After the fight, with a dead deserter at my feet, I remembered feeling on top of the world. Two of us had been hired on to fight, and one of us had walked away with nothing but a torn sleeve, the other a wound that required the care of Valerius. True, the New-Raphelian surprised us all, but since we knew what he was made of now, there’s was no way I was going to be leaving him on the rear cart while the rest of us fought. I was very pleased with myself though, as if I had already faced down the worst that the road had to offer us, and from there on out, it’d be smooth sailing.
I will tell you the full tale of the journey in good time, but for now lets not jump too far ahead. First, we had to decide the route we would take, and it seemed that I wasn’t the only brash young man with something to prove, as it took little time at all to decide on the quicker, more dangerous, Dummoni controlled route to get us to market nice and quick. Caderyn knew the way, and had taken it before. He assured us we would not be waylaid by his countrymen, but that we should not expect any aid from them either. Still, if we wanted to get Skuza’s goods to the market in time to set our prices, speed was of the essence and so the decision was made. Thankfully it wasn’t my job to let our massively nervous employer know that we would be journeying into the heart of the enemy, that was down to Valerius.
As a Numare, he was the only one who could talk to the boss as an equal, and Vitus seemed even happier than I was that the job was out of his hands. Valerius wasn’t exactly rushing headlong into the task though, and decided to wait until we made camp that night. On the way I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me, and began asking the Dummoni exactly what we could expect from our journey. It was a short conversation, but when someone starts talking about the caves of the dead, it tends to make people slightly more introspective. Luckily we didn’t have long to wait until we found a campsite for the night, and set about settling ourselves down.
We were lucky to find a large flat area that we could get all of the wagons onto, and keep the beasts far enough out of the way that getting trampled into the dirt as we slept was unlikely. The only things we shared our campsite with were nine standing stones. “Ah, the nine climbers”, said Caderyn, walking to each in turn. As he walked, he spoke a little blessing in Dummoni in front of each; he was quiet so I didn’t catch exactly what was said, but in front of each he stopped, kissed the tips of his fingers and then placed them against each stone. I know that this might sound strange, but as he went, he told us about the stones. “One’s a Daemon”, he began, and I immediately looked towards our Pelosian travel companions for their response.
The boss and his man were out of earshot, Valerius seemed to take it all in stride – that coupled with the warbow still about his person made me even more curious about his past life – but Vitus and the young Pelosian woman who seemed to be some kind of beast minder both looked concerned, even if only for a moment. “No one knows which one for certain”, Caderyn continued in broken Pelo-Margo, “Although there’s plenty of people with ideas, but none are better than guessing. The daemon turned himself to stone to avoid some pursuers you see, but changes his position each night in case they get too close. You can see that over the years the climbers have gotten a little bit further up the mountain.” He stopped again in front of the final stone, taking his time with this blessing, maybe knowing something we didn’t about which stone was more than it appeared, “Maybe once they get to the top, he’ll feel safe and turn back into his Daemon form.”
I fear no daemon more than I do a man. True, some have powers that can shake the foundation of the mortal realm, but I’ve heard stories of men and women able to do the same, so I say take each person as they are, and you won’t go too far wrong. The Pelosians, by their cultural upbringing have different views, and I took some small pleasure watching their faces throughout this. Thank the Gods that Skuza wasn’t able to hear all this though; he was a damned nervous fellow at the best of times, and I can’t imagine it would have aided his nerves to know how close he was to bedding down in a Daemon’s shadow.
Before that though, he needed to get himself and his carriage clean. I couldn’t give two half hearted tugs about how clean he was, but I felt a touch of responsibility about the carriage, having had a hand in the blood spurt that flew through his window. Being the nice chap I am I offered to help his man out in bringing buckets of water up from the river to clean and cook with, and when we got back, a few had wandered off to bring some fresh meat back for supper. This meant my kindly demeanour was once again taken advantage of as I helped drag a huge and heavy bath from out of Skuza’s carriage. Ornate and preposterous are the two words that come to mind when I think back on it, with finely detailed daemon feet to raise it from the ground, it would probably fetch more than I hoped to make from this trip if sold to someone with taste to match Skuza’s.
