They ate a cold and meagre meal of rationed cheese, nuts and salted beef in one of the many stone shelters on the rooftop. Though hardly the banquet they would have all preferred, it was still a comfort after the morning they’d had. They kept a wary eye back the way they’d come but that seemed like a small price to pay for the comfort of fresh air and a cool breeze after the stagnant, choking gloom below. While his companions sat on benches beneath a cracked marble canopy, Hulbard stood at a nearby rail, silent as he considered their next obstacle.
A span of almost eighty feet separated the house of accounts from a sheer stone wall stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction and rising to form a new tier of the city overhead. Hulbard could see a switchback staircase hewn into its face, rising from the flooded roadway below. The problem was the fast flowing water between them and their way deeper into Dalághast. The flooded area below looked wide enough to have once been one of the main thoroughfares of the city and at a glance, Hulbard saw no buildings linked to the wall they would need to reach. In all that empty space, only a lone, wind and tide swept spire pierced the sluggish, murky waves and that was almost fifty feet distant from where he stood.
“That looks like it could be a problem,” Knox commented, stepping up alongside the warrior and resting his long arms on the rail.
“A small one since we have Quintus,” Hulbard shrugged, looking back at him, “He’s just going to have to do that floating platform trick of his again”.
“Not a hope,” the Sorcerer scoffed, “That river is only about four times wider than the last one. I cannot bridge that gap. We will need to find another way across”.
“There’s plenty of dry wood below,” Trastgor spoke up, “We could rip up a few floorboards. Use a few of the desks. Make some kind of raft”.
“It’s either that or swim,” Knox said, “And I don’t fancy your chances in that armour. But if we’re going with a boat, I reckon there’s nowhere better to spend the night than that tower down there”.
“Surrounded by water on all sides?” Shankhill barked a laugh as he joined them at the crumbling rail, “I can’t think of a worse place to spend the night with those cultists around”.
“Anywhere is better than here,” Hulbard told him sharply, “I don’t like the idea of squatting over something that made those mad bastards stop chasing us”.
“And I’m not fond of fumbling into new territory with the sun going down,” Knox added, “Worse comes to worse, we get jumped during the night but that tower looks like it’ll have a nice chokepoint or two for us”.
“Sounds like a death trap,” Shankhill shook his head.
“There’s worse places to die,” Hulbard told him, glancing towards the horizon and the sun slinking behind the buildings arrayed there, trying his best to gauge how long they had left before nightfall, “Like it or not, it’s our best option. Put me in a narrow staircase with a shield in hand and there’s nothing we’ve seen here so far that could take me down”.
When no one else spoke up, he led the way back down into the building, preceded by the sound of his iron shod feet thundering down the metal staircase. He bypassed the floor they’d first dropped into and descended further into the shadow strewn depths of the building. Beyond the second floor, the staircase led down into a chamber covered in three of four feet of churning, lead grey water. It rushed through the empty windows, creating a constant trickling, sloshing sound that reverberated from the walls to create a strangely haunting gurgle in the flooded third level of the building. It was deep enough to make building anything down there impossible, but high enough that the idea of lowering a raft into it from their current floor seemed perfectly possible with a few good lengths of rope.
Hulbard marched into one of the chambers at the rear of the building, facing the wide stretch of water beyond and unhooked the hammer from its place at his side. The deathly stillness of the building was shattered by the thunderous crash of the weapon against stone. Those behind him cringed at the sound and cast about into the shadows gathered on all sides but even so, they got to work without wasting any time.
While the hammer did its work on the wall, Quntus set about drawing up a sketch complete with the materials they would need based on what was surrounding them. Skye leaned down over his shoulder, helpfully mumbling comments that he ignored more often than not as his chalk swept smoothly across the parchment he’d just spread across a desktop. Catching on, Knox and Trastgor began ransack their surroundings for any dry wood they could find. Between the blunt head of the hammer and the spike opposite, Hulbard began to batter, smash and pry his way through the ancient crumbling stonework, set on creating a sizeable hole in the wall to lower their raft through. Shankhill stood to one side with his hands on his hips, watching their work but in no way knowledgeable enough to aid in any of it. About summed the man up, now that Hulbard thought of it.
