Paschal: Dark Frontier

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

First short story set in a fantasy world I drew up over winter break. It follows a young man through a dark jungle as he begins to become aware of a mysterious beast following him.

“Keep pace, cobblelegs. It’s barely a league ‘til we reach Kefet. Your virgin calves can have a nice stop there.”

It may not have sounded too bad on paved road, but a league in the jungle felt like ten in Farallas. By this point the narrow dirt road had disappeared, giving way to some trampled brush that nature had been busy reclaiming since the last poor sod made the trek. Paschal’s legs burned since leaving Kham-Pe what seemed like a fortnight ago. Rreason and stark memory of sleepless nights told him it had barely been five days. He hadn’t stopped sweating since the expedition’s inception, but the abundance of hydration seemed to be the one boon of this environment. The periodic showers at least cooled him down, though they made the path even slower and arduous, even the pleasures of the jungle took their toll on Paschal.

“Damn vine!,” Tes-Amen grunted as he slashed his machete through the thicket. The one he was cursing in particular was a stubborn beast; it took three hits to clear the way. Only the Cursed Jungle could produce foliage capable of withstanding a blow from Tes-Amen. He was a lumbering behemoth, even among the dragonborn. He stood over a head taller than Paschal, with shoulders broader than the dirt road they had left behind. His scales were the distinctive copper that, he claimed, signified lineage from the old aristocracy, though Paschal had doubts as to why someone of such noble birth would be dumped into a jungle expedition. Nevertheless, the scales were mesmerizing to gaze at and Paschal swore he’d seen them shine under the right light before. The only other hue on his body was a white birthmark snaking up and down his forearm. It served as his namesake: Tes-Amen, white arm in the Dragontongue.

Along with him were Menes and Soris. Menes did not talk much but from what Paschal could wrestle out him, he was slated for the priesthood, but obviously those plans had not come to pass. The priesthood made sense for him, he was small for a dragonborn, about the size of a large human, and not particularly muscular. His scales were a dark green that, had it not been for his leather breastplate, would allow him to blend right in with the jungle. Soris on the other hand while not so far in looks, was the exact opposite in temperament. He was slightly larger than Menes, but still on the lower end for dragonborn. He had the common orange-red scales familiar to most men and wielded a steel scimitar whose handle was encrusted with three dark bloodstones, more red than green. It was a family heirloom; Soris made sure to inform the party of that every so often along with tales of where he grew up, his love of his mother and hatred for his father. Paschal knew Soris’ favorite breed of spotwolf before he knew Menes’ name. Both men were younger than Tes-Amen, though dragonborn aged differently than men, so Paschal had difficulty estimating their true age.

Luckily the journey had been enough to wear out even the most unflagging rangers, so Soris did not speak often, except for when he felt the need to tell the group of his undying thirst - for water or women. But other than that, the trekking was quiet save for the occasional grunt and the ambient sounds of the jungle.

Paschal’s legs felt as though a hot poker were being slowly pressed and stabbed into his calf, but stubbornness and annoyance towards Soris if nothing else urged him forward. The walking was easier when he turned his mind to something else. He remembered the fountain outside his uncle’s villa, the small estate southeast of Teropolis. Cool thoughts, cool head he’d thought, although it was more of a prayer. The great marble fountain had a pool at its basin with the Scythe of Orikoklos rising out of the water. His uncle had always emphasized the nobility of the farmer’s vocation. Paschal wondered what he would think of his nephew nearly a thousand leagues away from their farm, sweating his brow off in the most untamed and savage part of the world. This was probably the furthest south a human had ever travelled. His uncle would appreciate the novelty if nothing else.

 His train of thought was interrupted when a dark shape caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. It was roughly ten yards to his left in the thick brush, but the blackness of it had grabbed his sight, almost as if a void had appeared in the middle of the jungle. But just as quickly as it manifested, it dispersed. By now, Paschal had learned that the jungle’s peculiarities and phenomena were mostly just strange fauna. The screeches that sounded eerily like a woman crying for help were the tree cats, great dark brown beasts with green spots who have a penchant for pouncing on their prey from above. There were also white shining orbs that floated around in the night attacking whatever life it could find and only left behind bones. Those were really swarms of luminous ghostbugs who fortunately dispersed at the nearest sight of fire and smoke, so they were easy enough to ward off. But Paschal had not heard of any pitch black beasts.

“Tes, did you see that?” He asked

“See what?”

“Something was moving out there. Black as night, nearly the size of a bear.”

“The jungle’s playin tricks on you, Pas. Either that or we’ve got a treecat ‘round us. In that case I’m ready… for a fight or a meal.”

“No it wasn’t a tree cat it was darker and bigger.”

“Not much bigger than a tree cat out here, at least not until we get deeper. Drink some water, Pa knows you need it more than the dragonborn. Don’t lose your head this early on.”

