Second in a series of responses to r/writingprompts.
The Distant Future. The vampires have risen and taken most of the world. Humanity's last refuge is Africa: where the rain itself is holy water, having been blessed long ago by the vampire hunters of Toto.
We can't compete, really. They're stronger and faster, in just about every way. The only advantage we have is what just - doesn't - happen for six months of the year!
So that's why I'm sitting in my observation post on Northcliff Ridge in Johannesburg, scanning with my handheld radar for a flight of anything bigger than Egyptian geese. The view is spectacular, for the few minutes it takes the sun to set. It's 17:30.
Even though it's August, and the first rain isn't due until next month, we really, really need that rain now. The Bloodsuckers have made some awful advances from their strongholds in Namibia, where it hardly rains, ever. It's taken them five months to sweep across the Kalahari, put up their bloody shelters all over the Highveld, and now they're within striking distance of the Johannesburg connurbation. We can keep rainwater from summertime, but it loses its benediction in 72 hours if it's not kept in clear crystal containers. And of course, some crooked politician has been stealing some of it to sell on the black market. We're down to the last few hoppers, made as magazines for modified paintball guns.
Some good has come of it all, I suppose. The bloodsuckers don't distinguish between different races, we're all toast if we fall, so everyone's cool with each other, for a change. They've declared a National Day of Prayer for Rain, first time since the 80s. There's a monster prayer service for rain in Ellis Park tonight, we'll see if the Almighty is listening.
Shit. That's a blip. I flick on the radio. Another scan confirms my worst. My skin crawls.
'Main base, this is Northcliff.' I can't keep the fear from my voice.
'Bogies at bearing 2, 8, 5, heading east towards Centurion.'
I repeat it. They're not even trying to stay hidden! They either think we're already beaten, or it's a diversion.
'How many, Northcliff?'
I try to scan the edge of the group. No way. 'Main base, it's huge! There must be thousands!'
'Shit.' Francois loses his professionalism, briefly.
We're finished. They must be getting desperate with the end of winter, they're hoping to wipe out our forces so they can keep us all as livestock, like they do everywhere else in the world. I keep watching, despair looming large in the freezing Highveld night.
This could very well be The End. I wasn't even issued ammo, there was so little of it. I could stay here, but eventually one of them would find me. Heck, they could be on to me already, some of them can feel radar!
With a whoosh, a bloodsucker appears in front of me. She's gorgeous, with a smile that hints of all sorts of hunger. I wet myself, just a little. She stands there, gloating.
I frantically fumble for my crucifix. Before I can get it, she grabs my hand with a grip of iron, not smiling anymore. Her teeth extend, and horror overtakes my mind. I feel wet on my neck. But wait, she's not biting yet!
With a shriek, she jerks back. A single raindrop tears a hideous furrow across her face. She's not so pretty anymore! I pull out my crucifix with one hand, and the squirt-bottle of holy water with the other. 'Eat pain, Bitch!' I bellow, squirting and squirting without mercy. I watch her smoke until she shuts the hell up screaming. The dust she leaves behind smells good. The icy winter rain, so seldom seen up here, gently washes it off the rocks.
My blood's up, now. Maybe I can even the odds a little!
On the map for The Ironwood Staff, right at the extreme south, is the large island of Greenland. This only just makes it onto that map, but I thought of a bit of background for the history of the island, which didn’t fit anywhere in the story, but makes for some background lore. Off the southeast coast of Greenland, athwart the raging westerlies, lie the Bird Islands. They were first mapped by the magi of the Ureladi (the Oreladi who settled on Greenland before the Green Sun). After mapping it, it was decided that finding the climate so wet and the land so inhospitable, there were never to be any permanent settlements there. But, the weather and the terrain were not the only reasons for it not being settled. The fauna were also so strange, terrifying and (to Animal Magi) so interesting, that the wise among them thought them better left alone!
For thousands of years, the only documented visitors were royal hunters, accompanying princes of the royal house on their coming-of-age hunt: to catch and kill a Terror Bird.
