Art by Nicholas Wolf.
From the author: Semya Zann lives alone in the woods, an outcast due to their mutated flesh. That comes to an end when a mercenary arrives seeking a guide to the mining town of Balhar. People there are disappearing, stolen in the night. And what is behind these attacks may be monstrous indeed...
My name is Semya Zann, and I am marred.
I fear I have lost you already with this admission. I have wrestled with how to begin this chronicle for many reasons. Surely another voice would be better? Beyond my condition, I am not lettered, nor even the most widely travelled among my compatriots. I thought of trying to hide what I am.
Luccia would not hear of it.
‘They will scoff at this the moment they understand my nature,’ I told her.
‘That is exactly why they need to hear it from you,’ she said.
So it is settled. I shall speak, and Luccia shall be my scribe. May she smooth my fumbling words.
Then, too, there is the question of where to begin the tale? Shall I tell you of my difficult birth in the lands known as the Great Basin? How my mother left this world as I entered it? Of the years my father and I spent in the wilderness just the two of us, where he taught me to hunt and forage in the dark of the woods? Of the fever that claimed his life when I was scarcely more than a child, and my desperate attempts to save him?
No. That is my story, and it matters only so far as it impacts the tale of our journey towards the Throne.
I will begin where our story begins.
The day I met Luccia.
My father had built a cabin in the deep woods, but I spent little time there. Instead I roamed. It was not an easy life: I slept in lean-tos and lived off the land. I will not pretend it was not lonely, but I had never had a chance to grow accustomed to the company of others. I knew I was an outcast from the day my father died. In the wilderness I might have been alone, but I was safe.
But even I am not immune to the allure of four sound walls. Thus I found myself trekking through the trees back towards that little cabin. On one level I was always alert. No one survives long in the wilderness if they are not. Another part of me dreamed of a fire in a hearth and a night of sleeping without fear.
Those fantasies dissolved in the face of a loud pounding. The sound of a fist against wood. I froze for a split second. I could think of no good reason for anyone to seek me out here, and lots of bad ones. I eased my pack silently to the ground and unlimbered my crossbow.
I crept forward through the trees with all the stealth I possessed. The pounding rang out again as the cabin came into view. There was a woman standing in the doorway, faced away from me. She wore a brigandine and mail, with a shield strapped to her back. All was blackened in the style of a sellsword. A sword was sheathed at her right hip. Her hair was a shock of pale blond that looked like it had been hacked short with a knife.
As I took all of this in she stopped pounding on the door with a frustrated sigh. I began to ease away into the woods once more. There was nothing in the cabin worth stealing. She was welcome to batter down the door and be on her way in due time.
‘Please, I do not disturb you lightly!’
Her call stopped me in my tracks. There was real desperation in her raspy voice.
‘They told me in Norn that you’re the best guide and tracker in these woods,’ she continued. ‘I need the best. There are lives at stake.’
I gritted my teeth. This is not your problem, I said to myself.
I turned back and aimed the crossbow at her again. Idiot. ‘What lives?’
The woman startled and began to turn.
‘Don’t move!’ I snapped. ‘Just answer the question.’
She paused and spread her hands out to either side, well away from the hilt of her sword. ‘Alright. Whatever you want.’ She cleared her throat. ‘The lives of the people in Balhar. Had you not heard?’
‘I’m not exactly included in the latest gossip out here.’
She laughed at that, the sound surprisingly melodious. ‘Yeah, that makes sense. I’m happy to tell you about it, but I have to admit this conversation would be more comfortable if I could see who I’m talking to.’
I shifted uneasily. ‘You might think otherwise if you saw me.’
‘No.’ The answer was firm, immediate. ‘They told us of your condition. I don’t care. It’s not important.’
I snorted. ‘I suppose there’s a first time for-’ That was when something she’d said caught up with me. Us.
No two cases of marring are the same. For some, the changes are only skin deep. For me, it went further. My senses had expanded in a way that normal people simply had no equivalent to. I took a deep breath, and my nose filled with the scents of the forest. But there was more. I could taste the heat of the mercenary’s body.
And another. There was someone else here.
I kept the crossbow aimed with one hand and put the other on the haft of the hatchet at my belt.
‘Someone is here with you,’ I called sharply. ‘Tell them to show themselves this instant!’
Her response was swift. ‘Elias, wherever you are, come out!’
‘If you insist.’ A man’s voice with a strange accent that I didn’t recognize. There was a rustling nearby. I turned my head in time to see him emerge from the underbrush. It was not a matter of camouflage. One moment he was not there, the next he was. Sorcery. My heart sped up with a flash of fear.
I knew it wasn’t camouflage because his garb was wildly unsuited to the terrain. He was as flashy as the woman was simple. A vivid yellow cloak and bright blue pants, tucked into what had likely once been nice boots. His hair was slicked to his head and he had a prominent and carefully waxed mustache.
‘Over there, with her!’ I said.
‘Sure, as you like,’ he said and sauntered over to stand by the mercenary.
He kept his hands wide as she did, but what did that mean with a sorcerer? Who was to say he could not boil my blood with a glance?
‘How can I trust a mage? Why shouldn’t I kill you where you stand?’ I wished desperately my voice had not quavered as I said it.
‘Mostly because I would much rather you didn’t,’ he said amiably.
