BK 3: Chapter Five: The Brack
Elric stirred and opened one eye. Someone had stabbed him. He was riding a wild stallion and someone had snuck up and jabbed a lance into his side. It was annoying, and it made no sense.
A campfire gradually registered. The horse and lance vanished with the smoke.
“Get up,” Kiyla whispered. “Your turn.”
With the onset of night, the Brack had cooled and changed its tune as one might change a set of clothes. The constant din of midges gave way to a chorus of high-pitched tree frogs competed with rumbling bull frogs, a chorus of crickets, and the oscillating buzz of cicadas. It was a maddening racket, and Elric wondered how he ever got to sleep in the first place.
He sat up groggily and rubbed his eyes. “Did ya see anythang?”
Kiyla shook her head. “Stuff’s out there. It ain’t botherin’ us.”
Elric stood and stretched. “I hate second watch.”
“Then don’t draw the short straw.” Kiyla winked at him and crawled into her bedroll. “Cuauht says let the fire burn down.”
Within seconds, she was snoring.
Elric sighed and stared at the fire, poking at it with a stick. Do we got a connection, you and me? It sounded stupid, but there seemed no other way to describe it. He could breathe fire, and he felt no heat from the campfire. That had to mean, on some level, he and fire were a team.
He held the stick into the embers until the end ignited. The small flame danced before his curious eyes as he ran through a mental joust. Don’t be a complete moron. It’s fire; it’ll burn ya. But why? ‘Cause it’s fire, ya lunk. Real fire. But maybe I’m immune to fire now. I can breathe it…
Elric’s hand quavered as he reached for the flickering end of the branch. A smile curled at his lips; he felt nothing from the little flame, even though his fingers were an inch away. Surely the armor had blessed him with some kind of protection.
Or maybe it would hurt like the Nine Hells.
Elric stared at the branch, frozen in indecision, his hand inches away from the dwindling fire. The flame flickered its last and extinguished in a puff, leaving an orange glow on the end of the twig.
He grabbed it. In a moment of sheer determination overriding all good sense, Elric clasped his hand around the glowing remnant of the branch. His skin sizzled. He cast away the offending branch and danced frantically around the campsite, his mouth opened wide in a silent scream, until finally he landed on hands and knees in the muddy slough, his tortured hand submerged in the relief of the cool bog. Told you that was stupid.
For the rest of his shift, Elric cussed the treacherous flames. There was no connection, and his imagined affinity with flame disappeared as quickly as his dreams. He grabbed an armload of sticks and piled it on the embers for greater warmth and light. He couldn’t tell the difference, but perhaps the others would appreciate his thoughtfulness, even though Kiyla had told him to let it die off.
Throughout the night, the calm and steady crackle mocked him, laughing at the great trick it had played.
* * * * * * * * * *
Cuauhtérroc shook Elric’s shoulder. “It ees time.”
Elric startled awake. “What? Oh…cripe.” His mouth gaped in a massive yawn. “I’m sorry, Cuauht. I’m s’posed to be watchin’.”
The savage stared him down with dark eyes. “You sleep when you need to stay awake. Dees is not good.”
“Do not be sorry. Stay awake.”
“Now, go to bed. I weel keep dees watch.”
“Why do you make dees fire?” Cuauhtérroc’s eyes narrowed further.
“I figgered you’d appreciate it. Ain’t it getting’ cold out here?”
“No. I say let dees fire go out. Deed Kiyla Muroe say dees?”
Elric shrunk back like a guilty puppy. “Um…yes?”
The savage growled. “Ordeen Clay weel say dees is stupid. You are not dees good watcher. Now, go to sleep.”
“Yes, sir.” Elric shuffled to bed and laid down. “Sorry…I’s jis tryin’ to help.”