Soris took this as a brilliant opportunity to tell another little story and Paschal immediately regretted speaking up. “You know my granddad used to tell a story about the jungle. Weren’t no black beasts or anything, but it did have one of the jungle’s tricks in it. It was about one of the old dragonborn, a son of the Shameful Rebels. His father was slain by one of Pa-Anmu’s dragons when he was a boy. When Pa issued the Great Command he was one of those first few groups to come in. Back then they didn’t know how far south it went so they didn’t supply like we do now and they didn’t plan on coming back. Most of the pioneers died from ghostbugs or blacktongue, but he was a tough bastard and kept pushing. When all of his comrades had fallen or turned back, he pushed on. And once he was the only one pushing on, he found an old abandoned temple, one of the ones from before the Shameful Rebellion that the jungle must’ve swallowed up. When he walked in he saw all the dragonfires were burnt out, but around the altar were five dragonborn with glistening scales as pale as moonlight, chanting in the the Old Dragontongue. And standing chief among them was the boy’s father.”
“How in hell did he know it was his father if he never saw him as a boy?” Tes interjected.

“I don’t know because it looked like him I s’pose. That’s not the point! Anyway, the pioneer went to embrace his father for the first time since infanthood, but when he reached him, his father stuck out his hand and told his son “not yet.” He and the other white dragonborn disappeared and the dragonfires reignited in the temple. The altar broke open, and inside was a golden sarcophagus with treasure all around it. The pioneer left to find his comrades and bring them back to collect the treasure. He made sure to mark his tracks on the way back, but when his friends followed him back, the temple was as he found it, dark and empty.”

For as annoying as Soris was, him telling a story made the time move quicker and wasn’t nearly as grating as listening to him complain. Even if Paschal didn’t believe a word of it, it was better than paying attention to the burning pain in his calves. It seems every dragonborn had his own little family legend about the jungle. Paschal doubted the dragonborn themselves truly believed them, though they were for sure a more superstitious people than the Farallans. Even Tes insisted they throw salt behind them when they reached a town after emerging from the dense thicket. Paschal wasn’t one for ghost stories and rituals to keep the daimons away, even when he was young. But he supposed that deep down he must have respected some kind of magic. Drawn to the end of the world on the basis of a deathsight, Paschal had chalked it up wanderlust mostly, but there was no denying the seer’s words still rang out in his mind The third with the cursed wilderness.

After a few more hours of silent walking, the party reached the village of Kefet, though calling it a village was generous. The canopy was not cleared above the town, so it seemed just as shady as the rest of the jungle, save for a few torchlit areas. There was only one main road that seemed a tiny oasis of civilization in the inhospitable forestry. Paschal counted only eight buildings. The longhouse was clearly for residents, and a few buildings were obviously a stockpile and armory, but Paschal was unsure about the other buildings. If the open aired one with a wooden canopy was a shrine, it certainly looked nothing like the shrines in other Dragonborn towns. This one was made of wood, not stone, and did not have the usual snaking lines of fire, but rather a lone red altar surrounded by rows of circular benches. Everything was wooden with thatched roofs, but Paschal supposed the residents weren’t afraid of fires when it rained at least three times a day.

As soon as they emerged from the bush, one of the villagers, a dragonborn whelp the size of an adolescent human, shouted something in the Dragontongue. Tes-Amen responded with a laugh and presumably told the boy to fetch whoever was in charge.

“What did he say?” asked Paschal.

“He said the scalebrothers have brought a goat for them to slaughter,” he replied, perhaps a bit too bluntly for Paschal’s liking.

Paschal didn’t think much of it though, the dragonborn were known for their dark sense of humor, not too unlike the men of Teropolis. The party made their way down the main street towards the longhouse, but before they entered an old dragonborn emerged out of the doorway and greeted them. His scales were cracked and faded though they still retained what Paschal assumed was a once intimidating bright red hue. His face did not lack for scars, with one particularly noticeable one circumscribed from just below his right eye to the right edge of his lip. Despite his old age he still held a fearsome demeanor and the stature to back it up.

“Hello, brothers. I see you’ve brought an outlander. A sign of the times I suppose.”

“The man’s an orphan. Kindred spirits with us dragons. What better place for him is there than our dear jungle?” Paschal wasn’t sure how he felt about Tes sharing his life story so freely.

“If that’s the case he may have more dragonborn in him than most of the grain-eaters up north. Akh Nekkhet, Bankh Nekkhet.” Paschal had heard that phrase before, but hadn’t bothered asking what it meant. The elder continued, “But please, come inside. We don’t get many visitors, the villagers will be happy to hear your tales.”

The longhouse was by far the largest building in the hamlet, roomy and long enough to contain fifteen dragonborn families. Only half the room was occupied, however, on account of the village’s low population. The building was a long narrow hall and three men tall. Holes were interspersed in the wooden thatched roof to allow for smoke from the fire pits and braziers to escape into the air. Long tables and benches stretched along the sides with beds lofted above, though to call them beds was generous. It was more accurate to call them treecat skins on top of a wooden plank. A few were stuffed with straw but most were not. Fire pits dotted the walkway down the center of the hall, but they clearly had not been in use for some time.

