This is the first chapter of an ongoing, serial style, good old sword-and-sorcery, story. It was originally written as a weekly series and the chapters are split into their original parts.
If you missed chapter one you can find it here.
Chapter One: The Sands of Sorrow
The Road to Boughs Shadow
Dhalryk glared at Jekka, or the thing that used to be Jekka, as she slept. He remembered his first frantic meeting with her in the city of Fogspume, cut short by a pair of Nillian thugs sent to silence her forever. They temporarily escaped into the tide of mist that engulfed the lower half of the city, but the fanatics were guided unerringly by some unseen hand. There in the barren streets and the risen fog Dhalryk Morvellum and Jekka DuRell sealed a friendship in blood.
Dhalryk slammed the door to his inn room and spun to face the raven haired girl. “What was that about? How did those men find us?”
Jekka answered as she approached him. “They were sent by Batoda, he’s a Nillian. I’ll explain but we’ve got to stop that gash from bleeding first.”
Dhalryks face clouded in confusion. “Batoda? He’s one of my customers, a noble who likes poking for relics out in the dunes.” He lifted his arms and Jekka gently removed his shirt to reveal a long gash that ran shallowly from Dhal’s armpit, across his ribs, to his hip. She looked at him with deep brown eyes. “I should stitch this.”
Dhal looked at her, silently considering something in his mind before he answered. “You know what you’re doing?”
“Yes. My father taught me.” She replied.
Dhalryk nodded his consent. “If you must.” She moved to her pack and began to rummage. “So what does this have to do with Batoda?”
“He’s a Nillian. They’re a secret order of wizards who believe that the world should have died with the Sunderspell. They think it’s their job to finish it. He killed my father and stole his notes on the ruins.” She turned to face him with a threaded needle. “Keep your arm up, and try not to move. I’ve only done this on my brother a couple of times.”
“Just keep talking, it’ll help distract me.” He watched her running the needle through a candle flame and decided to look out the window instead. It revealed nothing but the slate gray fog.
She began her work and talked as she did. “My father was a scholar, a historian. He loved the dunes and the ruins under them. He took two trips a year for most of his life and came back with all sorts of stories and drawings. He found a building once that was filled with man shaped stones and hieroglyphs on the walls. He translated them and discovered that the stones were vessels, containers of what he could only decipher as criminal or lawless magic.”
Dhalryk’s brow furrowed at the memory of a tower and a huge gray stone he had found in the dunes. Jekka continued.
“He only studied the first floor of the tower because it was riddled with traps. He thought that the traps were there to protect the higher stones from tampering, because they must be more dangerous. The place was called the Citadel of Keeping. Is any of this sounding familiar?” She stopped her stitching and looked at his side.
“Yes. I found that tower, but only the top was revealed. I sold a map leading to it to Batoda.” Dhal checked out her work. The stitching was unevenly spaced, but adequate for such a superficial wound. “Good job, thanks.” Dhal opened a drawer and pulled on a new shirt. “So Batoda’s mad and killed your father for information about the dunes, and now he’s bought a map from me.” She nodded.
“He killed my father because he wouldn’t lead him there. I need to get there and stop him, but, I need a map.” Dhalryk pulled an empty pack out onto the bed and began to gather up belongings.
“I’ll not give you a map girl, I’m coming with you.” Jekka looked startled.
“But why? I’ve already troubled you enough with those two thugs Batoda sent.”
“Because he lied to me. And because I don’t much like the sound of these Nillians. And because if he uses this power to hurt people, I’ll be partly to blame.” Dhalryk’s face was set with determination as together they left the city of Fogspume.
Jekka, no Ithagar, rolled over in her sleep. Dhalryk looked to the stars and tried to clear his head of thoughts of the girl. In the past four days across the desert they had barely spoken, and the silence had done him no good. He decided that it had to stop. Without that thing speaking from inside her, his mind kept drifting back, thinking it was Jekka.
Tomorrow, tomorrow he would talk with her and listen to her speak of her long gone homeland, and maybe then he could start to let Jekka die in his mind.
As the last of the dunes drifted behind them the great green layer of the Bumblebrush rose up before them. True to his intentions Dhalryk had listened to the never ceasing rambling’s of Ithagar for the better part of two days. Every time she spoke of her past or stared in awe at the tiny moon that orbited the true moon, as if she’d never seen it, he knew with more and more certainty that Jekka was dead and gone. He hadn’t known her very long, but she had suffered hardship before he’d met her, and Dhalryk had dreamed of helping to ease her suffering, avenge her father. He had accomplished the second, but it was no comfort. He did not think that Jekka would have wanted her body to become host to something from a dark age long ago, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that Ithagar was not all she appeared to be. Crowding his concerns into the corner of his mind Dhalryk began to walk toward the savannah-like trees below. Ithagar followed, talking as usual.
