Shades of Blood

When one of the deadliest creatures ever to walk the earth returns from extinction, the once-celebrated elven spellsinger, Shadestar, and the elf noble, Silverleaf, do everything in their power to rid the world of its evil.

But, can they succeed against the creature when the human kingdoms declare war against their elven neighbours?

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2. One Last Dash

The woodland had no defined border, the trees simply grew sparser until eventually the sky opened up and the fields of grass stretched before him like a sea. The wind caught him by surprise, it made the grass bend and sway like waves on the ocean. The moonlight glinted across the land, looking so much like the foamy tips of water that for a moment Shadestar could have sworn he saw a leaping fish.

He shook his head and passed his hand across his eyes, muttering to himself about visions. This was no time for him to watch the landscape and its beauty. There was a deadly creature nearby and he was almost defenceless against it. He caught a flicker of movement at the edge of his vision. He had no time to prepare, the creature smashed into him with a sibilant screech.

They tumbled together for a while, momentum sending them into the waves of grass. The black skin-like carapace of the beast resisted the panicked blows from Shadestar. It tore at his arms with serrated claws, drops of venom splashed onto his flesh and it burned for a moment before the adrenaline coursed through his veins again. He struggled to push it away but it was stronger and quicker than he was. It sunk one claw deep into his arm and ripped it out with a hiss. Shadestar screamed.

The toxin had entered his blood. In agony, he lashed out. Tears spilled onto his face. He couldn’t think, couldn’t control his body. He writhed on the ground and his only thoughts were of pain; white-hot pain.

After what felt like hours, the torture subsided. Shadestar came to the surface of consciousness and shrank back in horror. The creature was crouched above him. Its fangs were inches away from his face, saliva and hot, foetid breath washing over his face. Its eyes were the deepest shade of crimson. Exactly how he remembered; exactly how he saw them in his dreams. They bore the anger of a horde, concentrated upon him; hatred so deep that it literally spanned across worlds and the Void itself.

“Elf.”

The blood drained from Shadestar’s face, his whole being screamed at him. It had spoken. Its mouth twisted the word, mangled it and deformed it, spitting it out like gristle.

“Undo... filth,” it said. He couldn’t understand. Each breath rattled, each breath accompanied by another sound... an almost silent whine. He had hurt it. Its claws reached up to his face, lightly scoring his cheek with a line of fire. His own breath caught in his throat, the shock of pain reminding him of the power the creature had over him.

“Undo... your...” It snarled and roared into his face, its eyes wide and almost blind with fury. “Undo it!”

It twisted its great scaled head and tried to tear something from its shoulder, but it couldn’t reach. It was Shadestar’s dagger, lodged into the shoulder muscle just beside its neck. The pain it felt must be overpowering; the spell sheathing the blade was enough to send any man or elf onto his back instantly.

 It roared again and this time plunged its claws into Shadestar’s side, twisting with malicious pleasure. They both screamed. Shadestar felt his throat burn, his voice breaking on the peak of the scream. He launched his hand towards his dagger and tried to remove it, but his finger tips barely brushed the handle.

“Elf, undo it!”

“By Allatr, I’m trying...” he sobbed, reaching with all of his might. “I can’t reach... I...”

Suddenly, it was gone. He heard it screaming, back towards the forest. Then he heard the sound of booted feet against the earth.

“Circle him and ready yourselves to repel it again. We only surprised it.”

A face entered his vision, blurry and swimming against the backdrop of the night sky alight with a thousand, thousand stars.

“By the Mother... have you come to take me to the Hall?” he muttered, gazing at the elf’s face. She was beautiful, her brow decorated with a sigil he couldn’t identify. “Who are you?” His back arched in pain, he gasped and clawed at the ground.

She took one glance at his face and then her sight roved across his body, checking his wounds with practised speed.

“By Dibenr’s Spear,” she swore, “he’s been poisoned.”

She stood and surveyed the landscape, her eyes afire and her face the very countenance of fury itself. She signalled her companions. Someone picked Shadestar up. He was numb but the lingering pain faded slowly, ever so slowly, with every step they took.

Sometime later, to him it seemed like hours, they found a road and began to follow it. He wasn’t in a position to see clearly, but he caught glimpses of his saviour. She was constantly on the lookout for the beast’s return.

“It’s not ordinary... not natural... the creature,” he managed to say. She turned to look at him and nodded. He closed his eyes and tried to compose himself. He felt embarrassed to be carried like an invalid.

