counter.

“Silent, eh?” He started ringing up the items, the customer still said nothing. “That’ll be thirty-five fifteen.”

The customer handed him a fifty. Daren held it up to the light to check for the watermark. There was none.

Daren looked over to where Cal was restocking. “Hey, Cal! Can you double check this for me?”

Cal Stver set down a box of board games and walked to the counter. “What’s up?”

“Please tell me I’m just blind.” He handed the bill to Cal.

The bill was held up to the light once again. “Yup, you’re just blind. You want me to ring him up?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna go home.” Daren swapped locations with Cal and went to the employee room to time out. He picked up his school bag and walked out the back of the store.

Daren went to get in his pickup and realized his vision was too blurry to drive. Something was wrong. Very wrong. He pulled out his phone to call his father the phone dialed but then came back with a busy tone. Cursing under his breath Daren started to call his mother but stopped and walked back into the store. Cal had his key in the lock when Daren opened the door.

“Yo, something wrong?” Cal asked.

“I don’t feel so…” Daren fell forward and Cal caught him, laying him down gently.

“Well, that’s not good.” Cal pulled out his cell and called Daren’s mother. She picked up immediately. “Hey, Neta it’s Cal. Daren just passed out on the floor. You may want to get down here. I’m calling a medic.”

“I’m coming. Don’t call a medic though, I know what’s wrong. Give him water and something to eat when he wakes up.” Neta hung up the phone and grabbed a few bottles from the cellar shelf before rushing to get in her car. “Now he’s gone and done it. Why didn’t he listen to me this morning?”

– –

Daren woke up in a chair in the staff room of Shadow Trading Cards and Hobbies. Cal sat in front of him with a bottle of water and a snack bar.

“Good morning sleepy head. Your mom’s on the way.” He held out the water and snack bar. “Your mom said to get you something to eat and drink. Are you okay?”

“I think so, mom warned me this morning. She said to drink that brew before I left.” Daren looked for his backpack. “Something about the flow of energy in the area or something.” The words left his mouth before he realized who he was talking to.

Cal chuckled. “Yeah, you magical types always slip up around me. I must just have that kind of face or something.” He held up the snack bar again. “Eat. I’ll get your grimoire for you.”

Daren took the snack bar and water in stunned silence. How did Cal know he was looking for his grimoire? How did he even know what a grimoire was? He opened the snack bar and took a bite. “Tastes vaguely of aloe…a little weird.”

“Yeah, just had a sample case brought in. I don’t think we need them for anything, though.” Cal was rummaging through Daren’s messenger bag. “Ah, grimoire.” He set the book in the seat next to Daren. “So, you aren’t going to kiss a vampire later, are you? The aloe tends to burn.”

“If I was I’d be taking my life in my hands already.” Daren finished the bar and drank some of the water. “So, what are you, anyway?”

“Your boss. If you need something more specific than that we can talk about it later. I think your mom’s here now.” The sound of a car engine reached the staff room. “I’ll go let her in.” Cal stood up and started toward the door. “Oh,” he said without turning back to Daren, “if you want to know more just look up my family. The Stver line is an interesting one. I don’t know everything myself. I don’t have the resources you probably do.” He left the room.

As soon as Cal was out of sight Daren opened his grimoire to somewhere in the middle and pulled out a pressed flower. He then turned to a section near the front and started reading from it. He instantly felt better as the flower disintegrated and a protective layer of magic surrounded him.

Neta walked into the room and saw Daren’s grimoire open. “Close that now, young man. You’re in enough trouble as it is.” She got closer and whispered. “What if Cal found out?”

“He already knew.” Daren closed the grimoire and held his hand out. “Just give me the potion. My mana’s out of whack.”

Neta sighed and handed two vials of thin powders to him. One was blue and the other was orange. “Mix it in the water and drink it all. The blue one is Blue Ash.”

The powder was already mixing into the water. Daren put the cap on and shook it. “What’s the other?”

“Orange flavoring. Blue Ash tastes terrible.” Neta watched as Daren started to drink. “Good. I’ll go talk to Cal.”

“Before you do that, do you know anything about the Stver family?”

“They run a cult in Armenia. Cal has no ties to them, though. I checked”

“I don’t think that’s what he meant when he mentioned his line. Do they have any abilities?”

Neta shook her head. “If they do you have the thing that might tell you right there.” She pointed at his grimoire. “That was your grandfather’s and his grandfather’s and his. Maybe it has something on the Stver line.” She walked back into the main part of the store.

Daren drank the rest of the water and felt his mana balance back out. “Stupid mana flux. I thought the report said it was over. Whatever.” He started to flip through his grimoire. “Hmm…Stver line. Armenia.”

– –

Cal was waiting for Neta behind the store counter busying himself with some inventory. “Ah, is he doing okay?”

“Who are you?” Neta looked him up and down with menacing eyes. “How did you know what Daren was?”

“I’m a seeker.”

Relief washed over Neta’s face. “Why didn’t you just tell him that?”