A breeze wafted across the marsh as Cuauhtérroc kept vigilant watch over his sleeping allies, listening to the riot of frogs and cicadas. He stoked the fire once or twice to keep it stirred, but he did not add any additional fuel. There should be heat for their sleeping but not so much light. When would the others learn this? Fire was a beacon to everything that might seek them out. The waning half-moon provided sufficient light to see and to move about. With a muted growl, he gathered handfuls of damp soil and smothered the fire.
Dampness slowly drifted in with the breeze, followed by a creeping mist, moving as a multi-headed snake across the lower lying ground. Gradually, it thickened into a fog that blanketed the entire marsh. As his range of sight diminished with each passing minute, Cuauhtérroc’s grip on his macana tightened.
A mote of light cut through the fog in the distance, catching the savage’s eye. It disappeared, then rematerialized somewhere else, slowly bobbing as it gradually drew near. And with the light came a foul odor.
Cuauhtérroc crept to Elric’s sleeping form and nudged him with a booted foot.
“What the—!” Elric exclaimed.
“Quiet,” the savage whispered. “Someone ees coming.”
Elric clambered to his feet and stretched, a scowl darkening his eyes. “Cripe, it always happens on second watch.”
Cuauhtérroc pointed at the nearing light. A foul smell washed over the camp, not simply the general aroma of decaying humus and fetid waters. It was worse—bog mixed with fecal matter and dead things.
“What died?” Kiyla muttered as she stirred from her sleep.
“Someone ees coming,” Cuauhtérroc repeated. “Wake Cora O’Banion.”
Kiyla sprang to her feet and walked a quick circle around the campsite, her fists balled and her brown eyes fierce. “What’s that light?”
Cuauhtérroc shrugged. “I do not know.”
Kiyla knelt beside Cora and shook her vigorously. “Get up,” she rasped, “if you wanna live.”
“What’s going on?” Cora said through a half-asleep moan. “What’s that horrid smell?”
Cuauhtérroc pushed the chatter to the background, scowling into the rising fog. Danger loomed, and they were giving away every advantage. First the fire, now the noise. Do they know nothing? He stepped away from the group, his ears straining to hear what he could not see. Footsteps in the mud, heavy but quick—some to his left, others to his right. Maltok. Your foolishness has us surrounded.
The bouncing light ahead stopped, then extinguished. Footsteps fell silent. Every muscle in Cuauhtérroc’s body tensed like a panther about to pounce. Behind him, chatter around the campfire quieted. The chorus of cicadas rose to prominence, as if the absence of other sounds was an invitation to fill the gap. His dark eyes darted about, scanning the hazy swamp for hints of movement. It was all too familiar.
The flash of a steel-tipped spear materialized in the dense fog, and Cuauhtérroc leaned just in time as the shaft whooshed past his head. His eyes refocused. The pain of loss filled him. If only he had not gotten separated from his tribe, he might have been there to save his brother. He might have helped turn back the Amurraks. His people might have lived; Mazachtitlán might not have burned.
Cuauhtérroc dropped his macana and pulled the Brother Cudgels from his pack. He was not among his kin; he would fight this battle alone, and he would need all his weapons.
He spread his arms wide, looked to the leafy canopy overhead, and bellowed a war cry, long and loud. Lowering his head, he ran headlong in the direction of the spear-thrower.
Breaking through low brush, he landed amidst a trio of scaly creatures hunched over in hiding. Slitted amber eyes stared up at him, lids blinking sideways. Long snouts, clawed feet, and spiny tails—the savage had never seen their like, but he knew what he faced. Dragon-bloods.
Cuauhtérroc crushed an elongated skull with one cudgel and dislodged a spear with the other. He spun, ducking beneath a spear thrust, and swept out the feet of his attacker. With one hand he cracked ribs; with the other he broke an arm. Within seconds, three bodies lay crushed at his feet.
He knelt beside one to inspect its spear. The haft was festooned with a pair of small feathers and a row of beads on a leather cord. These dragon-people are like the Amurraks. They will die like them.
