The Teeth of the Falls – Chapter 39

Consciousness returned.

At first, Will could not remember ever feeling so cold.  And then the “other time” slammed into his memory with a shockwave transporting him back.  Images flashed mercilessly behind his tightly clenched eyes.  A moment of terror in a snowy wood.  Blood everywhere.  His father ravaged by wolves below.  His raw, frostbitten knuckles and fingers clawing frantically into rough, icy bark.  His knees and legs soaked by the snow, numbed by the pressure of the cold branch under his seat, and the cold black trunk he’d wrapped them around.  His head entwined in a frosted woolen scarf.  The sheepskin jacket, slightly too big for him, keeping his central core warm, yet he shivered with a coldness that had nothing to do with the temperature.  He’d ducked his head to escape the terrible sights below but could not miss the sight of the bloodied snapping teeth of the wolves as they lept up to reach him and catch a dangling leg or ankle and pull him down to share the fate of his father.

Will gasped, opened his eyes momentarily and then clamped them eyes shut again, trying to bury those terrible memories back into the past, into the blackness once more, yet failing.

His dad, his father, his hero, his world, ripped away from him by a night of terror.  An ending that his young mind never saw coming.  Never even conceived was in the cards.  Like any young one, he believed that both he and his dad would be together forever.  It was unfair of life, of the One to allow this to happen to him.  And because of it, he could not forgive the One.  The One was unkind, no matter what his father had said.  His dad was dead.  His dad was wrong.  His dad was a fool to believe that the One was good.  How could the One be good when He allowed one of His servants to fall and meet with such a terrible end?  How could he forgive the One who would permit such a thing to happen to such a good and brave man.  How could he forgive the One, spoken about in the Ancient Text, for allowing so much pain into Will’s world?

This Mid-World he had once thought of to be a personal gift to him—A way to reach out and be with his father, and spend time with him in a father-son adventure of their own– was actually a place of nightmares.  In the Surface World, his father’s body had been delivered with ceremony and military order, but still in a box and a black plastic bag.  Only pieces of him had been recovered.  The adults did not know he was listening.  He’d hidden under the tablecloth at the reception they’d had to honor his father’s service and sacrifice.  He’d learned about the raid, and the terrorist cell, they’d fought.  He’d memorized the strange Arabic characters, that represented the terrorist cell that had claimed responsibility for killing his father.  حزمة الذئب (hazmat aldhiyb) translated simply as “The Wolf Pack”.  Sounding something like ull-dee-boo.  He hated to an obsession.  He wanted those terrorists to pay for taking his dad!  He wanted them dead, dead, dead!  He wanted their wives dead.  He wanted their children dead.  He wanted to kill every creature in this Mid-World that dared pose any threat to Surface Worlders.  He wanted to stab and stab and stab that Moon Sprite creature, that nightmare from between worlds, to make it pay for the evil done to his father.  Something had to pay.  Someone had to pay.  Before he realized it, he was weeping and curled into a fetal position, still shivering from the memories and cold of the ice.

The creature had known his pain when he’d confronted it trapped in the ice.  Its eyes had flashed and fluttered and reflected back the pain he had felt and carried, amplifying it into a blind killing rage.  It had felt so good to stab something, anything.  To vent the horror and pain that had come to live within his soul.  It occupied his heart and mind.  He could not explain why he harbored so much rage.  Why he could not connect with others in any meaningful way.  His mind had grown dark with clouded thoughts of violence.  The violence he felt, demanded access to him.  It expressed itself in ways that might have disturbed him, back when his father was alive and had not been deployed into that stupid desert country full of towel-heads and idiots who covered their women and probably romanced their camels.  It angered him to think that his father ever wanted to help liberate such backward stupid people, who were raised to behave no better than animals.  If the One loved such animals, then He was stupid too.  Why couldn’t they just bomb those idiots back into oblivion and be done with the whole stupid war?  When he was old enough, he couldn’t wait to join up and bring some payback to whoever “The Wolf Pack” was.

His time in the Mid-World was only mental training for what would come in his real life.  If he could survive these nightmares, he could survive becoming the nightmare for those for whom his hatred had been reserved and seasoned and matured like fermenting wine in a dusty bottle.  His pent-up rage, expressing his fury behind a rapidly bucking automatic weapon would be pure ambrosia.  He would paint their greasy and stinking Arab bodies with bright red flowers.  He would cut their throats out with his K-Bar graphite blade, honed and sharp.  Their women’s ululation cries would shriek well into the night and become music to his ears.  They would finally know the pain he felt and lived with every day since that time the dark military car pulled up to the curb in front of their southwestern suburban home.

Seven years, his father had been gone.  Seven years of upheaval in his life.  Seven years since they moved to Texas from Minnesota.  He hated Texas.  The long, hot summers had been almost unbearable those first few years, but the memory of the cold deaths made them bearable.  His father had died in both places.  The Surface World and in the Mid-World, though, it happened first in the Mid-World.  Back when he still could read his father’s letters and prayed each night to the One that his father might make it safely home.  A prayer that had been denied.  A prayer that had only reached deaf ears.  This seed of anger and pain in his heart had become a garden of rage twisted briers and thorns.  How could the One love him this way?  O’Brian and his quotes from the Ancient Text made him so angry.  Will gritted his teeth, as the tears continued to spill from his clenched eyes and burn his cheeks with the cold.  Where was he?

Will’s eyes popped open with a start.  How long had he been down?  How long had he laid there on the surface of the lake?  Where were the others?  Where was the Moon Sprite he had been pursuing?  Was it dead?  The spear had stuck in its hide and the thongs had pulled him along with it as it crawled free of the ice hole that had held it.  It had bled that silver stuff and smeared the surface of the ice with it.  He had been pulled off of his feet and slipped into that mess and it had set him afire.  Strange now that there was no trace of it or of the Moon Sprite.  A foggy mist had spread across the ice and he could barely see more than five feet in front of him.  He figured he must’ve lost the spear, which was not good.  Not good at all.  He looked around him carefully, tracking for signs.  And then he saw it.  Footprints.  Two pairs from the looks of it, but even now the prints were fading.  Whoever had come by here had not stopped for long.  Perhaps they had believed him to be dead.  He couldn’t be sure.  With the footprints fading as they were in the frost, the tracks had to be fresh, so he reasoned that whoever made them couldn’t be that far ahead.  But the absence of the silver blood puzzled him.  There had been a lot of it, to have just vanished.  Perhaps the ice crystals that were skittering across the lake had covered it over, the same as they were even now filling in the footprints.  This misty fog was annoying and disorienting.  It was just low enough where he could barely see over the top of it, but it was building and massing and soon he would not be able to see anything.

His ears burned with the cold and wet, and there was an annoying sort of ringing and throbbing noise that he could not clear his head of.  And suddenly, the ringing noise became clearer.  It wasn’t ringing that he was hearing.  It was dozens of screeching noises, trilling with a liquid sounding gurgle.  The fog ahead of him seemed to bounce, somehow, as if it pulsed with some distant light.  Whatever was happening, it was just ahead of him.  He turned away, scanning the rising forests around him forming the Trathorn Falls basin.  He noticed the ledge where they had first observed the Manticore from a small bluff and break in the trees.  He scanned to the left of that trying to find the direction of the shoreline where the others waited for them with the wagon.  Perhaps if he could get a quick read and bearing, and fix upon a certain point, he might make it back to the shore before the fog made it impossible to see anything.  He had put a short sword behind his shoulders, between his shoulder blades, but too late found that it was an impractical place for drawing the blade out of its scabbard.  Because of this, he wasn’t entirely unarmed, but it would take some doing to get out of the trussed straps he’d put his arms through.  He started forward, towards what his best approximation was for the bank where the others were waiting.  He believed it to be somewhere between the two large fir trees, but he wasn’t certain.  He cursed himself for not paying more attention to those details before he had set out with the others.  He tried to keep his eyes on the tops of those trees, but the fog kept rising making it difficult.  If he could just go in a straight line he knew he would eventually reach the shore.  But the fog seemed to work against him.  If his eyes were not playing tricks on him this sinister fog must be.  In almost every direction he looked ahead and down the fog seemed to be flashing with ghostly silver light.

***

“Ease her down gently,” Christie admonished as Matt and James positioned Maeven upon the trough of the sled.

Begglar, Nell and Dominic helped to hold the sled steady so that it would not slip out from under Maeven until they had her secured.

Four of the others of the company had joined them on the ice, brandishing weapons suited to their body type and skill level, as they had learned from Ezra during their time in Azragoth.

They had yet to give their names, but one was the young woman who had rallied support and commitment to seeing this quest through.  Now there, standing armed and ready to guard Maeven against unknown dangers as she was conveyed across the lake to the falls, these four added courage and action to that commitment.

The others remained on the shoreline, guarding the supplies, anxiously waiting for the return of the company.  This journey to uncover the “lost stories” and finally reach the fabled land of Excavatia and somehow navigate through and survive the onset of civil war threatening these lands would afford many other opportunities for them to demonstrate their courage and commitment to this quest, so there was no judgment levied at those who chose to remain on terra firma.  Their times and battles would come.  Besides, if this seeming fool’s errand should fail, there would either need to be someone left to continue the quest or someone to come to rescue us all.

***

Mason and I watched as the young snapping Moon Sprites poured out of the fog, pursuing us at our heels.  We scrambled backward, slipping and sliding on the sloped surface flash frozen by the mysterious pearl.  Trying to gain the edge of the clenched jaws of the falls, we jabbed at the ice using our weapons as ski poles to keep from losing ground.  In moments we were finally able to catch hold of an ice flow column, gain purchase and pivot in between the blue-white ice colonnades into the dank wet darkness.  The narrow crevices between the columns of ice gave us some respite from the onrushing creatures.  If they were to reach us, they would have to wriggle into these narrow gaps, and we would fight them in a line rather than in a mass surge.

I tossed the spear to Mason, who set down his bow with his left hand and caught it mid shaft in his right.

“Jab at them as they come in.  Skewer as many as you can,” I directed, as I gathered the sash of the honor sword around my wrist and tugged at the sheathed hilt.

“I’ve got a better idea,” Mason said, “Look up there.”

He gestured upward toward the ceiling of the ice, and a frosted cornice of icy daggers poised above and before us.

Their points gleamed sharply and dangerously in the blue half-light.

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“Good idea.  Let’s do it.”

We both swiped at the ceiling.  Mason jabbed the spearpoint upward wedging it between the rocky ceiling into a space along the icy sheet-edge, a suspended arsenal of daggers and cleaver blades.  I quickly realized that his method would be far more effective than mine, so I unwrapped the sash, sheathed my blade and joined him in the pulling and prizing with the spear.  The narrow slits where he and I slipped in behind the frozen falls flashed with strobe-light, as the Moon Sprites found the chutes and lunged into them.  Mason and I pulled harder and more desperately on the shaft, until finally we heard a cracking noise, and felt the weight of the ice release its bat-clawed hold on the rocky ceiling and come crashing downward.  Icy spears stabbed, clanked and thunked into the rocky floor, piercing and crushing and burying several angry Moon Sprites as they poured into the grotto.  Silver blood jetted outward, as the creatures twisted and writhed angrily, snapping at the air, even as the white fire in their silver eyes faded to black.

About five or six Moon Sprites extended out of the tunnel, their bodies pummeled and stabbed and cut by the ice.  We could not hazard a guess on how many more had been trapped in the gap, but we knew there would be more outside, still looking for ways to get in.  We moved toward the few that still squirmed and put them out of their misery with blade and point.  What little there was of the remaining light was poor and dim, a translucent bluish glow that hardly gave us any comfort, knowing that the others may still find another crevice between the rigid columns.

The noise of the collapsing cornice and the tinkle and clink of the ice seemed to linger and echo in the cave space behind us.  So focused had we been, that we had failed to notice that from within the cave, there was a bubbling noise, like a great cauldron of boiling soup suspended over an open fire.  Drips and trickles of drizzled water fell into standing water upon high notes that echoed and reverberated throughout the caves beneath the falls.  The recesses had seemed dark and ominous at first, but there was a change in the quality of the darkness.  Deeper within, something pulsed with a strange light, briefly illuminating the cavern walls about twenty feet away from us.

Without a doubt in my mind, I knew this must be what Maeven had spoken of before.  The Ghost Pools.

***

Will could hear the slushing noises as several things moved and flickered around him, coupled with odd gurgling sounds, and the sawing of snow grit being sloughed over the ice surface below his feet.  The fog had thickened, and he could barely see but a few feet beyond him.  His heart raced, and his breath came out of him in smoky chuffs, as his eyes darted this way and that.  Paranoia threatened the edge of his thoughts and would soon win its campaign of panic.  He should run but wasn’t sure where, or what would happen if he stumbled.  He tried to remember the way the lake was before that strange pearl had caused it to freeze over.  It had been the edge of the evening when they first came out onto the surface, following the mysterious track of the pearl and the strange beasts stalking the scorched Manticore.  What time was it now?  He could not tell.  The fog blinded him even to the sky and the shadowy tree line he had once seen in the distance.  Where were the others?!  He scowled, angry at the thought.  They’d left him to die.  That was what he suspected.  The footprints he’d seen had passed him.  He’d thought he saw them gathered around the spot where he lay, but he couldn’t be too sure.  Those could just as easily had been his own footprints.  But no.  They had proceeded on into the fog ahead of him.  He hadn’t gone that far.  They had left him.  He was certain of it.  The others didn’t care about him.  They would just have assumed he was dead.  His jaw clenched in anger, the rage within him swirling and swimming to the surface.

‘But what about the others?’ he thought.  ‘My supposed friends!’

‘They let me go out alone.  Didn’t even care to help.’  He knew their names.  They’d given him theirs, and like a fool, he’d given them his.  Trust.

He’d also given his to Mr. O’Brian, but he’d been reluctant to do so, but despite that, something had felt right about it.  Perhaps it was something about Mr. O’Brian that had reminded him of his dad.  Though the similarities annoyed him, they also strangely comforted him.  A dichotomy.

His so-called friends did not like Mr. O’Brian.  They distrusted him, and said so privately on many occasions, but offered no specific reasons why.  Just a vague sense that he wasn’t up to the job of leadership and didn’t know where he was going and quite possibly was putting them all in danger.  There was no Excavatia.  It was only the stuff of legends, told to children to get them to go to sleep.  Adults grew out of that belief.  Mr. O’Brian was a fool.  ‘Perhaps he was’, Will thought, ‘but so was his father.’  And his father was now dead.  This Mid-World had held nothing for him, since the death of his father, so he had quit believing in it, and the dreams had eventually ceased.  He had not thought about the Mid-World for many years until one night he did and had fallen asleep with those thoughts in his mind and had found himself here once again.  Waking up on a beach.  Finding others gathering there having come through the portal themselves.  Disoriented by the trip, but curious about where they were and why they were here and why they each held an unlit torch.

More noises came across the ice.  This time the sounds of sloughing were louder, and the crunch and crackle were more pronounced.  Glowing light danced with phosphorescence upon the mist.  Whatever had been stalking him was getting too close, and Will, now lacking the spear he had set out with, drew out a wicked looking kukri knife.  These creatures would pay dearly for following him.