“Because I’m not with the council. I technically don’t have to tell you either.” Cal turned back to the inventory and continued counting.

“Do you have any connections in Armenia I should be worried about.”

Giving up trying to count while having a conversation Cal walked to the same side of the counter as Neta. “If I did then Daren wouldn’t be working here, would he?”

“No, he’d be dead.”

Daren walked into the main store room. He didn’t seem to have caught the last sentence. He was reading aloud from his grimoire. “The Stver line split into two distinct groups around the time that the Armenian Apostolic Church was founded. Half the family moved to Europe and eventually to America while the other half remained in Armenia. The group that moved to Europe, and eventually America, took a peaceful role in their new home while the group that remained in Armenia worked against peace. One thing remains the same, however. Every fifth generation of the Stver line one of the children is a seeker.”

Cal nodded. “That’s right. Who wrote that?”

“My great grandfather. He seems to have had an interest in seekers. There’s a lot of information in here.” Daren thumbed through a few pages and read again. “Only exceptionally strong seekers can sense a warlocke. Most of the seekers of the Stver line are such seekers. Well, that explains that.”

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 15

In front of Dreekt the mist formed into a man. A human man. The man was familiar, but Dreekt couldn’t place where he’d seen the man before.

“Ah, Dreekt. I believe that at this point in your story we haven’t met yet.” The man smiled crookedly.

Blinking a few times Dreekt looked around the man, trying to remember who he was. No matter how hard he tried the identity slipped away from him but was always just on the edge of awareness. “No, I don’t believe we’ve met before, mister…”

The man smiled. “The man who has control over time, yet that time forgot. I know you’ve heard of me, and probably have a feeling you should know me. Almost everyone does.” He sighed and sat on a chair that hadn’t been there before. “I’m The Pathfinder. The god of time and prophecy. This is the second time you visited this place, and the first time you’ve done so on purpose. What knowledge do you seek?”

“I didn’t come with anything specific in mind, I just wanted to see if the dagger worked.” Dreekt thought about what The Pathfinder had said, about having not met yet. “So, you really can travel through time.”

The Pathfinder nodded. “You know, I had assumed you acted so calm with me before because you have seen me here many times before. Now I know it’s just how you are. Calm even in the face of a god.”

A chuckled escaped from Dreekt’s beak. “No, I think it’s because my physical form isn’t here, so I don’t have adrenaline pumping through me.”

“That’s possible, I suppose.” The Pathfinder motioned to the mist. “Well, what do you want to see?”

“How the excursion into the Dark Under goes in general.” Dreekt put all of his mental awareness towards the mist and it started to swirl, revealing flashes of images. The Pathfinder watched, silently, as he focused more on the details. The scene slowed and Dreekt saw Burner and Gaemacirch again. This time they weren’t talking, but were fighting a large, arachnoid creature. Behind them another arachnoid dropped from the ceiling and blocked them in.

“Shast, we need to get out of here!” Burner said as she stabbed at the first arachnoid. “Quick, call for Dreekt.

“You told him to stay behind. He’s at the tunnel where we found-” Dreekt couldn’t make out the name. “He’ll protect them and get them out of here. We’re on our own.”

The arachnoids attacked then and Dreekt dropped his focus on the scene when it was obvious they would fall to the arachnoids.

“So,” The Pathfinder asked, “what will you do about it?”

Dreekt shrugged. “I’ll try to set things up so they don’t get separated from me, but as you must know, that doesn’t always work.”

“Right, some things can’t be avoided once you set foot that way.”

“I know that an easy way to avoid this is to not go in the first place, but if I can save someone’s life by going there and have a chance of getting everyone in my party out alive, I have to take that chance.”

The Pathfinder nodded knowingly. “I understand. Now, go back to your body. Try to save your friends from their own future, it’s not inevitable.”

– – –

Dreekt woke up in a chair in the Blue Flagon. “Wasn’t I Hereweald’s house when I activated the dagger?”

Gaemacirch looked at Dreekt, confused. “No, we were talking with Wassa in the Blue Flagon when you activated the dagger, weren’t we?”

Is that right? Dreekt silently asked the spirit within himself.

Most definitely not. We were in the house when you entered the trance. I went with you, though The Pathfinder seemed not to notice me.

I didn’t either…or I guess I don’t usually notice you, so I didn’t notice you weren’t there.

::I knew about your friend. Oh, and sometimes small details change when you use the dagger and stone together. I think you’ll enjoy the next plot twist.::

Dreekt wasn’t sure how, but he knew that the person that just spoke was The Pathfinder and that he communicated in a way different from Dreekt’s spirit.

“So,” Julian said, “the tree whisperer awakes.”

Dreekt stared wide-eyed at Julian, then immediately hid his surprise. “Yeah, that was different than the first time.”

Burner walked up the stairs from the basement level. “Oh, good. Dreekt’s awake. Let’s get going.”

Julian stiffened up when Burner approached. “Yes, boss.” He spoke in a tone that made it clear he didn’t like taking orders from her.

“Julian, I know you don’t like what happened with Adalet, but she attacked the three of us first. You were the one who retaliated first.”

