The Pool of Sacred Stars, Chapter Two

Sacred Stars

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“Thus Smolders the Fire in Darkness”

The vhar burst from the stunted and gnarled trees of the scrubland with a bounding relentless stride. Bathed in starlight, the black creature was like a huge bent shadow as it pushed past the bushes that parted to its flanks. Between the rise and fall of its massive forequarters and ursine hump, one could only vaguely discern its rider, hunched low across the vhar’s back.

The man sized figure of the rider rose higher in the leather saddle as the vhar’s pace slowed and the vegetation around it surrendered to low grasses. The light of the clear night sky above revealed an inhuman countenance of ashen grey skin and wide dark eyes. His face was weathered and furrowed as he surveyed the surroundings of the cliff’s edge. The vhar came to a stop on a nearly bare patch of dirt and pebbles with a grunt. The animal was not unlike a large bat-faced bear in appearance as it flicked its ears and snorted with its deeply ruffled snout. Its rider looked about intensely, his eyes drinking in more details from the darkness than a human’s vision ever could. Yet his prey eluded him.

With a harsh word, he pulled the reins of the vhar’s bridle and the beast gave a panting growl. It lowered its great neck and swept the earth side to side with its snout and battle scarred muzzle. The massive paws of the animal raked their thick claws over the loose stones and stubby grasses that hung on at this edge of the ravine. The smell of the man was close; very close. However, the vhar’s long, confused sigh as it circled about the cliff top told its master that the beast had lost the sent.

The rider swung himself and dismounted from the stirrup of the vhar’s riding tack. He immediately reached over and unsheathed his grhi from its scabbard on his saddle. The dull steel of the bloodstained weapon hardly reflected the light of the stars above. Best described as the offspring of a scimitar and an oversized serrated cleaver, the rider held the curved blade in one hand while he squatted his long limbs into a crouch low to the ground. With his free hand he searched with a wide reach over the loose dirt and small stones before him.

The cool spring air and clear night had already left a thin coating of dew on the ground. He flicked his fingertips dry after passing a hand over a patch of stunted grass and then wiped it on his leather jerkin. Returning to his search he then found several more patches of grass amongst the dirt, but these were devoid of dew. The rider instantly focused his attention on this sign, and after a minute of inspection, traced out an outline in the dirt where the earth had been disturbed recently. The man had been here.

He expanded his search and found tracks; long strides coming from the direction of the woods. The man had been running, coming almost right up to the edge of the cliff before they came to a heal-grinding stop… Or did they? The rider flashed a grin of uneven teeth at the thought of the warrior running headlong off of the palisade and tumbling to his death below. However, his first clues in the dirt were that the man had been sitting or lying down on the ground, removing the dew from the grass. He could not have fallen from the run; he must have stopped short of falling and then sat for a time.

The rider dropped to his knees and with a growling sneer lifted his grhi high, ready to strike as he peered over the cliff’s edge. He had half expected to find his prey clinging just under the edge, but as his keen vision cut through the darkness bellow him, he found no man. His black lips slid over the yellow crooked incisors in his mouth as he studied the depths of the ravine. His eyes could nearly see the bottom before the gloom became too great even for his eyesight. The cliff sides were steep but uneven, so it was not improbable to believe that a man could have scaled them. Yet could he have done so in the darkness, half blind in the night as a human was? Only with great caution and risk, the rider concluded. The trail above was too fresh to have given the man enough time to reach the bottom. His gaze searched the cliff face, hunting for movement or a figure desperately trying to remain unseen. He found none.

Lowering his weapon in disappointment, the rider pulled back from the edge and rose to his feet slowly. Standing, he took a long look up and down the length of the ravine and scowled. Dawn was only hours away and with it they would lose the advantage of the night over the man. The rider knew that the Haldurhob was not in a forgiving mood after the blond warrior had decapitated his son and heir in the tunnels of Thalder. If the warrior, the last and most wanted of the interlopers were to escape… Then his own head might be given to the Haldurhob instead of the blond mane of the human.

He hissed a word at his vhar and the beast lifted its head from where it circled around him, seeking to regain the scent of the man. It lumbered forward and the rider placed his hands on its bridle, pulling its huge head low to the ground with a command.