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Blind Sighted – Chapter 38

The sinister silhouette tumbled, writhed and slithered toward us.  A Lovecraftian nightmare, all too real and all too dangerous for us to ignore.  We slowed our pace realizing that these things would be upon us in seconds and our weapons were woefully inadequate to defend us from the threat.  We had to get out of the fog.  We couldn’t fight what we could not see.  The young Moon Sprites were angry and hungry.  By whatever means of sensory function they had, we knew they would find us and savage us.  Equipped with hard black beaks, clacking and snapping wildly, each creature could bite and torque, twisting off gobbets of flesh.  These creatures worked in a frenzy, often causing victims to die from blood loss or shock, rather than from deeply wounded trauma.  Their white and silver bodies made wet slapping noises as they surged through the fog, and we backed away, struggling not to lose balance, but they were coming upon us very fast.

“We’re gonna die!” I heard Mason say as he tried to turn and run.

On any other day, I would have agreed with him and made tracks, but the sight and thought of those creatures getting the upper hand, and Maeven bleeding to death and this mission ending here did not sit well with me.  It made me angry and defiant.  “Not today, we’re not!”

“What’re you gonna do?”

“You ever pole-vaulted?”

“On ice?!”

“We have the spear and a bow.  Not much time and not much choice.  We either move away and get caught in the fog, or toward them and over them.  They’ll never expect it.  We deal with the cow sprite, and then the children.  Decide fast.”

“You’re putting this on me?!”

“Just asking you if you’ll join me in the attempt.”

They were almost upon us when I saw Mason nod and look me in the eye, “Let’s do this.”

I angled the point of the spear downward, just above the ice.  I had hoped when we vaulted to drive the tip into the ice without busting through while simultaneously pulling my body weight up by grasping one of the leather throwing thongs at the back of the spear.  We only needed to clear three feet in height and six feet in length.  Not a particularly difficult vault but running on snow and ice made it that much more of a feat.

Maeven’s recurve longbow was more than just a projectile firing weapon.  Its pointed wing tips where the woven string stretched tautly, called nocks, were capped with metal spurs, making the weapon versatile and useful as a brandishing weapon as well.  Its thickly curved staff and strong wood made Mason’s vault attempt with the bow not as improbable as it might have seemed.  The arced bows tapering from the grip to the upper and lower limbs were as thick as ram’s horns but vested with kinetic power.  Mason held his bow at the ready, the metal-tipped nock poised to gouge the ice.  Mason gripped the thick riser of the bow above the sight ready to pivot his weight over the bow.

The mad rush came almost at once.  Mason and I drove our instruments into the ice sheet and lept forward.

A slush of ice and writhing white eels passed under us as we left our feet.  Mason’s bow bent and it almost seemed as if it would give way, but its spring and power actually launched his body forward.

Much farther than I had expected.

Mason landed hard on the ice a good seven or eight feet, easily sliding past the last of the young Moon Sprites, but forward towards the waiting cow, sprawled at the base of the falls.  Mason spun, freeing his bow tip from the ice gouge and rolling upward with one leg extended for balance and one knee on the ice for counterbalance.

My effort was not so graceful.  The spear point jabbed into the ice, and I swung my legs forward, attempting to extend my reach as far as possible.  The toe of my shoe caught one of the bounding Moon Sprites in an enthusiastic leap forward, kicking it spinning backward towards its matron, snapping wildly at the air, before landing with a wet thud on the ice.  My feet hit the ground not more than six inches from the tail of one of the straggler Moon Sprites, following the pack, and lunging forward to catch us.

Presently eyeless, yet with two flaring gill-like slits beyond the black beak, the one I missed stepping on, snapped from side to side, sensing motion and perceiving a scent of me somewhere close.  The water from the falls had frozen in layers, creating a smooth, barely perceptible slope downward towards the river outlet at the far side of the lake.  The momentum of these creatures drove them forward, and the slight slope encouraged their progress, albeit temporarily in the opposite direction of where Mason and I were now positioned.

Mason had drawn from his slung quiver, notched an arrow and let fly, piercing the hide of the cow sprite beyond.

My spear point had been driven into the ice, and partially punctured and splintered the ice sheet so that water poured out of the cut and fissure from beneath.  One young and angry Moon Sprite wriggled to my left, barely visible beneath the fog.  Ahead, the cow sprite, glared at me with angry, flashing eyes, the light from which was beginning to make me feel disoriented and slightly nauseous.  These were working in concert, for the Moon Sprite adult threatened to make me swoon, while the young one slithered hungrily towards me, its short nostril slits flaring.  I buckled to my knees, that strobing light pulsing into my temples until my head throbbed with pain.  That little brat sprite would chew my cheeks out and crawl down my throat to eat me from the inside.  A terrible thought, with the certainty of it, somehow planted into my brain and conveyed through those pulsing eyes of the adult.  Pure black hatred and evil pulling me into despair and toward oblivion.

Mason saw me slump over onto the ice, saw the wriggling young Moon Sprite nearly upon me, and responded by putting an arrow right through a silver eye of the matron Moon Sprite adult, driving the shaft deep into its skull.  The cow’s other eye fluttered, flashed once more, and then went completely black.

Something happened with the young Moon Sprite at that moment as well.  It was almost on top of me when suddenly it paused.  Its back arched and it whipped its head downward toward its matron, lying still on the ice, one eye jet black and opaque, the other eye gushing silver around the feathered shaft of a buried arrow.

My head buzzed with a ringing noise, a tinnitus that sounded insectile, and made my skin crawl and itch, but it was diminishing by degree.  As my head began to clear I realized I was down and there was at least one remaining Moon Sprite too close for me to be anywhere prone.  I flailed for the honor sword, panicked when I could not find it, but then realized that the pulling to my left, indicated that the scabbard was beneath me and tugging on my belt.  I rolled to my right, hoping that I was rolling away from the Moon Sprite, and groggily made my way to my knees.  The Moon Sprite was still to my left, its head raised up on an arched neck, its nostrils flaring, and two darkening spots appearing upwards behind its clacking beak.  Suddenly the darkening spots blinked, and reappeared, with the faint glow of silver on them.  Eyes.  The young one had just been given eyes with the death of its matron.  I don’t know how I knew this, but I was certain of it.  That little mouthy white slug was about to be able to see us.

But not if I could help it.

My hand found the hilt of the honor sword and I drew it forth with a metallic wring, catching the sash and winding it as quickly as I dared.  The blade began to scintillate, and the foggy mists began to clear away from the blade, bringing that remaining Moon Sprite into relief.

I lunged with a sharp slash, partially cleaving its head from its body, sweeping it into the air like a limp dishrag.

And then we both heard it.

The sound of the other Moon Sprites turning back and heading our way.  Wet slaps, splashing and screeching noises, clicking and clacking black beaks, falling upon one another to get back up the slope and tear us apart.

From the far right and behind us, something else moved swiftly our way, with the sound a steel marble might make as it is rolled across the surface of a wooden table.

The Pearl.

Something was happening with the Pearl.

***

Far across the lake, where our company of travelers waited along the shoreline, a mist was rising off the lakebed, making the progress of our fellow fighters difficult to discern.  More and more of our company were beginning to arm themselves, preparing to join us out on the ice.

Shadowed in dappled moonlight and mist, the travelers murmured as they scanned the frosty surface, noting a figuring growing more solid as it approached at a run.

Begglar stood along the shore leaning upon a quarterstaff with brass caps on the ends, serving as both a walking staff and a bludgeoning weapon.  Begglar watched the approaching figure, noticing his gait and the shifting of its body weight as it ran toward them.

“It be a male,” he muttered under his breath.

“Dominic?” Nell asked, hopefully.

“T’isn’t he,” Begglar sighed.

Nell made a slight high-pitched but soft sound in her throat, revealing her degree of worry.

“Begglar!” the voice came between breathy panting ahead of the runner out of the rising mists.

“Aye!” Begglar hailed him, “Here lad!”

The figure came angling toward their location, catching his breath as the others reached for him and guided him up onto the shore.  He sank down panting, clearly winded from the run through the frosts.

When he finally gathered himself together his first word caused them some puzzlement.

“Sugar,” he said, “Do you have any?”

Nell looked from the young man, up to Begglar who shrugged, and they squatted down to him, trying to understand the question.

“Why do ya want sugar, lad?”

“I need to know if you have any in the supplies.  Christie asked for it.  They’re bringing Maeven.  She’s been hurt and Christie needed sugar for some reason.”

“Aye,” he nodded, rising back up with the staff to aid him, “I’ll see to it.”

“Tell us about the others, son,” Nell pressed, “O’Brian, James and Dominic, and the other boys.  What’s happened to them.  Are they coming?”

“Dominic and James are helping Christie to bring Maeven to shore.  They should be here soon.  They others…” he trailed off.

“Out with it, lad,” Nelled asked more urgently, “what’s happened to the others?”

“They’re still out there…fighting those weird creatures…,” he took in another ragged breath, “O’Brian and Mason went to find Will.  He went off towards the falls.  O’Brian told us to go on and attend to Maeven.  There is a fifth one they went after.”

A young girl, Mira, by name, announced the approach of Christie, James and Dominic carefully carrying Maeven in an odd sort of way.  “There they are!” she cried, almost weeping with joy, to see their shadowy shapes emerge from the mist.

Three other men and four women rushed out to help gather them in towards the shore.

“We were so worried about you all,” one exclaimed.  “What took you guys so long?” another asked.

“That was a foolish thing to do!” another groused.  “Let us help you there,” another offered.

But Christie ignored them, attending to her patient, careful not to let the dressing become displaced, assisting Dominic to keep Maeven’s torso beneath the wound, baring part of the load herself.  As she came, she called to Nell and Begglar, “She’s lost a lot of blood.  Did you find the sugar?  We need to start a fire quickly.  I need the wood ash.  The sugar will help but only to form a paste and some antiseptic benefit, but ash would work better.”

Begglar handed her a ceramic jar, with a metal clasp that he twisted open, as they lay Maeven down on a bed of grass near the bank.  “Sugar,” he said, “I keep potash from the campfires also.  I think it will suit your needs.”

He turned and headed back to the wagon.

Christie began to unpack the Maeven’s wound and wipe some of the blood away from the edges of the gash.  She gently shook the thick granules of sugar into the wound which dissolved into the pooling blood but caked a little along the descending edges forming a kind of viscous paste.

Maeven moaned and murmured something that was not quite intelligible, but Christie continued working to spread the sugary paste along the sides and edges of the wound, while the others, who could bear to looked on.

Begglar returned with the ashes in a wooden staved bucket with a wire handle and metal strip bands binding it together.  He set the bucket down next to Christie, and put a metal scoop inside.  Christie nodded to him and then scooped the ash, sprinkling it generously into the wound.  James knelt beside her, holding Maeven’s hand, stroking her forehead to keep her calm.  Christie smiled to herself, noticing James’ particular gentleness and attention towards Maeven.  She wondered but said nothing.  She busied herself with unfastening the tourniquet to see if her ministrations had made any difference.  Maeven’s disorientation disturbed her and she hoped it did not signify that she had gone fully into hypovolemic shock.  The white grayish ash in the wound reddened into a pinkish color but appeared to have staunched the bleeding for now.  How much blood had she lost?  One and a half liters, maybe two.  Dangerous in either case.

Maeven muttered again, trying hard to say a word and strange phrase she had been repeating since they had lifted her off of the ice.

“Pulls.  Take me.”

Christie and James had thought that Maeven was indicated that they were pulling her too hard as they were carrying her, but even now, laying upon the ground she kept groggily insisting with the repeated phrase, “Pulls.  Take me.  Siloam.  Take me.  Remember Bethseda.”

It didn’t make sense, but Nell bent down to hear her this time, holding her other hand.

“Pulls.  Take me.  Siloam.  Bethseda.”

Something about those last two worlds seemed oddly familiar to her, and then Nell’s eyes widened.

“We’ve got to get her back out there.”

Christie jerked her head up, as did James and the others focusing on Nell.

“Didn’t you hear her?”

The others stared, blankly, the words seemed nonsensical but vaguely familiar as if they stood on the far edge of memory.

“Siloam.  Bethseda.  The healing pools under the waterfall.”

James’ jaw dropped.  “Of course.  Both were names of pools where figures in the story of the Ancient Texts received supernatural healing.  The Pool of Siloam, where the One has sent a blind man to wash and receive his sight, by following instruction.  The Pool of Bethseda, said to have been stirred by the angels of Heaven with remarkable healing properties.”

Begglar and Nell nodded and urged the others to assist them to bring Maeven back towards the wagon.  On the underside, beneath the planked bed of the wagon, Begglar pulled two wooden staves outward and lowered a small sled bound to the underside down to the ground.

“What is this?” Christie queried.

“It is a sled, lassie,” he offered, as if that answered everything, “We all travel through snow country.  Our buckboards come with a sled underneath in case we ever got stranded in impassable snow with supplies that we could not leave behind.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Have ya naught been listenin’?” he shook his head in exasperation, “We’ve got ta take her back out there.  The falls are frozen now.  There’s finally a chance ta get inta tha Ghost Pools, after all these years.”

“What does that have to do with Maeven?!  We’ve just got her to shore.  I’ve treated her wound.  She needs to rest and recover.  We’re not taking her back out there.  Those creatures on the ice nearly killed us.  She doesn’t need to be in this!”

Begglar put his hands on his hips.  Being of portly girth, it looked almost comical as he stood, glaring down at Christie, with her insistence, and he with his sureness that this idea of mystical pools offered Maeven something more than her medical expertise could offer.  “Like it or no, lassie.  Maeven’s requesting the Ghost Pools, and we’re deliverin’ her there.  Ya can stand aside, or be goin’ with us, but we’re takin’ her there.”

Christie clenched and unclenched her fists, ready to smack Begglar into the forthcoming week, but she saw a determination in his eyes that she had not seen before now.  Begglar had done everything she had asked of him.  Produced the sugar, brought forth the ash, and she could not afford to resist him at this point, should Maeven get any worse.  She had done all she knew to do.  Maeven was now in the Hands of Providence, and Begglar and Nell, who had known Maeven far longer than she had, and had much more of a history to their friendship, deserved the chance to try to participate in saving Maeven as well, however, misguided it might seem to her.  Perhaps Maeven could sleep on the sled as they dragged her back across the lake.  At least she might cease straining herself if she felt they were taking action on her strange requests.

***

Out on the surface of the lake, the four Moon Sprites hung slouched over the ice, slumped into the pockets where they had been slain.  No silver mercurial blood splattered or marked their death.  A gathering of frost encrusted their bodies, as the wind picked up over the surface of the lake.  Their hoary heads, once full of writhing white tentacles with black beaks on the end, were now devoid of those writing limbs.  Marks of worm-like northern passages in the snow were rapidly covered and swept by the wind, erasing all traces of the trek of the surviving Moon Sprite brood.

Four adult Moon Sprites had perished in a semi-circular ring out on the lake, as they had moved in to kill the Manticore that had foolishly entered their waters.  Now, these dead adults would be avenged, by nearly sixty of their hellish progeny, all slithering silently under the lake mists towards the Falls.

Each of this new brood had something they had lacked while attached to their matrons in each nest.

Each of these writhing, disgusting creatures now had an individual pair of flashing silver eyes than made their approach across the frozen lake look like the onrushing charges of a lightning storm.