Equally at odds with their work, though, was Semekt, who watched them all for a long moment before turning back towards the central chamber.
The Dramaskian slid silently through the surrounding rooms, passing between the furniture with sinuous ease. It was dark here but that meant nothing to the reptile. Semekt’s eyes weren’t sharp; in a world of blue and grey, shapes began to grow hazy at thirty paces and lost their clarity past that. Within that range, everything was outlined in solid black and that helped give the Dramaskian a sense of depth perception. The sensory pits lining either side of her muzzle worked with her forked tongue to detect a host of different chemicals at far greater distances than her eyes would allow. This made it easy for the serpent to spot living creatures even in pitch darkness. They weren’t the only means through which Semekt experienced the world, but they were the most prevalent.
A shade of faded, dull yellow light lanced through the windows and cracks in the surrounding walls where daylight trickled into the chamber, so weak she couldn’t even feel them against her scales as she passed through them. She hardly knew what her companions were doing, only that they were involved with constructing something from wood and, having no skill in that area, fell back to her usual habit of prowling the area surrounding them. Content that the rest of the floor was empty, Semekt returned to the central room at the heart of the building and spared a glance towards them in passing.
They appeared to her as a gathering of vivid shapes in a variety of hues ranging from crimson to purple, each only vaguely distinguishable from the next because of their shapes and sizes. The Kurgal had always been the easiest for her to pick out in a crowd, since he bled a haze of heavy pheromones that appeared to her as a dark azure shroud. It was easy to see why, when Dramaskian’s had clashed with their breed in the past, the serpents had always come out on top.
Returning her unlinking gaze to the large chamber she rested in, Semekt approached the winding metal staircase and peered down into the water below. It appeared as a solid sheet of grey disturbed by meandering black ripples to her eyes, malleable and indistinct. The Dramaskian cocked her head to one side, following the shapes weaving their way across the water below for a long second, searching for any irregularities in their patterns. Semekt wasn’t prone to curiosity but she was likewise hard pressed to appreciate anything approximating fear, which made her next decision easy. Assuming that the strange voice’s warnings only applied to floors that were fully submerged beneath the water, it was an easy decision to descend down the staircase to make sure the floor below was as devoid of threats as the one above.
Semekt slithered down into the water, fighting against the natural buoyancy of her body as her coils sank beneath the gurgling currents. Her long tail wove back and forth, stabilising the Dramaskian in the shifting waves as she reared. Upright, the water barely reached her lower set of arms. It lapped against her jet black scales but Semekt paid it no heed. Instead, she surveyed the chamber with a sweep of her head, tongue licking at the air while it rang with the crack and snap of splintering wood above her head.
Slinking low into the water, she glided across its surface with a flick of her tail. Semekt's arms unfurled, claws plucking at the floor to help guide her sinuous form through the stronger currents. Her fingers closed around a doorframe and she pulled herself through the opening into the chamber beyond, its shadows parting before her questing eyes. The furniture here was still mostly intact, despite the centuries of exposure to salt water and she only vaguely registered how strange that fact was.
Riding a slipstream, Semekt made short work of a sweep around the room before moving into the next. The Dramaskian travelled with the currents where she could and passed through them with a pass of her muscular tail where she couldn't. Finding nothing living down below, she returned to the large room between the offices and bobbed across to the staircase. Her fingers had just curled around the cold metal rail when the serpent caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye and paused. Her unblinking gaze settled on the opening below that lead further into the sunken depths of the building as a series of unusual ripples stirred the water, warring with her own.
Several large bubbles suddenly broke the surface, rising from the floor below, popping against her scales. Suspecting some kind of fish and feeling peckish, Semekt sealed her nostrils, leaned forward and smoothly ducked her head beneath the surface.
