The supernatural arrows flashed as they sped through the air, hissing with a kinetic energy that blazed through the visible and invisible spectrum of all light. With razor precision, they found their marks even as the beast twisted away from the threat they posed. One buried itself in the corner of its jaw, piercing its scaled lip, and lodging in its blackened gums. The other glanced off its hard beak-like proboscis, and entered the flared slit of a nostril, causing it to ululate with an ear-splitting shriek and roll violently, thrashing and whipping its bladed tail, scattering rocks and debris as it raged. For a fraction of a second, hunting for an opening I found the moment I had been waiting for. The dust dragon’s serpentine tongue unfolded from the cleft in its open maw, seeking to dislodge the arrow that had pinned its lip to its gum, it vile sulfurous breath whistling like a gale past the arrow lodged in its nostril. The creature rolled on its back over the crumbling mound of rock, twisting and shrieking like a dog with back fleas, its large talons raking the air and walls like the harvesting blade of a grim reaper.
I mounted the hill again, seeking a way through the slashing claws, trying my best to avoid the obsidian eye that was soon to find me and focus this terrible rage on my person. Its jaw was agape, unable to break the shaft of the arrow of truth that prevented it champing and gnashing its dangerous, rock-cutting teeth. I held the honor sword in my right hand, slashing my way towards its twisting head, avoiding the jutting spikes that could skewer me in an instant. My attacking sweeps failing to connect and break through its scaled skin and tough hide, making my approach much more difficult.
The beast’s body slammed against the stones, sending jagged fragments spinning and rocketing into the air as its crushing weight broke the larger stones apart. A sharp fragment of flint caught me in the torso, cutting through my tunic, abrading my ribs and cutting a shallow gash into my side. I felt the wet heat of my blood flow down my side, the abrasions burning as if I had been stung by an angry swarm of hornets. The dragon tried to snap at my arm, as I hammered the honor sword into its beaded fleshy gill, trying to get closer to its mouth and cleave its dervish tongue.
A powerful claw dug deeply into the ground next to me, its talons grasping and burrowing into the sand. Its body contorted like a cat’s and righted itself, the other foot and claws slamming down on the opposite side of its body and its tail gathered in double-arcs below. The force of the forelegs hitting the rocks shook the mound upon which we fought and I stumbled, grazing the side of my head as I fell, knocking the wind from my lungs. I lay gasping, knowing that at any second the creature could take my life. My pulse pounded like a kettle drum in my ears, my muscles, starved for oxygen, made it hard to make my limbs move enough to scramble to safety. The end would be swift, I hoped. Otherwise, I would slowly bleed out, with parts of my body crushed, should the creature thrash about once more.
But that was not what it had in mind. Its intent was far worse.
The coiling tail flexed, its forearms crouched gathering power and positioning the weight of the monster for a mighty lunge upward.
“no, no, no, No, NO, NO!” I heard my own voice gaining in volume as oxygen returned to my lungs.
With the strength that remained, I twisted and pulled my knees under me, my free hand pulling my body up on the boulder that I had clipped on my way down, fingers sliding in a slickness where my head had struck. I could not let this monster get into the city above.
Abandoning all caution or thought of self-preservation, I gained my feet, setting my bruised and bloody side afire in pain. Adrenaline pumped into my arms and legs, like a fuel injection system, and my battered form raced forward in spite of the pain and I leapt onto the fringed neck of the creature, striking its hard-plated flesh with my sword, pummeling it with my free fist trying everything I could to keep it from what it was about to do.
My left fist was raw and bloodied, because the hide of the beast was like that of a coarse grit sandpaper, and had no feel of muscle or soft tissue below it. I grasped at anything I could, flailing with the honor sword, but gaining control again and beating upon the beast with the flat of the blade since the edge and point could find no soft entry. In an instant, my fingers closed around the bristling shaft of the arrow that had materialized out of the words of truth that I had brought to mind. As my grip closed, I felt the ground beneath me suddenly fall away, and my arm was very nearly pulled
From its shoulder socket. Two verses, quick as thought, raced through my mind as the pain of the pull nearly cause me to lose consciousness.
“4 (For the weapons of our warfare [are] not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)” [2 Corinthians 10:4 KJV]
“11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” [Isaiah 55:11 NIV]
Such pain as I had never felt before, burned due to the torque and twisting of my arm and from the pull of my body weight downward. My feet dangled as the ground fell away, and my sword arm flailed, yet, my unyielding left fist clung unrelentingly to the shaft of the arrow in its cheek. Pain threatened to cloud my mind with dark oblivion, as I was wrenched back and forth, as the beast caught itself on the edges of the cavity created by the collapsed ceiling and with powerful arms and claws dug upward into the narrowing shaft above.