The woman shot him an irritated look. ‘We’re not here to hurt you. We need your help, remember? Elias only hid because… because… why in the name of the Throne did you hide, idiot?’
He drew himself up. ‘I was trying not to scare them by outnumbering them. They live alone out here! I was being considerate.’
I glowered. The unfortunate truth was that, had I shot one of them, the other would have plenty of time to kill me before I could reload. Assuming he couldn’t pluck the bolt from the air with his magic in the first place.
The mercenary sighed. ‘This is all getting out of hand. Semya… you are Semya Zann, yes?’
‘Yes,’ I allowed.
‘My name is Luccia, and this is Elias. Something has happened in the town of Balhar. There was a collapse in the mines there, and people have begun to vanish. They’ve put out the word seeking aid. We are going to see if we can help.’
‘Well, that’s what you’re doing,’ Elias interjected.
I could hear how tight her jaw was as she continued. ‘I am going to try to help, and Elias is obligated to come with me because he owes me. I want you to join us and show me how to get there.’
I frowned. ‘It’s easy. The Chag River isn’t far from here. Follow it upstream to the edge of the forest and you’re most of the way there.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘I want more than that. You can take us straight there, if what we’ve been told is true. That saves time, and time could save lives. There’s no telling how long it took for the message to reach us in the first place. Every second is precious.’
‘This has nothing to do with me. Why should I help you?’
‘Because there’s twenty thalar in it for you.’
I blinked. Elias looked startled, but Luccia had not even paused.
‘Thirty if you can get me there by tomorrow.’
‘That would… that would require one hell of a pace,’ I fumbled out to try and buy time to think.
‘You lead, we’ll follow,’ she replied.
Elias gave a weary sigh but didn’t contradict her.
Silence stretched as I thought furiously. Thirty thalar was nothing to sneer at. I could have stayed in an inn for a week for that, if I could find one that would take me. I could buy stores to help make it through the winter. It would make things a lot easier, to put it flatly.
‘Semya?’ she asked.
‘You’re a mercenary,’ I observed. She didn’t disagree. ‘Won’t that eat into your pay?’
I was no expert on mercenary work, but surely they couldn’t be paid in such vast sums that wouldn’t matter.
‘Not everything is about money,’ she said quietly.
I didn’t doubt her, somehow. Whatever she was, helping these people wasn’t about the profit to her. Something else was driving her.
The world can only get darker if we don’t help those who need it. My father had always said that.
I took a deep breath.
‘Alright. You have yourself a guide.’ I raised my crossbow. ‘You can turn around.’
They both turned to look at me. Elias must not have seen me well before, because I saw the shock register on his face.
I have ever done my best to hide my nature. A cloak with a deep hood. Bandages wound around my arms and hands. But how does one hide the jut of a scaly muzzle? Too many teeth, the wrong shape? The movement of a tail behind you? I have never been able to pass for truly human. His shock did not surprise me. I have seen it on the face of everyone I’ve ever met.
She did not even flinch as she looked upon me. Stranger still, there was no pity in her gaze either. Just a steady measuring.
It was my first time seeing her face as well. Luccia was not beautiful, but she was striking. She had aquiline features, though her nose looked like it had been broken more than its fair share of times. Small scars marked her cheeks and chin, leftovers from some old duel. And though I did not notice it then, her eyes were two different colors: one pale blue, the other brown.
‘Ten now, the rest when we get there,’ she said.
‘Sorry?’ I asked, rattled.
She tossed me a small purse which I caught out of the air reflexively. I glanced in to see the gleam of silver thalar. I don’t know that I’d ever held that much money all at once before.
‘Right.’ I stashed it on my belt and cleared my throat. ‘Right. Well. Daylight’s wasting. Let’s get moving.’
I glanced to the sky to get my bearings and set off walking.
‘Off we go on yet another damn fool adventure,’ Elias commented behind me.
‘Start walking or get left behind,’ Luccia replied.
‘Promises, promises,’ he said.
Regardless, I heard both of them take up my trail.
The journey was largely uneventful. The Rill Wood has an abundance of terrors to snare an unwary traveler, but I had lived here my entire life. I steered them around the snatcher dens and showed them the best place to ford the Chag.
‘Not exactly pure water,’ commented Luccia as we waded through.
‘Balhar is up near the headwaters,’ I replied. ‘They dump mining refuse and more into the water.’
‘And more?’ queried Elias uneasily.
‘Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to,’ I said.
Eventually the sun began to set. Here in the woods darkness gathered quickly. As the light began to fade I motioned for a halt.
‘We’ll make camp here tonight.’
‘So early?’ Luccia asked.
I glanced at her. ‘You aren’t from here, are you.’
‘Neither of us are,’ she said.
I nodded. ‘We want a fire going before it gets any later. The darkness isn’t your friend in these woods.’
To her credit, she accepted that immediately and moved to help set up the camp.
We divided the watch among us. Elias ended up with first shift. He sat on a log facing away from the fire. There was more to him than there seemed; he knew not to ruin his night eyes. Luccia turned in and fell asleep the moment she was stretched out in her bedroll. An old campaigner.
The darkness was soon impenetrable. Strange calls echoed among the trees and unseen shapes crackled through the underbrush. I was too keyed up to sleep. The noises of the forest didn’t perturb me. In truth, I couldn’t remember the last time I had been anything but alone at night.
‘Elias,’ I said finally.
He replied without looking at me, ‘What is it?’