“Right,” Julian agreed, “but I wasn’t the one who killed her instead of capturing her.”

Gaemacirch stood between the two. “Look, I understand you’re upset, Julian, but you know that you can’t break the contract with Burner. The Wanderer’s travel laws protect our actions, and you know it.”

“Whatever, let’s just get going.” Julian picked up his pack and moved towards the door. “Maybe that tree should’ve killed me instead of knocking me out. Then I wouldn’t have to know Adalet died.”

::She didn’t die, the poor fool.::

What?!

::Oops, spoilers.::

Dreekt shrugged and put the dagger into his pack, then he pulled it back out, wrapped it in cloth, and put it back in the pack. “Don’t want to misuse this,” he mumbled to himself.

“Come on, Dreekt!” Burner was already at the door to the Blue Flagon.

A wizened old hand grabbed Dreekt’s shoulder right before he followed his companions out of the door. He turned to see The Desecrator for the second time in two days. “You unknowingly snatched someone from my hands. Next time that happens I will take something from you.”

Dreekt’s retort froze in his throat as The Desecrator turned into a column of black smoke and dissipated.

That’s not good. Dreekt thought to no one in particular.

I agree.

::Don’t worry about him, The Balance approves of your inadvertent action. Julian shouldn’t have died before.::

Are you always going to be in my head now?

::No, just until midnight. That’s the rules of The Black Gem.::

Dreekt turned back toward the door and ran after his adventuring party.

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Rebuilding Brangmar – Pt. 10

The tarrasque looked at the small guard outpost. A group of creatures left the building. It cocked its head to the side, trying to decide what to do. It shrugged slightly and moved back to its original path. It passed within two meters of the guard outpost, knocking it over with the tremor from its passing.

“What was that?” Throbor asked. He glanced at Tribst who was sketching the creature in his spellbook.

“Yes, tell me what it was called so I can title this sketch.” Tribst put a few finishing touches on the drawing.

Erin shook her head and sighed. “That was a tarrasque. Apparently they just walk around the plains here.” She fell silent and looked over towards Aram.

Aram was kneeling and seemed to be praying. The rest of the party waited for him to finish before turning and walking back toward the forest. It was still raining, but now they had nothing under which to take cover.

The trek to the forest was mostly uninterrupted. They saw few beasts during the day, and those they noticed at night kept their distance. Lurking just outside the firelight, eyes aglow. During one such night Aram’s and Erin’s watches overlapped.

“So, what’s it like?” Erin asked.

Aram sat up from his bedroll. “What’s what like?” He pulled his sword from the ground beside him and stood to belt it to his side. He strapped his shield to his arm with the quickness of long practice.

“Living among non-human creatures. It probably just feels normal to you.” Erin shook her head at her self-perceived naivete.

“Actually, on Yerkir, the humans are on a pogrom against winged snake creatures.” Aram shrugged. “I don’t know how it started, but both sides are vehement about killing. At least most of them…I don’t really want to talk about it.” He motioned at Erin’s bedroll. “You should sleep. Long day tomorrow.”

Erin shook her head and went to her bedroll. To her surprise there was a suit of studded leather armor next to the bedroll with a note on top.

“Erin, this is the armor I made for you. It should fit pretty well because I was praying to the metal while I did the ritual. Don’t worry, I stayed in the camp while I did the ritual.”

With a grateful sigh Erin lowered herself into her bedroll and let sleep wash over her.

– – –

Tribst shook Erin awake with his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. He whispered to her as he pulled his hand away. “Shh. We’ve surrounded by creatures all night, but some of them are getting closer. I think they’ve been following us since the tarrasque passed by.”

Looking around the camp Erin noticed a pride of lions surrounding them. The sun was slowly rising from the horizon.

“Well, at least they don’t have a blue aura.” Erin said, now knowing that silence would make no difference. “Teblats would not be a welcome sight.” She started putting her new armor on with the help of Tribst.

One of the lionesses approached the camp. In an instant all eyes were on the creature, prepared to fight it off. Then, to everyone’s surprise the creature changed shape into an elf. The elf had short pointed ears, one of which had several wooden earrings.

“Greetings, outsiders. We have been tracking you for the past few days. Why do you go to our forest, and how did you escape Domhan?” The elf stared at the four of them, awaiting an answer.

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 14

The snow fell lazily on the strange salamander’s corpse in the morning light. It had taken hours to kill the creature, but they had done it. More footmen had joined the fight as it progressed, but they still lost the majority of them.

The sixteen remaining men stood near Gaemacirch’s humanoid form. The ferret armor sat in a heap and Gaemacirch wore simple, tight-fitting clothes. He was helping the men move the bodies of their comrades. Four of the survivors were footmen who had thrown spears at the strange salamander. Only two of the archers were remaining beside Burner, the acid breath of the creature reached as far as the arrows had.

Dreekt was helping put the bodies onto a cart to take back to Dregton for a funeral and burial. Gaemacirch approached, carrying the captain’s body.