“Please, let me walk,” he said. His helper stopped and released him, watching him carefully in case he gave signs of collapsing or probably even wincing in pain. Shadestar nodded his thanks and turned to the female, she was clearly their leader. As he turned he caught sight of the creature. It was running straight at them.

“‘Ware!” He pointed and slipped a hand into his mana pouch. There were only a small handful of stones left, he needed to be careful. He wouldn’t be able to cast his most powerful offensive spells. His wound was remarkably numb but he couldn’t allow any distractions.

“Stay together, we’re stronger as a group.”

“Do as he says,” she added, her voice quiet but clearly she was used to being obeyed. The elves did so without complaint or even hesitation. They trusted her. No more time, it was upon them. The elves were trained well, they repelled the creature’s first rush. Their blades swung in perfect synchrony. It melded into the night, somehow vanishing from sight.

“It can’t move that fast... where has it gone?” asked one of the warriors.

“It is capable of that and much more,” Shadestar replied, “It is wounded though, we can prevail. For now, we keep moving.”

With only a nod, the group carried on moving. It was only now that Shadestar realised the young human girl was with them, carried by one of the warriors. She looked terrible, sallow skin and a faint sheen of sweat. Her body was quickly losing the battle though. Shadestar didn’t have the magic available to cure her, not unprepared on the road like this. He needed to get her to a healing chamber.

It felt like they were crawling at a snail’s pace. Each step taken with care, eyes riveted to the darkness. The moon hidden behind clouds gave no assistance as it had earlier.

A horrific screech rent the air on their left flank, Shadestar knew this trick and turned to the opposite side and cast his spell. The cloud of tiny flames he sent out like a net enveloped the dark carapace of the creature, giving rise to an inhuman wail. It retreated once more.

“Allatr, it’s cunning!”

“Let’s press on, we can’t keep this up,” she said.

Ahead, on the road, there were lights in the distance. Not many, but where there was light meant there was civilisation. As closely as he could tell from the position of the hidden moon, Shadestar judged it was close to midnight. That meant there were still at least five hours until sunrise and the full retreat of the creature. It reviled the sun and although was capable of attacking during full daylight, it would be severely weakened. The creature was nothing if not intelligent. With the rise of the sun it would leave to gather its strength.

It made two more attempts to attack them, both times unsuccessful – but this time one of the elven warriors was clawed. He convulsed in agony whilst his companions dragged him along. There was no time to administer his wounds, so Shadestar simply dulled the pain with a single mana stone. He was down to three. After those were depleted he was armed with only a knife. Better to be behind some solid defences before then; death didn’t appeal to him.

Closer to the lights Shadestar saw that they were the watch lights of a tower guarding a bridge crossing. The tower was situated next to a gate, which was closed. His spirits lifted, once behind those gates, the creature would be hard pressed to follow them if it was defended properly. They rushed forward as fast as they could with their burdens. Aside from Shadestar there was the female elf and two of the three warriors still standing; one of which carried the girl, the other supported their wounded friend.

The creature launched towards them again, bulling through the defence and charging Shadestar. He simply collapsed to the ground, the creature sailed above him, and he struck up with his dagger. It scored a hit, but likely didn’t wound it. It bounded out of sight again.

With only a short distance left, Shadestar decided upon one last trick to give them an advantage. Whilst producing heat, pain, physical force or other manifestations of magic was difficult to do and required a lot of energy, light was relatively simple and cheap. With his remaining stones he cast a bright light into the sky. It hung like a miniature sun, blazing as if it were high noon. Shouts of surprise and alarm were raised at the bridge defences, even his elven allies let out shocked murmurs.

“One last dash,” he said and took the wounded elf under the arm and started running. The guards on the tower were ready, he saw. They were aiming bows at them, unsure whether their small party were friend or foe. He didn’t have the breath spare to warn them of the real danger, so he just lowered his head, pumped his legs and prayed to Allatr that they would stay their hands for a short while. The creature would know its prey were about to escape, it would try one final assault.

As sure as night turns to day, the warning screech sounded before the creature darted into the light of Shadestar’s spell.  He didn’t see where it was, but he knew it could be seen because the men on the tower hesitated only slightly before firing arrows over his head. The arrows wouldn’t kill the monster, but they would slow it down, hurt it enough so it would be cautious. But that was the idea.

His sides heaved as he tried to draw the breath in to carry on, but he found his chest constricting. Tight bands of fire clenched his ribs and choked him until he was running on the last fumes of air he could. Darkness encroached on his sight, his steps faltered, and he found himself flat on the ground.

Then this is how I die. Pathetic.

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