Below, she was faced with a shifting mass of grey shot through with icy blue streaks of colour where colder currents swept through the area. Without access to her other senses underwater, Semekt was forced to rely on her vision alone and that was poor at best beneath the surface. She spent a long minute sweeping her gaze from one side to the next, searching for any unusual movement, but everything she saw flowed with a serene sense of regularity. Semekt delved deeper, arms outstretching to brace herself on the metal staircase as she surveyed the scene upside down but she could find nothing out of the ordinary.
Surfacing, Semekt sprayed water from her jaws with a huff and, following a hunch that something else was moving around below, decided to take another look around the floor.
She'd just reached the first archway when she heard the sound of more bubbles breaking the surface of the water behind her. Swinging back around to the staircase, she watched as a trickle of them rose from the opening in the floor. They dwindled to a stop after a long second, but Semekt's body had already hunched into an instinctive, ready stance. She pressed the scales along the underside of her body against the floorboards and through them, detected the faintest hint of movement below. Her uncertainty about what it could be didn't last long as Semekt picked up on the distinctive thread of heavy footsteps on the metal staircase.
They drew closer, step by step, closer to her with every step. Semekt watched as a helmet emerged from the portal in the floor, water sluicing from plate armour as a figure stomped ponderously into view. Close to Hulbard in height and width, surrounded by a dull purple hue but otherwise deep blue; signifying the vague scent and shape of a body but utterly cold and bloodless.
Breath wheezed through a grill at the front of its helm, a wet hiss followed by a low, gurgled growl as it spotted her. The sound hitched wetly as the newcomer stepped off the staircase and onto more solid ground, water sloshing noisily around its thighs. Semekt's eyes slid along the length of a metal spear clasped on one of the male's hands. There was no surprise. No hesitation or second thoughts. The idea to call up to the others never even crossed the Dramaskian's mind. Instead, Semekt's hands reached for her blades and four scimitars slid free of their sheaths as one with a soft, metallic rasp.
Semekt leaned back and drew her body onto a tightly coiled spring, blades brought to bear in an instant. She exploded forward with a burst of blinding speed, throwing up a torrent of spray as she launched herself across the space between them. The hall rang with the thunderous crash of their blades. His spear spun, caught her swords and swept them aside.
The serpent twisted, allowed herself to be flung to one side and plunged headlong into the water, throwing up a torrential spray. She darted through the water like she'd been born to it, exploded upright behind him in a heartbeat and struck. Her swords snicked and screeched across the heavy plates, spraying a flurry of sparks without leaving a scratch behind. Using her momentum, Semekt spun under a backhanded swing of the spear that only just missed her head by an inch. The Dramaskian splashed backwards, darting left and right as the weapon stabbed for her. Two of Semekt’s scimitars caught the weapon and turned it aside in the same instant the others sliced across the figures waist and thighs without biting. The curved blades wreaked a terrible toll on flesh, but were next to useless against heavier armour.
The spear drew back and plunged after her in a series of one and two handed thrusts, its head just falling short as Semekt curved this way and that, twisting her entire body away from the weapon, movements tight and controlled. The Dramaskian heard shouting overhead, the thunder of feet across floorboards, but barely registered the fact before she had to weave aside from another vicious thrust.
Semekt dashed backwards, buying enough time to slide her blades back into their sheaths and draw her crossbow from its oiled harness between her shoulder blades in one smooth motion. One hand of her lower arms cradled the weapon, while the other reached for a bolt. Her upper set of limbs gripped the weapons winch and began cranking back its string as the knight ceased its pursuit of her and turned towards the staircase. Semekt scooted further backwards, buying as much space and distance as she could.
The pulsing, crimson shape of Hulbard was thundering down the metal stairs, filling the chamber with the sound of his iron shod feet. That was when the armour surrounding the cold knight’s right arm buckled, bent and snapped, falling away to reveal a writhing mass of tentacles. They swept around the spear in his grip and spun it with staggering speed as Hulbard plunged down into the water and surged towards the figure. Semekt smoothly transferred the crossbow into her upper set of arms and shouldered it as Hulbard brought his mace arching down in an overhead stroke.
