She read the note several times. Several of the words might as well have been aflame, they stood out so starkly.
Dragon Hunt - Part Six
Slowed by the minstrel on his pony, though the beast was sure-footed for the rugged terrain over which they passed, the party continued on its way. The minstrel was sent to the front to guide the way; both pegasus and carpet could have travelled faster but resigned themselves to be led.
The hills gave way into properly mountainous terrain which sloped sharply in parts; Lana was glad she was not travelling by foot. She recalled her companions’ trek into the Lost Valley, which had taken the best part of a week to complete. On her carpet, the trip might require little more than a day to complete. The peaks in which she now found herself were covered in forest which was thick but passable in most parts.
During the mid-afternoon the minstrel gave a cry; his pony too whinnied for a trio of snakes had emerged onto the trail he was following. Lana took aim and obliterated the serpents with amber missiles before they could get close.
Minutes later the trail reached a gorge where there was no clear means of crossing.
“How am I to cross?” called the minstrel.
“Did you ask that question when you last passed this way?” called Brunnhild from the carpet. “What became of your steed on that occasion?”
“It was devoured, if you must know.” The minstrel’s tone was sullen. “I tire of your needless suspicion of me. Can’t a man who has already suffered misfortune be permitted to repent?”
If he wished somebody to stand up for him, nobody did.
“Leap across,” Brunnhild volunteered. “Have another go.”
“It’s too dangerous,” said Lana. “Are there no bridges nearby?”
“I believe not, milady.”
“Then you’ll have to join one of us. Burrhus, could he ride with you perhaps?”
“Yes. You invited him.”
“My pegasus’ wing is still injured.” The gladiator seemed pleased with his response.
“You’re saying he should come on the carpet?”
“Under no circumstances,” Brunnhild said flatly.
“What of my pony, though,” said the minstrel.
“That’s no trouble,” Lana said and whispered words of magic on the wind. The pony heard them. A moment later where it had been standing was a tabby cat. It stared at the minstrel.
“Where are my belongings?”
“Still on the pony.”
“Then where’s my pony?”
“That’s my pony?”
“Yes. You’d best grab it before it bolts.”
With the cat stuffed inside a sack, the debate as to how the minstrel would travel resumed. In practical terms, Burrhus’ pegasus was genuinely injured and did not need any more strain. Burrhus pointed out that there was a space aboard the carpet therefore despite Brunnhild’s protestations the minstrel became the carpet’s third passenger.
They headed onward into the mountains, where the forest became thicker and denser still. Crows arose here and there, and other movements among the trees suggesting a variety of wildlife. At one point Lana thought she spotted a very large bear between the trees. The whole place had an oppressive, dismal air however.
“Never have I been in such a murky wood,” declared Brunnhild.
“We are nearly at the place,” said Cadogan. As the carpet and pegasus progressed the trees did not so much thin out as change their form. They were bare - the winter wind had stripped away all their green - but seemed larger, more sinister and appeared twisted. Also, great cobwebs could be seen hanging between branches, some of the silken strands were as thick as rope. Lana shuddered at the idea of spiders nearby.
“You shiver, milady,” the singer noticed. He removed his lyre from around his neck. “Allow me to play you a song which will warm your heart.”
“Do no such thing,” she said, “we do not wish to attract attention.”
“As you wish.” He did not put away his instrument. “We are very near now. Just a short distance further there is a clearing where we might land.”
“Very well.” After a few minutes the clearing came into view, and both carpet and pegasus set down. The clearing was desolate, with only a few boulders sticking up from the patchy heather and bracken which covered the forest floor.
“There is nothing here which suggests fire,” said Brunnhild.
“We are not yet at the lair,” the minstrel countered. “It is just a short distance by foot. Do you need to prepare yourselves?”
Lana thought this was sensible. “Let’s take a moment and stretch our legs. There could be more dragons.”
“Do you see?” the minstrel was saying to Burrhus. “There, through the trees? A cave.”
“That’s the lair?”
“Indeed.” The minstrel backed away from Burrhus. Then, his hand went suddenly to his lyre and he began playing and singing loudly. “Brave are they who seek their foe / they long for riches, but do not know…”
“Cadogan!” Lana was outraged. She made a pulling gesture and the instrument wrenched out of his grasp… almost. But not quite. He plucked the instrument deftly from the air and continued singing defiantly, at the top of his voice:
“The dragon’s dead, or seems to be / the fire won’t come from it,” his eyes gleamed maliciously, and Lana knew in that moment that she had been wrong all along to trust the fellow, “… but me.”
