“Stop! Did you hear that?” Haldor said to his group as he raised his right arm overhead with his hand balled into a fist.
There was a moment of pause before a tall, thin man, dressed in a blue robe and using a staff to walk with, replied, “I hear nothing except the constant buzzing drone of these blasted mosquitoes. You must be hearing things.”
Haldor scowled at the magician. “I’m sure I heard it. Sounded like something entering the water. Did anyone else hear it?”
The large group looked around at one another, shaking their heads no. Occasionally one of the men-at-arms took a swat at a buzzing insect near his head, or they would adjust their halberds as they looked around at the swamp that they found themselves in.
“There are many swamp creatures here,” said a smaller man in black leather armor as he sheathed his dagger and squinted into the pale overcast sky. Then he looked down into the dark waters around them and the small game trail that they were walking on. “Either something fell into the water or jumped in, but I doubt it’s much to be alarmed at.”
“What would you know, thief, about wild creatures in a dirty swamp?” a young woman said, whirling on him and giving him a look of disgust. “You are a creature of the city, not of the wilds, and you shouldn’t even be here.”
“The name is Horag, oh, Seyla of the Holy Order, and you have less experience in the wilds than a city bumpkin!”
“It’s country bumpkin, fool!” Seyla said.
“Shut up! Both of you!” Haldor said in a hushed voice as he looked between the two members of his party. “Horag, you take lead then, as you’re the quietest of our group, and Seyla, you bring up the rear. Keep a sharp watch about us. I’m sure of what I heard, and whatever is now in the water could easily flank us, so stay alert.”
Seyla sheathed her holy long sword and adjusted her armor breast plate as she stepped aside, allowing Horag to pass her along the thin trail that continued deeper into the swamp. Haldor nodded to his men as they started off again, albeit a bit quieter and definitely more alert, now that Haldor had set them on edge. Still, Haldor was sure he had heard something and the group he led was entirely too complacent for his comfort, considering what they were hunting . . . or supposed to hunt.
“Do you think the beast is actually here, Ketas?” Haldor asked the older man with the staff as they walked in the middle of the group.
“Who knows?” Ketas answered as he kept straining to pull the end of his staff from the boggy ground, placing it with each step of his right foot. “We did not know there were so many drakes just a season ago. As your lord said, it is better to be safe than sorry, and if the rumors in this part of your realm are true, then there is something living here in Kero Swamp. I cannot say if it is a drake or no, but something large enough to take and kill the livestock of your people is here, or near here.”
“That isn’t very comforting,” Haldor said, looking around furtively at the marshlands surrounding them as far as the eye could see.
It was only their second day after leaving the main southern trade road near the town of Tannis, and already Haldor felt as if he had entered into a foreign, faraway land. He had no idea that the swampy marshlands were so vast as they bordered the western edges of the realm from the Western Sea.
“You at least have the attention of your people. They are more alert now after your warning,” Ketas said.
Haldor looked at his men-at-arms, six of them in front leading the way behind the stealthy Horag, and the other six behind him, just in front of the holy warrior Seyla. She walked with her gloved hand on the hilt of her magnificent sword while stealing quick glances from side to side and occasionally backwards. “Yes, they are—”
“Watch your step!” Ketas said, reaching out and pulling Haldor back from the edge of a dark black peat bog that the large man almost stepped in.
“That was close,” Haldor said as he skirted the bog and resumed walking, this time his attention more focused on what was in front of him and not behind him. “It was a shame to have to leave all that armor behind,” he commented, looking at the exposed backs of his men-at-arms as they walked with little more than leather tunics covering their torsos. Their pikes and halberds were waggling in the air in front of them as the soldiers used them, much as their wizard did, as walking sticks.
“It was wise to leave the heavy mail behind,” Ketas said in a whisper so that only Haldor could hear him. “One misstep in these marshes and drowning would become a more dangerous adversary than any beast.”
“Still, I’d feel better if we were more protected,” Haldor responded.
“Chain mail would not make a difference if indeed we find a drake in these forsaken lands. The best we could hope for is to create a defensive wall of our long arms to keep the beast at bay long enough for us to do our work.”
“Work that would be unnecessary, had your leader not stirred the wrath of the dragons with his greed.” Haldor scowled.
Ketas stopped and turned to face the large leader of their group. “Do not go there, Ulathan. The Kesh have just as much reason to criticize the greed of your kings and lords. Stay focused on the task at hand. I will not argue with you the merits, or lack thereof, of my High Mage’s actions.”