‘You’re a sorcerer?’
A low laugh. ‘So I’m frequently told.’
‘I’ve never met a mage before.’ I paused. ‘How does that… work?’
‘It varies,’ he said. ‘Different for each user. I’ve never met one who worked exactly the same as another. For me, I have to be able to imagine what someone else perceives. Then I can make changes. It takes willpower to make it stick, though. Harder if someone knows I’m doing it, or if I have to confuse multiple people.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That sounds tiring.’
‘It can be downright exhausting.’ His head turned a little towards me, though he kept his gaze on the darkness beyond our camp. ‘Your turn to answer something. How did you know I was there?’
I hesitated. He had answered my question, though. ‘I don’t really understand it myself. I can… taste heat. Or smell it. Something.’
He mulled that over and then laughed again. ‘That’s a new one. Explains why I didn’t account for it.’
‘How did you learn to do what you do?’
He was very still. The silence stretched so long I was sure he wasn’t going to answer. Then he said one word quietly. ‘Painfully.’ He made an abortive hand motion, shook his head. ‘Magic always comes at a cost.’
There didn’t seem to be anything to say to that. Even I know when to not pry further.
‘Get some sleep,’ he said finally. ‘You set a killer pace.’
‘Goodnight, Elias,’ I said.
We set out at first light the next day.
The ground began to slope upwards soon thereafter. Trees grew more sparse as we moved into the foothills. I did not relent on the pace. Luccia had wanted to get there today, and I would see that done if I could. She kept up with no problem, but Elias was soon wheezing and panting. He did not call for a halt more than twice, however. Whatever tie bound him to the mercenary must have been a strong one.
‘Balhar is not far now,’ I assured him as we drew closer.
‘Great, excellent,’ he said. ‘Just listen for me passing out and falling over if you would. I’d like to not tumble back down the mountain.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Luccia cut in drily. ‘If needs be we’ll drag you the rest of the way with a rope.’
Elias gave her a weary grin. ‘I suppose somebody like me could only dodge the rope for so long, hmm?’
Soon we crested a hill and came into sight of the town of Balhar. In the course of our journeys I have come to realize it was a sorry sight. Little more than a collection of shacks that filled a valley. Other times I had seen it from afar, people had been seen bustling about in the dusty streets. It was still now, with only smoke rising from the chimneys to show it was not abandoned
Back then, it was the largest place I’d ever visited, home to three hundred souls.
I pulled up. ‘Well, I believe I’ve done as you paid me to do.’
Elias frowned. ‘You’re not going to-’
He cut off at a raised hand from Luccia. She studied me then gave a small smile. ‘You have. And earned your bonus.’
She got a purse from her belt and counted twenty gleaming coins into her hand, then held them out to me. I scooped them into my bandaged palms and stared. I did not recognize the stamp on them, a griffon bearing a sword in its beak. House Tzachar minted the local currency with their own heraldry, a serpent wound about with a thorny vine into a helix.
Still, they would spend just fine. Ten had already been unthinkable wealth. I had thirty thalar on me now. I scarcely knew what to think.
‘What now?’ Luccia asked.
I blinked at her. ‘Pardon?’
‘What will you do now?’
I looked back the way we had come, to where the dark trees of the Rill waited beyond the foothills.
‘Return to my life, I suppose.’
‘Why not come with us as far as the town?’
I gave an incredulous laugh. ‘You don’t know what you’re suggesting.’
‘Yes,’ she said seriously. ‘I do.’
‘Those people would tear me to-’
‘No,’ Elias interrupted me. ‘They won’t even try. Not if you’re with her.’
‘They won’t try more than once, anyway,’ she said flatly.
I took her in once more. A head taller than me. The blade in quick reach. The killer’s swagger. She definitely was not someone I would want to cross.
‘Why? Why do you even care?’ I asked.
She hesitated, then smiled again. It didn’t reach her mismatched eyes. ‘I have a lot to make up for in my life, Semya.’ She motioned to the strap of the crossbow over my shoulder. ‘Besides, you have that. Looks well-made, and you carry it like you know how to use it. Could come in handy in getting to the bottom of all this.’
‘It is well-made,’ I mumbled. My father had made it. ‘I thought we were just talking about going as far as town?’
Luccia grinned, and this time it felt more sincere. ‘Am I putting the cart before the horse? Come with us. Let’s find out what happened here. If you stick with us through it all, you’ll get a third of the prize. If you want to leave at any time, go. I won’t stop you.’
I looked to Elias uncertainly and he shrugged. ‘The woods will still be there whenever you change your mind.’
I couldn’t hide a chuckle at that.
‘Alright.’ I squared my shoulders. ‘Let’s go into Balhar and find out what’s going on.’
We set out on the final approach to the town. My bravado quickly proved false. Fear twisted my guts as we got closer. Unwelcome images of the only time I had dared to enter a town welled up. My brow still bore the scar of a hurled stone years later. I was shaking by the time we were within a hundred feet of the town palisade. My anxiety carried me back behind Luccia, like a child hiding.
‘Steady,’ Elias said with quiet kindness.
A pair of guards stood there. These were not official constables of House Tzachar. Miner’s garb and their only weapons being stout clubs suggested they were local militia instead. I did not know if that was normal for this place or not. I had never even tried to enter Balhar proper before.
One of them straightened up and slapped the other on the shoulder as we got closer.