Born of Water, Born of Fire – Chapter 37

“How is she?” James asked, upon arriving where Christie knelt by Maeven.

Christie leaned back, rubbing her hands on her thighs trying to get the numbness out and the blood flowing.

“Well,” she sighed, “The bleeding’s stopped thanks to the tourniquet.  Her wound is packed temporarily.  The ice has reduced the swelling around the wound and the blood vessels have shrunk impeding the flow from the gash.  I need to take that tourniquet off, but every time I try it, the blood starts flowing again.  Something’s preventing her blood from clotting.  Something was injected into her.  An anticoagulant.  She’s lost a lot of blood, and I can’t risk her bleeding out any more.  She’s too anemic.  I need to get her off the ice, but right now it is the only thing, besides the tourniquet keeping her from exsanguination.  Her options don’t look good.  She is clothed, but prolonged exposure to the ice may cause her to go into shock or be damaged by frostbite or hypothermia.”

Maeven moved her head from side to side, evidently hearing her prognosis, and wanting to say something, but Christie hushed her.

“Sweetie, I know, I know.  Don’t stress yourself.  I need you to calm yourself.  Keep your heart rate down.”

Maeven worked her lips, which were growing more pale and bluish by the moment.

Christie had raised Maeven’s injured leg so that it would be above her heart and perhaps somehow slow the bleeding.  The swiftly applied tourniquet and the packed strips of cloth she’d used to apply pressure and staunch the flow, were the reason Maeven was still alive.  She’d wrapped a piece of her cloak around scrapings from the ice to create a cold compress and shrink the natural swelling.  She had rinsed the wound with water from a wineskin flask and then had cut and used the wineskin as a wound covering to seal it against infection and tied the tourniquet above the wound to hold it in place.

“Can we move her?” Matt asked.

Christie paused a moment in thought.  Then responded, “If we do, I don’t want her heart raised above that wound.  Is there a way James could carry her lower torso since he’s taller?  Perhaps, Dominic, you can catch her under her arms and upper torso?”

The men moved forward to help and Matt asked, “What do you need me to do?”

“Go ahead quickly and ask Begglar and Nell if they have any sugar in the supply wagon?”

“Sugar?”

“Yeah, you heard me.  Now scoot!”

Matt took off shuffling and sliding as fast as he could while Christie supervised the careful lifting of Maeven according to her direction.  She had wondered about the log with the limbs, thinking perhaps it could be used as a travois but she wasn’t sure that Maeven could ride it inverted in her condition.

She’d read somewhere that ash would also staunch a bleeding wound, so if the sugar didn’t work fast enough, she hoped the ash would.  She would hate to have to cauterize the wound with her knives, but if it came to that she knew she would have to muster up the courage to do what was necessary.  Frontier medicine at its best, she mused.  Maeven wouldn’t die on her watch.

Meanwhile, Mason and I knelt beside Will and tried to wake him.  The pearl circulated nearby, rolling in extending gyres, having siphoned off the silver blood from Will’s body pulling the remaining smears for mercurial blood beads along its wake with its strange sort of magnetism.

I have been hesitant to ascribe any sort of sentience to the object, though it seemed to move in deliberate patterns and to be set about on a purpose as if it had some organic awareness within its polished shell.  Its movements were smooth and sweeping, however, and its speed was variegated to its tasks.  I scanned around us, hoping to spot whomever it was that might be controlling it remotely.  I sincerely doubted that this world had developed an RF frequency technology on their own, but since we modern Surface Worlders were roaming these lands, it was possible, however improbable as it seemed to me, that another Surface Worlder, not of our party, might also be roaming these lands independently.  I had never heard of concurrent forays from the outer lands, but I was not privy to all the aspects of this Mid-World and the known portals.  Something else was going on, and I did not know what.

The pearl was still a part of the supernatural world, as it was present in this Mid-World.  Somehow, I could sense that it occupied two different realities in the same instance.  No other creature or object had given me that feeling, but something about this particular object felt special.  A fragment of an Ancient verse came unbidden to my mind.

“..on earth as it is in heaven.  Whatsoever that you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven.”  Matthew 16:19, 18:18

Suddenly this fragment struck me as odd and incongruent with my understanding of the physical and supernatural worlds.  What could possibly need to be bound in heaven.  Wasn’t heaven the throne room of the Almighty?  The realm of dwelling for the angels and supernatural beings surrounding the throne.  No evil could abide in God’s Presence, yet there were by implication somethings that needed binding and to be set loose.  What human action or interaction would possibly affect two realities.  Yet the concept was there.  Nagging at me on the edge of my subconsciousness.

So far, the giant pearl seemed to act and react, in particular, towards the spilled blood of the Moon Sprite creatures.  No, I corrected myself.  That is not entirely true.  It reacted to the blood of the Manticore as well.  Something they all seemed to have in common.

I had no doubt that the bizarre Moon Sprites were solely creatures of the Ether-Natural Between region where the portals connected through to our World.  Though kept from physically entering the Surface World by the Forbidding of the One, these denizens of darkness did have access to the Mid-World of creation’s metaphysical echo, to the extent of the progress of mankind.  I had a sense that the Manticore also was brought together into this weird hybridized creature by passage through the portal gates with contact to a beast of the ancient Surface World.  Both of these strange creatures were in essence creatures birthed within the Ether-Natural and belonged to it.  The residual human part of the Manticore was the only anomaly.  Another verse sprang to my memory:

“6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” [John 3:6 KJV]

Words of the One, spoken to a teacher of the law, by the Giver of the law governing the existence of the universe and all within it.  A key idea.

“5 …”I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.” [John 3:5 NLT]

Of course.  These creatures were brought into being not by birth through water but of fire.  Their blood burned and scorched anyone of flesh who touched it.  The strange Pearl was expunging their fire from this Mid-World.  Cleansing it and cleaning up after the damage done.  Maeven, as a person of the Surface World, the same as anyone of us, had been born both of water and of spirit.  Her blood, though tragically shed by that monster, did not need to be cleansed from the Mid-World because her presence here was not in abhorrence of creation’s ordained order.  She belonged.  But I knew if she were to die as a result, she would make the journey ahead in spirit alone.  Maeven’s presence in this Mid-World was beyond the portal transit, and beyond the transient touches of sleep-awakening.  If Maeven were to die here, she would never again awaken in the Mid-World.

Nell and I had discussed Maeven and her uniqueness regarding the connections to the story she related.  A story of sentient Surface World animals, anthropomorphized.  A distancing of personhood by extension.  Some painful memories dealt with and made sense of by putting types and characters into a place where the reality does not trigger such pain because the characters are projected into animals.  Maeven had a fondness for animals, so it would make sense that she would deal with her traumas by extension.  Nell had said she had lost her husband and children in a tragic accident.  It would certainly make sense why she might want to flee that terrible reality into an existence made possible by this extended Mid-World sojourn.  Her body was in a coma, her brain was active, but her lungs relied on machines to keep oxygen flowing steadily to her brain in twilight.  Nell had said that Begglar had returned to the Surface World to find out about Maeven and had found her in hospital.  I had wondered how Begglar had located Maeven in the Surface World, knowing only her first name, but it seems that her first name was particularly uncommon.  Less than 1,639 according to the census bureau statistical probability and of the 327.8 million people in the United States alone there was only 1.  Maeven was unique not only in name, but precious to us as a valued and trusted friend.  We could not let her leave us so soon.  Like her story, her life was still unfinished, no matter how much distance she tried to put between herself and her waking life in the Surface World, I could not let her depart without having done all we could do in our power to preserve her life here.  She had lost a lot of blood.  The Manticore’s sting had bite and had drawn some of her life’s blood away from her.  Christie was a very competent and resourceful nurse, one could easily see that, but what was needed was some kind of miracle intervention.  And oddly, I believed that dealing with these quasi-supernatural beings and dispatching them back to their Ether World domain, would benefit Maeven’s precarious condition in some way.

Will appeared to be clear of the silvered blood, except for his ankle which hobbled him in pain.  From what I could gather, this was how the scenario had played out.  Will was unsuccessful in killing the Moon Sprite and only succeeded in causing it to escape from the ice pocket holding it and crawl out onto the surface.  Will went after it, was wounded in the attempt, but still managed to wound the Moon Sprite as well.  His spear lodged into the tail flank of the Moon Sprite as it slid and slithered in a side to side motion across the ice, headed toward the frozen waterfalls.  Silver blood smeared and flowed from its wound and Will stepped and slid in it, while attempting to pursue the creature.  The tether that allowed the spear thrower to pull the spear back, pulled him off his feet and dragged him after the creature in flight.  The substance got on his shoes and splashed onto an exposed ankle causing him to fall and writhe and wretch in pain, such that he could not walk or focus on anything else.  From the circular grooves surrounding Will, I surmised that the giant Pearl moved around him, attempting to alleviate Will’s pain, but either Will was oblivious to it, or distrustful of its intent, refusing to allow it to get near him while he curled around his pain, moaning and weeping in agony.  Only when he had passed out, was the Pearl able to move in and draw the silver off of his cloak, as we had witness upon our arrival.

With the realization of what the Pearl was effectively doing as it pertained to the fire born creatures, there was only one other application that I could think of relating to the Pearl that might make the difference for Maeven.  But we were at the mercy of the intentions driving the Pearls actions.  We had to follow the Pearl and allow it to complete its purposes, before we could retrieve it again and bring it to service Maeven’s wounds.

The Pearl oscillated nearby, clearly waiting for some development with Will’s condition, before it moved ahead to pursue the remaining Moon Sprite into the log fog leading up to the frozen falls in the distance.

“We’re going to have to hold him down, Mason.”

“What do you mean?”

“We need to let the Pearl take the remaining silver blood from his ankle, but Will may fight us.”

Mason knelt down, and I joined him in a crouch.

The Pearl had cleared the smeared silver from the ground and we were able to approach Will without the possibility of getting more of that stinging silver on us.

“He’s not gonna know what we’re doing if he comes to.  He’ll try to fight us, thinking we are the Moon Sprite.”

Mason nodded, “I’ll get a good grip on him.  Let’s do this.”

So, effectively, we pounced on Will.  And, as predicted, he came to, bucking and thrashing at us in blind panic.  We pinned his arms, and Mason struggled to keep his legs from kicking until finally he was forced to throw his body weight upon him and stun and wind him for a moment.

Will’s legs went rigid for about a half second and the Pearl raced forward into that space of time and bounced against his exposed ankle like a silver ball to a bumper in a classic pinball machine.  A sleeve of silver, seemed to peel away from the ankle, with threads of silver trailing.  Evidently more of the blood had moved up within his pants leg as he lay thrashing about in the wake of the Moon Sprite.  Angry red welts were left by the peeling away, but I knew in time they would heal.  The silver blood resolved itself into the pearl’s shimmering surface, winding the streaming strands like twine into a growing ball.  Will would be alright, so Mason and I pulled back and rolled off of Will, allowing him to breathe and recover, while we continued our pursuit of the Moon Sprite.

Already the Pearl was rolling away from us, seeming to meander from the left to the right, but tracing the side to side trail of silver on the bloody trail of the Moon Sprite.

Mason picked up his bow, notched an arrow and I snatched up Will’s fallen spear now cleansed of the silver blood.

I wound the draw back tethers between my knuckles, knowing that these might be necessary if a short throw or jab missed its mark.  The hard-edged fin on the bull Moon Sprite had effectively deflected and blocked James’ attempts to face off with the beast using his halberd, and I had no illusions that this cow with both fins freed, now that she was on the surface of the ice, might just as easily thwart my attempts to get in a good piercing shot through its thick hide.

We headed forward into the mist, seeing the great icy teeth of the falls just ahead, and a cleft opening within the ice curtains showing the cave opening beyond it.

Maeven had said the caverns behind the waterfall had been sealed off years ago, but the gap ahead of us, between the ice daggers, offered us a way inside them that was not possible before.

I also knew, if the Pearl were to leave the surface of the Trathorn Basin lake, that brief doorway would close again in an instant under the force of thousands of pounds of falling ice and water.  We had to be quick or Will, Maeven, Christie, Dominic, James and Matthew would find themselves suddenly out in the middle of a frosty lake of melting ice and might drown before they could reach the shore.

We loped and shuffled forward, the mists and fog growing thicker around our feet.  Mason kept pace with me, but allowed me to move slightly ahead of him, as he was growing more and more uneasy as the fog grew increasingly dense.  It appeared as if we were wading through a sea of clouds and I almost remarked upon it to help distract Mason from his increasing dread that we might step blindly into a break in the ice and fall through.  Only the urgency of Maeven’s declining condition and the sense of time rapidly sifting away compelled me to move forward as quickly as we were without as much caution as I should have had.

Ahead, just a few feet shy of the edge of the jagged teeth of the Falls, the white and silver hump back of the fifth Moon Sprite islanded out of the fog with a silver gash that sparkled in the bluish light.  We heard the sound of wet slapping and a sort of barking, gagging noise that sounded odd, as the hump undulated through the smoky sea.  The grit of ice flakes made crunching sounds under our feet as we shuffle walked forward towards the heaving silver back, but we suddenly noticed a new and disturbing mix of sounds beyond the noise of our foot falls.  Ss-ss, Ss-ss, SS-ss noises, all in succession, like that of a bow saw, pulled and thrust across an ice log.

When next the Moon Sprite rose, we caught sight of its strobing eyes, flashing like an emergency beacon, sending flashes of light into the low fog, and back-lighting the writhing, shadowy tumble of dozens of young, serpentine Moon Sprites flopping and slithering across the frozen surface, headed our way.  The strobing flashes of light were diminishing in intensity, and the cow Moon Sprite’s head was devoid of it unique living crown of hair.

 

Pleading the Fifth – Chapter 36

I watched as Mason made his way carefully across the ice, scanning its surface for weak spots.  A brisk wind swept across the lake surface, which would normally have caused rippling and eddying, but now only caused a haze of stinging ice crystals to swirl and gust and bounce along the frozen top.  Mason’s clothes flapped with what I knew would be a painfully cold chill since he’d gotten wet as well.  I saw him stagger for a moment until the strength of the wind abated, and then lean forward into it and trudge on.  Such a determined young man.

In a few moments, I saw Matt get up and join him and together they began pulling the large log back toward us over the ice.  This had better work, I thought.  These last few moments alone had told me all I needed to know about Matthew, Mason, and James regarding our shared quest.  They were men of character that could be counted on when things went south.  Just the sort we needed if we were to survive this together.

A few minutes more, and Mason and Matthew arrived towing the log behind them with a hand on a branch and their weapons in their other free hands.

“We gonna ram it?” Matt asked as they dragged it up to me.

“Something like that.  This thing cannot respond to an attack on more than one front, and we cannot risk getting too close to jab, hack or punch at it, as long as it has that free arm loose.”

“So, what do you want us to do?” Mason asked.

“Bring it around from behind.  James’ll keep it distracted from the front.  Dominic and I can feint and jab at it from the wings, and you two can push the log and ram it cross-wise from the rear.”

“And there’s this,” Matt added, showing me that he had picked up Maeven’s bow and arrows from the ice and had slung the quiver and bowstring behind his back.

“Excellent,” I praised him for his foresight, “How good are you with a bow?”

“Passable,” he shrugged, “Mason’s a tad better.”

