CHAPTER 2: THE FLATLANDER
Verd. Such an odd little Saar word that prior to this day I’d very little use for. It simply means ‘boy’ in our tongue, though not the young males of the Saar. We would never subject our own to such a epithet. That title is reserved for the young males of the ape castes, an ugly little word for an ugly little thing. I’d never thought to use such a word, especially in a place like this. The harsh Antwalker Desert was no place for a boy.
Only, this was no ordinary child.
The Antwalker desert was an endless stretch of sand and red clay, most commonly populated by dwarves who made a meager living amongst the dunes. The air in my wake pulled a great cloud of sand along behind me as I approached the hole in the ground that was the Tomb of the Selfless. When I say ‘hole in the ground’ that is not figurative. The Tomb was constructed in a manner similar to my lair, dug, sweat and sculpted into an almost impressive piece of architecture concealed beneath the sand. It was a common habit of the harlak to build their homes down into the earth as opposed to up to the sky. They said it increased longevity, as you need not worry about such a home being swept away by a storm. I was under the impression it just saved the time it took transporting materials.
The Tomb was decorated with elaborate raised murals made by some of the most highly sought after artists in the land. It was one of many holy sites that people in Haiden would come to for prayer and meditation. It was usually a quiet place, so I didn’t expect to be bothered.
The Tomb of the Selfless was roughly three hours East from my home by air, somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred miles. It didn’t appear before me until the sun was at its highest point in the sky. The hot rays of the sun heated the sand beneath, sending up billows of hot air that helped me stay aloft. All the desert plants, the cacti and succulents that littered the ground had been covered by a thin layer of sand, the product of a recently passed storm. Good, I thought. This would make it easier for me to track the verodu Major and the reizeek lahaar’rie’vrrick if they traveled by foot. If they came here, it would have been in the last few hours.
Maybe they were still there, I thought. Oh, what a joke that would be, the crystal back on its perch only for me to destroy that detestable likeness all over again. It would be a most fitting punchline for…
As I coasted over the rolling sands of the Antwalker, I heard something. A most peculiar noise. At first the sound seemed a bad waking dream, but as time wore on it refused to waver. Instead it grew louder.
Trrrict. Trrrict. Trrrict.
It was a sound I’d heard a long time ago, like the chirping of a trillion locusts blacking out the sky, each one of them cackling insane. I first heard that sound when I was new, the night the Black Wyrm came to me in sleep and took me in her arms.
“Come little one. We must go!” she said.
“What troubles you, sister?” I asked.
I paid her anxiety very little heed, until I saw it in our elders’ eyes. Saar are not known to flush or lose color based on our moods. Our parents had scales as black as oblivion, but on this night they were as grey as the dead. My mother’s eyes of magma glistened with frightened, angry tears, knowing she would never see me grow old.
The sound grew louder still.
Trrrict. Trrrict. Trrrict.
“Protect the little one.” My mother said.
The Black Wyrm took me above the clouds where we flew off into the moonless night, while our mother and father stayed behind to delay whatever it was that made that horrible sound. Their screams could be heard by all on the ground as much as ten miles away. Their bodies were never found.
That was my first encounter with Assylyl, the Far One, that nightmare that stilled my heart with fear, and stilled the Black Wyrm’s heart in death. Dark visions of battered landscapes came back to me, the assurances of the Black Wyrm that all would be well as we flew across the land seeking some form of shelter, and still the sound grew.
Trrrict. Trrrict. Trrrict.
It must have been a waking nightmare. Something must have been wrong with my ears. I ran my talons across them to see if they were somehow obstructed, but there was nothing. Nothing at all save that horrible sound which seemed to grow louder still.
Trrrict. Trrrict. Trrrict.
Blast it all, where could it be coming from apart from my nightmares? It couldn’t be real. The horrible thing was dead and buried, never to return. Yet I could hear it. I could hear it loud and clear. It filled my heart with a dread almost enough to still the rage within me. I reached my hands up and covered my ears but it did nothing. The sound grew to a horrible fever pitch.
I roared, splitting the skies above and scattering the sands beneath with my thunderous voice, a thunder that killed the sound.
It must have been a dream, I thought. Those dark times still haunted me in both wakefulness and sleep. I scanned the desert for any signs of something that shouldn’t be there and found nothing. Nothing but a lonely merchant on horseback, trudging across Antwalker’s scalding sands.
No matter now. My quest for revenge would continue. As I neared the entrance to the tomb, something caught my eyes as well as my nostrils. Large streaks of scarlet death cut into the sand, wet enough to soak through the thin layer of dust that covered the bodies.
They were sprawled outside of the entrance to the tomb, the remains of the guards charged with protecting this sacred place. There were four that I could see, though judging by the stink there were probably more of them. Had this verodu Major and her blood drinking Sparks pet massacred this place? I quickly realized that couldn’t have been the case. Stench alone told me these ones had been dead a day at least. The spirits had been torn from these bodies long before those two thieves had taken my lunar quartz crystal.