‘Hail strangers,’ she called as her compatriot turned to look.
‘Hail,’ Luccia called back. ‘Good day to you both.’
‘Not as good as we might wish,’ the second guard said drily.
‘Hard times in Balhar,’ agreed the first. ‘The mines are closed, so I hope it is not ore you come seek-’
She cut off. She had caught her first clear glimpse of me. It showed on her face plain as day. An instant revulsion that brought her hand to the grip of her club. I flinched back involuntarily.
‘It’s your troubles that have brought us here,’ Luccia said as if nothing had happened. ‘We have come to offer our services in aid.’
‘You can’t bring that thing into the-’ The female guard started.
The man stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. ‘You are mercenaries?’
Luccia gave a low chuckle. ‘I’m a woman of many talents.’
He glanced across the three of us. We must have made a curious trio. There was no more welcome in his eyes now than hers, but there was a certain desperation. ‘This is a matter for the town council. I’ll take them to the moot.’
The woman glowered away. The man motioned for us to follow and led us through the gate into the town. The unpaved streets were just as empty as they had appeared from a distance. There were people though. I could smell the heat of their bodies, and eyes watched us from windows.
‘If people are this scared, I’m surprised you let us in at all, honestly,’ said Luccia.
‘They’re not scared of you. You’re human.’ His eyes skittered over me. ‘Mostly.’
‘She said the mines are shut down,’ Elias commented as we walked. ‘Did something happen down there?’
‘Aye. First the collapse, and then…’ He trailed off.
‘Then?’ prompted Elias.
‘I’ll let them tell you at the council. Better that way.’ The guard set his lips in a grim line and would say no more.
Soon thereafter we arrived at the moot. It was easily the largest building in the town. At two stories it towered above the shacks around it. I felt terribly small in its shadow. It was still a simple construction, however. It is funny now to look back on the wonder that it sparked in me.
The guard led us in through the front doors. It was gloomy in there, the only light coming in through a few windows. Dust motes danced in the sunbeams. The first floor was turned over to a great assembly area. Rows of simple chairs for the townsfolk were arranged in a large semicircle facing a dais. Seven more chairs were on the dais itself facing outward. I supposed that must be where the council would sit.
‘Stay here,’ the guard said.
He didn’t wait for a reply. Instead he walked off into the shadows towards the back of the room and vanished up a set of stairs to the second floor. Soon thereafter we heard a bell ringing.
‘Calling a town meeting,’ Elias said to my questioning look.
‘Something is very wrong here,’ mused Luccia quietly. ‘Miners are not soft people. For them to be this frightened…’
‘What?’ I asked uneasily.
‘I don’t know. Hopefully we will find out more soon.’
People began to arrive soon thereafter. Not just the council. Townsfolk came and sat in the other seats as well. Men and women with hard features and rough garb. Some had even brought their children with them, somber young faces that peeked around legs.
One of the children began to walk towards me with a curious look on her face. Her father snatched her back quickly and gave me a cold glare. I lowered my head and turned away.
The council members were arriving as well. They looked much like the people of the town, if a bit older. The guard had returned from upstairs and leaned over to whisper to them. A woman sitting in the centermost seat turned an incisive gaze on us as he finished and stepped away.
‘So you are mercenaries.’
‘We are,’ Luccia confirmed. ‘I met messengers who said this council had requested such aid.’
One of the other councilors spoke up tentatively. ‘That is true. We did put out word.’
‘We asked for help!’
‘Help is what we have come to provide,’ Luccia said mildly.
‘Help?’ The woman’s head snapped back to her. ‘You claim to come to help, but you bring this blot to our doorstep? Are you mad?’
Luccia pursed her lips as if considering the possibility. ‘It’s been suggested a few times.’ Her face went cold a moment later. ‘Seems you had serious problems long before we got here, friend. But I wouldn’t want to add to them. We’ll be on our way.’
The councilors exchanged uneasy looks.
The woman cleared her throat. ‘The situation is grim, to be sure, forgive my hasty words. But we can’t just place our trust in anyone who shows up. If you’ll just send your… companion aw-’
Luccia cut her off without any change in her tone. ‘They go where I go. You want us gone, that’s your call. I’m sure your neighbors will appreciate your principled stand in their hour of need.’
I could hear angry murmurs behind us. I dared a glance. Luccia had struck the right note it seemed. These people might not have wanted to put their faith in us -- in me -- but they had the same look in their eyes that the guard who had let us into the town had. They were desperate.
The council members were consulting in low voices. I couldn’t make out any of the words; if anything the marring had made my hearing worse. Instead I focused on watching their faces. Worry lines. Jaws taut with anger. Dark circles from lack of sleep.
At last the spokeswoman turned back to us. ‘Very well, mercenary. You are right. We do not have the luxury of turning you away.’
To Luccia’s credit, she did not gloat. Indeed, she sounded a bit sad as she said, ‘I thought you might not. What has happened?’
‘It all started with a collapse in the mines,’ said the spokeswoman. ‘It trapped a dozen of our people in the depths. We tried to dig them out.’
‘Tried?’ asked Elias.
She nodded. ‘A few we got to in time. Others died. But even after we had cleared all the rubble, some were merely missing. Stranger yet, the fall had opened passage into a network of caves we had never seen before.’
‘Could they have been trapped on the other side, tried to find a way out?’ asked Luccia.