“I’ve never seen a forest like that before. What is this place? ” she queried.
Dhalryk looked at the woods. “It’s called the Bumblebrush, we’re going into them, but only until we can get up top.”
“Up top?” she looked confused.
“Yes, the trees have thick trunks that go up about forty feet and then they branch out and create huge flat canopies of leaves, thick enough to walk on. As you get further into the forest it isn’t safe to stay on ground level… things live in the shadows, down by the roots.” Calmly Dhalryk began to walk toward the shadowy layer beneath the foliage.
“Things? You mean creatures?” A nervous tremble filled her voice.
“Don’t worry, most of them stay out of the light above. We’ve got to get to Bough’s Shadow, I’m running low on supplies. It’s a city about two days from here, its built on top of the Bumblebrush.” Dhal stepped into the shade of the trees, grateful for the cool lack of sunlight. Ithagar stood away hesitantly and then walked into the brush with him. When her eyes adjusted she could see the huge corded trunks of trees, spaced apart every hundred feet or so, a tangle of tiny interwoven branches and leaves above.
“It looks sort of like a cavern.” She commented.
Dhal nodded. “It can be dangerous like a cave too, so take care. C’mon, the quicker we find a Sunhole we can reach from one of these trunks, the sooner we’ll be safe.”
The gloom and silence of the trees was oppressive. After four days in the ever blowing winds of the Sikkomar Desert, the still, tepid air of the Bumblebrush felt like a shroud. Every footstep ground into the pebbly earth beneath their feet and seemed to intrude on the quiet brooding of the dark wood columns. Ithagar was quiet now and Dhalryk was grateful. Slowly they proceeded, looking for patches of light green in the roof above, something to indicate a weak spot where, if it were close enough to a climbable base, they could force their way into the upper layer.
A trickle of a stream cut their path and they stopped to refill the canteens. Dhalryk took the time to wash his hands and face. He hadn’t dared to waste precious water in the desert to clean the blood off of himself, he’d only rubbed at the stain with sand to clear as much as he could. He was scrubbing when Ithagar tapped him on the shoulder and spoke. “Are those fruit clusters over there?”
Dhalryk squinted in the direction she pointed, water dripping from his eyelashes. Forty feet up and two hundred feet away there hung a dozen or more oval shapes, each almost three feet long. As Dhal watched they began to unfurl and reveal insect wings. He cursed and shoved the full canteens back into his pack. “C’mon, we’ve got to get out of here!” Grabbing her arm he pulled her at a quick run back the way they had come. “I think I saw a bower back here, we could make a stand there if they follow.”
A loud hissing of insect wings sprang up as they began to run, confirming that they were indeed following.
Dhalryk pushed Ithagar up and into the great corded trunk of the Bumbletree and scrambled in after her. The great trees had gnarled twisting trunks, that more resembled a mass of smaller trees coiled together and twisted like rope, than they did normal bark. Climbing them, and finding crevice-like alcoves, was easy enough.
Dhalryk set his footing in a nook and turned to face behind him, sword drawn, and his shoulders barely fitting in the cramped spot they had found. It was about twice a man’s height off of the ground and he watched below as almost a dozen creatures landed on the dusty ground beneath him.
They were manlike, after a fashion, and stood on two heavier insect legs. Where a man had two sets of arms they had four, and great wings that sparkled oily colors like those of a fly in the sun. Although they appeared to be weaponless the smaller set of underarms had no hands, only a curved claw at their ends. They wore several belts across their chests and waists, adorned with small pouches and satchels but were otherwise naked, not that it mattered, as their bodies were comprised of a hard carapace shell, much like an ant. Two long cockroach antennae careened back from behind each bulbous domed eye, and their mouths were a mass of small hooked mandibles that reminded Dhalryk of nothing more than a mass of squirming centipede legs. Small bones, like those of rats or birds, had been affixed to their hard bodies to form decorations and symbols on most of them. The largest one, who bore a strange pattern of azure stones embedded in his forehead, stepped up and spoke through its horrible maw. His voice was slow and airy, like wind moving over a field of reeds. “You intrude in the lands of Saint Kith infidels.”