The Bird Islands have no native mammals on them (save bats). In the rivers dwell vast salamanders, capable of dragging a speaking-being to his death; the forests are haunted by vast, flightless birds three times elado-height, feeding on the leaves and fruits and shoots of the coniferous trees that grow there. The undisputed king of these dark forests is the Terror Bird, a flightless, feathered fiend easily two measures tall, with a hooked beak the length of an elado’s forearm. They have three massive talons on their feet, which are taken as trophies, polished to a gleaming green-black, and worn as badges of office by Ureladi males of royal blood.
After the Oreladi of the Sunlands came to Greenland, displacing the sparsely-populated nomads of the rest of the island, the families with ancestral ties to the old Ureladi nobility maintained the tradition. During the long wars of succession that kept the Oreladi out of the Second and Third Foul Wars of the Continent, the inviolability of the Bird Islands was one of the few things the different factions agreed upon, at least partly because the Ureladi families were king-makers to some degree. The Academies of Magi in the capital also insisted that such strange lands should not be spoiled by settlement. Finally, during the bloodiest conflict after the Third Foul War, most of the leading families had been decimated, often by intrigue and assassinations. Eventually, the descendants of the Great Houses of the Seven Cities and the Shining Mountains were reduced to one family, and the three houses of Ureladi had only one heir between them. That heir married the last daughter of the Oreladi families, finally ending the conflict. Because of the troubles, the heir had never had his Bird Hunt; unfortunately, he was killed by a Terror Bird when he went on it, leaving his pregnant wife on the mainland. In time she birthed a male child, who was named Arandamundon. On his accession to the throne, his mother sought the Shining Mountain, and passed out of memory.
The long Kinswars had left the Greenland peoples scarred, both physically and psychically, but the dreadful death toll had one interesting effect: for the first time ever, there were many more children in Greenland than adults. These younger generations came of age in a time to re-invade the Sunlands in the Fourth Foul War, eventually allowing the Oreladi to re-colonise their old lands in the Greenstone Country.
I was recently listening to a chain of music videos on YT, and one thing led to another (as it does), until I came to an album by the Canadian band Crash Test Dummies. I listened to the album again for the first time in decades, and suffered waves of nostalgia! This track in particular, In the Days of the Caveman, took me right back to the time when I was working at Wits Uni in Johannesburg, doing my M.Sc. in Palaeoclimatology, when the song seemed oddly appropriate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGtdE0bBE9c
At the time, I was surrounded by family and old friends, all of them too far away to see regularly anymore...
On Reddit, there is a place for fantasy authors called r/writingprompts. The deal is, someone comes up with a scenario, and you have to write a short around it as a reply to the post. The exercise is quite fun, and I managed to knock out a few things in between daily work activities. In each case, the prompt is given in bold, and my effort is in normal format. This is the first in a series of such. Because of the nature of the character in this first one, there's a swear alert for sensitive readers.
(Btw, I could not find appropriate images on Shutterstock or Wikimedia Commons for the life of me, so you're just going to have to use your own imagination, this time!)
You aren’t a great Hero or a mighty Mage, you’re not the Chosen One, Hell, you’re not even one of their beloved Companions. You’re just one of thousands of nameless footsoldiers just trying to survive the final battle.
It's a living, I suppose. As long as you're living, ha-ha!
What else does a peasant's third son do? The Lords don't always have land for extra sons, so here we are: a bunch of blokes with more muscle than brains, their lives defined by Pay, P***y and Plunder - in that order.
Serving in the Heavy Foot is supposed to be the best - you're first in line for any goods looted, for any women in conquered territories... but now we're fighting for our lives because the nobs couldn't pull their f***in' fingers out, innit? Where are those highborn numpties now, with their steel and horses and stuff? Oh, I dunno...
Pay will come if we survive the week, Plunder, well, we gotta work for that, and work hard. And P***y? Hah! These are orcs, dammit, you can't tell the difference between male and female, even if you wanted to!
We've been waiting for f***in' hours... no, there it is, the charge signal! Time to move. Shut up, Sergeant, I know, we drilled for this: ten pound pack, two pound spear, three pound shield. That's on top of the leather-and-mail standard issue we get. At least we got shields, them poor b*ggers in the Light Foot don't even get that! And everyone in front at least gets to run on grass, we have to run on the mud they've churned up. Well, mud and blood, hopefully black not red.
