A thick carpet of treetops, all swaying with leaves rustling in the wind, sprawled below them. Three columns of that same strange blue stone jutted through the boughs near the heart of the valley to stand almost forty feet in height, breaking up the monotony of dark green foliage. Overhead, the sky was lead grey and laden with the promise of coming thunder.
The broad valley flowed eastwards before ending abruptly at a cliff. The gorge beneath the last bridge they’d crossed by the ruined tower was nothing compared to this gulf of slashed earth, its far side lost beneath a haze of dark mist. Hulbard could see the large, dark shape of a structure nestled on the edge of that cliff but it was too far away from where he stood to make out anything definite about it.
“That’s our place” Quintus said at his shoulder, “Our gateway to Dalághast. I’m sure of it”.
“Well, I didn’t just assume it was some kind of brothel” Shankhill quipped, but even he sounded subdued under that dark sky.
A glance over his shoulder showed Quintus’ hooded eyes roaming restlessly over the valley below and something about the sight made Hulbard feel distinctly uneasy. After his excitement at the tower only a few days earlier, seeing him look so pensive now that they were nearing their goal sat ill with the warrior, especially when combined with the foreboding forest below. If anything, the feeling only grew as they descended into the trees.
The shadows beneath their thick boughs were deep and foreboding. There hadn’t been much in the way of conversation all morning, but the stillness in that place killed all thought of it entirely. It reminded Hulbard of the bog where they’d killed the witch over a month ago now, swallowing all sound as they wound their way between the gnarled and tangled trunks. No birds sang in that place, leaving them meandering their way across the crooked ground with just the sound of their rattling equipment to keep them company. It was the kind of atmosphere that bred silence. Even Knox and Semekt stayed closer than usual, both skittish and wary in their movements.
Hulbard first became aware of the rain when he heard it pattering against the leaves overhead. It came with the rising wind and the peal of distant thunder, but the tree branches splayed over them were so thick that he didn’t feel the first drop on his cheek for another long minute. When he did, Hulbard pulled up his hood, bowed his head and pushed on without a word, picking his way through the sparse undergrowth.
They passed beneath those ancient pillars, where even the trees seemed to fear venturing too close to the blue stone. Quintus paused just long enough to spare them a cursory glance but seemed in no mood to spend time examining them with their destination so close at hand. Instead, they passed the pillars without a word from any of them.
They trudged on through the trees with only their marching feet to mark the passing minutes. The rattle of Hulbard’s steady plod was, at length, joined by another sound though; the soft keening of wind through jagged stone. It rose and fell like the waves on some distant shore, swooning through the trees in place of birdsong to set his already frayed nerves on edge.
“Sounds like we’re getting closer at least” Shankhill tried, but his words dropped like a rock between them, unnaturally loud after so long without a word.
Hulbard was the first to catch a glimpse of their destination through the trees and it did nothing to ease his mind. Slowly, the structure he’d seen from the ridge behind them now resolved itself into the shape of a tall, broad gatehouse of dull, grey stone. The archway stood empty of both door and portcullis, flanked by a squat round tower to either side rising almost twenty feet high. Beyond, a bridge stretched away into hazy mist, broad enough to let several carts travel along side by side without difficulty. Both sides were protected from the dizzying drop by a crenulated edge.
Hulbard was the first to emerge from the trees, stepping into a broad clearing surrounding the structure. Knox and Semekt were already waiting for him beneath the broad limbs of a nearby tree. Cold droplets pattered against Hulbard’s cheeks as he stared at the still scene for a long moment, raking the ancient stone with his gaze as his companions joined him. Each and every one of them moved cautiously, suddenly all business, even if that business was just looking uneasy.
“Looks promising” Shankhill’s voice was very low, a half grumble.
“Did you check the towers?” Hulbard asked, ignoring him.
“Nothin’ in them” Knox told him, “They’re open inside, stairs built into the inner walls. Weird design”.
Hulbard ducked inside one of the towers to see for himself; a floor of paved slabs, a narrow set up steps somehow attached to the interior wall spiralling upwards to an opening in the roof where he guessed a hatch had once sat. There was something about the empty space that felt steeped in history. As he stepped back out into the archway, sheltered from the rain beneath the stone, he saw Knox peering back the way they’d come and something about the hunters stillness made him pause, follow his line of sight.
