CHAPTER 2: THE FLATLANDER
Verd. It is such an odd little word in the tongue of the Saar. It simply refers to young ape males. The closest word to it in your tongue would be ‘boy’, an ugly little word for an ugly little thing. I’d never expected to find much use for it in a place like the Antwalker Desert, though I did find uses aplenty for various other profanities.
The three hours and three hundred miles since my lair brought little sign of the thieves, even as I traveled across the route Sparks had been so courteous to mention. The Antwalker Desert was a vast expanse of sand and claw where many a dwarf made a meager living amongst the dunes. Apart from the countless dwarven homes that were curiously dug into the sand as opposed to built on top of it, the Antwalker Desert’s only real landmark was a little hole in the ground known as the Tomb go the Selfless. I do not use that term figuratively. Like many of the homes here, the Tomb was built by the hands of dwarves, dug sweat and sculpted into an almost impressive feat of architecture beneath the sand. The dwarves claimed their downward building habits brought longevity. I always assumed it was to spare the effort of hauling stone and mortar. They carefully dug holes into the ground on top of it, lighting the inside with sunlight. Certain openings were so placed that on certain days of the year, they would shine light onto a particular crypt on the anniversary of its occupant’s passing.
This was the final resting place for many of Tygan’s most famous braves, including the one for whom the dwarves had leant most of their sweat. This was the final resting place of the legendary Davies the Kind, loved by the world and hated by me. Sparks had feared me leveling the entire crypt, but I only really desired to disrupt this one particular grave.
I roared out to the thieves as I drew near.
“Thieves! Do not think you can hide from me!”
The Major and Sparks did not answer, and more curiously, neither did the guards appointed to protect the Tomb of the Selfless. As I drew nearer, my nostrils were assailed by the stench of rotting flesh, baking these last few days beneath the Antwalker sun.
It seemed the guards were in no condition to protest me.
Six bodies littered the long dried riverbed leading down to the Tomb’s entrance, which itself was buried under a fresh rock slide. Looking at it gave the impression it had been deliberately toppled. Stranger still were five of these guards had died with their weapons still sheathed, as if they’d been cut down by someone they trusted.
Trust was the least of the sixth victim’s worries. I found their remains in the riverbed, and out of the riverbed, and on the rocks, and on the sand. The sword clutched in their severed hand told me unlike the rest, they’d put up a fight, trouble for which they’d earned extra punishment. The one distinguishing feature on this listed mound of gore was not the marks of a blade, but of claws. The wounds were of an almost surgical precision, cutting right through joints and tendons until this sap fell to pieces.
The last few days had been relatively windless, preserving the footprints of the perpetrators. A party of six had committed the crime, for of whom wore battered leather shoes common in the peasantry. A fifth member left behind armored footprints so pristine that they almost passed for art. These were the tracks of a knight. Then there was the sixth member of the party, apparently the one who’d claimed the sixth victim. These blood laced footprints were different for they did not belong to any kind of ape. This was some kind of beast.
As I landed to investigate, my sense of smell was suddenly besieged. I was battered by the nefarious odor of perspiration, stale urine, dried manure and crusted vomit. It was horrid enough to knock a Saar from the sky.
“Hcraa!” I cursed. “What is that stench?”
It came from the sunlight holes on the tomb’s top. Looking inside I found some interesting details about the Tomb of the Selfless. The crypts of the less prominent hadn’t received the same care as those more economically endowed. Even among the revered dead, short shrift was given to the impoverished.
Then, in a brief flicker of motion, I spotted a figure just as it darted around a corner below.
“You there” I growled. “Come here.”
As I chased the footsteps from one hole to the next, I found another corpse. The top of his head had imploded beneath the force of a blunt, angry weapon. Though this wasn’t one of the guards. His cheap shoes were a perfect match to the four seats of peasant prints outside. This one was a dock worker of some sort. The stench of saltwater still covered their rotted leather soles.
“I know you’re in there. Come here.”
For my request, the only answer I got was the unseen runner’s labored breathing. It didn’t sound afraid. More like a bull preparing for a charge. My next question was a burst of fire through the temple’s perforated top, burning the deceased sailor to a crisp.
“Unless you want more of that, come here.” I said.
As the freshly burnt body sizzled, a voice finally answered, one that somehow sounded both feeble and giant.
“You come down here and I’ll smash your face in just like that sailor.” he shouted.
I chuckled. “No. Come here.”
“Slight sent you didn’t he?” the voiced asked. “Couldn’t finish me off himself so he sent you to do his dirty work, didn’t he!?”
“No.” I reassured. “Now, come here.”
