Joined: Wed Jul 31, 2002 5:00 pm
Location: Exeter, UK
[Fiction] The Shadow of Wings
The following story takes place in Thessyria, during the 'Crimson Coast' set.
The Shadow of Wings
by Laurence J Sinclair
The paladin's expression did not change even as he wrenched his blade from the corpse, striping his face with blood. The speed with which he'd cut down his foe had the gnolls yelping as they dived for cover, but Keziah was more worried by that expression. Most warriors that she knew, had seen, or even heard tell of, showed at least some emotion during battle.
She herself had been attacked by two of the reeking, cackling creatures. It hadn't been a stretch to duck back from the clumsy sweeps of their hatchets, but the fear had been there. Her loris daggers had killed them, one spinning and slicing a throat, the other stabbing through a chest, but there'd been desperation behind those strikes. Two she could handle, but the score more further up the hill were another matter.
None of that seemed to bother the paladin, taking apart his foes with casual disinterest. Keziah had seen the warriors of the Havat-lahn fight with such precision, but they were just as restrained with their actions. Not one of them would have butchered the gnoll in quite this way, nor followed up to decapitate the next in line so quickly.
This paladin was something special, she was sure.
“It's okay, they're running!” she shouted across to him as he raised his sword once again. “I guess they expected easier pickings, but how they thought that with you wearing full plate I have no idea...”
“The gnolls are a stupid, violent breed,” he replied, returning to the trail to continue their journey. “Without a strong leader, they lack even the simplest reason.”
Keziah skipped along to catch up with the warrior's longer strides, setting pace so that his bulk kept the sun from her eyes, backlighting his bald head like a halo. “And there you go again! You know so much of this land and its peoples! You could easily find the bay without my help. Are you sure this isn't about something else?”
He grunted. “It is simple. You were there, at the bay, and saw it. The creature chose to reveal itself to you. Clearly you're an important factor in tracking it.”
“Oh, like with unicorns and maidens?”
“I am... unfamiliar with that creature.”
“Ha! So you're not quite all-knowing, then! Doesn't matter, anyway. The unicorns are all dead.”
He didn't respond, so she tried something else. “It wasn't just me there, though. Angus, Samanya, those others you met back in Akkaz? They were with me.”
“But they did not see,” the paladin hissed, stopping at the cliffside overlooking the bay. “They did not see the dragon.”
The bay was as Keziah remembered, sand gleaming almost white in the sun's rays while the sea gently nudged. At the time, struggling to reach the mainland, it had seemed like some glamour left over from the visit to Niobe's isle, but now it was clear: this place was just naturally beautiful, isolated away from the hunger of The Chosen and the attentions of Akkaz's pirates.
It took another half an hour descent to the beach, the cliff crumbling at the paladin's touch as he attempted to lower himself down. Twice had Keziah been forced to risk herself clutching at the man before he fell to his death, and neither time did he thank her for her aid. It hadn't even been worth yelling at him, since she knew he wouldn't have risen to the bait.
She gazed around the great curve of the hidden bay, the sand, the sea and its protective wall of rock. As many times as she had questioned the paladin's motives, she had had to wonder at her own. Why wander off, abandoning her companions, to serve as guide to a stranger she met in an inn? It wouldn't be the first time, but normally those strangers wouldn't be so brusque.
Now, seeing again this secluded spot, she understood. She'd wanted to see this place again, and this time without Arve and Giron's bickering in the background. No, now the only sounds were the paladin's slow breathing and the taunts of seagulls. Even those feathered pests couldn't break the beauty of the moment, and she paused to watch them as they idly circled something. Keziah looked below them, expecting to see a rancid carcass spoiling her view of paradise.
Instead, the gulls appeared to be spiraling around a rock some fifteen yards from the water's edge, or, more likely, the man standing upon it. His chest was bared to the salt spray, his gaze somewhere above and to Keziah's left, eyes sparkling even at that distance as long, braided red hair fluttered behind him. She took small note of the sword buckled at his waist, but had already reached a conclusion.
“Isn't that an exotic looking male?” she said over her shoulder. “Just my kind of guy. Wait here!”
“No -” the paladin began, but she'd already begun running by the time he could form his words, and then they were all but lost in the rising tide of birdcall.
“Hey there!” Keziah shouted, the strange man looking her way instantly. “We're, uh, my friend and I were looking for dragons! You haven't seen any, have you?”
The man laughed, a musical trill that somehow managed to drown out the gulls, even at such a distance. “Who's asking?”
“Didn't I say? Why, I'm the celebrated bard, Keziah Firehair!”
The man moved towards the beach, leaping between rocks that Keziah hadn't spotted before, gracefully landing but a moment on each before springing for the next. “A strange name, to be sure.”
“I didn't choose it myself,” she replied quietly, before shouting again. “Who are you?”
Pausing on one stone, the man bowed low as he spoke. “I am Drasek Berenj, at your service, and no, I have not seen any dragons today.”
“Well, would you help us look?”
“Do not ask this 'man' for aid, Firehair,” the paladin demanded, striding up beside her. “He is not what he seems.”
“And neither are the pair of you,” Drasek returned, standing again, but ten feet from them. “You, Dacaus, self-proclaimed judge and champion of no god. You, Keziah, daughter of a despot and not born of this land.”