This seemed to calm him down as he hid behind a screen to protect his modesty and soaked his tiny balls while the rest of us cooked and ate the game that had been killed for us. Valerius had put his unpleasant task off for long enough though, and once Skuza was dried down and powdered, he joined us around the fire. Well, near the fire anyway, and they began talking in Pelosian. I knew the other Pelosians would be able to tell what was being said, and the rest could maybe guess at a word or two as they could just about get by in the broken tongue of Pelo-Margo, but I somewhat gave away my own fluency as the conversation progressed. “Maybe we should go back”, Skuza began; the sentence that was fast becoming his catchphrase, but on this occasion I can’t remember exactly what his piffling reason was.
“No my lord, we must continue, and make good time doing so if we are to be first to market”, countered Valerius, laying the ground work well, “and that means going south of the river”. The splutter of relaxing tea that sprayed from the boss’s mouth almost drenched Valerius, but he continued with barely a pause. “We will make better time by avoiding the bureaucracy we would encounter by staying on the Pelosian roads and going through the settlements. We are both Numare and as such must be counted and tallied. By going through Dummoni lands, we avoid all that, and have a shorter route too”.
“But Valerius, we will be killed and eaten by the savages once they know who we are!”, he exclaimed, continuing to waffle on about correctly notarized paperwork and heathens with barely a break to suck in some air.
“My lord, we will ensure the best prices by taking this quicker route, and when you return home, with your fortune restored, your eligibility when looking for a Serra Skuza will be greatly increased when you have stories of bravery and derring-do to regale them with”. With hindsight, I could certainly have picked a more opportune moment to take a mouthful of warm tea, but how was I to know the gem that was about to spill from the nobleman’s lips.
“You are correct of course my friend, and I have always thought of myself as being something of an adventurer.” Well, with that I was lucky to stop myself from spraying The new Raphelian – Brand, as I had taken to calling him – with my own beverage, but instead managed to turn it into little more than a loud exclamation of laughter, quickly hidden by a coughing fit as I struggled to keep myself from laughing further. The Gods bless the little man though, as he was quick to suggest that Valerius come to my aid. I was just as quick to protest, and claim the matter was far from serious, and I think the doctor understood what had happened as he was happy to leave me be.
I drowned the rest of the conversation out to save myself from paroxysms of laughter, but I gathered that by the end, Valerius had done his job well, and tomorrow we would brave the caves of the dead. We still had a night in the wilds to survive though, so watches were posted, and I crawled under my blanket to try and get some sleep.
It didn’t seem like I was out for long before the night air was torn apart by a feminine scream. I was quick to find my find my feet, and was drawing my steels as I spotted Drazar come flying backwards from Skuza’s carriage, propelled by the vraag that had pounced on him. Whoever was supposed to be on watch had obviously let their concentration slip to allow the beast access to the boss’s inner sanctum, but since one of those people was Drazar, it looked like he was already getting his comeuppance. As I got to my feet, steels in hand, it looked touch and go for the masked man; he had obviously cast some form of magic to try and dislodge the creature, but it had done little than cut its flesh somewhat and anger it even more. As I watched it snapped its jaws towards Drazar, drawing blood before I could do anything to stop it.
There was no way it was getting a second chance though, and with my head down and Basaedo held at my waist pointing forward I charged towards it as fast as I was able, and thrust the sword directly into the thing’s side. I felt the point break flesh, and thought I had inflicted a killing wound. But the vraag had faster instincts than I had expected and was rolling with blow almost as soon as it had landed. My sword may not have killed the creature, but it bit deep and forced it away from Drazar. I had heard horror stories about the ‘summer’ vraag though; male beasts, either old enough to have been forced out by a younger pup, or a young pup that had failed to secure its place at the head of the pack, both of which would be desperate and hungry enough to attack without its pack as support. Expecting the worst, I dropped back into a defensive posture, waiting for its next move.
I didn’t have long to wait though, as coming up on my left was Caderyn, axe in hand and swinging it hard down towards the body of the beast. Once more though it moved quicker than expected and the blow took it in a hind leg, the crack echoing around the rocks, sounding louder than the whelp of pain. The vaarg was still moving but going slowly now, whimpering rather than growling. That wasn’t to say it couldn’t still pose a threat, and putting it out of its misery could be considered a mercy so I stepped forward aiming to finish it off, the final strike finally putting it down.
