The Chronicles of Theldar

Ember's life is simple, normal, nothing to boast about but she likes it. That is until one day her peaceful town is invaded by mysterious enemy forces and she is thrown headlong into an adventure which will test her, her friends, and ultimately decide the future of Theldar.

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5. Advice is boring - Chapter 4

~ Chapter 4 ~

Advice is Boring

 

For the next two days the group of eight trekked through the forest, over the various meadows situated within it and the odd valley now and again. On discovering that the wizard had deserted them two days beforehand they had been sceptical as to whether it wasn’t just a prank, especially Bracer who had been the least pleased of them all. But him knowing so much about their intentions and themselves without anyone having told him, and the fact that Elder was so very worried at the news they had been delivered convinced them the wizard was indeed telling the truth.

   So they had set off in a sombre mood after a light breakfast and by noon had left Dutton several leagues behind them. It was at this point that Ember had been able to stand it no longer. Not only was there the most minimal amount of talking due to Elder’s worry lying on everyone else’s shoulders, but she had so many questions swirling in her head about the previous night that, seeing Elder was in no mood to talk, she jogged to join Serena up ahead to ask them.

   ‘What’s a Conspene wizard?’ she blurted out, not meaning to sound so annoyed.

   ‘I beg your pardon?’

   ‘You know,’ Ember said a little softer, ‘that guy last night said he was a Conspene wizard; what’s one of those?’

   ‘Oh,’ Serena said, ‘well I suppose teaching you is better than walking in silence. Be warned though, this is serious magical stuff and if you don’t understand it I wouldn’t really worry.

   ‘The Conspene wizards are by many referred to as the first type of wizard. I’m sure you are aware that many wizards specialise in a certain type of magic. For example there are Flamma wizards, wizards who specialise in fire spells, or Illumini wizards, wizards who are particularly gifted with light spells. Sure they can perform other spells, but those are the ones they are best at. Now these wizard guilds mostly agree that before magic branched off into these separate areas there were wizards who could harness all these energies. Water, ice, wind and any other element you could think of, as well as the basics of inter-dimensional magic and many more types besides - these wizards could control them all. They were called Conspene wizards however, not due to their incredible talent for magic, which some cults attempt to reach even today, but for their vision.

   ‘You see it was said that after so many years of all these types of magic clashing with each other within a Conspene’s body they gave the person a sort of sixth sense. It wasn’t mind-reading as such, but instead being able to tell about a person instantly.

   ‘So that’s how he knew what we were up to yesterday when he found us, and how he knew Elder’s name.’

   Serena tensed slightly but nodded. ‘It’s also why he knew exactly where the scroll was. As he said some items of supreme magical ability, even just their name, can give off a certain energy.

   ‘It’s very hard to explain, but magic is within us all. You, me, heck even Lunk has magic, and that magic flows like a river all around us too. To be a wizard one must be tuned into this flow – the tattoos on that Conspene’s and Elder’s arm help them with that. Many of the species in Theldar tuned out of the flow millennia ago so now it takes a great deal of mental ability to tune back in if you are one of those species, and a great deal more to do so without those tattoos which is almost impossible.

   ‘Anyway, Conspene’s are said to be so in tune with this flow that they can ‘see’ it or ‘read’ it as some folk say. Supposedly they don’t dream, but instead travel on this flow when their mind is at rest and for those who are well-versed enough in such a skill they can pinpoint anyone or anything they wish to.

   ‘If you can imagine this, because everyone has a base version of magic then we all radiate it into the flow or as wizards call it the flux of magic which surrounds us. And with it it takes our thoughts, our characteristics, our feelings and basically everything else that makes us ourselves. This is what gives the Conspene’s their sixth sense, feeding into their soul and giving them everything they need to know about something or someone. So as you see it is not mind-reading but instead flux-reading.

   ‘Admittedly it would have been easier for our visitor to pinpoint this scroll of his if it was emitting a strong energy but nevertheless he still must have been an incredibly powerful wizard to not only be a Conspene but be a flux-walker as well. Do you see?’

   ‘I think so.’ Ember said a little hesitantly, trying to get her head around the fact that she was walking through magic air. ‘Speaking of the scroll,’ she added, enjoying the little lesson, ‘what is the Necromanical scroll?’

   ‘Well surely you know what necromancy is?’

   ‘Sure, it’s bringing the dead back to life, right?’

   ‘Right. And this scroll we’re after is the most complete and thorough accounting of necromanical spells which the very first Conspenes were said to have written. It is said that the very first of these such wizards wrote a tome of every spell they could find or form in the flow. According to the legend however, it was then placed in the Temple of the Gods somewhere in the Myleren mountains. Over a thousand years later, long after the first Conspenes had died, an elf who had been searching for the mythical book all his life finally found it and ten years after passed it down to his son just before he died. Now the old elf who had found it didn’t want to use it for good nor evil, but his son was arrogant and cruel and used it to gain control of the entire western side of Theldar to the north of the Eljorns. It is said that he raised the first armies of Theldar, the ones that fought to form the first countries and marched them into battle.

   ‘There is something you must know about necromancy though. Necromancy is as you say, the art of waking the dead, but all save a few of these spells truly bring them back to life, the majority of spells only breathing life into the corpses, and occasionally a bit of the old personality but nothing more. When the elf’s son raised his armies he is said to have used a spell that was one of these lower level spells – he clearly didn’t want the armies rebelling and without true consciousness, they had no desire too.

