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  • Andrew M. Trauger

BK 3: Chapter Four: The Brack

Updated: Jul 7


Morning dawned crisp and clear with a chill breeze blowing from the north across the narrowing shorelines of The Deepening.  Cora stood on a pier in the shipping district, along the southern wharf, patiently waiting for their cutter, the Expeditious, to make ready.  She cradled a steaming mug of ragamuffin kaffe in her hands and shivered against the biting wind.  Vapor from her breath blended with the rising steam of her drink.

Once the quartermaster had given the signal to board, Elric and Cuauhtérroc loaded crates containing their gear up the gangplank and into the forward hold.  Cora sipped her hot drink as she signed the manifest and paid the fare.  But Kiyla, in a sleeveless shirt that revealed broad and scarred shoulders, stood column-like with folded arms, staring at the keel of the ship.

“Is everything all right?” Cora asked over the brim of her mug.

“Never been on the water.”

“I find that surprising.”

Kiyla’s brown eyes narrowed.  “Can’t swim.”

The kaffe burned Cora’s throat, and she sputtered.  “No worries.”  She patted Kiyla on her bare shoulders.  “I won’t tell anyone.”

With an angry glare at the ship, Kiyla trudged up the gangplank.  She pounded her fists on the sidewalls of the hull as she stepped down onto the main deck.  “Better not sink.”

They settled into cramped quarters belowdecks, where the crew instructed them to remain for the better part of the day.  As they drifted down the river, Cora played her lute softly while Kiyla tossed atop the mattress.  Elric and Cuauhtérroc hovered over a wooden chaturanga board with mismatched pieces as the scenery floated by.

As the evening sun set behind sparse trees lining the Alikonian side of the Rae Serene, the passengers were invited to leave their cabins and join the crewmen atop the main deck.  Dinner was simple and unadorned, but with the company of forty passengers and crew, the atmosphere was lively and festive.

In a corner near the mainsail rigging, a trio of sailors pushed away from their grub and began singing the tight harmonies of Under the Midnight Moon.  The deck fell silent as guests and crewmen alike listened, and soon their song was the only sound blanketing a quietly flowing river.  With the final lyric, polite applause rippled across the ship, and requests arose for another tune.

Cora climbed the ladder to the helm and approached the captain.  “I happen to be a songsage, sir, trained by Devin Rhynn.  I’ve paid for a meal more than once with my singing.  Perhaps, with your approval, I could provide the evening’s entertainment.”

“Me men be singin’ jis fine.”

“I agree, Captain, but you always have your men.  You’ll have an accomplished songsage for only a few days.  Perhaps you’ve heard of Cora O’Banion?”

The captain snorted.  “Nay.”

Cora suppressed her disappointment.  “Then perhaps you’ve heard of the Company of Dragonslayers?”

A hard stare was the only response.

“We saved the duke’s life and stopped a Nephreqin coup.”

“Aye, I be hearin’ o’ that.”

Cora’s mouth shifted sideways in frustration.  “That was us.  I’m…I lead the Dragonslayers.”

The captain looked her over with a raised eyebrow.  “True?  Then aye, lassie, I be lettin’ ye sing.  Even if ye be no good fer singin’, ye do be good fer lookin’ at.”

Cora groaned, forced a “thank you,” and swallowed the caustic remains of her thoughts.

Her boots clomped on the deck at the base of the ladder, garnering the attention of those nearby.  She breathed an arcane phrase and held out her hand.  With an audible buzz, brownish-orange streaks of muted light raced across the deck and coalesced in her hand, forming into the shape of Lysanthir’s Lute.  All eyes fixed on her, mouths open in a mixture of wonder and apprehension.

Cora gave Lysanthir’s Lute a satisfied smile.  I’ve been wanting to do that for so long.  She warmed her fingers with a quick scale up the fretboard and down again, followed by a succession of rapidly changing chords.  The audience applauded, and Cora launched into the opening notes of The Night I First Kissed Sara Lou.  A thundering roar of approval lifted from the sailors as they recognized one of the raunchiest and, therefore, most beloved sea shanties ever written.