Dacaus growled, but Keziah simply began questioning. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Anton spoke of you often, back when the way between was safer and surer, not torn as it is now.”
“I'll tear YOU -” Dacaus said, but Keziah raised an arm to hold him back. A fine time for him to be showing a little passion, she thought. “Torn? Is that just a bad thing, or one of those apocalyptic events?”
“You and the Accordlanders have brought The Storm with you, girl. Were you to meet a Thessyrian dragon now, you would not like what it has become.”
“You speak as if dragons here have not always been evil beasts!” Dacaus laughed. “You don't believe your own lies,do you?”
Keziah glanced across at the paladin. He was already raising his sword as Drasek composed himself to speak, and she gasped. Drasek stepped backwards as Dacaus charged, the blade slicing through two of his braids, fluttering them down amongst the seaweed.
“Dragons are not the only ones to be changed,” he whispered, drawing his own weapon and splashing into a defensive stance. “Have you always felt this anger, judge?”
“Only towards beasts like you!”
The larger, armoured man hacked away at Drasek, but for his part the latter was content to turn aside killing strokes with his lighter blade, never attacking himself. Water was kicking up from both combatants, and not a single seagull had remained to observe. While Drasek's moves were never threatening, Keziah could see that he was just enraging the paladin more.
“Dacaus!” she shouted,stepping as close as she dared to the wildly slashing greatsword. “Stop! Can't you see he's no monster?”
“He will not listen to you,” Drasek sighed, ducking as the paladin cut at his neck. “With our close proximity, his blood now hears the call of its past as well, his forefather's rage against The Dragon.”
“What? No, don't tell me – just fight back, damn you!”
“It seems as if that will be the only way,” Drasek said, glancing down at a thin line of blood running across his chest. “The judge forces my hand, and we're almost out of time.”
A shadow overhead and a boom of thunder took Keziah's attention from the fight. The winged form circling toward the cliff-edge was no gull, with its four limbs and serpentine neck. “The dragon I saw...”
“No,” Drasek said, his voice deepening and accompanied by a grunt of pain from the paladin. “That would be me.”
Hard as it was, Keziah pulled her eyes back around again. Dacaus staggered back, his armour rent and gushing where Drasek's blade had opened it. A blade that had grown with the man wielding it.
Drasek had gained almost half his height again, his body bulking out to accommodate his stature, his wound now but a scratch. Thorny, angular wings pawed at the air above his arms, matching the fanged, reptilian jaws that had thrust from his face to balance newgrown horns at the back of his skull. “After Anton's words, I was intrigued,” he rasped, somehow forming words with his deformed mouth. “The girl with the destiny – I couldn't resist.”
Dacaus sprang at the dragon man again, but this time a smack from a powerful tail sent him crashing into the shallows. “It's my fault, and I apologise,” Drasek continued. “You returned here because of me, but will never get the chance to leave.”
More wingbeats, more shadows, and Keziah noticed that several creatures had already flown down to line the bay's walls; dragons whose size was easily ten Draseks, with more humanoid wyverns crawling about their feet and even tinier imps taking up what patches of space remained.
“This council was to be for your benefit, for all humans,” Drasek roared, grinding his fist into the paladin's ribs. “Those wyrms still possessed of sense would debate aiding you against The Chosen, against The Storm!”
Looking into the faces of the gathered dragons, Keziah wouldn't have said they were possessed of sense. Their drooling maws and flashing eyes mirrored the anger that Drasek was displaying as he continued to beat the paladin. The fury he was subjecting Dacaus to... She wasn't sure that he hadn't been affected by whatever madness he'd been babbling about when he was human.
This whole place, why had she never realised before? It was far too good to be true. Just as in any number of myths, nothing this beautiful came without a price. Pristine, tropical paradise, blanced by Storm-maddened dragons and an equally crazed paladin.
Whichever way she looked at it, she was outmatched there. Surrounded by monsters that belonged only in legend... Still, she wouldn't have tavern tales spreading about how she abandoned a client to his death, even if it meant facing down a beast like Drasek.
The loris daggers slipped into her grasp instinctively, and she gave them a cautious spin as she turned to face the dragon-man again. He was holding the paladin by the throat, mouth opened as if to bite.
The eyes, though – those reptilian pupils, for all their lack of humanity, flickered. There was doubt there. Furious though he may be, his intelligence was still present, if suppressed. Perhaps she could help him?
A screech from behind yet again turned her around. One of the wyverns had quit its perch and was now diving, claws outreached, teeth gnashing.
Its flight was checked by the hammer that thudded into its skull from the left, snapping it abruptly back to earth. A calloused hand retrieved the weapon, and an eye winked from a bearded face. “You didn't think we'd let you wander off on your own with some strange paladin, did you, lass?”
“Angus...” And behind him, Arve Yscar, Talin Tzin, half a dozen others. Drasek bellowed and dropped the paladin into the water, beating his wings in preparation to take to the air. Intimidating, sure, and there were not a few dragons in the near vicinity, but Keziah was calm. She wasn't alone. They had a real shot at this.
“All right, boys,” she said, jogging along to keep pace with the dragon-man, “I hope everyone's familiar with their legends of Athanae – because today we're going to kill us a dragon.”
Laurence J Sinclair