I circled around the entire tomb to get a better look at this place. No sense getting ahead of myself and landing in a skirmish. Two more bodies rested on the far end of the stairwell that lead down into the dark. The roof of this underground crypt was littered with several holes allowing the light to filter through, though this was no accident. For some of the more noteworthy dead in this place, a series of holes were chipped, angled so the sun would land on their tombs when it was at its highest point in the sky. The ramp, funnily enough, had been blocked by a mass of what looked to be deliberately toppled rock.
What puzzled me about these bodies was the way they fell. Of the six corpses, five of them had been killed with hardly a struggle, their weapons not even removed from the sheaths. These guards looked to have been approached by someone they knew and trusted. It was this trust that sealed their doom.
Trust was the least of worries for the sixth victim. I spotted their remains on the ramp leading down into the tomb, and on the walls, and on the sand, and on the cacti. Their blade was the only one unsheathed, still clutched in the frozen digits of a cold, dead and severed arm. They were butchered not by blade but claw. I could tell as the claw marks were one of the few things recognizable in this twisted mound of gore, four taloned fingers dragging themselves through iron and into flesh. The attack at first glance appeared one of random savagery, but a closer look revealed something far more sinister. Each wound had an almost surgical precision, cutting right through the joints until this sap fell to pieces. The other mutilation may well have just been to hide the creature that caused it.
I was familiar with the claw marks of this beast however. It was a Spiked Ravager, a race of beasts from Haiden’s Southern Wilds. They usually lived in groups of three or four, though it wasn’t uncommon to find a lone Ravager stalking the pathways after dark. They were an intelligent species capable of complex speech, and had been known to charm the naive to many a grisly end. Their method of speech was as bizarre as it was unsettling. Spiked Ravagers had no lips to speak of on their mouths, their sharp teeth forever bared. Rather, their lips were in the backs of their throats, their larynx pulsing with words whenever they spoke. They could carry on entire conversations without their teeth ever parting.
What had a Spiked Ravager been doing this far north of the Southern Wilds?
I further explored around the outside of the tomb and found one wall had managed to shield the sand beneath it from the recent storm, near the second pair of corpses I’d found. In this protected patch of sediment were a set of footprints that told quite a tale.
Apart from the victims, there were six additional sets of footprints. Four of them walked close together. The soles of their feet were wrapped in cheap leather, something often found amongst the peasantry. In addition to them were a set of fine hoof prints, followed shortly after by their rider. The armored imprints were so perfect that were one to pour glass into the void, they could pass it for art. They didn’t touch the sand for more than a few paces, seeming to prefer staying on their horse. Finally, as I suspected, there were the clawed feet of a Spiked Ravager. Some of the prints were laced with dried blood from the victim out front.
One can learn a lot from prints if you know what to look for. The horse and its rider were the parties in front, as seen by their being disturbed whenever the prints overlapped. This Spiked Ravager was never far behind. It followed the horse and rider like a devil on the shoulder whispering sinful commands in an open ear. The four members of the peasantry stood in the back. Their feet shifted uncomfortably as if they were ashamed to be there. Not the Ravager though. Its prints had the rigidity of a walking statue.
This party had come out of the desert. The horse and rider were known to the guards here somehow. The rider used this to get close to them and struck them down quickly. When one of them tried to fight back, the Ravager finished them off.
What was going on here? I wondered. Did this debacle have any connection to the theft of my prize, or was this completely unrelated? Before my thoughts could wander too far, I noticed the smell. The fumes had been dispersed by my landing, but in the few moments I lingered, so did they. It came from one of the holes in the roof of the tomb. It was a smell of many parts, each one putrid enough without the other. It was caked in age old perspiration, covered in the stench of urine and manure with the final topping of dried vomit to make it extra vile. Why it was horrid enough to tear a wyrmling right out of the sky.
“Hcraa!” I cursed. “What is that stench?”
I peered inside the monument from vent to vent. The glow of my eyes cast a dim light inside, revealing that regular maintenance of this place had been in short supply the last few days. The bodies of the less prominent citizenry were not given the same upkeep. Even among the revered dead, short shrift was given to the impoverished.
The thin layer of dust revealed many sets of footprints from what had happened recently, as well as marks from neither rrut, horse nor ravager. As if someone took two clubs covered in needles and dragged them across the floor side by side. The tracks were unmistakable as an Iron Feeder.
Iron Feeders were voracious animals that scoured in search of any iron on shields or weapons to gorge on, though they had a taste for iron in the blood as well. The creatures would suck their victims to the bone, taking in the iron and vomiting out everything else. A waste of resources, though I could hardly blame the beasts. No part of a rrut tastes very good. It must have come here to feast on any weapons and armor it could find. It was unexpected such a beast would be here. Several tombs had been opened.
They must have come out of the desert after the guard were killed, I thought. The guard would have fought them off for the most part, but once they were gone, out of the sands the beasts would come to feast upon the dead.
Then I saw it. A brief flicker of motion darting around a corner in the tomb below, right at the end of a set of recent footprints in the sand. In the still temple, beneath the shifting sands I could hear the beating of a human heart. This, and that horrid stench continuing its assault. The rancid one was still inside.
“You there” I growled. “Come here.”