As Cora played, she drifted along the deck, winking at crewmen as she passed.  For the second verse, she climbed the ladder to the helm and sang directly to the helmsman the sultry lyrics of a man’s first kiss.  The helmsman leaned in, certain Cora was going to kiss him as the verse ended, but she jumped up quickly, leaving his puckered lips in the air, and spun about to sing the chorus over the main deck.  The crew roared in laughter.  During the last verse, she crept back down the ladder and sang for the first mate standing beneath a lantern hanging on the main mast.  The extended pause and emerald gaze into his eyes forced him to back against the pole.  Cora turned to the expectant crewmen, who leaned in to see the kiss.  But she shook her head vigorously and finished the song, drawing more laughter and teasing from the crew.

Had Cora’s mother seen the act and heard the song, she would have grabbed Cora’s ear and pulled her away under a barrage of exasperated scolding.  But it was a performance that would have filled Devin Rhynn, the renown songsage and her mentor, with great pride.  Cora grinned; an apron string was cut that night.

She launched into The Day My Bonnie Died, which elicited a chorus of knowing laughs and winks.  The song embodied the secret longing of many seamen who wished, as the song described, to make their own cheating spouses walk the plank.

For close to an hour, Cora entertained them with their favorite tunes, introduced them to a handful of folk songs from the Alikonian farmlands, then settled the mood with a dirge and a pair of ballads.  She ended the set with her signature piece, The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep.  A strange silence settled over the crowd as she played and her voice carried across the placid waters of the Rae Serene.  It had been a masterful evening of performance, and warmth filled her heart as she began her finale.

 

When the water is not high,

Where the river tells you why,

There look up unto the sky

    And see your calling

 

Cora smiled warmly as Cuauhtérroc softly sang the familiar song to himself.  She might not have taught him how to read, but at least he was learning her songs.  But as she meandered through the quieted audience, she noticed a shift in the crew’s demeanor.  They agitated and shifted in their seats, each one stealing glances with his fellow crewmen.  As she stepped across the deck, a visible change swept through the crew like a sonorous wave on dreadful shores.  It seemed to affect only the crewmen, for the other passengers appeared as pleased by this song as any others.  But the sailors recoiled from her, their faces registering a range of negative emotions.  Always a professional, Cora maintained her performance despite their clear dislike for the song.

 

Open eyes and open ears,

Know that death is very near;

May your mind be ever clear

    While doom is falling

 

Abruptly, one of the crewmen jumped up and dashed down the steps into the hold, stumbling over the outstretched legs of a passenger as he fled.

Though warned by her instructors never to slip into a detached frame of mind—“monotonous equals monotonic,” they said—something was happening that needed her attention.  Cora shifted to rote singing.  Unconscious of the lyrics and melody, mindless of her lute, she scanned the faces of the other crew as they gaped open-mouthed and wide-eyed at her.  There was no mistaking it; they were afraid.

She had not reached the third verse when the captain erupted.  “Enough!”

With a final, weak plink on the strings, Cora brought her concert to a halt.

“What be the meanin’ o’ this?” the captain barked at her.

Cora stared in dumbfounded confusion.  “I…I don’t know.  What do you mean?”

The captain strode across the main deck.  All fell silent, save the gentle flapping of sails overhead and the captain’s hard-soled boots thudding on the floorboards.  As he approached, his stern face glowed beneath a lantern hanging from the mast, casting sideways shadows across his disapproving scowl.  “Why do ye be ruinin’ our pleasant evenin’ with a tune like this?”

“Ruin?”

“Aye, lassie.”  The captain loomed over her.  “Ruin.”

“But that was The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep,” she offered.  “It’s a harmless tale, maybe a bit sad, but…”  Her words trailed off into silence.  Murmuring from the crew signaled she was missing some vital piece of information.

The captain scowled.  “It be not harmless, and it be not sad.  And ye be not singin’ no more upon me ship.”

“I don’t understand.”  Her eyes pleaded for meaning.

“Tanasha’s Keep be the very mansion what vanishes every day in yon Brack.  Ye be havin’ no business regalin’ me crew with such as that.  Now get belowdecks afore I have ye tossed o’er.”

Cora blanched, studying his face.  He was all business.

“Now!” the captain barked.

She scampered across the deck, down the ladder into the cabins, and holed up in her room, her mind a hazy fog of disbelief.  She had been mocked, jeered, and catcalled.  She had watched people leave from boredom.  But never had she been tossed out on her ear.

Minutes later, the rest of the Dragonslayers joined her in the room and spread out on their bunks.

“Well, who’da thunk?” Elric said after a moment of silence.  “That was ‘bout as bad as a fly in the buttermilk.”