   ‘Another thing is that once bought to life, they are still able to be killed, but are much more resilient. Their skin – if they still have any – is often almost impervious to the blade and only fire is their true enemy, able to burn their dead skin and bones quickly and ruthlessly.

   ‘Anyway, the son’s evil was spreading across the land and no-one knew how it had come about or how his success had been gained, for he had only been a lowly blacksmith’s son and now he owned Adrogen, Brecerus, Enthro Mesador and Sedrice. All anyone did know is that he was a serious necromancer.

   ‘Soon after the battle which helped him claim Dembria the Conspenes of the age managed to discover he owned the book, having not been able to locate it before due to the obscene amounts of pure energy in the mountains and the spells he had used to cover the book’s presence as soon as it had come under his father’s possession. After breaking through all the spells and realising he held the book they knew that if he was not stopped he would rule Theldar forevermore in less than a year.

   ‘Alerting the other countries of this predicament the Conspenes told them to gather their armies whilst they infiltrated captured countries and formed a rebellion. The son was so taken by surprise he could not stop the armies within and without his power who advanced on him relentlessly until eventually they cornered him in the first city he had taken; Janja of Adrogen in the far north to the west of the Varicamors.

   ‘The battle there is still famous, though whether it was due to the son or just a violent battle no-one really knows for the records are patchy at best. Supposedly though they eventually managed to confine the son to a room with no escape. Yet when they smashed through the barricaded door there was no one there. They couldn’t understand it – there were no windows, no other doors and the room was solid rock, hewn into the side of the mountain so there were no loose slabs, and none could find a secret passage. He seemed to have vanished into thin air.

   ‘None ever found his body, and it was decided the tome be divided and spread across the land into its most inhospitable and unreachable areas. Now it appears that the position of one of them has come to light; the stash of Fafnir in the Varicamors. But if one has come to light, it can’t be long before the others do too, and if that happens and they fall into the wrong hands it could mean the total destruction of our land.

   Ember was a bit put off by the ending of Serena’s lesson and her face dropped worriedly at the prospect of the other scrolls falling into the wrong hands. Serena peered up at Elder, the elf wringing his hands worriedly at the front of the queue.

   ‘That is what worries Elder so you see. First he knows that the tome’s scrolls are very important artefacts and due to their common link can be directed from one to the other. But also that it is the Necromanical scroll Delvar is after, I am sure that worries him even more. With it, and by using the right spell, Delvar could truly bring back some of the darkest wizards of all time, with their full consciousness, memory and being too. And if that happens not only will they likely be stronger as anyone is after passing through the veil of death and passing into Heaven – or in some cases Hell – but they will be nearly impossible to kill.’

   Seeing Ember’s worried face Serena added, ‘If it makes you feel any better, in the fight to take out the son, Amantrei were both the brute force and the push to the very end. After all, I’ve never come across a more patriotic and proud country in all my days.’

   Ember grinned knowingly.

 

~

 

   After the first day, spirits had risen considerably thanks to a good night’s sleep and now Ember found herself feeling rather jovial despite the overcast weather as they left the league-wide meadow they’d been crossing and carried on into the trees once again.

   She found she was getting remarkably used to her new friends and the constant movement. She remembered she had been on a camp with school once before when she was very young, but it had only been in a field a few miles away from home and she could remember how her seven-year-old self had been able to see the edge of the town from her tent.

   This was an entirely different affair; where she had scaled rock walls by her classmates wearing a harness, now she hopped up rocky outcroppings with nothing to secure her to the surface save her hands and feet. Where she had been but a few minutes away from her house should the need arise that she had to return, now she was thrown into the biggest forest in Amantrei, and soon she knew more countries, all of which she had never traversed properly, the farthest she ever having gone being Amantrei’s capital, and that was in a cart not on foot. And where she had been safe in her tent with her school friends beside her, here she slept in the open, often gazing wondrously at the many hundreds of thousands of stars that twinkled down on her with everyone else spread around erratically about any new campsite they set up.

   She found the new terrain beautiful as she strolled through the forest, often with Serena by her side and RiffRaff butting into conversation from in the branches above. More and more the ground below her feet began to dip and drop until the entire forest was almost like an ocean, the ground rising and dropping in valleys hidden by the trees and crags walled by rocks. Despite the underlying danger of breaking an ankle or slipping and falling when traversing the crags, she found the ways in which the ground moved and changed fascinating, whilst the old gnarled trees and their many shapes and sizes, along with the incredible rock formations which increased as they headed east took her breath away. Around her feet the undergrowth was mostly just low-lying shrubbery and brambles, but the odd time flowers, beautiful and vibrant, could be seen breaking through whilst very often they would catch a glimpse of some wild beast or other. Wolpertingers were a common sight, whilst other creatures Ember had never seen before were pointed out to her by Tauro who seemed to have a delight for the natural world despite his gruff appearance.

   Once he pointed to a marauding ao ao, the massive boar like creature almost the height of the minotaur himself and with its large tusks ripping up the roots and leaves for it to chew on as it passed nonchalantly only twenty odd feet away. Another time he showed her a small pack of leucrota, with their lithe, spotted, cat-like bodies tensed as they hunted, whilst yet another time he indicated a huge lumbering gumberoo - which she would have mistaken as a boulder had Tauro not pointed out its wide grinning mouth and small ears - as it gorged itself on the abundant plant life in the forest of Gesenus.