The vhar swept the ground again with its nose as the rider looked on. Unable to find any tracks leading away, the rider was placing his hopes on his vhar to catch wind of the prey’s trail. Yet uncertainty still haunted him as the vhar rooted about. The man had either taken great pains to cover his trail here, something the rest of his clumsy and blunt trek through the woods had been entirely lacking; or he was missing something.

The rider had been here before with other scouts, as the ravine marked the outer edge of their patrols. He turned and looked out over the chasm, could the man have jumped it? He pondered if the running tracks were from a running leap across the gap, but shaking the helm on his head he dismissed the idea. The warrior’s strength was formidable, but such a feat could only be accomplished with the aid of magic.

The rider looked out into the night, mulling his options under the large dark pupils of his eyes. Behind the “T” shaped nasal bar of his helm, the broad nostrils of his nose flared and snorted, after which he spat a long glob of phlegm into the ravine in frustration. He heard a faint splat somewhere below him. As he wiped the sticky remains from his chin and lip, his long ears detected a renewed round of drumming behind him. Marching drums calling up stragglers; he knew the signal well, it was a sign that the lieutenant and his infantry would be here soon with the goblin mob in tow. The Haldurhob and his retinue would follow after them.

He took a hard swallow as the air took on an added chill, he would rather fall on his grhi than face any of the officers empty handed. Seeking some comfort, his subconscious attention absentmindedly wandered to the trophy that hung down around his neck. The broken nails and grey flesh of his fingertips gently danced over it as he grinded every idea he could amass to find his prey. The trophy was no longer warm, but still soft and pleasant to the touch.

He surmised in his thoughts that human women must all be marvelously soft and pliable, not like a she-hob at all, to be so wonderful even in death. Even in pieces. With a vacant grin he took hold of the black leather that bound the now severed wrist to his long necklace and lifted the open, lifeless hand to his face. He inhaled the scent of it longingly before lowering it somewhat, and drummed the cold fingers of the prize on his lips as he thought.

The cold band of metal upon its middle finger touched the rider’s chin and he lowered the dead hand to look upon the digit. The steal band of the ring was topped with a gold inlaid bezel and within that inlay was the image of a rearing unicorn, set in white moonstone. The rider cared little for the artistry depicting the elven nag-horse, but realized the value of this piece of his trophy. He put a few of his rough fingers spared from the grip of his grhi to the ring, but even with a straining grunt from all the strength his free arm could offer, he still found himself unable to dislodge the jewelry. With a frown, he dropped the hand back to its resting place over his jerkin and resigned himself to the fact that he would need to chew the jewelry off of the prize later. A pity, for he so enjoyed it as it was.

There was a snap and rush of parting branches from the woods boarding the ravine. As the rider and his vhar turned to face the noise a second and then a third vhar and rider burst from the trees. The newly arrived animals bellowed out a cry as the original rider hardened his face and prepared to assert himself over his scouts and hear their report. The rider, sergeant of the Haldurhob, held out an open palm and flagged the scouts towards him with his blade.

The pair came to a stop before their sergeant while the vhars huffed and grunted warm clouds of mist in the cool night. The new riding scouts were much like their commander; man sized with ashen grey skin, wide dark eyes and long pointed ears. One however bore the facial scars and white glazed eye of a long ago injury. The other not only seemed slightly smaller and younger, but wore his thick black hair in a bristling Mohawk as well. Both of the riders dismounted their animals as salutes were given to their sergeant who, standing before the other two, was plainly at least a head taller than either of them.

The sergeant of the Haldurhob motioned his own salute to his subordinates with the long limb of his hand before there was an exchange of guttural consonants between the trio. The sergeant pointed to each of his scouts in turn and motioned to the evidence around them. Thereafter, both the one eyed rider and the adolescent coughed back replies and shakes of the head in turn to their officer. His barking, terse replies to them soon began to flow into a series of commands as he moved in closer and leaned in over the pair.