“Our accommodations are stark, but they are a luxury villa compared to anything you will find south of our little town. Our hunting foray should return soon at which time we’ll prepare dinner. Allow me to show you to your resting spots.” The old lizard walked them a little further than halfway down the hall to an empty section of the bench. Lofted above were freshly laid skins with a little bit of straw underneath.

“You’re more than welcome to rest here until the food is prepared. If you wish to bathe, my wife can take you to a spring just outside the village. If you need her or anything else, I’ll be at my post in the building just across the road.” He hadn’t looked at or acknowledged Paschal since the party had walked in the door.

After he left, Tes spoke up, “Don’t mind old Menkhet, Paschal, he’s just old-fashioned. Thinks the jungle’s only a place for dragonborn.”

“What do you think about a human being this far south?” Paschal asked.

“Half the dragonborn have given up the jungle expeditions. We could use all the help we could get if you ask me. Aye, the Northern Lizards aren’t made of the same stuff they used to be made of, that’s true, but that’s no reason to shun willing men.”

That was enough to settle Paschal’s heart. The bath that Menkhet had offered sounded nice, but Paschal needed to rest for a bit. He climbed up to the loft and laid down on the treecat skin and straw. It was like being lifted into the heavens and falling upon a cloud. He closed his eyes for a few seconds.

He awoke to the smell of chicken cooking. No he thought not chicken. It’s different. Duck? When he climbed down from the loft, the longhouse was filled with dragonborn. It seems the hunting party had returned. Most of the village inhabitants had dark-green scales similar to Menes, but a few presented the orange-red common to the dragonborn Paschal had seen further north. There were a few less women than men, but most were married and sitting with their husband and children. Almost all the couples had at least one child, but none had more than three. The only elderly lizards Paschal could see were Menkhet and his wife who wore treecat skin garb and the traditional bone coronet of a dragonborn matriarch. Paschal would guess there were probably 50 dragonborn in all in the longhouse ready to break bread and share their meal.

To his left he saw Soris talking one of the younger dragonborn female’s ears off, trying to woo her. She was pretty enough, as far as Paschal could tell for a dragonborn, with a light green scale tone, thin, slender, and with wide hips. The age difference made Paschal a bit uneasy, but the rules of courtship were loose for dragonborn and even looser for frontiersmen. Menkhet and Tes-Amen were sitting beside one another sharing war stories and howling with laughter every now and again. Even the matriarch would give a chuckle now and again. On the bench across from Paschal sat Menes by himself. He didn’t seem to mind, he appeared lost in thought. Part curiosity and part awkwardness drove Paschal to sit down beside him. Menes did not even move his eyes as Paschal approached. Paschal sat there for a few seconds in awkward silence.

“Why are you here?”

The question caught Paschal by surprise. He meant to respond but the words caught in his throat. He had hardly expected Menes to be the one to break the silence.

“I uhhh what do you mean why am I here?”

“Why would a human care about the Cursed Jungle? Half the Dragonborn don’t care about it.”

The words hung in the air in stasis, marinating and condensing in the smoke and warmth. Paschal figured he would have to answer the question eventually. It was a miracle no one had bothered to ask much about him sooner, one of the few blessings of the arduous journey. But it would be best to keep it as short and simple as possible.

“I was helping train Maklicarian soldiers in Karphame. I heard dragonborn were offering gold for expeditions into the Jungle. Not much to it.” The first part was true at least. Paschal realized the answer may have satisfied Soris, but no doubt Menes saw through it. But there was no other option, his real reasons for being here were a mix of lunacy and wanderlust.

He remembered his uncle on his deathbed. Frail, thin as a stick, and covered in boils. The Blotch was notoriously fast-acting and deadly. Paschal knew the inheritance was for his uncle’s sons, but he had a duty to stay with the man who raised him. He could hardly form coherent sentences by the end, his throat was so swollen. When he finally passed there was nothing left in that villa or Teropolis. It was his cousin’s home not his. But after the funeral as he returned to his quarters one final timen he was met by the deathseer. Paschal could picture him now as though he were standing right in front of him: the long flowing white beard, the stooped and wrinkled face, and the eyes as pale as death itself. “Paschal,” he said, “your uncle, indeed he speaks to me. Never before have I felt such strong a passing. He exhorts me. He has unfinished work. He wishes, yes yes, he wishes for you to bear the task.” His beady eyes darted up and down as he said this and his hands trembled. Paschal was always skeptical of deathseers and deathwishes, but the seer made good theater of it if nothing else. The seer spoke out in verse

The deed I leave I left behind

A score ago lost in time

My first two sons with land I bless

The third with the cursed wilderness

“I don’t understand. My uncle had only two sons. Unless you mean…”

“Prophecy can be an ambiguous affair. But I know you feel the effects of the words I have spoken.”

“But what is the cursed wilderness? Mataxia? Lycansea?”

“It is not for me to interpret the messages of the dead. That is the job for the recipient.” Farewell, Paschal and I am most sorry for your loss”.