   The sun had broken through occasionally that day but for the most part clouds had covered its influence and cast the land below into a dim light. Still, Ember was among friends, strolling through the beautiful forest, confident her family was safe and aware of her situation as the Conspene had promised, whilst she was feeling well-fed as they had just set off from their noon stop.

   Bracer was still as stubborn as ever but he seemed to be a little more amiable with her lately. She guessed it was because if they hadn’t come to her town they may never have been given the offer to go on this quest which would surely entail some touch and go moments, and due to his liking of fighting the enemy – all of whom she knew he hated with a vengeance - she could only link the anticipation of a good fight with his bettering mood.

   She herself wasn’t entirely sure she was up to what they would come across on their journey, after all she was only a simple town-going girl from Dutton and had never traversed very far, but she knew that whatever hit them she was among friends and somehow she knew she would soon get used to the fast=paced life of adventure which, thus far, appeared to be avoiding them.

   Meanwhile she had also been getting along well with some of the other Outlaws. RiffRaff related to her easily thanks to their similar ages and the fact that they all had no parents, and many a time they would walk with her to chat for a while before leaping into the trees and though it had only been two days she felt she was forming a strong relationship with the duo.

   Tauro didn’t say much to her, but he was normally up front, hacking away at any stubborn undergrowth they came across or chatting about battle tactics with Bracer for any situation they may find themselves in, so Ember didn’t get to talk to him much. However sometimes when they stopped for a snack or were sat round the fire at night he asked her what it had been like living in Dutton, his face full of interest, and when she spoke, fascination.

    Apparently he’d never had much of a standstill life, for his father had been a mercenary and due to his mother having died when he was at a young age he had always had to travel with his father who had taught him to fight as well as he did. After his father died the minotaur told Ember he had tried to settle down but had been exiled for reasons he would rather not divulge.

   And though Ember still couldn’t talk to Elder much due to his ever sombre mood and worried looks she was constantly talking to Serena who was becoming like a second mother to her, and despite her many years with Greta Ember found that this new lifestyle she was so quickly getting used to was making her bonds with her fellows as strong as those she had shared with her sister and mother for so many years. Furthermore she was forming a bond with Lunk, whose grunts and groans were becoming easier to interpret.

   It was on the night of the second day of trekking that he came up to her, his head hanging dejectedly and groaning constantly in what Ember took as pain. Stroking his fur gently she looked into his small black eyes.

   ‘What’s wrong Lunk?’ Lunk was smarter than his simple communication and large brutish form made him appear and he clearly understood her for in reply he turned his large left paw over to reveal a deep cut just above the palm which itself was covered in deep red blood.

   Ember winced for him. ‘Serena.’ she called.

   ‘Yes?’

   ‘Come here for a moment if you would.’

   The elf came to sit by Ember, her light gown billowing slightly in the gentle breeze which blew through the forest, and pulled a face as she saw the cut.

   It was getting late and as Lunk gave another deep groan Bracer rolled over from his bed on the ground where he had already bunked down for the night, and stared at them.

   ‘Will you shut that damn thing up?! Some of us are trying to sleep!’

   Serena ignored him and muttered under her breath as he rolled back over but Ember hadn’t even listened but instead was examining Lunk’s cut. It was reasonably deep, which surprised her for Lunk had tough skin indeed, and there appeared to be something stuck in it.

   Serena seemed shocked too, but not that Lunk was cut, but that he had come to Ember first. ‘That’s odd, he must really like you. He normally comes straight to me or Elder whenever something like this happens.’

   ‘What can I say?’ Ember chuckled, ‘Hey Serena, I think there is something stuck in the cut. Help me get it out will you.’

   Serena said she would have used a bit of magic, for she too had several much less interconnected tattoos on her arm, but that might have scratched Lunk even more using a levitation spell. So instead she grabbed some tweezers from the small med-kit they carried and passed them to Ember, who objected.

   ‘What are you doing? I don’t know how to use them; I’d probably make it worse.’

   ‘No you won’t – trust in yourself Ember. And besides, he clearly wants your help; he might not let me do it.’

   Reluctantly Ember took the tweezers and looked Lunk dead in the eye again. ‘This will hurt a bit. Be brave.’ The buggane nodded.

   Inserting the tweezers into the cut slowly Ember tried not to think about Lunk’s clenched muscles, but instead on pulling out whatever was in his arm. Gently, gently she clasped it with the tweezers and oh so slowly pulled it out, a few times looking at Lunk and giving him a reassuring smile which he returned.

   She was surprised at Lunk, for throughout the process he hadn’t whimpered or moaned once, and he bared his teeth happily as Ember held the inch-long thorn to the light, its serrated edges clearly defined in the glow of the fire.

   ‘He must have been picking some fruit from a thorn bush.’ Serena said, ‘And I’m not surprised it broke his skin – that’s from a nova bush; they’ve got thorns like razors. See, I told you you could do it.’

   Ember smiled.

 

~

 

   Bright and early the next morning they set off and before long they reached their first destination. Sort of.

   Since Dutton they’d been heading in a dead easterly direction to where Elder said they’d be able to get supplies and advice on the best way to get over the Eljorns. In fairness it was about all he’d said besides a few orders since the Conspene had visited them and now they were in view Ember could see a little of the worry trickle away from his features and an inkling of a smile breaking through the mask of concern.