The knight caught the chain on the haft of his spear, trapped it and pulled the huge man close. There was a clatter of metal against metal before the crimson warrior stumbled back a step. Just as she sighted on her target, he turned towards the Dramaskian. He bolted towards her, ducked beneath her shot and she jerked backwards as his spear lanced for her head. It’s tip gouged across her neck and a dull ache bloomed. Dimly, Semekt registered that she’d been cut and she hissed as she ducked under another sweeping slash. This time though, instead of backing away, she bolted close. The crossbow splashed into the rippling waves to one side. Her hands grabbed at his spear, caught it and wrestled it as aside a heartbeat before the Dramaskian barrelled into the figure with enough force to rip him off his feet.
They splashed down into the water and it closed back around her, dulling her senses in a heartbeat. As they fell, Semekt coiled part of her body around his waist and clung on tight as he trashed against her. He managed to get his feet under them and surged back upright, which only gave the Dramaskian the space she needed to wrap the rest of her lower body around his, her coils tightening around the cold angular plates as they ploughed through the shallows. She grappled with the spear, keeping it twisted away from her face but slippery tentacles wound around her body, dragged at her harness and sheaths, struggling to wrestle her free. Semekt’s coils reflexively tightened around his hip and one leg, locking up tight.
The floor suddenly opened up beneath them and they plunged down the staircase. Anchored to the armoured warrior, Semekt was dragged down into the stygian depths. They crashed against the metal staircase as she scrabbled for the figure’s head, claws raking against his sloped faceplate. They crashed against the staircase and rebounded from it, floating out into the flooded chamber below. Expressionless, utterly calm and methodical, Semekt flexed her coils and felt the armour begin to creak and buckle beneath her scales. The figure in her implacable grip writhed, kicking and grasping at her as panic sank in.
Semekt doubted the warrior could be drowned but she figured it could be crushed. Her coils tightened around him with implacable, merciless strength. She felt bones beginning to strain and then pop, splintering and crunching as they wrestled in the water, her eyes all but useless in the cold gloom. With a practiced twist of her body, Semekt levered against the knight and broke his spine with a distinctive, grinding snap. The tentacles wrapped around her suddenly went rigid as shock rocked through the figure in her grip. They stayed that way for a long second before gradually loosening and falling free, floating lifelessly around the victorious Dramaskian. She gave it one more squeeze to make sure it was dead and when the warrior didn’t so much as twitch, she unwound her body from the corpse. Drifting free of it, she watched blearily as it sank to the floor with bubbles trickling from tears in its crushed armour.
She turned weightlessly towards the staircase with a serpentine flick of her body and slithered up the winding metal. Semekt breached the surface of the water to an explosion of rippling orange as her companions leapt backwards at her sudden appearance. Spraying a fine mist from her nostrils and sensory pits with a snort, the Dramaskian looked around at them. They solidified into a series of fiery shapes as her senses cleared.
“What happened?” someone yelped and she recognised the tone of her master, though it took Semekt a moment to pinpoint him on the staircase overhead.
“There was a knight,” she rasped and, when they said no more, continued for clarification, “It’s dead now”.
A long moment of silence followed her words, before the tall, skinny one she recognised as the Sorcerer muttered, “Let’s get this damned raft together before anything else can go wrong”.
“Try to stay out of trouble, Semekt,” Shankhill told her with a heavy expulsion of air.
The Dramaskian saw no reason to reply so instead began searching for her fallen crossbow.
“A fine vessel!” Knox announced cheerfully almost an hour later.
“Was that supposed to be sarcasm?” Trastgor asked, flicking an ear as he regarded the makeshift raft between them.
“No,” the archer snorted, “I’ve had to travel miles up and down rivers on nothin’ more’n a tree trunk before. This is a ship by comparison”.
“I don’t think anyone is going to harshly judge how this thing looks just so long as it gets us out of here,” Quintus said, “I don’t think the cultists are about to start pointing and laughing as we float by”.
The Sorcerer paused to speculatively nudge the raft with a toe.
“It will float, won’t it?”
“Don’t see why it wouldn’t,” Knox shrugged.