Sh*t, there are warboars coming from the right! Do we turn and face them, or keep charging? I'm getting worried here...
Well done, Light Foot - those arrows did a number on those f*in' boars, but some of them are still coming.
'WARE TO THE RIGHT!! BOOAAARSS!!!' The mob around me breaks ranks, unsure. 'SHIELD WALL!' I bellow. Training takes over, we form up into a shield wall, breaking the formation that had been charging the orc front. I could be in dung for this.
The boars slam into us like a ton of bricks. Some of us even get to stick the f*in' pigs, man-high at the withers, but it's a f***in' nightmare. The noise, the crashing, the screaming, the shock of impact. But I stay upright. A goblin riding a boar swings a scimitar at me, I spike his stupid bum with me spear, heh heh! That'll learn ya!
Johnny gets a tusk in his brisket. Dammit. I lunge at the boar, striking for its neck. the spear sinks in beautifully, but sticks there. The boar squeals like, well, a stuck pig, and thrashes around, chucking its rider and my spear. I get a helluva wallop from my right, and a boar just shoves me over. The world explodes in pain as its hooves pummel me, running right over me.
Trying to right myself, I hear another set of hooves - horses! I look up to see a white horse, elf cataphract on its back, pounding after the boar that rushed me, narrowly missing. The elf on its back is loosing arrows right and left, then sweeps out this gorgeous sword and lays about him with it. Have you ever seen a blade shear through the top of an orc's skull and sink into another's? You should try it some time. But I'm too sore to care right now. I'm still upright, I can still see... I might just survive this after all!
This is a story I wrote for my daughters when they were younger. I've updated the main characters so they're closer to their current ages. This is a very family-friendly story, so get comfortable! :)
'Let's get out of here!' said one of the boys. There was a cheer as the children ran or skipped down the cobblestoned path from their school in the cold sunlight of early spring. With their teachers and some parents only just keeping them together, twenty 9- and 10-year-olds hurtled happily towards the Silver River bank, the border between the Kingdom and the Elf-Forest of Uviel. On their side, a bustling town with a small dock filled the low bank of the river. On the other, a cliff of some five storeys marked the end of the Elf-lands, where grew swamp cypresses and willows of vast size. The only crossing of the river was a heavy rope-and-timber bridge which swung from the huge trees to a tall, round tower on the human side of the river. They would have to climb a great many stairs inside the tower to get to the bridge, and the humans knew the children would need all their energy for it. Hopefully it would keep them quiet once they got there.
Suzy and Lena were best friends, and had been since they started school. Today was a big day, when they would visit the Rookeries on the Elf side of the river to see where the messenger birds lived that carried messages across the river. They had been looking forward to the school outing for months.
The climb was exhausting. At the top of the tower was a tall roof over the opening of the spiral staircase below, and a wide balcony all around the top, where people could rest after the climb. When the whole class had got to the top, they were allowed to sit on the benches around the edge, beneath the tall parapet with its narrow gaps you could see out of. As the children sat, they saw Elves had been waiting for them. They had a small portable stove near the top of the stairs, where they heated up milk in metal jars. This they stirred into wooden cups with a dollop of honey, and touched each cup with a small silver spoon.
'I bet that's magic,' said someone. Suzy and Lena looked at each other.
'It is,' said one of the elf-ladies. She really was very pretty. 'This is to warm you up, and give you some courage for crossing the bridge. It's very high, and some children get scared sometimes.'
'Oh,' said Suzy. She looked over at the gap in the parapet where the bridge led off into space. It really was very high up.
'This is delicious!' exclaimed Lena. Suzy had to agree. The hot milk and honey tasted like nothing they'd ever had before.
After a few minutes, the head of the elf-ladies who had been serving the milk said, 'Right, have we all had a nice drink? Let's go!'
The teachers and parents quickly counted everyone, and they formed a line and headed for the gap. The first step was the worst: the bridge was made of massive rope cables and thick wooden planks, and sloped downwards. It was strong, but as they walked it vibrated. The sides were only thick ropes, browned and sometimes mossy. If Suzy and Lena hadn't had the courage from their drink, they might not have trusted the bridge with its sloping sleepers, dipping down towards the middle and rising again towards the other end, lost behind drooping willow branches. But, they crossed happily enough, with the help of that magic milk.