***

Oris hugged the face of the cliff as he listened to the hobgoblins above him. His cheek and hawkish nose were pressed against sharp stones while his fingertips clenched fistfuls of rock to his sides. The toes of his boots struggled to remain still below him as the calves and iron tendons of his legs fought painful fatigue to maintain the fading foothold that they had on the cliff face. He could feel the slimy patch of goblin phlegm and spittle slowly working its way down his neck towards the rope harness he had hastily, yet masterfully, constructed to hold the treasure sacks like an improvised backpack.

He was probably no further than fifty feet below the riders and their vhars while they conversed in heated Urltheric. It was a distance he felt lucky to have reached so quickly in the gloom, yet it did not feel nearly far enough from the scouts above. Just inches above the crown of his head a shelf of rock jutted out several feet. He had discovered it in surprise as he scaled down the side of the cliff struggling for handholds in the dark. It was wide enough for him to stand upon, or even sit, but Oris knew the second that he set his feet on it that he could use the broad lip as a blind to hide behind. So with precarious care he had made the dangerous maneuver of laterally climbing around and then under the blind just has he heard the vhar thunder and roar into the clearing above him.

He had been clinging here for many long minutes as he heard the lone rider search the cliftop, and dared not move. Oris was unsure until the moment that the hobgoblin’s spit hit his neck that the shelf had actually concealed him from sight. Even then he nearly lost his grip from the surprise of it; he thought for a fleeting moment that it was an arrow loosed to end him. His body must have been hidden by mere inches by the rock above him.

Oris struggled to remain motionless. Even the slightest movement or rockfall would alert the vhars or their masters to his presence below them. Oris knew that should he be discovered he would be an easy target for the hobgoblins, given the formidable archery they had displayed earlier in Thaldergast. Nevertheless, even the remarkable strength and endurance of a man such as Oris had its limits. He was neither a spider nor a squirrel, and with each passing moment he could feel the tenuous grip on the crumbly stones around him drain away just a little more.

As he continued to cling beneath the rocky shelf above him, the warrior pressed his forehead to the cold stone, sweat beading on his brow. With each passing moment his grip on the rough cracks became more strenuous, and he desperately wished that the scouts would move on. At least then he could test his luck by attempting the climb down. The voices above Oris persisted, however, and although his comprehension of Urltheric was minimal, he surmised that the loudest of the three seemed to think he was near; even if unseen.

With limbs faintly shaking, his thoughts turned to grim flashes of what might come to pass: long falls into dark abysses; the sound of breaking bones; a torrent of blades cutting into him. Then with a clench of his jaw he retightened his grip on the cliff face and pushed away the phantoms of his mind. Instead he called out in silent prayer to Aeanna whose fabulous statue burdened him. He offered a bargain to give the treasure to the first of her temples he found if she would but send some intervention to save him.

Oris felt his plea clumsy and inelegant; he had no talent for prayer. Yet, inelegant or not, the promise was genuine and he hoped that alone might be enough to catch the ear of the Goddess. Then he remembered Jorra. If she were in a place like this, her silver tongue would have sung up a hymnal to Solan that would have left the God no choice but to save her in person!

The thought brought a smile to his face and he even had to suppress a chuckle despite the grim realities of his predicament. Like all the others in the expedition to Thaldergast, he had never met Jorra prior to their departure for the ruins under Philduren’s leadership. Yet it was she, the healer with red hair fading to grey, who became the only one of the party he came to see as a friend.

Oris’s smile faded as he remembered her, just hours before this night had begun. Jorra had indeed been in the place he was now. Knowing her fate, Oris closed his eyes as if to wordlessly speak with her ghost. Now would be a good time to ask Solan for a favor my friend.

***

“Now would be a good time to ask Solan for a favor my friend,” Oris said softly to Jorra as he lowered the injured woman from his arms and gently leaned her against the old stone blocks of the tunnel wall. She gave no answer, save for a faint moan.

“Oris! She’s done for,” Glix urged from somewhere behind him, his voice in a near panic. “We need to leave h-“ the slight man cut his words short, then thought before speaking again. “We need to leave before they find us again!” he finally pleaded. Oris shot Glix an iron look that chilled the thief’s blood. Glix had seen those eyes in the warrior before, namely before he struck a lethal blow. Without a word more, the rogue pulled back and looked nervously down the opposite end of the corridor. “I’ll…” he said avoiding that gaze of steel, “…I’ll keep watch.”