There was silence for a moment before they heard the stern but feminine voice of Seyla from behind. “What now you two? You bunched us up in the rear. We need to maintain our spacing, and, besides, it’s getting darker. It will soon be time to find a suitable place to make camp.”
“So now you’re worried about our defensive posture?” Haldor said, his scowl changing to a grin. “Why the sudden concern for our position?”
“Because I too think I heard something moving in the water. I think you were right, Haldor—we are being followed,” Seyla said.
Everyone fell silent as they looked around listening, but they heard nothing. “Psst! I found a place about a hundred yards ahead of us for camp.” Horag motioned forward with his arm.
“Lead on,” Ketas said, turning from Haldor and resuming his march, apparently forgetting any offense given by the Ulathan to him and his people of Kesh.
Haldor decided to drop the subject yet again. The near constant friction between the Kesh and the Ulathans was not helping, and he had to admit the wizard was most useful, especially considering his knowledge of the drakes and his ability to protect the group. This wasn’t their first mission together, so Haldor had seen him in action more than once, and the old man’s walking staff was anything but benign. He had seen what the staff could do firsthand, and, though he personally disliked the tall, thin, swarthy Kesh, he felt safer with the man at his side.
Soon the group had found the clearing that Horag had led them to, and it was a good thing too, for the small thin trail was nearly indefensible. Off to the side of the trail was a nice plot of land that stood on a small rise and therefore was dry and round in shape. This grassy knoll, in the middle of the swamp, he could defend.
Soon the group had made camp, and Seyla had used her tinderbox to start a small fire despite the objections of Ketas, who felt it safer to go without. The soldiers broke off into groups of four and started a watch that Haldor had set up, three hours on, six hours off.
“It got dark very quickly,” Seyla said, looking around and warming her hands by the fire.
“It’s about time you took those gauntlets of yours off,” Horag said, also sitting across from Seyla and warming his hands above the fire. “I could think of a few other things for you to take off so you’d feel more comfortable.”
“And I could take that offensive head right off of your puny shoulders . . .”
“What in all of Agon was your lord thinking when he put these two together?” Ketas asked, taking a bite of his apple and then starting to stuff his pipe with weed from his pouch. “I still object to lighting this fire—it will do more harm than good.”
“Easy for you to say as you light your pipe and enjoy a good smoke, Master Wizard,” Horag said in his finest mocking tone. “As if the foul creatures hereabouts would not smell your weed for miles?”
“I light my pipe only because the fire is also lit, so the pipe no longer makes a difference, Master Thief,” the Kesh Wizard said in imitation of Horag’s own mocking voice.
“Shhh, both of you,” Haldor said, waving at them to be quiet. He turned to Castor, the sergeant of the men-at-arms. “What is it, Castor?”
“The guard is set and we’ve seen to the safe storing of our provisions near your tent, my lord . . .” Castor turned around to look at his men nearby, and then turned back to Haldor and lowered his voice even further. “The men are worried, my lord. They are hearing things, and all this talk between your colleagues is disconcerting. I worry for their morale.”
“Disconcerting?” Horag said, leaning forward. He stood slightly in a crouch looking to the soldiers then back to Castor. “Where in the abyss did you learn to speak a word like that?” He laughed.
“Don’t mock . . . Horag,” Seyla said, holding herself back from hurling a pejorative at her companion.
Haldor waved them to be silent again, and then motioned for Horag to sit down, before turning back to Castor. “Inform the men that we’ll also stand watch with them tonight. I’ll take first watch, and I’ll make sure one of us Ulathans is on each shift with them.”
“Very comforting,” Ketas said simply, taking a long puff on his pipe to get the weed burning, having finished eating his apple. Haldor just looked at him before seeing to their defenses.
After an hour, and a small meal of dried meat with stale cheese, the group broke up and prepared to sleep for the night. Knowing that they would have to take a watch each, both Horag and Seyla retired immediately, leaving Haldor alone with Ketas around the small fire that was left to burn lightly. The camp fire hardly put out much light, let alone heat, but still in the intense darkness of the night it seemed like a beacon to anyone or anything in the area.
“The sisters will rise soon, and they will illuminate the area,” Ketas said, finishing with his pipe and then cleaning it out, dumping the small ashes onto the fire.
“Assuming we don’t see another fog like we did last night,” Haldor replied.
Ketas finished with his pipe and quickly tucked it into one of his robe’s many pockets. “Unusual weather for a midsummer’s eve.”
“Indeed, the weather is most foul here . . . almost as if the swamp itself keeps summer at bay. Do you think we’ll find anything in this cursed place?”