Cora looked up, imploring someone to make sense of it all.  “What just happened?”

“I don’ reckon the cap’n liked ‘at song so much,” Elric suggested.  “Ya do kinda play it a lot.”

“Not to them,” Cora protested.  “How was I to know the stupid mansion had a name?  That name?”

Kiyla smirked.  “Gotta know your audience.”

Elric rolled over and sat up.  “What’s got me puzzled is how ya coulda sung that ditty fer years an’ never learnt what it was about.  I mean, didn’t nobody tell ya where Tanasha’s Keep was?”

“Now just a minute, you two.”  Cora bit her bottom lip to hold back a torrent, exactly as her mother would do.  Cripe.  “There’s no way this is my fault.  I’m from Lorenvale, for one thing, clear on the other side of The Deepening, and this keep is in southern Alikon in the middle of the Brack.  And you think I should have known this?”

Elric chuckled and fell back on his bed.  “Pfft…ya know ever’thang, Cora.”

“That’s not fair.  Cuauhtie, tell them this isn’t my fault.”

Cuauhtérroc lay quietly on his bed, his hands folded across his chest.  “Cora O’Banion, when dees water speel from dees cup, you cannot put it back inside.  You only have dees mud.  If you want dees more water, den you go back to dees reever.”

He was right.  At least, she thought so.  I can’t undo it; I just have to move on.  She closed and locked her lute in its case.  Stupid sailors.

Except for the freeblades, the passengers disembarked that night at Kralencaster by the juncture of the Rae Sarcoss.  For the next four days, the Expeditious sailed quietly along the wide and smoothly flowing Rae Serene as it snaked through the Cerion Forest.  Ancient trees flanked both banks of the meandering river, many draped with silverbeard, a curly silver lichen hanging from branches extending over the water.  Bird calls, lively during the day, fell eerily absent at night, giving way to the melancholy moans of nocturnal creatures.

Cora became something of a byword, and her reputation with the crew only worsened with each passing day.  The longer she stayed aboard the Expeditious, the more their attitudes soured to her presence.  Some of the sailors wanted her tossed overboard to appease the curse they believed she had brought upon them.  The plank wasn’t getting used enough, they said, and it was about time someone walked it.  Only by remaining sequestered in the cramped cabin was she able to stay their hand and deliver her allies to their destination.

On the final day of travel, the looming forest gave way to scrub brush and reeds.  The Cerion Forest had ended and the upper Brack had begun.  Within minutes of exiting the dense woodlands, the crew hoisted sails and back-rowed to a slow crawl.  Along the western bank of the Rae Serene sprawled the small outpost of Misteral, a thatched-hut village at the headwaters of the delta swamp.

The Expeditious worked against the strong river current, swinging full around to face its bow against the flow while edging ever closer to the lone dock that jutted into the water.  The crew navigated the ship into position, dropped anchor, and tossed mooring ropes onto the dock.  A shirtless and barefoot man wrapped the ropes around cleats and hooked the extended gangplank in place while the ship’s crew offloaded supplies to Alikon’s most isolated colony.

“We be returnin’ in a month,” the captain muttered as Cora stepped onto the dock.  His eyes narrowed.  “Maybe.”

The dock felt unstable beneath her feet, as if it would collapse at any moment, but she soon realized it floated atop the river water.  Solid rings anchored to the sides of the dock slipped along vertical posts that rose twenty feet overhead.  As she reestablished her footing, she scanned the village with furrowed brow.  Meager housing spread about the marshy land in haphazard fashion, each built atop a floating base ringed to lengthy posts nearby.  Floating boardwalks connected some of the buildings, but others were accessible only by boat when the river flooded.  “I need a drink.”

The common house in Misteral was a small two-room building containing little more than tables and chairs.  They unloaded their gear and waited.

Nearly half an hour later, an unwashed, sunbaked man entered.  He scratched his head, dug a finger in his ear, and studied what he found.  Wiping his discovery on his grimy pants, he looked up with jaundiced eyes and flashed some of his original teeth.  “I heard we had company.  I’m supposed to fix your dinner.  We got whatever comes out the river or off the ground.  You’d be surprised by what we find.”  He grinned like that was an enticement.

Cora averted her gaze to a series of thick cobwebs dangling from the ceiling, able to suppress a rising column of bile by thinking of spiders.  “No thanks.  Suddenly we’re not hungry anymore.”

