Deep in the Salt Flats Desert. Third week of the month IceHeart (mid-winter).
“Come on, brother! Keep running,” gasped the slim human. His words were punctuated by heaving breaths the steamed like a dragon's breath. Had his armor always been this heavy? He could feel his feet sinking deeper into the sand with each labored step, and drops of sweat dripped from his shaggy hair onto his stony grey armor to be absorbed into the dripping quilted gambeson beneath. The frigid winter air cut through his sweat soaked clothes like a knife. At least it wasn't still snowing. Now there was only sand and salt along with the endless howling wind. He staggered up a lonely ridge, jutting out into the desert’s nothingness. Stopping at the top, he adjusted the huge pack on his back; the salty sand flowed into the sinkhole impressions around his feet and covered his ankles. He called back to his companion below him, “You ogres have a reputation for not quitting. Prove it to me!”
The great, muscular ogre, near seven feet tall and proportionately broad, blew huge breaths out his tusked mouth. Sand dusted once pitch-black hair and made it a dirty, dusty blonde. The ogre’s left hand held a red rag to his side. The rag had not been red before, but now it was so saturated with the color, so vibrant, that the red dripped steadily off of its edges. The ogre scaled the sandy ridge to join his human companion. Even hunched over in pain, he towered over the human man, who was of average height among his people. He grinned down at his friend, the large, sabre-like tusks framing his smile, and said, “I’ll not be quitting little man. Any human would be dead by now, but Gnarl of the Broken Club Tribe will persevere.” The human returned the grin, but he could see that the rag’s red had seeped onto the ogre’s hand and dripped down his side.
A woman, covered in a sandy brown cloak, the third and last of their group, emerged from the fog-like dust created by the swirling breeze. She walked backwards, and her eyes scanned the dunes and rocks of the salt flats. She spoke, though her voice sounded raw and strained, “Shush you two. You gab like school girls. The thrice damned hivar have excellent hearing too.” The great crossbow in her hand was nocked and drawn back with a barb-headed bolt. Once the two others had reached the top of the ridge, she turned and jogged to catch up. Being lighter of frame, she had less difficulty with the shifting ground beneath her feet. “We should be safe here on the rocks for a moment,” she continued, “They can’t tunnel through this as easily.”
The near twilight dimness with only the looming, sullen red sun called the Ember still above the horizon was split by brilliant yellow lightning. It struck a ways away and made ghostly spots dance in their vision. Two or three times, hard to tell in the blinding glare, the sky tore open and rained down destruction. Then, there was silence.
“Damn,” the human man, Miltiades, said quietly. “Percival loved that spell.” He shook his head sadly. “It must be him, still out there fighting.” He looked hard at the area where the lightning had struck and continued to scan for enemies.
“I hope he makes it away.” The woman’s light tenor broke at the end of the sentence. Her eyes closed, and a single choking sob shook her shoulders.
The ogre’s hand almost covered her entire back as he patted her gently. “Percival is a powerful mage and good friend. Maybe he’s with Madiera and Stethis.” His breath caught in pain, “Hopefully, they all made it.” He rumbled, still panting from the hike.
“Nah, not Maddy. I saw her get pulled into one of those tunnels. She was still fighting, but nobody comes out of one of those with the hivar awake and alert. Damn.” He said again and shook his head, long brown hair pulling out of the tie he kept it in. Turning, the man again surveyed the horizon. “There!” he pointed back south, to the right of the way they had come. “I think I see another of the hunters!” A bug, one that might be bigger than a wagon, buzzed through the sky in the distance, silhouetted against the angry red clouds of sunset. It was swinging back and forth in the air, first left, then right, weaving as if looking for a trail.
“Hey, does anybody hear that? Is someone here?” Gloria, the human woman, held up a hand with one finger extended and cocked her head to the side. A six and a half foot tall bipedal cobra faded in out of the gloom that surrounded them. The pale scales on his stomach were ripped in several places, covered with canvas patches that looked like they used to be parts of a backpack. His mouth rippled, revealing long fangs and a purple tongue which flickered out to taste the evening air.