It was a very seldom thing for a deathseer to say anything beyond words of love and parting with the occasional peculiar but simple command – scatter my ashes upon a lake, sacrifice a lamb to a god, things of that sort. However the bequeathment of ‘cursed wilderness’ was far beyond anything Paschal had heard a deathseer say both in terms of scope and eeriness.

“Spare me human, you don’t expect me to really believe that. Whatever the Beylik is paying you, the Maklicarians would pay 10 times that amount to train troops.” The accusation was a bolt through Paschal’s train of thought. Paschal’s instincts had been correct, Menes was too smart to see through his reasoning. Menes let out a soft grunt but did not persist further. He seemed like a man who could respect privacy. Paschal did not wish to dwell on the topic.

“You were to be a priest? How did you become a ranger then?” He asked.

Menes took in a breath and exhaled deeply through his nostrils. “My family is of the priestly caste. We’ve reared High Priests, seers, monks, and prophets since the Great Command was issued. No family is more devout than the proud Takarut clan,” he asserted,“I have not forsaken my path to become a priest, only delayed it. While I still have my youth I wish to use my strength to help us draw closer to Pa-Anmu. What better way to serve the faith than advance its ultimate goal?”

The way Menes’s voice went from noble when talking about his family to softer and more subtle when talking about himself led Paschal to believe this was not the whole truth. The dragonborn did not shy from boasting when given the chance. But how could he expect Menes to tell the whole truth when he so obviously had not. Menes was a man of faith. Perhaps Paschal’s reasons for ranging would not seem as mad to Menes as they would to others. No he thought what would the dragonborn care for human seers with vague prophecies about their own land.

Just then a small dragonborn boy approached them with two wooden plates of seared meat served with large slices of a bright amber fruit. Another boy handed them two wooden cups filled with water. The food looked like nothing Paschal had eaten before. The meat was seared to a uniform whiteness save for a pale pink within the middle.

“Thank you, boy. You are too kind as hosts” Menes told him.

One boy responded with something in the dragon tongue, nodded his head, and the two joined some other dragonborn children towards the front of the longhouse. Paschal noticed there was no silverware in the longhouse and when he saw Menes begin to eat using his hands, he suspected he would not be receiving any. He took a bite of the white meat. It was gamier than anything he had eaten back in Farallas, and extremely lean, though there was a subtle sweetness to the taste. The amber fruit on the other hand was acerbic and sour; Paschal would not care for it at all had he not been eating salted fish and stale bread for nearly a week. Another blessing of the journey he supposed: food tastes better.

“What are we eating?” he asked Menes.

“Treecat and Ketko,” he replied, “The villagers live off the forest and don’t eat as much grain as. Farming in the jungle poses challenges. They tend to a few fruit trees and bushes near the village but for the most part they look to the jungle to nourish them.”

Funny Paschal thought something so ‘cursed’ sustained their whole lives. Paschal voraciously ravaged the remaining food, even the Ketko slices. He did not realize how hungry he was or how much he had craved fresh meat. It also did not take long for him to gulp down his cup of water, the meat worked up a thirst that the fruit was hardly able to quench. It was strange that everyone was drinking water, though Paschal figured ale and wine were more than luxuries in a place as remote as this.

The longhouse was loud with conversation, laughter, and even some singing. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits after the day’s hunt. Tes-Amen and Menkhet still sat towards the front bantering with one another, though Soris and the girl he had met were nowhere to be seen. No doubt they had snuck off somewhere more private. The room was smoky, warm, and dry, the latter was at least a nice respite from the constant soak of trekking through the jungle. Dragonborn did not sweat like men, so the smoky smell of the searing meat were the only scents to fill the hall. Thinking of smells, Paschal was reminded about the offer to bathe. He figured he probably needed it most out of all those in the hall.

He waited quietly for Menkhet to finish his meal before approaching him. Menes didn’t say a word or seem interested in talking; he was eating slowly and looking only at his food. When the dinner’s socialization had quieted down and most villagers had returned to their benches or bunks, Paschal approached Menkhet still seated at the front of the longhouse. Tes-Amen’s company seemed to have lightened his mood enough for Menkhet to at least make eye contact and acknowledge the human.

“Sir, you mentioned the possibility for bathing earlier. Would you be so kind as to show me where.”

“I suppose human. Nena, could you please escort the man to the spring.”

“Certainly. Come, follow,” she motioned Paschal away. Nena was still wearing the bone coronet that was common among dragonborn matriarchs. Though decisions were truly made by the clan or village leader who was always a man, the matriarch was still a revered advisor whom the dragonborn villagers would come to for personal advice. The ‘seamstress who sews the clan together’ the dragonborn would call her. She was an older dragonborn though not as old as her husband Paschal could tell. Her voice was just as deep though. Her scales had a light red hue, almost pink. Her scales weren’t cracked like her husbands and retained a small sheen when they caught the light. She was broader than most of the dragonborn women Paschal had seen but not fat. She seemed like she’d be able to hold her own in a fight.