“I am not sure. I was thinking the entire quest was a waste of our time and resources, considering the war that rages on in the North, until you and Seyla started hearing things. I cannot say that we will find a drake, but most likely your lord and master will feel better once the evil inhabitant of Kero Swamp is found and eliminated, if indeed one exists—one less worry, so to speak.”
Haldor looked around furtively and rubbed his upper arms with his hands to warm up, which he found odd, considering how hot it was just a couple of days ago. “How could anything as large as a dragon remain undiscovered in the middle of our realm? I find it nigh to impossible to believe.”
“There were many things that we found impossible just a year ago, but now we know them to be true; one can only wonder at how long we would have continued on in arrogance and ignorance without the High Mage’s enlightenment.”
Haldor frowned and looked sideways at Ketas. It never ceased to amaze him how the wizard practically worshiped his magocratic leader, sometimes to a fault, and here, many leagues and days away from his homeland of Kesh, the man still thought to praise his leader despite not having an appreciative audience. “What news from Kesh on the battles in the North?” Haldor decided to glean a bit more information from the wizard rather than descend into another squabble over ideology and fault regarding Agon’s current events.
Ketas returned his focus to Haldor after looking at the many stars in the night sky that were visible overhead. “Nothing new . . . not since the last time we discussed the same issue.”
“Yes, but you have that spyglass of yours, and we all know how well informed the Kesh are,” Haldor said flatteringly.
“It’s called a critir, and it is not made of cheap glass, but rather something much more complex and . . . rare.”
“Well, complex and rare or not, you haven’t said a word since we left nearly a week ago, and I’m sure you use it at night when in your tent. I’ve seen the glow from it myself, and it took several nights for the men to get used to it as well.”
“Simple superstition,” Ketas said, reaching down and setting his hand on his pack. “Most commoners make similar mistakes. The arcane is not to be feared, but to be respected.”
“The least you could do is inquire and do so sooner rather than later. It’s hard to receive news in a timely manner with the dangerous conditions along the trade roads. You and your ilk—I mean kind—are much more in tune with what is happening when you use those critirs, as you call them.”
“It is pronounced cree-tier. Alright, I will see what I can find out tonight. Do you have a plan other than having us stumble around these marshlands blindly, hoping to find a drake, or more likely a large carnivore that has not eaten man flesh in years?” the Kesh wizard asked, changing the topic on the large Ulathan fighter.
“That’s why we have those two,” Haldor said, motioning behind him, where their tents were set up and his companions slept. “Horag can scout as well as anyone, and Seyla can sniff evil from over a league out. If there is anything to find, they will find it.”
“Well, they are your companions and you know them best, but they will only assist in the quest if they do not kill one another first. I have seen unhappy husbands and wives lead a more productive relationship than your two companions.” Ketas smirked.
“Our companions, Kesh, or are you not in this with us?” Haldor said.
“Our companions, then, but you are all Ulathans nonetheless.”
Haldor looked overhead, and then back to the eastern horizon, where a faint glow could be seen in the pitch blackness of the night. “The twin sisters will soon rise. Now or just before the dawn would be the best time to ambush us,” he said.
“Your attempt to change the subject is noted,” Ketas said. “You do not really expect anything eventful to happen tonight. If you did, you would not have allowed the fire.”
Haldor kicked at a piece of wood that was near the small fire as he looked down and around at their camp. Ketas was right, as usual. Haldor felt sure this entire quest was nothing more than a colossal waste of time for him and his companions, but he wasn’t giving the orders . . . at least not for the quest, though he was in charge of it here in the field. “You’re most likely correct, Ketas. I think our most serious injury will be the welts we incur from these blasted insects. The swamp is no place for city folk.”
“I indeed hope that you are corr—” Ketas stopped speaking in midsentence. A rush of swamp water came near to the small fire and a large snapping sound broke the hush of the night. A muffled scream alarmed the group, and Seyla appeared, stepping out of her tent, sword held in one hand, shield in the other.
Ketas stood and grabbed his staff. “Aloire sveti!” he exclaimed, pointing his staff into the blackness and a suddenly bright light illuminated the entire area. There, standing as if a void in the blackness, was a black dragon. Its front claws had landed on the tents of their soldiers, and Haldor could only imagine the death they had imparted.
“Horag, watch out!” Seyla cried as the large black dragon swung its tail and caught the rogue exiting his tent opposite of the others. The tail caught Horag square across the chest, and he was hurled backwards into the swamp and darkness, disappearing from sight.
Two of the men-at-arms who had been standing watch lunged into the beast from either side with their large halberds in an attempt to wound the creature. “Kill it!” Castor yelled, picking up a large pike ornamented at the top with a sharp steel point.