The clash of battle sprang up all around him as the swamp filled with grunts and growls from their attackers. They were surrounded, their enemies drawn toward them by the fire. Cuauhtérroc cursed and ran back to the camp.
Their enemies were many.
Kiyla’s gloves, gifted of the duke, glowed with a silver-gray sheen as she edged closer, deflecting spear thrusts with her open palms. Grabbing the spear away, she cracked the haft across her attacker’s body, then drove a closed fist into the creature’s snout. Teeth, bone, and bits of flesh tore free as her radiant glove crushed entirely through its face. She jumped from it to another, her braid swinging behind her as she landed and collapsed the entire ribcage of another creature with her fist.
At the opposite side of camp, Elric wielded a double-bladed battleaxe to fend off a pair of creatures. It was a weapon unlike any Cuauhtérroc had seen before, and it sliced through flesh like water. His backswing cut through the creature’s body, but it left no trace of wound or trail of blood. Rather, the dragon-blood gasped as if its life had been extracted. And in the near distance, rumbled the echo of someone laughing.
Cora backed toward the fire as more creatures approached through the fog. She punctuated the air with concussive shouts, each one sending visible shockwaves through the mist. Sprays of mud and reeking bog blasted away from her as the pulse of sound slammed into the nearest dragon-blood.
Cuauhtérroc spun at the sound of rushing footsteps. A cudgel caught one of the creatures in the throat as its spear slipped under his arm and cut a long gash into his side. He howled in pain and drove the other cudgel into the back of the creature’s head.
Cora’s shout turned to scream, and Cuauhtérroc’s step faltered. It was a scream of terror, not of pain nor surprise. Something dreadful was happening, and she needed him. Images of his brother falling to an Amurrak spear in the smoke-filled jungle flashed through Cuauhtérroc’s mind. Not again—not today. She would not fall to these creatures. Instincts overrode conscious thought as the panther warrior leaped over the intervening campfire to her side.
A towering hulk of a creature, its hunched form over ten feet tall, slogged through the marsh, each footstep slow and plodding as it sunk ankle-deep in the muck. Gangly arms, mottled and pocked with pustules, hung nearly to the ground, and in one gnarled hand it held the trunk of a small tree. Bony protrusions jutted from broad shoulders, forehead and jaw, and tusks curled up around its cheeks, tapering to jagged points beneath beady black eyes.
Cuauhtérroc rushed in, landing blows with both cudgels on arm, leg, and torso, but the barrage had no noticeable effect. Before he could alter course, the giant swung his tree trunk into the savage, cracking ribs and sending him careening through the mists and into the bog.
Fury welled in the savage’s breast. Ignoring the pain, he slammed the flattened edges of the Brother Cudgels together and shouted the phrase Cora had taught him to read: “Klistra!” A flash of yellow shimmered between the clubs, fusing them into one. Cuauhtérroc ran back to the giant as it closed in on the camp. Both hands gripped the combined handles of his conjoined weapons as he swung with the full force of his charge. Bones in the giant’s arm cracked.
Elric rushed in, one long yell pouring from his open mouth as he ran. At the last moment, he dropped into a slide and swung his battleaxe at the giant’s legs. The blade passed clean through, leaving no marks on the creature’s flesh and a confused look on Elric’s face. Laughter rumbled in the foggy background.
Kiyla bounded in from the other side, grabbed the giant’s arm and swung herself onto its back. Horned spikes pierced and cut her legs, but her cry of pain fueled the glowing fist that crushed the top of the giant’s skull.
Its knees buckled, the tree trunk fell from its hand, and it landed facedown into the embers of the campfire. Sparks shot outward in all directions, a shower of lights to accompany the sizzle of burning flesh.
“Look out!” Cora screamed.
A volley of spears sailed across the campsite. She dropped to the ground, narrowly avoiding being impaled.
“Mother of pearl!” Kiyla shouted as she dove off the giant’s back.