When he emerged from the longhouse the sky was a dark orange haze, both from the torchlight and the setting sunlight that managed to penetrate the thick canopy. The matriarch  led Paschal down a dirt path due west from the longhouse. The route was lit by a few torches on its way past the armory and the open air shrine. Paschal saw that further down the path creeped into the jungle, though there was no torchlight there.

“What is that structure for? Is it a shrine?” Paschal asked. The open air building was a curious thing. It was a dark red stone altar at the center surrounded by 5 layers of concentric circular benches. Paschal figured the last bench would be able to seat the whole village and then some, so it was curious as to why there were four smaller ones. Paschal was not familiar with the stone that the center altar was carved out of, it was a tenebrous crimson that could easily be mistaken for black in softer lighting. It was perfectly smooth, glossy, and Paschal suspected if it were observed closely, the stone would prove blemishless. Torch and sunlight gleamed off one side of the stone making it seem like the altar was weeping color and luminosity.

“It is an old structure, the oldest one in this village by far. Dragonborn pioneers found it abandoned here. They believe it was left by the Junglefolk and was used as a sort of temple as you suspect. Stone is expensive and hard to come by this far into the jungle, so the first Kefet settlers incorporated it into the town as a shrine. We hold ceremony for the Great Dragon here. We don’t have a priest proper so my husband performs the ritual duties. Do you like the altar? It’s beautiful. The trekkers found it in a pristine state considering the place had been abandoned. It must have been a sign from Pa-Anmu to set up the outpost here.”

“Junglefolk? I didn’t think anyone lived in the Cursed Jungle apart from the dragonborn and wildlife. And why would they create such an important stone structure in this place and then abandon it?” This all sounded rather suspicious and mystical though who was Paschal to judge. His reason for being here was no more crazed than the origin of this shrine.

“Not many Northerners know of the Junglefolk I suspect, even the dragonborn think they are a tall tale. But make no mistake, they’re as real as you or I. They’re shorter than a human but taller than a halfling with dark brown skin and smushed faces. They’re strong as a full grown man though. They poison their bows with sinister venom from a frog they say and they remember magics that even the Presbutoi have long forgotten.” The dragonborn matriarch’s pale red face was stern as she said this; it was clear she believed the tales.

“How do you know this? Have you seen one? Have they attacked the village before?”

“No they live far to the South of here. My husband swears by their existence though. His companion was taken by one of their poison arrows on an expedition.” Her voice grew quieter and more uneasy, “He doesn’t like to talk about the rest. But I suspect there was some kind of wicked sorcery involved.”

It was obvious he should not have pursued the subject further but Paschal’s curiosity had gotten the better of him and without thinking he blurted out, “Why do you suspect that?”

Her voice grew even quieter and more apprehensive, “Sometimes… in the night… in his sleep he shakes and calls our word for sorcerer, Khot. When he wakes he never wishes to talk. Oh look what I have said, spilling our business in front of an outsider, a man no less! I should never have opened my mouth!”

Paschal felt the guilt wash over him. It was hard not to pity the woman, doing her best to keep the village at the edge of the world together and strong.  ‘No! No, it’s quite alright. You only wished to warn me of dangers. And for that I am grateful. Besides, I will be gone tomorrow; there’s not any harm I can do.”

“Please, just, promise me you’ll make no mention to this of any of the others.”

“I promise.”

They walked the rest of the way in an awkward silence. Paschal had wanted to know more of the Junglefolk, none of the Farallan travellers nor Maklicarian historians had ever mentioned such a people. But he knew asking more would only make the situation worse.

 Luckily, it was not too long before they arrived at the spring. The sun was still barely up, though noticeably darker than before. Nena asked if he could find his way back easily enough and Paschal replied that he’d be able to. She turned around and proceeded back to the village which Paschal knew was for the best. As soon as she was out of sight, Paschal stripped down to nothing and dipped a toe in the spring. The spot was idyllic, a small pool beneath a waterfall surrounded by deep green foliage. The water was cold, not cool like the rains of the jungle, but shockingly frigid. Paschal didn’t mind, he hadn’t felt true cold water since Farallan winters; the water for bathing in Karphame was always warm.

It wasn’t until he was naked, alone, and standing in chest-deep frigid water that he realized he had left his machete back in the longhouse. He suspected he’d be alright for a quick bath, but the lack of any weapon nagged at him. Paschal had never seen a waterfall and waded over to stand beneath it. As soon as he placed his head under, the roaring force plunged him fully below the surface of the water. He came up laughing, not suspecting the push to be that strong.

When he had finished bathing and the chill had become a tad too much for him, he emerged from the water. He climbed ashore to dry off and warm up. He sat down beside the spring taking in the beauty of the area. The plants around him were a deep viridian with flowers of a variety of colors. Across the spring there was short bush-like foliage with rows of azure flowers dotted with variegated light purple patterns across their petals. Behind him were short trees bearing a bright fruit with a gradient of warm colors ranging from vermillion to saffron and yellow. The bark on these trees was tawny and noticeably lighter than the other trees in the jungle. The surrounding colors and light shades made the spring seem like a beacon of light, almost divine break from the damp darkness of the rest of the Cursed Jungle. Even the little remaining red and orange sunlight gleamed off the water of the spring to help illuminate the small cove.