The light streaming in from the hole around the buried outside wall and the cellar room interior, now darkened with the door closed, was still above us about forty feet in distance. A considerable amount of rock and earth had fallen from the cavity crater which had formed the mound of rock and debris piled on the tunnel floor below us, yet the cavity narrowed the closer it came to the surface. At some point soon, the monster would have to dig the rest of the way through to get into the city, and as the walls of the chute rapidly narrow around us, I knew I would be crushed against the walls as soon as the dust dragon drove its head into the tightening space and had to eat away the earth to move ahead. With an arrow bristling from its nostril, I wondered if the beast would be able to clamp its nose shut against the dust that would inevitably clog its airways, and with the arrow lodged in its jaw, I wondered how well it could eat through the earth and expel it out of its gills, if the creature had difficulty closing its mouth. Did this beast even feel pain? Of course, it did. That is why the raging and writhing occurred when those arrows struck, but I wondered about the true nature of that pain. Was it physical alone, or some other part of its being feeling these piercings in a way I could not easily imagine.
I swung my honor sword upward, grateful for the binding of the bloodline to my wrist and forearm. Without this binding, I knew I surely would have dropped this weapon long before now. I needed to wedge the sword into the hinge of the beast’s jaw to relieve the weight of my entire body hanging from my left arm alone.
The creature’s powerful arms and claws pushed and dug into the ceiling chute walls, creating a lunging upward and downward motion, tossing my body upward with momentum fighting the pull of gravity. The temporary weightlessness allowed me to slash the sword sideways, over the beast’s auguring teeth and into the corner of the creature’s gaping mouth. The slinging motion propelled my body over the arc of the sword, aided by an upward thrust forearm, giving me a temporary foothold, and I was able to swing my body into the creature’s gaping mouth, barely avoiding its jagged teeth.
As I may have stated before, the creature’s head was about the size of a serial killer’s panel van, and its mouth was nearly the size of its cargo area. So there I crouched, in what felt like this killer’s bloody abattoir, rocking from side to side, as its enraged driver rocketed through the ever-narrowing tunnel like a madman. I freed my honor sword from it clamped jaw, just as I heard a sickening wet noise in the roof of the creature’s mouth directly overhead. Its slimy black tongue was being freed from the flapped cavity and with it, the back of the creature’s throat, previously clamped shut, was opening up like a dank, vile smelling, dark chasm. Evidently, its gullet and digestive track were not involved in its consumption and expulsion of dirt and rock, for the channels routing to the creature’s acidic salivary wash and crushing gill slits were being diverted in favor of a pathway through its razor-lined gullet directly into the pit of its vile, stomach.
The tongue of the beast felt horrid, and there was something round and hard buried within its oily, mucous covered black flesh. The creature used its tongue for more than just detecting scents. The embedded stone was used as a wrecking ball to smash and pulverize whatever unfortunate victim found itself way into its mouth. The first pass of the tongue rapidly acquainted me with these features as it whipped around and struck me with an incredible force that cracked one of my ribs with an audible snap. I gasped and fell to my knees, the sharp pain blinding me for an awful dark fraction of a second, that felt like all time and existence had stopped.
My honor sword blazed anew and I felt the overwhelming power of the quickening surge within me, sending fiery pulses into my aching muscles such that I was numbed to the former pain. The quickened energy crackled along the blade, igniting the runes and tracery with white fire, and my right arm was in motion before I was even aware of it. My blade struck the dragon’s tongue arresting its movement, the edge of the blade searing and cleaving through the thickly muscled meat and colliding with the stone-like sphere inside it.
Black, oily blood gushed forth from the cut, a deluge of foul-smelling liquid heat, engorged the creature’s mouth, streaming down into the back of its open throat, soaking me in stinking sewage. I felt the creature tremble and wretch, and its body convulsed as its gaping jaws, at last closed over me, shutting out all light, enveloping me in smothering and seemingly final darkness. In a shuddering, fleshy cocoon that I believed to be my coffin, I felt the monster’s forward momentum slip. My body became weightless for an instant, and then we both began to fall backward, me trapped within the tumbling beast as it rebounded off of the tunnel walls, into the abyssal depths below.
I do not know how long it was before I was found. The last I remembered was the fall, and sickening feeling of being pulled backward by gravity into the abyss. Whether it was the abyss within the creature’s stomach sluiced along by the stream of black blood jetting out of its tongue, or the abyssal pits in the tunnel network beneath the city of Azragoth, with my body still trapped within the creature’s closed mouth, I could not tell. I did not remember the actual impact as we hit the floor of the caverns, because the smell of the gorged death coming from the creature’s belly overwhelmed me and I lost consciousness.
