- Andrew M. Trauger
Ch. 6: The Grottoes
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
As the setting sun brought a close to the fifth day of an uphill and rocky climb, Cora sighed in relief, glad to be off her horse after yet another day of plodding along. “We should cross Pearcy Pass tomorrow,” she said cheerily. “It’s all downhill from there.” She would be gladder still to be back in civilization.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Ordin muttered as he unrolled his tent. “Tarchannen’s comin’.”
Cora frowned. Always have to cast a wet blanket over things.
“What is dees Tarchannen?” the savage asked, fingering his macana.
“It’s the darkest night of the year,” Cora explained, “a night in which it’s rumored that the Void actually touches the world.”
“That can’t be good,” Celindria quipped.
Ordin cursed under his breath. “It ain’t.”
“You shouldn’t worry about it, Cuauhtérroc,” Cora said. “With good weather, we’ll reach Azure Falls in a couple of days, then Westmeade easily before the night of Tarchannen.” If The Deepening cooperates with us…
The weather turned cooler the following day—much cooler than normal—as they reached Pearcy Pass. It was expected with higher elevation, but dark skies loomed overhead, bringing with it winds from the north, chilled even further by the “Cradle of Storms.”
As darkness descended upon them, they drew straws for watch. Ordin took the first, then he woke Cora a couple of hours later. She grumbled as she stretched and sat up. “I hate second watch.”
But Ordin only grunted and crawled into his tent.
Sometime later Cora awoke to an eerie moan that froze her blood. The campfire had completely died out and overcast skies had obscured both moon and stars. She could see nothing. Suddenly, she felt very cold.
Again, a moan floated through the area, this time followed by a scratching, clawing sound and a throaty growl.
“W-who’s out there?” she asked with chattering teeth.
“Die, you rinkin foul creature!” screamed a voice from within the darkness, and Cora clenched her jaw to avoid shrieking.
Cursing the impenetrable darkness, she quickly sang into being a coruscating ball of light in her hand and held it up. Her breath caught, mists of vapor trailing away from her quivering lips. Ordin slicing through the night air at an unseen assailant. It looked as if he were simply attacking the darkness. What does he see out there?!
“Ordin!” she yelled. “What are you doing?!”
A glint of reflection from her light focused Cora’s eyes on a large, feral animal, its yellow eyes narrowed and its fangs bared.
“Cuauhtérroc!” Cora yelled, “Help!”
Gathering her courage, Cora stood and held the light aloft, fully expecting a wild animal. Hoping it wasn’t one of the fabled un-living inhaitants that called The Grottoes home. But she did not expect to recognize the creature.
Ordin lashed out at his wolf with both words and blade, an incoherent string of mangled epithets punctuating every swing of his scimitar. Shinnick kept a safe distance, dancing just out of reach while slowly backing away from the campsite. Within moments they had faded into the deeper forest away from the edge of Cora’s light.
The savage scrambled out of his tent, his shirtless torso and taut muscles glistening in the ambient glow. He raised his macana as his heightened sense scanned the area. “What ees it?”
“Die, you sons of devils!” Ordin howled several yards away, “Die like a filthy dragon-blood! You ain’t keepin’ me in the dark no more, you Roark scum!”
Cora cocked her head in bewilderment. What did he just say?
Cuauhtérroc rushed to Ordin’s defense, leaving Cora alone at the camp. Quickly, she scrambled after him. “I think he’s fighting Shinnick!”
“No more! No more darkness! No more pain!” Ordin continued, slashing wildly in the wolf’s general direction. The more he flailed with such erratic swings, the more it became apparent to Cora that something was terribly wrong with him.
“Ordin!” Cora hollered, closing in to cast her light once more on the scene, “What are you talking about? Cuauhtérroc, you’ve got to stop him!”
Rough language sailed from Celindria’s tent. In a few short seconds the flap flew open and the reeve’s disheveled head emerged. “I swear if you don’t pipe down, I’m going to—” but she stopped in mid-tirade at the sight of Ordin locked in battle with his wolf. “What the rink?”
“Cuauhtérroc!” Cora screamed.
The Audric peered inquisitively at the two locked in bloodless battle around each other. “Why do he fight weeth hees wolf?”
“How should I know? Just…just do something!”
The savage made a move against Ordin, briefly gaining the mystic’s attention and provoking a wild, lunging attack. To Cuauhtérroc’s great confusion, Shinnick also lunged at him, growling and warding him off. He tried a second time, approaching Ordin more slowly, but again, Shinnick began snapping at him. He backed away, and almost immediately the wolf resumed his focus on Ordin. The wolf was clearly steering his master away from the camp and Cora’s revealing light.
