Because it’s been a while since I’ve had any lagomorphic monstrosities on the blog.
Third week of this 4-parter. Links to the earlier two parts included below. Sorry it’s a long one, but I figured you’d rather read it all at once!
The battleship jumped out of slip space like a bullet and slowed to a stop in seconds. Before it was the old blue. One of the first planets to be colonised after the 21st century.
But this wasn’t a day for history.
Inside the battle ships alarms screamed and red lights flashed. Its crew running to battle stations. The cannons and guns all swivelled and aimed into the planet. On the bottom floor a squad of six were armouring up.
“LISTEN UP LADIES” shouted Lieutenant Weir. A tall woman with short blond hair stood on a steel disk.
As she spoke the disk opened up around her. Armour plates lifted by metal arms attached it to her.
“We are dropping into the capitol as briefed. I remind you that this is a level one contamination zone. Do not, I repeat DO NOT remove your helmets, if a civilian can’t be trusted or acts radically put them down. ARE WE CLEAR?”
“YES SIR!” her squad shouted back. Five all wearing the same large bulky armour. Their helmets opened showing their faces. Each one showed confidence and discipline but also fear.
“Good. To drop zones.”
They all did what they were told without hesitation. Lining up at the bulkheads on squares.
“Commander, alpha squad is ready for deployment.”
“Roger that, ship is in position deploy when ready. And good luck” her radio answered.
“Thank you sir. HELMETS DOWN”
In unison the squad members grabbed their helmets and pushed the face plates over their faces. A steel mask with breathing apparatus now in place.
“Count it down gunny”
“Dropping in five!” Gunny’s breathing was heavy on the radio
The steel squared below them gave way and dropped them out of the ship.
Diving through the atmosphere they spread out. Displays in their headsets showed the trajectory and direction. As well as the distance to the ground.
Below the city was on fire. As if staring into the pits of hell. Mortar shells and napalm hit the buildings and streets.
“Keep it together Felix.”
“Sorry sir” his voice was filled with panic and static.
Out of each member an X detached from their backs, attached by a cord to themselves. The X fired thrusters and acted as a sky crane to lower their descent.
The sky cranes detached and they resumed the drop.
“Prepare to land ladies.”
A large glass building rushed past them as they neared the surface.
A giant worm smashed out of the building face, tendrils searching it found its prey. Gunny.
As quick as it arrived it swallowed the marine whole and smashed into the neighbouring building.
“LANDING THRUST NOW!”
They rolled feet first and their boots exploded with flame. Slowing their descent one last time before they smashed onto the ground.
“Gunny’s got got. I’m good” Sally stated.
“I am good to” Felix said, clearly shaken up.
“I think I’m good lieutenant, but I doubt we will be for long” Danny straitening up.
The fifth raised his hand before taking a coughing fit.
He was choking on his own breath.
“Shit, get a hold of yourself.”
He reached up to take his mask off.
“Do that I kill you now!” The Lieutenant drew her side arm. The Marine froze. Coughed some more and took a deep breath.
“I’m good” he wheezed.
“Thank the gods.” She lowered her weapon. “Sorry guys we are in deep shit, no mourning time. Sally what’s your analysis?”
“That was a mutation, not a final product. Probably local wildlife prior infection. However it means it’s in the ground. Containment zone is shot.”
“OK, I’ll radio in.” she tilted her head and switched channels. “Commander, we lost one marine, the rest landed.”
“Good to hear now what’s the bad news?”
“The infection is worse than previously briefed. The containment field is in jeopardy. Please advise.”
“Carry on to the central tower double time, local government has placed defences there. Download all Intel as previously ordered and then get out, only now you have less time. We are nuking this city in 24 hours.”
“All due respect sir the download needs more time.”
“I will inform the tower about that, but when we were called this infection was two blocks wide, now it’s the city. If we don’t cleanse this city by then the Galactic parliament will destroy the planet. Are we clear?”
“Crystal clear sir. Any idea how it got here?”
“Negative. But it isn’t local. Now do your mission and get out, I’m not losing my best people to this.”
“Yes sir, Lieutenant Weir out” she turned to her squad “you heard, we are on the clock. We will sprint for the objective, we have full authorisation for running gear. Don’t fall behi-“
Ungodly sheiks fills the air as a man, or what used to be one, leaps off a sky scraper and with clawed hands drops towards them followed by many, many more.