‘We wondered the same thing. A few volunteers went into the caves to try and find them.’
‘They never came back,’ said one of the other council members wearily.
Someone sobbed behind us, a sound of grief quickly smothered. I glanced back. A young man sat with his face in his hands, shoulders shaking. He was being comforted by the people around him.
Luccia asked, ‘What happened then?’
‘People started to disappear,’ the spokeswoman answered. ‘Taken from their homes in the dark of night.’
‘Did your local Praetorian house have no guards here? No enforcers?’ The sellsword crossed her arms over her chest.
‘We did. Five Tzachar constables used to patrol here.’ a councilman said.
‘Cowards!’ someone called from the crowd.
‘Silence!’ the councilman snapped. He took a deep breath. ‘One went in with the team searching for them that never came back. Two more vanished in the nights that followed, same as the others. The others went to get reinforcements.’
‘Abandoned us, more like!’ Another call from those gathered.
‘Do you have any idea who or what is behind these attacks?’ asked Luccia.
The spokeswoman hesitated. ‘We cannot be sure-’
‘Lies!’ The crowd was getting downright unruly. I risked a sidelong glance. A burly man stood stabbing an accusatory finger at her. ‘You know damn well it is the caveghasts!’
Luccia’s pale eyebrows went up. ‘Caveghasts?’
The spokeswoman sighed. ‘There have always been stories -- legends, really -- about creatures living in the mountains. We’ve never actually seen-’
‘I have!’ It was the same man.
‘Fennick, this is not helpful,’ the spokeswoman said with clear frustration.
‘No, please,’ Luccia held up a hand and turned her full attention on the man. ‘Tell me.’
He wilted under her eyes but rallied a breath later. ‘Heard a scream from the Allenson house late at night, and I ran to check. I saw them, dragging those poor folk away up the mountain side. Monsters, with too many legs.’
‘And you’re sure of what you saw?’ Elias asked. I fancied I heard a tiny dry note in his voice.
The man must have heard it too. His face purpled. ‘I am! It was a full moon that night. I saw them clear as day.’
‘It was a full moon the night the Allenson’s vanished,’ the spokeswoman allowed.
‘You saw those people being taken and did nothing?’ Luccia asked.
The color drained from the man’s face as quickly as it had risen. He looked to the floor. ‘They were a long way away. And… I got a family of my own.’
Luccia nodded slowly. ‘I see.’ Her fingers tapped out a brief tattoo against the hilt of her sword and then she swung to face the council once more. ‘We will help you. We will go into the mountain after your missing people.’
I admit, my stomach sank. We had just been told that the last people, folks more used to caving than I was at any rate, had never come back from their own venture. I had no urge to disappear down there in the dark.
Luccia met my eyes briefly and gave me that little smile. My fear vanished. Into the dark we might be going, but I would not be going alone.
I missed something of what the spokeswoman was saying due to the turmoil of my thoughts. When I listened again, she was mid-sentence.
‘-thousand thalar, half paid up front.’ The councilwoman’s look was caught somewhere between relief, gratitude, and defiance. ‘That is all we can afford.’
‘We only require five hundred,’ Luccia said. ‘And save your money. If we do not return, money paid now will only be wasted.’ She grinned. ‘You might need it to hire whoever comes next.’
Elias muttered to himself. As I’ve said, my hearing is not particularly sharp, but I believe I heard this clearly: ‘Altruistic and suicidal. Such a charming combination.’
My fears swiftly returned.
We spent the evening in the town. There was no dedicated inn, but the locals put us up in an empty shack. The furniture was only rudimentary: a few rough made chairs, a small table, a single hard bed. It was still a greater luxury than I was used to.
Luccia set about removing her armor once we were inside. She had not slept in her brigandine on the way, of course, but this was the first time I saw her remove even her gambeson. She was all lean muscle beneath and covered with dozens of scars. They marked her arms, her chest, her back. The lined map of a life of violence.
She glanced at me and I realized I had been staring. I turned away in embarrassment and went out onto the porch where Elias stood. He was looking towards where the setting sun dropped towards the western horizon. It painted the sky in shades of gold and pink. I paused to absorb it. The trees usually blocked any such sight for me.
‘It’s important,’ he said abruptly.
‘Finding beauty where you can. In life in general, but especially with this life.’
‘Have you followed her for a long time?’
He started to say something, paused, grinned. ‘Depends on how you define a long time, I guess.’
‘A year?’ I ventured.
‘Longer than that, yes.’ He sounded very tired. ‘It feels like much longer.’
‘Is this what she does all the time? Just… find problems and try to fix them?’
‘No. It’s more complicated than that. She was already traveling when I met her, and she’s working her way towards a destination. She-’ Elias cut off. Someone was walking up the street towards our house. ‘We’ll talk about it some other time.’
It was a young man carrying a basket under one arm. He was limping slightly and had a haggard look about him. He was walking with his head down, absorbed completely in his thoughts. It took me a moment to recognize him as the weeping man from the moot. By then he was too close for me to share this insight with Elias.
‘Good evening,’ Elias called to him.
The man wavered for a moment as he realized he’d been spotted. Something steeled his courage, however, and he finished the approach.
‘Evening,’ he replied as he came within a few steps. ‘I thought you folks might could do with some home cooking. Take a break from trail rations.’ He held the basket out.