Sweeping to another one of the openings, I caught a glimpse of the wretch before he vanished. He was young, maybe 15 in rrut years, a frail little beast who ran with an angered panic. On his back was the darkened glint of metal. A lethal Morningstar mace. Lethal to anything in the ape castes, at least.
Traveling to another opening, I was met by the sight of another corpse. One of the four peasants trailing the rider and ravager rested on the sand laced floor, a crossbow bolt piercing his chest and soiling his dirty white shirt with dull crimson. The body had barely begun to grow ripe. I was familiar with the attire and wear that decorated it. His cheap leather shoes were pocked with holes and rot from constant exposure to saltwater. This one was a dock worker of some sort.
From within the tomb, I could hear the rrut verd’s labored breathing. There was no fear in his breath. These were the breaths of a bull, waiting for the right moment to charge.
“I know you’re in there. Come here.” I asked the verd, still no answer.
I unleashed a quick burst of flame into the open hole. The creature scurried to escape. What was left of the sailor now lay black and smoking.
“Unless you want more of that, come here.”
Finally, a feeble voice that had just begun to break from adolescence called out from below. It spoke as if it thought itself a giant. “Why don’t you come get me yourself?”
I chuckled. “No. Come here.”
His voice still held strong. “Did Slight send you? Didn’t have the stones to finish me off himself?”
“No.” I reassured. “Now, come here.”
“Go to hell!” He yelled.
“You threaten me with damnation? I am the vision demons have in their nightmares. Now, come here.”
Then he said something I did not anticipate. Something most ill advised.
“Come and get me, wizard!”
A wizard. He dared mistake me for something so pathetic as one of those robed little cretins doing parlor tricks. Those animals that drink our blood to steal our gift. I was of the elder race that graced Tygan from its earliest days. Me, a wizard? A lahaar’rie’vrrick? This one had feigned being a giant for long enough. I stood up on my hind legs, reared my head back, and I roared.
The thunder trembled the tomb. With a great swing, my clawed fist went crashing through the roof, blocking the verd’s path. Anyone with any sense would have run. But the verd didn’t run. He didn’t even walk away or freeze. Against all better judgement it seemed, he walked towards me. Clearly he had lost his mind with terror.
“Wait a minute.” he whispered. “It can’t be.”
One mountain-leveling pull and he was finally revealed as a section of roof sailed off to be dashed amongst the sands. Sunlight poured into the tomb, drawing my shadow directly over the boy. Within my shadow, the only light was the soft glow of my eyes, but I could see him.
He was dirty, covered in patches of black grease and dust, mixed with sweat in a putrid film. His hair matted, his clothes stained with dirt and grime, and a fresh coat of red from the clay dust outside. His holstered Morningstar was the only thing on him in fair condition. Troubling as his sickening state should be, I was only puzzled. The boy had a distinct lack of terrified trembles and restrained tears. He looked to me with all-encompassing awe.
His awe cast his eyes open wide for me to see. They were deep amber, and seemed to glow when the irises captured the sun. Even when he himself was bathed in shadow, they shined above all else like candles in the dark. Only one type of people on this world had such eyes, those that resided on the island in the sea that was not quite the third continent of Tygan. They called themselves the Flatlanders. I had see only one, but that was a long time ago. His eyes were like mirrors, mingling the light of the sun with the glow of my own eyes, and reflecting them right back at me.
“Do you see me now, boy?” I boomed.
He was almost smiling when he spoke. “You..you’re…You’re a…you’re a dr…”
I shoved my head through the opening towards him with such speed, he fell on his back without me even needing to touch him.
“Say it then!” I bellowed.
“A dragon. I’m sorry. I thought the fire was a spell. I’ve seen things like that before.” He apologized to me through casual chuckle.
“Do you find me funny, verd?” I growled.
The very quickly became embarrassed. “No. I just never thought…I never thought I’d see something like you.”
It was a common acting amongst the cornered to attempt flattery. Some of those that came to my home even improvised entire poems and hymns, but they were all falsehoods orchestrated by those seeking life. Not this boy. His wonder was genuine.
“Huh.” I grinned. “Most don’t share your enthusiasm, boy.”
“Aren’t you the one from down in Silent Pass?” he asked. “The big one that everyone is afraid of. The one they call the Great Red Wyrm.”
He spoke with what was honestly a somewhat-flattering wonder, completely free of any apprehension. It was a tone I had never heard when one was addressing me. My hoard, certainly, but never me.
“Well versed you are, verd. I am the one they call the Great Red Wyrm” I backed out of the hole.
The verd, if you can believe it, followed. I stood up on the rocks as he climbed up the nearest wall as high as he could. It was a show that he didn’t want to miss.
I flared up my wings and caught the rays of the sun. “What do you think of me now?”
The creature looked me over carefully as if trying not miss a single detail of my divine form. He was so completely, unnaturally, at ease. I had seen that look before, back in my lair whenever thieves gazed upon my treasure. This little fool was looking at me with that same sense of validation. I expected more flattery from him, not the casual question that followed.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
I snickered. “You ask my name? You couldn’t possibly pronounce it with that mewling hole you call a mouth.”