Weir didn’t have time to fire, but her training kicked in. She swung her rifle and it smashed into the husk’s face with a wet crunch and enough force to send it flying back and make her hands go numb for a second.
“Run!” she yelled as the husks closed in on them. She started down the street, jumping over rubble and when a screeching husk jumped in front of her, she blew a hole though its chest.
A few hundred meters away, the central tower loomed. As they neared it, one of the mounted turrets turned towards them and the husks.
Weir’s sensed something wrong. “Duck!” she yelled and threw herself behind the fallen remains of a buildings facade, the rest of the team at her heels.
A shot blasted through the space she had occupied not a moment ago, but at least, she noted with grim satisfaction, it hit one of the husks coming after her. It would seem nobody was controlling the turrets, so they were just shooting at everything that moved.
The husks were behind them and they were unable to get closer to the tower. The bullets sprouting from the turrets were keeping the husks back, but it wouldn’t be long before they would find a way to their hiding spot.
Weir dared a look out and almost had her head blasted off. The central tower was so close, but might as well have been on another planet. There was no way past those turrets. But maybe they could go beneath them.
With a few punches on her wrist, Weir brought up a 3D map of this part of the city. They were in luck; the street they were on had a subway line running under it.
“Get ready to move,” said Weir and grabbed a shell from her belt, a small explosive charge designed to clear inaccessible areas. She looped it over her head, down the street and a moment later there was a sharp crack, more like the sound of thunder than an explosion and small pieces of debris rained down over them.
The blast had punched a neat hole in the ground leading down to the subway tunnel.
“Move!” she shouted and began running, the turrets firing, bullets spraying up concrete all around her,
She jumped into the hole and took a roll as she landed, her squad following. She heard a sharp yell from Danny, looked up and saw Sara grabbing his arm, dragging him the last few feet, before she dumped him unceremoniously into the hole and jumping in after him. They both landed heavily on the ground. Danny giving a grunt of pain.
Weir bent over him to asses the damage. The shot had gone straight into his upper arm, tearing his suit.
“You’ve been exposed,” said Weir quietly. “I’m sorry.” She aimed her rifle at him.
“Wait! I … Just wait,” he said.
She hesitated, but didn’t lower her weapon.
“Just let me … Not like this. Let me die fighting. The husks are going to follow us any moment. I can delay them.”
Weir thought, but only for a moment, before nodding. “Good man,” she said.
She turned to look at the rest of the squad. “Keep moving!” she ordered and they all started running.
A few moments later they heard the first shots behind them. It went on, getting dimmer as they moved away. Then there was the sound of a scream, cut mercifully short.
They reached the subway station right underneath the tower, so far still free of husks. The doors to the building were sealed, but this was why Weir had brought the explosives and it took only a few moments to blast a hole in the door big enough to push through.
Weir went in first, then the rest with Sally last. The large hall they were in was untouched by the destruction raging in the rest of the city. Neither were there any sign of husks.
“Should we seal the doors?” asked Felix.
“Leave them,” answered Weir. “We’ll never get it done properly before the husks get here. We’ll have to get to the control room and secure that, then we can …”
She turned at the sound of a noise, her rifle up and ready to fire, but it was not a husk coming through the door, only a woman wearing the clothes of an office worker. Weir studied the figure carefully but saw no signs of the virus. Maybe she had gotten lucky and the tower had sealed itself before the contamination had gotten inside. But if that was the case, her luck had just run out. Weir shot a glance at the doors they had blasted open and felt a pang of regret. Still, with the city about to be wiped put, it didn’t really make a difference.
“Are you here to save us?” The woman was young, as far as Weir could see. She was trembling slightly, but her voice was steady.
“No,” said Weir, “we’re here to collect data. Where’s the control room?”
“It’s two floors up. You’ll have to take the stairs; there’s no power. Anyway, you can’t get in.”
“Leave that to us. Can you take us there?”
The woman nodded.
“Let’s go,” said Weir, with a final look at the opening behind them.
“I’m Lyra,” said the young woman as they started up the stairs.
“Weir. Are there other survivors?”