“Then you’d better let Mason have the bow.  Wouldn’t want a miss to shoot into one of us if we are encircling this beast.  Do you have a preferred weapon?”

Matt pulled the cudgel with the studded mace head on the end from his belt.

“I figure this will do,” he tapped the upper handle with an open palm and gripped the lower handle with a fist, “Works like a baseball bat.  Right?”

“Just about, though you’ll want to give the end a quick torque twist as you land your blow.  Let the studded end do its damage without getting it hung up in the meat of your enemy.”

He wrinkled his nose and guffawed, slightly amazed at how matter-of-fact I was in speaking of an assault.

“It’ll do that?”

“You bet,” I told him, “so hold back a little for the twist and release.  These weapons may seem simple, but they are tools that need an artisan’s appreciation to wield them.  A hang-up with a mace or mattox or battle-ax can cost you your life.  Come into your attack always with some form of an exit strategy and pull away.  Get a sense of your strike path and the way to get clear of it.”

“What if I throw it?”

“Then you need a backup weapon because you’d better count on losing it.  This isn’t like in the movies.  Here even the heroes miss their mark, get tired, beaten or deceived and made a fool of.”

“So how do we get close enough to hit it?” Mason asked.

“That’s what the log is for.  You ram it against the ice.  Pin it from the back so it cannot spin around to meet your charge head-on and then you press your attack.”

“I hope it works,” Matt grinned.

“Yeah, me too,” I answered back.

Mason traded the bow and quiver sling with Matt, for his battle-ax/war hammer combo weapon.

“Don’t shoot me now,” Matt teased Mason, as he notched an arrow to the string, getting a feel for its tension, before sliding the arrow back into the quiver sling.

Mason narrowed his eyes at the slight, and growled, “Just don’t go getting in the way, Mr. Pin Cushion.”

“Guys, you wanna focus here?  Maeven hasn’t much time.  The sooner we get this over with the better.”

They grabbed either side of the log and began to slide it off and around to the far west side of the bull Moon Sprite, just 45 feet ahead of us.

“Dominic,” I called out to him, and he turned his head briefly and then faced the Moon Spite again, dodging its swinging arm assault.

“See, if you can move out to the east side of James.  I’ll fill this position and attack it from this angle.  James, keep its focus on your halberd there.  I believe it views you as its greatest threat right now.”

Dominic nodded and then fell back a few paces and crossed behind James to move from the left side to the right, causing the creature’s strobing eyes to shift towards their movement.”

It was just enough to allow Matt and Mason, to shift out of the creature’s field of vision and move the log behind the creature and get into position without being glared down.  I moved forward into the assault position that Dominic had vacated, as soon as the young men were fully behind the raging Moon Sprite.

I unsheathed the Honor Sword, and carefully wound the bloodline sash to my wrist and forearm, my eyes roving the icy surface just beyond the creature, searching for a glimpse of the present progress and whereabouts of the mysterious giant pearl.  My momentary distraction almost cost me my head.

I felt the whoosh and breeze of the monster’s hard blunted limb pass just below my chin, mere inches from catching the point of my chin, wrenching my neck and knock my head with a blow that would have snapped my spine.

Distraction in a battle was a killer, I knew that, but stupid me, though seasoned in conflict, was still susceptible to it.

I brought my blade up, noticed its crackling blue sheen, and the way it seemed to move through the air with something like a double-exposure smear, as I circulated my hands and acclimated to its waft and weight once again.  I wondered if I could call upon the verses of the Ancient Text again to enhance our arsenal against this Moon Sprite, but I wasn’t quite sure if this creature was a denizen of the Mid-World or an Ether-Natural from the crossing gates.  I whispered a prayer, for either circumstance, knowing that ultimately, this battle was in the hands of the One.

James’s blade clanged and scraped at the Moon Sprite’s hard forearm as if he had been striking a metal pipe fence.  I could tell he was growing tired, and his arms were slackening with each assault and pull back.  If James were not relieved soon, he would collapse from exhaustion.  My skill with a halberd was adequate, but I did not have near the upper body strength that James had to wield it effectively.  On the other hand, however, Dominic, who had been a farm hand and was used to chores around the Inn, from the time that he could walk until now, did have a stout body and perhaps would last longer with the halberd than I, as it had proven itself to be the most effective weapon against these sea creatures.  I focused once again on the Moon Sprites lashing forearm as it came around for another pass, having glanced off of James’ parry.  Rather than meeting the hard metal-like leading edge, I dipped my blade underneath it, and thrust upward, meeting with somewhat softer flesh and shaving my blade along it.  The creature bellowed as the honor sword peeled its inner skin back and exposed the ligature, gristle, and muscle that allowed its limb to flex outward.  A spray of silver misted the beast and bathed it in the metallic blood.  An “Ahhhh” noise came from its mouth as its breath was sucked in through its barbed forest of teeth.  I used that instance to get James’ attention.

“James!” I called over, “switch weapons with Dominic and fall back.  You need a break.  You’re winded.”

“Dominic, can you handle a halberd?”

The men did not look like they wanted to surrender or give up their positions, but their bodies told another story.

“Better do it soon, guys,” I added as I saw Matt and Mason dig their feet into the ice and get ready to pull the log in from behind.

Reluctantly, James let his halberd blade dip and then slowly descend to the ice, as Dominic moved in and pitched the maced cudgel toward him handle first.  James caught it in his free hand and swept the staff end outward so that Dominic to take it from him.  Dominic shifted and crossed in front of James, holding the halberd in a warding, two-handed grip, his lower hand edging upward to the middle of the shaft to find the balance shift sweet spot.

James shook out the stiffness in his arms, as he let fall the mace head and caught the end of the shaft.  With his other hand, he slipped the leather thong strap over his wrist, as if he had handled one of these before.  Fanning out his finger he let loose of the handle and caught the edge of the grip as the slack in the thong lessened and opened wider, reducing the twist in the strap.  He shook his arms relieving the tension and knotting in the muscles.

The Moon Sprite had drawn its wounded limb up and back away but was preparing for another slash.  We could see the threat of it in its bunched-up shoulder muscles and its throbbing arterial veins, the enraged flashes strobing from its eyes, its teeth champing in savage bites, its belly rising and falling like a bellows.

“Oh crap!” James exclaimed, “Get back.  Its gonna…”

Dominic, James and I began to run for distance or cover even before James could finish.  The churning and bellow’s like motion told us what was about to happen, and there was no way or time for me to warn the two boys pushing the incoming log towards the back of the beast at an increasing speed.

About the very moment that the large log crashing into the creature’s back, is when a black explosion of oily, slimy, and acidic pieces of rot and half-consumed chunks of fish and other things best not guessed upon erupted from the vile maw of the creature, spewing that steamy filth across the ice.

We had turned away from it, but the odor that followed and misted off of it in steamy clouds was putrid, vile and sulfurous.  The stench alone could cause a man to pass out, and we slid and scrambled as far away from it as we possibly could get.

Mason and Matt, we thankful out of the line of fire, and were not affected by the projectile assault, but instead rained down a version of their own with a vengeance.  Two arrows lodged into the white fish-belly pale hide of its back, with a Thwock! Thwock! sound and a pop as if some internal air bladder had been punctured.  The creature reared its head backward, the log impeding its ability to turn as Matt launched upward from the log, the war hammer/battle-ax in one hand and the mace-cudgel in the other.  His strikes came down with such force on the top of the Moon Sprite that there was an audible crack sound that echoed across the lake as they met their mark.  The creature’s eyes flared, and its jaws involuntarily closed with a violence, clipping off a piece of its own tongue.  It slouched and sank downward, its large mass lolling forward onto the ice.  The bull Moon Sprite was dead.

James, Dominic and I let out a collective breath none of us knew the other ones had been holding.  Vaporous steam poured from our mouths as we rose slowly to our feet, the black gelatinous and lumpy puddle fanned out before us.

And then we heard Matt start screaming.

We were on our feet and running around the blackness within seconds, rounding the perimeter of the kill zone, and arcing to rush to Matt’s aid.  He had slid down from behind the monster but was covered in scalding silver blood.

I scanned the ice field, looking again for the whereabouts of the giant pearl.  The dark grey of the ice shone with patches of white sheers.  Granules of ice beads bounced and swirled in the night air, but I could not see…

There is was.

A line of bluish, phosphorescent dust, cast powdery flakes of white into the air as the orb rolled towards us, leaving that plowed furrow on either side of it to mark its path.  Matt clung to the log, his knuckles white, and a sheen of silver streaking his neck, cheek, and forehead.  He’d released both weapons when they became embedded into the head of the beast, and they now stuck, handles upward like a pair of spiked horns from its slumped cranium, silver spray gushing from the two mortal wounds.  We tried to get Matt to release his grip on the log to be able to pull him away from the silver flood from the monster, but he held to it like a vise.  Mason, thinking quickly, began to tug the east end of the log backward, to get it to pivot away from the back of the dead Moon Sprite and in so doing pull Matt away from it as well.  Recognizing the wisdom of the move, we joined Mason and were able to pull the log and Matt far enough back from the dead creature that the silver no longer rained down on him.

The pearl arrived just in time and drove a clearing path right into the thickest pool of silver, seeming to suck the mercurial liquid back into itself.  We stepped back from Matt, as the orb arced around from the cleared pool, following the smears of silver that Matt’s pulled body had left on the ice.  The pearl silvered in a mottled white and black reflective sheen, as it gathered into itself all evidence of the violence leading up to this moment.  Finally, it approached Matt’s body, bumping and nudging it gently, as streams of silver, traveled in living rivulets off of his body and face and arms and chest, easing the burning and calming him down with each pass.  Matt’s hands still bore fleck of silver, but they were lifted upward, and his grip was fastened to the twisted branch of the large log.

“Matt,” I called out to him, trying to get his attention.  His eyes were clenched shut, and his breathing was coming in short gasps.  He was hyperventilating, and terrified, and unaware of what was happening beyond the pain he was feeling.  He did not notice that the silver had left the rest of his body, but his clenched fists still registered the intense burning he felt in his hands.

“Matthew,” I said in a gentler, calmer voice, “Let go of the tree.  It cannot take the burning stains from your hands if you don’t let it touch you.”

Tears flowed from the corners of Matt’s eyes, as he continued to clutch tightly to the tree.  Through clenched teeth, I heard him say, “I can’t.  I can’t.”

I approached him along with James, Dominic, and Mason, and we placed our hands on Matt, seeking to soothe him and let him know we were there for him.

“Matt,” Mason said, “Let us help you, you knucklehead.”

I saw a smile creep into the corners of James and Dominic’s expressions and I am sure that something of the kind was present on my own countenance.

“Matt, the Pearl can clean it off you, but you have to let it touch your skin.  You have to trust us.”

“It burns,” Matt said barely above a whisper.

“I know it does.  This blood is unnatural.  No telling what else it might do to you.  That is why you need to release your grip and touch the Pearl.”

“You need to get me to a doctor or a hospital,” Matt said taking in shallow breaths, still adamantly clinging to the branch.

James chimed in, “In case you didn’t notice it, son.  We are a long way from normal experiences and civilization.  You’re going to have to trust in and rely on the only forms of medicine they have here.  But that is not gonna happen until you release that branch.”

“It hurts,” he said, and another tear spilled down his cheek, squeezed out from his tightly shut eyes.

“Have a little faith, Matt,” Dominic added, “We’re not gonna let ya down, now are we?”

Matt slightly opened his eyes, blinking and disoriented, and through tear waited for his vision to clear.

He saw us knelt around him, reassuring him, our looks of concern, compassion, and empathy apparent in our faces.  All focused on him.  All pulling for him.  Brothers-in-arms.

And then he softened his grip on the branch and unfolded his hands in supplication, tears still flowing down his cheeks.

His palms bore angry red welts, with a crooked line of silver searing into his flesh, zig-zagging around his wrists and knuckles like a running tattooed series of lightning strikes, jagged and twisted.  His knuckles swelled in a rheumatoid arthritis fashion as if they had become larger by three times their normal size.

The giant pearl oscillated below, waiting in that wobbling fashion as it had done for me.

Matt’s eyes shifted downward, following our gaze and was startled to see the spinning and wobbling giant pearl so close to him, that he started to move away from it.  But we placed our hands on his shoulder reassuringly.

“Go ahead.  Offer it your hands and see what happens.”

Matt looked at us with uncertainty, but then extended his hands, setting them to rest upon its smooth and softly glowing surface.  We watch the look on his face change from trepidation, to a slight sleepiness to awe and wonder, as we knew it would.  Matt felt the cooling, soothing effects from the Pearl, as I had, and I knew everything was going to be alright with him.  Finally, he lifted his hands from the globe, and the Pearl suddenly turned, shot through the gap in my kneeling legs and rolled away from us, picking up speed as it went.

Matt turned the palms of his hands upward, and marveled, seeing only renewed pink flesh, with no evidence that the silver burning has occurred.

We all stood to our feet and turned once again to where Maeven lay attended by Christie in the distance.

I could not fathom all that had just happened and knew I would need many days to process it all, but one thing still disturbed me about this mysterious pearl.

Why had it not seemed to help Maeven.  What was going on with it?  Did we need to get her back on land before we could help her and use the Pearl in some way to make her better?  I just didn’t know.  How much additional blood had she lost while we were fighting the five…..?

I paused.  Realization hit me like a steel hammer.

There had been five of these Moon Sprites when we’d entered the lake.  We had killed one upon entering the killing ring, where the Moon Sprites has stalked the Manticore into the center of the lake.  We had dealt with the Manticore where Maeven had received her injury, and from there we had moved clockwise to the west killing two more female Moon Sprite nesters and then the bull.  The fifth one was missing.  We could see it nowhere else on the lake where it had been, forming part of the circling hunt ring.  Had it gone under?  Was it even now stalking us from below the ice?

“What is it?” Matt asked, seeing me pause and turnabout as if looking for my own shadow.

“There were five of these, weren’t there?”

James stared at me, the realization coming swiftly to his mind as well.

Mason, reached back behind his shoulder and drew out an arrow from his quiver, notching it to the string and then holding its arrow pointed shaft with thumb and forefinger to the guide.  His draw arm flexed, adding tension to the arrow, ready for whatever might be coming at us next.

“Where’s Will?  Has anyone seen, Will?”

When we’d last seen him, he’d been standing by when we’d confronted the first Moon Sprite.  He’d come with us onto the ice, bearing a short spear, with a long leaf-shaped blade on a metal shaft fastened to a five-foot ash pole.  A very effective weapon which would have been very helpful in dealing death from a short distance.  Two leather straps were bound to a capped end ring.  The thongs were double-wrapped through so that the bearer could gather the loose strap ends in a throwing fist, adding thrust strength into a throw, with the possibility of drawing the shaft back, in case the throw missed its intended mark.  If I had to guess, I believed that the whereabouts of Will might, in some way, be connected with the disappearance of the fifth Moon Sprite.  Together we scanned the surface of the lake, looking for any sign of Will and the Moon Sprite in the approximate distance where we last saw the creature.  White powdered dust swirled in twists and eddies, gusting across the frosted landscape.  The moonlight dimmed behind silver clouds, making it difficult to see for very far.

“There he is,” Mason pointed.  We turned toward the far end, in the area where the massive and icy columns and chandeliers of spiked frozen water poured in a stilled cascade down the edge of the cliffside.  Trathorn Falls’ frozen teeth.