Cuauhtérroc pushed the giant’s arm aside and raised his conjoined cudgels. A hoard of dragon-bloods streamed forward, long snouts grunting and snarling, with a second wave of spears at the ready. He cursed. He was wounded and tiring, and the creatures pouring in too numerous to defeat. We are facing their army, but are only four. If we spread out, they will win. “Come here!” he shouted. “Come to me now!”
Cora scampered to his side. “What do we do?”
“We stand together and fight as dees one man.”
Elric joined them with battle axe at the ready. “Let’s do it!” A laughing face had been carved into the joint where handle met blade.
Cora recoiled in alarm. “Where’d you get that?”
“From ‘at purple bag,” he answered with a look that suggested Cora really should have known. “So, what are these things?”
“Viletooths,” Kiyla said.
“Bakali,” Cora added, “if you want the proper term.”
“Corrupted alligators,” Cora added, “from the line of Tortaralon the Green.”
“They stank,” Elric said with upturned nose, “like they been swimmin’ in their own dookie.”
Cuauhtérroc scanned the forms emerging from the mists into the dim firelight. “Erik Rikeoven, stand in dees front with dees shield.” It didn’t matter what they were called; they needed to die.
Elric nodded and stepped forward. “Yes, sir. I got this.” He looked back with scrunched face, swallowing air and wincing as if enduring unrelenting discomfort. Braced behind his shield, he faced the oncoming hoard. A groan escaped his sealed lips.
“So many,” Cora said.
Cuauhtérroc wanted to scold them for the foolishness of their campfire, the source of light that drew in these viletooths. I told them to let the fire die out. Now we may not live to find this house. I may not live to take my army home and destroy—
A soft hand touched Cuauhtérroc’s arm. “Are we going to make it?” Cora asked.
There was no fear in her voice nor panic in her eyes. She simply wanted to know: will we survive? The savage stared into her emerald eyes—pools of eternal hope now clouded with doubt. He couldn’t scold her. Elric probably, but not her. She needed hope renewed. Memories of his dying homeland flooded his mind. This was a second chance. He was a panther warrior, and his tribe, however small and foolish they were, needed him.
Cuauhtérroc nodded as he scanned the approaching bakali. “I lose my people. Now you are my people. I weel not lose my people again.” If they survived this, there would be time for reproach later.
Spears sailed through the misty air. Elric raised his shield to block as many as he could, and Kiyla smashed others to splinters with her stony fists. Behind his hulking form, Cora sang her bolstering song, filling Cuauhtérroc with strength. His breathing pulsed, and he settled into a battle-ready crouch.
As the hoard neared, Elric stepped forward to meet them. “Cripe, it hurts!” he wailed.
Cora gasped. “Is he…?”
Kiyla nodded. “He’s gonna cook ‘em.”
“But it’s not good for him,” Cora protested. “It can’t be good for him.”
The sound of unmitigated agony poured from Elric’s mouth. He doubled as if to vomit, guttural groans erupting in unwholesome torrents.
Cora gripped Cuauhtérroc’s arm. “Make him stop it!”
Fire followed in roiling billows of flame. Elric pivoted left to right, enveloping the first wave of bakali in the inferno of his breath. Spears flew from dying claws, spraying the area at random—the final retaliatory attacks of a dozen deaths. Cuauhtérroc crossed the Brother Cudgels across his chest, ready to shunt aside any that got close. Every muscle tensed for the impact of sharpened steel.
Elric slowly turned to face them, his eyes wide and unblinking. He dropped his shield and grasped the shaft of a spear embedded in his abdomen, where it had slipped past the plates of his dragonhide armor.
Fiery bile leaked from the wound, and flames began to dance along the bakali’s spear.
Kiyla screamed and dropped to her knees.
“Maker help me!” Elric said. He shrieked as flames swirled around him, burning clothing, searing flesh, and consuming all they could find in a relentless inferno. His piercing screams ended as his body, charred and smoking, toppled over.