In the distance, he just made out the vague shape of something nestled atop one of those strange pillars of blue stone. It scampered from view, disappearing in the blink of an eye before he could get a good look at it. Hulbard glanced around, seeing that the others had filed into either tower to take a look at them, and spoke very quietly.
“What was that?”
“I’ve no idea” Knox’ voice was just as soft as he answered, “But I don’t li-”
He was cut off mid sentence by a high pitched, warbling shriek in the distance. It echoed eerily through the valley, mingled with the wind scything through the gorge below.
“What was that?” Shankhill’s voice was shrill within the nearest tower.
“Some kind of beast” Hulbard snapped back, “Behind us”.
His words were punctuated by a second, reptilian scream rising in the distance. Knox looked at him and arched an eyebrow, but he could only shrug in return.
“Sounds like one of Semekt’s cousins to me” Shankhill commented, striding from the nearest doorway to meet them.
“Nice jest, fleshy one” the Dramaskian hissed from nearby, where he’d been waiting patiently, still as the stone surrounding them.
“It won’t follow us onto the bridge, will it?” Shankhill asked.
“I don’t know” Knox told them, “But it saw us. We should keep moving. We don’t want anything hunting us”.
“That’s one big coincidence” Shankhill noted as the others joined them, “We’ve barely seen a rabbit for days and when we do finally see something, it’s just as we get here. I don’t trust that”.
“Whatever it is” Quintus said firmly, stepping between them with a grim frown, “It is of this world. This gateway and bridge were built by Sorcerer’s seeking passage to Dalághast. There is no reason they would have resorted to summoning creatures to guard the place, especially centuries after their deaths. And even if they had, such things do not outlive their masters”.
“Maybe that thing is the reason there’s no wildlife around here” Hulbard suggested, thinking back to all the abominable beasts they’d faced over the years.
“Doesn’t matter” Knox said impatiently, “Move”.
Despite the ceaseless wind howling all around them, the bridge remained cloaked in a haze of wispy, grey vapour. Combined with the slashing rain, it reduced visibility to scarcely twenty paces in any direction. Sound travelled strangely on that expanse of dull stone, making it hard to pinpoint anything beyond the weather worn, waist high walls to either side.
Hulbard was half tempted to chance peering over its edge, but given his size and armour, he knew that any attempt would just be inviting disaster, especially when portions of the wall had already surrendered to the passage of time and fallen into the abyss below. Entire chunks of their crenulations had already split away from the bridge, leaving shallow cracks winding their way across the flagstones underfoot.
They passed through several more gatehouses along that expanse of grim, grey stone, each just as empty and forlorn as the first had been, offering only momentary shelter from the driving rain. They seemed to be evenly spaced along the bridge, but the distance between them was anyone’s guess. Just like the forest before it, that place swallowed the idea of time, made it impossible to accurately judge its passage. At times, it seemed like they’d only been walking for minutes, and at others, hours.
Knox marched ahead, restlessly scanning their surroundings with his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Hulbard rattled along in his wake with Quintus by his side, using a combination of his staff and the warriors wind breaking bulk to keep pace. Behind them, Skye, Shankhill and Trastgor had huddled together against the elements. It was the closest Hulbard had seen the two humans in a very long time, but neither of them looked like they were paying much attention to that fact just then. Instead, they were plodding along with their heads bowed, exhaustion bleeding from every step. Semekt came last with his crossbow cradled between his upper set of arms, his tongue flicking to scent the air every time he swivelled to look back the way they’d come.
While he had no idea how long the bridge was, Hulbard knew that it was easily already longer than any he’d ever set foot on before. It wasn’t long before he lost count of the gatehouses they passed under, falling into the mindless monotony of marching without much thought, but he was still the first to notice the darkness closing in around them as they approached the next gatehouse in line.
Nothing about their current situation made him particularly want to continue on through the night, so Hulbard called a halt in the scant shelter of that ancient archway. Poking his head through the nearest doorway, he made sure the tower was as empty as those before it had been. Water trickled and leaked down the staircase from the open hatchway above, but it was still a lot more sheltered than anywhere else on that forsaken bridge.
He stood to one side to let his dogged companions file past and remained there as they set about making a modest camp for the night. Hulbard heard the sounds he’d come to associate with every nightfall; the rattle of wood being assembled into a neat fire by Knox, the pained groans from Quintus as his knees protested the days travel, the metallic clatter of Skye rummaging through her pack for cooking utensils. The same sounds that had followed him for years, though they were little comfort to him now as he stared first one way and then the other along the bridge.