They got to the halfway point, where they could walk on the level for a bit. They were closer to one side, and looked between the ropes that formed the parapet of the bridge. There, far below, was the Silver River, rolling quiet and dark in the gloom of the trees. Down near the banks, the willows were bright spring green.
Lena said, 'Look!' and Suzy forgot about the river. They had passed under an overhanging branch, all spangled yellow with catkins, and could now see the other side of the bridge: it ran onto the trunk of the most colossal oak tree in the world! Where the ropes were looped over two thick branches, one side of the bridge had a gap on the right, where you could walk onto a branch as thick as Suzy was tall!
They followed the teacher up to the end of the bridge and onto some wooden stairs, leading on to the branch. There was a small town of wooden buildings, built on, around and sometimes into the tree!
The class followed the elves along the walkways and branches to a long, low building built between two branches of another tree, even larger than the one they'd come in to! The outside wall had large windows in it, for birds to fly in and out, and the inside had big, dead branches where the ravens had built big, messy nests. The elf who showed them around (Suzy couldn't remember his job, and she didn't know the word) told them the baby ravens had started to hatch and they needed lots of food. Suzy and Lena thought the chicks looked really ugly, with scrubby wing-feathers and scrawny necks and really huge, wide beaks.
The elves who tended the bird-houses told them that sometimes, if something happened to the parents, they had to feed the baby birds themselves. They had to chop up meat and offal, or mash up stale bread, or cut apples into tiny pieces. Suzy thought it was good that they fed the chicks, but was glad she didn't have to do it – cutting up raw offal looked disgusting!
The rest of the day was taken up with visits to rookeries, copyrooms and map rooms. They got to help in the pharmacy-room, where medicinal herbs were prepared for sick birds. They handled young birds and watched a display of hawks as well. It was all quite interesting, and they had lunch in a hall where they could look out of the windows onto treetops below. Their feet didn't touch ground once in the whole visit.
All too soon they were lined up, the teachers thanked the raven-elves, and everyone started back towards school and home. They walked back through the amazing tree-city and onto the bridge when disaster struck: the were in the middle of the bridge, Suzy still not afraid, when someone shouted something in Elvish. Suddenly, their teacher shouted, 'Follow me! Run!' and took off at a sprint. At the same time, the teacher at the back of the class did the same thing, but went off in the opposite direction, back the way they had come! Suzy and Lena were right in the middle, and didn't even know why everyone was running. They dithered, undecided which group to follow. While they pulled each other in opposite directions, Lena pointed over Suzy's shoulder and screamed. Suzy spun round to see a giant bird flying straight at her: it was a vast eagle, its wingspan easily twice the height of the girls, its wings barred and legs spotted. The girls screamed as it landed on the bridge, making it buck and sway and throwing both girls off their feet. It seized them both around the waist, and flapped hard, lifting them up and off the bridge! The girls screamed again as, held tightly but unharmed in the eagle's feet, they swooped along the noisy river, out from the shadow of the giant trees, and up above the forest!
The girls screamed until their throats were raw; Suzy caught a glimpse of the forest far below, and stopped struggling. She didn't want to escape the eagle's grasp that badly!
It seemed like an age of freezing terror, with an icy wind tearing at her face and hair, the horrifying drop below, and above the great tawny feathers of the eagle. Eventually, just as they realised they were still alive and hadn't been eaten yet, Suzy noticed that the ground below had become rugged. Small patches of snow could be seen among bare rocks. The ground was also much closer now! Suddenly, the eagle stopped flapping its ponderous wings. It swooped up, and Suzy saw the ground suddenly rise to meet them! She squeezed her eyes shut, and was suddenly dropped! Her heart gave a sickening lurch, but she landed quickly but roughly on flat, grassy ledge. Lena was next to her, lying in a dead faint, her school cloak sprawled away from her.
Suzy picked herself up into a crouch. She was still terrified: was the eagle going to eat them, now? She watched the monster. It had landed just over them, and now stood preening, wiping its head across its back. Suzy was amazed, even through her fear: it was preening itself, like a duck! The comparison was so ridiculous that she suddenly felt less frightened. Maybe it was that magical drink, she thought.