I could smell fresh baked bread already. Eagerly, I stepped forward to take the proffered gift. The man flinched at my approach and I stopped. Elias stepped in quickly to take it instead. The sorcerer handed it off to me with no fanfare. I couldn’t restrain myself from looking under the cloth. The bread was indeed there, along with meats and cheeses. I swallowed to avoid any unfortunate drooling. These people already thought I was more beast than human.
‘Thanks,’ Elias said. ‘We appreciate the thought.’
‘Righto,’ he said. I saw his throat move with a nervous swallow.
Elias glanced back at him. ‘Was there something else?’ The way he said it he suggested to me he had been expecting this.
‘Aye.’ The townsman hesitated, but then the words came from him in a rush. ‘My wife. She was with the group who went in searching for more folks. She never came back. She’s about my height, brown hair cut short, has a few broken teeth, there’s a scar on the back of her neck, and-’
‘Hey.’ Elias stepped forward, rested a hand on his shoulder. ‘We’ll do everything we can. If we find her, you’ll be the first to know about it.’
Choking back a sob, the man nodded. He tried to say something, but I didn’t understand the words. He turned away and stumbled off down the street. Elias watched him go with sad eyes.
‘Is it always like this?’ I asked.
‘More than I’d like,’ he said.
Luccia appeared in the doorway, garbed in tunic and breeches. ‘We should eat and rest while we can. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.’
‘What happens if the monsters come for people tonight?’ I asked.
‘Monsters. Mm.’ The mercenary surveyed the town. ‘We’ll keep a watch just in case. If they do turn up, they’ll have saved us the trouble of going to find them.’
We set off up the mountain at the dawn of the next day. Each of us had prepared as much as we could. For Luccia, that included an inspection of all of her gear before she armoured up. She carried at least three knives in addition to her sword, I noted. A difficult woman to catch unarmed. I noticed that Elias also put a long knife on his belt.
As for me, I had ten bolts in the quiver on my thigh. I had two knives. One was a longer blade for general use, while the other was razor sharp but meant primarily as a skinning tool. A hatchet was on my belt too. My crossbow I kept on its sling against my back.
The entrance to the mines was a short way above the town itself, up a winding trail among the rocky terrain. I found myself wondering what strange creatures had come down this very path to prey on the people below. Those thoughts did nothing to comfort me as we came to the dark mouth of the tunnel.
If Luccia was frightened, it did not show. She led the way without hesitation, and we followed in her wake. The stone was reinforced with wooden stanchions at various locations as we proceeded. Alcoves along the walls held racks full of mining tools. The sunshine eking in through the opening began to fade away as our footsteps carried us deeper into the dark.
‘Elias, some light if you would,’ Luccia said.
I was expecting some kind of remarkable spell that would spread brilliant light all around him. Instead he stopped off in one of the alcoves. Light flickered to life within the shadowy nook and he turned holding a lantern. I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed. As if reading my mind he gave me a cheeky grin. I took a moment to grab a torch myself, tucking it under my cloak just in case I should end up needing it.
We continued on into the depths. I will not bore you with an account of the twists and turns of the path. Luccia had received directions to reach the cave-in and seemed confident as she followed them. Nevertheless she took the time to mark each intersection with a piece of chalk so that we could find our way back out more easily.
The tunnels became littered with debris. The damage was not obvious yet, so I assumed this was rock that had fallen further on and been moved here in the clearing process. Perhaps with time they would have cleared it all completely. Instead it all sat neglected in their hasty retreat to the imagined sanctuary of their town.
Passage only grew more difficult as we approached the site of the collapse. In places we were forced to scramble over boulders as big as a man. As suddenly as it began we were through. The mine was behind us and all around was unhewn rock. The chamber we had emerged into was so vast the light of the lantern could not fill it. The light only shone upon a ring around us and glistened off moist stone in the distance. The occasional drip of water was the only sound beyond our own scuffling.
‘Do you really think they survived?’ I asked. I had expected an echo, but instead the darkness swiftly swallowed my voice.
‘Who?’ asked Luccia. I had asked a question and the sudden noise still made me jump slightly.
‘The miners. The ones who were trapped. The ones who went looking for them.’
‘I do not know what to expect.’ She was right there, but her voice seemed distant. ‘I have seen stranger things in my time.’
‘Oh? Like what?’
Luccia gave me an amused look. ‘Nervous, Semya?’ She turned her eyes back to the darkness ahead. Instead of answering my question, she asked one of her own. ‘Your senses are broader than ours, yes? What do they tell you?’
I frowned and concentrated, my tongue flickering out to touch the air. ‘There is heat up ahead. Either many small sources or a very large one. It could be people.’
‘That’s handy,’ Elias remarked. There was tension in his voice. It made me feel better in an odd way; Luccia’s unflappability was disconcerting unto itself.
‘I have an eye for talent,’ she remarked drily. ‘Come, and keep yourselves ready. We proceed with caution. I prefer not to be another lost soul.’
I readied my crossbow. I had never been able to span the crossbow by main strength. I depended on a goat’s foot lever to make it possible. That said, I have practiced a great deal. I venture some would be surprised at how quickly I could have another bolt ready when the occasion called for it.
We forged on, guided by my inhuman senses. I had always been ashamed of them. It was a strange feeling to have others find them useful, to depend on them even. No one had seen value in me since my father’s death. The matter-of-fact acceptance these two extended left me uncertain how to respond.