There was no end to the thing in sight and he would have paid handsomely just then to know how far they’d already travelled along its length or, better yet, how far they still had to go. As that thought occurred to him, the rain intensified, pattering against the stone on all sides in a ceaseless, icy sheet that swayed in the wind like a curtain before his eyes.
Loosening the weapons at his hip, he restlessly paced back and forth beneath the archway, ill at ease. It wasn’t long before he heard the crackle of burning wood within the tower, accompanied by the hum of muted, subdued conversation. The scent of food wafted to him on the wind a few minutes later, reminding him of the empty pit in his gut where his stomach normally sat. A hard day’s trek through Volyumenth’s rougher passes before Quintus had led them to the bridge had left him with a ravenous hunger.
While he waited for them to cook something up, Hulbard dragged his soaking wet cloak off his shoulders and spread it out as best he could near the fire to dry overnight. Returning to his post outside, he peered into the now torrential downpour as the daylight died, leaving him with a hazy impression of the bridge at best. In due course, he heard the scrap of cutlery and wooden bowls as food was served and, as expected, someone emerged from the empty archway with a steaming plate in one hand and a lantern in the other.
Hulbard felt a pang of disappointment as he saw Shankhill; he would have much preferred to Skye just then, but he wasn’t about to start complaining. A dragon could have appeared to feed him and he would have snatched the food from its paws without a word. A plate of hearty wild vegetables next to several thick cuts of pork was enough to soothe any disappointment after a long day’s trek. He thanked the man for it, took the lantern and watched as Shankhill wearily returned to the tower without a word.
With their murmured conversation starting to grate on his nerves, Hulbard moved to the tower opposite to eat in peace, where he could keep an eye on the bridge from its doorway. He wolfed down his food, scarcely finishing before he heard his companions unfurling their bedrolls and settling down to sleep. Despite his aching muscles, Hulbard still felt wide awake, his senses strained to their limits as he resumed prowling back and forth beneath the gatehouse.
He heard Quintus speaking softly as he passed the tower doorway, likely to Skye, and his heavy thread slowed to catch his words.
“We must already be on the path to Dalághast” he was saying in his deep, monotonous voice, laced with weariness, “The ravine was only the beginning. They must have built this bridge as a way to reach a point where they could break through the veil. This rift in the earth is unnatural. This bridge? Even more so. It must have taken them decades to build the damn thing”.
“Hm” his Apprentice hummed back sleepily and Hulbard moved on, the information doing nothing to brighten his mood.
After three hours, Hulbard was starting to suffer, his mind fraying at the edges as exhaustion took root. He’d spent most of that time in the doorway of the empty tower, but had climbed to its roof at one point to peer over its crumbling sides, down into the impenetrable gulf. Surrounded on all sides by that emptiness, it was impossible to avoid feeling small and uncertain, adrift in nothingness. If anything, the experience had left him with a lingering sense of dread that clung to him even now. He’d paused up there, tilted his head back and let the rain wash over him in an effort to cleanse his tired eyes.
It hadn’t helped as much as he’d hoped so now, with exhaustion stealing his focus, Hulbard figured it was time to wake someone else and catch a few hours sleep himself. Emerging from the cold, breezy doorway he’d been occupying ever since it got dark, he stepped back out into the archway between the two towers. He glanced to his left, and then to the right back the way they’d come and suddenly paused mid-step.
Twenty paces distant, there was a vague shape in the darkness he hadn’t seen before. He was almost sure of it. Hulbard swung the lantern to bear, but the lance of light couldn’t penetrate the distance between them, eyes narrowed as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Whatever the shape was, stood perfectly still. A trick of the scything rain? His tired mind? The gloom? If it was even there at all, why wasn’t it moving? As the seconds began to pass though, and Hulbard stared at it, the more convinced he was that it hadn’t been there before.
Taking a measured step backwards, Hulbard set the lantern on the ground at his feet. His heartbeat quickened as the flail rattled loose of its place by his side, but he never took his eyes off that indefinite shape waiting motionless in the middle of the bridge ahead. As he slid his shield off his back and into place in his left hand, though, Hulbard picked up on something. Instinct made him aware of a change in the pattering rain behind him and his head whipped around.