Dhalryk gripped his blade tightly. “We only seek to pass over. We wish no trouble with you or your deities.” he yelled down. Ithagar gazed down over his shoulder and looked at the insect men below. She whispered.
“What are they?” she asked. Dhalryk answered through clenched tense teeth. “Some form of Zarran, I don’t know exactly what kind.”
The Zarran leader spread out his wings behind him and raised his arms up. “Saint Kith demands death to those who do not serve him. Saint Kith demands death of the lesser races. Saint Kith will honor me when I purge your heathen souls from the world.” He hissed loudly and all the others raised their wings as he did and hissed with him. They shook their wings and filled the air with the surreal sound.
Dhalryk spat down on them. “Your Saint can crumble to dust for all I care! You’ll get no reward but steel if you try anything with this soul!” He whispered over his shoulder to Ithagar. “When they come, try and get up and out.” He slid a dagger into her palm. “Use this to cut your way into the thicket above and up to the sunlight.”
Her eyes were strangely calm as the buzz of wings once again filled the air. Over the hum Dhalryk heard the zealot shouting though his strange lips. “Glory to Kith! Blood for the Tatchi Mala! Bring me their skulls that they may decorate the glorious Kith Spire!”
“Blast it!” was all Dhalryk had time to say before his vision was filled with scintillating wings and thrusting claws. He was vaguely aware of the sound of Ithagar scrambling up the trunk behind him. His position afforded him some protection and, aside from some shallow cuts on the forearms and hands, he was safe from true danger, but it also hindered his ability to attack his enemies. His swings connected with his flying opponents and, due to their suspension and movement, he simply batted them back, also inflicting little injury on them. At this rate his arms would tire long before the Zarran’s did, and Dhalryk knew it. A claw slashed forward as far as his shoulder and Dhal reached up and grabbed it with his left hand. He held it tightly and as the creature tried to pull away he dropped his sword crashing down onto the side of it’s head. The body fell backwards, tumbled down the side of the tree, and hit the ground twitching. For a moment Dhalryk had a clear view beneath him and he saw the Zarran leader still standing on the ground watching the fight, his inhuman black bubble eyes terrifying in their intensity. He didn’t hesitate.
With a cry of adrenalin pumped rage, Dhalryk sprang from his hiding spot. As he flew from the cleft in the tree one of the things swooped and grabbed at him. Claws tore into his back and stomach as it grappled with him, trying to hold him in the air so that his kinsmen could finish the job. Dhalryk flung his sword toward its wing and grabbed both it’s antenna with his empty hands. He threw his weight against the claws that held him and, at cost of deepening the cuts, tore long feelers free of the Zarran’s forehead. Instantly the insect could no longer fly straight, it pitched wildly, trying to release Dhalryk who held on with his left arm and rained down blows onto the beasts eyes with his right fist. There was a crunch, the world shook, and Dhalryk pulled himself free of the messy wreckage of the insect and turned to face his other attackers. Five more Zarran hovered above him, their leader still on the ground. The blue decorated bug-man looked up at the tree, his horrible gaze falling on Ithagar above. The girl was desperately hacking at the foliage, trying to get up above the Bumblebrush.
“Leave him!” hissed their leader. “I will have the glory of taking his head for Kith. You all ensure that the woman dies too.” The five seemed to hesitate a moment and then sped off toward the higher branches. He returned his attention to Dhalryk. “You’ve not saved her with your actions infidel. Death at Tatchi Mala hands is your god decreed fate.”
Dhalryk cautiously sidestepped and retrieved his sword from where it had fallen. “Forgive me if I put little stock in your god bug-ling.”
The Zarran hissed and unfurled his middle arms to reveal his claws, each of them wearing a barbed silver sleeve, longer and sharper than his natural claws. “I know you hate my god infidel! It is why I, Azzurach, will kill you!” With a push from his thick legs Azzurach launched himself at Dhalryk.
Dhal ran toward him and rolled beneath as the foe swooped. Another gash sliced his back. Half in tatters already, Dhalryk pulled his cloak off and let it hang from his left hand. When Azzurach turned and came in for another pass Dhal turned and ran. The Zarran was faster and gained on him but when the sound of his wings was beating intensely behind him, Dhalryk threw his cloak back and over his head. In the same throwing action he planted his foot and rolled his shoulders. He couldn’t stop because of his momentum but was thrown flat onto his back. His vision went black and the wind was forced from his lungs but Dhal remembered to raise his sword up above him. A sudden impact wrenched it from his hands.