“He fought well. Do you know if he had any family?” The captain’s face was untouched, but acid had eaten at his body.

“Yes, a wife.” Dreekt helped place the body carefully onto the cart. “He said to talk to her about a dagger if he couldn’t explain it.” Dreekt handed the scimitar-like weapon to Gaemacirch. “It looks elven, almost.”

Gaemacirch studied the dagger for a moment. “Hmm. Well, Dreekt, I need to get back to helping the men.” He handed the dagger back. “Your cart should head in to be emptied.” Gaemacirch turned away then half collapsed.

“Gaem!” Dreekt steadied him. “I think maybe you need to come with me.”

Looking at his shaking arms Gaemacirch nodded. “Yeah, I probably just need some rest.”

Dreekt nodded then helped Gaemacirch onto the driver’s bench. He pulled himself up next to him. “The men can handle the rest.”

One of the men waved. Almost all the men helping clean up the dead were the archers from the wall. “Hey, Gaem, go get some rest! We won’t start burning the Dark Under creatures until you get back!”

“Remember to harvest the strange salamander!” Gaemacirch yelled back as Dreekt started driving the horses forward.

“We will!”

Part way back to the wall Dreekt slowed down and waved to Burner. She was throwing a skittering creeper onto a pile. She had changed into black robes instead of her purple ones. Dreekt assumed it was so the ichor wouldn’t show up as a stain later.

Burner waved back and started walking toward the cart. The weariness in her eyes shone through the falling snow. “We going to get some rest?”

Nodding Dreekt motioned to the captain’s body. “We found him.”

A deep sigh escaped from Burner. “Well, that’s good. It would’ve been better to find him alive, though.”

He’s not dead yet. Dreekt heard in his head.

“Hey, did we check for a pulse?” Dreekt hopped off the seat and went behind the wagon. He climbed a small ladder and reached for the captain’s neck.

Burner shrugged at Gaemacirch and walked to meet Dreekt at the back of the wagon as he pulled the captain down. She helped lower him to the ground and pulled a small mirror from within her robe. She held it to the captain’s nose, reflective side towards the nose. The mirror fogged very slightly. “Shast!” She pulled a flask from inside her robe and poured it on the captain’s acid burns while humming a dirge and casting a healing spell. After the spell the captain’s breathing became steadier.

The captain’s eyes fluttered open slowly. “Water.”

Dreekt pulled his waterskin from his belt and slowly dripped water into the captain’s mouth.

“How did you know, Dreekt?” Burner put away the now empty flask and pulled her pack off. She was waiting for an answer as she searched for bandages for the man.

Dreekt paused from giving the captain water and looked at Burner. “I just had a feeling. We can discuss later. We need to get him back into town.”

Burner nodded and started binding the captain’s wounds. “What’s your name, anyway? We never got it.”

“Hereweald.”

“Well, hold on Hereweald. We’ll get you back to your family soon. I just need to clean and bind these burns.” She motioned for the flask of water from Dreekt. “If it weren’t for Dreekt here you’d be counted among the dead.”

“Thank.”

Gaemacirch made his way around to the back of the cart, leaning on it the whole way. “Well, the old soldier is alive after all.” He nodded to Hereweald.

“I’ll be right back.” Dreekt stood back up and jogged over to one of the archers who was tossing a skittering creeper on a pile. He quickly told her that the captain was alive and to send for a stretcher. He jogged back with her. “Take the cart and Gaem back to town. Burner and I will stay with Hereweald.”

Gaemacirch nodded. “I would prefer to stay here, but I need my rest. I collapsed earlier.”

– – –

Hereweald sat on a bed on the first basement floor of his house. His wife, Wassa, was watching as Burner applied a new set of bandages and hummed a healing spell.

Burner got him to drink a sleeping draft and eased his head back onto his pillow. She looked back at Wassa. “He’ll need his bandages changed twice a day. I don’t have anything for the pain other than making him sleep. I’m not an alchemist, you’ll need to get one to make you medicines.”

“Of course, there’s one near the Flagon. If you’ll go and explain what we need I’ll send Johnny with you to pay and bring it back.”

“Oh,” Burner said “the mayor said he’ll pay for any medicine for the first month. He says it’s the least he could do and wishes he could do more.”

“Thank The Kindness. That man has been the best mayor this town has had in a long time.” Wassa motioned to the house around her. “If you need a place to lay your heads, you and your two friends, you will always be welcome here.”

Burner smiled, her eyes glowing under her cowl. “Oh, I’ll be sure to take you up on that offer the next time we’re in town. We’re leaving tomorrow to the cave where these creatures are coming from. With these many casualties you won’t be able to defend yourselves against even a small fraction of the numbers we fought.”

Wassa nodded. “Tell Dreekt I need to talk to him about that dagger Hereweald gave to him before you leave.”

“Right. He told me about that as we came back into town. He’s on the ground floor. Let’s go to the alchemist.” Burner nodded at the young human in his early twenties who looked like Hereweald and Wassa’s son. He had been on inner defense in case the dark under creatures had broken through.

