It had been a bad idea from the start.
That was the singular thought that kept announcing itself, loudly, in the mind of the young half elf. Not that he should have been concerning himself with such a thought; in fact he had every reason to keep his mind on more important aspects of his current situation. In particular, the tree trunk sized black tentacle that had just scythed through the air and very nearly removed the half elf's head from his body. It had not entirely missed him, and it was due only to the preternatural abilities the half elf had been born with that he managed to keep his head on his shoulders, albeit a head now smeared with what was surely an unhealthy portion of the slimy coating that oozed from every inch of the tentacle's surface. The smell of the slime made him want to retch; no, not just the smell of it. It was as though he sensed something so beyond what was natural in the world, something so alien and also so... hateful, for lack of a better word, that it caused an immediate, instinctive revulsion in him at the touch of the vile substance. To make matters worse, at even a near miss, the blow from the tentacle had knocked the half elf sprawling onto his back, leaving him all too vulnerable to a second attack; but again, the abilities many would call a curse spared him from becoming nothing more than a bloodied smear on the rocks, as a second tentacle slammed down with a force great enough to pulverize anything living.
The roll to escape the decidedly fatal impact carried him onto his feet and into a crouch, his sword at the ready. It was a good sword, though it did little to penetrate the hide of the creature bent on causing his death; the druids had given it to the half elf when he was charged with serving as their agent, and he'd used it often to save his own life or the lives of others in the expeditionary groups he'd joined. His skill in using it had been hard won. He knew of few others who had been sold to the fighting pits in Braxos at the age of seven and managed to not only survive, but become infamous in the ways in which their opponents had been dispatched. Had the half elf the time, at the moment, to reflect on that memory, it no doubt would have caused him to break into the wry, lop-sided grin so often encountered by those who inquired about his past. But as it was, any space in his mind for higher thought was bought and paid for by what was clearly becoming an annoyingly solid fact:
It had been a bad idea from the start.
The "why" of it yielded many reasons; in fact, he'd started to count them up less than two days into their explorations. Their group was too small, of those few that were in their party, most lacked experience, one of the least experienced being the young scribe from the wizarding college, who was also the most eager to prove herself, although certainly not to the half elf, as the scribe harbored some deep seated mistrust and resentment towards any of elven blood. Neither was she eager to prove herself to her other comrades on this venture, all of whom seemed far too distracted by the scribe's attractive appearance--although she took pains to hide it-- and ended up taking any number of stupid and risky actions designed to win her favor. To make matters worse, there was the crevice itself, in Orsk of all places. Actually, it was in the outer reaches of Orsk; far, far in the outer reaches. Far enough to leave much room for argument as to whether the local baron and his council had any claim to what the crevice held, and too near to Aeras Orillander to deny that the elves of that great and ancient forest were perhaps the only ones who could truly make a rightful claim of any kind. Both groups, of course, argued that theirs was the greater need for protection from the murderous creatures that would periodically pour forth from this most recent wound in the earth. Neither the elves nor the residents of Orsk cared much for the safety of the other, and no one here -- or anywhere else on the continent -- had come close to answering the questions of why the crevices had appeared, or who was responsible. As a result, the age old mistrust between humans and elves took on an ever sharper edge, and the tension in the entire area, already stretched too thin, seemed ready to snap at the merest sidelong glance. How long would it be before each group would take arms against each other instead of the terrors that kept crawling up from the benighted depths?
On top of all that, and unknown to the others in the current group, were the mysterious deaths that had been dogging the half elf for the last six months. No matter where his travels had taken him, the four nights of the double moon yielded four new corpses, the victims of horribly brutal, savage murders. More often than not at least one of the victims was someone the half elf had dealt with in the course of an expedition; twice it had been members of the group itself. It was enough of a concern that he'd considered telling the current expedition he'd joined all he knew of the crimes, and some of what he suspected, but he'd quickly abandoned that consideration. For although the expedition knew him as Daedhrogon, agent of the Druids and Protector of the Green, they also knew him as a Wildenkin, and that simple fact would be reason enough for most to brand him guilty of the most grisly murder they could possibly imagine.