“Try me.” he challenged.
I would have laughed off his request, but thought perhaps his poor attempts to say my name would be amusing.
“I was named for the color of my skin. Those that christened me said it was as the burning of hot embers, and those that fear me say I am a premonition of death, for I always looked to be bathed in the blood of my enemies. I took for my name the word of our people for the color ‘Red.’ I am Zhyx.”
It should be an easy enough word, even for a fool creature like a rrut, reizeek or vrrit. It sounds not unlike your word for the number ‘six’, only drop your letter ’s’ and replace it with your letter ‘z’. Of course being the race of dullards you are, all who tried to say it before found new and exciting ways to butcher my name. It is quite simply too elegant a language to be commanded by such an inelegant creature. The underdeveloped biology alone makes it impossible, or so I had thought.
Except for him. He said it perfectly right down to the slight rumble in his throat. It was actually a passable imitation of Ravrra’Saar, or Dragon Speak as you once again call it..
“Zhyx.” he said. “That’s a good name.”
I was unsettled. Seeking to change the subject, I diverted attention to his unusual eyes.
“You’re a Flatlander.”
This young Flatlander verd reached up and touched his face, seeming to relish in my recognition of his heritage.
“My mother gave me these.” he said. ”
“So your father was not a Flatlander?” I asked.
Something happened to him when I said the word ‘father.’ His face crunched and twisted into a grotesque sculpture of hate and despair, and he spoke in the same voice he did when in the shadows.
“I just had a mother!” he said, and it was not a clarification. It was a demand.
“You had an excuse to use that tone when you knew not my identity, but now I am in the light, verd. You had best watch yourself.”
“I’m sorry.” he said. “What does ‘verd’ mean?”
“That’s what you are, isn’t it?” I said.
“Okay, but what does it mean?” He asked again.
“It means ‘boy’.” I said. “But do yourself a favor and don’t presume you’ll ever master my most elegant Ravrra’Saar.”
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“Dragon Speak. Good Gods, do I look like a thesaurus?” I asked.
“Okay.” he said, his eyes still gawking. “So why are you here? It’s Slight isn’t it? You’re the one that’s finally going to kill him.”
“Who is this Slight you keep blithering about?”
“He’s a dragonslayer. I followed him here when he and his friends caved in the entrance and buried me here. He did something to piss you off didn’t he? He pissed you off and now you’re here to fry him all over this desert.”
The Flatlander smiled deviously at the prospect. It was almost a shame to disappoint him.
I shook my head. “No, Flatlander. As much as I enjoy the sport of slayer slaying, I’m here for another crime.”
I expected disappointment from the boy, but instead he seemed utterly crushed. The fire in his eyes seemed to dim as he leaned back against the opposite wall. He slid down with all the zeal of drying paint. This creature, for all his defiance, was immeasurably pitiful.
“Though, being a dragonslayer, I’m sure I’ll cross paths with this Slight, and rest assured, he will die.”
My words renewed his bloodlust a little. Understand I didn’t say this to reassure him. Rather it seemed he thought me incapable of killing this Slight character, a clear misconception I needed to correct.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a grave to defile.”
That got the Flatlander’s attention. “Do you mean Davies the Kind?”
“Yes.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “And if you try to stop me, I shall incinerate you.”
I began to circle away when the Flatlander hoisted himself down from his perch and called out to me.
“But Slight and the others already went down there!” he yelled.
“He what?” I asked.
The Flatlander nodded. “Slight and the others were already down there. They kept calling him Davies the Kind when talking about it. They took his sword. Said there was something on it they wanted.”
“When?” I asked.
“Just yesterday.” The boy said. “I can show you where it is.”
“Oh, would you be so kind, verd?” I sneered at him.
The Flatlander seemed a little too enthusiastic about the prospect of assisting me. He lead me to another hole that rested directly overtop of a vast opening in the stone floor, with only a small staircase leading down into the darkness.
The Flatlander pointed down the path. “He’s down…”
I punched through the ceiling. The Flatlander let out a small yelp and hopped away.
I bludgeoned an opening in the top of the crypt large enough to fit through, and gently walked down the narrow staircase to the chamber below. It creaked and bent beneath my weight, but held until I found myself in the realm of Davies the Kind.
Those that revered him had done well in displaying their affections. The crypt was large enough to hold me comfortably. My head could scarcely touch the ceiling. From floor to ceiling it was lit by more softly ever-burning torches. Davies’ coffin rested at the end of a pathway on a raised dais of rock out in the middle of a large pond of ankle deep water. Ankle deep for me at least. Towering above the coffin was the statue from which my lunar quartz originally came. When I first took it, this beastly likeness was taller than I. Now it didn’t even reach as high as my elbows.
I had a little chuckle at the expense of this avatar of sweat and stone. How the mighty had fallen with age.
The caretakers of this place had refurbished it in my absence, though they never did find another piece of lunar quartz. They had settled for an impressive ruby about the size of the verd’s fist which rested on the breastplate of Davies’ armor. I considered taking that as well, consolation for my trouble.