“Go to hell!” He yelled.
“You threaten me with damnation? I am that whom demons dread. Now, come here.”
His response was most ill advised.
“Come get me yourself, wizard!”
A wizard. He dared mistake me for one of those ape cretans who plunder our power by drinking our blood. I was of the elder race that graced Tygan from its earliest days, and my gifts were a birthright. Me, a wizard? A lahaar’rie’vrrick? I stood up on my hind legs, reared my head back, and I roared.
I crashed my fist into the roof of the Tomb, opening it wide and spilling in the sun. I thrust my head through the hole, and found a boy.
He was a young little thing of but fifteen years. He was sullied by a crust of dust and dried sweat. His hair was matted and his clothing stained red from the clay outside. The only thing on him in remotely good condition was his weapon, a large Morningstar mace that had been freshly cleaned. Blood and brain matter from his latest victim had been wiped onto his shirt and pants. The weapon shined brightly, though not as much as the boy’s eyes. They were a deep wealthy amber, and seemed to glow when the irises captured the sunlight. Even bathed in shadow, the two orbs shined like candles in the dark. I’d only ever seen such eyes once, long ago.
“Do you see me now?” I boomed.
I backed from the hole, flaring up my wings to catch the light. Though bathed in darkness, the boy did not tremble. He looked upon me with all encompassing awe.
“Say it then!”
“A dragon. I thought the fire was just a spell.” He said. “You’re that big one from Silent Pass, aren’t you? The Great Red Wyrm.”
It was common for the cornered to attempt flattery. Many a thief attempted to woo me with poems and songs so they might see another day. They were all falsehoods. This boy’s wonder was genuine. He gazed upon me the same way many more had looked upon my treasure.
“It’s one of the better names you people call me.” I said.
“What’s your real name?” he asked.
I could help but chuckle at the boy’s question. “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.
“My elders said I was as the burning of hot embers. My enemies say I’m a premonition of death, for I always looked to be bathed in blood. I took for my name the word our people gave to the color ‘Red.’ I am Zhyx.”
The closest sounding word to my name would be your word for the number ‘six’ only replace the ’s’ with a ‘z.’ Of course being the race of dullards you are, all who tried to say it before found new and exciting ways to butcher it. It’s simply too elegant a language to be commanded by such an inelegant creature, except for this boy apparently. He said it perfectly right down to the rumble in his throat.
“Zhyx.” he said. “That’s a good name.”
It was actually a passable imitation of Ravrra’Saar, or dragon speak. The boy’s eyes almost glowed on their own when he said it.
“You’re a Flatlander.” I gestured to his eyes. “Your eyes betray you. Your an entire ocean from home.”
The boy blushed beneath his cocoon of soot.
“My mother gave me these.” he said.
“So your father was not a Flatlander?” I asked.
When I uttered ‘father, the boy became something primordial. His face twisted into a grotesque sculpture of hate and despair as he shouted back at me with the same voice he did from the shadows.
“I just had a mother!”
I blew a puff of hot air in his face. “I’ll grant you mercy for speaking to me that way when you didn’t know I was Saar. Now that you do, you best not test me, verd.”
The boy shrunk away. “Sorry. What does ‘verd’ mean?”
“That’s what you are, isn’t it? It means ‘boy.” I explained. “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.
“Excuse me for asking.” he said. “Why are you here? Is it Slight? You gonna kill him?”
“Who is this ‘Slight’ you keep mentioning?”
“A dragonslayer. The boy explained. “I’d have done it myself but they caved me in. But that’s it, right? Fry him all over the desert I’ll bet. I’ll help you do it.”
The boy was giddy at the prospect of the knight’s death. It was almost sinful to disappoint him.
I shook my head. “No, Flatlander. I’m here on another matter.”
The boy became strangely disappointed. His giddiness vanished, replaced with all the zeal of a wall of drying paint.
“Oh.” he said.
“Perk up, verd. I’m sure I’ll kill him eventually.” I said. That seemed to reassure him a bit. “But no. I’m tracking a pair of thieves who dared test me. I thought they might pass through here, but since they haven’t I may as well defile the grave of their idol.”
“You don’t mean Davies the Kind, do you?” he asked.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Yes. Try to stop me and I’ll burn you.”
As I left my perch, the Flatlander called out. “But that’s who Slight and the others came here for! They came for his sword.”
I stopped in my tracks.
“What?” I asked.
The Flatlander nodded. “Just yesterday. They said there was something on his sword they wanted. I can show you where it is.”
I ripped the hole in the roof wider, showering the boy with dust and gravel as I stepped inside.
“Would you be so kind, verd?” I sneered at him.