The eagle looked at her, its bright yellow eyes glowing in the shadow of the lowering sun. the rock face above it glowed pink on the rock face beyond.
The eagle made an odd, whirring sound. Then it turned round, ducking down into an opening in the rock face. It went in until only its broad, banded tail could be seen. When it came back out again, it carried a large carcase in its beak. The eagle dropped the meat on the bare rock of the ledge, right next to the girls. It made another strange whirring noise, and backed off.
Suzy was amazed. The carcase looked like a whole roast pig or wild boar! It still had a spit right through it, so it must have been stolen from someone's open fire. The great eagle seemed to be feeding them! The thought of becoming a pet to a giant bird was so strange – Suzy even laughed a little.
Lena stirred next to her at the sound of her laughing. She looked at Suzy, then at the eagle and screamed a short, weak scream. She looked around for some escape, but there was none. In fact they were dangerously close to the edge of the ledge.
'Lena,' said Suzy, 'it's all right. I think this eagle wants to be friends.'
Lena's breathing became less panicked. 'What?' she asked, incredulous.
'Look, its given us a whole roast boar!'
'You don't think it's just fattening us up?'
'I think,' said Suzy, 'if it wants to be friends we should at least be polite.' Then she added, 'If it was going to eat us, it would've done so already.'
Suzy half-walked, half crawled to the carcase. It was cold and greasy, and had some sand on it, but otherwise it seemed all right – it was properly cooked, and now that she thought of it, she was hungry. The people who lost it must have been furious, she thought. She dragged it back to Lena and pulled some meat off a good part. 'Thank you, Mr Eagle,' she said, minding her manners.
The eagle did an odd cocking of its head, and dipped its beak in a strange nod. Then it stood still as both Lena and Suzy ate some of the cold roast meat.
After a while, the eagle made a chirping noise. The girls paused, and there was a furtive movement at the foot of the rock where the eagle was perching. Something peeped out of the cave: it was a scrawny, knee-high, fluffy grey creature with a vicious little hooked beak.
'Suzy, look!' breathed Lena in awe. 'It's a chick!'
Suzy dropped the piece of crackling she was eating. 'So it is!'
The eagle chick, all fuzzy down and bulging eyes, staggered up to them while the adult bird looked on. It stumbled, and both girls said, 'Aww!' Suzy crawled up to it cautiously. She knew you had to be careful with puppies' mothers, so a mother eagle would be much worse. The mother eagle sat stock-still. Suzy pulled off some meat and offered it to the chick. The chick stretched out and snatched it from her hand. The mother bird made a chuckling sound, as both girls smiled.
The sun broke through a cloud, shining down on the ledge with a red glow of sunset. The light shone down through the opening where the chick had come out, and a little, querulous sound came from inside. It sounded like another chick. At the sound, the chick took a mouthful of Suzy's cloak and pulled, hard! She laughed, thinking the chick wanted to play.
'Suzy,' Lena said, 'I think it wants you to go into the cave – I don't know why, I just know.'
The chick pulled harder, and Suzy said, 'Maybe they want to be friends, maybe they want us to play?'
The sound came again. It suddenly sounded pitiful. The mother eagle flicked her wings and swayed her head towards the cave repeatedly. There could be no doubt: they were being invited in. They stood up and dusted themselves off. Somehow they felt they should be polite, but they weren't really afraid anymore.
They walked into the cave. It was easily big enough for them to stand up in. The light cut off as they entered, but shone in again once they were in. The chick they had met already stomped in on its elbows and moved to a corner packed high with grass and bracken. There sat another chick. The first chick went up to it and nudged it with its beak. Then it sat back, looking at the girls and then its sibling. It lifted first one foot, then the other, as if eager for something.
'What do you want us to do for you?' asked Lena. The chick on the nest did not look happy. Where its sibling was all fluffy grey down, this one was less fluffy, and smaller. It lifted its head and gave another piteous squeak. Then it coughed gagged. On the nest appeared a blob of green.
'The baby is sick,' said Lena.
Suzy nodded. Then she realised: 'Lena!' she said, loud enough to startle the bigger chick, 'That's why the eagle caught us! She knows the elves have medicines for baby birds, so she thought she'd get someone to make her baby better!'