The path led us to the far side of the great cavern and into offshoot tunnels. Something soon caught my eye.
‘Hold on,’ I called to the others.
‘Have you found something?’ Luccia asked as I knelt.
‘Marks in the stone,’ I replied.
Elias stepped closer so that the light would shine directly where I was pointing. There were scrapes here. I ran my fingers through the grooves, tried the tip of my nail against the rock. It left no impression.
‘What do you think left it?’ the sorcerer asked.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t recognize the imprint, and I’m not used to tracking on this surface. But whatever it was, it was hard and heavy enough to cut this.’
‘Curious,’ Luccia murmured. She gave me a hand back up. ‘Onward.’
I kept getting curious impressions from my heat sense. Flickering returns from all around us. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, or whether I should tell the others. It could have been nothing more than the unfamiliar environment playing havoc with what I could detect.
So I told myself until I saw the gleam.
It was a brief glimpse. Nothing more than a flash in the darkness, a pair of shining reflections there and then gone. But while I did not know this place, I knew what that was. I had seen it on beasts of the forest all my life.
Eyes, watching us from the shadows.
Was there a way to warn the others, without revealing to the creatures they had been spotted?
Luccia had dropped back a few steps to speak quietly to Elias. I couldn’t hear what passed between them but he nodded. Noticing my gaze he gave me a reassuring smile.
We reached a narrow passage before I could resolve my quandary. Luccia looked to me and I tested the air once more. The greater heat source lay somewhere beyond.
‘We have to go through… or risk trying to find another way,’ I said.
The mage stepped up to it and shone the lantern in. I could not see what it illuminated around his body, but he glanced back with a nod. ‘It’ll be a squeeze, but I think we can fit through if we try.’
‘I’ll go first,’ Luccia said. ‘If I can make it, you two should be fine.’
With no further ado she proceeded into the crack. I could hear the scrape of the rock against her armour as she worked her way along, grunting and wincing in places. Concern was written on Elias’ face. I couldn’t help but wonder what we’d do if she actually got lodged in there. Surely we could help her somehow?
‘I’m through,’ she called at last and I released a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
‘I’ll go last,’ Elias said.
I nodded and took a deep breath, then squeezed into the gap myself. My tail was the main problem: I could wedge it between my legs but it was not what you would call comfortable. I felt certain I was leaving loose scales on the stone behind me. Add in an inability to take a deep breath and I could feel tremors of fear growing in me. The woods had posed many dangers, but they had not prepared me for claustrophobia.
Luccia had made it, I told myself. There was no way I would get stuck.
Just when I felt I could not stand it any more, I erupted into a wider chamber beyond. Luccia caught me as I started to fall to my knees.
‘Easy does it. You’re okay,’ she said. She turned and called through the opening. ‘Your turn, Elias.’
The mage began his own progress. I could see the shift and shimmer of the light as he came. If anything he seemed to have the easiest time of the three of us; a lack of bulky protrusions probably helped with that.
Something had Luccia tense. She was hiding it well but this close to her I could feel the wariness radiating from her.
‘Face outward. Be ready,’ she said very softly into my ear.
Now it was clear that I could stand on my own, Luccia gently shifted me away from her. Questions whirled in my mind, but I did as I was told. I could hear Elias panting as he approached the end of the gap. The grain of my crossbow’s wood felt stark under my fingertips.
‘Now!’ Luccia called.
The light of the lantern flared up brightly as Elias emerged and unhooded it in a single move. Something screamed as the light fell upon it.
I only caught one look; it scrambled backwards hissing and thrashing. But that glimpse has stayed with me. Pallid skin gathered in rugose folds around a lean body. Stiff bristles of hair, a foot long, that sprouted in seemingly random clumps. Limbs bifurcated at the elbow and knees that ended in elongated fingers and toes with too many joints. A face taken up by giant, pink eyes and a mouth full of needle teeth.
I saw a monster and raised my crossbow to fire.
‘No!’ Luccia yelled and surged.
She moved faster than I had ever seen anyone move. In the time it took me to just raise my crossbow and fire it, she was there at my elbow. As I pulled the trigger she knocked my aim off and the bolt went flying upwards. It was lost swiftly in darkness. I heard it strike stone and splinter.
‘What in the dead gods is your problem?’ I yelled, blood pounding in my ears. ‘I had it!’
I started to reload. It was already gone into the deep shadows but perhaps if I got another chance...
‘That is not our quarry,’ she said quietly. She sounded sad more than anything.
‘Did you see it?’ I demanded. ‘That is not human!’
‘Think, Semya.’ Her tone was firm but not angry. ‘What do we know about the thing that took the villagers?’
‘It came from the mountain on the night of a full moon! Crawled out of the dark, like… like…’
‘Why would a creature that cannot stand the light of a lantern come out under a full moon?’
The question stopped me cold. For a moment my mind fumbled for justifications. But that memory of seeing it. Of the pathetic terror and pain such a small light had caused it.
While I wrestled with that internally, Luccia turned to Elias. ‘Kill the lantern.’
He frowned. ‘Are you sure?’
‘No. But some chances have to be taken.’
I could hear the mage take a deep breath, then he did as he was told. In an instant we were plunged into complete darkness.
‘Hello,’ called Luccia. ‘I’m sorry we invaded your home like this.’
