20. Retrieval and Replacement
A distance from the town, far out of sight of the keenest eyed observers from the Keep’s Tower, an airship hovered over a small knob crowned with a series of large weather-worn boulders. From the deck of the ship a group of wizards squinted in the bright summer sun looking directly beneath them.
"There!" One pointed to a large hole formed by the erosion of the soil between the boulders.
The others squinted until they all saw what he was pointing to.
"It's in there. See the dark patch around the rocks? Blood."
"Surely they didn’t kill it!"
"No, but they did succeed in injuring it badly. It’ll go into a sort of hibernation for weeks until it heals. If they find it in that state they’ll kill it for sure. We’ve got to take it up into the ship, let it heal so we can use it some other time. We can’t let it die for nothing. They’ll be searching for it, to try to kill it. But if they don’t find it they will think its still out there. That might be more unsettling to them, thinking the thing is out there somewhere. Besides, I think I have an idea… we’ll make a substitution."
The wizards near him looked at him in puzzlement.
"Jack." he said, and his single word explanation seemed to satisfy all the men.
They rode all morning and midway into the afternoon before Sir Davit was able to find the first trace of the beast. The tracks of the creature were large and it was injured by the drops of dried black blood that accompanied the footprints. An hour after they located the tracks, they had followed it to a large hill littered with huge rocks. The party was very uneasy as they approached the hill, but as they neared they were surprised to see a flock of sheep near the summit and two shepherd boys watching them approach.
They were two young teenage boys who seemed very nervous to see Aurei riding with them until they all introduced themselves to them.
"You’re the barmaid from Westmark?" one of them asked meekly.
"Yes" she smiled to reassure him, "We are trying to track down a terrible monster that killed several people south of here yesterday. Its tracks are what you see in the dirt there, along with its blood, so it has come up here. Have you seen anything?"
The two youths looked at each other as if trying to get permission from the other one to speak, finally the first boy spoke, "We didn’t see a monster, but the reason we are here on this hill with our flock is that we did see something very unusual."
"What did you see?" Sir Davit asked from beside Aurei.
"It was this morning, about three or so hours after sunrise. We were about a mile west of here, letting our flock graze on another hill when we saw something floating across the sky."
"Floating?" Aurei asked, not certain she had heard them correctly.
"Yes ma’am. Something very big. We were afraid it was a Dragon or something - we’ve never seen one, but you never know—anyway, we watched it for a long time. It was far away and coming from the south, but as it got nearer, we could see it was some sort of ship."
"In the air?" Aurei glanced over at Sir Davit, then to Brother Darv, both looked more concerned then surprised.
"Yes, ma’am, I know it sounds crazy, but it was like some sort of sailing ship – a regular merchant’s boat that sails on the water, but it was sailing in the sky. It had some sort of weird magical wind or something twirling underneath it like a whirlwind. We got scared and gathered our sheep under a copse of trees on the hill, then lay down in the grass and watched it. The ship came slowly up until it reached this hill. We could see some people or something moving around on deck, and they were looking over the sides. They dropped something --- I guess it was an anchor or something— when they were directly overhead where we are now standing. A little while later the ship began to sink down slowly until it was almost touching the hilltop. We couldn’t see what happened then, but we heard the sounds of something big being moved and maybe an hour later it rose back up in the air, they pulled the anchor back in and it turned around and headed back to the south. When it disappeared, we decided we just had to see what it had been doing here. We thought they might be some sort of pirates who buried their treasure up here or something. So we brought our sheep up here, and about the time we got up here we saw your horses riding out of the north so we waited for you, hoping you wouldn’t be with those pirates."
Sir Davit smiled, "We’re not with them – and they weren’t pirates, but wizards. That was indeed an air ship you saw. Some Archmages in the southlands have them to travel around in."
The boys were wide-eyed in wonder, "So that was a boat-load full of wizards? What were they doing up here? Picking up the monster you are looking for?"
Sir Davit, Aurei and Brother Darv all gave glances at each other, all suspecting that very thing.