'She thinks we're elves,' said Lena, looking dismayed.
Both girls looked out of the cleft in the rock. They jumped when the saw the mother bird had somehow crept right up to them, without being noticed!
Lena whimpered with fear. 'What if she knows we can't help her?'
Suzy however, still had some of the elves' fearless medicine in her. She put her hand on Lena's shoulder and looked at the mother eagle. The sun had gone down, and the eagle's eyes had started to glow. Both girls saw her looking so sad, so pleading. A tiny sound came from the fearsome bird, a lot like the sick chick's sound: she was crying, too!
Suzy felt so sorry for her; she wished they could help. Then she remembered: they had been chopping up leaves that afternoon, which made birds sick, but they got better afterwards!
'Lena,' she said, 'I've just remembered – we were chopping up those medicinal leaves, in the pharmacy-room! We could give them to the baby! How much have you got?'
Lena suddenly snapped out of her anxiety. She felt in her smock pockets. 'I had quite a bit. I'd only just started chopping when they said to stop and go to the next bit.' she brought some out. 'Not as much as I thought. Some must have fallen out.'
Suzy said, 'Let's give it to the baby!'
It was now almost dark. The eyes of the mother eagle and the more able chick glowed. Lena made to give the leaves to the baby on the nest, but the mother's head was suddenly, shockingly between them. Lena jumped and dropped the leaves.
The mother eagle stooped and took the leaves in her beak. She fixed Lena with a beady stare, but Lena said, 'Please Mrs Eagle, it's to make baby birds feel better.' And somehow, she knew she understood.
Suzy picked up the dropped leaves and took them onto the nest. She knelt down and pushed the leaves into the baby bird's beak, like she'd seen it done in the rookery. They waited for a while, but they could no longer see anything. The swift, cold sunset of the mountains was come and gone. They waited in the dark. They knew that their parents, and the elves, would be frantic, searching for them; but somehow this seemed to be important. All of a sudden, there was a small hacking sound: the chick was purging itself. Lena and Suzy felt in the dark, and knew it was still alive. Then, like the birds, they curled up and settled down for the night. There was nothing else to be done.
Suzy awoke with an ache on her left shoulder. She was lying on a rock. There was light in the cave, the chill grey light of a spring morning. She saw Lena lying peacefully on the edge of the nest, her cloak completely covering her. Then Suzy realised: the chick was no longer in the nest! She looked about and saw it, snuggled with its sibling under their mother, who was still roosting at the entrance to the cave, keeping the warm air inside.
The mother eagle opened one eye – Suzy was astounded to see 3 eyelids – and looked
down. She saw the chicks and instantly came alert. She gave a deep-throated call and the chicks woke up. Both mother and the well chick nuzzled the sick one.
'Aww,' said Suzy quietly. Lena awoke looking very confused. 'The baby's all right', Suzy said, 'I think.'
'Thank goodness,' said Lena.
The girls stood on the ledge outside the cave. They had shown the eagles the leaves that had fallen out of Lena's pocket, and the mother eagle was interested. Now, however, she shooed both the babies into the cave. The girls were apprehensive: what was she going to do? It was a cold, grey morning and though the had had a little of the cold roast boar, they really wanted a drink. And of course, they most of all wanted to go home.
The mother eagle seemed to know. She lay down on the ground, and looked at them. After an awkward pause, she opened her wing slightly, as if inviting them closer.
Comprehension dawned on Lena. She looked at Suzy. She could not be serious! They just stood there, gaping, until the mother eagle lost her patience. She stood up, dropped off the ledge and swooped away, leaving the girls behind!
'How can we get down?' moaned Suzy, looking over the edge.
Suddenly, the mother eagle was back! Flapping madly to slow herself down, she deftly picked the girls up in her feet again, her massive talons closing around them gently but firmly.
The next half to three-quarter hour was just as cold and windy as the ride they'd had the evening before, but somehow less terrifying. The girls trusted they were on the way home!