When he was satisfactorily dry, Paschal stood up and began to dress, beginning with his grey leggings. He was still not used to the Maklicarian style of the dual-legged garments; Paschal much preferred the full tunics and togas of Farallas. The legged clothes reminded him of stories of the barbarians of Mataxia and made him feel uncivilized. He didn’t realize how much havoc a few days in the jungle could wreak on the garments. There were tears and holes and his pants and tunic were already faded with sweat.

He pulled the tunic over his head, but as he pushed his head through, something in the foliage caught his eye. Across the spring the mahogany jungle trees suddenly darkened to a deep ebony. And then, just as suddenly, returned to their lighter state. Paschal figured it was a trick of the light, the canopy and clouds could create shadows when sunlight came in at the right angle. But when he shifted his sight to the right into the brush, his stomach dropped. A pitch-black amorphous figure prowled among the flora. Paschal had first thought it to just be a mixture of tiredness and jungle darkness, but there was no mistaking it this time. It moved uncannily, like a snake, though its size and what little shape it had resembled something more like a bear. It seemed to pay no attention to Paschal but its body was so dark it was impossible for Paschal to tell whether it was looking at or away from him.

He instinctively reached for his machete but felt nothing but the empty leather of his belt. The blood rushed from his face. His stomach felt as though he had swallowed a block of lead and his arms trembled like the branches of a tree caught in the tempest. Paschal wanted to move, but he couldn’t. His legs seemed heavier than boulders. In a brief moment of lucidity he thought to himself How is this happening? Paschal was no coward, he’d learned how to channel fear into action when his uncle first placed a spear in his hand. This was not just strong fear though, this was petrifying dread. The jungle’s playin tricks on you Tes-Amen’s voice echoed in his ear.

That thought seemed to calm him down enough to collect his wits. He could feel the color start returning to his face, but he still stood still as a statue. After what seemed like an eternity, but was most likely only a few minutes, the figure went bounding off deep into the brush. As soon as it was out of sight, feeling returned to his limbs. He was exhausted from the panic, but he began to make his way back down the path to the village quickly and quietly lest the beast hear him and make his way back.

On his way back he deliberated whether or not he should tell his companions about what he saw. Most likely they’d laugh it off as a green ranger boy scared out of his wits by an imagined shadow. But this was not like before, he hadn’t been tired, hot, or thirsty. He had his wits about him and still this creature was able to fill him with the greatest sense of dread he’d felt since he was a boy. In the end he decided against telling them to save himself the embarrassment. Besides, it wouldn’t be a problem unless he saw it again. And if that happened they would all see it, better not to risk the shame.

Night fell by the time he returned to the longhouse. A single dull fire illuminated the hall and most of the dragonborn were drifting off to sleep on their bunks. Paschal strode down the hall and wearily climbed into his bunk. What little straw there was stuffed into the treecat skin felt light as a cloud after the days of travelling. The relief of the prospect of rest caused Paschal to forget about the black beast for the time being. A deep dreamless sleep washed over him quickly and easily.

When Paschal awoke dawn was just beginning to break. Across the hall Tes was groggily wiping the sleep from his eyes, Soris still snored loudly, and Menes was sitting on the floor presumably waiting for the rest of the expedition to wake. Menes was always the first to wake, it was such a regular occurrence Paschal wondered whether or not he actually slept. The rest of the longhouse still soundly slept, presumably exhausted after the bountiful hunting expedition yesterday. Tes-Amen signaled for Paschal and Menes to exit the longhouse, shook Soris awake, and then gave the same order to him.

Menkhet was waiting for them outside, “Good morning brothers. You’ve got a long few days ahead of you, but there are no short days in the jungle I suppose. Come into my post and we’ll discuss the specifics of your mission.”

The chief’s post was a small two-story dark wooden building. Stairs in the corner led up to a lofted platform where he and his wife’s bed resided. The building was the only structure in the village to have a wooden floor Paschal saw. There were five rather uncomfortable chairs facing a wooden desk where Menkhet sat. The desk held only an inkwell and a few rolls of blank parchment. Behind the desk was a single shelf that held what few written records a town like this could produce. The dragonborn were not fastidious record keepers, Paschal figured a settlement as small as this one was run mostly by command from Menkhet.

Menkhet gestured for the expedition to take a seat in the rugged wooden chairs and addressed the group, “The reason we’ve requested an auxiliary expedition is because of the increasing contact between our hunting parties and Junglefolk.”