   And now they reached the treeline, appearing in the blazing sunlight properly for the first time in days, there it sat, a small town about half a mile away with several large bouts of smoke rising above it and other smaller ones mingling in with each other as well.

   The trouble was the steaming swamp between them and it.

   Bubbles of scum popped on its surface and the odd plank of driftwood floated lazily in the sluggish circular current. Dotted about it where small tussocks of grass, no larger than being able to sustain two people at a time and it appeared that the last half mile to the town would be over the planks that interconnected the tussocks from there to the bank they currently stood upon.

   None of them looked overly comfortable with the idea and for the first time in three days, Elder began to laugh. ‘You should see your faces.’ he chuckled.

   ‘You seriously think those tiny planks are gonna hold me an’ Lunk?’ Tauro asked incredulously.

   ‘Don’t worry; I passed by this way a few years back before I met you all. These planks are jinxed so they won’t snap – they’ll bend a bit under the weight but can’t break. You’ll be perfectly safe provided you don’t slip off.’ Tauro stared at Lunk, then at the planks for a moment and still didn’t look convinced, but Elder had never let him down yet, so throwing caution to the wind he stretched a hoof half way over the first plank and leant all his weight on it.

   There was a groan from the wood and it bent a little under the large fellow’s weight, but besides that it held. Tauro had closed his eyes as he stepped and now, almost comically, he opened one eye to see if he was still alive and not falling into a bubbling swamp. In fact, it wasn’t almost comical, it was comical and Ember couldn’t help but let out a giggle.

   Continuing along the board he made it to the tussock without incident, though it was clear in his face he preferred solid ground to this isolated stump of land. Still, he tiptoed along the next plank so that Elder and Serena could cross, for he took up the entire island with his bulk. Bracer went next, grumbling just loud enough to make himself heard about how useless the whole escapade was.

   After him and seeing as Lunk appeared to have taken a liking to Ember, she followed the basajaun and with a few words of encouragement, managed to coax Lunk across, the boards groaning painfully under the stress, but never once cracking. Following up the rear RiffRaff scampered across easily, even pushing each other playfully such was their confident footwork.

   Ember didn’t particularly enjoy the trip over the swamp, for half the time she was facing the other way to help Lunk across and always seeming to stare at the few boards they had crossed, yet the amount she saw never seeming to grow in number. The small islands in the bubbling swamp were slick with dew, and the boards also were less than dry, the bubbles constantly popping and sending little spatters of swamp juice over the wood.

   As they progressed more than once Ember spotted decently sized spikes similar in appearance to elongated thorns, protruding from the swamp whilst a few other times there would be a disturbance in the flow, the sluggish water and the debris in it rippling a little as something shifted beneath.

   ‘What are those spines?’ she called over Lunk’s shoulder to the twins whilst she coaxed the buggane over.

   ‘Oh those.’ Riff replied casually.

   ‘They’re just snoligosters, relatively harmless swamp-dwellers.’ continued her green-haired twin.

   As if Raff had summoned it by the use of its name, one of the beasts rose, the ooze of the swamp slipping off its back as it surfaced. It turned out the spine was some form of defensive spike protruding from its spine and rising from its arced back. Everything about it seemed plump and fatty as it was clearly a well-built creature, its head being the only protrusion from the slick skin besides the spike. The skull seemed to have no fat on it, the skin instead taught over the bones with the bright green eyes piercing and out-of-place in the grey skin.

   ‘And there is what disturbs the swamp waters.’ Raff pointed to the snoligoster’s tail as it arced above the water, the end of which was split into three flat sections and acting as some form of propeller to push it through the thick swamp.

   As quickly as it had surfaced it was gone, submerging once again and the only proof it had ever been there being the small spike and slight disturbance beneath the swamp as it slid away, leaving the ooze to quickly fill the whole it had left behind. After watching it depart Ember helped Lunk across to the next island and continued along the planks.

   It was quite without warning when she crossed over onto yet another tussock threatening to drop her in the oozing slime that she couldn’t feel the spongy, soggy floor beneath her feet, but instead a solid, firm berth.

   Turning round she found she was standing at the base of a short staircase which Elder, Bracer and Tauro were all ascending.  Only Serena had stayed to make sure the others crossed safely. 

   Feeling a push at her back Ember turned and was happy to see Lunk had crossed the final plank without the need for encouragement. Whether it was the prospect of a more solid floor or a chance to rest his feet from the stop start trip she didn’t know, but he seemed all too happy to be on this odd town either way.

   And when I say on, I mean that literally, for this was Dumpmoss, the infamous floating town.

   Once RiffRaff were across Serena explained to Ember and the twins, who were all curious as to the feeling of a slight movement beneath their feet. ‘Whilst we were walking Elder told me that Dumpmoss is a floating town. It is chained to the bottom of the swamp with heavy weights, but obviously the chains aren’t solid so the town can move slightly. Elder said it was a very comforting movement when going to sleep. He also said the weights have to be changed every five years and during the few hours it takes them to be swapped with a new set the town often moves several meters. That’s why they use planks; a solid bridge from tussock to tussock would have to be remade every five years which would cost more than it’s worth.’

   ‘You’d think with all this magic someone would’ve come up with a way to keep a town from floating off.’ Ember said, then realising how odd that sounded, added, ‘I never thought I’d hear myself say that.’