When I regained awareness, I was being turned over and wiped down, the vile black blood cleared from my face, hair, and beard.
“Where am I,” I croaked.
“Lie still, Mr. O’Brian,” a woman’s voice spoke, “You’ve been through quite an ordeal.”
Disoriented, I tried to sit up but felt a severe flash of white-hot pain take my breath away.
“I said, lie still!” she scolded, “Do that again and I’ll have them tie you down. You’ve got some bruised ribs if they are not broken. You’re lucky they didn’t pierce a lung. You’ve got multiple abrasions and contusions, a shallow gash down your left side and you’ve lost quite a bit of blood. I’m not sure what this crap is all over you, but I’ll bet it does no good for your open wounds. Your left arm had been pulled out of the socket, but I had the guys help me get it popped back into place while you were still unconscious. You can thank me later. Now do what I say and keep your butt in bed for a few days, until we can get you thoroughly cleaned up and bandaged.”
I started to say something but she shut me up.
“Argue with me, and you’ll wish you hadn’t. I’m a She-Bear, remember?”
Christie, my mind formed the name, and I realized, that somehow, I had been found and carried out of the underground and back up into the city. I was in a room I did not recognize, and a steady cooling breeze blew in from an open window. I could see that the honor sword lay on a table not far from me, its scabbard cleared of all cavern dust, its metal cap, hilt or cross-guard and surfaces cleaned and buffed to a restored polish. No trace of the gore remaining on the scabbard, hilt or bloodline sash, now wound back neatly around the cross-guard posts. The very sight and knowledge that it was within reach comforted me and set my mind at ease.
“How did you find me?”
“Find you?” Christie laughed, “You and that dragon scared the living you know what out of the townsfolk. It wasn’t that hard to find you.”
I learned from Christie that the conflict below had drawn a crowd, as soon as the story of a certain pub owner and his wife came running in a panic into the Warrior’s Court, crying about a monster in their cellar who ate a gaping hole in the floor. No one could make sense of what they were saying, with the husband and wife talking over one another, the man in befuddled shock and the woman crying and shouting for someone to help them save their food stores. It took some doing, but Ezra and his attendants finally got them calmed down enough until they began to make more rational sense.
The husband had been sent by his wife down into their food cellars to bring up a bottle of wine and some cured pork for some of their guests. When the man returned empty-handed and white as a sheet, his wife had a fit, called him a catalog of names, and attempted to go down herself, but her husband was adamant that she didn’t, insisting there was something down there she did not want to encounter. Unable to stop her, however, she marched down to the basement and threw open the door. The people up in the restaurant above and the people two streets over said they could hear the scream.
Townsfolk came to their aid, but not before the man and his wife had rocketed out of the lower stairwell and rounded the corner of their pub, almost falling into the sinkhole crater that gaped along the side of their building.
A terrible noise arising from the hole suddenly suggested to other townsfolk that the pub owners had the right idea. Some fled the area with them, while others gaped and gawked trying to figure out what was going on below.
The hysteria of the couple might have been dismissed, had it not been for the other townsfolk who arrived shortly thereafter to corroborate their story. At least to the point in which there was definitely something going on beneath the city of Azragoth and there was a gaping hole next to the wall of the couple’s Alehouse, and just as probably there was a portion of that same gaping hole that extended under their lower cellar rooms.
The warriors were quickly assembled, and my company fell in along the quick procession to the alehouse and pub belonging to the couple. What they witnessed from above was the noises of a protracted battle, as the creature below writhed and wretched, and stumbled about in a blind stupor, after having crashed back down to the floor of the tunnel, and then further through that floor to a further cavern below it. The force of its final crash had broken the creature’s backbone, and it had expelled what was evidently my battered body upon the embankment of a deep, cave pool of boiling hot water. The pub owner, one Jalnus Freeweather, had insisted that he had seen a man down there with the creature, but his wife, Dabney said that he was prone to seeing things once he’d had a pint or three. Nem was told of what transpired, and, to Christie’s mind, seemed not to shocked by it, and conceded that a party should be sent down to find the man that Jalnus had spoken of. In fact, he said that one was already within the caves and should find out soon enough. And that, of course, is how I was found and recovered and brought back up into the city. And, by the way, did I know that the Eagle had landed?
Christie laughed, “C’mon, you know. The Eagle has landed.”