Soris couldn’t hold his tongue, “Junglefolk?! Are those real? They’re tall tales and fodder for bedtime stories up North”

Menkhet snorted and though he didn’t shift his tone, Paschal could tell he was vexed by the interruption, “What does the North know of the Jungle? Take what I say as law. As I was saying, the increased contact has been peaceful mostly, but the expanding range of their tribes has made us nervous. Communication between us and the Junglefolk is extremely rudimentary and neither party knows the other’s language, though we have a better grasp of theirs than they of ours. One of my hunters believes they’ve discovered a lake or river farther north than their usual grounds and the lands around it are proving more fertile. We don’t believe the lake can be much farther south from Kefet. It may prove to be a promising site for further settlement. All we need you to do is find the water, detail your findings, and report back to us.”

“You want us to go crawling through the jungle looking for a lake that could be anywhere and our only clue is from jungle creatures whose language we don’t understand? How long is this going to take? This is the edge of the world. We’ll move at a snail’s pace!” Soris replied. The jungle was clearly taking its toll on all of them, but only Soris seemed bold, haggard, or stupid enough to address Menkhet in such a way.

Menkhet narrowed his eyes and stood silently long enough for Soris to realize what he had said. “I-I-I’m sorr-” he began.

“There was a time where dragonborn moved south knowing there was a worse chance of coming back than not. And yet, they went on. Do not forget why you are here, young lizard. It’s not for glory and it’s not for riches. Pa knows we’re all but forgotten down here. We’re not even here for honor. We’re here for our people and we’re here because we alone remember the old ways. Most have lost faith in Him or have grown accustomed to the frivolities and luxuries of the north. Do not forget who you are and do not ever again scorn instruction when it comes to the Jungle.”

The speech hung in the air like an impenetrable mist. No one dared brave the thickness with their own response. Paschal had always known the Jungle was a spiritual mission - perhaps that’s why he was there. But after hearing Menkhet’s words he had never felt so foreign to the land. He was at the edge of the world fighting the dragonborn’s war for home, and why?

His train of thought was interrupted when finally Tes spoke up, “Thank you for the reminder, brother. Pa knows we need the motivation. All we need are a few provisions and we’ll be on our way.”

Menkhet reached behind his desk and pulled out four small leather packs for the party.

“Luckily for you our hunt was bountiful yesterday, we’ve been able to spare more dried treecat meat than we thought. We do not have grain and crackers this far south unfortunately, so the meat will have to do. I trust that you will be able to collect rainwater to drink. That’s perhaps the only thing we have in abundance here.”

Menkhet distributed the pouches, giving the smallest one to Paschal, and escorted them out from his post. They walked south down the main road of the town and shortly reached the end of the clearing and the beginning of the thicket.

The elder addressed the three dragonborn. “It’s a fine thing you are doing. You may not reap your reward in this lifetime or in a hundred lifetimes, but it will come eventually.’ Surprisingly, he then turned to Paschal, “And, you, human, your part in this is greater than most dragonborn even. That I cannot deny. I don’t know why you’re here, but perhaps you have a role to play in the Dragon’s plan.”

Maybe Paschal thought or maybe I’m a blind madman on a treasure hunt. And with that, the party began making their way deeper into the jungle.

Trekking through this terrain was even harder than the road to Kefet. There was no road for one thing, Paschal had to be careful that his boot was not caught in the shrubbery and vines on the forest floor. They were all armored lightly, with Paschal and Soris wearing only cloth jackets while Tes and Menes wore proper leather armor and greaves. If it weighed them down, they gave no sign of it, moving just as quickly as Paschal and Soris. They were all armed with a machete for cutting through the brush. Soris kept his scimitar sheathed at his side and Tes-Amen had a spear that he presumably got from the armory with a few strips of rope tying it to the back of his leather breastplate. Menes had only a small black dagger at his side. Paschal wasn’t sure if it had always been with Menes and he just hadn’t noticed or if Menes also picked up the weapon at Kefet. Paschal on the other hand was offered nothing, so he walked on armed only with his machete. He did not mind too much, it was light and felt natural to swing with. It would do in a pinch if he needed to fend off a treecat or other animal. The beast on the other hand… he tried not to think too much of it. And if he attacked, Paschal figured the four of them would have no trouble fending off just one attacker.

Jungle travel did not get any easier south of Kefet. Though the roads before were narrow dirt paths covered with thickets, they were still preferable to this terrain. Thick vines crawled across the entire floor and the party moved sluggishly. Paschal’s fatigue was not so bad at first on account of the rest the party was able to take in the village, but by midday his legs sorely reminded him of the pain from walking the last few days. No doubt the others felt the same; not even Soris had spoken a word since leaving Kefet. The sun hardly inched across the sky and the heat was unrelenting.

Finally, as Paschal began to doubt his legs’ ability to carry him any further, Tes addressed the group. “It’s early but we’ve had a hellish day. We’ll make camp here for tonight, but we’ll be up before dawn tomorrow. Best to get most of the walking done before midday I say.”

The whole group let out a collective sigh of relief. The spot Tes picked was not ideal, though this far south there were likely no pleasant places to rest. It was a small clearing and could probably accommodate the four of them lying down next to each other if not for a great dead log that had fallen right through the middle of the space. No one in the party seemed to mind, though. Paschal sat with his bank against the trunk to rest his legs. Menes sat down cross-legged and began to bite into his dried meat. It would be a little before Paschal was ready to eat, the sweltering conditions stifled his hunger during the journey, another one of the benefits of trekking through the jungle he supposed.