The raft they’d been able to cobble together in an hour consisted of several desktops hastily bound together with lengths of frayed rope and reinforced with floorboards. They’d created four oars from a combination of table legs and the backs of chairs. Their efforts definitely reflected the fact that weapons had been used in place of proper tools. Together, they manhandled the makeshift boat through the hole Hulbard had made in the wall and, using lengths of rope attached to its four bulky corners, lowered it to the water below. Bracing himself in place, with the ropes wrapped tight around his shoulders and forearms, he held the craft braced below while his companions first dropped their packs onto it and then followed as carefully as they could. Hulbard followed, landing on the raft with a splintering crack in his armoured bulk. The entire craft bucked under his weight and began to turn with surprising speed as it was loosed from its anchor, caught by the swift current.
Keeping low, Hulbard moved quickly to the front of the vessel, snatched up and oar and plunged it into the roiling current. Trastgor knelt on one side of the raft while Knox did the same opposite, both likewise armed with oars. Quintus crouched at its rickety heart with Skye, Shankhill and Semekt. With the shadows lengthening on all sides, they paddled out into the fast flowing, lead grey water.
“If that hunter spots us…” Skye muttered loud enough to be heard over the lapping waves.
“Pray he’s busy then,” Hulbard told her, muscles already burning from the strain of keeping their brick of a boat ploughing forward.
Breathing deep, he fixed his eyes on the tower ahead of them, ignoring everything else as he set himself to his task. He began to make out details of the structure that had been hidden from view by the angle of their vantage point. An entire wall of the round tower had fallen away into the frothing water, revealing three levels within rising above the deluge. The remaining grey stone was pitted and scarred from the elements, though its conical roof, sheathed in dull red slates shining in the dying light like fire, appeared intact. He could just make out a small, weathered balcony on one face of the building on its upper floor from where he crouched. It was accessed by a staircase of worn stone winding up the inner curve of its skeletal remains.
It was a ramshackle little nest, but he’d often slept in worse. Hulbard leaned into each stroke of the oar, grunting as he drew them closer and closer to their destination.
They found a fireplace in the topmost chamber and Hulbard wasted no time in getting it lit for the night; a fire was good for the spirits, even if it did nothing to warm the chamber. They settled into their routines just as the sun fell behind buildings to the west, spreading shadowy gloom across the city in its absence. Hulbard leaned against the archway leading out onto the small balcony, unwilling to see if the ancient brickwork beyond the opening would support his weight even without his armour, and watched the shadows gather. With a portion of one wall missing, a cool breeze whistled and moaned through the tower, but he scarcely felt it. Instead, his senses were filled with the mouth watering scent of boiling ham and steaming potatoes.
Semekt was already coiled in front of the fire, glassy eyes staring into nothingness and he pondered, not for the first time, just how much use flames were to the giant reptile. The Dramaskian’s throat had been very nearly cut open in their last battle, but by the time he’d emerged from the water, the wound had already stopped bleeding and needed no further attention, despite how nasty it looked.
Shankhill lounged to one side with the hood of his cloak drawn down over his eyes, propped up on a backpack. His prized leather boots, scuffed from their journey so far and soaked from their crossing to the tower, sat in front of the flames, looking decidedly worse for wear. Then again, all of them had seen better days just then. Hulbard’s jaw still ached from where the armoured figure had hammered a left hook into his helm earlier and his cloak was starting to look as beaten and battered as their surroundings.
They’d found a table and two rickety chairs in the upper room, which were now occupied by Quintus and his Apprentice to one side of the fire, where they could keep a close eye on their supper. The old Sorcerer was leaning forward, his grey eyes intense as he spoke, voice low and smooth. Hulbard half listened to what he could hear above the crackling fireplace and boiling water; from what he could gather, Quintus had finally decided that events had grown dire enough to start teaching her something substantial of the Arts in earnest.