“You can’t take me!” Ordin screeched. “I’ll kill every last one of you rinkin Roark abominations! Die! All of you! Jen preskaŭ ĉiu fia vorto en labro!”
“I theenk something ees wrong,” Cuauhtérroc said, shaking his head and lowering his macana.
“I agree,” Cora pleaded, “look at Ordin’s eyes. Listen to what he’s saying. It’s like his mind is gone, Cuauhtie. He’s yelling nonsense and attacking his own wolf! What do we do?”
“Nothing,” Celindria said, walking up behind Cora.
The songsage started. “What do you mean?”
“Whitey’s eyes aren’t actually focused on anything, and he talks only gibberish and…well…practically every foul word in the book. He’s having a lucid dream, so we have to handle him gently.”
In a flash of gray, Shinnick snarled, dodged Ordin’s scimitar, and leaped for the mystic’s throat.
Cuauhtérroc rushed in but stopped short as the scene unfolded before him.
The wolf threw Ordin to the ground, pinning his sword arm in a firm bite. The mystic cursed and railed against his friend, but Shinnick kept his teeth locked on the arm, drawing blood only because Ordin refused to surrender. Ordin tried several times to roll the wolf off, kicking and clawing until the mystic finally grew weary and submitted.
“It’s almost like Shinnick knows what he’s doing,” Cora whispered, unsure why she felt the need to lower her voice.
Celindria nodded, studying the tangled pair. “That’s because he does. I bet he’s done this before.”
The campsite grew calm again as Shinnick released his bite and straddled his master, staring down at him eye-to-eye.
“No…” Ordin murmured, “Not the darkness…not the pain…”
Shinnick growled softly, as a firm warning, and the mystic fell silent.
“What are you talking about, Ordin?” Cora asked, dropping to a knee beside the mystic. His pale blue eyes were distant, almost spacious, unblinking and darting about wildly. He ceased his struggle against Shinnick, but his fingers yet twitched like one on the verge of sudden movement.
Cora scratched Shinnick’s ears, but only briefly, for the wolf tensed beneath her touch. “I’m impressed, Shinnick. But I need to talk to Ordin now.”
The wolf half-snarled at her, and Cora retracted her hand. But he relaxed with a calming word from the reeve. “That’s it, Shinnick. Supren…”
Slowly and with considerable encouragement from Celindria, Shinnick stepped away from his master. The reeve wrapped comforting arms around him. “You did well, Shinnick,” she whispered.
Cora pitied the mystic. So, she slapped him. Hard.
Celindria recoiled in surprise, and Shinnick nearly leapt from her arms.
Immediately, Ordin’s eyes refocused on the songsage, and for a second, Cora wondered about the wisdom of her actions. But he simply blinked several times at her confusedly while Shinnick’s snarl of disapproval rumbled nearby.
“Are you quite done?” Cora asked him in firm tones.
Ordin didn’t answer, and Cora couldn’t tell from his face if he was entirely present with them or not. But he was calm, and that freed pent up emotions in the songsage: anger, fear, and a heaping dose of helpless inadequacy. She stared at him for a long time, her glare burning a hole in his head. “What was that all about?”
Ordin averted his gaze to the treetops. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“It was just a nightmare.”
“No, it was much more than that, Ordin. You were attacking Shinnick and screaming about the Roark.”
Ordin remained silent.
“I’m wide awake now, Ordin Austmil-Clay, so I’ve got all night to wait you out. But you’re not going anywhere until you’ve explained all of…this.”
The mystic sighed resignedly, “Look, I’ve had a hard life—”
“Oh, spare me the tripe!” Celindria interrupted, glaring down at him over Cora’s shoulder.
Ordin frowned at the reeve, then began again. “I’ve had a hard life. I’m half-Vashanti, and because my Vashanti mother married a human, she was exiled from the community. When I was six, my father contracted a disease. We couldn’t afford the cure, so we turned to the village herbalist, who turned out to be a stupid charlatan, and so my father died. My mother pleaded with the mystics of the Cerion Forest to take us in, which they did.”
“First off,” Cora interjected, “the Vashanti are human, so dispense with the racial distinctions.”
The sighed impatiently, then resumed his tale. “Ten years after that, our enclave was raided by the accursed Roark from the Subterrain. They swept through under cover of the darkest night, killin’ nearly half the people—women and children included—and took most of the rest of us prisoner into their underground hell. I sat down there in an iron cage for the better part of two years, a little plaything for their buddin’ young witches to torture. Fortunately, some of us were rescued by a warband of Vashanti, or I would probably be dead.”