Drazar was badly cut, but used his own magics to clean and seal the wound before I could even offer a medicinal rune to help him out. In the distance we could all here the baying of other vraags. It mustn’t have been a lone creature, but it seemed like the rest of its pack wanted nothing to do with attacking us, and were withdrawing. I wasn’t convinced they wouldn’t return though, so stoked up the fire before getting myself comfortable once more. Brand seemed happy taking what he could get from the vraag’s corpse, but everyone else looked ready to get straight back to sleep. Skuza would need some help though, and once more he was adamant that we turn around and retreat home, coming back with trained hunters to clear the way. A stupid idea of course, and luckily Valerius was once more on hand to calm him down and give him something to help him sleep. The herbal tea he offered was potent stuff indeed, as Skuza was still protesting, claiming the danger of the road was too much, and that come the morning we would turn around as he fell into a deep sleep.
* * *
My own watch, several hours later, went fine. No wild animals, no daemons shifting stones, just time spent relearning the runes I thought I might need for the next day. Caderyn had asked me to wake him early as he had preparations to make himself, and Brand was on the morning watch with me, as he had something he needed to take care of come the dawn. I’d heard about this, knew what was coming, and decided to hold off on rousing the Dummoni, allowing him a wake up call the everyone had better quickly get used to. You see, the folk of New Raphelia have their own way of keeping dark forces at bay.
Every morning, they greet the dawn with a screaming bellow, dancing naked – or damned near it – shaking whatever they have to hand in an effort to scare away anything unpleasant that could have dared to creep up on them during the darkest hours. I couldn’t comment on how the daemons react to this hellish noise – none of the stones seemed to be at all put out by it – but it scares the living shit out anyone not prepared for it. By now, you could probably imagine just how the boss reacted, throwing open his window – barred from the inside after the vraag attack – and expecting hell on earth to have surrounded our campsite. Valerius seemed almost as put out as everyone else after the noise, so it fell to me to calm him down on this occasion. Luckily my Pelosian is pretty strong, even if I was unable to read and write it at the time. “Fear not the daemons my Lord”, says I, ” the New Raphelian is doing his damnedest to keep them at bay from the rest of us. It is a religious observance, carried out each morning to keep us all safe through the day from Daemonic influences.”
“Ah, yes. I see now”, Skuza lied, “should we all join in? A concerted effort if you will, to drive away the foul creatures?”
“Best not my Lord. He’s a priest of his people, and knows the correct mannerism to be fully effective. Interrupting him, joining in even, no matter the intent could derail all his hard work. Best leave him to it, and just be thankful we have him on this journey.”
“Of course, of course.”, he nodded vigorously, before turning to Vitus, and whispering loud enough for the whole camp to hear continued, “We really must make an effort to convert him before the end of the trip.”, before ducking back into his little nest. Vitus barely had it in him to nod in agreement, but breakfast and a warming drink were already on the go, and I was happy to get back to shaving. Caderyn’s preparations differed somewhat from my own though. As we were eating, he was painting his body. The front side white, the rear black, and his face to mimic a crow. It was how the tribe who guarded the caves of the dead presented themselves, and he was obviously looking to fit in.
We were soon on our way again though, with the freshly painted Caderyn taking the lead, with me out front, but sticking close to the wagons as he moved quickly out of sight ahead of us. We’d moved Brand to the front cart, and Skuza’s home on wheels was between that and the rear cart, hoping to keep him out of trouble. After an hour or so on the road, I realised we were getting close to the two faced Corbie tribe. The birds they so idealised were in evidence, if not currently present. The entire valley floor was inches deep in shit and feathers drifted around our legs on the wind. A couple of corners later, and there was the tribe; on the cliff tops overlooking us, perfectly arranged to drop rocks from above, crushing us before we could even move. Luckily that didn’t seem to be their intention, as Caderyn had arrived ahead of us and told them what to expect.
We were expecting a challenge of some kind before we were allowed access to the caves, but since the manner of the test changed depending on who was taking it, we had no idea what to expect. The Corbie didn’t seem to want to hold up our journey for long though, and offered a simple test. We would send forth a champion who was to take a feather from a man of their own. He was a big chap though, tough looking, with just as much muscle on him as fat, and when he slid down the steep incline to step into the challenge circle, he was so light on his feet it looked as if he was gliding down on the feathers that adorned him.