Gaemacirch and Dreekt were waiting for Burner on the ground floor. Dreekt sat in a chair and Gaemacirch was curled up in his ferret form on a rug in the center of the room. When Burner walked up the stairs they stood up to leave with her.

“Wassa is coming to talk to you about the dagger.” Burner motioned for them to stay put.

Dreekt nodded but stayed standing. He pulled his pack off the floor and set it on the chair. He started rummaging through it as Burner left and Wassa walked up the stairs.

“Getting the dagger out?” Wassa nodded to Gaemacirch and approached Dreekt. “Show me the dagger and I’ll explain it.”

Dreekt pulled the dagger out of his, pulled it out of the sheath, and set it on a nearby table.

“You see the hole in the hilt? There’s a gemstone that’s supposed to go there.” She motioned at the hole. “It’s called The Black Gem. It looks like an onyx stone, but with less of an albedo.”

Dreekt looked at Gaemacirch with wide eyes. “Umm…Gaem?”

“Hold on. I’ll go get it.” Gaemacirch stood in his ferret form and started loping out the door toward the Blue Flagon.

Wassa’s eyes went wide. “You have The Black Gem?”

“Maybe. It’s the right size, matches your description, and definitely has magic energy surrounding it.”

“Ok, umm.” Wassa took a deep breath. “Well, the dagger allows the wielder to channel The Black Gem effectively without suffering the ill effects. It allows you to tap into its powers without succumbing to them. It also stores the blood of your enemies when paired with the dagger.” She pointed at a series of small, intricate runes in a shallow trench along the curved blade. “It becomes more effective against those enemies for a short while and allows you to react to them faster in combat.”

Gaemacirch loped back through the door, a small bundle in his maw. He placed the bundle on the table next to the dagger. The wrap around the stone burnt off and the stone floated into the air. The dagger also lifted off the table and the two started spinning rapidly. Dreekt pulled Wassa away from the table and watched as the two objects got closer together then the dagger dropped, still spinning, onto the table with the gem in its hilt.

“Well, that answers that question.” Dreekt reached out for the blade and it floated into his hand. “Uhh, is it supposed to do that?”

“I’ll go out on a limb here and say yes.” Gaemacirch said, keeping a close eye on Dreekt. He positioned himself where he would cushion Dreekt if he fell.

“Think about something you’re going to do soon that you want to know more about. Burner told me you’re going to clear out the dark under caves. Maybe focus on that?” Wassa watched anxiously, also ready to catch Dreekt if he fell.

“I’ll try.” Dreekt focused on the mission and saw the mist he had seen when he touched the stone the first time, only this time he had control. He didn’t feel it, but he somehow knew that his body had fallen and been caught by both Gaemacirch and Wassa. As he focused on the mist a scene began to play in front of him.

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The Fractured Mountains – Ch. 13

Dreekt felt sheer pleasure as he flew up from the skittering creepers to fight the noxious flyers. He was flying! He brought his scythe down on several flyers. After the first few he realized that he only needed to take a wing and they would go plummeting to their deaths. After he sent a few more to their doom he decided to lower back down to the skittering creepers. If he was flying and transformed back into a skravyn he would be unable to keep in the air. He would share their fate.

He glided to the ground, the battle below coming into view through the haze of lazily drifting snowflakes. The peaceful, white snow had hidden the dark and bloody battle below. The inky black ichor that served as blood in the Dark Under creatures stained the snow, making it harder to see in the deepening night.

Burner was standing with the archers on the wall, her face uncovered and her glowing orange eyes a beacon. She was no longer casting spells but was shooting off arrows from a small bow. Dreekt had seen the small bow once or twice peeking out from her pack but had never seen her use it before. Many a noxious flyer fell to her true aim.

Gaemacirch tore skittering creepers apart with his claws, never once using his mouth to bite or tear. His armor was streaked black and would need a thorough scrubbing at the next opportunity.

As Dreekt hung in midair, observing the sight, the defenders of Dregton looked up and saw him there. An avatar of death surveying the battle. His scythe thick with the black ichor of Dark Under creatures. The thrill of battle easily read from its face. They hesitated, all of them, for a moment.

Noticing the collective stare Dreekt shook his head. Gotta get back to the battle. He dove down to the skittering creepers and began to reap them as he had seen farmers do with wheat the few times he was near fields at harvesttime.

“Look, an avatar of death helps us!” Some of the men cried out.

“Either The Balance is with us, or The Desecrator is. Either way, we will win this fight! Onward!” The captain of the guard charged forward to join Gaemacirch in the fray. As he did so a large beast burst from the ground. It had six legs, three on each side, a large tail, and the scent of poison filled the air.

Gaemacirch froze in mid strike. He turned and faced the creature. “Strange salamander.” He turned to the captain of the guard. “We cannot hope to win against that. If we can hold it here until daylight it will go back underground, but many men will lose their lives if we do so.”