The boy lead me through the Tomb of the Selfless. Through I initially had to crawl, the boy lead me into an arched tunnel within which I could actually stand.
“You creatures sure loved this Davies character.” I said.
“How can you tell?” the boy asked.
“Because I can walk around in here.”
The tunnel was decorated with everything from torch to tapestry. On the ceiling was an elaborate raised mural depicting the life of Davies the Kind even as far back as his birth in Allan’s Meadow. Each step took us further through the his years, leading all the way to Davies’ tomb.
Those that revered him had done well in displaying their affections. In the center of a large pond at the end of a narrow stone path, rested Davies’ coffin on a raised dais of rock. The surface of the pond was peppered with small model ships housing still burning candles, as well as something a touch less sightly. Floating between them were the hollowed out corpses of ten Iron Feeders. The insides of the brittle corpses had withered away, leaving them both barren and buoyant.
“Blech.” I said of the grisly sight.
As I took a step back, I nearly made the Flatlander a good deal flatter.
“Hey, watch out!” he cried. “I saw these things out in the desert. What are they?”
“Iron Feeders, Flatlander.” I explained. “They have an insatiable appetite for iron, right down to the iron in your blood. They favor crypts like this for a quick meal. With the guards to fight them off the Feeders would come out in droves. Disgusting things must have gorged themselves to death.”
Above us, the mural of the tunnel spilled into a dome shaped ceiling. The boy looked up.
Depicted above was the deed for which Davies was known. There was the dwarf, holding aloft his famous Blade of Hope, a sword ever consumed in fire. Before him was a thing so unspeakable, I wondered how the artist could ever bring themselves to sculpt it. Tentacles danced around its body, curling back like a thousand whips. Its jackal like skull was covered in boils, peering out from the stone with a thousand eyes. Armored tendrils pierced the ground beneath it, holding it aloft like a drifting phantom.
This was Assylyl, better known as the Far One.
But that wasn’t what so upset me about the mural. The picture above showed Davies the Kind riding astride the reason for which I so despised him. He rode on a dragon, a grand creature once known as the Black Wyrm.
“What is that?” asked the verd.
I rolled my eyes. “Have you been living under a rock, verd?”
“When I’m lucky.” he said.
The answer left me somewhat flustered. Anyone could deduce by a glance he’d never been to school.
“That, Flatlander, is Assylyl, the Far One. No one knows his real name. His title was taken from the mad gibberish from 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. His army of the Following betrayed their fellows in the hopes he wouldn’t count them amongst his food. Until he was eventually felled.”
“And that’s Davies fighting him?” he asked.
“Unfortunately.” I said. “Supposedly he’s the one who defeated the Far One, but all with any brains know the Black Wyrm is really responsible.”
“The Black Wyrm?” he asked.
I pointed up at the mural. “The dragon, verd.”
“You know him?” he asked.
“Her, verd. I knew her.” I said.
“What’s that spike up there?” he asked.
The boy had a keen eye. Disguised behind the gaggle of Assylyl’s many tendrils was an abstract pyramid like shape. It sliced through the clouds like a razor. It was painted with a color darker than the Far One himself, a spike of oblivion looming behind him like a throne.
“Probably nothing.” I said.
“Why is Davies’ sword burning like that?” the boy asked. “It’s not even hurting his hand.”
“If you want a history lesson, go to school. I’ve other matters to attend to.”
Nothing in the crypt appeared disturbed apart from Davies’ coffin. It sat overturned on the altar. Davies’ mummified hand poked out, broken when the corpse had been thrown from its resting place. The coffin was guarded by something known as a pick proof lock, something I’d seen in the possession of many would be thieves. An enchantment guarded the lock, rendering it un-pickable. Only a key with a matching enchantment could ever open one, much like the key that currently rested in this coffin’s lock.
The key was well worn. I recalled hearing tales of it going missing after some of Davies’ closest friends were robbed of it by blade point. It 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 this…monster made them unlock it to test it for traps.”
“You say a monster came in with them. Describe it.” I demanded.
“Well it was…tall, skinny. Its back was covered in quills like a porcupine. Always had gritted teeth. It couldn’t speak out of its mouth so it talked from in back of its throat. Whenever it talked it looked like it was gonna throw up.”
“I see. I’ve heard of creatures like the one you saw.” I said.
“You have?” he asked.
“Yes. Spiked Ravagers. They come from the Southern Wilds below the Ankeerean jungle. They’re known to lure many a naive traveler to many a grisly end. They’re voracious, cruel, but they’re usually solitary. What could one be doing this far north? Did this Slight character seem acquainted with it?”