A figure sat slumped on the ice.  From the distance, it did not look good.  But, we had to be sure.

“Mason, come with me,  Bring the bow.”

I turned to James, and Matt and Dominic.

“We’ll go check it out,” I cleared my throat.  The chill and ice grit was making it raw, and my ears stung with the cold.  “Go help Christie get Maeven to shore.  Matt and Dom, there must’ve been a good reason Maeven wanted us to bring that log, so I need you guys to drag it back to where Maeven is.  See what she wanted with it.  Keep her as calm as you can.”

James nodded, and Matt said, “I’m on it.”

As we temporarily parted ways, I joined Mason and we shuffled and loped towards the slumped figure in the distance.

The figure was not clear, a mere shaded lump of dark along the surface of the ice, diffused by the moonlight gilded fog rising off the cold surface.

“What do you think he was up to?” Mason asked as we shuffled along, careful not to fall.

“I don’t think he was particularly happy being teased about the AK-47 gun, with the first one, so perhaps he thought he had something to prove going alone against the fifth one.”

“What a dumb thing to do,” Mason opined.

I concurred.  “He did not know anything about these creatures.  It was foolish and impulsive.  But I think there is something else going on with him too.  Something he is trying to prove to himself.”

“Well, he acts like he’s got a chip on his shoulder.  Thinks he’s better than us,” Mason volunteered.

“I suspect there is more to it than that.  People who act superior tend to do so because deep down they feel inferior and it frustrates them and makes them feel angry and ashamed of themselves.  They act out by rejecting and bullying others before others are given the chance to reject them.  Human nature.  It doesn’t help them feel any better, it just is how they vent.  The sad thing is, what they desire most is acceptance and validation, true friendship, but their actions just drive people away.”

Mason nodded, more to himself than to me and we continued onward as he mulled that over.

We walked for some time, the image in the distance growing sharper, and some noise issuing from its general direction.

“Where do you think that other Moon Sprite is?” Mason asked.

“I dunno,” I shrugged, scanning the surface of the ice for any indication.

“Do you think it might be under us?”

I noticed Mason’s voice getting slightly higher, a tell-tale indication that fear threatened to make him regret making this trek with me.

“If this ice is thick enough for us to walk on, that means it will be harder for anything underneath to break through it without a very hard head and some fairly good momentum.”

“Could there be more than just the five?”

“That possibility has crossed my mind.”

Mason was silent and growing more and more uneasy.  After a few yards more, Mason asked, “Why do you think, Maeven wanted us to bring that log?”

I had a feeling I knew why but was reluctant to tell Mason about it because I could sense he was already very nervous about what we had been through putting down the Moon Sprites and what might be ahead of us with the “last” one.  I was especially reluctant, after his prior question, but I sensed that if I answered evasively, I would miss the opportunity to further gain his trust.  So, I answered honestly.

“I believe the log is related to why Maeven was so desperate for me not to try to pick up the pearl just yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it.  The lake flash froze the very second the pearl rolled down and touched the water.”

I let that implication linger.

“So, if you pick it up…?”

“Yeah.”

“And the log?”

“Flotation in case we found ourselves in the middle of the lake and had trouble swimming back to shore.”

“And if there were more than five…” he paused, the implication dawning on him.

Coupled with the admission before that he couldn’t swim, it seemed that Mason had risked the most coming out onto the lake with us, which made his following me now much more of a sign of faith and courage than I had had time to consider.

“You’re a brave young man, Mason.  You know that?”

Mason nodded as if he had not heard a word I said but was just responding as if he had.

“Right now, I am feeling pretty stupid too.  I came out to help, but I can’t swim, and I can’t help remembering…” He turned to me, “In the Surface World, did you ever see the movie Jaws?  That part at the end where the two men were floating back to shore hanging onto the yellow plastic barrels after the great white shark had sunk their boat?”

“Yeah, long ago.  That movie was made before you were born.  When did you see it?”

“Oh, it was on television one day.  My friends and I watched it eating bags of chips and salsa, pretending we were sharks.  Stuff kids do, y’know?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I always thought that movie would have ended better if suddenly a large fin would have surface behind the two men as they were joking and talking while floating back to the shore.  That perhaps the shark they thought they’d killed wasn’t dead after all.  Then let the scene go black to leave people wondering.  That thought gave me nightmares later, and I was never able to forget it.  That is about how I feel now about floating on that log back to shore.”

“Now you’ve got me rattled, thanks Kiddo!”

I saw him smile, and I knew he was going to be fine.  We’d shared something—a certain honest vulnerability—and somehow, I knew that the trust between us had deepened.  I hadn’t teased him.  I’d listened to him with no judgment and no shame in the weakness and fear he felt comfortable enough to share with me in confidence, and out of that gratitude built a bridge between us.  I saw resolve firm up his jaw, and his eyes narrow as he faced the distant figure ahead and the angry fanged mouth of the frozen falls beyond.  Mason had owned his fears and was even now preparing to face them head-on.  What a remarkable young man, I thought to myself.

The slumped figure was indeed Will.  He lay curled in smears and streaks of silver.  Apparently, he had passed out.

The shimmer and sheen of the metallic ribbons and spatter caused his cloak to glisten, but the bare skin of his body did not appear, at first, to be exposed to the substance.  His head was cowled with his cloak, so his face was partially protected from smears on the ice, but his ankle had been bared and silver blood evidently had spattered his skin crippling him.  His spear lay on the ice, its throwing thong straps twisted.  It appeared that the Moon Sprite had escaped its hold in the ice and that Will had landed his shot, had followed in pursuit, but had been dragged several feet before the spear became dislodged.  The point of the spear was engorged in silver as was the shaft, and the Giant Pearl was even now in the process of siphoning up the blood, moving in sweeping passes with a fury.

The smeared path extended in a zig-zagging fashion ahead towards the teeth of the Falls.  A frothy low fog enveloped the signs of its passage a mere twenty feet ahead, but there was no doubt in my mind.  The fifth Moon Sprite was still alive and waiting for us just ahead.

The Purling – Chapter 35

Maeven’s cry was only a muted, “Umph!”  More like a cough of pain than a shriek.   A spritz of blood spattered the ice surface around the puncture point where the Manticore’s barbed telson broke through.  The hard carapace vesicle and sting bard stabbed upward entering the back side of Maeven’s thigh, just above the bend in the knee.  Blood gushed from the wound but was being sucked up by the stinging barb’s hollow tube.

One of the young men dove for her, as the thrust of the barb, lifted Maeven off her feet into the air.  James responded to the assault, swinging the halberd downward into a swinging arc.  The young man slammed into Maeven as she rose up on the point.  The collision caused her to cry out in agony, not because of the impact, but because the barb in the flesh under her leg was wrenched in the wound and tore at the flesh in her muscle.  The force of the blow and tackle, however, did dislodge the barb and propelled them off of its savage point and out of reach of the bloody jabs of the tail.  James’ halberd swept underneath Maeven and the young man, the curved axe blade, striking one of the bellows-like spiracles of the tail at a joint, cutting into it with an explosive spray of blood and gore, cracking the carapace, driving with force into the knuckle joint with a loud crunch, and cleaving it through.  The severed tail slung across the ice, flexing and spraying bright red arterial blood from the stump, spasming and wrenching as if the severed limb was still part of the Manticore’s submerged body, and stabbing angrily.

The Manticore’s face shifted in the seconds that followed, from savage delight and cruel euphoria as it fed upon Maeven’s blood, to shock and pain as it felt its limb’s dismemberment.  In those moments, my Honor Sword flashed, and I slashed at the torso of the Manticore, opening its chest with my cut, the creatures own blood spraying me with its wounding and matting its brown shaggy mane with dark red.  The attack and response all happened within a matter of seconds, barely time for us to think through our actions.  The Manticore’s powerful forearms with long black razor-sharp claws were beneath the surface of the ice, having no way to slash at us with its death throes, but the Manticore’s face pulled once again into that disturbing smile, as its eyes shone with hatred glared at me as it slumped forward.  I noticed the feathered shaft of an arrow bristling from the Manticore’s shoulder as the muscles in the creatures proud and arrogant neck surrendered to death’s call.  Evidently, Maeven had gotten off a shot from her bow, within the attack as well.  The human face, bearded and burned, turned one last time, its extended jaw working, its fanged mouth, dripping with its own blood, drooling out onto its chin.  It was trying to say something.  Cautiously, I approach it, straining to hear what it struggled to say before surrendering to Death’s shadow.

“Cay…Caylub.  I remembered you from before, Bry-un.  We took your Caylub.  His death…was marvelous…” a smile spread across its bloodied lips as the life faded from its eyes into a blank stare, its tongue lolled and then hung from its slacked jaw.  The Manticore was dead.  It’s mention of “Caleb” a last parting shot into a private wound I did not share with the others.  Though I did not recognize this Manticore before, changed as it was by the burns and scarring, I remembered it now…from before.  A breathy shudder escaped my lips, as I looked upward and over to Maeven, lying on her side on the ice, the young man, trying to staunch the gush of her blood from the back of her leg.

Christie, who I knew to be a nurse in her Surface World life, approached them, tearing loose a strip of material from the cloak she wore.

“You’ll need to get a tourniquet on that.  She’s losing too much blood.”

James and the other young man, seeing that Maeven was being attended and that they would just be in the way, set out across the ice towards the other four Moon Sprites, now shrieking angrily, at our intrusion, struggling to get at the body of the Manticore that they fully intended to eat.  They seemed to smell the blood spilled and became even more agitated and excited by it.  Their savage thrusts might soon free them from the pockets of ice that now held them.  Both James and I realized this and we were determined to end that threat as well.  I approached Maeven and the courageous young man that had acted decisively in that moment of danger, as Christie and the young man were beginning to tie and tighten the tourniquet around Maeven’s leg, pressing a wadded cloth into the puncture wounds.  Maeven moaned, he body numbing with shock.

“Will she be okay?”

Christie glanced up, her eyes fixed on mine for a moment, and then back down to her ministrations with Maeven.

“The ice helps, but she’s lost a lot of blood.  I don’t know.  We’ve got to get it to stop.  To clot soon or she’ll bleed out.”

I looked to the young man.

“That was a very courageous thing you did for her.  Thank you.”

“Matthew.”

“What?”

“My name is Matthew, but I go by Matt,” he responded, still holding the compress to Maeven’s wound as it continued to saturate with her blood, “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be connected to this place by giving my name, but now I am sure, Mr. O’Brian.  You can count on me.  I’m in.  I want to find this place you spoke of, this Excavatia.  We’ve got to give these people hope.  I’m joining this fight.  Just let me know what you need me to do.”

“You’re doing it right now, Matt.  Thank you.”

He nodded, and I proceeded towards James and the other young man.  Dominic was coming across the ice in a steady shuffle to help as well, carrying a mace cudgel.

We angled towards the shrieking Moon Sprites.  From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the giant pearl stilling rolling in an arced gyre, but it was becoming stained in the blood that had sprayed upon the ice, its opalescent surface now bathed in a pinkish hue.  The continued chill arising from frosted surface made the wet blood freeze into a pink slush.  The pearl continued to roll into a wider gyre expanding to the areas where we’d dispatched the first Moon Sprite.  As it rolled near it, the surface of the pearl took on a silvery patina, its surface gathering the Sprite’s mercurial blood as well and mingling it with the red of Maeven’s and the Manticore’s blood.  The pearl was responding and somehow mystically and magnetically drawn towards blood.  Amazing.

I realized that I had halted halfway across towards the remaining Moon Sprites.  James and the others would need our help of the Moon Sprites managed to dislodge their tentacle-shaped young to flee the assault.  These could slither across the surface and escape into the surrounding forest.  Those of our company waiting along the shoreline, might not be able to intercept these in time, especially if they did not know to expect something much smaller than they had observed together from the distance.  The shoreline was not even along the bank.  Parts of it were bordered by great grey boulders that formed a rocky shoulder, not easily crossed.  Other areas were reedy and grassy, seeming to blend in with shore, making it unclear where these creatures might make landfall.  The frost extended to the shore, but in irregular cuts and short shoals, clutter with broken limbs and blanketing ferns.  The ice crystalline chandelier of water arrayed the edge where the waterfall had poured from the heights, forming irregular columns, and ice sickled fangs of water that could cavitate and smash downward, with the slightest thaw.  If at all possible, we needed to ensure that these creatures were contained and dealt with while they were still on the frozen lake.

Maeven did not have much time, though I couldn’t say so within her hearing.  The Manticore’s anti-coagulating agent would retard her blood’s ability to clot, and it depended on how much of it had been injected into her, as to whether it could be staunched before she passed the point of no return and exsanguinated onto the ice.

I was afraid for her, but I could not let that fear incapacitate me.  I had to be doing something for her, for Christie and Matt and the others, to buy them some time to treat her.  We had to neutralize the threat of the Moon Sprites.  Execute them with extreme prejudice, Maeven had said to those left on the bank.  And this coming from a person who was purported to be a veterinarian in her Surface World life.  Not exactly the admonition you might expect from an animal lover.  But these creatures were something other than the animals we knew in the Surface World, and it appeared that Maeven might have come to realize that as well.  I wondered at what kind of experiences she must have had here in the Mid-World with these creatures to have so altered her perspective and nurturing and healing proclivities towards these subsets of the animal kingdom.  But if I did not focus, those Moon Sprites would soon be free and I had no doubt their bodies were more suited to getting quickly across this surface than we were.  A sudden thought crossed my mind as I picked up my shuffling pace towards James and the other boy, as they began to attack another of these Moon Sprite creatures.  We had seen and counted five of them in this particular attack on the Manticore, but what if there were more than these, still trapped under the surface sheet of ice, waiting for us to break through.  I began to run.

Silver splattered the surface, as the second Moon Sprite fell under the assault of James’ halberd blade.  The young man with him held a short-shafted battle-ax.  Evidently, two of the writhing young had freed themselves from the back of the mother-creature’s head and were attempting to slither away across the ice in opposite directions.  The young man was striking at the surface of the ice, trying his best to keep them from getting away from him and heading to the shore.  I called out to him, “You go after that one to the left.  I’ll get this other one.”

He looked up as I spoke and then nodded.

As best and as fast as we could, we pursued the slithering suckers across the ice, trying not to slip and fall.  The creatures were quick.  We chased them, getting further away from the one James had just killed.  Dominic saw us chasing after these and angled towards where James was moving towards the third Moon Sprite so that he could assist him with any that might separate from it.

I focused on catching up to the slithering young Moon Sprite as it flipped and jumped, like a fish out of water, and slithered back and forth, sliding ahead in an erratic pattern that was difficult to follow.  I hoped the other youth was doing better than I was.  Man, I was out of shape.

The Moon Sprite left some sort of slick snail-like substance in spats as it fled like an amniotic flush from its separation.  As slick as the ice was, those dangerous patches promised to be more viscous still and I instinctively avoided them.  My honor sword flashed with a blue scintillation as I swiped at the creature juking to the left and right in front of me.  The tip of my blade grazed it, opening a silver razor line along its side.  It flexed like a coil spring and bounced with a coughing bark from the sting of my blade.