“And if we don’t we will lose the town.” The captain over at Dreekt, still reaping strange salamanders. “The tower mage sent me a message. That’s your skravyn friend over there.” He looked concerned. “The men see it as a good sign, but if they knew it was a skravyn that turned into an image of The Desecrator…I’m not sure what they would think.”

“Dreekt!” Gaemacirch called out. “Can you distract the big, ugly thing?”

Turning at the sound of his name Dreekt saw the strange salamander. He had been too preoccupied with thinning the skittering creeper ranks to notice it. He flew over to Gaemacirch. “I don’t think so. If I get hit even once I think I’ll change back.” Dreekt shrugged. “Wouldn’t do any good to get killed out here.”

The guard captain spoke up. “Can you cast spells in that form?”

No, you would lose concentration. You are not strong enough for that. The spirit told Dreekt.

“I don’t think I could do that without changing back.” He shrugged. “I don’t think you want me to do that here.”

“No, but there isn’t much we can do about that.”

The nearby guards stared at the avatar of death hovering next to the captain. They were instilled by both fear and awe as it turned back into a skravyn. Fear because of the ancient stories of the armies of The Desecrator, filled with skravyn, that used to reap whole cities at a time. Awe because he had slain so many of their enemies.

“Okay,” Dreekt said, “is there any specific type of spell I need, or do I just go ham?”

“Go ham but defending the troops should be a priority. If you can protect them I would appreciate it.” The captain said, still staring at the strange salamander. “We need to stop that thing from taking the capital of Newwar province.”

– – –

Burner looked down at the beast in horror. He had heard tales of strange salamanders, but their monstrousness was even more terrifying in person. Slinging her bow over her shoulder she motioned to some of the archers. “Come, we need to stop that thing. The footmen are not enough.” The creature was far out of their range.

A few of the archers nodded and left ranks. The other archers spread out to cover the weak points. They followed Burner down the stairs and through the gates that shut promptly behind them.

Burner pulled out her rapier as the bowmen switched to their scimitar daggers. They looked oddly elven to be held by a mostly human force, but burner just shrugged and moved forward through the skittering creepers. The group cut through most of the creatures in their path before the remainder shied away, watching instead of attacking.

The archers saluted the captain and slung their bows off their backs. They then turned to Burner as if waiting for her command.

“Surround the creature. When it faces away from you shoot it.” Burner said when the captain nodded at her. “The creature will become confused and distracted.”

The archers nodded and fanned out. Slowly surrounding the creature from a distance.

Bowing slightly to the captain Burner then turned and joined the archers.

“May The Jester guide our hands.” The captain turned back to his foot soldiers. “Follow Gaemacirch’s lead.”

“My friends call me Gaem.” Gaemacirch said, then turned to face the creature. “If you can get under it that’s where it has the least defense, though its hide is still tough.” Without waiting for a response, Gaemacirch’s ferret form started loping toward the strange salamander.

As Gaemacirch was running Dreekt cast a protective spell over him, then swiftly placed a general ward on the collective foot soldiers. As he finished the captain of the guard placed a dagger in his taloned hand.

“Here, I feel you should have this. If I don’t survive to tell you about it, ask my wife.” The captain turned and ran to join his men, leaving Dreekt staring at the dagger.

The dagger was curved like a scimitar but looked different than the ones he had seen the archers using. There was a place in the pommel for a stone. The shape of the empty spot looked familiar to Dreekt, but he didn’t have time to mull it over. He focused his attention back on the fight. He used the same strategy that Burner had told the archers to use. Only striking when the creature was facing away, to confuse it.

The foot soldiers passed their throwing spears to six of the foot soldiers. They stood back to throw the spears at the strange salamander, careful not to be in the line of fire the archers were using.

Gaemacirch and the majority of the foot soldiers approached the strange salamander from all angles, having fanned out along their approach. Dreekt noticed that there were just over fifteen foot soldiers actually attacking the monster.

Those protection spells were a good start, Dreekt.

How nice of you to speak up, spirit. Is there anything we know that can help this fight?

Avoid acid-based spells.

What do I know?

Just reach for the power. I’ll give you the spells. We need to discuss what I have for you later. Casting the spells yourself makes them more powerful.

 Nodding both to himself and the spirit Dreekt reached for the power he felt in the back of his mind. It left the faint taste of undeath in his mouth, but he knew, somehow, that this undeath was not against the balance of life and death. This spirit was willing to come back to teach him.

Before any of the others had a chance to attack Dreekt shot a large bolt of draining energy into the strange salamander from behind it. The energy washed over Dreekt, making him feel he could take more abuse before succumbing to it.

Just as Dreekt felt the increase in defense the strange salamander turned to him and spit a stream of acid from its mouth. Without thinking Dreekt rolled to the side and ran forward. The creature attempted to correct its aim, but only succeeded in getting a few droplets on its target. Dreekt’s feathers protected him from most of the droplets and he backed away again.

When the strange salamander had spit the acid Gaemacirch saw his chance and scrambled under the beast. He flipped over, onto his back, and clawed at the belly of the beast with the metal armor claws. The other soldiers were stabbing at it from both sides.