The surface of the water was decorated with hundreds of small model boats, all coated with the remnants of melted candles from a recent celebration. Other things, torches, tapestries, withered flowers, all of them decorated the sides of the tomb.
An elaborately painted mural decorated the top, depicting Davies’ rise to power, from the destruction of his home village in Allan’s Meadow, to the defeat of Assylyl and and his eventual death. The amount of detail put into Davies was admirable. Had I not despised the subject, I might have collected it.
While most of the monument was of a pleasant nature, the depiction of the fight against the Far One was a stone and clay nightmare. Captured in all its horror was that final great battle, darkened by a great black cloud looming over the land. A group of soldiers held back an endless army of things once human. Foaming at the mouth, half crying and half laughing, the smiles on their faces as sinister as they were innocent. Their faces streamed not with tears of water, but of blood. The were Assylyl’s army of the Following, loyal to the end and driven insane by the mere sight of their master.
But that was not the greatest horror pound in this spread of rock. The gray cloud was not a cloud, but a thing. Its form was enveloped in dancing tentacles. Armored tendrils pieced the ground and held the living blasphemy aloft. Its sinister horned head had many squirming digits dancing around the back. It had a sinister mouth like a jackal, and above it was a dome covered in what at first looked like boils, but was in fact a mass of eyes that peered through the barrier of stone.
Held aloft in his hands was Davies’ famous Blade of Hope, consumed in a sacred flame that would harm every flesh save his own. In the picture, Davies was depicted as charging into what he believed would be his doom.
If only it had been him instead of her.
“What is that?” the verd’s little voice said next to me.
How strange of him to follow me down here instead of trying to run. Not that he would have gotten very far out in the desert. His lack of desperation was as unusual as his knowledge of history.
I rolled my eyes. “What? have you been living under a rock?”
“When I’m lucky.” he said.
His answer embarrassed me somewhat. Of course he hadn’t been to school. A mere glance at his malnourished and dirty appearance could have told anyone that.
“That, dear boy, is Assylyl, the Far One. No one knows his real name. They just decided to name him after the mad ramblings of the first poor soul to lay eyes upon him. He came from a place outside of space and time, at least as we know it, a starving derelict who satisfied his insatiable hunger with the people of this world, with his army of the Following betraying their fellows in the hopes he wouldn’t count them amongst his food. So it was until he was eventually felled.”
“Who’s that?” the Flatlander asked, pointing up at Davies. “Is that Davies?”
“Unfortunately.” I said.
“Why’s his sword burning like that?” the verd asked.
“He was given something he hadn’t earned by deed nor merit.” I answered.
“What was it?” he asked.
“The fire.” I explained. With the snap of my fingers, the tip of my index finger lit up with a flame.
“Dragon fire. The Xolk’Saar. The fire is the birthright of every Saar, that from which all magic springs on this world. Spells, potions, everything, all comes from us, and our blood of fire. Most of the time it is stolen in death. Sometimes though, not often, a Saar may be willing to give it as a gift. That flame which a Saar gives can never be reclaimed, leaving them forever weaker. Not large enough to really notice most of the time, but just the idea of sacrificing the fire, even the smallest flickering spark, is enough to turn the stomach of any Saar.”
I extinguished the flame with the flick of my wrist. “The Black Wyrm was what they called her. Davies wasn’t strong enough to stop the Far One on his own. The might of the Saar was his only hope. He earned her trust, gained her flame, and stole her life.”
I strode around the tiny child in a great ring, expecting him to finally show some semblance of fear. Instead he grew even more fascinated, as if he were wondering if there was anything I could not do. The boy looked up at the mural above, strangely fixated on the wyrm instead of his ape brethren.
“Did you know him?” he asked.
“Her, verd. I knew her.” I said.
The Flatlander returned his gaze to the mural. Looking over the stone likeness, he seemed strangely sad. What a silly notion I thought. No one apart from me had ever mourned her passing.
“She must have been special.” He said.
“Quite right, verd.”
“What’s that thing up there?” He asked. This one had a lot of questions, though none of them were any less irritating than the last.
“You’ll need to specify.”
“That big black spike thing behind the monster.”
The boy pointed back up to the mural. It had something I didn’t see during my last visit. It was a strange piece, disguised in the gaggle of Assylyl’s many tendrils, which could explain how the object managed to escape me. Behind the horrible likeness of Assylyl, a black spike sliced a razor-slit into the clouds before vanishing into the white swirling mist. It was painted with a color darker than the Far One himself, a spike of oblivion looming behind him like a throne.
I hadn’t been at this battle. The Black Wyrm insisted, so I hadn’t the faintest inkling just what this strange construct was. It did make me recall a conversation I’d had with the Matriarch a long time ago, when I asked her just why my elder sibling had to die.
“You mean she didn’t tell you?” Saar’Jya had said. “But of course she didn’t. She probably didn’t want to frighten you.”
“I don’t know fear.” I’d bellowed. Saar’Jya just looked at me with those eyes blue of sea and clicked her tongue.
“You poor little wyrmling. Of course you know fear. You’ve known it since you first came to me as a lost child seeking companionship, and you shall know it again. You will once you learn just what that Spire is and what it does.”