"Maybe" Aurei finally said to the shepherd boys, "Have you seen anything up here that would tell us if the monster was here before the airship arrived?"
"Oh yes!" the other boy found his voice, "Follow me and I’ll show you!" He beckoned for them to follow him a short distance across the summit of the hill to a place where several large boulders had formed a sort of small cave. The smell of strong animal musk filled their nostrils as they approached and they could see that something had dug out a sort of shallow burrow recently, for the soil was lose and dark. Peering into the enclosed area, Aurei could make out a dark patch that she suspected was dried blood. Several human footprints were found in the dirt and from the scratch marks leading out of the burrow, someone had dragged a short distance whatever was in there out of the hole. The grass in the middle of the hill was flattened and there were a few drops of dried blood on the ground.
"This is where they hoisted it into the airship" Sir Davit said to them as they knelt and looked at the impression in the grass.
"Who do you think it was?" Aurei asked in a whisper as Brother Darv talked to the shepherd boys nearby.
"Necromancer's Guild, most definitely. They have plenty of wizards in the guild and I’ve heard they have a small fleet of airships."
"They really float in the air?" She asked the knight.
"They have an enslaved Air Elemental keeping it in the air. At least that is what I’m told how they do it. At any rate, I’d say they rescued the beast, and so that probably means they were the ones who brought it here to begin with. It sounds like something they’d do."
"I’m not sure – probably to cause chaos and fear. They like setting a feeling of apprehension and terror in a region before they begin to infiltrate it. Not good if they are operating this far north, Duchess."
"Great. So do you think they’ve left the area?"
"I imagine so – they probably don’t want to have their ship sighted by too many people."
"What about the monster they picked up? Will they drop him off somewhere else?"
"I don’t know, Duchess. They were heading south though, the shepherds said, so maybe they’ve left the area."
"At least for now." Aurei finished the knight’s thought, "So what do we do now? Head back to Westmark empty handed?"
"Well it's too late to reach Westmark by sunset and since they picked up their monster here, I don’t imagine the Guild will be coming back to this location. It's on a hill with plenty of cover, so I’d recommend we camp here for the night and head back tomorrow morning."
Aurei was no fan of camping outside, but the plan was the most sensible, so she agreed. They set up camp amidst the big stones on top of the hill and the shepherd boys stayed with them, happy to have some company (and probably some protection) this evening. Darkness was falling when one of the men from town called them all over to see something. Halfway down the slope of the hill to the east there was what appeared to be a very large club of some sort, lying in the grass. They went to look at it in the rapidly dimming light.
"It looks like something an Ogre would use" Brother Darv said, "Only larger."
Sir Davit agreed, "More like a Hill Giant, I’d say. It is a wicked thing – look at those rusty spikes and mangled bits of chain and wood at the head of the thing. From the looks of the shaft, it is very old."
"It looks like it was dropped recently" Aurei stated what seemed obvious to her.
"Well, I don’t think a roaming giant would use such a dilapidated weapon. Even Ogres and Hill Giants keep their clubs in better shape then this. Besides, they’d probably be looking for one lost, as they prize their weapons greatly. Boys, have you heard of any Giant or Ogres in the area recently?" Davit asked the shepherds, who both shook their heads.
"You haven’t seen any giant creature moving about – Ogres, Trolls, Giants or anything like that?"
"No sir, and we’d know, as the sheep would be very frightened if they smelt them."
"See, Duchess? Its probably an old one dropped years ago by a roaming Hill Giant that camped on the top of this hill. Maybe he discarded it. Rain may have eroded the hill enough for it to slide partway down the slope, which is why it was on top."
Aurei was skeptical, "I don’t know, Sir Davit, with the Necromancer’s Guild messing about at this very spot earlier, I think I’ll keep first watch tonight, just in case."
"That is fine, Duchess, but rest easy – the sheep seem very peaceful right now, and they’d be agitated if they sensed a Giant or Ogre nearby."
"I hope you are right, Sir Davit" Aurei replied, scanning the darkness for anything. Thankfully she saw nothing, but her unnerved feeling would not go away.