Then I did something that was foolish, especially on such a slippery surface.  I reversed my slash with a force, slinging the blade opposite from the downward arc that had nicked the creature.  This would be a foolish move against an opponent on land because it throws the balance of the one who does it off, and it makes the blade coming up vulnerable to a more powerful down-strike which would cause the wielder to either loose grip on the blade or lose footing and wind up on the ground, susceptible to a forward kick thrust.  The person who attempted it against an armed opponent would find themselves flat on their back staring upward along the shaft of the victor’s blade, its tip pointed at their throat.  The strongest grip of any sword blade is done with the knuckle leading the cut, rather than the top of the hand.  The wrist acts as a shock absorber to the impact of the blade, but the wrist’s range of motion it shorter with an upward tilt and cannot, therefore, recover as easily from the clash, without a turn of the elbow, to deflect the force downward again.

Thankfully, this creature bore no counter striking weapon, and my ill-thought-out move did not prove disastrous.

With the weight shift, I felt my footing slip and pivot.  I knew I was going down and would strike the ice hard with my left shoulder and hip.  It would be only seconds before the creature saw my fall and turned and went for my face with its black beak ready to chew my eyes out.

Miraculously, however, I felt the front tip of my blade hook it underneath.  I felt its weight.  I felt its body lift from the ice and shifted my wrist, so that the edge, rather than the flat bore its weight aloft.  That shift and the momentum I had put into the slash caused it’s cylindrical, coiling body to roll down the razor’s edge and cut the creature partially in half.  The thing fell back down to the ice, the two parts of its body in right angles to each other, silver blood spurting outward from the break.  My body struck the ice with a thud and I slid for about four feet before coming to rest, my cheek blistered red by the biting cold, my shoulder and hip bruised by the ignominious display.  Panting and out of breath I rolled over on my back winded, trying to catch my breath.  I counted a five-beat before rolling back up onto my knees, the soreness in my hip protesting the move.

In the distance I saw the young man who had gone after the other young Moon Sprite, striking downward with his battle-ax, its wedge-shaped blade cutting divots into the ice with each miss.  I found my feet again and shuffled toward him, ready to assist if need be.  As I approached I saw that he had wounded the creature but had yet to kill it.  A small 3-inch piece of its tail lay in a silver puddle flexing involuntarily, yet the greater part of its body had turned upon the young man and was savaging lunging at him, staved off only by the bite of the young man’s war hammer.

“Use the blunt side.  Turn the handle,” I called out to him, “You’ll break up too much of the ice and it’ll escape back into the water below.”

The young man flipped the weapon so that the war hammer side was now the striking surface.  He raised it, poised to thwart another strike from the creature.  The thing was issuing forth some sort of whistling noise and wheeze, its puffing body around its head working like a bellows to give full-throated force to its protest.  Its black hooked beak clack and snapped together as it coiled and gathered for another lunge.  The young man noticed the mica-glint off of two spots on the creatures back and realized this younger one did have eyes.  The sparkling flash was meant to distract him.  It almost worked.  The creature suddenly lunged, its black jaws opened and hyper-extended, with the full intention of satisfying its craving with a large chunk of torn flesh.  The young man reflexively shifted just in time to avoid the bite, and brought his blunt striking hammer down, smashing its head to the ice with an audible crack.  Its head smacked the ice and nearly exploded as the weight of the hammer disintegrated it into silvery pulp.  The two eyes, further back strobed with white fire, pulsing with diminishing intensity until they faded into a dull cataracted glaze.  We stayed there a moment catching our breath, the young man on his knees, his war hammer/battle-ax weapon spattered with silver.  The ice appeared blue under the moonlight.  A scar traced the edge of where the young man knelt, slowly connecting the wedge-shaped gashes where the battle-ax blade had busted the surface.

Seeing this, realizing what was happening, I slowly crouched down onto all fours and spoke calmly, “I am going to need you to carefully give me your hand.  What is your name?”

The young man looked up from the crushed Moon Sprite to me, noticing the change in my behavior.

“What’s going on?”

“Please stay still.  I think the ice has been compromised.  I need you to get your war hammer and to give me your hand.  Stay low.”

He looked behind him perhaps thinking another of these creatures was approaching from behind, but that did not comport with what I was telling him to do.  And then he saw the crack.  His eyes shifted back to me, panic on his face.

“Calm down.  Stay calm.”

“Mason.  My name is Mason.”

“All right then, Mason.  You need to redistribute your weight across the surface of the ice.  Try to flatten out and lie down on your belly.”

He did as I asked, and I laid down on my belly as well extending my hands towards him.

“Extend your hands towards me as far as you can and I will pull you to me.”

Another crack splintered the ice between us and moisture from below splashed a little from the aperture.

Try as we might, our hands were still six to eight inches apart.  I tried to inch my way forward, but the ice below made a strange noise that I knew I could not chance.

“The hammer,” I said, take the hammer by the handle in both hands and extend the blade and punch end towards me.  I’ll pull you across.”

A further bluish cracking noise radiated outward from under Mason, and he whimpered and searched frantically for the battle weapon he had laid aside.

“Slow down,” I soothed, “Make slow even movements.  It will slow the breaking.  We’re gonna get through this, you and I.”

He found the battle ax-hammer and slowing brought it up alongside his body extending it above his head to both hands, his eyes investing hopeful trust in me with each slow movement.  The wedge-shaped blade lay flat on the ice as it was slowly pushed within my reach.  It’s frost-speckled blade and blunt was flecked with silver from the blood of the Moon Sprite.  I reached out touching the cold steel of the war hammer but also feeling a stinging bite from the silver blood that made contact with my bare hands.  The silver blood felt at first like bee stings and then grew hot as searing to my flesh, but I could not let go of the blade and blunt.  I grimaced through the pain and firmed my grip, pulling the young man, Mason, forward towards me.  He was a stout young lad, but I was able to pull him a few inches at first before I began to slide forward towards him.  The blood seemed to scald me the more I touched it, but I could not give up on Mason.  The ice below him was beginning to sheet with a growing layer of water, spilling onto the surface from the cracks in the cuts and breaks.  Mason’s legs were beginning to feel the chill of the water creeping up on him, soaking into the material of his pants.  His eyes pleaded silently with mine.

I rolled upward, bringing my knees up under me like the skis of a sled.  I angled my knees outward and leaned forward using both my arms and my back to arch backward and pull him forward.  Mason’s body slid forward another foot towards me, and I worked my knees and feet further back so that with a rower’s motion I might be able to bring him further forward.  I strained against the weight and the burning throbbing of my hands around the blade and the blunt.

The cracking continued behind Mason, and he closed his eyes as more frigid water swelled around his body as the ice plate upon which he rested sank just a fraction lower.

From my left, I caught movement but was reluctant to turn towards it.  I needed to stay focused on pulling Mason to stronger ice, capable of bearing both of our weight.  I skootched backward again, tugging the ax and Mason another foot more towards me.  A blue fissure appeared between us, its underlying break filling with liquid visible by the bubbling slosh below.  I knew it was only a matter of moments before it caved and broke away, leaving a slushy pool.

My eyes and Mason’s fixed.  He’d seen it and I’d seen it.  There was not much more I could do in such a slow deliberate pace.

“Are you ready?” I asked.

Mason looked again at the swirling blue water, just below the thin veneer upon which he rested.  The cold chill was beginning to burn his legs with claws of frost.  He shivered, his lower lip trembling, as he gave me a barely perceptible nod.

“I don’t know how to swim,” he told me, as I adjusted my burning grip on the ax head and cup-gripped the hammer blunt.

“Then you’d better hold on tight.”

I pivoted up from my knees to my heels leaning slightly backward.

With one mighty pull, I extended my legs and lunged backward, my heels cracking into the ice below my feet.

I pulled Mason up onto my torso catching him in a bear hug.  I felt the edge of the ice give way beneath my feet as our collective center of balance shifted to the upper half of our bodies.  Mason pulled his legs up out of the water further pulling his weigh onto the ice sheet that caught us under my back.  We landed with an unfolded roll, Mason pulled to my chest his legs bend at the knees calves clearing the slushy water.  My feet and calves, however, bent down on the edge of the ice, my feet and calves submerge into the shock and cold jaws of the slushy ice water.

Mason rolled off of me and lay back on the ice gasping for breath.  The wind had gone out of my lungs and I could only draw in air in short rapid gasps.  Mason must’ve realized what was happening, that I was exhibiting signs of shock, and in his quick thinking, he was able to scramble behind me and drag me away from the edge of the break, pulling my wet legs and feet out from under the water.  My body trembled with shivers, as it felt like needles were being sewed into my flesh, and I could only lie there and gape silently like an expiring fish on land.  The underside of Mason’s clothing was wet and dripped frigid water as he rubbed my arms and legs, trying to ensure that my circulation still flowed.  My legs had only been in the water for half a minute and already I was feeling its effect.  I didn’t know much about how Mason’s might be handling it, or how deeply the water had soaked through his clothing layers and down to his bare skin, but I was certain that he couldn’t be feeling much better than I was.

The darkening, violet sky looked bruised above us and striated with ominous clouds edged with silver from the light of the moon.  A heavy cloud bank seemed to settle atop the edge of the frozen waterfall and just linger there in a roiling fog bank.  I leaned over and saw the steady movement that had almost distracted me before.

The pearl.

It was still making progress, rolling across the surface of the lake leaving a shallow furrow in the permafrost as it went.  Its arc circled the places where we had encountered the Moon Sprites, seemed to roll around the spots gathering the variant blood spill onto its polished surface and then progress onward to the next site of strange blood spill.  There was some connection between this mystical pearl and blood that I could not fathom.  Something ethereal and supernatural, in that the pearl seemed to take into itself self and surface, the residue of a conflict and make it part of its coating.  No silver splatter remained from where the carcasses of the Moon Sprites were killed.

Mason and I knew that we had to get moving.  The more still we lay the greater chance that stillness would become permanent.  We had to get our circulation flowing back into our frost-bitten limbs.  To do that we had to get up and walk no matter how bad it felt to do so.

The pearl was getting closer to us and rolling towards our place of conflict with the young Moon Sprite.  It had left the site where I had killed mine and was now coming to our place of conflict.  Mason and I watched as the giant pearl rolled past us and towards the broken slush pool.  We almost dove for it, to prevent it from rolling over the edge and sinking into the break but were unable to catch it.  A low-level crackle of bluish energy seemed to follow in its wake, that we had not noticed before.  When the pearl reached the edge of the lip of ice, it continued out across the slush, the surface hardening once again into a sheet of ice in its wake.  It gyred and swooped around the half-separated body of the Moon Sprite larvae.  For larvae is what it had seemed all along to be, though the apt word for it only came to me now.

Silver blood, added a luster and polish to the pearl’s surface as it circled the fallen creature, its progress seeming to clean the ice of its silver splatter.

The pearl then circled wider and seemed to come towards us.

Not knowing what force, malevolent or otherwise, moved this mysterious pearl we were naturally afraid of its odd behavior.   Mason’s war hammer lay on the ice before us and the Pearl rolled toward it, striking the blade and the blunt hammerhead together with a light pinging noise.  Tiny flecks of silver seemed to slide off of its surface and swim like insects towards the pearl, blending in with its lustrous surface.  The pearl was constantly on the move, never slowing, must making constant progress, as if it was cleaning up the areas, taking into itself the blood lost in each fight.

I didn’t know if it had some sort of vampirical power, or if it was merely obsessed with some ethereal sense of cleanliness.  As it approached me, I drew put forth my sword, rising as best I could onto my legs and being supported by Mason.  The pearl rolled to the pointed tip of my sword and pinged against it, and in amazement, I watched as flecks of silver were drawn down to the tip of the blade and swam onto the patina of its surface.  I descended downward and knelt in awe, at last feeling that this wondrous object could not be reflective of evil, but of something more wonderful than we could imagine.  I knelt to catch it once again and coax it into the pouch in which I had carried it but was stopped by a shouted warning across the ice in the distance.

“No!  Don’t lift it yet.  Leave it on the surface of the lake!”

Maeven had turned and was struggling to get up, but I could tell from the movements of Christie and Matt that they were trying everything that could to advise her against it.  Maeven was weak from the loss of blood, but adamant about my leaving the pearl to its own path along the lake’s frozen surface.

“Don’t lift it without the log being close!” she shouted, her voice echoing and bouncing off the sheet of ice separating us.

Matt and Christie again admonished her and reprimanded her to stay down and lie still, though I was less able to hear their voices than I was Maeven’s.

The Pearl remained in an oscillating circle at my feet, seeming to wait for me to do something, but I did not know what.

There was some reason, Maeven did not want me to lift it, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t supposed to touch it.

I left the bag pouch tied on my belt and put the now cleansed honor sword back into its sheath.  My hands were numb from the cold and the burns, but now as I sank to my knees before the wobbling orb, they began to burn anew and the bones of my fingers felt like they had been run over and set afire.  The palms of my hands swam with silver that was cutting into my flesh but releasing no blood.  I gasped as the pain intensified and my fingertips felt as if the nails had been plucked out of their cuticle beds.  Wince against the pain and almost blinded by it, I reached out for the giant pearl and felt a coolness begin to soothe the fire within them.

“Don’t lift it!” I heard Maeven cry out again, this time lying prone on the ice, her head turned in my direction.

“I won’t,” I answered back hoping to reassure her and allay whatever worries she had should I change my mind.

My hands gently stroked the pearl’s smooth and swirling surface, and I felt the cooling sensation once again, rise up through my fingertips and extend into my forearms.  Something was being drawn out from me, and I realized what was happening as silver threads sprouted outward from my fingertips, swirling and raveling into the complex washes of silver and red and pinkish colors forming a miasma across the pearl’s rounded surface.  Living toxins from the Moon Sprites’ blood were being removed from my body, and from my forearms, and I had had no idea that this was spreading within my bloodstream.

All at once the pearl pulled away from my touch and angled its continual grooved trek across the ice, where Dominic and James were dealing with the last of the Moon Sprites who had surfaced with the coming of the twilight.  I looked at my hands and felt a natural warmth returning to them.  The scalded marks and silver etching was gone, and my palms were smooth and uninjured.  I felt a strength in them that I had not felt before, and I wondered just what had truly transpired between me and the mysterious pearl.

With no further time to lose, Mason and I gathered his battle ax and war hammer and moved across the circle to assist James and Dominic about 60 yards away.  The last Moon Sprite was shrieking with its multiple mouths and raging, sloshing amid a cold pool of water, its ice capture becoming less and less of a certainty.

I wondered if the Pearl Orb had the capacity to heal me if it could also do so with Maeven’s injury.  We needed to dispatch the other Moon Sprite soon and then see what further could be done for her.

In the meantime, we need to deal with the remaining Moon Sprite.  As we approached, the creature appeared bigger than the others, and I suspected that this one was the first one we had seen from the upper ridge.  Unlike the others, this one did not have a writhing brood of tentacle, black-beaked and mouthy children sprouting from the back of its head.  This one did have its own mouth, and it bristled with silver spiked teeth jutting forward and backward, shark-like, ensuring that whatever it clamped its jaws around would not escape those jaws without leaving a significant part of itself in the creature’s mouth.  This Moon Sprite, with its differences, must be the male of the species: the bull, if one were comparing it to its closest Surface World equivalent in shape and girth, a giant white elephant seal.  Even though this one was the male, it did bear about three young ones, and these were affixed like lampreys underneath its lower lip, their silver eyes shining along their upper knobby-head, a portion of their mouth suppurated and siphoned off the morsels falling from the male’s lips.  These were developed further and would most assuredly be able to separate from the parent and set out on their own.  They were thicker than those children affixed to the females of the species, and one might wonder what became of the other larvae like brothers and sisters who did not make it to the chin rest of the male.  My brief wondering was met with a sudden certainty that the reason though disturbing to any human, was that the young were then cannibalized by their family and only those making it to the chin of their father survived into adulthood.  A sinister cycle of life and death, indeed.