Keeping his concerns to himself, allowing them to get under his skin and form into a small but potent seed of anxiety was one more reason why he should never have joined this expedition. That seed had grown with each passing day, finally becoming a great tree that kept him so preoccupied with the shadows it cast across his thoughts that he'd failed to notice some of the most obvious signs that could have warned him of the danger into which he and his group had carelessly blundered. He'd been as inept and blind as a novice adventurer; "adventurer"... now there was a label that never failed to rankle him. It added a sense of romance, theatricality, and entertainment to what was always, in his experience, dirty and deadly work. How many had trod the gold plated path laid out before them by some blatantly self important and flowery tongued duke or baron promising wealth and power, or citing noble duty and honor, only to find it lead to a grave deep in some strange, unhallowed chamber far below the earth, or worse, a dead end nestled in the belly of a hellish creature such as he now faced. To say it was a growing problem was an understatement, for "adventuring", as it was now called, was beginning to rob just as many of the population of their lives as the attacks that sprang from the crevices themselves.
When the strange cracks in the earth had first appeared, the majority of any group that explored them had been professional soldiers or mercenaries, and even those battle hardened toughs had suffered heavy casualties on their explorations. But some of the survivors started bringing back wondrous weapons and armor, or grimoires, scrolls and otherworldly objects of incredible power... It didn't take long for the stories of treasure to spread across the entire continent of Pellentir; tales were told of riches to be had beyond imagining if only one were bold enough to delve into the darkest recesses of the subterranean chambers revealed by each crevice that opened. The response to such stories was not at all unexpected, as now any fool who thought they could swing a blade or throw a spear would jump at the chance to parlay their lives for the possibility, however slim, of recovering some arcane artifact or powerful magic hidden in the stygian depths. Even bards, against any shred of sense or rationality, were throwing their peacock feathered caps into the ring; as though they could sing their way free of death's cold grasp. Idiots... the next time he came across some lute carrying fop boasting of how he'd defeat the fiends of the pit with the power of his voice, he'd make a point of educating him, quite forcefully, as to the error of his thinking. One solid punch...
"Dammit!!" He'd just been struck across his left arm and shoulder, so sharply that most of that side of his body felt numb, and the momentum of the strike had practically knocked his legs from under him, sending him careening solidly into one of the large boulders that littered the dank cavern. The animal like reflexes and strength, the hyper-sensitivity to sights, sounds and smells that were his birthright and his bane seemed to be betraying him. He stumbled and fell, then clumsily scrambled to his feet, feeling more shaky than he should have... was the slime on the tentacles a toxin? He kept as low as he could, trying to ignore the persistent buzzing that had started in his ears, and fought to stay focused on the creature and its tentacles, which were now waving in a less wild manner; in fact, they became still... poised... seemed almost calm... He suddenly realized the mistake he'd made, possibly his last ever. He'd committed the cardinal sin of underestimating his opponent, assuming the horror he fought was little more than a wild animal, like the tentacled swamp gwyllugs he'd dealt with while in the southern region of Pellentir, though they were no bigger than a wild boar or a small calf. As he watched, the brief pause in the swaying of the tentacles gave way to more calculated movements; mesmerizing undulations that possessed an almost graceful but distinctly malevolent quality. And more: an intelligence revealed itself in the gaze of the great goggling eye that was now fixed on the half elf more keenly than before. The beast had been testing him, learning how Daedhrogon reacted to its attacks, gauging his defenses, perhaps even toying with him... but the time for play was over. In a movement so swift that none with normal senses would have detected it, one great black tentacle reached high towards the cavern ceiling, coiled tightly and then rapidly uncoiled as it lashed out and down like a whip, while almost simultaneously and with equal speed, the second tentacle arced from left to right, seeking to grab and hold whatever was in its path. Daedhrogon had just enough time to cast one of the few spells the druids had taught him, conjuring a protective field of magical force that dulled the blow from the tentacle as it slammed down on him from above, while at the same time pushing it back up and away. The magical barrier kept him from being flattened, but still he felt a near unbearable pressure as the first tentacle struck him, however briefly, and a thin trickle of blood began to run from his nose. In that fraction of a second, Daedhrogon's focus on the spell wavered, and the consequences were dire. Critically weakened, the repellent nature of the field the half elf had summoned kept the second tentacle from holding him in its grasp, but was unable to nullify the force of the swing itself. The cavern echoed with a searing, crackling sound and was illuminated with a blinding burst of intense blue white light as the flesh of the creature made contact with the magical force field... Had the half elf been hit by hurricane force winds, they would have seemed gentle in comparison to the blow from the lashing tentacle. The world suddenly spun madly out of control... he seemed to be flying...or cartwheeling? How had that happened? He had still been chained for the afternoon showing to the jeering crowds, all of them eager to see the freak of nature... but if he'd been somehow freed, well, the punters were about to get a show they'd never forget as long as they lived... which wouldn't be very long, if it was up to him...