Looking around at our fellows, the only one who looked his match for pure size and strength – not to mention body colour – was Caderyn. He was far from keen, but knew we had few other choices open to us, so stepped into the circle. The contest was far from evenly matched, with the Corbie’s size and dexterity more than a match for our man. He tried though, using trickery and feints to hopefully put the bigger man off his stride, but he had an answer for everything. Before long Caderyn was on the ground, and the wrestler was stamping hard onto his crotch. Our collective groan was easily drowned out by the cheers of the Corbie, but their man seemed unwilling to inflict further punishment on ours. After a brief exchange with the one who seemed to be in charge – and also high as a kite, if I’m any judge – a feather was taken from his headdress and handed to the still prostrate Caderyn. “You could have just asked for it”, the wrestler informed him as he was helped to his feet.
We had already answered their question, “Challenge, hearth, or passage?”, with passage, and with the fun of the show well and truly over, most of the Corbie seemed less interested in us, and drifted away from view as we were shown towards the entrance to the caves.
* * *
Caderyn had told us some of what to expect, that we would be entering a place where the barriers between this world and the next were worn thin. This could give easier access to our world for any manner of beings, be they Daemon blooded or those who were once living and breathing humans. On the road already I had added two the tally of possibly restless dead that could be on my trail, so I was stepping carefully to say the least. Once more Caderyn and I were at the front, and Vitus had passed me a small flaming torch to help light the way. Natural light was in short supply, with occasional glowing fungus, self illuminating crystals and even occasional light wells from above.
Sat in the centre of one such light well was what looked to be a half dead and rotting tree stump, surrounded by Corbie. At first they seemed to be standing and sitting in silent contemplation of the stump, but every once in a while, one would step forward and silently push his arm into a hole in the stump. With more to concern us, I never bothered to ask Caderyn the significance of the act, but once their arm had been in for a few moments, it was withdrawn and the next tribesman would take his turn. With a shake of my head I turned away as we approached a fork in the road. There were many markings around the fork, some at least I recognised as being Dummoni, but I had no clue how to read the language so left the decision making up to our guide.
There were several such choices along the way, and unfortunately, we didn’t always pick the best option. On one such occasion, it was only after we had already moved the front cart passed the fork that the error was spotted by Valerius. Once more his familiarity with all things Dummoni had paid off, as he was able to decipher the runic markings on the walls, and insisted that we pull back and take the other route. Easier said than done, with few of us able to handle the hormorn with much skill, but we did eventually manage it.
I had other things to occupy me though. Occasionally as we had stalked the caves, grasping limbs had reached out from holes in the cavern walls, and a generous man might just about think of them as hands with long fingers. “They ask for an offering”, Caderyn informed us, “but just how much it matters to give one has never been confirmed”. I watched them for the longest time, wondering just what they could be seeking, but imagining nothing pleasant.
“We have similar creatures at home”, came the voice of Brand, “they have a fondness for eyes”. Just about as bad as I thought then, and there was no way I was giving up one of my own with no guarantee of getting an easier passage in exchange. Brand reached into one of his many pouches and brought forth a fleshy orb, that he dropped into the waiting fingers of a nearby limb. It quickly withdrew, and the noises issuing from within reminded me of a child licking the last remnants of sweet cream from a mixing spoon. I would like to think the savage had just kept an eye from the Vaarg we had slain, as the other possibilities were not exactly pleasant to dwell on.
With the carts almost all lined up again, I found myself alone for a moment, keeping an eye out down the passage we had elected to turn away from, just in case there was any danger to be found. Curiosity is my only excuse for what happened next, and I’m still unsure as to what other motive there could be for my actions. I must have known that it was something that should not be done as I looked about me, making sure that everyone else was otherwise engaged before I drew my razor from its leather pouch. I opened the blade up and gently drew it down my thumb, taking care to keep the wound as small as I could manage. As the blood pooled on my skin, I wiped the flat of the blade across it, smearing the dark liquid across its surface.
Reaching forward I wiped the same flat of the blade across an extended digit. It withdrew with unnatural haste, and I once again heard the greedy slobbering from within. Within a second or two, it shot out again, quicker than I had expected, and it even seemed to be reaching out further towards me, hungrily. I didn’t know if I had appeased it, or given the hidden creature a taste for something very precious to me; only time would tell. I slipped the straight razor away again and with a final look towards the rest cast a small rune to seal the wound clean hopefully avoiding questions about it.
I quickly rejoined the rest of the party, and retook my position at the front and we soon approached another fork. This one presented us with a an interesting problem, as from one side we could clearly hear the sounds of a woman crying out. My first instinct was to rush to her aid, but thankfully calmer heads prevailed. Many were expecting a trap, and based on what else we saw in those damnable caves, I was very glad we turned away from her sobs and continued on our way.