“That’s it?” Celindria asked, “You flipped out just now because some Tortured Ones messed with you for a couple of years when you were sixteen?”
Cora motioned to the reeve to calm down, then she turned back to the mystic. “What did they do to you?”
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
“Well, you just tried to kill your own wolf for no apparent reason, you gave me a rinkin heart attack, and you were screaming an awful lot of gibberish. So, maybe you’d like to help us understand.”
“Look, if I told you what they did to me every single night, you’d never wanna sleep again. I had to watch twenty-three of my kin tortured, flayed, carved, and fed to creatures I can’t even begin to describe. There were only eight of us left when the Vashanti came. Eight! And we were barely alive. Filthy, bloody, rinkin Roark! Two years, Cora! Two hellish years in a cage, in the dark, and to this day I can’t bear being cooped up, and I certainly won’t be caged. I will not sit in a prison! And I don’t care what you think about that. It ain’t gonna happen again.”
There was silence for a moment, then Cuauhtérroc spoke. “Ordeen Clay, are we dees—what you say—Roark?”
Celindria sniggered behind a hand. “You’re dark as one,” she muttered under her breath.
“No,” Ordin said.
“Weel we put you under dees ground?” the savage asked.
Ordin paused and looked at the inquisitive eyes of his allies. “Probably not.”
“Den dere ees nothing to fear.” Satisfied, Cuauhtérroc stood up and walked back to the camp.
The mystic crossed his arms and scowled. “This is stupid. It’s not even physically possible for you to know what was goin’ on my head.”
“You’re probably right,” Cora replied, “and I doubt you fully understand it, either. You were probably just having a lucid dream, Ordin, a living nightmare, because none of what you said makes any sense. In fact, you might have literally tapped into Dreamscape, where the line between dreams and reality is blurred. But we’re not the Roark; your tent is not a cage, and no one’s taking you to prison.”
“Dreamscape?” the mystic scoffed, “Whatever.”
Cora ignored the comment and sat down beside the mystic. “Do you have these nightmares often? I mean, do we need to be concerned or take certain precautions?”
Ordin shook his head. “No…it’s been a year or so since the last one. I don’t know what came over me…maybe the fact that Tarchannen is a week away. It’s…it’s the night they took us.”
“That makes some sense,” Cora said.
“Well,” Celindria said with a yawn, “if this fracas is over, I’m going back to bed.”
“Look, I’m sorry about all this,” Ordin said. Then he reached out a hand to his wolf. “Shinnick, come. I reckon we’ll pack everything up and go our own way.”
The wolf trotted over and sat by his master, nuzzling him to gain as much reassurance as he gave.
It was a touching moment for Cora that did much to settle her concerns. “I don’t think that’s necessary, Ordin. You’ve been honest with us. That goes a long way in building trust. I really wouldn’t want to turn you out after that; it doesn’t seem right. So…stay with us?”
Ordin regarded her with a mixture of suspicion and gratitude. “No kiddin’?”
“Completely serious,” she said with a warm smile. “We all have our issues. Something tells me we just might all need each other. Now, why don’t you see if you can get some rest?”
“I ain’t gonna sleep.”
Cora nodded and began a softly lilting lullaby, surreptitiously infused with magical refrains that smoothed all of Ordin’s anxiety and fears. Within seconds, he was breathing easily again, and after only a couple of minutes, his eyes were drooping.
Cora tapered her singing into silence. “Go to sleep, Ordin.”
The mystic closed his eyes and entered a most peaceful rest.
Cora turned to the wolf and, not knowing what else to do, pointed to the ground. “Shinnick…lie down.” The animal calmly laid his head across Ordin’s chest and sighed contentedly. Well, how do you like that?
Within minutes, the forest returned to a solemn quietude with a renewed campfire crackling at Cuauhtérroc’s feet.
“Cuauhtérroc, were you scared?” Cora asked as she sat on a log beside the Audric.
“No. Ordeen Clay fight weeth hees eyes open, but he cannot see.”
“Like he was walking in a dream.”
“Have you ever been scared?”
The jungle warrior didn’t answer for a few moments, and Cora thought perhaps he hadn’t heard. But then he answered, and his words were filled with solemnity. “Yes, Cora O’Banion. I know dees fear. Much fear.”
Cora decided to leave it alone, for it seemed to be a deep and personal moment. It would be improper for her to try extracting that from him. But Cuauhtérroc sat on the log beside her and freely explained.