“About twenty of us. We’re holed up in the room next to the control room. It’s the safest part of the building.”
She wasn’t lying. As they reached the floor the control room was on, Weir saw a glass wall and behind it a group of frightened civilians huddled, among them two small children.
“Blast the staircase,” she told Felix. “We won’t be coming that way again and it will slow down the husks.”
* * * Part 3 – my addition * * *
Felix dropped three charges down the stairwell, pausing between each so the damage would reach far down the tower. Weir and the others followed Lyra to the control room. It was locked behind three feet of steel and glass. Their guide sighed as she touched the door.
“We tried to call for help when it happened. Days ago. The lockdown protocols left us powerless.”
Weir readied her plasma arc beam. Emergency doors like this were bulletproof, but the locking mechanism was easy to fry if you knew where to hit.
“Somebody should have been manning this post! If we knew then, we wouldn’t have to…”
She couldn’t say it. Instead, she focused on unlocking the door. The plasma slowly burned a hole two inches from the top right corner. There was a muted clunk as the internal mechanism was disabled. Weir called Sally and Diego forward. They powered up the exoskeleton of their armor, and pried the doors apart.
That was when Weird saw it. The control room had a wide window; ships nearing the city could be sight guided for landing if all else failed. But, the window was shattered.
Weir shouted for them to stop, but the damage was done. The whole level was now contaminated. She whipped her rifle out and pointed it at the girl.
“I’m sorry. Better now than waking up tomorrow with-”
Lyra jumped back with her hands up.
“What are you doing?!”
“You’re contaminated. The husk mutation-”
“We’ve already been exposed. All of us!”
Weir lowered her weapon.
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t… I don’t think it affects younger people. None of us is older than seventeen.”
There’d been far more than twenty kids in the city prior to the event. Even after the husks went on their rampage, there would have been other survivors. There had to be something else. Something about living or working in the tower had inoculated them. Their blood would be even more valuable than the data stored in the tower.
Weir holstered her weapon as her team pried the door open enough to squeeze through. She rested a thickly gloved hand onto Lyra’s shoulder.
“It seems this may have turned into a rescue after all.”
But first, they had to gather as much data as they could from the control room. With only four of them left, and twenty-two hours remaining, they wouldn’t get everything. Weir took the main console.
“Alright, ladies. PLUG IN.”
The armor they wore had a kinetic generator built in. When they walked, it powered up, ready to release on command. All that running from husks had their batteries brimming. Weir attached the generator cable first, then moved on to the data leech. She yanked a winding cord out of her pack and plugged its jagged prongs into the port. A screen popped up in her helmet’s visuals as the download started.
Minutes turned into hours. The armor made standing as easy as lying down – and Weir was pretty sure Felix was asleep in his suit – but she would never get used to being trapped in one place for so long. She’d rather have a good fight any day.
To pass the time, she tried to think of a way to bring at least one of those kids to the battleship. Maybe the scientists could craft a vaccine against the contamination. Nobody knew where it came from; every colony panicked that they would be next.
Lyra sat in a swivel chair next to the broken window. She gaped at the destruction below.
“Do the computers say what caused it? How it made the husks?”
“It might. We don’t analyze. We only collect. The call us in when nobody else can make it.”
She refrained from using the term ‘hopeless cases,’ though that was closest to the truth.
The girl frowned as she slumped sideways. Her voice was a low murmur.
She turned to Weir and shrugged.
“The virus. It seems odd it would happen now.”
“You’ll have to explain. We don’t get news of the old blue back at base.”
“There was going to be a vote in a couple weeks. It would have been my first time getting to participate. This one was about whether or not we should become and independent planet.”
“That again? The vote never passes.”
“It would have this time! Everybody I know was talking about it. Even our parents. There was a big rally. That night is when people started seeing the husks.”
Weir guessed Lyra and the other survivors were in the tower. But, something didn’t sit well. She decided to press the girl. She set her helmet to record the conversation.
“What can you tell me about that night?”
Lyra explained that she was watching her younger brothers while her parents were at the rally. It was a few blocks away. Close to midnight, there was a feeling like an earthquake throughout the tower. When she turned on the news, everything was in chaos. There was a huge fire, and she caught a glimpse of a husk in the video. She ran to the control room with her brothers, but the lockdown was already in place.