“It’s probably nothing.” I said.
The crypt demanded my attention now. Nothing appeared disturbed apart from Davies’ coffin. It sat overturned on the altar. Davies’ mummified hand was clearly broken when the corpse was thrown from its resting place.
I strolled across the pond to get a better look at the coffin. It was a well built piece, adorned with friezes of the life and times of Davies the Kind, as if the wall mural didn’t tell enough. The coffin had what was known as a pick proof lock on it. I was familiar with all manner of pick-proof locks as I had seen many on the carrying cases of thieves hoping to burgle my home. A lock like this could only be opened by a key with matching enchantment.
Like the one that was still in the keyhole. The enchanted key was worn well. I recalled hearing tales of it going missing while in the possession of some of Davies’ closest friends. They had been robbed at blade point and fought back. Their old, frail bodies not what they once were, they had been bested and several of their cherished items were lost. Or so I’d heard. This key looked to have traded hands for hundreds of years.
“The sailors brought that with them.” the Flatlander explained. “Won it in a bet or something. Slight and the monster made them unlock it to test if it was booby trapped.”
“Tell me more about this monster. It was covered in spikes, no?”
“How did you know?” he asked.
“I recognize footprints, verd.” I said. “Spiked Ravagers are voracious and cruel beasts, though they’re usually solitary. Why by all the fish in the sea would one be here, I wonder. Tell me, Flatlander, did this Slight character seem acquainted with it?”
“Yes.” the verd answered. “Slight called it Citch. I think it knew him pretty well. It liked to push him around a lot.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
As he explained everything to me, he did something most peculiar. He reached around to his back and touched the handle of his holstered Morningstar. At first I thought he was about to tear it loose in some poor attempt to battle me. It was enough to make me light my furnace, casting his face in an orange glow as the light of the flames seeped out between my teeth. But he left the weapon in rest, instead rubbing the handle with his fingers. The ritual seemed to sooth him.
“It always just called him ‘Slight’, never ‘Sir Fairborn.’ Slight hates it when people just call him by his first name. Says they’re disrespecting the family name. I once saw him cut someone’s tongue out for calling him Slight.”
“The knight sounds most charming. Yet he didn’t do that to this beast?” I asked.
The Flatlander shook his head. “No. I think the monster scared him. But that didn’t stop him from pulling out his whip and going at the sailors when one of them did it.”
I flipped the coffin off the ground to reveal the corpse of my nemesis. Davies the Kind rested face down on the altar, his rotted teeth all but shattered after his defenestration. Very gently I turned him over, careful not to disturb anything that could tell the tale of these last few days. The Flatlander was right. The famous Blade of Hope was gone. Davies had only surrendered it after his mummified digits had broken off. Even in death, he still had some small fight in him.
Stranger still was the Blade of Hope had never left the crypt. It rested in the pond, stabbing into the stone beneath the water with its glimmering handle pointed up to the sun. The mystery had deepened. Why would these thieves go through all this effort simply to abandon the ultimate prize?
The ultimate prize for someone else of course. Though historically significant, it left much to be desired in the way of its aesthetic beauty. There were no curvatures, no sculptures, no mounted gems. The blade rested in the clutches of a polished brass handle that barely caught any of the expected rust. Though not well endowed, the blade was well made. Though the finely tempered steel was sharpened to such perfection that even the centuries hadn’t dulled it, I didn’t think this object a fit item with which to pick my teeth.
The entire weapon was coated in a thin layer of tarnish shield, a special formula that protected the weapon from wear. That also explained a peculiar problem.
“That explains why the Iron Feeders didn’t feast on this blade.”
“What?” asked the Flatlander.
“Tarnish shield. This blade is covered in it. To an Iron Feeder it’s a poison. I thought they left it just because looking at it is nauseating enough. What was it about the blade they wanted?” I asked.
“There was something stuck in it. Little pieces of black crystal. Here. I’ll show you.” the boy said. He frolicked over to the blade in the knee deep water. The Flatlander pulled the sword from the dark pool and held it up for me to see. Indeed, the blade did seem to have something imbedded in it. A vacant notch was cut into the metal just short of the tip. Something had been there a long time, and it had just been removed. It was the only blemish the blade suffered.
“What was this thing they took?” I asked.
“It looked kind of like a piece of black glass, you know? From one of those big picture windows.” he said as he set the sword back down.
“It’s called stained glass, verd.” I corrected him. “Interesting. Very interesting. I do wonder of this is connected to my recent woes.”
“What’s that?” He asked.
“Some soon to be deceased parties stole a piece of treasure from me, something that I took from here a long time ago.” I pointed over to the statue. “There was once a great piece of luminescent crystal where that ruby now rests, a crystal that now belongs to me. Someone took it. I assumed they were bringing it back here.”
“Well that wouldn’t be smart coming back here.” the verd said.
“Stealing from me isn’t smart.” I said. “Tell me, Flatlander, what did this comical party want with this piece of glass in the blade?”
The verd shrugged. “I don’t know. They just said they needed it for some sort of ritual.” he said. “It came off something bigger. I was able to get that much.”
