Monday, March 3, 2008

Chapter Four

Soft padded feet barely disturbed the night, not even silencing the soft croaking of frogs in the nearby pond. All but the most careful listener would dismiss the occasional rustle as nothing more than the passing of an errant night breeze. Few would recognize the muffled steps of a practiced predator stalking its unsuspecting prey. But, that was just what the sound was. More correctly, it was a pack of hunters, intent on the easy pickings the village offered. The canids nearly salivated at the thought of plundering the village. The shadowy figure who had paid Vijhan, their leader, to have his pack harass the village had finally decided it was time for the Band of the Shattered Fang to hit the village hard. Until now Vijhan had held them in check, growling about restraint and degrees of fear. Vijhan had always felt he was too smart to be a canid. He yearned to be more than a simple pack leader. Pouring honeyed words into the canid's ear, the shadowy figure had convinced Vijhan that this plan was the path to his high destiny.

The hunters of the Shattered Fang waited silently in the moonlight, ready to act as soon as Vijhan gave the signal. He took a moment to savor this moment; the moment of the kill, when the prey fell and the hunt was a success. Vijhan's blood sang, responding to a song rooted deep in his lupine heritage. Although his pack ran on two legs, they were as wild as any wolf, and oft-times more deadly. All of his packmates nearly shook with anticipation.

With a bang, the sky exploded in white light. The canids covered their sensitive eyes, stung by the burning light above. A blazing ball floated lazily in circles over the village, throwing stark shadows in a false dawn. The pack milled in confusion, blinking against the brightness. A soft ‘whump’ echoed through the village. The sound seemed to come from all around.

Confusion gripped the hunters of the Shattered Fang. Vijhan knew that if he did not regain control quickly, there would be trouble within the pack. A leader who could not be decisive in a crisis soon felt the jaws of the lesser males snapping at his heels.

“Attack, you curs,” he howled.

The Shattered Fang sprang as one. Each dashed to a hut, kicking at their doors. Most did not give, barred from the inside. The hunters that did manage to enter huts were greeted with shouts and brandished farm implements. The light and sound had obviously been enough to alert the villagers to the danger. Surprise was gone, and with it the prospect of an easy rout had disappeared as well. Vijhan had never considered humans very dangerous, but they could be savage when defending their homes and property.

Vijhan’s keen ears picked up the sounds of human folk from within the nearby huts. Soon, the folk would be organized and come out to defend their village. Already two of his dozen hunters were hard pressed by groups of villagers.

“Form up and retreat,” he barked in the canid tongue. He saw the ears of all his hunters prick up at the command. They had never been forced to retreat like this before. Retreat meant no loot, and loot meant failure, and failure often meant a challenge to leadership of the pack. Each hunter, in turn, began to howl, acknowledging the order. The pack’s eerie howl startled the villagers, give the hunters the time they needed to disengage and bolt from the village. Even though the lowing ball of light hung over the village, it had descended and dimmed, shrinking the ring of false daylight it cast.

Vijhan was the last to leave; taking an extra second to make sure all of his packmates had headed for the safety of the surrounding night. The pack leader rounded the last hut at the edge of the village, intent on disappearing into the darkness, but what he saw before him stopped him in mid-stride. All of his packmates stood at the edge of the village, frozen in place like statues. The blue glow of arcane energy crackled over each, forming an intricate webwork over each. The acrid smell of lightning filled his nostrils

Panic crept up Vijhan’s spine, raising hackles of hair as it moved. The sound of running feet approaching him from behind drew attention. He turned, hunched in a fighting stance ready to defend himself. He brandished a long dirk he had named cruelbite. With his free hand Vijhan freed the small buckler strapped to his back and then holding it defensively in front of him.

The pursuing villagers paused, faced by an armed and desperate canid. Each stared at the other, eyes filled with equal shares of anger and fear. Although their attention was immediately focused on Vijhan, a few villagers began to take notice of the other, bewitched canids.

They gawked at the frozen dog-men, trapped in their magical stasis. A low growl returned their attention to Vijhan, the more immediate threat. Heartened by their advantage in numbers, the villagers advanced on the pack leader.

“We’ve got another beast to drown,” someone in the crowd shouted.

Vijhan did not like the way this night had developed. The cloaked one had promised easy plunder, and now it seemed that he had delivered total. The Canid leader could see no way out of the village alive. It was in that moment that he decided to make these stinking apes pay dearly for his hide.

He leaped forward, bringing cruelbite up to stab at the throat of the largest and most well-dressed humans. The man brought his hands up to defend himself, but both knew it was too late. In seconds cruelbite would plunge into the soft flesh, loosing a gout of blood that would signal the death of the man.