When my face also clouded with befuddlement, she sighed and clarified, “One small step for man…? The Apollo program.”
“Oh, I get it. In the uh…” I gestured upward.
“Back in the Surface World, yeah. But not exactly. The moon landing. Don’t you know your own history?”
“Of course, but I’ve kind of had the history of this place in the forefronts of my mind lately. Especially since a part of it almost ate me.”
She laughed, “Well at least it seems your sense of humor is returning. That’s a good sign.”
“Christie, how do you…I mean…how am I…?”
She was always quick on the uptake, I remembered, and able to complete my thought, even though I had difficulty formulating it.
“How do I know about your condition and how to treat you?”
“Because, back in the Surface World, I am a registered nurse and I am good at it. Besides having two exceptional children who had their share of scrapes cuts and bruises growing up, and two very big brothers who I took care of as their big sister, I have been around enough broken bones, barbed wire cuts, pocket knife injuries, and a few kicks by the horses to have seen my fair share of nursing before I even got into the profession. Years of field work had already prepared me for this.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“There’s quite a bit you don’t know about us, Mr. O’Brian. Maybe you should just ask. Get to know all of us a little before we go off on this quest.”
I smiled. “You do get right to the point, don’t you.”
She smiled back. “I’ve always been sort of a get to the point, no nonsense, girl, Mr. O’Brian. It’s called being a straight shooter, where I come from.”
“And once again, you couldn’t be more right. It is time I got to know all of you a little better.”
She stood up and tossed the wet and blackened cloth, she had been cleaning me up with into a pail in the corner of the room.
“First things, first, Mr. O’Brian. Let’s have another look at that wound on your side, then you’ll need to get some rest. The one they call the Eagle has been eager for you to awake, but I have kept him out for now.”
“Why does he want to speak with me?”
“He says, you’ve met before. But under very different circumstances. He doesn’t want to alarm you if you see him first, so he has asked that I tell him the moment you wake up and have him summoned here, at once, before you get out of bed.”
My hand slipped under the coverlet of the bed I was lying on, as she pulled the sheet down from my torso, and examined my bloodied gash, wetting another linen cloth with a bottle of spirits, intending to wash out the wound further.
My hand surreptitiously felt down under the sheet confirming what I suspected, while she was preoccupied with cleaning the gash.
“What is it?” she asked, mopping dried blood away, and tossing yet another filthy cloth into the waste pail, and then wetting another fresh cloth with the spirits.
“What have you done with my pants?”
As if in answer, she pressed the spirited cloth into the encrusted wound, causing me to gasp.
“Trust me, Mister O’Brian. They were burned along with everything else you were wearing. You will never want to be wearing those again. Now shut up and lie still. She-Bear. Remember?”
I was only able to rest for a few days more before the word reached the man called the Eagle that I was up and convalescing. On the day, I was to receive him, my wounds had begun to heal, and I had been treated with poultices, and herbs, and various and sundry medicines procured from the local apothecary and from field herbs that both Maeven and Christie brought in for my own good. I was given a new shirt, and had pants tailored for me, and was given a sort of jacket with buckles to continue the healing progress of my broken ribs. According to Christie and Maeven, two of the most well-meaning but bossiest nurses when both of them were together that I had ever been under the charge of, I was not permitted to travel for at least another three weeks and not so much as look at a saddled horse for another four.
But that was not meant to be. When I was finally temporarily discharged from their infirmary, based upon my own recognizance and the oath of good behavior, I was led and helped into the town courtyard for a meeting with the Eagle.
But no sooner had I arrived for the meeting when there arose a shout with news we had feared hearing.
“There is movement in the backwoods!”
A messenger from one of the outer wall posts came running across the courtyard with news that sent chills through all of us. “They are a half league’s distance, following the trail of our guests. The scouts heard their dogs in the woods. It is the Protectorate.”
“What will we do?”
“We shall do as we have done before,” Ezra answered, “Wait and watch. Arm and hold our position.”
“The dogs will either lead them to the sally-port or the postern gate. Both are watched from cover and heavily fortified,” Nem added.
“How many strong?”
“About twelve all told—four on horseback and eight afoot.”
“Who have we got manning the gate?”
“Captain Thrax and company. Lorgray’s men are stationed near the outpost at Trathorn falls and stand ready to close up the rear flank at your word.”
Maeven stepped forward, “The Lehi and I stand at your service. Tell us what needs to be done.”
And beyond them, a man I had long thought was dead, stepped forward, bearing a breastplate insignia emblazoned with an Eagle, talons forward in attack flight.
A man I knew to be a brutal Xarmnian warrior.