“I see. It would seem I’ve no further affairs here.” I took a step towards the exit of Davies’ crypt. As I headed back out to the sunlight, I glanced back at Flatlander. He, rather pitifully, was attempting to flip Davies’ coffin back onto the alter. For the first time I noticed the boy’s build. He wasn’t lean, though the years of malnourishment had been better to him than they would most. Living out in the wilderness for this time would have given him ample time to build his form. Next to the five hundred pound coffin though, he was still but a dried twig. I would call such an effort that of an ant, but then again ants are actually able to lift many times their own weight.
Like his impersonation of drying paint, it was just too pathetic a display for me to allow it to continue. With a frustrated sigh and puff of flame from my teeth, I strolled over to the boy, pulled the coffin from his hands and put it back on its pedestal. Before he could get any further ideas, I placed the body of Davies inside as well.
The verd picked up the Blade of Hope and placed it back on Davies’ chest. The sentimentality within him reeked as much as he did.
“Thank you.” he said to me.
“You’re not as brittle as I would have expected.” I said, gesturing to his arms.
“Oh, that.” he said. “I knew if Slight and I ever got into a fight, I’d need to practice.”
I gave him a slight nod, before tapping my knuckle against his side and sending him off the pathway and into the pond. He splashed into the water, washing away some of the filth that covered him.
“What the hell was that for!?” he yelled.
“Take my advice, verd. Bathe.”
“Asshole!” he yelled.
I took a stroll back over to the exit of the crypt where beams of sun still came through. Major Arietta and her Sparks companion weren’t here, nor had they been here recently, nor did I expect them to come. This little venture was but a dead end, and it gave them precious time with which they could put more distance between themselves and I. Any entertainment the verd offered me had long since worn thin, and he would be hardly useful in my search for those yhivuxii.
Or could he? I was curious as to just what this Citch creature and the Slight knight were here for. Maybe the two incidents were connected somehow. If so I could take the child to various seaports until he was able to pick the sailors out of a crowd.
“Hey wait. There’s…there’s a…” the verd was trying to say.
The thought of taking him with me itched at my thoughts, just like whatever it was that itched at my back ankle. I reached down to my heel, expecting to find a loose scale clogged with some small piece of debris, but felt something else. Something was there. Something that moved.
Something that chittered and clicked.
I looked down to find and Iron Feeder had attached itself to me. As big as the verd, but with tiny pincer arms now hooked into the grooves of my scales and pulling them apart. It forced its suction cup into the gap in an attempt to feed. On me. Completely and indescribably disgusting.
“Graaaaa!” I grabbed the beast. Its pincer arms snapped off as it was ripped from my scales. It squealed and squirmed as my fingers closed around it until it popped. Its rust-orange innards sprayed out between my fingers. When the repulsive entrails hit the ground, the entire surface of the pond erupted in foam, all around the verd. One after another, hundreds of Feeders squirmed out of the water. Several of the hideous beasts congregated around the remains of their fallen comrade to suck up whatever iron they could. Most of them converged on me. Some went after the verd.
“What the hell is…” he began.
“Get out of here, Flatlander!” I commanded him.
The boy hopped to his feet and tore his Morningstar from its holster. He struck the nearest beast to him, tearing its face away with one clean swipe and spattering himself in horrid orange blood. So much for him staying clean. The boy hopped back onto the path, running beneath my feet and back out to daylight. Only he hesitated when he reached the steps. It was as if he wanted to come back and ensure my safety, as ridiculous as that notion is.
“Oh don’t make me laugh, verd! I can handle this!” I roared.
He seemed to get the message. The Flatlander ran up the battered pathway and back out to the sun, presumably out to the desert and to freedom. If the elements didn’t kill him that is.
A mass of the disgusting creatures writhed out of the water to litter my body. They crawled up my legs, across by back, all over my wings. A few of them even tried to crawl down my throat. I snapped my jaws shut, slicing several of the creatures in half and spraying orange blood all over my chin. To kill the vile taste, I flashed the inside of my throat with flames, burning away he remains left behind.
I threw myself against the walls of the tomb, slammed my arms against the rocks, indiscriminately pulverizing whatever Feeders were there. I snatched up and squeezed several more of the creatures until they burst fistfuls of orange ooze. When more of them crowded on to slurp up the orange liquid, they met the same grisly end under my haunches. Blow after blow against the wall and eventually it was coated all over with the orange, iron-rich slime. Their deflated husks littered the floor, hung off the walls and me. One of them attempted to crawl into my mouth. With a single bite, one half of the creature fell away. I spat the over half out.
As I have mentioned, ape castes taste rather horrible, so you can imagine the horrid flavor of a creature gorged on their rotted flesh. The muck immediately numbed my tongue.
A second wave of them came out of the water, right into the path of my fire. My furnace lit, I launched the flames. Soon a hiss filled the chamber as their metal-rich blood reached a boil well before the lake began to steam. One by one, they popped in blossoms of orange mist.
Pop. Pop. Pop. Delightful.
The verd’s cry came down from outside, no longer at the top of the narrow stairs.