The verd nodded. “He called it Citch. It liked to push him around a lot. It always called him ‘Slight’, never ‘Sir Fairborn.’ He hates it when people do that. I once saw him cut someone’s tongue out for not calling him Sir Fairborn. He whipped the sailors for it, but never Citch. That thing really scared him.”
“He sounds charming.” I said.
I flipped the coffin up to reveal Davies the Kind beneath. Davies the Kind rested face down on the altar, his rotted teeth shattered after his defenestration. I prodded him over with the touch of my claw. The Flatlander was right. The famous Blade of Hope was gone, though even in death Davies had fought for it. He’d only surrendered it after his mummified digits had broken off.
“It’s over here.” said the boy.
“Still here. They didn’t take it?” I asked.
“No. I told you they wanted something on the sword.” he said.
The Flatlander waded into the pond and thrust his hands into the murky water. When he found the blade, he held it aloft.
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. The finely tempered steel was sharpened to such perfection that even the centuries hadn’t dulled it, but I didn’t think it was fit 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 explains why the Iron Feeders didn’t feast on it.” I said.
“What?” asked the Flatlander.
“Tarnish shield. The blade is covered in it. To an Iron Feeder it’s a poison, though I doubt even they would want to eat this drivel. You said they were after something on the blade.” I asked.
“Yeah. Little pieces of black crystal. Here. I’ll show you.” the boy said.
He held the blade up for me to see. Indeed it 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 only just been removed.
“Black crystal, you say?” I asked.
“Yeah. Said they needed it for some king of ritual. It looked kind of like a piece of black glass, you know? From one of those big picture windows.” he said.
“It’s called stained glass, verd.” I corrected him. “Very interesting. I do wonder if this is connected to my recent theft. But alas they don’t appear to have passed through here. I best be going.”
I started back up the tunnel. Glancing back at the Flatlander, I could see his pitiful attempts to flip Davies’ coffin back into place. Though years of malnourishment had been kinder to him than most, he was still but a withered reed next to a five hundred pound coffin. I would call such an effort that of an ant, but then again ants can actually lift many times their weight. The display was just too pitiful to let continue.
With a frustrated sigh and puff of flame from my teeth, I returned to the boy’s side, pulled the coffin from his hands and placed both it and its occupant back on the pedestal. The boy placed the Blade of Hope across Davies’ chest and slid the lid closed.
The scene reeked of sentimentality.
“Wasn’t sure if I could lift that.” he said.
“Ah.” I said with a nod.
I then rapped my knuckle against the child’s side, sending him off the pathway into the water. The water sloshed away both the soot that covered him as well as his temper.
“What the hell was that for!?” he yelled.
“You need a bath, verd.” I said before turning back up the tunnel.
My palm flattened an object submerged beneath the water. I withdrew my hand to find it slathered in a coarse, orange liquid. In its center was the flattened carcass of an Iron Feeder. It was as big as the boy. The remains of its gel like egg sack covered its body. This one had been recently laid, sometime in the last few days. And Iron Feeders never lay just one egg.
“Hey there’s. There’s a…” the boy stammered.
From my ankle I could feel a small itching sensation. Looking down I found another freshly hatched Iron Feeder. It’s tiny pincer arms had hooked into the grooves of my scales. It forced its proboscis into the gap in an attempt to feed. On me. It was completely and indescribably disgusting.
“Graaaaa!” I roared.
I wrapped my fingers around it, closing them tight until it popped. Its rust-orange innards sprayed out between my knuckles. When the repulsive entrails hit the water, the entire surface of the erupted in foam. One after another, hundreds of Feeders squirmed from their shells that had been resting beneath the surface this entire time.
“By the gods. It’s a nest.” I turned to the boy. “Out, Flatlander.”
“What the hell is…” he began.
“If you don’t leave these things will suck you dry, now move it, boy!” I roared.
The boy turned to the tunnel, but hesitated.
“You need help?” he asked.
“Don’t make me laugh, verd.” I growled.
He seemed to get the message then. The Flatlander ran up the tunnel, back towards daylight.
By the drove the creatures adhered themselves to my body. They crawled up my legs and onto my back, spreading all over my wings like hot lead. I threw my back against the walls of the tomb, 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. I struck myself, blow after blow against the wall until it was coated with the orange, iron-rich slime. One of them attempted to crawl into my mouth. With a single bite, one half of the creature fell away.
I spat the other half out of course. As I’ve mentioned, ape castes taste rather horrible, so you can imagine how sickening the taste of a creature gorged on their rotting flesh would be.