The idea seemed to be that he would begin tutoring her in the way of forming and maintaining a variety of shields, leaving Quintus free to tackle whatever threats lurked ahead. Skye seemed to be listening intently despite her exhaustion, nodding but saying and asking little. Her Master had just launched into a speech about her need for steadfast dedication and their need to work in unison when Hulbard glanced towards them, his gaze drawn to Skye without conscious thought Firelight danced across her girlish features, picked out the freckles across the bridge of her nose, the creases of her drawn eyebrows as she tried to absorb everything Quintus was saying.
Feeling that familiar but inexplicable pang of longing in his chest, he pushed away from the archway and plodded across the room, taking the staircase to the chamber below. Trastgor sat at another salvaged table, grey smoke wafting from the pipe clenched between his fangs as he whittled away at a piece of bone with a small, curved blade. Knox sat opposite, fletching arrows by the light of a lantern resting on an empty crate between them. The oddity of finding intact furniture in an ancient city hadn’t gone unnoticed by them, but even Quintus had been stumped by them.
Hulbard nodded to each of them in passing and continued lower to the third, final chamber above water. Here, most of one wall was missing to create a large gap facing up the waterlogged thoroughfare, leaving the floor mere inches above the rushing waves. They’d taken the precaution of dragging their ragged raft up onto solid ground for the night, fearful it would have been battered to pieces against the tower during the night to leave them stranded. Now, it sat stranded and silent to one side on the cold stone floor.
There was no light down there, only the soft embrace of welcoming darkness and Hulbard crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned back against one of the remaining walls to wait out the night, restless and wary of their surroundings, especially with a staircase leading down into the murky water. Though free of his armour, the familiar weight of Hulbard’s hammer hung by his side, offering him a small sense of reassurance against the night. Turning his face towards the star speckled sky, Hulbard lifted a hand and dragged it across the spiky stubble coating his chin.
Turning his eyes skywards, he began to pass the time by picking out each constellation in turn, idly moving from one to the next as he waited, just like he’d done as a child in the fields with Demoris. Like he’d done in the forests of Northern Ghail, the moors of Haust and the frozen Fangthrost Wastes.
Hulbard had no idea how long it was before he heard footsteps on the staircase but when he turned around, he saw Skye descending towards him. She picked her way down the chipped and cracked stone steps while precariously balancing a steaming mug and two plates in both hands. Despite himself, he was glad to see her again, even after such a brief absence. Her presence banished the memories clouding his thoughts, brought him back to the present in a moment.
“Here you go,” her voice was soft as she handed him one of the plates and a cup to go with it.
Despite her obvious exhaustion, she still managed to treat him to a weary smile.
“Thank you,” he said, mouth already watering as the scent of fresh cooked food reached his senses.
Hulbard half expected her to go traipsing back up the steps to rejoin her Master and he was pleasantly surprised when she didn’t. Instead, Skye wandered across to a nearby block of fallen stone and settled herself onto its smooth, wind raked surface. Leaning comfortably back against the ancient brickwork, she drew her legs up under herself and spent a long second rearranging her robes to fall comfortably across her knees. Despite his ravenous hunger, Hulbard’s eyes were drawn to the woman, to the way her tangled hair fell across her slender shoulders, and he had to drag his gaze away.
“You’re going to be learnin’ a few spells, are you?” he asked, more to hear her talk than out of any real curiosity.
Where the Arcane was concerned, he trusted Quintus. He didn’t need to know the intimate details of their work to place the same trust in his Apprentice.
“Mhm,” she hummed, mashing her potatoes together with a wooden fork as she settled down to eat, “I’m going to be learning a few shielding techniques if he gets his way”.
“Something like a real Apprentice, eh?” he smirked.
“Something like that”.
“Tough days ahead then,” he ventured.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” she sighed with a small smile, her voice gentle but airy enough for Hulbard to let the subject go.
He figured she didn’t really know how to feel about the entire revelation and resolved to give her some time to ponder it without him rambling on. He wanted to keep her talking just to hear her voice, to make her laugh so he could know that he’d helped her in some tiny way, but he knew better. She’d come to him for his company, not his words. So instead, Hulbard said no more and a comfortable silence descended between them, underlined only by the trickling water.
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.