“Since then, we’ve been fighting off those monsters and searching for other survivors. The whole tower’s empty now except for us.”
Weir locked onto the feeling of an earthquake. From the briefing, there’d been no mention of natural disasters. She pulled up a map of the planet’s fault lines. None of them were under the capital. She didn’t know earthquakes, but she did know explosives. Whatever released the virus must have dropped on or very near the tower. With any luck, it had come from a ship in orbit; the data should have a list of all incoming craft.
It wasn’t precisely against orders to check the data they were leeching. Discouraged, and never done by her or any of her squadron, but not forbidden. Weir furrowed her brow. She couldn’t believe she was even contemplating this. But, the story wasn’t right. Not that the kid was lying, but there was something she was missing. Something she hoped the data would clear up.
Her breath stopped short as she opened the files.
It’s the lunar new year!
This week was trolls! They had to pick a famous bridge and create a troll to live beneath it. One of the bottom looks was based on the Helix Bridge in Singapore. It reminded me of a bioluminescent creature, so I added elements of the viperfish to my troll design (lights behind eyes, underbite with …
So, I’m working on a sci-fi novel series right now. There’s a species of alien squid at the center of the plot. I’m still working on the exact character design, but this is pretty damn close to what I see in my head. This dude is Kef, and somebody is bothering him.
This is the second week of the four-part Terribleminds challenge. Part 1 is by Adrienne (her site here), Part 2 is my addition. I’ll provide a link for the 3rd and 4th parts if/when the next writers post them. It was untitled, so I just picked something, but whoever takes this one next can give it a proper title. Enjoy!
* * * Part 1 * * *
Rays from the rising sun illuminated our target ahead. The castle was small and in a state of disrepair, but the large army behind me knew better than to consider the day already won. The old Lord had a grizzled group of men guarding his walls, but they were battle tested many times over, while those around me looked hardly older than ten. We followed our leader because he promised food and a few coins, but I wasn’t in it for the glory. No, I had a bigger prize in mind. And I knew exactly where in that castle it was.
We crowded together on a single hilltop. No one spoke while they shuffled their feet nervously. The knight in charge sat astride the only horse large enough to carry his girth, and even then the poor beast struggled under the load. Foam dripped from his mouth as they paced before the rag-tag army. The man’s worn leather clothes stretched over his chest and legs. He had once worn armor over the leather, but has since outgrown the plate. The only piece he wore was his freshly shined helmet. A huge black plume adorned the top and fluttered in the breeze. He took one last gulp from a mug he carried and tossed it aside. Turning toward the castle, he reached around his huge middle and drew his sword and, bellowing a slurred battle cry, signaled the charge.
In an instant we were running down the hillside, pushing against each other as we screamed and held our makeshift weapons in the air. A young boy raced ahead of me, his small hands making the dagger he held look more like a short sword. His bare feet slid on the wet grass and he hit the ground, leaving those behind no choice but to trample him in our race toward the castle.
Just as I leaped over the boy, an arrow slammed into the man nearest me, taking him down instantly. I immediately raised my small shield over my head and continued running as arrows rained down. As we neared the gates, I slowed my pace, letting others run ahead and begin the assault on the castle. The castle’s guards focused on the group cutting through the ancient wooden gate, loosing arrows as fast as they could, while women in rags dropped stones and pots of hot oil. Men screamed as the oil splashed down, and a pile of bodies was beginning to hinder their efforts to break through. Finally, with a loud crash, the gate splintered and crumbled to the ground, and the roaring mass surged forward, clashing violently with a line of armored soldiers. The sound of metal-on-metal combat was deafening, but I didn’t pause to take part. I made my way through the gate and pushed my way around the angry mass just beyond.
I kept my head down to avoid any confrontations with the guards. I had to get to the top of the tower, and my odds of doing so were not great if I had to defend myself against a well-trained guard with nothing more than a small shield. Looking around, I spotted a mace half buried in the mud, just outside of the warring mob. I glanced around before making a dash for the discarded weapon and retreated back to my place along the wall. Mace in hand, I slowly crept my way closer to the keep.