Kiyla rushed to him, sliding in on her knees. Fire continued to encase his body. “No!” she cried. “No, no, no!” She couldn’t touch his smoldering form; instead, she grabbed fistfuls of the moist ground and spread it over him until the flames subsided. Then, with a cry befitting any jungle savage, she stormed off into the mists, screaming curses with each murderous step.
Cuauhtérroc swallowed hard as Cora staggered beside him, her mouth open in a cry of anguish that never quite formed. She dropped to her knees in the muddy bog, her hands limp at her sides. The savage scanned the misty swamp. More spears would assail them at any moment; fresh waves of bakali could appear through the fog from any side.
He crouched and crept along the perimeter in ever wider circles, listening and watching for renewed attacks. Through the muted air, Kiyla’s prolonged rage persisted, punctuating the sober silence with grunts, growls, and frequent curses. Of the enemy, Cuauhtérroc could find none. The bakali were gone.
With the growing light of a new morning, the chorus of frogs gradually gave way to the returning drone of midges. Scores of dragon-bloods lay dead among the reeds, made less fearsome but also more grotesque by the revealing sunlight. Many had been scorched by Elric’s fire, many more crushed by Kiyla’s fists throughout the night. Some lay among the debris kicked up by Cora’s shouts. But it was a small victory in light of Elric’s wretched death.
When he returned to the camp, Cora and Kiyla sat on the soggy ground embracing each other, staring through empty eyes at Elric’s remains. The brawler had finished her rampage, but Cora grieved still. Cuauhtérroc stood quietly beside them. He understood them both.
As he contemplated Elric’s demise, a foreboding truth dawned with the rising sun. The red dragon beneath Wilder Tower, whose scales Elric wore, had died in the same manner—a spear piercing the belly as he breathed fire. It was a dark sign, a terrible omen of judgment.
Cuauhtérroc gathered Elric’s bedroll and wrapped it around the scorched body. Overcoming the pain of cracked ribs, he hoisted the limp form over his broad shoulders, pushing the offensive odor of cooked human flesh from his mind. He looked back at the two distraught women, eyes bloodshot from crying, rivulets of tears cutting through layers of mud, hair unkempt, clothing torn and bloodied. Kiyla was spent of strength; Cora emptied of emotion. They had had enough. “Come. Take dees theengs. We go now.”
There would be no scolding.
Cora and Kiyla, silent and numb, picked up Elric’s battleaxe, red dragon shield, and gear and followed after the panther warrior.
It was a long, quiet walk back to Misteral. Cuauhtérroc plodded along in silence, leading the women with the wrapped body slung over his shoulder, his wary eyes scanning their surroundings as they went. The soggy ground and swarms of midges were no longer the annoyance they had once seemed—minor irritations in light of their loss. Tanasha’s Keep would have to wait, perhaps forever.
“Why?” Kiyla’s voice cracked as she broke the miles-long silence. “He loved that armor. Called it his ‘bestest thing ever.’ Why’d it turn on him?”
Cuauhtérroc could find no words of solace. Elric was a warrior, and sometimes warriors die. He might have brought it on himself, but in the end, he had done his best to make it right. Still, no matter how the savage looked at it, Elric’s choices had killed him.
“It’s just wrong!” Kiyla growled. “He killed the rinkin bakali. Went toe-to-toe with the giant. Why’d he have to die?”
Cora put an arm around the brawler’s broad shoulders. “It doesn’t make sense, I know, but the Maker of Beauty—”
Kiyla shrugged her off. “Maker of Beauty, my arse! Don’t give me that rinkin cassock cripe. That was ugly!”
Cora’s mouth hung open, and she pulled her arm back as if touching fire herself.
“Dees Maker do not do dees,” Cuauhtérroc offered. He wasn’t sure exactly what the mainlanders’ Maker did or didn’t do, but he knew Cora believed in a Maker that did good things. “Dees Maker do not make dees bakali. Dey are dragon-bloods.”