The man shrugged and left, but the churning in Cora’s stomach remained.

“What a dump,” Elric said.  “An’ ever’body looks like somebody peed in their ale.”

Cora shook her head.  “That’s crude but accurate.  There’s a pall of gloom hanging over this place.  I think we may have brought in more wealth on our shoulders than what exists in this whole community.  I’d rather not stay the night here, or we may not have any gear in the morning.  We can probably reach the greater part of the Brack by nightfall, and we can set up camp there.”

The Dragonslayers gathered their gear and began the long trek south into the Brack, following the bank of the river to their left, with Cuauhtérroc and Elric leading the way.  Out of habit, Cora began to hum The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep, but the tune died on her lips before she had finished the first musical phrase.  They walked along in awkward silence.

“Creepy,” Kiyla said.

“So, is it Tanasha’s Keep?” Elric asked.

Cora shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It was my graduation piece at Gramma Cora’s school.  I never once thought about it as a real place, never mind actually happening upon it one day.  That’s a bit surreal, to be honest.”

Cuauhtérroc stopped them, his dark eyes scanning the reeds ahead.  After a moment, he proceeded with more measured steps.  “Why do dees sailors hate dees song?”

“They’re a superstitious bunch,” Cora answered.  “The timing was awful, I admit.  They’ve been worried about phantoms in the Brack for a couple of months, then I go singing about it.  But if you listen to the lyrics, it’s actually a hopeful song of encouragement.”

Kiyla pulled a branch out of her way, breaking it off in her hand.  “They get under your skin?”

“A bit!” Cora exclaimed.  “I have never been so humiliated in all my performing life.  I was grounded in a room the size of a rinkin broom closet like an incorrigible stepchild.  How could I have known it was the very mansion buried in the myths of irrational fear?  They wouldn’t even let me explain…no, they just shut me up in my room.  You can’t reason with ignorance.”

Elric chuckled.  “Heh…broom closet.”

Cora stopped in her tracks.  “Really?  That’s not funny.”

Cuauhtérroc stopped and spun around to Elric, a wide grin breaking across his face.  “I remember dees!  You try to fight weeth me, and Cora O’Banion has dees many steecks fall out of dees room when she open dees door.  Yes, it is funny.”

“Busted noses two years in the Muckraker,” Kiyla said, shaking her head.  “Nobody broke into that broom closet before.”

Cora threw her arms out in an appeal of innocence.  “I didn’t know it was a broom closet!”  She rolled her eyes and would have stormed ahead, but her feet failed to move.  The soles of her boots had sunk over an inch into soft, water-logged soil and created a soggy sucking sound as it broke free of the ground.

Cuauhtérroc observed the ground and the tracks their feet were leaving.  “We walk so we not sink in dees ground.”

As they pressed on, Misteral faded into the background as the odor of bog strengthened.  Waves of decay wafted through time and again, always returning them to the heavy scent of oily, muddy, rotten slime.  Shifting winds brought new smells, including stagnant brine from the Bluhusk Sea farther south.

Kiyla reached around and smacked the back of her neck.  She grinned with smug satisfaction at the black-and-red smear in the palm of her hand.  “Got ‘im!”

“Got what?” Elric asked.

Kiyla suddenly slapped Elric on the side of his neck and showed him a second bloody smear in her palm.  “That…a midge.  Swamp’s swarmin’ with midges.”

They had entered a localized swarm of midges and were drawing attention.  Cora cursed under her breath.  Midges were the vermin of tropical lands; she hadn’t expected to encounter the tiny blood-suckers here.

“No!” Cuauhtérroc barked, “do not keel dees nyamuk…as you say, meedges.  Dey smell dees blood and more nyamuk come.  Dees is what you do.”  The jungle warrior stooped down and dug a handful of mud from the soggy ground.  Bits of soil dripped between his fingers.  “Like dees.”  He slapped the handful across his chest and smeared a thick layer of it onto his skin.

“Are you nuts?” Cora asked as she smacked her cheek.

“Dey do not smell you in dees mud,” the jungle warrior explained.  He pointed to a midge that seemed to be hovering near his torso, occasionally diving in only to bound back as if repulsed by the mud.

“Well, I’ll be…” Elric muttered.

“You also cover weeth dees mud,” Cuauhtérroc said to the others.  “It is good.”

“Right!” Elric exclaimed as he shucked his backpack and unfastened his scabbard.