Roaring in pain the strange salamander began stomping the ground with its middle set of legs. The tremor knocked several of the soldiers off their feet. The strange salamander’s tail swung and hit two footmen. They crumpled inside their armor. The rest of the men hurried away from the tail but realized if they went too far the jaws would get them. They were stuck between a blunt instrument and a sharp-toothed grin.

As the tail raised for another swing it was peppered with arrows and spears. Some of the spears temporarily pinned the tail to the ground, but the soldiers realized their mistake as the tail came back up with the spears still inside. The tail was more deadly than it had been before.

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World of Souls Chapter 7: Ghost Station

The ISS Dominiot continued following its trajectory. The signal was getting closer and the crew was on edge. The third root language had been found, Earthish. Earthish was the term for the human language after years of the languages of Earth co-mingling on the generation ship that saved humanity from its dying sun. Now, most humans called New Earth home, a planet as close to Earth as they were likely to ever find. This information rushed through Blavet’s head as he looked at the report from AB-775.

“So,” Blavet turned to face the crew, “we’re coming up on an old research station.” He paused to let the absurdity sink in. “The signal is on continuous loop. AB put a translation together.” Placing a fingertip to his tablet Blavet sent the translation to the three crew members in front of him.

This message is on a loop, please do not respond.

This is research station 093 dash 702. If you are stuck in warp space come to our coordinates. There’s a way back, but you aren’t going like it. If you choose to stay, we have formed a colony on the station.

This message is on a loop, please do not respond.

“Now that we have this message we were able to isolate old text data from the broadcast and now know where we are in real-space coordinates.” Blavet signaled AB and the holoscreen in the hold flickered to life. “We entered warp space here.” A zoomed-in galaxy map appeared, a red dot started pulsating. The surrounding sector was mostly unmapped space. “And this is where we entered warp space.” The map zoomed out, moved to a well mapped section of space and zoomed back in. There was a green, pulsating dot there that was slowly moving towards a blue dot. “We’ve spent this entire time moving at warp speeds and are close to New Earth now.”

Allie nodded. “Right. We move through warp space at the same speed as real space, but usually with a shockwave effect distorting our view.” She shrugged and glanced at AB-775. “I had AB walk me through the warp travel process. We punch a hole into a ‘dimension’ with shorter distance between things, spend a predetermined amount of time there, and pop back to real space after.”

“We tend to assume we move faster here, in warp space, but we actually keep our velocity.” Blavet shrugged. “Things we don’t normally need to worry about.” He motioned at the map. “Gravity from real space is detectable here by our instruments but doesn’t seem to have any affect on the matter around us.”

“Wait,” Janine spoke up, concern in her voice, “the closer we get to New Earth the more ships there are jumping to warp…”

“And collisions become more likely.” Blavet finished Janine’s thought and started typing on his tablet. “Configuring collision avoidance for autopilot.”

“The odds of another ship ramming us in three-dimensional space are astronomically unlikely.” AB-775 commented. “I’d give you the number, but it’s very long and I would bore you before I finished.”

Blavet nodded. “That’s why I was fine with putting the ship on auto-pilot.” He shut off the holo screen and motioned to a small pile of cutting and welding lasers. “The only real personal gun on this ship is now hidden under my jacket, but I want the three of you to be armed when we dock with this station. We don’t know anything about them other than they’ve been trapped here for a long time.” He looked each of his crew members in the eyes. “If you are attacked do not hesitate to shoot, but only kill if your life is in immediate danger.”

The crew nodded one by one.

“Good. Elinog, I want you to set up a practice range here in the hold. I want everyone to spend at least an hour a day back here practicing. Is that clear?”

“Aye, captain!” The three subordinates answered.

“Dismissed.”

Allie and Blavet started leaving the cargo bay as Elinog started setting up targets and Janine helped. After walking a short distance Blavet felt a tug at the back of his shirt. He turned around to see AB-775 staring at him.

“Yes?”

“May we talk in private, captain?”

An odd request from an astrogation droid, but Blavet decided to oblige him. “Allie, you can fly solo while I talk to AB, can’t you?”

Allie shrugged. “Sure, I’ll expect you to do most of the flying when you get back, though.”

With a curt nod Blavet followed AB-775 into the medbay and shut the door behind them. “What’s up AB?”

“I request permission to use a laser cutter in defense of the crew.” AB-775 looked at Blavet, but with his flat, motionless features Blavet couldn’t read anything into the statement.

“Doesn’t your programming prohibit the use of weapons?” Confusion was easily read off Blavet’s Emris face, his three focused on AB-775.

“My programming allows the use of weapons to preserve this bot and crew members, but only if continuing function or life are in danger.” AB-775’s camera lights seemed to increase in intensity. “If I had been in the reactor room with you my computation matrix shows a 75% chance that Elinog would be whole still.”

Odd, thought Blavet, I didn’t know bots could feel, even if it’s driven by programming that sounds like he regrets not being there. “Okay, you have my permission to use any means necessary to protect the crew’s life when in immediate, life-threatening, danger.”