The land became more heavily wooded as they went until suddenly they saw a tall tower
on the end of a long spur of the mountain. The girls knew it was a watch-tower of the elf-town. Further down was the tower on the human side of the bridge. The eagle landed right on the narrow, battlemented top to the tower, dropping them suddenly and unceremoniously and then landing on the battlements. It turned to face them, and a long arrow whooshed past it, up into the air. Seeing that she might be in danger, the bird fled, dropping right off the battlement. Another arrow shot up, narrowly missing.
The girls were waiting when the elf-soldiers came rushing up the stairs from inside the tower. 'It's us!' called Suzy. 'We're Suzy and Lena!'
'The eagle took us yesterday,' said Lena, 'but we're all right!'
And so they were. Suzy and Lena's parents were overjoyed to see them back safe, and they told their story over and over again in their own language and in Larya, the local Elvish dialect. From that time on, there was less trouble and more understanding of the great birds of prey in the towns of men and elves. To the end of their days, Suzy and Lena never forgot nor failed to tell that mother eagles cared for their babies, too.
Skallagrim (who I'm subscribed to!) has a post about a Zombie Tools artefact, The Spit. It's apparently inspired by the Zulu nklwa (a spear with a shorter handle, for close combat), but it just happens to match the weapon I imagined for the protagonist of The Retribution of Thengon. In the story, he's given a military-issue spear, but it gets damaged in its first combat outing, having the handle chopped by a hefty orc. Thengon is too hard-up to replace it, but decides to use it in its damaged state, hence his byname of Breakspear.
It's not quite the same, I imagine a weapon with a wooden handle, where Zombie Tools always makes solid steel monsters.
I thought it was potentially a very versatile weapon - you could stab it overhand or underhand like a spear, hack like an axe, or slash and stab like a sword. Slallagrim gives some epic moves here. I'm a serious fan.
The magpie landed heavily on the TV aerial, its tail waving to keep balance. The blustery, dirty-clouded afternoon shone a watery light down onto a leaf-sodden pavement, where Tania waited. She watched the bird as it called, flipped its wings and dipped its head four times. Tania’s eyes lit up as she recognised the signal.
Calming her mind with the ease of long practice, she reached out and thought, ‘He’s left!’ Her announcement was greeted with a babble of thoughts as the other Watchers detached themselves from whatever they were doing and went to take up position.
She moved into a small park, touching the others again with her position. It was easy, they all knew the place. She fumbled under her wrap for the velth powder. Her pulse quickened as the traffic grumbled past the park, released by a green light. Noise and distraction were good at the moment. They would have only the briefest of chances to do the job, so they’d better be sure. At least with an Immaterial you didn’t need the nickel-silver weapons.
Leaving the busy road behind, Tania stepped up her pace, her high-heeled boots clicking smartly on the paved pathway. To her right, she saw Tony, dressed like any other mad jogger, power-walking on a course that converged with hers – their target an inconspicuously suited man walking with a slow, gliding tread through the park. Only a Watcher’s finely tuned senses could feel the wrongness that radiated from him, even at this distance. The physical form was at once a protection and a hindrance. It was the hindrance that the Watchers were counting on.
Tania carefully avoided looking around as the others closed in: six of them from all points – and in the distance, dead ahead, on a course to meet the spectre face to face, was a woman pushing a buggy, its occupant hidden in layers of clothing.
All was set.
Tania and Tony were so close, they could have spoken. Tania grabbed a fistful of velth under her wrap, her palms hot and sticky with nerves. She wondered briefly where Tony was holding his, she couldn’t see anything in his hands. She watched the inconspicuous man for any sign of wavering or flickering. If the spectre got suspicious, he would shed his disguise in public, as long as he was in shade. Then there’d be trouble. So far, their luck had held. The sunlight was not bright, and patches of blue dashed madly across the sky.
Something was wrong. Tania and five other Watchers were getting too close, but one of them was still too far away! They couldn’t strike with only six people, there had to be seven hits to strip and bind.
All at once it happened: a cloud, thicker than most, heaved across the sun, changing the silvery sunlight to lead. The dull-suited man suddenly looked behind him, only to see Tony and Tania walking rapidly towards him with visible purpose. He looked left and right, and noticed the others. The sense of wrongness strengthened as he suddenly began to waver, like an image seen through heat-haze.
‘NOW!’ shouted Tony.