None of us could see anything, but I could hear them. The scuffle of leather flesh against rock. I could taste their heat. They were out there, more than one. They circled us cautiously.
‘We did not mean to hurt you. Please come talk to us,’ Luccia continued.
I was shaking uncontrollably. We were helpless before them and I hated it. I aimed my crossbow this way and that. The heat sense was not precise enough to target a shot. I knew that. But perhaps if I got lucky, I told myself.
‘Hhhwi yhew cuhhm?’
The raspy voice came out of the pitch. It was distorted to the very edge of what could be understood. But the words were there.
‘They speak Dominar,’ Elias blurted in clear surprise.
‘Whhhheeee ahhhr chhhildrehhn of thhhe Thhhrun, as yhhuuu ahhhr.’
‘Of course you are.’ Luccia said. Even now, she sounded steady, as if talking to monsters in the dark was just another daily task. ‘We were sent by the people of the town in the valley. Something has been kidnapping their people. Something from the mountain.’
There was a pause. More of that scuffling and what sounded like whispers among them.
‘Nahhht uhhhhss. Ihhht tahhhks ouhhhrs tooh.’
‘Thhhee sehhhhrvahhhnts ohf thhhee Crhhhucible.’
‘The Crucible?’ the sellsword asked. ‘Who is that?’
‘Nhhhat whhhhoo. Whhhat. Whhhere. A phhhlace ohf steehl and glahhsss deehp in thhhe mouhnntain.’
They were getting closer as they spoke. I wondered if anyone but me knew that. So close now I wondered if I could reach out and touch them. There was a creak of leather from Luccia’s direction, as though she had tensed in her armour.
‘A facility, here?’ I’m not certain she even realized she had asked out loud, because she forged on quickly. ‘Can you take us to it?’
‘Whhhy? It ihs dahhhngeruhhhss.’
‘I am already sworn to the task of saving the lost from the town. I would see it through regardless of danger. And if you have lost people as well, that is all the more reason this must be stopped. I would bring back your missing souls too, if I can.’
Another pause, another sibilant consultation among these creatures.
‘Whhheeee whhill tahk yhhew.’
I could smell them now. It was not a horrifying scent, though it was unpleasantly earthy. A leathery hand wrapped around mine with fingers that were far too long. I muffled a scream and staggered backwards. The hand yanked away.
‘Semya! Are you okay?’ Luccia called.
‘Yes,’ I quavered. I took a deep breath. ‘Yes. I’m sorry. I am… I am ready to be led.’
Again that hand wrapped around mine. This time I forced myself to be steady. It pulled but not demandingly and I allowed myself to be guided through the darkness.
‘Are you marred?’ I asked unsteadily. ‘Like me?’
There was a pause. ‘We ahhhr as we whherr made toooh bhee.’
I do not know how long we trekked in the pitch black like that. It was an unpleasant and interminable journey. What broke the monotony was light. A gleam up ahead of us. This was no torch or lantern; it was cold and actinic. Lines, I saw, as we got closer. The outline of a door of some kind?
A sound came with it. A strange metallic throbbing. Somewhere between the pounding of a great heart and the fall of an immense hammer.
‘Thhhis ihhs as fhhar as whhee ghho.’
I was released.
‘Thank you,’ Luccia said earnestly. ‘If I can save your people I will. I swear it.’
They made no reply to that. We waited there until the whispers of their passage had faded completely.
‘I have a torch,’ I said shakily.
‘Strike it up,’ Luccia said.
I got the torch out by feel and retrieved my tinderbox as well. With only a few attempts the oil-soaked rag wrapped about the end caught. The shadows fled all around us. The creatures were indeed gone. And ahead of us, well…
I had never seen anything like it.
Strangle metal protruded from the wall like the roots of an unthinkable steel tree. Some of them vibrated, others visibly quivered in time with that endless pounding. And in the center of it all was indeed a door, outlined in that light.
‘I was right,’ Luccia breathed wonderingly. ‘A facility here in the heart of the mountain. A remnant of the old Dominion.’
‘The what?’ I asked in confusion.
She didn’t even look at me. She answered, but her mind was clearly elsewhere. ‘The Dominion… the rule of the ancients that once united the world. Before everything fell apart. Before the Marring. Before the end of the world.’ She straightened and her words became sharp. ‘We have to find a way inside.’
‘Are you sure about this, Luccia?’ Elias asked. ‘The last one of these places we messed with, well…’
The mercenary shot him a look that surprised me with its ferocity. ‘It is too late to back down now!’ She paused, visibly calmed herself. ‘We came here to save those people, Elias, and we must. This is the place. We cannot give up.’
He stared at her face inscrutable. I could only wonder what had happened in the past. This did not seem the time to ask.
‘As you say,’ was all he said in the end.
‘There is a panel there, I think,’ I said uncomfortably.
I motioned with the torch towards a square of metal next to the wall.
‘Yes,’ said Luccia. She strode forward and placed her hand against it. It might have been my imagination, but that endless pulse juddered then like a heart skipping a beat.
There was a great hiss. I stumbled back a few steps, but it was only the sound of the door beginning to open. Light spilled out, cold and uninviting. Elias stood beside me, his face grim. Luccia waited ahead. I could not see her face, but her hand was clenched into a fist beside her hip.
The unknown awaited, and in that moment I wondered if I would ever see the sun again.
-TO BE CONTINUED-