When a second wave came, they landed right in the path of my fire. As the flames splashed over them, the entire crypt filled with a hiss. Their metal rich bodies came to a boil as one by one they popped in fireworks of orange sludge.
I turned to see an Iron Feeder, slick with its fellows’ innards pursuing the Flatlander up the tunnel. The Flatlander stood firm with his Morningstar at the ready. The creature made a nauseating gargling noise, flexing its suction cup mouth as it threw itself on the child. Before he could strike it, the creature had swallowed the boy’s arm up 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 Flatlander wasn’t surrendering his arm without a fight.
“You’re not eating me!” he said.
He grabbed the inside of the creature’s throat and with all the strength he had, tore his arm free, taking with him the creature’s suction cup mouth along with a good portion of its esophagus. The boy’s eyes were mad with an untamed fury. It was this visage painted of rage and tenacity that were the creature’s last vision before its head was caved in by the Morningstar.
Then the Flatlander struck it 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. He was only stopped when I placed one of my claws on his shoulders.
“I think it’s dead, verd.”
He was so exhausted that 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.
“There are a lot of things you should be worried about, verd. I’m one of them. My well being is not. Don’t ask that question again.”
“I was just worried.” he explained.
I laughed. “How dense are you boy? Do you still not see what I am? 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, glass entire deserts, consume cities and reduce the greatest of mountains to puddles of magma. That you have such a notion as to concern yourself with me shows how feeble minded you are.”
The Flatlander slowly holstered his weapon and got back to his feet.
“You’re an asshole.” he said.
“If you want to be brief.” I said through bared teeth. “You know, verd, it interests me. Just why would so pathetic a creature as you so relentlessly pursue this Slight to this place?”
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 profound enough to shine through the crust that encased him.
“Slight Fairborn is my uncle. He murdered my mother.”
His was a story as old as wind and water.
“Revenge?” I said. “You really came all this way for revenge?”
My reaction enraged him. He turned from me with a jaw clenched so tightly that his molars looked fit to shatter.
“You’re disappointing.” he said as he holstered his weapon and made for the entrance of the Tomb.
“You say that as if meeting me was a lifelong wish, boy.” I said.
“It was.” he replied.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
“Away from you.” He said.
Then he, all by his lonesome, headed back up the tunnel.
“It’s not wise to go without water, verd.” I said.
His reply was to talk away faster.
Before I left I took one final gander at Davies’ crypt. I’d come here to burn it, and I still could. In the end I thought better of it. It would take valuable time away from my hunt for Major Arietta and her flamboyant friend. They’d no doubt gained significant ground during my stay here, but once more Sparks had been talkative enough to give me an idea where to look next.
The city of Ganbury was well within reach of griffin flight.
I glanced back to the Flatlander. His tiny little form strolled out ever closer to the sun. The nearest town was several hours away on foot, and he’d be well baked by the time he reached it. If he reached it.
The little fool, I thought. I’d told him to take some water. Surely he could have found a stray canteen and filled it in Davies’ pond. For his refusal to mind me, he was only dooming himself.
It was then I was overcome with a most curious intrigue. His story, though seemingly unrelated, was quickly becoming of interest to me. Though the pair of thieves I sought hadn’t been here, perhaps there was some relation between them. Surely it was no coincidence that the Major mentioned Assylyl so soon after the sacking of Davies’ grave. If there was a connection, the Flatlander might very well lead me to the thieves.
I slowly strolled up the tunnel.
The boy didn’t turn back to me, but he knew I was coming. His stroll gradually quickened.
When he went faster, so did I, and when I went faster, he could only try to outpace me. Only when he realized I’d no intention of leaving him did he break into a run. His flight was futile, even in a space as closed as this. I was upon him in but a few steps. The Flatlander tried to duck past me and run back to the crypt where the Iron Feeders still popped. He ducked right into my open palm. I closed my fingers around him, holding him tightly as I ran down the length of the tunnel. When daylight appeared, I spread my wings and leapt out the roof of the Tomb of the Selfless, shattering it behind me.
“Zhyx, where the hell are you taking me!?” he screamed.
“Wherever I want.” I said.
“This is bull! Put me down!” he demanded.
“Are you sure?” I loosened my talons. “Just say the word, verd, and I’ll release you, 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.
“That’s what I thought.”
The decision to take the child proved a most fateful one. I’d thought him but a mere necessity, but as I whisked the boy far from the Antwalker desert, I’d no way of knowing the gravity of what I’d just done. Of course you no doubt believe I had ulterior motives for taking the boy. That perhaps his sad state was enough to elicit pity even from me. Know this: to associate such feelings with a Saar is naive.
Do yourself a favor and cease such fantasies.