“I have fear when dees Amurraks come into my veelage and keel my peeple. We fight for three days and two nights, but dey were meeny. Meeny panther warriors die, also my brother, Cuauhmegmoh. Cuauhéntax, son of dees Elder, send me to Mazachtitlán to find dees army of warriors. But dees Amurrak spears make me weak and I fall. I know dees fear when I cannot see because I lose dees blood. I know dees fear when Cuauhmegmoh die. I know dees fear when Alton Myrick tell me I sleep meeny days. I know dees fear when I see my veelage burning in Amurrak fire. I lose everything, Cora O’Banion, and now I have dees fear I weel not see my home again.”
He sighed and fell silent, staring off into the darkness once again, unconsciously fingering the handle of his macana. Cora empathized with him, knowing that his life must have been truly harsh. When compared to her own pampered upbringing, she realized how good she had it, but also how unprepared that made her for basic survival on the open road. Perhaps this was her first lesson. She certainly wouldn’t trade her life for anything, and was rather quite proud of her family ties. But she had much to learn, and sitting beside her was the man to teach her. He, too, was proud of his upbringing, proud of his family to the point of nearly dying for them. Yes, she could learn a lot from this clear-headed savage.
“Where’d you get the panther skin?” Cora asked abruptly.
Mention of the pelt elicited a fond smile from the savage as he unclasped it from his shoulders. He quietly ran his fingers through the fur, picking a small burr from the pelt and brushing the hairs smooth. And as he brushed, Cuauhtérroc told Cora the story.
“Four moons pass when I get dees cuauh like dees father and brother. I go into dees jungle weeth no one. Only with dees eyes, dees mind, and dees macana do I keel dees panther.” He pulled back his hair and pointed to his left ear, which was missing the soft lobe. In its place was a bubbly scar that ran from his jaw to the back of his neck. “Dees panther take dees part of ear in hees teeth, but I keel heem. Den, I carry dees panther back to dees veelage and dees Elder pray to dees Great Father for me. And he name me Cuauh-Térroc. But first, I must open dees panther and eat dees warm heart.”
“Raw?!” Cora gasped, “That’s disgusting!”
“It deed not taste very good.”
Cora leaned away from him where he sat on the log beside her and stared at Cuauhtérroc, the campfire illuminating his stern face. “You really are a savage!”
“I theenk dat is how you see me. But I know dees honor.”
The songsage chuckled. “Did the Elder give you this macana?”
“No. I make dees macana when I only twelve years. I am no more walking weeth dees cheeldren. Now I am dees man.”
Cora studied him. His dark eyes were serious and contemplative, somber even. He was not brash and uncontrolled; rather, he was a pillar of strength and dependability. Cora grabbed a twig from the ground and tossed it in the fire. “You’re all right, Cuauh-Térroc.”
They sat in silence until Cora could no longer keep her eyes open. Cuauhtérroc doubled his panther pelt on his left shoulder so Cora could lean her head on it, and she was soon fast asleep. As the expected cool wind blew in and chilled the air, the savage carried her to her tent, and as the light rain began to fall, Cora unconsciously pulled the blanket over her head and continued to sleep.
When morning dawned, she hadn’t stirred. Neither had Cuauhtérroc budged, keeping vigilant watch atop that log all through the night.
The next day, Celindria scouted ahead through the winding descent down the eastern half of The Grottoes, maintaining a quick but measured pace, her eyes and ears straining for any signs of danger. By mid-morning, she had found it.
“There’s possible trouble up the road,” the reeve announced with eyes narrowed.
“What kind of trouble,” Ordin asked, sliding a bolt into the notch of his crossbow.
“Looks like a rotlark has taken roost nearby,” the reeve answered calmly. “The signs are here along the road. Claw marks, branches ripped from trees, blood stains…”
“A rotlark!?” Ordin blurted.
“What ees dees rotlark?” Cuauhtérroc asked.
Ordin glowered and laid the crossbow in his lap, his white hands folded atop the stock. “A rotlark is a mockery of nature, a hideous creature—a rinkin dragon-blooded vulture, if you can imagine that. It lives in the trees and sings as people walk beneath its branches.”
“It’s pure evil, Cuauhtérroc,” Cora added. “It has nothing but vile hatred for everything, and it lures its prey through guile and enchanting song. But…I have just the thing for a rotlark.” She patted the instrument slung across her shoulder. “My lute.”
Ordin stared at her, dumbfounded. “You’re kiddin’.”
“Nope,” Cora said with a confident smile. “It’s a little trick I learned in school. I just have to sing better than the rotlark, and you won’t have to worry about its lure.”
“That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Ordin countered. “Sing to a rotlark? That’s like throwin’ rocks at a giant, burnin’ a red dragon, seducin’ a lilin, blowin’ against a tempest. You can’t sing to a rotlark.”