I climbed through just in time to see the Flatlander ready his Morningstar. An escaped Feeder slick with its fellows’ guts was fast closing in. The creature made a nauseating gargling noise as it flexed its suction cup mouth and threw itself towards the child.
The Flatlander swung his Morningstar into the beast, opening up its belly with a single arc. With a great shriek, the Feeder collapsed on top of the verd, pinning him down on the rocks. It’s suction cup mouth reached out and grabbed the nearest thing it could find, swallowing one of the verd’s arms to the elbow.
“You want to eat me!?” he roared. I found it hard to believe as well. I would never intentionally put such a filthy thing in my mouth.
The Feeder squealed up a stream of its orange blood as the Flatlander pulled his arm free, holding a fistful of rubbery guts. He kicked the dying creature away, his eyes mad with untamable fury. It was those furious eyes that were the Feeder’s last vision.
The Morningstar came down with such force that the entire feeder’s head caved in. A great splash of blood soaked the little one when he pulled the weapon free to swing again.
He broke away the creature’s limbs and smashed them to sludge. He caved in its armored hide. He cracked the weapon down onto the creature’s neck until what was left of the head came off and kicked it away. He pummeled every single part of the creature, every single little piece, until it was but an orange mire.
I placed one of my fingers on his tiny shoulder. “Verd, I think it’s dead.”
His voice was less words and more of a hoarse growl. “I’m not finished! I’m not finished!”
“You may not be but the Feeder is.” I said.
He allowed his Morningstar to fall to his side. So exhausted was he that the weight of his own weapon pulled him off balance. He fell to the floor, trying to catch his breath. The brief battle did little to rattle the madness out of him, for the next question he asked was one of unbound foolishness.
“You okay?” the Flatlander asked.
As if a creature as great as I needed his concern. At a snap of my jaws, he stayed his tongue.
“There are a lot of things you should be worried about, verd. I am one of them. My well being is not. Do not ask that question again.”
“I was just worried.” he explained.
I laughed. “Do you still not see what I am? Do you not know the power of the wonder upon which you gaze? I am of the great elder race that first blessed Tygan’s skies. My powers are without equal. My intellect more than your kind’s most celebrated geniuses. I can burn entire forests forests, glass entire deserts, consume cities and reduce the greatest of mountains to a magma puddle. That you have such a notion as to concern yourself with me shows what a tiny mind you have.”
The Flatlander puffed his chest and stood up. “You’re an asshole.” he said.
“If you want to be brief.” I said through bared razor teeth. “You know, verd, it interests me. Just why would so pathetic a creature as you so relentlessly pursue this knight named Slight to this place? Why are you after this dragonslayer?”
At that, the child fell into morose silence. His eyes gazed far away as an unseen memory unfolded before him. The change in him was so profound, it shone through the crust that covered him. He somehow looked younger, irreparably shattered. His were eyes I had seen looking back at me from a reflection, long ago.
“Slight Fairborn is my uncle. He murdered my mother.”
It was a story as old as wind and water.
“Revenge?” I said. It made me sneer. “You came all this way for revenge?”
My reaction enraged the verd. He didn’t look at me. His jaw clenched so tightly that his molars looked fit to shatter.
“You’re disappointing.” he said as he quickly holstered his weapon and walked towards the exit of the tomb.
“You say that as if meeting me was a lifelong wish, boy.” I said.
“It was.” he replied.
Somehow or another, the thought suddenly entered my head. Beneath that stupidity, reek and filth, this Flatlander could still prove to be very useful. He had after all been here when the ravager and this dragonslayer character had been here. If there were a connection, however unlikely, he might lead me to the verodu Major and reizeek lahaar’rie’vrrick.
I easily made it to the crypt entrance before he did. I planted myself in front of the entrance. He had no better chance of getting out than the sunlight did getting in.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
“Away from you.” He tried to walk past me, but at a blow from my tail upon the ground between us he was stilled.
“Oh, I think not, Flatlander.”
“Don’t you dare kill me.” He demanded. “I’m not finished yet.”
“Oh, I agree. You still have some use.”
I spread my wings and took to the sky. As the ground retreated away, I snatched him away with one of my hind talons.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing!?” he screamed.
“That does not concern you, verd.” I said.
“The hell it doesn’t! Put me down!” he demanded.
“Are you certain?” I loosened my talons. “Just say the word, verd, and I shall release you right here, all the way down.”
The Flatlander ceased his protests. He wrapped his arms around one of my digits and held it as tightly as he could.
“Alight! Alright.” he said. “I’ll go with you.”
“That’s what I thought.”
He didn’t complain for the rest of the journey.
At the time I could not have known what this would entail. He was merely a means to an end, I thought. A simple little necessity needed to find those that had wronged me. Or perhaps not. But the boy’s story had made me curious, curious enough to want to know and understand what happened in this place, to see if and how it was related to the theft of my most precious possession.
As for this business of taking the Flatlander with me, I understand you may believe I had ulterior motives. That perhaps seeing his sad state was enough to elicit pity even from me. That perhaps it felt improper to leave him there. It may very well have been. But know this: to associate such feelings with a Saar is naive. They never crossed my mind.
Now do yourself a favor and cease such fantasies.