“I understand the need for clear, exact, commands when dealing with the life of the crew and will disregard your unintended implication that without a clear command I might act rashly.” AB-775 rolled past Blavet, opened the door, and began moving back to the cargo bay.

Shaking his head Blavet sat down on one of the two beds in the medbay. “What programming did you install on our astrogation bot, dad? I wish you would’ve told me.” A deep sigh exited his lungs as he stood. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to find out the hard way.”

– – –

Three days after translating the signal the station was visible on sensors.

Allie looked at the readout. “The power’s on, but I’m not seeing any exterior movement. Could mean nothing, but they aren’t responding to our hails for docking clearance.” He ebony feathers shuddered as a feeling of dread washed over her. “I hope nothing’s wrong.”

“I think that sentiment is shared by the whole crew.” Blavet slipped into the co-pilot seat. “Strap in everyone, we’re going in with or without clearance. We need to know how to get out of here.”

Elinog and Janine strapped into the other two seats.

“I’m not sure that’s the best idea, captain.” Janine voiced her concern. “What if they see us as a threat and open fire?”

“Then you better hope what extra plating you were able to place is enough to block defense lasers.” Blavet took ship controls and began to approach the station directly. “I’m hoping they’ll hail us before that happens.”

The station slowly became visible to the naked eye. Blavet had angled the ship’s trajectory to give a clear line of sight. It soon became apparent that the station had a lot of debris collisions. The exterior was dented in many locations and a small ring of debris orbited the station in a ring.

As the ISS Dominiot approached the scanners picked out an open docking bay. With the doors open the bay would be nothing but had vacuum.

“We have a suit big enough for Elinog, right?” Blavet passed the controls over to Allie and turned to face Janine and Elinog. “If not, we’ll have to figure out how to get him inside. There’s been absolutely no activity and we’ve made our intent fairly obvious. I think it’s likely that the station is abandoned.”

Janine had been monitoring the sensor data. “I agree, the power doesn’t seem to fluctuate at all. In short, the data backs up your conclusion. It’s either abandoned, or the people have lost all knowledge of how to run the station.”

“The second option seems less likely, but that’s the one I’m hoping for.” Elinog shook his head. “Yes, there’s a suit that fits me. It’s just bulky. That’s why AB had to help Janine with the shielding.”

The ship started to match the station’s rotation. It took a moment for the internal compensators to correct the gravity generators. “Okay, I have to put it on auto-pilot until our velocity matches the docking bay. Just hope nothing fires on us.”

Blavet nodded. “Alright, you two go start suiting up. I’ll join you in a moment.”

Janine and Elinog gave a small salute and started unstrapping.

“So,” Allie asked after the salamen had vacated the cockpit, “why did you send them ahead?”

“So they wouldn’t groan in disgust when I did this.” Blavet grabbed Allie’s head and kissed her beak. “I love you, remember that in case something happens.”

Allie blushed under her feathers. “I love you too. Prepare for the worst all you want. We’ll be fine.” She squeezed Blavet’s shoulder. “Now, go. I’ll join you after we’ve landed.”

– – –

The five crew members, including AB-775, stood in the only airlock on the ship. Elinog carried a folding ladder with him, the airlock was a couple of meters from the ground.

“Okay, last checks. Look over your partner’s suit. Anything looks wrong check it. We don’t want anyone losing pressure. We don’t know if there’s any air on this station. A slow leak is a slow death.” Blavet started looking over Allie’s suit again. After a few moments of checking seals and hoses everyone gave the all clear. “Cycling airlock.” Pressing a few buttons on the console Blavet initiated the airlock sequence. Air was being pulled from the small room to be used to pressurize when they reentered the ship.

Once the airlock opened Elinog placed the ladder in its slot and flipped it down where it slowly unfolded. “Ladder down.” He started climbing down it, head-first. He had chosen a longer ladder, so it would function more like stairs than a ladder. He turned to face the ship from the bottom. “Alright, next.”

Allie, Blavet, Elinog, and Janine stood at the bottom of the ladder staring up at AB-775. It was looking like they might need to leave him behind. He couldn’t make it down the ladder and he was too heavy to be carried.

“Fine,” Blavet said over the comm, “I guess there’s no reason not to do this. The knowledge that I can do this could save us.” He reached toward AB-775 with his hand and the bot started to float above the ground.

“Warn me next time. My sensors are going crazy.” AB-775 complained as Blavet slowly lowered him to the docking bay deck.

Janine stared at Blavet. “You’re a telekinetic, and didn’t think to tell your doctor?” She shook her head. “I take it you two knew?” She looked at Elinog.

“Yes, but he told us not to tell you except in emergencies.” Elinog shrugged. “It didn’t occur to me to say something, being in critical condition.” He looked at Allie. “I assume you were too emotional to say anything.” It was obvious he was making a statement more than a question and Allie just nodded.

Walking between them Blavet started heading for the nearest airlock. “I was born in warp. I can do things. Now is not the time to discuss this, agreed?”

“Agreed.”

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