“Oh, yes I can. My music is power, Ordin. There’s magic in my tunes, and don’t forget that I graduated top in my class.”
“We know,” Celindria interjected. “You’ve already told us. I suppose you plan to sing The Ballad of Tanasha’s Keep to this rotlark? I know it would kill me to hear that again.”
Cora folded her arms and pursed her lips. “Maybe. I only need to play a contra-descant against the rotlark’s melody and the magical effect of its song is rendered useless.” There was much more dancing on the edge of her tongue, but Cora forced her thoughts elsewhere. “Ordin, you don’t need to understand how spellsong magic works. Trust me: it does.”
“Right, but the rinkin rotlark’s been doin’ this all its life. It didn’t learn how to weave magic into its song at some school; its song is magic. That’s raw power there, not an academic exercise.”
The songsage paused and looked at her allies. “You don’t believe I can do this, do you?”
“It ain’t that, Cora,” Ordin answered. “I don’t think it’s even physically possible.”
The songsage hoisted herself up a little higher in the saddle. “Well, you’re in for quite a show, then. Celindria, lead on.”
The reeve crept along the mountain road at a measured pace, her senses highly tuned and her bow at the ready.
A few minutes later, rain began to blow in from The Deepening, carried in off the waters some twenty miles north. Though it was nearly noon, the skies were turning dark; the storm would be upon them soon.
“We need to hurry,” Celindria urged, looking up at the charcoal-gray clouds, “but keep a watchful eye open.” She led them on a brisk trot through the thick forest, her eyes scanning the trees.
“Celindria,” Cora called out as they left the road, “where are we going?”
“Find the rotlark,” the reeve hollered over her shoulder. “Or did you fall asleep while I was saying that just a minute ago?”
“But this is taking us off our course and our commission.”
Celindria pulled rein and spun her horse around. “This is my purpose,” she proclaimed.
“Actually,” Cora said, pulling up beside her, “our purpose is to find Calloway’s wagon. Individually, Cuauhtérroc wants to gather an army, I want the Sword of the Coast, and Ordin’s still trying to figure his out. But we each set that aside for the time being to come together and—”
“Stuff it,” Celindria barked with a hoarse cough. “I’m going to find this rotlark and put it out of everyone’s misery. It’s dragon-blooded, it’s evil, and we have to find it before it finds us. So…I’m going to kill it, and I’ll do it alone if I have to.”
The reeve stood motionless and coughed again, her eyes darting from one face to the next. “Well?”
Ordin grimaced. “I think you need a cassock. But if you’re set on killin’ a dragon-blood, count me in.”
Cora tossed up her arms. “Well, you can’t do it without my song, so of course I’m with you.”
“I am also weeth you,” Cuauhtérroc added, adjusting his panther pelt.
The reeve nodded and turned back around. “Then keep up.”
Even as the rain fell in earnest and Celindria’s maquillage began to smudge, the reeve pressed on. She felt a sense of urgency about this task, and rain only made her more anxious. Cora admired her tenacity; for someone who ordinarily spent so much time looking pretty, she certainly was unconcerned when focused on potential danger.
Suddenly, Celindria stopped and held up her hand for silence while she peered intently through the treetops. A few moments later, she dismounted and wrapped the reins around a nearby tree branch.
“Tie off your horses,” she ordered in gruff whisper. “We’re close.”
Ordin busied himself in apparent conversation with a nearby squirrel that scampered across his pale shoulders to accept an offer of acorns.
Celindria paced with increasing energy before finally growling in frustration. “I can’t rinkin believe it chose to rain now. Ordin! Get your rinkin white hands off that squirrel and stop this rain!”
Ordin looked up at Celindria from a handful of acorns. “Stop the rain? Are you serious?”
“What…are you telling me you can’t—are you a mystic or not?”
“Don’t get testy with me…reeve. Perhaps the Hierophant Master can stop rain, but I was sure even the most novice of reeves could find a rotlark’s nest.”
Celindria made an obscene gesture at him and stomped off in a new direction. “At least do something useful!” she yelled back over her shoulder.
Ordin casually leaned against an oak tree and watched the reeve as the squirrel ate from his open palm. Celindria could barely keep her eyes open as rain pelted her face and blinded her to the crooked tree root waiting to trip her. With an undignified yelp, the reeve landed on her hands and knees in the mud, while her platinum hair, heavy with rain, fell in her face.
Ordin grinned and pushed away from the oak tree, letting the squirrel clamber onto the trunk. He strolled over to the flustered reeve.