“Hello Miltiadessssssss.” The great serpent man hissed, then collapsed forward into the human’s arms. The long body of the Midniss sauroid, one of the common types of reptilian humanoids, draped across the shorter man’s body. He wasn’t heavy, but Miltiades staggered backwards from the unexpected weight. The scaled hood along his stretched snakelike neck fluttered open and closed in time with his ragged breathing. “I tried to sssssssave her. Ssssssso ssssssssorry all of you. I couldn’t reach her before they tore her to piessssssessssss.” The slit irised eyes closed against the pain of his wounds.
“You mean Maddy? You went in after her?” Miltiades leaned forward and set his friend on the ground with surprising gentleness, blinking like something was suddenly in his eyes. “Well. . . It is a miracle you made it out. I’ll thank the gods for that.” The ogre sat down heavily on a low boulder, blowing out air like he was deflating.
“We just had to go and get the scent glands. Who the hells goes into a hivar hive?” Gloria spoke quietly, her eyes never leaving the massive insect weaving its way closer through the darkening sky.
Gnarl pulled his great hammer off his back and wiped some of the black insectoid blood off of it. His voice was normally rough, but now it was strained from shouting, and he still hadn’t caught his breath. “We all agreed to it. The price was right, and they should have been hibernating. It should have been easy.”
“Well, we’ve seen what easy looks like. Now we just have to get away,” Miltiades said and hefted the pack on his back, filled to bursting with glands taken from sleeping hivar the group had slain. By weight, they were more valuable than diamonds to the perfumeries in Seagate. The problem was they were hivar scent glands, and the pack was soaked with fetid, sticky bug guts. The same smell which was so heavily in demand among Seagate perfumers was the bugs’ putrid form of communication. The scent glands smelled powerfully like rotten vanilla. Apparently, it was powerful enough to attract the big flying critter that was nearby.
The hunter hivar were flying insects around ten or fifteen feet in length, not counting their stinger tail which was usually about half the length of their body. They were covered in a slick looking black chitin with yellow tiger stripes. Six legs curled up tightly along the sides of their abdomen while in flight, and two hulking crablike claws either hung straight down or were held forward when attacking. Its head had a round, gaping leech-like mouth covered in circles of little grinding pieces of the same chitin that armor plated its body, and the eyes were black compound masses that covered each side of the relatively small head. Eight pairs of wings beat frantically to hold the huge thing in the air.Though still at a distance, the companions knew they had been spotted because the six-legged beast stopped flying lazily. It pointed its claws straight at them and zoomed into a dive. It swooped down towards the group with its lance-like stinger held forward under its abdomen.
Gloria loosed bolts at the hunter twice, winding frantically on the crossbow’s windlass between shots; the first bolt struck near the joint between abdomen and torso while the other missed completely. She ran to the side, away from the rest of the group, bow in hand. Gnarl stepped forward in front of the badly wounded Stethis with all the legendary courage for which ogres are known. He chanted in a strong voice, “I am Gnarl of the Broken Club Tribe, called Wall-Breaker, for it was I who shattered the shield wall of the Gorellen Red Wolf Raiders at the battle of Shark Peninsula. I earned the name Spirit-Slayer for destroying the demon centimere in the ruins of Athal’guellen.” The hunter was nearly to him now with the buzzing of its eight wings echoing in the otherwise silent desert. Miltiades drew his broad sword and long knife and crouched behind a large stone to the left of the bellowing ogre. Hoisting his hammer he took up the high guard position like a baseball player at the plate, Gnarl continued, “I was named Drake-Bane for single-handedly crushing the iron drake menacing Draedon.” The stinger was nearly to him, and he spun to the side with more agility than a creature his size should have. Dodging, he brought his hammer down on the side of the whizzing insect, causing it to crash in a furrow of sand and salt. “And I fear nothing that walks, crawls or flies across this land.”
Miltiades ran up the back of the thrashing insect as it tried to stand, dodging buzzing wings and barely maintaining his balance on the slick chitin. Reaching the head, he chopped down with his broadsword at the base of one of the long feathery antenna and stabbed his long knife into an eye. The creature collapsed, buzzed again, and went still. He pulled his knife from the insect’s eye, a spray of black goo accompanying the motion, and said, “Well, I guess hit it with a hammer is as good a plan as any.” He grinned for the first time in a while.