“What are you doing?” Cora asked, fearing the answer.

Elric unclasped the buckles of his red dragon armor and lifted it over his head.  When he removed his shirt and gave his pudgy belly a smack, Cora knew everything had gone wrong.  Before she could react, Elric spread his arms and legs wide and belly-flopped into the muddiest area he could see.

“What in the…” Cora muttered in disbelief.

“Looks like a blonde pig,” Kiyla added.

As they resumed their travels, Cora’s arms fluttered in the air as she vainly attempted to wave midges away.  When she smacked them, more arrived, drawn to the scent of her blood.  Frustration built as she stumbled through the mud, her boots sucking into the sludge with every step.  It was maddening, and she felt like screaming.  They could not possibly sleep out here.  We have to turn back and better prepare.

A clomp of stringy, goopy mud slopped across the back of Cora’s neck.  Her eyes bugged and she wheeled.  Elric grinned at her as remnants of mud dripped from his hand.

“Tell me you didn’t just—”  The urge to scream surfaced.  “Nine Hells, Elric!  I’m at my wit’s end, you stupid buggard.  If you do that again…so help me, I will bust your rinkin nose, then you can have a hundred midges hanging out on that ridiculous blonde mustache draped across your lip.”

Elric dropped a second handful of mud behind his back.  “Yes, ma’am.”

It started as a low rumble, then the sound of Cuauhtérroc’s hearty laugh burst forth in full volume.

“What’s so funny?” Cora asked, grinding her teeth.

“I see Erik Rikeoven weeth dees nyamuk sitting on his leep, and…”  The savage doubled over in full-throated laughter.  “…and dees nyamuk are eating dees blood from hees broken nose…”

Cora pulled her boots from the sucking mud and stormed off.  She smacked another midge on her arm.  “Whatever.”

“But he has dees one hundred meedges on hees nose, eating dees blood…”  Cuauhtérroc looked around him.  “Why is dees not funny to you mainland people?  You do not know funny if it bite you in dees bounda.  Like dees meedges.”  He laughed again and strode onward.

The day trudged along, and the marsh deepened.  Under agonizing duress, Cora finally slathered her arms and neck with the bog.  The air continued to buzz, but the midges rarely landed to bite.  It also thickened with the treble of colorful birds and the bass of bullfrogs.  The occasional cry of a lemur or moan of a jackal kept Cora’s nerves on edge.  She had seen enough of the massive orb webs built by tiger-striped spiders the size of a man’s hand.  She had counted at least a dozen snakes draped across tree limbs or slithering in the muck.  Cuauhtérroc had indicated ten plants and three frogs that could kill a person.  If the Brack is this bad, what is the Audric Jungle like?

Before the sun had fully set, Elric had cleared a small area and laid a ring of stones for a makeshift pit.  A small pile of deadwood lay nearby, but most of it was damp and rotten.

Ten minutes later, Cuauhtérroc gave up trying to ignite the pile of damp brush and mossy logs with his flint rock.  Cora doused the wet kindling with lamp oil but could not ignite it even with a tindertwigs.  She tucked the small box away, preserving them from needless waste.

Cuauhtérroc pulled a torch from his pack and was about to provide some perimeter light, but a loud and painful groan stayed his hand.  Elric looked and sounded as if he had been punched in the gut.  He doubled over with contorted face, one eye opened to them as if pleading for help.

“What’s the matter?” Cora asked.

“Better stand back,” Kiyla replied.  She gathered up her bedroll and pack and edged away from the campsite.

“Why?”  Cora frowned at her.  “What’s happening?”

For an answer, Elric dashed forward to the pile of unlit brush, his arms clutched around his stomach.  His face was bright red and his cheeks puffed out as if he were about to throw up.  Cora stared aghast.  He’s going to puke on the firepit!

Elric knelt at the edge of the rocks and spewed out a rolling wave of fire, turning the pile of damp wood and a good ten feet of grasses beyond it into a blaze.  “By the Maker, that hurts!” he yelled as he rolled onto his back.

“Wha’d I say?” Kiyla quipped.

Cora gaped in horror, partly from the sight of half their campsite going up in flames and partly at the realization that Elric had vomited fire.  “Wait…”  She spun around to Kiyla.  “You knew he could do that?”

Kiyla shrugged.

“There,” Elric said with a groan.  “An’ yer welcome.  I jis wish it didn’t hurt so awful.”