   Serena chuckled, smiling at Ember’s naivety of the complexity of magic.

   After a few hours of looking round the town and its many spectacles like the fishing balconies where you could fish for mudswimmers and oozefish, everyone else having gone off to attend to their own needs – even Lunk who had been taken to have his fur cleaned by the kindly Serena - RiffRaff and Ember came across a small shop selling armour and weapons crammed between a bakery and a butcher.

   Heading inside they found it was surprisingly longer than expected, and many sets of armour hung from the roof on hooks whilst a vast array of weapons were hung on racks along the walls. A small target was set up on the wall before a crossbow mounted on a podium about halfway down whilst the rest of the shop floor was dominated by many free-standing racks all showing plenty more sets of armour. Finally at the very end of the shop was a counter, behind which the grizzled owner busied himself.

   Upon the ding-a-ling of the bell above the door the shopkeeper looked up and smiled at them before returning to his work, allowing them to look round for themselves.

   Ember picked up several sets of armour that took her fancy but they were always too heavy or too showy and even with here limited experience she knew they really wouldn’t have been much use in a fight. Deciding to come back to armour later she quickly found and picked out an exquisitely decorated set of scimitars with a deep red ruby pommel stone and brilliant engraved designs on the blade. Flipping over the price tag however she quickly replaced them, which made her think. How are we supposed to pay for this? Everyone here besides me is an actual outlaw.

   She voiced this question to the twins, though quiet enough that the shop owner did not hear them, and each pulled from their pockets several shining gold coins. ‘Being outlawed doesn’t come without its perks.’ Riff explained.

   ‘Yeah, saving towns generally gets you rewarded pretty well.’

   ‘Pick-pocketing rich snobbish types too.’ Riff chuckled to herself.

   ‘And we have plenty of contacts who owe us big time and would much rather pass us a few gold pieces they ‘acquired’ now and again than perform some errand for us.’

   Ember chuckled like a mother who doesn’t know what to do with her naughty child, and counting up still found the scimitars were out of their price range.

   Looking around a little longer she came upon a much cheaper and more importantly much more durable looking pair of scimitars. A few simple engravings in their hilts and a groove along the curved blade made them attractive enough and for a reason Ember couldn’t quite describe she liked them more than the first pair – maybe it’s their simplicity she thought as she lifted them from the rail.

   After tucking them into their provided sheaths and placing them in the crook of her arm, Ember returned to searching out a set of armour. Soon she found what she had been looking for previously and had been hoping to find as soon as the twins had pointed out the weapons shop; a set of elven cuirass, gloves and leather trousers hung on the rack almost identical to RiffRaff’s besides a few slightly different cuts of the material and the odd extra engraving pressed into the leather. The twins complemented her decision energetically and started telling her how good their own sets had been, recounting battle after battle.

   After counting up their money and sure that they had enough they proceeded to the counter. Placing the armour and scimitars on the counter they waited as the shop-keeper, a grizzled coblynau – a goblin species who inhabited mines many years before, most of them having moved out into the world more as the century turned – did a bit of a mental mathematics.

   ‘Five gold pips, fifty silver crotes and a bronze grump.’ he demanded.

   Riff handed over the money and waited as the goblin counted up once again. ‘Not enough.’ he stated simply.

   Picking it back up Raff winked at Ember and her sister. ‘Are you sure?’ she said, ‘I’m sure we had enough.’

   They were only a few crotes short and, placing the money on the counter she slipped the desired amount up her sleeve without the coblynau noticing. Pretending to dig in her pocket she dropped them out and handed the grumpy goblin the ‘extra money’. ‘Here you are.’ she said.

   He grunted and it was only when the three of them were just leaving they heard the owner explode behind them. ‘Oi! Get back ‘ere you thieves! I’ll skin y’alive! ’

   Setting to their feet they left the shop far behind them.

   ‘You better be careful Ember.’ said the green-haired Raff.

   ‘Why?’

   ‘’Cause you’re well your way to becoming an outlaw.’ chuckled her red-haired sister.

 

~

 

   ‘The mountain was crumbling, each piece that fell around us seeming larger than the last until they were the size of the largest dragons.’

   ‘Yeah,’ continued Raff, ‘and we looked up to see one of those pieces toppling straight for us. It was then that Elder performed an ancient spell. Apparently he’d been practicing for years and he managed to teleport us to a few hundred meters distance from the falling mountain where we watched it crumble.’

   ‘It was incredible to see.’ Riff added.

   ‘Wow, I wish I could have been there.’ Ember said enviously.

   ‘Well you’re an Outlaw now my dear so you won’t be skipping on the action.’ came a voice.

   Turning they saw Elder strolling across the square which the trio were sat in, a well-needed grin on his face. The smile seemed to brighten his face immensely after the many days of solemnity and silence and Ember quickly smiled back.

   ‘Hello Elder,’ Riff said, ‘we were just telling Ember about that time in Tringom with the collapsing mountain.’

   ‘Yes I heard. It was a close shave that day I must admit. It took a lot out of me that spell did.’ Ember could see the memories running across his face.

   ‘You can say that again.’ Raff stated.

   ‘Elder was out of action for nearly a week.’ added the second twin, ‘he could only walk, eat, drink and sleep.’

   ‘You’re looking a lot better.’ Ember said, nodding towards the elf as he stopped and sat at their bench.