When she sensed the mystic drawing near, Celindria rolled back onto her feet and sat down on the soggy ground. She looked up crossly at Ordin and shook excess mud from her hands. “What.”
“The squirrel says you’re not looking in the right place.”
Celindria huffed in exasperation and stared up at Ordin with contempt. “I don’t have time for this.”
“He says you should be heading east.”
Ordin nodded and folded his arms. “Yep.”
“How does a rinkin squirrel know the difference between east and west?” Celindria asked.
“He doesn’t, but when he mentions the big nest by a creek, and the only creek around here is east of us, I assume that’s what he means. It’s probably by the road, too. In case you’re wondering.”
Celindria jumped to her feet. “I don’t have time for this, Whitey!” She shoved him as she stormed past, leaving a muddy handprint on his chest. “You may think this is all fun and games, but that rotlark’s out here, and my whole life will have been for nothing if I can’t find it.” Despite her display of contempt for his squirrel-borne suggestion, she hurried to the east to resume her search.
Ordin looked down and grinned at the handprint on his shirt.
Minutes later, Celindria led them back to the road to a small, dilapidated shack. Anticipating their questions, she shook her dripping wet head. “No, this isn’t near the rotlark. But this is shelter, and with this storm strengthening, I’d rather not be out in it.”
Clearly, the shack had been abandoned, for the front door hung limply on its hinges, some of the uppermost timbers were rotted, and half of its roof had collapsed. Celindria made everyone pause while she went in to examine the structural integrity.
A distant rumble of thunder echoed overhead, and Ordin began to fidget. “I don’t like the looks of this,” he called out.
“Me neither, Ordin,” Cora said, watching his nervous twitching. Is he afraid of storms now?
“I think it’s sound enough,” the reeve called out, “if you want to come in out of the rain. I also found a small crate back here. Could I get some help pulling it out?”
“I weel help,” Cuauhtérroc said.
Ordin watched the skies, growing more nervous by the second. But when he glanced down at what Celindria was doing, when he saw where they were and the state of their surroundings, alarms sounded loudly in his head. A thin blanket of dingy yellow dust coated everything.
“Stop!” Ordin yelled as the reeve reached for some loose boards. “Get out, and don’t touch nothin’!” Then he grabbed Cora’s arm and yanked her out of the hut where the two of them tumbled and skidded on the moist ground.
But his warning went unheeded. Celindria threw a pile of boards aside, and as she did so, the layer of yellowish dust that coated them billowed out in a light cloud. The thick puff startled her, and she flung herself back, stirring up additional clouds of dust from debris scattered about the floor. In no time, she and Cuauhtérroc were enveloped in choking clouds of what looked like thick pine pollen floating on a springtime breeze.
The reeve began to cough, lightly at first. But as she stumbled about the dilapidated hut, blinded by the yellow haze, the cough quickly grew into a rasping wheeze.
Being familiar with several varieties of plants in his native jungle that sprayed dusts, spores, and other lethal substances, Cuauhtérroc instinctively held his breath the moment the cloud first formed. He grabbed Celindria by the arm and pulled her to safety.
“Drink some of the rain,” Ordin advised, shaking his head at her foolishness. “It’ll wash the mold out of your mouth.”
After sloshing a mouthful of rainwater, Celindria led onward, slowly and deliberately, despite a hacking cough developing with every breath. She insisted the rotlark had to be nesting around here somewhere but she didn’t want anyone caught unaware. Tenacity commanded her every movement. Even with what sounded like the flu developing in her lungs, she was all business.
Moments later, she pulled up short, and Cora nearly ran into her back. The reeve had a hand up and a stern look on her muddied, jaundiced face.
“What do you see?” Cuauhtérroc whispered.
“The rotlark,” Celindria whispered back, weakly pointing over the top of a nearby branch and through a group of trees.
Cuauhtérroc followed her arm, but it took him a moment to notice the nest of branches in the top of a far-off poplar. They were still several hundred feet away, so the creature looked to him like an overly large bird in an undersized tree. It didn’t seem right that something like this could be so dangerous. Birds were hardly something to fear.
“You have good eyes for dees,” he said. “What do we do?”
“Wait for Cora,” she replied, whipping wet strands of hair from her face as she looked back expectantly at the songsage.
Cuauhtérroc watched Cora preparing her lute. “I do not understand.”
“If she’s telling the truth about being able to out-sing this creature, then that’s about the best chance we’ve got. Right, Cora?”
“Right,” Cora said, not feeling prepared at all.
“Rinkin dragon-bloods,” Ordin spat as he readied his crossbow and deepened his scowl. At his side, Shinnick’s fur bristled.