The sickening thud as he hit the ground and the jarring feeling of his teeth rattling in his skull brought Daedhrogon back to his senses, such as they were. The numbness in his side seemed to have infected his legs; moving them meant crossing a barrier, one that the years of physical conditioning to which his muscles had been subjected was not able to breach. His right hand still functioned, though the sword it had carried was nothing more than a distant memory. He heard a deep, resonant grumbling that had a definite character of self-satisfaction, and found that with sufficient effort he could open his right eye. Through a red tinged haze, what he saw did not surprise him: the great, glistening, black mass of the creature had begun to shift its position, and through the action of its tentacles was slowly crawling over the rocky ground toward where Daedhrogon lay.
Conjuring further magic was out of the question, as the slime the creature had left on his skin -- he was now certain it was some kind of paralyzing toxin -- left him with the feeling of his mind being enveloped by ever thickening layers of cotton. The half elf pushed as hard as he could against the stupor threatening to overtake him entirely, and willed movement from his right hand and shoulder. This allowed Daedhrogon to pull himself a pitiful few inches further back from the advancing horror before the encroaching numbness quelled any possibility of physical action. He felt his right arm give way and his head fell back, coming to rest against a smooth boulder that happened to be behind him, leaving him in a position to watch death as it moved inexorably closer. Helpless in a way he had not been in years, he felt an anger rise in him, the old rage that had brought him so much pain yet served him so well. Surprisingly, the focus of his wrath was not, as one might expect, the creature who was intent on ending the half elf's life, but rather it was split among many targets, all of whom, in Daedhrogon's opinion, were equally deserving of his ire. Not the least among them were Old Jenks, who had found and caged him... Gar Tulak, his handler in the Braxos pits... even Na'el and the druids, who, in their supposed wisdom, had refused to admit him into their order, granting him only the opportunity to serve as their agent... and he, himself, in his view the most deserving, for letting all of them and so many others take a hand in charting the course of his life... Tela take them all. They deserved the torments she served up in the hells she ruled.
The half elf stared through the fog clouding his vision, determined not to turn away from his own end. This much, at least, would be his decision alone. The image of the creature, now nothing more than a black blur, swam before his one open eye. Daedhrogon could feel his hold on consciousness waning... where was he? They must have drugged him again after he'd disobeyed... and that sound... they had left him in the animal pen... The half elf could no longer discern memory from reality; he became lost in the near constant, guttural rumbling emanating from the creature that seemed to fill every space in the cave. On some level, he knew the sounds were hungry, anticipating the meal the beast was about to consume. He would die, no more than a mere boy, locked in the animal pens as he'd feared. They'd immobilized him too well, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it... nothing anyone could...
The piercing roar that assaulted Daedhrogon's hearing was so shocking in its shift from the low growls that it brought a small measure of clarity back into the half elf's sight and perception. He squinted, and saw that the black blur of the tentacled beast was being set upon by a small, pale colored shape; one that was bounding wildly around the space of the cave... it was like watching sunlight dance on the waves of Eld Glass lake. He could make out sharp flashes of greenish light... like the glinting facets of an emerald, and his mind lurched, sluggishly trying to make sense of what he saw... to remember... he knew her... Neeri? What was she doing here? She'd been warned after the last time, they both had... if the handlers caught her here in the barracks, among the fighters, it was a flogging for him, and flaying for her.... Daedhrogon struggled to call out to her, warn her away, but found that his voice had deserted him.... he could only listen to the inhuman screams, screams that meant her death, a death that was his fault, and no other, screams he heard so often in his dreams, screams that suddenly, mercifully stopped... In the silence that settled in the cavern, with the last shreds of consciousness to which the half elf desperately clung, he hoped that this time he would be free of the guilt that haunted him... the guilt of failing her, of failing himself.... he was even tempted for the briefest of moments to pray for salvation... to the old gods, to the new, to any that would listen... But as the ghostly outline of a face loomed close in the field of his darkening vision, the face he believed to be that of the woman he'd let die, the face that could not possibly belong to Neeri, he knew deep within him that he deserved no such freedom... not now. Perhaps never... She would always find him; would always remind him of what he owed her...And as he sank finally into the dark folds of oblivion, there was but one thought echoing through the over-crowded halls of his mind...
It had been a bad idea from the start.
To be continued...
©2020 by Roy Stanton