Back at the gate, the immense Lord finally appeared and began slashing wildly from atop his horse, not caring whether his blade met friend or foe. He advanced slowly, cutting down everyone in his path. I cursed as I watched his progression toward the keep. I needed to get inside before he did, or all my efforts would be for nothing. I breathed deep, taking in the scent of dirt and blood so thick I could taste it. I bolted towards the keep door, swinging my mace at anyone who dared stand in my way. One guard fell with a hit to the shoulder, another by a solid hit to his knees, a third when the mace slammed into the side of his head, caving his helmet inward. They fell, one by one, and I left them behind without a backwards glance. Just as I reached the door, it swung open and a pair of guards ran out expecting to join the fray. The first didn’t even see me before I swung my weapon into his stomach. I slammed my shield against the second, pinning him against the stone keep. He reached for his sword, but the shield blocked his path. Dropping the mace, I ripped his knife from his belt and planted it firmly in his side. When I stepped back to retrieve the mace, he fell forward, making me side step to avoid his fall. When I glanced back, I saw my commanding knight was no longer atop his horse, but he was still hacking his way towards me. I ran into the keep and barred the door behind me. The prize this castle held was too precious to share.
I crossed the large hall, my feet crunching the old rushes as I ran to the wooden stairs beyond. I could hear shouts from above, and as I ascended the first step, another pair of guards rounded the corner. Two swords crashed onto my shield, cracking the wood down the center. We struggled for footing on the stairs, swinging our weapons and avoiding the blows until I landed one on a thigh. The man screamed and fell forward, narrowly missing me as he tumbled down the stairs. In my effort to avoid the falling guard, I stepped right into the path of a sword thrust. Blood poured from the hole in my shoulder as I stumbled down a step, giving the guard a chance to slice into my leg. With a roar, I jumped forward and knocked him down with my broken shield and slammed my mace down onto his helmet. I could hear the injured guard’s cries as he lay at the bottom of the stairs, but I didn’t look back. I ran up the stairs and around the corner, straight onto another wooden staircase, this one winding its way upward towards the top of the tower. I met no more resistance as I ran, taking the stairs two at a time. As I reached the door at the top, I could hear the bellowing rage of the huge knight coming from below. The door was unlocked. I pushed it open and stepped inside.
* * * Part 2 * * *
The room was sparsely decorated. A bed was the largest feature, a modest frame and mattress with a wooden chest lying at the foot. A tapestry of birds in flight hung on the wall between two windows. A woman in a tattered dress stood in the middle of the room holding a chair leg. The rest of the little chair was broken over the body of a young man at her feet. Blood seeped from a wound on his skull. She looked up at me through tear-filled eyes, dropped her weapon, and attempted a smile.
“I’ve waited so long. None of the others my father sent got through.”
I dropped my mace and ran forward. I reached out, grasping her shoulders and pulling her close.
“Where is it?”
Her smile disappeared, replaced by a look of deep concern. She tried to pull away as I flipped her locket necklace open. It was empty. A quick pat down of her dress produced nothing as well. She shrieked as I turned her around to see if she had dropped it down the back. I risked my life for this chance; it had to be here!
My shoulder ached as I threw the girl aside. The immense Lord huffed and wheezed his way up the tower stairs. It wouldn’t be long before he barged in and ruined everything. I kicked the chest over with my good leg. Nothing but a few changes of clothes. My dagger made quick work of the mattress, filling the room with hay and feathers.
My face flushed crimson at the thought of failing so spectacularly. I tore the tapestry down and inspected the back for some clue or map. All of my sources claimed this was the place. Of course, I’d threatened each of them at one point or another. They must have expected me to die in the battle. Fodder for the king and that massive fool’s war.
The woman stood with her back flattened against the stone wall behind me. She inched toward the door as I paced the tiny room. The door creaked open. She looked out, and I stole a glance over her shoulder. The large knight was nearly here. His shadow lurched up the stairs. He called out when he heard the door open.
“Dear Princess, fear not! I shall rescue you from this highest of dungeons!”
She slammed the door shut and whirled around as if to lock it with what little weight she had. She glanced around the room, but avoided looking at me. I narrowed my gaze. This Princess was hiding something. Perhaps my prize was not kept with her, but the old Lord must have shown it to her. One isn’t kept prisoner for nearly a decade without learning a few secrets. I grabbed her wrist, and pulled her away from the door.
“You know the thing I seek, don’t you?”