“Aye, man. Better a good hammer in both hands than your little blades in each. I hit somebody, and they know they’ve been struck!” Gnarl smiled hollowly and placed his hand to his left side. His wound had again ripped open, and the pitiful, soaked rag was no longer holding back the blood pouring onto the salty sand.
Gloria trotted back to the group, eyes scanning the skies for any other threats. “Okay, we’ve got to go,” she said, kicking at the insect’s corpse. “You all know when you kill one of these things the scent glands fully express. More of his kind and worse will be heading this way soon.” The two men nodded, but the serpentine Midniss didn’t move.
“Ah, blast!” Miltiades sheathed his weapons and violently kicked a stone down the hill. The hunter hivar’s stinger hadn’t missed at all. Stethis was laid open from waist to throat, his life’s blood staining the ground all around him.
“Oh,” was all great Gnarl could say, he and Gloria both kneeling down at their companion’s sides. She closed the Midniss’ eyes and murmured words to the goddess of the forests. Gnarl growled deep in his chest, “Stethis, child of Morlid, he who slew the lich priest Yin’tarb.” He paused and a great tear rolled down his cheek into his beard. Gloria stepped around their friend’s long body to the ogre’s side.
Her usually bright voice was heavy and thick with emotion, “Not just a warrior. He gave away the treasure we won so those priests could build an orphanage.”
“Ha, the dumb lizard.” Miltiades joined them, piling a few gathered rocks and pieces of wood to make a pyre for the body. “He gave it all away, the full amount the group had won. They weren’t even priests, but it never crossed his mind anybody would lie about that. He was so mad when he found out. I thought he’d kill everyone in the tavern!” He stopped every now and again in his gathering to listen to his friends recount the deeds of Stethis whose short life had been lived fully. He was only four years old, but the sauroid people come to adulthood quickly. After several minutes with the other’s assistance, the body was on top of a bier of sticks and cacti. It was almost fully dark, the Ember slipping off behind the distant Skydagger mountains. The moon Luna had not yet risen, but the bilious green and black mark across the sky called the Scar that was a tear in reality, the gateway to The Pit, was high in the sky.
Gloria again held up her hand, single finger extended. “Shhh, listen,” she whispered. A faint sound like frying bacon was just on the edge of hearing.
“Diggers,” Miltiades shouted. Everyone drew weapons and spread out, humans on either side of Gnarl who was looking pale. Gloria pulled two tapers from the bandolier across her chest and thumbed them, causing both to ignite with a white actinic glare. She tossed one of the alchemical torches to either side of where they were standing and dropped a bolt into her bow.
“We sure the light is a great idea? You’ll be able to see this hilltop from forever away.” Miltiades said as he circled slowly, trying to look in all directions at once, a blade in each hand.
“Too late now. Besides, do you want to fight something that lives underground in the dark?” Gloria shook the sand out of her hair and wiped her eyes. The smears of salt across her face looked like war paint.
Gnarl grunted, “The better that the lords of battle will see us.” He swung his hammer back and forth in readiness stances, ignoring its great weight.
“Left!” Miltiades cried out as the sand began to waver like water rolling off the beach. Sand flew into the air in a cloud. Two insectoid claws flickered in and out of the hole, enlarging it. Gloria loosed a bolt that stuck deep in one of the mantis claws, and a surprisingly high-pitched squeak responded from underground. The digging stopped. Miltiades and Gnarl both brandished their weapons and eased forward on different sides of the hole. Gloria pulled a ceramic pot from a pouch on her belt and bit off a cloth on the top before stepping forward to hurl it into the hole. After a short moment, it exploded and a burst of flame licked out. Everything went quiet except for the slight whisper of sand falling gently back into the opened crevice.