   ‘You’d be surprised what the sight of an old friend and a few shots of alcohol can do for an old elf like me.’ Elder chuckled and began recollecting more of his own adventures without the gang, making it even more clear to the three of them that he had been much further than they originally thought before the group had come about, and it seemed also he had many connections in the big wide world.

   The others quickly found them and as Serena returned with Lunk she handed them each a sandwich from the several she had purchased, each one stuffed with meat. Once they were all together and lunching on the sandwiches Elder spoke.

   Whilst most of the others had been gallivanting about, Elder had first gone to collect supplies then had referred himself to an old friend of his in the western wing of Dumpmoss.

   As Ember sat there munching on her sandwich and wearing her new armour proudly she listened in an intent manner to what Elder had to say about his visit.

   ‘Well,’ he began, ‘I’ve known Clyde for years. We practically grew up together in Larkissan, though why he moved all the way to this floating lily-pad from our beautiful country is beyond me.’ Ember had to agree it was beyond her too; virtually the whole place was slick with swamp scum and there was a strong underlying odour of decomposition, which was just enough to be noticed.

   ‘Anyway,’ continued the tattooed elf, ‘I called in on him today to warn him of Delvar’s forces – for he knows the mayor well - and ask advice also on the best way through the mountains is. Apparently the swamp continues for about three leagues straight into the mountains due east from here and then there are several paths lancing off, either one of which should get us across just as quick as the next.

   ‘He also said that we’d better be careful of hot-nests around that area.’

   The Outlaws, even Lunk, nodded knowingly, but Ember was confused. ‘What’s a hot-nest?’ she queried inquisitively.

   ‘A nest of salamanders – there can be as many as fifty in each one.’ Tauro explained, quite proud of his own knowledge.

   ‘Oh.’ Ember had heard of plenty of travellers falling prey to the flame-loving salamanders.

   ‘Well then,’ said Bracer, ‘let’s get us-selves shifting, I ain’t standing in this stinkin’ floatin’ dump any longer ‘en I ‘ave to.’ Not caring for the offended faces directed his way and without waiting for an answer he turned and headed towards the east wing without delay.

   Shrugging her shoulders Ember finished off her sandwich and set off after the tiny giant, Lunk hot on her heels and both had to join in with Elder as he chuckled at the basajaun’s grumpiness.

   Within fifteen minutes they were five planks across the swamp due east.

 

~

 

   Ember’s spirits lifted dramatically when she spotted a long bridge-like structure up ahead after a further twenty minutes of board-walking as she had taken to calling it. To their left great rolls of mist signalled they were close to the mountains, rolling over the peaks and hitting the warmer swamp air to limit view to about half a mile.

   In another five minutes they hit solid wood again and barely breaking step they strolled along the gangway. The steady slap-slap-slap of Lunk’s feet on the wet wood provided somewhat of a pace and the general mood was jovial by the time the mountains hove into the view, seeming to slice the mist like a knife through a beating heart.

   Ember gasped. The peaks which vanished into the clouds above her provided the most incredible natural picture she had ever had the privilege to lay eyes on; so far at least. The steep cliffs were sheer and scarred by the wind and landslides so that they looked as if they were a vertical frozen ocean as it roiled beneath a raging storm. For several hundred meters this stretched up before the land receded backwards into a set of thin brittle-looking ledges set one atop the other, covered in slate and scree. Dead ahead they split from each other as if some great sword had struck them and force them apart into the uneven yet mesmerising gap that they now formed, whilst the bridge they strode along appeared to head into a misty unending void.

   Strolling along down the bridge, a knot began to tighten in Ember’s stomach as she turned to see the last houses of Dumpmoss be eaten up by the mist. Soon there was nothing to see in any direction besides bridge, mountain and swamp. Ember didn’t like it. Not one bit.

   The initial feeling of awe now gave way to a cold fear that gnawed at her mind, threatening to take her sanity; Elder had said before they entered that the mists of the Ancient Swamps of Amantrei were known to send folk insane, having claimed many-a-traveller’s senses as the mist warped and formed grotesquely evil faces. It wasn’t the feeling of isolation so much, though that did grate on her nerves, but more the feeling of being so incredibly vulnerable, like some creature out in the open with no means of defence except fleeing. What was worse was the fact she could only run forth or back; anything could part that mist without warning to pluck her from the bridge and she couldn’t hide anywhere. And whatever was out there just beyond sight caused Ember to walk dead centre of the wooden path, finding comfort in Lunk’s large shadow and his regular breathing as they continued on.

   The following hour was one of extreme uneasiness for Ember. Soon the comfort of Lunk’s shadow began to decrease dramatically as the sun was blocked out by both the mist and the mountains throwing them into a dim light which transformed tussocks in the mist into massive swirling monsters. Bracer was so far ahead he seemed only to be a shadow which set every one the teenager’s instincts to full alert whenever he shouted back, the voice seeming to come from nowhere.

   RiffRaff however were having great fun. Hopping along the banisters of the bridge and scraping twigs they had found on the wood along the surface of the ooze, they found great pleasure in jumping up behind Ember and Lunk, and then chose against it when Lunk nearly crushed them under a quivering paw the size of a boulder.

   He too, was clearly uneasy.