She refused to meet my stare, speaking instead to the floor.
“He’s gone. The Lord of this place. He took that… magic talisman… with him.” She paused to point out the growing pool of blood around the body on her floor. “His attendant thought to have his way with me in the Lord’s absence.”
“It’s not…” I caught myself before I said too much. Others would want my prize for their own. “Which way did he travel? When did he escape?”
She bit her lip, refusing to speak. I didn’t have time for coy and shy. I tugged her over to the window.
The Princess gasped. She glanced toward the door, winced, and looked up at me.
“Take me with you and I’ll tell you everything I know.”
“Lord Hegler is a cruel fiend who’s looked at me with hunger since I was a child. Take me with you and I will be forever in your debt.”
There was no time to mull my options. The massive Lord crashed through the door. His face was a swollen and sweaty beet. He pointed his longsword at me and growled. I cursed myself for dropping my mace upon entering. The King’s prize was the castle and its surrounding lands. The knight’s prize was the king’s daughter. And now, he was set to murder me for taking what was his.
Looking out the window, I surveyed the castle and the lands just beyond. A turret sloped a short distance down and away. Below that, the roof of the keep angled toward the forest. A good jump, and a fair dose of luck, would extend my life beyond the point of Lord Hegler’s blade. I gave the Princess a sideways whisper.
“Do you trust me?”
She shook her head no, but used my body to shield her from the large knight nonetheless. The Lord charged. I spun around, wrapping the Princess around my back while I still held her arm. I scrambled up into the window opening, hoping that I still had enough strength left. Hoping that I hadn’t already lost too much blood. I leapt for the turret as metal clanged against stone.
The wind whipped against my face. I extended my arm to grab the flag atop the turret. Anything to slow our descent. I watched as the turret roof stayed stubbornly out of reach. My jump hadn’t been enough.
The Princess clutched my chest as I freed my other hand. She screamed as we fell beneath the lip of the roof. Jagged stone scraped my fingers as we slid left of the small tower until they caught one of the narrow lancet windows. My wounded shoulder wrenched at the sudden stop. We swung back and forth. My arms felt like they would give out at any moment. The keep’s roof was a vast expanse that felt a world away from my dangling feet.
Lord Hegler shouted at him from the tower above. Inside the turret, one of our own lads stared wide-eyed at me. The immense knight ordered the boy to up and kill me already. Before he had a chance to parse the words, I took one last deep breath and let go of the window. The Princess and I tumbled down the roof in a screaming mass of dress and leather.
The world kept spinning, even after we hit the water. The moat was filthy, but deep. The Princess was thrown from my back by the impact. She flailed toward the outer shore just ahead of me. When we dragged ourselves up the muddy bank, there was barely a moment to catch our breath before the first arrows rained down. I gave one last choice gesture to the massive Lord as we ran for the treeline.
This week on Face Off, they had to use sound effects to drive the design. One of the bottom looks had this robotic, spacey sound. Clearly military (it said it was armed and whatnot). Instead of full robot, or even cyborg, I decided to play around with a robotic parasite that takes over a space marine’s …
The great penmonkey overlord has decreed that there will be a 4-part, collaborative short story challenge. Next week, someone else might pick up where this one leaves off. And I’ll continue other peoples’ stories. So, here we go!
– – – Sorceress of Flame – – –
The magic in dragonflame lingered long after any heat had died away. Lady Sera knelt down and pressed her hand to the ground. The charred earth sent a shockwave through her body. Broken wagons and barrels littered the ground beneath the black skeletons of trees. This place had been a popular trade route not a week ago. Now, it was a grave.
Olvar stood a few paces behind. He picked up a skull, and dusted off the ashes.
“Poor souls. Is this the work of the monster we seek?”
It couldn’t be. Her father was drawing a pact between dragons and men. It would be signed by month’s end. Why would a dragon risk destroying that peace? But, the forest had all the evidence of a dragon attack. She rubbed her arm as she stood up.
“I admit, it feels like the scars of dragonflame. When the villagers described what had been terrorizing them, I didn’t believe it.”
“Dragons are ruthless, uncontrollable beasts. It’s only natural they would stoop to this depravity.”
Lady Sera clenched her jaw at the insult. She’d known many dragons; even the most ruthless could never be called mere beasts.