As they followed the reeve’s lead, Cora’s heart rate increased. Thoughts of failure resulting in someone’s death caused her fingers to tremble, and now the rain was making her hands slippery. Cripe…this is not good. Hopefully the rain doesn’t detune my lute. Get a grip! You can do this! When Celindria tapped her on the shoulder and pointed her eyes up at the poplar, Cora nearly fell out of her saddle.
Sitting in a nest composed of whole branches freshly ripped from their trees was a creature worse than any description given in her classes at the O’Banion School of Performing Arts. Red leathery wings sprouted from a body that looked like a mutilated vulture, with barbed bony protrusions jutting out along its spine. Beneath the wings, spindly arms ended in elongated hands with hooked claws that were raking the blood of a fresh kill through its matted feathers.
A knot formed in Cora’s stomach.
“I weel make it look at us,” Cuauhtérroc said, and Ordin nodded. The savage stepped from the cover of trees into a clearing.
Cora’s mind objected to everything that was happening. She was not ready, but in her anxiety, she was unable to form any words of protest. Helplessly, she watched as the savage stepped into the open near the rotlark’s tree and hollered out in Audrian, “Di sini kita, anda naga burung hodoh!” Cora watched in horror as the rotlark turned to face the four of them, its solid black eyes clearly reflecting its evil soul. Her hands began to tremble.
“Well?” Celindria whispered, leaning heavily against a tree with an arm cradled against her stomach. “Are you going to play your song, or not?” She clutched her abdomen as cramps seized her.
Before Cora could respond with either an answer or an opening chord, the most beautiful strain of notes she had ever heard began to echo across the land. High-pitched but not shrill, melodious and almost carrying a hint of Lydian scales, the tune reverberated through the trees and washed over her as a warm summer breeze. Cora wondered if she’d ever heard anything so magnificent in all her life.
But the reeve, her face pale with dread, grabbed the lute from Cora’s sweaty grip and shoved the instrument back into her arms. “Play it, Cora! Play your rinkin tune, or we’re all dead!”
Cora shook her head violently. By all that’s lovely! I was nearly captivated! She quickly focused her thoughts and strummed a perfect opening chord. Her years of training began to control her fingers as they worked the fret-board and the words formed on her tongue. Magical energies flowed through her, welling up from within her musical soul and empowering her voice and her instrument. There was no better sensation than channeling arcane power through her song, and her eyes closed for a moment as she relished the feeling.
But she was a moment too late with her response. Cuauhtérroc’s arms were by his side, and he had dropped his macana onto the damp ground. As he looked up adoringly at the rotlark, he slowly walked toward the trunk of the creature’s tree.
“It’s got him!” Celindria cried out in pain as much as in warning. Then she turned out her stomach.
“Cripe!” Ordin barked as he released a crossbow bolt, only to watch it lodge in a tree branch of the creature’s nest.
Cora’s eyes flew open in horror. I was too late! I failed!
“Do something, Red!” the reeve growled as she spat and wiped her mouth. “He’ll bloody climb that tree!”
“What!” Cora protested. “I lost my tune!”
“Play something else!” Ordin shouted.
Celindria’s face contorted with twisting abdominal spasms. “If that was all you got, I swear…” Her torso convulsed and she dry-heaved. “I swear I’ll—”
“I know what to do!” Cora altered her song, changing both the timbre and register of it. It was the proper response to unravel a charm already in effect, but she was going to have to move in closer. A lot closer. While the rotlark’s song echoed through the whole area, Cora’s volume could hardly override the creature at this distance. She played with more energy on her lute and she sang with more intensity, her vocal cords straining and her fingers dancing masterfully across the ribbed rosewood. But nothing she did seemed to help Cuauhtérroc break free of the rotlark’s beguiling song.
Instead, the rotlark focused on her.
Ordin fired several rounds of ammunition, but only once had he managed to hit the creature. “I’m runnin’ low here…”
Still focusing on Cora, the rotlark reached down and pulled the femur bone from its kill, tendons still clinging and blood dripping. It snipped the tendons with its sharpened claws and licked the blood.
“Nine Hells!” Ordin yelled in disgusted anger.
Celindria dropped to her knees, clutched a tree, and vomited again.
The rotlark took flight with a mighty jump, its wicked eyes focused sharply on the songsage.
Around the poplar tree it flew, gaining speed with each circle. On and on its lovely song continued—grossly juxtaposed to its hideous countenance—making their focus difficult, just as its flight frustrated their attacks. It flew over the treetops, swinging wide, ever singing, until it was high overhead, banking in and down, swooping beneath overhanging branches, racing toward them, gaining speed, claws outstretched, thigh bone in hand and pure evil in its eyes.