“Elric killed a dragon!” Kiyla retorted. “Beat it, cut it up, and wore its skin. He broke it in and owned it. He loved it. So, him dyin’? That is what the Maker did.” A scream to the skies followed. “That’s what you did! You took my sister. Now you took my friend.”
“Kiyla…” Cora began, but further words failed her. She looked to Cuauhtérroc for help.
Cuauhtérroc did not know the Maker’s ways—only the things Alton Myrick had said about Best Chun warring with the dragons. Dragons were the enemy, and wearing the enemy’s skin was asking for bad juju.
The savage stopped and squared up to the brawler. He shifted Elric’s body on his shoulders, wincing as his ribs throbbed. “Kiyla Muroe, you need to theenk about dees one thing. I wear dees panther skeen, and I am like dees panther—strong and brave. Erik Rikeoven wear dees dragon skeen. He is like dees dragon, and so he is burned.”
Kiyla’s jaw quivered, and she cut him a fierce glare.
“Come, we do now.” Cuauhtérroc resumed his slow trek north to the settlement and out of the marsh.
The first glimpses of Misteral came into view behind the long leafy branches of a copse of cypress trees. A brief respite was ahead—rest, recovery, nourishment. Maybe one of the healing cassocks to mend his throbbing ribcage. They had failed on their first day, and soon they would have to decide what to do with Elric. Cuauhtérroc knew what Cora would want, but it was not possible. Ships frequently plied the Rae Serene, but according to the captain, none would dock at Misteral for several weeks. Cuauhtérroc’s burden weighed more on his mind than it did his shoulders.
Cora voiced his concern. “What are we going to do?”
* * * * * * * * * *
Across a wide meandering river valley flanked by rugged, snow-capped mountains, the bodies of countless fallen soldiers lay scattered over grassy fields. The sun, huge and blood-red, slowly sank behind the horizon, a vibrant half-orb that cast a reddish hue over the valley and glinted off weapons and pieces of armor strewn about. Wisps of smoke from burning wreckages hovered over the fallen as a deathly pall, blown along the river by a warm breeze.
Only a few of the soldiers stirred where they lay, their wounds not quite mortal. Some struggled to regain their footing; others raised a single hand to the graying sky, their eyes hopeful and longing as a single word passed across their bloodied lips: “Skrattafell.”
Night gradually settled over the battle scene, bringing with it a cool wind. A multitude of stars, sparkling in colors that spanned the visible spectrum, glimmered against the backdrop of a darkening sky until they numbered in the thousands. Those who remained alive fell back against the dew-draped earth, their bodies exhausted from the daylong conflict.
As morning dawned, a weathered officer, stern of expression and driven by duty, slowly nudged his regal white stallion between the prostrate bodies. A light and airy fog floated above fields dotted with bodies, many of which were beginning to stir as sunlight, spreading across the valley, washed over them. The officer’s crisp uniform sparkled as the morning sun reflected off a score of medals and honorifics. Tuffs of whitish-gray hair curling from beneath his glistening helmet suggested he had commanded decades of warfare.
He scanned the battleground with a sense of purpose; he was searching for something. For someone. His stallion snorted and tossed its head as if it was eager for the frenzy of battle. The officer’s eyes lit upon the form of a young man newly arrived, lying face down in the grass. Without armor or weapon, he was easily identifiable as a new recruit.
“Arise, soldier!” the officer commanded, drawing a gleaming sword and touching the tip against the man’s back.
Slowly, the young man rolled over and squinted up at the officer. The rising sun flashed in the blade of the officer’s sword and glinted across blue eyes wary and muddled. “What happened?”
“State your name and rank,” the officer barked.
“Where am I? Who are you?”
“State your name and rank!”
The young man’s brow furrowed. He thought for a moment as he smoothed his blonde handlebar mustache to a point. “Elric Reichtoven, private.Sir.”