James and Dominic were making feints and lunges with their weapons, but the bull Moon Sprite had one fin lined forearm extended out over the ice surface, with a hard, bony surface that appeared like blued metal.  With every swing of James’ halberd, the Moon Sprite raised its forelimb and deflected the blade away, once slamming it to the surface of the ice, and dislodging it from James’ grip.  James was able to retrieve the end of the pole and pull it back into his use, but not before the creature slammed the weapon back down again, drawing James down hard to the ice with it.  A welt of the impact stung and burned James face and shoulder, but dauntless he raised and challenged the Moon Sprite monster again and again.

Mason and I came up behind them, shielding our eyes from the strobic flash of the creature’s eyes.  It was difficult alone fighting such formidable creatures in the daylight but even harder fighting them in the alternating darkness.  One’s eyes could either adapt to the absence of light or the flooding of it.  Under low light, our eyes respond by enlarging the pupil and dilating the iris to allow more light defining definition in to allow us to perceive those things normally hidden within the darkness.  In bright light, our eyes contract the pupil, limiting the excessive light from entering the inner eye, allowing us to still perceive the differences between illuminated shapes and shadow.  With strobing light, however, the eye is unable to adjust so quickly, and the movements of the threat appear to jerk and vanish and reappear as if revealed only between the flash frames of a theater projector.  This gives the mesmerizing beast an advantage over their victim’s color and shade, hue and tint, light and dark natural binary eye adjustment proclivity.  For that purpose, we avoided looking directly at the eyes of these monsters, watching its torso movements and looking for its tells by the way it flexed its tensors.  The creature’s ponderous weight strained and struggled in the clamping of the ice, causing the water beneath it to slosh and spout in sprays from around its body as its muscles contracted and expanded its torso.

I glanced back in the direction of Maeven, Christie, and Matt.  Maeven still lay on the ice and I knew we did not have much time.

We needed some way to distract the creature.  If we got too close it would pull us towards those terrible jaws, or tear us limb from limb and beat the everliving pulp out of us with its powerful forelimb.  Meanwhile, Maeven would bleed out onto the ice.  We had to get back to her, and we had to find a way to use that mysterious Pearl to heal her if we could.  Then, off to the right of where Maeven lay and the dead Manticore sprawled in the ice, I saw something lying there that might just work.

I had no idea what purpose it was intended for in Maeven’s mind, but in my mind, it was just what was needed.   I turned to Mason and told him my plan.  He nodded and set out to retrieve what I had spotted, hoping he could enlist Matthew to join him.

 

The Silvering Surface – Chapter 34

The pearl rolled from my hand, bouncing along the rough patches of grass and stone until it reached the water’s edge.  At the moment the smooth surface of the pearl made contact with the basin water, sudden tendrils shot out from it extending into the water, fanning outward and hardening until it trapped the Manticore and the Moon sprites in mid-swim pincering them in…ice.  The Dust Dragon’s pearl caused the surface of the Trathorn Basin to flash freeze in a matter of seconds.  The shock of the frost took the air out of the Manticore’s lungs so that we heard only a growling gasp, whereas the Moon Sprites with their myriad tentacles mouths wailed in deafening, high-pitched, pulsing, shrieks.

The noises echoed in the canyon and off the crescent stone lip of the spillway, now encrusted with frost and icicles as the water from above rapidly hardened.  The pearl I had released continued to roll unabated across the now smoothing surface of the water, glistening with an opalescent glimmer of moonlight and reflective ambient light that seemed to pulse from within the orb itself.  Wet stones moistened by the water, now wore a thin sheet of ice, reflecting the silver touch of the moonlight.

Maeven cautiously stepped forward and down carefully placing a booted foot on the surface of the frozen lake.  I started to call her back, but she raised her hand to quieten us.  She shifted her weight from the shore to her leading foot and then slightly bounced and shifted back.  No cracks spidered outward from where she’d placed her heel so she shuffled out a little further, bringing her back foot from the shore out onto the surface of the water.  The lake had frozen solid for at least a one-fourth of a foot in depth, maybe more to be able to hold her.  She turned and beckoned to the young men who had pulled the floating log from the lake, to swing it back out onto the surface once again.  They lifted and pivoted it and brought it out towards her, its heavier trunk sliding across the ice with no trouble.  Now five people stood upon the ice, with no sign of weakening, or sloughing.  The ice must have been at least 4-5 inches thick.  Fifty yards out, the first of the Moon Sprites closest to them hissed loudly, their black beaks snapped in angered frustration from the ends of the undulating tendrils.   The creature’s white face was turned facing them, its obsidian eyes pulsing like a silver strobe.

The giant pearl rolled steadily towards the center of the lake, leaving a slight indentation in the frost on the surface, drawing a tracer line from its rolling course.

Maeven turned toward me and the others.

“You coming?”

Hesitantly, we stepped out onto the ice and shuffled towards the others.  It was hard to believe that the surface we were standing on was only moments ago liquid.  We noticed that more of the Moon Sprites were glaring at us, daring us to steal their prey from them, yet ice-bound and in no position to prevent us from doing so.

James started to lay his halberd on the shore and join us, but Maeven told him to bring it.

“I told you that we would have need of your skill,” she said as he came towards her across the ice, using the pole as a staff for balance.  Maeven took her bow from her shoulder, grabbed an arrow from her slung quiver and notched it on the string, her lead hand in a full leather glove, her draw hand with a two-fingered archer’s glove.  She looked over at me as I bared the blade of the honor sword, allowing my wrist a degree of slack in the bloodline sash that bound me to it.

Christie bore a short sword with etched tracery down the blade, a sweeping curve to the edge, like that of an English cutlass, and a gilded cage grip.  As beautiful a piece of weaponry as it was deadly.  The youths dragged the log at Maeven’s bequest, but kept cudgel weapons, ready to hand.  The others, whom Maeven had not called, opted to wait for us along the shore keeping the horses ready and the wagon supplies secured, should we need to beat a hasty retreat.  Maeven instructed them to take up their arms, fan out and whatever they do, be certain to not let anything that wasn’t human leave the lake.  Her words were, “Use whatever means necessary, to execute anything getting past us with extreme prejudice.  If these things go to ground, we’ll never find them again and they will cause problems for us later.”

We turned as one group and began the trek across the frozen lake, following the course of the pearl, avoiding the glaring menace coming from the Moon Sprites.  The Manticore, because of the way the aperture in the ice held it, could not turn to witness our cautious approach.

As we edged our way closer to the captured ring of strange beings we got a better look at one of the Moon Sprites.  Ugly creature.  Its skin was an oily, fish-belly white.  The snapping mouths made gurgling wet sounds in the back of their throats as they lunged at us, seeking vengeful freedom from their host body with the moon eyes.  Its head and neck snapped left and right as the white things writhed and hissed.

“Don’t get close to it,” Maeven warned, “Only James.”

“Me?!”

“Yes, you,” Maeven teased, “You didn’t think I asked you to come out here because of your lanky, good looks, did you?”

We all chuckled, and James blushed a little.

“You want me to kill it?”

“Unless you’d rather keep it as a pet, yeah.” Maeven rejoined, “Somethings here need killing.  Learned that lesson the hard way.”

“How do I…?” It was clear from James’ hesitancy, this was not something he relished or was even accustomed to.

“Didn’t you ever go hunting up in the Surface World?”

“Yeah but what we hunted for you could eat,” James answered, “These thing’s making me hesitant to ever think of eating pasta again.”

Will and the young men had been pulling the large log along with the group, watching carefully for any indication that the weight of it might break through the ice.  They had stopped and were watching the Moon Sprite with some degree of fascination and repulsion.  One of the boys stepped up and offered, “I’ll do it if you think you can’t handle it.”

James shot him an irritated glance and then adjusted his grip on the halberd, steadying himself for bringing it to bear.

“I’ve got this, young’un,” he said, and the boy noted the set of his jaw and the look of determination that came over his face.  He surrendered the offer, raising both hands, palms outward in a push back gesture, “All right, pops.  Knock yourself out.”

“Boys, don’t think you’re getting off that easy,” Maeven countered, “James may kill the bulk of it, but those suckers making all that noise can separate from the head.  You’re not just looking at one Moon Sprite.  That is a living nest of them.”

The boys, for all of their seeming bravado, unconsciously stepped back from the creature.

“Uh, Dominic, I think you should be the one to help, James.”

“Go ahead Will.  Pull out that AK-47 you talked about.  You can take’em,” another said.

But none of them moved.

Maeven sighed and the others chuckled.

“All right, you little heroes,” James jibed, “You’d better get ready quickly, or you’re about to be attacked by these mouthy egg noodles, once I starve carving.  So what’ll it be?  White meat or dark?”

They laughed nervously and reached for their cudgels and striking weapons.

“Remember, guys,” Maeven cautioned, “You’re standing on a sheet of ice.  If one of those slithers off of the mother host, don’t go breaking up the floor with misses.  You’ll need to crack it in the head if you can.  Don’t sissy out on us.”

The young men nodded assent but looked very nervous.

The Moon Sprite arched its back and expelled some kind of vile putrescence onto the ice, almost splattering James with the black, bile-like substance.

“Oh no you did not,” James said, as he reacted with the halberd, rolling the pole and the hooked blade into a deadly arc, and spinning with the blade extended, the pole end tucked into the crux of his arm and elbow.  The flourish did not look like it had done much at first, until a black silver line shown on the torso of the Moon Sprite, and its flesh suddenly burst open spilling a mercurial quicksilver out onto the ice, as the creature’s living dreadlocks fluttered and spasmed.  Gouts of liquid from the wound spilled a silver tide across the ice around the Moon Sprite as it barked in a protestation and rage, eyes strobing with white-hot light.  The mouthed arms flagellated crazily seized in spasms and then hung limply as the Moon Sprite’s larger body slumped over onto the ice, its pulses driving more of its silvery blood outwards until at last, it stilled.  The boys watched the mass of tangles for any additional movement, their cudgels raised and ready.

The large pearl that had rolled ahead of us now cut an arc in its path, almost as if it were being magnetized back towards the Moon Sprite we had just dispatched.  We edged around the black splattered ice that had almost got on James and observed the mirrored mercurial substance as it rippled in the slight wind that was blowing across the surface of the lake.

“Dominic, why don’t you stay with this one and make sure one of those things on its head does suddenly come back to life,” I suggested.  He assented and kept his cudgel at the ready, narrower handle in one hand, its metal shrouded studding cradled in the palm of the other.  “On it.”

The other boys started to follow us further, but Maeven halted them.

“Aren’t you forgetting something, guys?”

“What’s that?”

“The log.  Bring it.”

“What’s it for?”

“You’ll see,” Maeven commanded, not accustomed to having her orders questioned, “now come on.”

The three boys took hold of an extended branch forming a Y fork and continued to pull the tree forward and passed the now dead Moon Sprite.

We approached the Manticore much more cautiously.  It was a large and powerful creature, and it smelled us as we approached, issuing a rumbling, threatening growl.  The ice pressed up against its shoulders, frosting its mane with ice crystals.  A dull thudding came from under the ice beneath our feet.  The beast’s body extended much deeper below the surface into the frigid water.  It was quite possible that with enough determined effort the Manticore would not be held by the ice much longer.  Cognizant of that we rounded the trapped Manticore, giving it a wide berth.  It’s grizzled and bearded face was fire scorched, and its eyes were filled with hatred.  Its expression alternated between a rictus and brow-furrowed, resentful glare.  After watching us a moment, its voice came out in a low rumble.

“You will answer to The Pan for my death.”

I stepped up and addressed it, “You are in no position to threaten us.”  I gestured backward toward the slain Moon Sprite, now being watched over by Dominic.  “In fact, you might consider offering us some degree of gratitude for dealing with one of these creatures that most certainly would have drowned you and fed upon you.”

The Manticore bared its teeth in what I surmised was an attempt to smile in defiant condescension, “These may have tried.”  I decided to try a different tact.

“What is your complaint with the people of Azragoth?”

“Other than the taste of their blood…?”

It was trying to rile me.  To get me to do something angry and foolish so that I might let down my guard.

It was working.  My grip tightened on my honor sword.  A passage from the Ancient Text flashed into my mind, cautioning me to keep it under control.

“8 Stop being angry! Turn from your rage! Do not lose your temper–it only leads to harm. … 12 The wicked plot against the godly; they snarl at them in defiance.” [Psalm 37:8, 12 NLT]

I attempted to settle my rising sense of injustice and my outrage at how this beast so cavalierly referred to our friends in Azragoth as a mere food source.  It was provoking me, and with my nerves raw, that was dangerous both for me and for this creature.  I had to maintain calm and composure.

I exhaled a quiet breath, slowing my breathing to even my pulse rate.  I focused again.

“You can make this difficult or very hard.  What grievance does The Pan have with Azragoth?”

The Manticore’s human face phased through an inscrutable series of expressions but finally answered.  Again that thumping noise from underneath the ice sounded muffled and distant.

“Under what scenario, human, do I get out of this ice and your pride lets me survive this day?”

“I’ll take no pride in killing you if it comes to that.”

The Manticore cocked its head, as if not understanding my reply.  And then his perplexity clarified.  The term he’d used was because of the primary lion component of its makeup.  A lion’s pride was not an attitudinal attribute but its company of lionesses and young male lions.  It was referring to our company, who each carried some form of weapon at the ready.  I glance up at my companions and motioned for them to back away to perhaps allow The Manticore to become more cooperative if that was even possible.  They cautiously stepped back but were wary and I could tell they were worried that this Manticore might deceive me into letting my guard down or getting too close.

It was foolish expecting this creature to express any gratitude for dispatching one of its antagonists, because of the same condition that made The Shibboleth test work on the possible spies in our midst.  Thankfulness was as foreign a concept to these creatures of the cursed crossing as it was to any demonic metaphysical spawn following us out of the portals.  The idea of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ would not work with this creature maddened by the conflict between its dual natures:  The residue of the human soul and the wild, blood-lusting animal nature.

In the next moment, the questioning became a moot point, and I was given a very good reason to kill this beast without further discussion.  The source of that persistent thumping became tragically and abundantly clear.

A shock of pain stabbed through Maeven’s thigh before she even knew she’d been hit.

The Manticore and the Moon Sprites – Chapter 33

Despite the serenity of the scene, we noticed something moving along the edge of the large pool, just below the surface.  A whitish form, roughly oblong in shape, created a pale, cloudy, luminescence below the green surface.  Its sinuous undulating motions created a rippling wake, though no part of it appeared to break the crest of the water.  Other than that, its form was elusive.  More fish-like in motion than animal, yet in the Mid-Worlds, no possibility could be completely ruled out.  If we were to learn any more, we would have to get closer.  And the way ahead must certainly require we pass within a neared proximity, whether we wished to or not.