As it reached the clearing its tune changed from a beautiful song to a horrid screech. The awful cacophony snapped Cora’s concentration. Her spine shuddered, and she nearly crumpled to the ground. The rotlark sped straight for her with femur bone raised. And she was powerless to do anything.
Ordin screamed out a string of obscenities as he stepped in front of Cora, brought his crossbow up to his jaw, and stared down the small sight at his target diving ever closer to the songsage.
Celindria felt her stomach lurching yet again. With growing dismay, she surveyed the scene—Cuauhtérroc in a helpless daze, Cora cowering with no song on her lips, and Ordin screaming in a fit of crazed hysteria. The odds of surviving quickly seemed impossible to the reeve, and she began to waver. So, this is how it ends.
In that moment of doubt, Celindria closed her eyes and fingered the sapphire pendant hanging around her neck. It helped her to focus, to remember, to remain faithful. Steady…remember your training. A reeve stays the course. A reeve protects and nurtures. A reeve guides with wisdom.
Ordin finished his litany of curses and let his crossbow bolt fly. Just as he pulled the trigger, the rotlark opened its mouth to release another wretched scream, but it instead gagged on wood and stone as the mystic’s bolt rammed down its throat and neck, ending half-buried in its chest. It spun and twisted in mid-flight and crashed into the ground along the road near where Cora stood, rolling and flopping as blood spurted from its open mouth.
The song was over, but the rotlark was far from conceding. It lurched to its feet, bracing against a nearby tree, half trying to swallow the offending bolt and half trying to extricate it with a fist of talons extended deep into its trachea. Ordin shot another bolt into its hideous form. Then a second, and a third.
Blood sprayed from a fresh wound on the outside of its neck as the rotlark dug its claws clean through its scaly skin to extract the bolt. Instinctively, the creature tried to screech, but produced only a sickly gurgle as blackish-red blood dribbled and spurted from the self-inflicted wound.
Ordin approached, the loaded crossbow raised to his white shoulder and the sight aligned with the creature’s head. “I’ve had all I can take from you. Go to the Abyss!” He squeezed the trigger, and the rotlark toppled lifeless and still.
Cora stood speechless, staring aghast at the repulsive creature that had nearly claimed her. Even lying there unmoving, the rotlark was more hideous and fearful than anything she had learned in her classes. It was pitiful, actually, being descended from an unholy union with a dragonspawn. Who knows the horrible pain foisted upon the poor creature that birthed the perverted half-blood? Who can fathom the generations of evil wreaked upon additional creatures forced into the lineage? And all for what? So that the Great Dragon herself could ruin the Maker’s handiwork? Why?
“Thank you, Ordin,” she said with quivering jaw.
From somewhere behind her, a confused voice called out, “Why do I stand here? Where is dees rotlark?”
Ordin breathed again—he hardly noticed he had been holding his breath—and quickly explained to the savage that he had succumbed to the rotlark’s captivating song and was standing around waiting to be its next meal. Then to everyone’s surprise, the mystic scampered quickly up the poplar’s trunk and straight into the rotlark’s nest.
Celindria knelt and clutched her abdomen as she watched him. What the blazes is Whitey doing up there? If he’s hoping to save someone, he’s going to be greatly disappointed. Rotlarks didn’t kill their meals quickly; they toyed with them for days in the most torturous manner, as they preferred their meat slightly “off.”
Despite having steeled his nerves for a gruesome sight, once in the rotlark’s nest, Ordin was overwhelmed by the ghastly sight spread before him. Three mostly eaten animal carcasses were sprawled about the nest in grotesque assortment of putrefied pieces. But what unsettled him was the fourth, the mangled body of a middle-aged man with a horrid look of pain etched on its bloody face. Seething hatred roiled in the mystic as he cursed the foul rotlark to everlasting torment in the deepest corners of the Abyss.
Quietly, Ordin lowered his head and performed a hasty ceremony of last rites over the dead, hoping to usher the man’s soul to a place of peace in the Maker’s Realms. It was probably too late, but it was all he could do. Torn and dismembered as his body was, it would do more harm than good to bring him down and listen to Cora explain why he needed to be buried.
When the ceremony was complete, the mystic gathered up all the few scattered belongings strewn about the nest. These he stashed in his backpack and climbed down to rejoin the party.
“So, Whitey, what was all that about?” Celindria asked.
“I was consecratin’ the dead.”
The reeve spied an extra longsword jutting from his pack. “And…?”
“And takin’ their stuff.”
Celindria smiled through a groan.
Ordin shook his head.“We gotta find you a cassock.”