The sides of the hole collapsed like there was nothing under them. Dozens of bugs the size of mastiffs worked busily on expanding the hole. Their chitin was black and shiny, more beetle-like. Each of their six legs had two knees and were attached to their center section. Their bulbous abdomens were held up into the air behind them as they kicked up sand and small rocks. These hivar had long segmented necks connected to their tiny heads. Accustomed to being underground, they had small compound eyes, and the group could only speculate as to the reason why their mouths were structured vertically. Their two larger crab-like claws moved quickly, tearing out the sand and mixing it with a strange substance spurting from their abdomen to make an almost instantly drying concrete. The scent of burned insect wafted up from the tunnel, and the carcass of a fat, elephant-sized mantis blocked the center of the passage. Miltiades stabbed the creatures he could reach, and Gnarl ran forward into the fray, his hammer leading the way. The unintelligent workers hardly reacted to half their fellows being destroyed in a few moments. A strong smell of rotting vanilla, the scent of hivar death, began to overwhelm the burnt bug odor.
Much bigger gray insects shoved the dead, dying, and even the living workers out of the way and cleared the tunnel. Their chitin was patterned with wavy red lines, almost like veins on a human. Four elephantine legs propelled the creatures through the tunnel. They used huge crab-like claws to gently push their fellows to the side, sometimes using the spear clutched in two slimmer, almost humanlike hands under the claws. Wide heads had four-part mouths that constantly worked like they were chewing, and bulbous compound eyes of shiny black that looked almost like a crown. The warriors had arrived.
Bolts from the heavy crossbow took the first to emerge; one bolt disappeared into its weird mouth to leave it choking out its life. Miltiades became a whirlwind of steel that would have made his instructors in the Bleeding Wind School proud, blocking attacks and cutting into thick insect armor. Gnarl went to work like somebody chopping down a tree, taking sure hits and causing great damage. Still the warriors came, dying in waves, but pushing the group further and further back from the hole. Gnarl had taken several wounds when he finally fell to a knee. Gloria ran up to kick one of the badly injured warriors off him, but a tide of the creatures pushed her away. She lofted another of the bombs, and in the flare of light, retreated.
Miltiades continued to whirl and kill in the sword dance of the Bleeding Wind, droves of insectoid warriors falling to his blade. The elemental spirit trapped in his armor deflected countless strikes and hardened his flesh almost to the strength of stone; the runes on his armor commanded the spirit to expend its power to protect its master. The flood of warrior hivar seemed endless: each one killed was stepped over by a half dozen of its fellows. “Run girl! I’ll hold them as long as I can!” he shouted hoarsely.
“Hells you will!” she screamed while activating another of the bombs. This one splashed all around it with a burning acid that caused the warriors to make the first sound she’d heard from them – a high pitched keening. Her alchemical tools expended, she drew her sword, flipped the target shield over her forearm, and moved towards Miltiades.
A slimmer, glittering hivar flew out of the passageway. This one was long and narrow-bodied, nearly twice the length of a man, with two sets of iridescent dragonfly wings. Its two sets of claws moved about and its mouth parts buzzed. With one claw, the flying hivar pointed at the woman, and three glowing green darts appeared in the air before it. The darts launched forth at blinding speed. Having no time to react, the green shards disappeared deep into Gloria’s flesh, and she stumbled to the ground. Several warriors moved forward, and Miltiades could hear their misshapen mouths chittering like laughter.
His cry more like that of a wounded animal than like the scream of a man, Miltiades vaulted over several hivar to get to her side. Too late, forever too late, he arrived in time to see the powerful claws of two warriors pulling her apart like children with a wishbone. She never saw how close he was to saving her. Both the bugs tasted his blades before even seeing the glinting metal. He cut his way to the flying insect, who cast several spells at him, but all were absorbed by the spirit in his armor. That armor boomed deeply, like a great drum, each time it ate more of the drone hivar’s magic.
It tried to fly higher to get away, but the human ran up the side of the cooked digger to grab one of the drone’s clawed feet. He dropped his long knife which stuck deep in the sand which had been turned to muck by the black blood of hivar warriors. His other hand stabbed deep with the broadsword and gutted the creature. They fell to earth together. The armor’s spirit shook the ground when they landed, collapsing the tunnel and killing the remaining handful of warriors. Everything on the hilltop was silent and still, though the two alchemical torches continued to burn brightly.
After long minutes, a figure stood from the carnage. Miltiades found his sword and pack. He spent several hours staring at the bodies of his comrades and building pyres for them all. It was almost dawn when he staggered away, his long hair glued to his face by the black blood of his enemies and the funeral flames consuming the bodies of his friends lighting the way.