Oris removed his plated gauntlets and lifted Jorra’s battered helmet from her head with a care not normally seen from his broad fingers. Underneath, her normally flushed skin was now pale. He pulled back her mail coif and her long red hair spilled out as it was uncovered. Her green eyes were unfocused slits while she seemed to struggle with each short breath. Seeing no response from the priestess, Oris roughly tapped her face.

“Jorra, wake up!” He shouted inches from her, “You can’t sleep!” She gave a startled snort as her eyes snapped open in surprise, then focused on Oris’s face as her expression softened.

“Oris!” she said groggily and in a voice just stronger than a whisper, “I dreamed that I was floating.” The warrior removed his own helmet so that he could see and hear her better as he inspected her wounds. He was no healer by trade, but as a solider he knew some of the art. Foremost he knew that her injuries were beyond any skill he possessed, but Oris was not going to let that stop him from trying.

“Tell me more,” he said to her as his hands moved to her waist and became stained with blood, “Tell me about your dream.”

“I was floating. In darkness. Then there were drifting embers all around me,” Jorra said from lips tinged with blue.

“That sounds… nice,” Oris replied as he placed his hands on the shaft of a bolt jutting out from her brigandine. There was a snap as he broke the wood of the shaft with great care not to move the end embedded between her ribs.

“Oh!” Jorra cried out as she tried to sit forward and then winced in pain.

“Forgive me,” Oris said with a pained look as he tried to steady her, “I have to shorten the shafts. If we keep them as is they will just work their way deeper as you move.” Jorra gave a wet cough and slumped slowly back as the warrior held her shoulders.

“Oris you were there,” she continued without giving acknowledgement to his apology. “In my dream I offered you a hand up and you took it.”

“I am grateful for that, my friend.” He looked over the healer’s broken body. The gutters between the plates of her brigandine vest were sopping with blood as it rose and fell with each shallow breath she took. The shafts of the unbroken bolts that pierced Jorra’s waist and chest jutted out at awkward angles that Oris worked around as he attended her.

“Are you well?” The healer asked him with tired eyes, “Are you hurt? You are covered in blood.”

Oris looked down at the steel breastplate of his armor, which was indeed smeared with red, then back at her. “It is not my own.” He said with a shake of the head.

“Tis’ good then,“Jorra said with relief as she nodded weakly. Even the healer’s best magic would have been challenged by the terrible wounds that she bore. The greater irony however, was that Jorra’s injuries left her too weak to work any of her sorcery. A single spell would be too much for her. Jorra’s eyes then took on a distant aspect, “The flame is leaving me,” she said looking towards Oris. The warrior opened his mouth, but no words came to him. Instead he closed his lips into a pained smile and put a hand to her shoulder. To this Jorra lifted a weakening hand and touched the warrior’s cheek, marking it with blood unintentionally. “Such a handsome face should not bear such sad eyes,” she said with a feigned look of disapproval over the faintest of smiles. “We all smolder out one way or another Oris, but rarely forever. Our sparks rekindle, please remember that.”

Oris took hold of Jorra’s hand as it sunk back down from his face. Her shoulders sagged as she slumped limply against the wall. Oris stopped working on her wounds. Instead he reached out and gave her hand a squeeze, “I’ll remember that Jorra,” he said softly.

She closed her eyes and took a strained breath, “Good. And remember to tell my order it wasn’t found in the Solanic Sepulchre of old Thalder.”

“I promise,” Oris said with a firm nod. He had no idea what she was talking about, but that mattered little to him.

Jorra then reached out and offered her right hand to Oris, which he met and took with his left. As they looked face to face she shifted forward with what little reserve of strength she had left, pushing and weaving her fingers between Oris’s until their hands were clenched palm to palm. Surprised, Oris pulled in closer, propping her up with his free hand and arm on her shoulder.

Jorra’s green eyes flashed with a spark of fire, “I see you,” she said struggling for word and air, “in a sea of embers.” Jorra’s eyes became wide with excited revelation as she spoke, and Oris was mesmerized. She then smiled and spoke again, “My dream! In the sea of embers, Oris… remember me!”