   As their walk wore on and as the cloying, swirling mist became ever thicker, the shadows lengthened and the pop of the bubbles on the swamp echoed ominously in the stifled environment, each one sounding like the crack of a whip as the sound bounced from the walls of the cleft in the cliffs.

   It was a great relief for Ember when the bridge ended and the rocky tracks started, and though the stone was wet with dew they looked a lot more inviting than the isolated bridge stretching into oblivion behind them. Better still cliffs had given way to sloping scree-covered inclines so there was no more of the creepy, ominous echoing around them.

   Finally Bracer had decided to take a break, having led them on a nearly four hour trek without once allowing a break. Ember didn’t really mind because she didn’t think she would have stopped in that place anyway and with breaks she knew she’d still be on the bridge now and she didn’t like that prospect one bit. The basajaun had seated himself on a low boulder and was taking a swag from his leather drinking pouch when the others reached the tracks.

   Just as everyone dropped down however, he got back on his feet and started to ascend the steepest track.

   ‘Bracer.’ Elder shouted sternly and begrudgingly the basajaun fighter came to a halt. ‘Wait there while we have a stop. If you really want to be moving, take a look at these tracks and see if you can find any traces of salamanders on them. You know, belly-slides, paw prints…’

   ‘I know what I’m looking for, elf.’ Bracer snapped back.

   Elder tensed.

   ‘Why did he say that?’ Ember asked quietly, shuffling along to sit next to Serena.

   ‘It’s regarded as a great insult by elves to have their actual species name used in such a context as name-calling. We’re a very proud race in places like Larkissan where Elder comes from. I’m not really surprised you don’t find it offending, elves in Amantrei are much more laid back if you don’t mind my saying.’

   ‘Not at all,’ Ember said, ‘I just want to get out of this spooky mist.’

   Despite Ember not having particularly enjoyed Bracer’s bad moods over the past few days she was rather thankful for it this time, as a few more muttered comments and Elder rose huffily, indicating everyone should follow his example.

   Bracer had identified the steepest track as the best option to use for not only did it appear to level out a short way up but it also had the fewest salamander tracks; it seemed their best option.

   The first mile was steep, tough and took almost an hour to finish due to their constant slipping on the rocks and loose scree which all too often slid from under their feet. It wasn’t easy getting Lunk up either, for though he stayed as close to the few massive boulders to be found as he could, each one was packed in with only pebbles meaning they were shifting constantly, a worrying prospect when you’re trying to guide a ton heavy buggane along them. One even rolled over the side and thankfully didn’t hit the bridge, but there was a loud fwup as it struck the swamp. Ember only hoped no-one was near the splash radius.

   After the first mile however, and a well-earned rest even Bracer didn’t get up from in a hurry, the track levelled out considerably. If a salamander could have got up that track then I’ll eat my hat, Ember thought, ruminating on the fact that there hadn’t been much of a trail as they ascended further into the mountains, their breath clouding before their faces as they rose ever higher and the cold began to set in as their path evaporated into a thin line where the rocks had been parted slightly by passing feet, a track that wound into the peaks.

   Though the visibility had increased dramatically as they ascended, there were still bouts of mist roundabout and the thin layer of cloud which shrouded the tips of the mountains from view was coming ever closer. It was as they were passing through one patch of mist, sparse grass on either side of the thin trail, that Ember began to feel uneasy again.

   ‘Serena,’ she whispered, not raising her voice for a reason she couldn’t explain, ‘can you feel that?’

   ‘What?’

   ‘I don’t know, it’s kind of…spooky here.’

   Serena looked far from at ease too, ‘Now you come to mention it there does seem to be a certain chill to the air.’

   Up ahead, Tauro nearly bowled Bracer over as the small guy stopped abruptly.

   ‘Shush a minute.’ The basajaun held his hand up for silence and it fell instantly. Ember could tell everyone else were all nerves; it was a feeling on the air. The stifling mist didn’t help either. Lunk shuffled a little closer to her.

   ‘What is it?’ Elder hissed.

   ‘I’m not sure, somethin’ ain’t quite right.’ came the hushed reply.

   Ember could feel the tension in the air. Then something struck her – her breath wasn’t clouding before her face as it had done before. She could feel the warmth from Lunk’s body surrounding her and Serena as he shuffled as close as he could, the change in temperature unnerving him even more.

   The great mole-like creature growled.

   Then something else did.

 

~

 

   ‘RUN!’ bellowed Bracer, his feet setting into motion like pistons despite their constant walking throughout the day.

   Without question the Outlaws sprinted across the ground, all weariness gone from their feet and replaced with seemingly boundless energy forced on by adrenaline as it began pumping through their systems. Lunk’s massive footfalls reverberated from the misty walls and drowning out all else; there could have been something chasing them two meters behind and Ember doubted they would have heard it.

   ‘Hang on a minute,’ Ember shouted over to Serena, ‘I smell smoke!’

   ‘And this mist isn’t mist, its steam – see how it is like streams in the air.’ Serena added.

   Suddenly the steam cleared and there blocking the path before them was the first salamander Ember had seen in her life – and it was big. The beast was ten feet long and it glowed a dull orange, its smooth, leathery skin appearing to emit the light from its pores. Two black, almost crystalline eyes peered from beneath bony ridges whilst small stripes of reds and orange covered its night-sky black back. A burning red tongue flicked out and then back in again, like a snake but a little clumsier, as if it didn’t fit in its mouth properly and as the mouth opened, a grin of sharp needle teeth was revealed.