“At least the fire does burn you,” Cora replied.

“Trust me; it burns plenty.”

The evening sun dipped below the canopy of treetops, throwing an orange glow across the marsh.  Before the sun had fully set, they cleared a small raised area of dry ground and pitched their sealed tents for the night.  Cora lay awake, pondering Elric’s ability to channel the breath of a son of Karashakon.  What if he started displaying its inherent evilness, too?  Not another Selorian, please!

The haunting calls of unrecognizable night birds pierced the tent walls.  She stared at the roof of her tent as visions of spiders, midges, and poisonous frogs crept through unseen cracks and invaded her bedroll.  I’m never going to sleep in this place…

 

                 

 

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, flickering through the netting of his tent.  The horse and lance vanished with the smell of smoke.

“Get up.”  Kiyla tapped on Elric’s tent.  “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 competing 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 crawled out to the campfire.  “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 dove into her tent.  “Cuauht says let the fire burn down.”  She fastened the flap, and 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 a red-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.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Do not be sorry.  Stay awake.”

“Yessir.”

“Now, go to bed.  I weel keep dees watch.”

Elric nodded.

“Why do you make dees fire?”  Cuauhtérroc’s eyes narrowed further.

“I figgered you’d appreciate it.  Ain’t it gettin’ cold out here?”

“No.  I tell Kiyla Muroe let dees fire go out.  Deed she also say dees to you?”

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.”

“Yessir.”  Elric shuffled back into his tent 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.  When would the others learn?  Fire made the nyamuk worse and 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 curse, he gathered handfuls of soggy soil to smother 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.  It thickened into a fog blanketing the entire marsh.  As his range of sight diminished with each passing minute, Cuauhtérroc dropped the dirt and gripped his macana instead.

A mote of light cut through the fog in the distance, catching the savage’s eye.  It disappeared, then rematerialized elsewhere, bobbing as it drew near.  And with the light came a foul odor.

Cuauhtérroc opened Elric’s tent and nudged him with a booted foot.

“What the—!” Elric exclaimed.  “I ain’t even got to sl—”

“Quiet,” the savage whispered.  “Someone ees coming.”

Elric clambered to his feet and stretched, a scowl darkening his eyes.  “Cripe, I hate second watch.”

Cuauhtérroc pointed at the nearing light.  A foul smell washed over the camp—not the aroma of decaying humus and fetid waters.  It was worse—bog mixed with fecal matter and dead things.

“What the cripe!” Kiyla muttered as she emerged from her tent.

“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 ripped open Cora’s tent and jostled her with vigor.  “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 sped past his head.  He crouched low and strained to see the enemy hidden amid a night fog. Without a clear target, he would need all his weapons.  He dropped his macana and pulled the twin Brother Cudgels from his pack.  With a club in each hand, he spread his arms wide, looked to the leafy canopy overhead, and bellowed a war cry.  The marsh muted and swallowed his roar, but it was not intended to instill fear in his enemies.  It filled him with fury.  Lowering his head, he ran headlong into the fog.

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.  These two Brothers are good.  Very good.

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.  And they will die like them.

The clash of battle sprang up all around him as the swamp filled with grunts and growls of more 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 smashed 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, the echo of someone laughing rumbled across the marshy land.

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 the savage’s 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 or 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 his 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 the dragon-blood’s 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.  She flopped to the ground, narrowly avoiding being impaled as a volley of spears sailed across the campsite. 

“Mother of pearl!” Kiyla shouted and 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.  Wounded and tiring, he could not defeat the numbers pouring in.  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 carved into the joint where handle met blade appeared to match Elric’s grin.

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.”

Elric grimaced.  “They stank 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.  “Yessir.”  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—

A soft hand touched his 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.  He had been here before.

Cuauhtérroc scanned the approaching bakali and nodded.  “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 glowing fists.  Behind Cuauhtérroc’s hulking form, Cora sang her bolstering song, filling him 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, and guttural groans erupted in unwholesome torrents.

Cora gripped Cuauhtérroc’s arm.  “Make him stop it!”

Fire followed in 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.

“Maker help me!” Elric shrieked as flames swirled around him, burning clothing, searing flesh, and consuming all they could find in a relentless inferno.  His piercing shrieks ended as his body, charred and smoking, toppled over.

Kiyla rushed to him, sliding in on her knees.  Fire encased 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.  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 terrible omen.

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.

“We go 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?”

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