“I… come. Let us find Juniper. Perhaps we can catch this creature before any others get hurt.”
Olvar spoke a blessing over the skull and placed it back on the ground. They followed the trail of destruction north and west, toward the mountains. A dragon would be impossible to track once it reached the peaks. Lady Sera gripped her staff tight as they approached the shredded carcass of a goat.
“Something isn’t right.”
Olvar sniffed the air.
“Agreed. The meat’s soured, but still smoking.”
“Over here. Another berry bush, burnt to a crisp. The evidence is too evenly spread to be random.”
“A trap, then. Very good!”
He rushed forward, pulling his longsword from its sheath. Lady Sera reached out to stop him.
“Wait! Juniper hasn’t caught up yet. Olvar!”
It was too late. The paladin let out a battle cry as he disappeared into the darkening woods. Lady Sera wreathed her hands in fire as she rushed after him. The magical flame lit the forest around her. She followed the sound of Olvar crashing through the underbrush.
She heard a falcon’s shriek overhead; Juniper’s hunting bird meant the ranger would be near. Soon after, a bellowing wail pierced the air. Lady Sera’s heart sank. It was a dragon after all. Massive wingbeats sent gusts of wind through the trees. When she reached the open cliff, she saw Juniper firing two arrows into the dragon’s right wing. The creature flapped once, twice, zigzagging over the foothills.
Olvar heaved and wiped the sweat from his brow. Bronze blood tipped the paladin’s blade.
“We were close. Next time, the monster won’t be so lucky.”
Lady Sera shook the magic flames from her hands.
“He won’t get far with those injuries. We should rest a while.”
Olvar wiped the dragonblood from his blade and saved it in a vial.
“When you said you were hunting, Junie, I thought you meant boar.”
“Never fear. Hera and I caught four rabbits. Build the fire and you can have two of them.”
Olvar piled the wood and set out bedrolls. Lady Sera struck the flint and bent low to blow on the sparks. They only caused a little smoke. She checked to make sure nobody was watching, and spat into the tinder. The fire sprang up instantly. She sat back to find Juniper shaking her head.
“Don’t waste your mana on our fires. You’re going to run out of replenishment potions.”
Lady Sera laughed, perhaps a little too loudly.
“I’ve never been good with the flint. Magic’s expensive, but it’s easier!”
During their meal, they discussed the scene of the dragon attack, and the creature responsible. Lady Sera had a host of questions, very few she could ask aloud.
“Did you see the dragon, Junie?”
The ranger shifted in her seat.
“It was dark. Must have been a male, though. A real brute.”
Olvar grunted as he tore off a chunk of leg.
“What do looks matter? Tomorrow the beast will die, and we will collect a kingly reward!”
Lady Sera’s appetite waned as she considered the possible dragons in this land. None that she could name deserved death. An interloper, perhaps? Her father would want to know of it. If she could identify him or her, she could alert the dragon leaders. They would lose their bounty, but what was gold compared to peace?
Later that evening, she waited for her companions to sleep. Olvar’s snoring kept the mountain wolves at bay. Juniper’s breaths grew deeper and more peaceful. Once she was certain they wouldn’t follow her, Lady Sera snuck off in the direction of the wounded dragon.
Dragonblood made a pungent trail through the foothills. Each drop reeked like a smelting factory. Where it touched stone, the surface became metallic. Lady Sera’s nostrils flared as she took in the scent. Mixed in with the blood, there was something… else. She followed that new, strange aspect straight into a bramble patch.
She hardened her arm from the thorns while she reached inside. The source of the mystery smell was an arrow. By flamelight, she noticed thin layer of poison coated the barb. She wrapped the arrow in fabric and tied it to her belt.
A low roar rumbled up ahead. Lady Sera took off toward the sound of the dragon. She found the wounded creature a mile later. It thrashed in the underbrush, dragging one wing along the ground. She cautiously approached, staying outside the range of a lashing tail or snapping jaw.
“Great One, I am Lady Sera of the Flame. Please, speak with me.”
The dragon wheeled on her. His golden eyes were clouded over. She held up her fire-wrapped hand to see him better. He staggered toward her; his slick, black scales reflected the orange light. Lady Sera’s eyes widened.