Burrhus was utterly confused. “What in the name of the Immortals -”
Brunnhild saw them first. She had hefted her hammer, ready to quieten the minstrel by force, but her grasp lessened as the first creature slunk into the clearing and began to prowl. Against the darkening sky it seemed to melt into the shadows, such was the deep dark of its gleaming coat. A moment later, a second such creature descended on enormous wings on the opposite side of the clearing, and began prowling as well.
“You traitorous scum,” Burrhus bellowed at the minstrel, incensed but distracted.
Lana too levelled an accusation at the minstrel. “You betrayed us.”
He shrugged. “You made it easy.” Something small was hidden in his left hand; before anybody could react his hand passed to his mouth and his head tilted back. At the same time his other hand threw something high into the air. Then, in the moment that followed, his body became vapour.
The man’s clothes and possessions fell to the ground, including the sack which had been holding his pony in cat form. It yelped and ran for the undergrowth; the prowling creatures paid it no heed. Lana realised with horror that there were no fewer than five of them. Two more had arisen from the tops of nearby trees and were circling the clearing on great, leathery black wings.
Brunnhild and Burrhus backed into the centre of the clearing to assume a defensive stance, their weapons brandished. Lana was exposed. She realised in that instant she had two options: pursue Cadogan who was escaping as a transparent cloud, or defend herself. She made her decision, casting a spell which summoned four replicas of herself into being. Then, as quickly as she could, she cast other spells which she hoped would give her companions a fighting chance against their foes.
Burrhus, receiving the benefit of one of these spells, flexed his muscles and gave Lana a look which passed from confusion to approval.
Amid her spellcasting there was the sound of something breaking. She glanced aside while continuing her incantation; there was something small and pathetic on the ground where the minstrel had been standing. It croaked and rolled over. It looked… newborn. And naked. She had no time to pay it any heed; she and her replicas backed away from it, whatever it was.
The creatures took this as the signal to attack.
They launched forward with bloodcurdling roars, springing from powerful hind quarters from which tails also extended. Feline mouths opened to reveal gleaming white fangs while razor claws tore the air and their barbed tails lashed in the direction of their prey.
Lana could not help but be distracted upon seeing the creatures emerge into the light. They looked similar to manticores but she saw now that they lacked a human face, and none of the creatures had expelled missiles from their tails. Surely they would have done so by now? She watched as one of the tails lashed at Brunnhild, lashing against the cleric’s shield and leaving behind a hideous, glistening residue. Poison!
Her thoughts were interrupted as a winged creature descended upon her from the sky. It was all she could do to raise a finger and blast the creature with lightning. It hissed a shriek and fell aside. A relief, she thought, but a waste of her spell against a single opponent.
Imbued with magically enhanced speed, Burrhus and Brunnhild were doing everything they could do dodge the creatures’ stinging tails. Brunnhild was countering two of the creatures while Burrhus was holding off three. He hacked at one with his greatsword, severing its wing, which caused it to fight even more ferociously than it had been doing. Lana spread her hands and blasted the creature with amber shards; it dropped dead. A separate salvo of the shards hit one of Brunnhild’s foes; after several hits from Brunnhild’s hammer it collapsed. Brunnhild herself had dodged the creature’s tail and claws, but felt its jaws clamp around her leg. It took a solid whack for it to relinquish its grip; when it withdrew blood was streaming through her mail leggings.
The ground beside Lana rent asunder and an earthen giant arose. It stamped in the direction of one of the creatures on the ground, though it flapped its wings in the nick of time and dodged the attack. The elemental then reached into the air and plucked the sole airborne creature from the sky, proceeding to crush it between its hands. The cat lashed with its tail and appeared to puncture the elemental twice in succession, but to no avail.
There came a maniacal whooping beside Lana and a tree branch was swung through two of her images. Maintaining concentration on the elemental as best she could, she turned and came face to face with…
“A rock baboon?” Vexation almost robbed her of her control over the elemental. She could not think where it had come from. It hopped from one leg to another and jibbered, blowing spittle close to her remaining images.
The elemental tossed the broken cat over its shoulder and closed to grab the baboon, but not before it had disrupted Lana’s remaining images. Just in the nick of time, as its club neared the side of Lana’s face, the elemental snatched it up, took aim for the horizon, and hurled it into the distant forest. The baboon howled as it sailed far, far away. Lana breathed a sigh of relief.
The consequence of the baboon’s distraction was immediately apparent; had Lana been able to direct the elemental’s attacks at the remaining creatures, whatever they were, one might not have succeeded in puncturing Burrhus’ armour with its tail. As it was, the gladiator cried out in anger as the stinger hit his leg with such force that the attacking creature found it difficult to dislodge its stinger. Despite the pain he was in, Burrhus’ sword cleaved through the tail first and practically disembowelled the remainder of the creature’s body in his ensuing manoeuvre. He was heard to choke and gasp, but remained standing.