It took him a second to find it through the downpour, but there it was; another dark shape and this one was a lot closer than the first. He caught the vague impression of long limbs, a hunched humanoid shape, the glint of fangs, before it bolted forward with an explosive burst of speed. He had a split second to make his decision between defending himself and calling out. His shield swung into place and something smashed against it with all the force of a battering ram, sent him reeling backwards. Before he could catch his balance, something landed on his shoulders from behind, dragged him down.
Hulbard snarled as he lost his footing and came crashing down to his knees with a rattle he hoped was loud enough to wake the others. He dragged in a breath but it was blasted from his lungs as something clamped around one of his shins and hauled him backwards, out into the pouring rain. His breastplate struck sparks from the flagstones as he released his shield and rolled awkwardly onto his back, blinking through the downpour.
The roll wasn’t enough to break the second creature’s grip on his leg, but he raised the other and brought a foot slamming down on the dark shape encircling his shin. It suddenly let go and he caught a glimpse of two wide, dark eyes, then the flash of fangs as its jaws closed around his ankle. Dragging in a shallow breath, his heartbeat thundering so fast he felt like it was choking the air from his lungs, Hulbard called out as loudly as he could.
“Wake up!” he yelled, kicking at it again but missing as he was wrenched to one side, “Hey!”
Something landed on his right shoulder and he saw the second creatures paw scrape across his pauldron a second before it latched onto the armour. He drew in another breath but only a strangled grunt escaped from his lips as the beast wrenched its head from side to side, trying to tear him apart. He writhed and kicked in their grip but he didn’t have enough room to bring his flail to bear on either of them. Hulbard dragged in another breath as they tore at him, and bellowed at the top of his choked lungs.
“Help! You bastards, help me!”
There was the unmistakable thud of something striking flesh and the beast over him suddenly loosened its grip with a high, warbled snarl. It sidestepped, moving awkwardly as it peered back towards the archway. Hulbard swung at it but the stroke went wide and, as the creature on his shin paused, he lunged upright and wrenched his leg free of its jaws. He smashed his foot into its face, sent it darting backwards as well. Hulbard’s head whipped around and he spotted Knox beneath the archway, bow raised with another arrow set to string.
Trastgor was barging past him, had just emerged into the rain when a third shape fell on him from overhead. Knox’ bow dipped, sighting on the pair as they were sent sprawling across the flagstones. Hulbard was distracted by the glimmer of the lantern he’d left beneath the archway being hefted into the air, briefly illuminating Quintus’ fierce scowl. The Sorcerer hefted it and hurled the light source through the air just as Hulbard regained his footing. He saw it coming and tried to sidestep out of its way, only to stumble into its path instead.
The lantern smashed open against his hip, spraying oil across his armour. The wick caught and fire erupted down his left leg. Hulbard swore vehemently as he stumbled under the blow and whirled to face the two creatures at his back, one with an arrow in its side, flail half tangled around his wrist. They jerked backwards, startled by the flames.
Hulbard knew the fire meant less than nothing to his armour but being set on fire was a distraction he could have done without. Acrid smoke stung his nose and eyes, filled his senses as the nearest shape darted close. Hulbard’s wild swing missed, but came close enough to drive it back a step. It undulated as it moved, using its long arms as much as its feet to propel itself across the slick stone. Rather than back towards his companions, Hulbard flung himself at the creature instead. His flail was knocked from his hand as he crashed into the dark shape and he flung his swept around it, dragging its bony form into a crushing embrace.
It squirmed madly in his grip and Hulbard hooked a leg around one of its knees, levering against it to bring the beast crashing down. His weight came down on it and he positioned his knee just right to plunge into its gut, dragging a strangled yowl from its trashing jaws. He scrambled, trying to grapple one of its arms into submission, but didn’t get far before the second creature bowled into them and sent all three of them rolling across the stone.
Hulbard twisted away from the glimpse of claws, felt them rake across his neck guard, only narrowly avoiding his exposed face. He used his momentum to roll back to his feet, spotted his flail lying nearby and lunged for it, scooping it up as he ducked under another vicious swipe from those lethal claws.
The chain whistled taut, sweeping up and around. The jagged head of the flail caught one of the creatures across the face to spray chunks of flesh, fangs and blood through the air. He whirled towards the second beast just in time to see Semekt skewer it from behind. All four scimitars neatly parted flesh to impale it from four different angles at once. The sight made Hulbard cringe and, not for the first time, he was glad Semekt was on their side. He hadn’t even seen him before he struck.