   Ember’s blood ran cold. The monster opened its wide maw and let out a deep-bellied roar before a bright light welled in its throat, the thousands of small needle-like teeth shining against the brightness whilst its entire mouth was illuminated brightly, showing it to be a deep blood-red.

   ‘Left!’ Bracer hollered, nodding at Tauro, whilst he and the minotaur took to the right.

   Ember decided this was no time for a gallant effort so took the left with Serena, Lunk and RiffRaff. Elder meanwhile stood in the centre of the path while the brute was distracted, his tattooed hands weaving in and out as he formed a spell.

   The black salamander turned towards the two warriors and with another roar launched itself at them. Rearing up against Tauro it attempted to climb over the twin axes which were raised high to protect the minotaur’s face, its clawed feet scrabbling at the scarred metal, but the huge amphibian quickly realised that its efforts were in vain. So another light welled in its throat and it was at the last minute that Tauro jumped out of the way of the large fireball that exploded from the salamander’s blood-coloured maw which utterly pulverised a boulder the size of the warrior’s torso where he had been a moment before.

   Up on the rocky outcrop the teens and Serena had occupied, Ember winced at the close encounter. Watching as Bracer attempted a downward strike but was flicked across the rocks by a twitch of the salamander’s muscular tail she winced again and tried frantically to think of a way she could help.

   Think, think, think. But nothing was coming.

   That was when she spotted another salamander appearing from the steam. And it was right behind Elder.

   ‘Elder!’ she bellowed, ‘ELDER!’ But he couldn’t hear her.

   Tugging on Serena’s sleeve she pointed at the advancing amphibian and the elf drew her bow and had leased an arrow in a single quick movement almost before the words of warning had left Ember’s mouth.

   The arrow hissed past Elder’s ear to strike the salamander in the belly, snapping Elder out of his magical trance and causing him to sprint up the path as the salamander began to rise again dripping blood, injured but not dead.

   Back with Bracer and Tauro the salamander was getting the upper-hand, having learnt he could fight one, not two and so always keeping one incapacitated. Currently Tauro was winded on the ground after a strong head-butt to the chest whilst Bracer had just dodged a bite attack from the amphibian and, after rolling away, turned to watch as the salamander crushed a boulder in its teeth before whirling to face him again.

   Elder had drawn his sabre against the second and was endeavouring to keep it at bay, but slowly being forced back as the monster snapped at his blade.

   Think, think! THINK! Ember ran through countless possibilities, all too stupid or impossible to work.

    Then all of a sudden she spotted the large rocky outcrop behind where Tauro and Bracer were fighting for their lives, and her gaze lifted up the mountain to a second one high above the battle scene. An idea popped into her head; stupid, yes. Impossible, no.

   ‘Serena!’ she shouted as the salamanders let out a united roar at their individual quarries, ‘You stay here and help Elder! RiffRaff, Lunk, come with me!’

   Without question the two twins darted after Ember up the mountainside with Lunk hot on their heels, the great mole easily matching their pace despite his size. It took them a few minutes, in which the sounds of battle never once left their ears and each roar sent sharp lances of fear into their very core, but they reached the highest outcrop and settled behind the large pile of boulders situated on it.

   ‘Lunk!’ Ember bellowed and pointed at the pile. The buggane instantly set to work on hauling the rocks into a line, clearly onto her plan; Ember had come to realise in the short time she had known Lunk that despite his dumb appearance he was far from unintelligent.

   Once they were aligned Ember pointed at the tall rocks near Tauro and Bracer. ‘Aim for those!’ she said as the wind began to pick up.

   Then for the second time in five minutes her blood ran cold. Instead of the floor meeting the mist as she looked back down the mountain, there was a thick border of black advancing along where the horizon should have been. Countless salamanders mingled with each other. This better work, Ember thought.

   ‘Now!’ she cried and the four of them threw themselves at one boulder after the other and sent them hurtling down the slope. Lunk even threw one which missed the tall rocks entirely but thundered into the rows of salamanders and cleared an alley through.

   ‘WATCH OUT!’ RiffRaff and Ember cried with the buggane roaring to back them up. At the last moment Tauro and Bracer threw themselves from the boulders’ paths whilst Elder launched himself onto the outcrop with Serena. Both of their salamanders were struck by the boulders with such force that there was an audible cracking of bones as they were catapulted into the roiling mass of black amphibians as they advanced.

   Then, the force of the boulders crashing into it in quick succession proved too much and the tall rocks crumbled near the base, and, falling like towers, hit the ground with such force the scree below them shifted and quickly slid across the slippery smooth rocks beneath and resulted in the repeated dismal howls of salamanders as they were hurled off the edge of the mountain into the swamp far, far below, just the impact of which would have cracked every bone in their body. The crunching of rocks on rocks resounded off every face of the mountain as the fragments of the tall rocks toppled after them, leaving behind them a scene of destruction and carnage with huge gouges scratched across the floor and smears of blood staining the rock here and there.

   Once the dust had cleared they regrouped, the teenagers and Lunk staring at the mess they had created, RiffRaff with grins spread across their faces. Lunk even managed a low chuckle.

   ‘Welcome to the team.’ the twins said in unison.

   And without further ado they continued up the mountain, the elation of their victory fresh in their minds as they ascended.

   Then the snow started.

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