Too late came the cry as the beast spat a large stream of acid at Seyla, who had advanced directly into the beast’s path. She tried to duck behind her shield, but the sizzling acid burned the flesh from her arm, and her shield started to melt as she screamed in pain. Before the last of the foul liquid was retched out of the beast’s huge maw, a blinding bolt of lightning, followed by a deafening clap of thunder, tore into its neck, shattering several scales and scorching the flesh underneath.
The dragon reared up, pulling its neck back, and turned to face Ketas, who had unleashed the electrical discharge from his staff. Haldor had managed to sling his own shield onto his left arm and had unsheathed his own sword, lithely swinging it in a circular motion in front of him as he often did to acclimate himself to its weight. Then time seemed to freeze. The dragon had reared back and stood still for a moment as its gaze met that of the Kesh wizard. Even Castor and his two men took a moment to brace themselves, and then the beast did something unexpected and very human-like . . . It glared at Ketas and narrowed its eyelids in a look of hate that Haldor was sure he would never forget, if he survived the encounter.
“Kill it!” Castor screamed again as the beast lunged towards the wizard and let loose another stream of black acid directly at Ketas’s face.
“Dostoi!” Ketas yelled, and he held his staff horizontally in front of him. Haldor also raised his own shield and took several steps back, which saved his own life, as the black oozing acid hit an invisible spherical wall of force around the Kesh mage, and the acid splattered everywhere, including Haldor’s shield.
“Argh!” Haldor grimaced in pain as a small amount of the black liquid landed on his sword arm. He instinctively ripped the sleeve of his tunic off and threw the smoking remnants clear of him. He should have struck then, as the beast’s neck extended not far in front of him, but he found himself preoccupied with his own pain, and he was experiencing some sort of unnatural fear that seemed to emanate from the black dragon. Where was Seyla? Why wasn’t she attacking?
With a quick look to his side, he saw her kneeling on one knee, with her sword planted into the soft ground, grimacing in pain. Her left arm lay inside the shield straps on the ground, and only a burning stump at her left shoulder was left to show for her efforts.
“Haldor! Kill it!” the Kesh wizard yelled, but again, too late. The beast never slowed its attack, and while the magical shield kept the liquid acid at bay, it did little to nothing to stop the beast’s jaws. They struck quickly, biting the wizard in half and leaving only his two legs standing on the moist ground, planted there as the only reminder that a man from Kesh had been to this swamp.
Haldor was shocked, but newly galvanized by the death of his companion, he took two steps forward and brought his sword down hard across the beast’s neck, hitting it on the right side, and opposite the side where the wizard’s electrical bolt had hit the dragon. He felt his blade sink in between scales, and then suddenly it was ripped from his hand. The dragon roared in pain and reared its head back up as it used a hind leg to swipe one of the attacking soldiers, spilling his innards across the marshland.
“No!” Haldor found himself screaming in vain, as his company, and indeed his quest, went from routine and more than boring to terrifying and utterly deadly in the metaphorical blink of an eye.
“To the abyss of Dor Akun with you, beast!” Seyla cried, rising and rushing the beast with only one arm. Quickly reaching the dragon’s right front leg, she swung at it with her holy sword. Haldor watched, mesmerized at the bravery of his companion. He had seen her fight before, but never like this. She was a Fist of her holy Order, a holy warrior of Astor, and she looked every bit the part as her blade drew blood and bit deep into the beast’s leg tendons, hitting where the scales ended and the rough skin began. The blade glowed a bright white, and black blood from the dragon sizzled off it.
She hurt the beast as it rolled over and away from her, landing not only on its left side but also onto Castor and his lone remaining man-at-arms. The sickening sound of bones being crushed was muffled in the soft earth and soil of the marshland. The beast didn’t wait and let loose a third missile of acid at its very own feet, completely engulfing what was left of the brave and gallant holy warrior. It seemed to Haldor that she began to melt almost immediately.
Haldor stood there dumbfounded, looking at what was left of his bravest companion as her remains slowly shriveled into a lump of black sizzling and smoking goo. Then, ever so slowly, he felt the gaze of pure evil upon him, and he looked into the beast’s eyes as it lay on its side, wounded but deadly and alive, malign to its core.
The beast struggled to stand back up, and Haldor would have thought that then and there was the time, the exact moment, especially after so much sacrifice, to strike the beast down when it was, for one brief moment, vulnerable. Haldor realized, however, that his sword was still sticking lengthwise from the dragon’s neck, and that he was no longer armed. He dropped his shield and did the only thing he could think to do.
Book 1 in the Claire-Agon