Those swords slid smoothly free and the monster collapsed to the ground at his feet, leaving the Dramaskian rearing behind it, just as dark as his target had been in the glistening rain. Hulbard spared a glance down at his side, but the flames that had been clinging to his armour had all but dissipated, the oil washed away by the downpour in steaming patches.
“Everyone alive?” he snarled into the rain.
“I am” Semekt reported and Hulbard had to pause, frowning thoughtfully as he weighed whether the serpent had just made an attempt at humour, or simply answered honestly.
“Everyone seems in one piece” Shankhill called uncertainly from the archway.
The armoured giant let out a shuddering breath, closed his eyes for a long moment and tilted his face back to let the rain wash across his fever hot skin. Beneath their lids though, his eyes darted left and right as the fight flashed before them, replaying every heart stopping instant. He let them flow through him, breathing deep as he collected his thoughts.
Opening his slate blue eyes, Hulbard came back to the present, stooped and grabbed the ankle of the nearest corpse. He dragged it back towards the archway, surprised by just how light it was for such a fierce foe. His eyes settled on Quintus as he approached and Hulbard’s face twitched into a snarl of its own accord.
“You” he growled slowly, “Are a fucking idiot”.
He brushed past the Sorcerer and into the tower, where he dragged the dead beast into the firelight.
“You stepped into my throw” Quintus said, following, “What did you expect me to do?”
“You set me on fire” Hulbard snapped.
“It worked, didn’t it?” Quintus retorted, “I wasn’t aiming for you, but the fire drove them off you, didn’t it?”
“And if you’d hit me in the head instead?” Hulbard asked, “Or my shoulder? What then?”
“Stay on the ground in the future then when someone is trying to help you” Quintus told him balefully.
“Setting people on fire aside” Shankhill interjected loudly, stepping between them, “What was that you said earlier about guardians, Quintus?”
He gestured towards the corpse between them and silence fell as they all took a long moment to look it over. Reams of wrinkled black skin covered its long and narrow limbs. A slender neck rose from narrow, angular shoulder blades to end in a lump of misshapen, knobbly flesh. Two large, unblinking black eyes flanked a ringed mouth of fangs.
“I spoke the truth” Quintus broke the silence at length, “This is no creation of my Craft. These creatures are, by all accounts quite vicious but no more related to Sorcery than the common wolf. They are carnivorous, cliff dwelling predators. My guess is that they spotted us approaching and skirted around to take us from behind like most predators of their nature”.
He jabbed the carcass with the butt of his staff, before hunkering down over it and peering into its lifeless eyes. Quintus reached out a hand to stroke its skin, plucking at the strangely elastic folds curiously.
“Fascinating creatures” he muttered, “With an extremely flexible skeleton and musculature system, but mere animals when all is said and done”.
“Fascinating is a strong word” Shankhill said, audibly gulping, “I prefer the word terrifying”.
“You weren’t the one fighting them” Trastgor scoffed sourly. “You didn’t even draw your sword!”
“Call them whatever you want” Quintus hummed, “They’re hardly going to protest”.
“Just get it out of here” Knox sighed, “I’m in no mood to watch Quintus groping this thing all night”.
“Better it than you” Skye tried.
There was another moment of silence as the joke dropped between them and those gathered around the corpse exchanged wry glances. Shankhill was the first to break out into a smile, shaking his head and it wasn’t long before they were all chuckling along together at her words as relief swept through them like a soothing balm. Hulbard clasped wrists with Trastgor, thumped Knox on the back and thanked them both. Semekt watched from one side, silent and unblinking and, not for the first time, Hulbard resisted the urge to offer the same congratulations to the Dramaskian that he’d showered on the others, despite the role he’d played in the fight. Not that Semekt seemed to mind, but it was impossible to tell what he was thinking most of the time.
“Alright” Hulbard sighed, “I’ll dump this thing over the side and we’ll double the guard for the rest of the night. Everyone else, try to get some sleep. I’ve a feeling tomorrow is going to be nothing short of crazy”.
“Ha!” Quintus barked, “Only if everything goes according to plan”.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember, mostly fantasy though I dabble in science fiction from time to time. I wrote commissioned pieces of work for several years but found that it was taking up so much of my time that I wasn't ever getting a chance to work on my own ideas so, deciding that life is simply too short, I left that chapter of my life behind and began dedicating all my free time to developing my own stories, whether they are short in stature or full scale novels.
At this point in time, I have several projects on the go and I'm mostly just looking for ways to branch out and reach a broader audience.