This left a single cat fighting Brunnhild. She clobbered it with her hammer until the elemental could close in and stamp the creature into submission.
“You’re hurt.” Brunnhild approached Burrhus and stated the obvious once the fighting was done.
He held up a hand. “Think I’m ok… nasty stuff… but I’m alright.” His forehead was covered in sweat and his entire body could be seen to tremble.
Lana dismissed the elemental with a wave of her hand and closed to inspect the man's wound. “This is nasty, Burrhus. You’ll need to take it easy while your body fights the poison. I’m amazed you’re not dead.”
Burrhus forced a laugh. “It’ll take stronger stuff than cats to slay Burrhus the Invincible! What a victory! I fought a manticore once in the arena. Granted the trainers had beaten it beforehand, and shredded its wings to keep it from flying off, but still. This is even better. Three on one, did you see me? Oh, what it is to be alive!”
He then collapsed sideways as his body began convulsing.
“I can help you,” Brunnhild said, bringing out the scroll she had obtained from the harpy nest. She read words from it and his tremulations calmed immediately. Burrhus sat up and looked around himself.
Swapping glances with Brunnhild, Lana made her way to where the minstrel had been standing. To think he got away. She cursed herself. Why though, she wondered, had he gone out of his way to trick them? What had it achieved and what had his motivation been? Perhaps she would never get any answers.
“He may return to collect his belongings,” said Brunnhild after she joined Lana at her side. The minstrel’s personal effects were lying in a heap. “We should wait here in case he does.”
“He won’t.” Lana spoke with certainty. “Too risky. He must have been content to abandon these belongings.”
She noticed three things apart from the main pile of stuff. One was a tiny phial, which Lana deduced must have contained the potion of gaseous form he consumed to make his escape. The others were a square of thick woollen cloth, and…
“Eggshell,” she murmured. There were shards of dry, pink eggshell on the ground. Was that what the minstrel had thrown in the air? An egg?
Burrhus, meanwhile, was back on his feet.
“If it hadn’t been for this blasted instrument,” he raged, having picked up Cadogan's abandoned lyre from where it had fallen on the ground, “those creatures might never have attacked.” The more he gazed at the instrument the more his anger grew; until finally he lifted it over his head and brought it down hard on the nearest boulder.
Lana heard a tell-tale tinkle as he raised the lyre.
Too late. The instrument smashed on the rock, splintering apart. Its strings snapped in a dissonant fashion.
Holding the mess of splinters and broken strings, the gladiator stared at Lana. “Why?”
She heaved a sigh and took the wreckage from his hands. Several hidden recesses had opened due to the impact. Two were empty. Another tiny door opened to reveal a cork, smashed glass and liquid.
“Great,” she muttered. “Just great.”
“Oh.” Comprehension dawned. “What’s that?”
From the fourth and last recess, Lana used her finger and thumb to extract a piece of parchment. Some liquid from the neighbouring chamber had leaked onto it. The sheet had been folded many times until it was a small square. Lana unfolded it and saw that it was a note written in Thyatian:
I call you that for it seems as fitting an appellation as any.
I do not at this time intend to return to Thyatis. The results of our endeavours over the past few years - the Osteropolus affair in particular - have been disappointing. The opportunities in Norwold and on the Isle of Dawn are far greater. You however are to continue with the task you have been assigned. If the Alphatians should make it to Thyatis our preparations will serve us well.
Do not allow yourself to be discovered. When the time is right the Thothians should be implicated but not yet. That will gain us nothing.
Do not seek to contact me. I will summon you if I have need. Remember, when the Lord Below rises you will witness power beyond mortal imagining and you will be rewarded for your faithful service. Rest assured you are doing the work of Farbautides.
Hadn’t Demetrion mentioned a name, around that time…?
“Lana,” said Brunnhild gravely. She held up a handful of the singer’s jewellery. “Look.”
Not wishing to be distracted while she re-examined the note, Lana held her tongue rather than snap at her retainer. Every piece of the jewellery looked gaudy and cheap. There were sigils on discs attached to the medallions Cadogan had worn. One showed a lyre. Others were blank. The last Lana inspected was etched to depict a goblet. There was the slightest hint, subtle as to be barely noticeable, of a single bubble emerging from within.
Lana and Brunnhild locked gazes. The same storm was rising in them both.
Later, encamped in what had been the monsters’ lair:
"He intended to trick and mislead us, and to honour Loki by doing so." Brunnhild frowned, clearly unhappy.
"We should continue as we were doing," said Lana decisively, "and succeed so that Loki might get his comeuppance and see his plans fail."
Burrhus snored loudly.
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