‘Get him!’ shouted Tania, almost simultaneously. Whipping out her paper bag of velth powder, she threw it at the shimmering suit in front of her. It hit and burst, with a sizzling sound and a smell of rotten eggs. Tony’s clod hit almost at the same time, and the spectre hissed and whistled, throwing off the form that had been its protection from the daylight.
Four other people, dressed in a variety of outfits, came pelting towards them through the dank grass and trees, heedless of mud and wet leaves. As the form grew and shifted shape, they too pelted it with handfuls of velth powder. The sounds and smells intensified, and the spectre shouted aloud in pain. It grew, becoming tall and dark, its eyes tilted slits of lava red. Growing long, spindly arms, it turned and reached for Tania. Tania felt her entire being grow cold, even as her mind and heart shut off. The terror seemed to belong to someone else, and she forgot her training, freezing to one spot. She may have been dimly aware that the woman ahead of her, now behind the spectre, was now sprinting towards them, her bundle in her arms. The spectre ignored the others, reaching out for Tania’s white face. Her fear grew to the point of forcing her to move, but she only stumbled as the icy touch of the smoky-grey claw penetrated her forehead.
‘AAARGH!’ the scream echoed in the trees. The spectre writhed as a minor explosion, felt in more the soul than in the ears, erupted. The running woman had thrown her bundle at the spectre: not a baby at all, but a whole sack of velth powder. There were more hits from the others as they too hurled whatever they had left. The icy touch vanished from Tania’s brain as the grey shadow cracked in two and vanished with a cry of loss.
The sun was shining on Tania’s face. Her vision swam as she realised she was lying on the ground. She was surrounded by a ring of faces, mostly the other Watchers, but a few concerned passers-by.
‘She’s OK!’ said Tony with a fake smile, meant for the public. ‘You had a pretty hard fall, luv,’ he said. ‘You’ll be all right, won’t you?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Tania. He helped her up. ‘I’ll be all right.’ She looked at her hands, felt her forehead. ‘How’s that for a first day at work?’
When lies and anger cloud our land, Truth is denied, and life is cheap, And demolition seems close at hand (Those will not sow, who only reap!). I see with horror, the Enemy's hand In madness raised, with every leap Of crazed unlogic, with statement grand Meant to excuse, but only keep Those few, that hard-beleagured band From talking sense, who though they weep At Logos denied, yet still they stand, Their 'perilled vigil yet they keep. I look now at my hand of cards, But Lo! I have a band of Bards!
The dragon and his rider moved down the street. The man, his kevlar armour gleaming dully in the stormy autumn light, bore a glaive in his right hand and a sawn-off shotgun on his left hip.
The dragon, his reticulated brown hide gleaming healthily, trotted birdlike down the road, his arms folded neatly at his side, his head bobbing back and forth with the rhythm of his walking. The dragon stopped, chirrupping and chuttering in his deep voice.
The man on his neck listened intently, understanding. He said, 'Well, we'd better go in, then.' The dragon turned off the street, stalking between the parked cars, stepping easily over a garden hedge. The man dismounted, sliding down the dragon's flank onto the garden path. The door opened before he reached it. A woman looked out, her eyes wide.
'W-what's going on?' she stuttered. 'What do you want?' There was a fearful catch in her voice.
'Sorry, ma'rm,' said the man. 'My dragon feels a dark hollow inside or behind your house. I have to investigate – please.'
'You can't just walk into people's homes –' the woman's protest cut short as a whooshing, hollow sound came from within, followed by the thump of something large landing on the floorboards. The woman gave a little scream and ran out of her door. Seeing the dragon, she stopped, relief warring with anxiety on her face. The man went in.
After a few seconds, he came out again, saying, 'Call air support! It was a frog-dog, it got out the back, down the alleyway. We can't chase them through these terraced houses.'
The dragon's golden eyes closed for several seconds. Then he opened them again and stooped for the man to mount up again. Sheathing his glaive in a long scabbard on the riding-harness, the rider pulled himself up onto the saddle on the dragon's neck. The beast straightened up and turned away rapidly. Stepping back out into the street, he trotted down the road towards the end of the terrace.
As they left, the woman heard a bugling call, and a pair of wyverns came into view, a blue and a green. They swept over the house in a wide curve, their riders visible as small figures between their wings.