Dhalryk rolled over and shook his head. He got on all fours and looked around. Azzurach was thrashing within the remains of his cloak, a green sickly stain forming in the dirt around him. Not far away Dhalryk’s broken sword lay in the dust. Dhal stumbled to his feet and leapt onto the cloak, dropping his fist over and over at the place where he figured the holy insect’s head was. His knuckles bloodied, but after a moment Azzurach stopped moving. He stood up, panting, and looking down at the corpse.
He heard a terrible scream from up above. It pierced his ears and cut into the marrow of his soul!
Dhalryk ran for the tree and started to climb as fast as his bloodied hands could take him.
Half way up the tree the screaming stopped and was replaced with a fearful stillness. Dhal had little trouble crawling through the path Ithagar had cut through the branches. It had been widened by her murderous pursuers. Weaponless, Dhal scrambled up and out of the burrow of branches to stand in the sunlight. He blinked in the light and for a moment his vision seemed filled with a purple glare. He rubbed his eyes as they adjusted. An acrid smell hung in the air in spite of the gentle breeze.
There, less than a hundred feet away, sat Ithagar, yet there was no sign of her insect attackers. He ran to her side, his legs feeling buoyant on the springy weave of branches. She turned to look at him as he came, a glimmer of light reflecting in her eyes and quickly fading. Her face seemed serious, her brow furrowed, but when she saw him, the concern slid off and was replaced by a smile. Jekka’s smile. “Dhalryk! You’re alive!”
Dhal clutched her hand. “What happened? Where did they go?” She looked to the horizon and pointed.
“They flew that way. They were almost on me. I tried slashing at them with my dagger but I was sure they would kill me when they simply turned and flew that way.” Dhalryk looked in the direction of her pointed finger. The direction was Over Coreword, and led toward the Blazewater Troth, a sea. Dhalryk said nothing, knowing full well that it was the last place a fleeing Zarran would go. Their homeland, the Carapace Plains lay in exactly the opposite direction. He stood and helped Ithagar to her feet. He winced as he helped her, becoming acutely aware of his injuries.
“I lost my sword and my cloak, and I’ll need to tend these wounds before we can continue. But we should hurry, in case they return.” He sat on a thick branch that rose, log like, from the ground, removed his shoulder pack, and cursed loudly. There was a tear in the bottom of his pack and less than half the contents remained. Dhalryk opened it and dug through, checking on what was there and looking for bandaging.
“Well, the food’s still here, some canteens are missing, and I’ve nothing to tend my wounds with.” Wearily he started to rise. “I’ll have to climb back down and look for what fell out.”
Ithagar quickly stood up and got in front of him. “You’re hurt! I’ll climb down.” Dhal shook his head, no. “If there are more of them…” he started.
“If there are more I’ll not climb all the way down! I’ll be careful. You just wait!” She turned and ran for the hole she’d cut.
Dhal didn’t feel like racing her for the privilege and instead began walk, looking around the ground, seeing if he’d dropped anything up top. His eyes scanned the weave of tight branches and he noticed something strange. There, lying some thirty feet from where he’d found Ithagar, was a fully severed Zarran wing. He hadn’t noticed it earlier since it was clear and nearly invisible against the backdrop of branches. Dhalryk clenched his teeth.
Ithagar was lying. The zarran did not flee in the direction of the waters. Something had severed this wing, and if that was the case, he should be able to see the wingless creature. The top of the Bumblebrush was as flat and low rolling as the plains. If any bug man were fleeing across it, he would have seen them almost immediately as he had exited the hole. Instead all he’d seen was a violet glow, a purple light that suddenly reminded him too much of the energy pouring forth from a shattered ashen stone. And the odor that hung in the air, as if something foul had been burned. The lie was evident.
Ithagar was not what she seemed to be, but there was little Dhalryk could do about it. He was injured, weaponless, and had no idea what could have driven away five Zarran warriors when his own ability had barely managed to kill three of them. The words of the bald bushy eyebrowed Batoda rang in his ears.
“Do you even know what it is you’ve done!? Do you even know? You’ve no idea!”
Dhalryk scowled at the memory of the bloody Nillian and dropped the wing. He had no choice but to continue on his path. The truth was that he still didn’t know what to do with Ithagar and the wise ones at Iridian Doorstep were still his best option. So, just as she was playing the friend to him, impersonating an ally, so would he.
He would guide her. He would lead her. And all the while he would wait. Wait to discover exactly what she was, and what she’d done with Jekka.