A sudden flash of heat and flame between their joined hands snapped away Oris’s attention. He instinctively pulled back his hand from hers and broke their handhold. Before his eyes, the flames radiated out from his palm, up and over his fingers, and then around to the back of his hand, consuming Jorra’s blood as if it were a lit oil. He could feel a warmth from the fire, but there was no pain. A moment later the flames receded and consumed themselves, fading away without trace of smoke nor burn upon his flesh.

The warrior gazed at his left hand, amazed at what he had seen, and turned it side to side to ensure it was truly unharmed. Oris found no injury but his eyes caught the glowing image of a Solanic sun within a circle emblazed across his palm like heated metal. It quickly faded into a red luminescence akin to a dying ember, then vanished into nothing at all. With a mind full of questions, Oris turned back towards Jorra.

Her body was motionless and her head leaned back slack jawed, as if she was looking at the ceiling. From her lips rose a long trail of grey smoke, as if something had been snuffed out within her. Oris leaned over Jorra’s placid face and found this to be true as he looked into her now lifeless eyes. Wordlessly he moved his open hand over her face and closed the lashes over the emerald pools of her irises for the last time.

He stood and turned away to collect his thoughts. Glix, who had watched from afar slinked quietly back towards Oris. Still behind him, he leaned over Jorra’s body himself. “She was a good woman. I’ll miss her.” The thief said plainly. “I think she knew that you wouldn’t leave her alive, even though she was done for. So she ended it with a spell.”

“I think you’re wrong.” Oris growled with his back still to him.

The rogue said nothing more as he silently moved his deft fingers onto the priestess’ hand and kept an eye on the warrior’s back. Glix had lusted for Jorra’s gold and moonstone ring since he had first laid eyes upon it. His efforts only brought him to frustration however, as no matter how he tugged and pulled at it, the band wouldn’t budge. Glix’s face took on a sour expression beneath his patchy beard of wiry stubble as the ring confounded his every effort to remove it stealthily. At last he gave up, but before he could dip his hands into her pockets, Oris turned towards him without a word, and Glix stopped his actions before the warrior caught sight of them. The warrior picked up his discarded helm and donned it once more, followed by his gauntlets. With a flinch, the thief watched Oris unsheathe the blade of his bloodstained sword, then point it directly at him.

“Get your dammed sack of loot, we’re leaving.” Glix paused at the command and Oris’s eyes became hard and angry upon him. “Now!” he shouted and the slight man gave Oris a nervous, shaky nod of agreement. The dirty hands of the rogue latched onto his bundle of treasures and strained to lift them. Oris slung his own bag over the shoulder of his armor with little effort. “The truest soul among us has now fallen to this place,” he said harshly as Glix collected his things. “You think it a deal in your favor, cutpurse, but for me it is a price too high for what I carry.”

Glix looked up as he readied the modest blade of his baselard sword for their escape, “It is a deal… I can live with,” he said to Oris. “Tell me warrior, if we fall as well, do you think that will that make the scales even?”

Oris lifted the weapon in his armored hand and looked back at the thief, “We all fall one way or another, Glix.” The image of Jorra’s wide and excited eyes lingered in his mind before he spoke again. “And I think that it is what we do between the falls that matter.”

***

It is what we do between the falls that matter. The thought rolled through Oris’s mind as he struggled in the darkness to hold on. Arms wide as he hugged the sheer cliff wall, the pounding of his heart filled his ears. The sound of his rushing blood nearly drowned out the hobgoblin voices above him. If he could only find some leverage, some chunk of rock to brace or throw an arm around… he would have taken anything to relieve the stress on his fingers and toes as they became numb in exhausted agony, but there was nothing. Only the cracks he clung onto kept him from falling.

Oris grimaced as he attempted to shift his foot and knee so that his leg might bear more of the burden of his weight. As he did so something slipped from his right hand and then his left. The cliff wall, only inches from Oris’s face, then began to scroll for a long and terrifying moment before he felt the rock bite into his legs and forearms. He skidded downwards as the sound of the grinding force against his clothing echoed in the darkness, and he fought to grasp a new handhold. None came as Oris slipped further and faster into the abyss below.

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2014 Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.

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