Additional movement caught our eye, as something large and moving fast came into sight at the far left end of the pool, moving fast down the tree shrouded slope, noisily crashing through underbrush, huffing and rumbling as it slid and skidded downward towards the water’s edge.  Finally, it crashed through the skirting brush and skidding to a stop on the mossy, grassy bank.  Gray smoke feathered steamy tendrils from its tawny back, and its powerful front claws dug into the mud and grass, tearing out great gouts of the embankment, scaring the shoulder as it bounded towards the water.  It was one of the manticores, that had laid siege to Azragoth.  It mewled and growled angrily, its hide blackened and burnt, its great mane singed and matted with melted fur, and fiery welts where the oil and tar continued to smolder and lick its body with fading blue flames.  The hide of its back was red and raw, the fire had peeled it and cauterized the wounds so that they merely wept rather than bled out.  Its face was contorted, disturbing in its partial human and bestial mix, its feral eyes roving for something to take its fury out on, its slack and fanged jaws champing at the misty air from the pounding falls.  It gathered itself, muscular hind legs bunched, front legs and chest lowered nearly to the ground, segmented and scorched tail lashing back and forth in angry whip-like motions, before it sprang into the large green pool with a mighty SPLOSH, water exploding up onto the shore as the weight of the savage creature plunged downward.  The aura of flames, finally doused, the creature surfaced, its wet matted mane plastered against its neck as it paddled to and from allowing the cooling water to soothe its suppurating wounds.  One might have even felt sorry for the creature, had we not known of it capacity for violence and the threat it posed to our friends and us as we travelled further into the interior.  If the beast survived its wounds, it would surely stalk us through the forest and eventually bring us down.  Manticores killed in a very insidious way.  Being part lion, part human and having what appeared to be the insectile tail of a scorpion, they are formidable killing machines, with a singular thirst that drove them to obsession.  The taste and need for blood.  With the mouth of a human, except for the slightly larger mandible, they could not extend their jaw to the extent that an average lion could in the Surface World.  As such, they could not rip and tear such great hunks of meat off a carcass to slake their hunger in the way our great cats could.  But they could drink up the blood of their kills by the gallons.  You might even say they preferred a juice diet.  And that furry, segmented tail, scorpion-like in appearance, actually have two barbed spins at the end of their telson.  One with a hard carapace vesicle with a gland that injects a stunning mix of venom and anti-coagulant, and another sting bard that is a hollow proboscis that jabs into a body and serves as a sucking pipe.  With their mauled victim pinned, the manticore engorges on the blood flowing from the stab wound, with bellows-like spiracles that strengthen the pumping action as their victims are rapidly drained of their life essence.  A manticore may or may not linger to taste the meat of their kill, but these are usually cursory bites in the soft tissue areas, and rarely result in a large-scale stripping of flesh.  If they drag their victims, it is with some difficulty since their do not bear the large jaws of a true giant cat.  To say the least, these are savage creatures, and with full knowledge of what they are capable of and how they go about their kills, makes sympathy for such a rather ridiculous waste of misplaced emotion.  Manticores were a scourge.  A violent and unnatural threat to civilized and domestic creatures, that could barely be contained.  Only The Pan held sway with them, for reasons not fully known to me.

We dismounted and crouched down edging our way to the overlooking ledge, to observe the waterfall and basin below, careful not to be seen or noticed.

From our vantage point, we watched as the manticore swam in the pool, its head skimming and frothing the surface as its submerged legs and torso churned the water below.  Its face was larger than a human man, streaked with soot and scorch marks.  Feral and fierce, its eyes luminous with a yellow scintillation.  If we were able to do so without getting ourselves killed in the attempt, this stray manticore also needed to be put down.  I also wondered, if whatever we had seen moving under the water before had also seen and taken an interest in this creature.  When the manticore entered the water we had been distracted for a moment, but the other unidentified creature that had been swimming near the surface had submerged as if it had never been there.  Some of us wondered aloud if it were possible that the Manticore might have frightened it away.  After a while longer, it appeared that that had been the case.  At least until young Will spotted new and sudden movement in the water.  From several sides at once, the water appears to bunch up and churn with rolling waves.  Evening darkled on the distant horizon, as grey shadows grew to slushy, roadside snowbanks in the sky.  A pale-yellow twilight pulled the rays of the sun across a fading pastel spectrum ending in a mountain-rimmed edge of pink and rose.  As the greying darkness approached, the agitation in the basin waters grew, causing the Manticore to cease its leisurely swim.  Noticing, at last, the rings of concentric waves approach him in advance of an undercurrent of pushed water.  From approximately five sides, the underwater disturbances began to converge on the beast, the presences below causing this still unclear and undefined.

The Manticore, though formidable on land, was out of its element in the water.  It seemed to realize this and began swimming more rapidly back towards the shoreline.  A rising cross wave indicated a shift below the surface, as the submerged creatures moved to cut off its access and drive it back out into deeper water.  The movements suddenly became more pronounced, causing the resulting wave crests to cut across the water’s surface.

Like circling arrows in a decaying gyre, edging ever closer to the swimming manticore, the unidentified creatures were clearly and strategically working in coordination.

The occluded green water began to glow as the evening drew an eyelid of darkness across the basin lake.  White ghostly tendrils, like long pale nimbuses of hair, striated the surface with a milky greenish sort of writhing phosphorescence just below the surface of the water.  From each of the five swimming crests, tracers of light glowed through the water, the light growing more pronounced with the ebbing rays of the fading sun.  From the forest, sparkles of light began to flash from among the darkening leaves and zip about in the air swooping in and out from the edge of the dark wood to the water’s edge and then back into the darkness, as if hesitant to fly across the water of the basin.

The manticore treaded water, fearfully watching the movements of the waves, its ugly, bobbing, head turning this way and that, attempt to gage from which direction the attack might come.  The tiny erratic flying lights from the forest line, distracting it a little, as if these flashes were in league with the water beings below the water.  The gyre began to close on the manticore, their white green hair sweeping behind the crests of the waves as white fin ridges broke the surface of the water in a ghostly paleness.

Maeven had been watching the developments closely, curious to see what kind of beings would dare threaten a manticore and when she saw the fins and the bleached paleness of their skin she thought she knew at last what these could be.

The water rippled as the tendrils, with a bulbous pod shape at each end rose and skated over the surface of the water.  The forms of the beings rose up like submerged manatees, their hides sparkling in wet radiance with an opalescence lunar light.  As evening mastered the day into submission, the rising moon’s light began to glimmer across the basin lake surface.  Somehow its light seemed to embolden the creatures as their torsos broke through the water, revealing these beings to be stranger in appearance than anyone could have imagined.  A white pale head with aquatic, unblinking eyes and no apparent mouth scanned the lake surface, its head a tentacular mass of wet dreadlocks that seemed to each have a volitional movement of their own.  At the end of these tentacles were the pods, each with a tiny mouth with a pale hooked beak.  These then were the mouths that had bitten the carcasses that had been retrieved from the lake.  These were the means upon which the creatures relied to feed their bodies.  Pondering this, I felt my gorge rise as I heard Maeven whisper her conclusion on what these creatures were.

“Moon Sprites,” she muttered, “Once called Gorgons, in the Surface World, in Ancient Greece.  The Medusa was thought to be one of these.  Fearful creatures.  It was believed they could turn a person to stone, but that is a mere myth.  They use a Mesmer technique, their pupils dilate and pulse and appear to swim in their sockets.  It’s hypnotic.  And these things are adept at it.  The glow is a sort of pulsing strobe.  Deep sea fish have this ability.  I’ve seen it in certain jellyfish as well.  An electric shimmer.  They will subdue the manticore if they can and then move in to consume it.  I’ve never seen one of these up close.  And never five of them together.  Something must have drawn them here.  They are typically in saltwater seas.  I’ve never heard of them occupying a waterfall basin pool.”

“Why Moon Sprites,” I asked, “Aren’t sprites supposed to be like fairies or something?  I thought they were also small?”

“These are very old sprite clusters.  Don’t always believe the mythical accounts of them.  The Surface World tends to distort and exaggerate the accounts over time.  Some begin with a grain of truth, but people are prone to add in and embellish.  Especially tales that are old, and the truths of the tales have been lost to antiquity.  With little or no corroborating body of witnesses, and even those being few, the probability of exaggeration becomes more likely.  Especially when some learn that there can be a profit to be had by the telling.”

“So, what are they?” Christie asked.

Maeven indicated the circling water and the white waving tendrils from each of the manatee shaped creatures, “The hair is their feedlings.  Their young.  They are like living umbilicals, only instead of the infants getting fed by their mother, they are the instruments through which their mother feeds.  When they are old enough to separate from the mother host and swim on their own to mature into their own cluster, the mother births another in its place.”

It was rather a fascinating and repulsing notion, alien to Surface World mammalian life, but perhaps in some way akin to some bizarre fish-like or amphibian species.  The very thought of those bleached white things slithering away gave me the creeps.

Begglar, Nell and Dominic had been watching with wary fascination, and Begglar spoke up, “So how’re we ta get by those beasties?”

Maeven nodded at me.

“Mr. O’Brian has something with him that might do the trick.”

I jerked my head around.

“What do you mean?  The honor sword?”

Maeven nodded and then gestured to the sack hanging from my belt, lowering her voice, “If what I think is in that sack of yours, you are the one who can stop this right now, before these things kill that manticore.”

“That manticore attacked Azragoth,” I answered, “Why should we intervene here.  It would just as soon as kill us.  Perhaps we can move past the basin and falls, in the distraction when they do attack.”

“That is short sighted.  That may buy us only a few minutes.  If the manticore makes it to shore, you can bet it will sniff us out and be hot on our trail.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Depends,” she answered enigmatically.

“On what?”

“On what you’ve got in that sack there.”

I had lain prone to be able to scan the area, and witness the goings on, and I rolled to my side so that I could undo the straps that held the sachet bag.  I separated the cinched gathers and opened the bag and peered inside, surprised at what I found there.

“What is it?” Begglar asked.

“I…it looks like…” I reached into the sack and felt its smooth cool surface, perfectly round, and it drew it slowly out, careful not to drop it.

“Ahhh…” some said in a collective expression of amazement.

“It looks like a giant pearl.”

Maeven bobbed her head smiling, “Perfect!  Just perfect!  Just what I thought it might be, but we’ll have to move fast if we are going to make our bargain.”

I withdrew it, “No, we can’t.  Mattox said we would need it in Skorlith.  We cannot part with it now.”

Maeven shook her head, “I am not asking you to part with it.  I need you to use it.”

“Use it how?” my brow furrowed, “What is this supposed to be, in your mind?”

“You truly do not know what this is that Mattox has given you, do you?”

“It appears to be a pearl,” I answered, “I’m not exactly sure what you think it’s supposed to be.  An very unusual pearl for its size, I’ll grant you, but it should fetch a fairly high price in Skorlith, for all the things we will need to get safely across Lake Cascale.”

Maeven nodded, “Aren’t you curious where Mattox might’ve gotten it?”

I was dumbstruck.  I only knew that Mattox had said this was a pearl that was from the spoils of my battle.  That the pearl had not come from the Mid-World.  I had never heard of an oyster producing something this great in our world, and I could not fathom any other natural method by which it could have been formed.

Maeven acknowledged my internal reasoning and came to my rescue.

“The Dust Dragon.  It came from the tongue of the Dust Dragon.”

“What?”

“These are embedded within the flesh of their tongues.  It is the only thing good about such creatures of deception.  The pearl is the grain of truth that they surround with lies, then cast mentally out to discourage and defeat their victims.”

“How do you know about Dust Dragons?”

She was quiet a moment, and then she said, barely above a whisper, “Because you are not the only person here to have one come after you.”

I could tell, from her demeanor that the memory was not one she cared to recount at this moment, so I did not probe further.

“Okay,” I conceded, “So what is this particular dragon pearl supposed to be able to do?”

“Follow me,” she said as she edged back away from the overlook.

We swung into our mounts and Begglar and family and the young men took their places in the wagon.

She led us down a brief winding trail with the wagon following some distance behind.

After leaving Azragoth, we had refined our choices of weapons according to the lessons that Ezra had given us.  James, a rather tall man, with long arms and stout legs, found that he was much more adept at using pole weapons, such as a halberd, or pole-ax than wielding a small short sword.  His length and stature made short sword fighting very dangerous, even though his long arms allowed him an advantage in cutting reach.  For stability, his fighting stance required him to extend his legs wider than most, to give him a pivoting center of balance, but that meant that his legs were fair game in a conflict and an adept opponent would use that to deadly advantage against him.  With a pole weapon, the deadly bladed end required an enemy to maintain distance from the long deadly sweeps possible, by a tall man such as James was.  His feet were safe from short dive-and-retreat assaults because the cleaving blade would find them, slice them and propel any severed part of them into the air long before they ever could press an advantage.

James bore his halberd cross-wise, its hooked blade extended to the front left of his horse, its reins gathered in one hand and his backward right hand holding the back shaft at length and in balance, ready for a defensive swing and thrust should the need arise.  Maeven rode along-side him, impressed by James’ carriage of, what in other hands would be, an unwieldy weapon.  “You know how to use that?” she asked, playfully teasing him.

He smiled, “We’ll see.”

“We might soon need you to demonstrate that confidence.  Be ready.”

James nodded and with that she rode on ahead, bringing us to the level of the falls basin and within closer hearing of its hissing roar.  The manticore was still out in the pool about thirty yards from the shore.  The Moon sprites feinted in and circled it, their taunting flashes causing it to oscillate from side to side, trying its best to face its attackers on multiple fronts.  Behind it, the water swished and swirled in an eddying fashion, no doubt from the defensive posture of its stinging tail movement beneath the waves.  Its fearsome aspect and fire scorch face glaring angrily at the white-mouthless faces of the Moon Sprites as they swam around him.

We dismounted and quietly approach the water’s edge, the Moon sprites occupied with their manticore prey, the manticore with its back to us, facing the opposite and closest shore.  Moonlight danced upon the surface of the small lake.  Rolling waves rustled the bull rushes and cattail reeds as the basin water lapped at the shore below us.  I held the bag with the pearl in my clashed hand as Maeven approached me.

“What I am about to ask you to do, may sound foolish, but you will have to trust me.  You will not lose the pearl if you do as I tell you.”

I regarded her calmly and reached back into the bag, once again lifting the bright white and opalescent pearl out for her observation.

“Tell me what you need me to do.”

She scanned the shoreline and noticed a log half-submerged half-floating along the side of the shore.

“We’re gonna need that,” she indicated, “Guys can you pull that up further onto the bank, for a moment so that it fully clears the water?”

Will and the boys scrambled down from the wagon and Dominic joined them as they lifted the log and tugged it up onto the bank.

Then she turned to me.

“Mr. O’Brian, you’re not gonna like what I have to tell you.  But you need to put that pearl down and allow it to roll down the bank towards the water.”

“How do we keep it from going into the water.”

“It won’t.  You’ll soon see.  Trust me on this.”

I sighed and knelt down, tucking the bag back into my waistband, and I opened my palm to allow the grapefruit-sized pearl to follow gravity to the shore.  What happened next shocked us all.