A bolt of golden light intercepted Vijhan in mid leap. The light held the canid like an insect trapped in amber.

All of the gathered villagers turned toward the source of the light. They gasped at the vision confronting them. Surrounded by a nimbus of soft light they saw the lizard they had dispatched earlier that day standing on the roof of a nearby hut. The golden light holding the canid emanated from a willowy wand the lizard held. Ernst immediately recognized the lizard.

* * *

Sethyr was dressed in fine red robes, with finders bejeweled with several large rings. Other ornaments festooned the front of the robe, sewn onto the bright fabric with golden thread. A sliver diadem rested on her head, almost entwined with her bony crest. Despite all the other finery, she wore no shoes, her claws digging into the wooden shingles, steadying her on the crest of the roof

Everyone gawked at Sethyr, more than a little afraid. Some wondered is this was some sort of avenging specter. Some wondered if the rest of the lizard army had arrived. Others simply wished to forget all the recent excitement and return to their uneventful lives.

Sethyr felt a pang of guilt at the consternation her reappearance caused, but only a small pang. Being simple was no excuse for what these people had done to her. A nasty little voice inside whispered that they deserved to be frightened.

Sethyr broke the silence of the night, addressing the villagers.

“Shall I release these beasts to return to pillaging you folk, or are you going to try and drown me again?” she asked.

Ernst stepped forward, no longer threatened by the canid. “Sethyr, thank the powers you are here. You saved my life.

“So now I’m Sethyr…not the beast? Brayden must have woken up.”

“Yes, he did, but he collapsed again.”

Sethyr shook her head. “You apes are so fragile.”

Ernst moved closer to the hut, his neck craned, peering up at Sethyr.

“We must apologize for our terrible treatment of you. Had we realized you truly were Protector Brayden’s companion we would not have…well we would have acted differently.”

“I am quite sure of that…but the fact remains, you did not treat me well. Now, I hold the power to save these same people who condemned me.”

Ernst began to look nervous as Sethyr spoke, but remained silent.

“I also hold the power to punish those same people,” Sethyr continued. “The truth be told, I have not decided which way to tip the scales.”

Sethyr paused, glaring at the gathered villagers.

“But Ernst, when my fate was in your hands you did have the decency to keep me from burning. That is a mark in your favor. I wonder if you would have felt the same had you known that drowning me would never have done the trick, as my folk have an affinity for the water.”

“Oh course, I would have still intervened on your behalf,” Ernst interrupted.

Sethyr pinned the man with a glare.

“Hush now. I am not done bloviating. Now, where was I? Oh yes, what am I to do about this quandary? Revenge or altruism? Hmmm…” Sethyr rubbed her chin in mock concentration.

“Ah, I have an idea. I think I’ll give the village to Brayden as a gift. Perhaps a nice gift will aid in his recovery. First we must do a bit of cleaning. Let’s start by putting the dogs out.”

Sethyr retrieved a small glass ball from with her robe and held it aloft. Tiny blue crackles of light shown inside the globe, mimicking the crackles playing over the frozen canids. She winked at the villagers and crushed the globe in her hand. The tough skin of her fingers protected her from being cut by the shards of glass. The energy playing over the captured canids faded, but the golden glow surrounding their leader remained.

Stretching, as if coming out of a deep sleep, the canids surveyed their situation. Several growled low in their throats. One moved toward the villagers, lips peeled back in a snarl. Another, larger canid intercepted it, cuffing it on the ear. The canid yelped in pain and turned on its attacker, who promptly ran it through with a rusty saber. The saber wielding canid turned and peered up at Sethyr.

“I leader now. We go now. No more kill. You keep Vijhan,” the words came out of the canids dog like muzzle with difficulty. The canid then gestured toward the other canid still trapped by the golden beam.

Sethyr nodded politely. “Oh course, but do not come back. We will deal with you friend here.”

The canid sheathed his saber and turned toward the others. He barked a quick order and loped off, away from the village. The remaining canids fell into line behind their new leader. They disappeared into the night in a matter of moments, leaving behind an eerie silence.

“Well, it appears that we only have one to deal with now,” Sethyr said.

With a flourish Sethyr walked to the edge of the roof and stepped off, all the while keeping the golden beam on the remaining canid. His steps continued downward, as if supported by an airy staircase. The villagers gasped in surprise. Sethyr stifled a smile. The flashier spells were often not as useful as the subtle ones, but she enjoyed the awe they generated in simpler folk.

“Could someone please fetch some rope for me? We will need to muzzle this puppy after I release it.” Some in the crowd gasped at the mention of releasing the canid.

“Oh, not to worry. When I remove the magic, this fellow will be terribly weak for some time. He won’t be able to hurt any of you.”

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