The party sat in silence recuperating for a while until a heavy downpour manifested from above. Paschal and Soris clambered to their feet and moved away from the clearing under a thicker portion of canopy, Tes set out a leather receptacle for rainwater in the clearing, and Menes stayed seated cross-legged and unphased. It wasn’t until Tes-Amen called his name that Menes decided to join the others. The storm was much heavier than the usual showers the rainforest experienced. This one had barreling thunder and despite the thicker cover, the group began to soak. This coupled with the darkness from the sun having almost set made for a palpable decline in morale.

Tes spoke up again, “We’ll just wait it out. Nothing wrong with getting a little wet, at least it will cool us down.” The group’s disposition was unchanged but there was not much else a leader could say, besides, even if there was someplace else to go there was no way the group would wish to walk there.

Paschal’s fatigued train of thought was interrupted by a flash of light and then a loud crack. Lightning wasn’t uncommon during the brief storms. Luckily fires were not a true threat in jungle, so the lightning was not too worrisome a sign. Another flash of light came, but this time the sound did not lag far behind.

CRACK The sky went white and a tree only a few yards away gave an enormous creak. The entire party whipped their heads towards the source of the sound to discern what had happened. A great Hekht Tree, one that stretched up above the canopy and has a base taller and wider than a man, collapsed into the earth with a deafening THUD. Even if its path had been towards them, Paschal doubted they’d have had enough time to react. When his wits returned and Paschal could gather his thoughts, he realized the luminosity he perceived wasn’t total. There was a notable break from the whiteness, an amorphous black spot with a rounded top and strips of black extending from the base. It couldn’t be he thought. There were a million things a break in the light could be before the beast; the strike was intense and eyes could deceive their owners under circumstances such as that. He recalled when he was a child and if he stared too long into the looking bronze under torchlight, he’d see faeries and demons. But still, that was torchlight, not lightning and the shape it took was too eerie to not address it.

He spoke up before anyone else could, “Did any of you see that?”

Soris, “What are you blind outlander? You’d have to be deaf blind and dumb not to have seen and heard it!”

“No, not the lightning. The black shape.”

Menes looked up at him but stayed silent. It was Tes-Amen who responded instead, “There wasn’t anything to see through that lightning, the whole world went white.”

Their conversation was interrupted by a long groan coming from the south of the clearing. That was no treecat growl, even Paschal could tell that. This was a panged howl, though its depth led him to believe it came from a rather large animal. The group sat in silence listening to the hard patter of the rain accompanied by the dreadful ululation that carried for an unnaturally long period of time.

When the horrible sound finally ceased, it was surprisingly Menes who addressed the group first, “There an unnatural things about. I fear the further south we go, the more abnormal this forest will become. I too saw the shape, Paschal. I hoped it had been a trick of the eyes, but I fear the Jungle still holds secrets that no man has learned of yet. I do not wager to turn back, but if we are to continue we need to recognize and respect these things.”

Tes-Amen responded, “You’re a wise man, Menes. While I am more skeptical of tall tales and Jungle Stories, it never hurts to be more cautious. There are no doubt beasts in this place that no dragonborn has seen before. It would be wise to prepare for anything.”

Tes’s response was reassuring and renewed the group’s spirit. Soon after he spoke, the storm began to pass and Paschal rested against the large central log for a damp and uncomfortable sleep, though it was sleep nonetheless.

He awoke to the sound of Tes rousing Soris. Menes was already awake sitting beside the log. They broke fast on salted treecat meat and began journeying south. The terrain did not get lighten and the heat did not subside, though travelling earlier in the day allowed them to avoid the worst of it. The Jungle seemed to calm down after the lightning incident and the group mostly trekked in peace and in silence. Despite the quieter conditions, Soris seemed shaken up from the events of the previous night. Paschal was uneasy too, especially because of the figure and the dreadful howling, and even Tes’ face grew a tad softer and paler than before. That could have just been the wear of the Jungle on him though. Menes however stayed ever silent with that moss green pointed face. Despite him being the one to caution the group about the jungle, it seemed that he was the least concerned out of all of them.

The days began to blend into one another in a mix of fatigue, silence, and boredom. Trekking this long had completely sapped the will to converse from the party. They’d venture south before dawn and make camp a few hours before nightfall each day. Paschal would collect what little rest he could and do the same thing the next. Within a few days, he was conditioned enough to make a day’s travel without too much fire in his calf and he even began to sleep regularly when they made camp.

Six days after the lightning strike at around midday, the thicket and forestry began to lighten. Tes addressed the group,

“The jungle’s giving way. Whatever that is, we’re close to it. We’ll take a look and if it’s suitable, we can stop for the day and set up camp.” The words were honey flowing from his mouth. After nearly a week of hiking, an early rest was a blessing. Paschal figured it’d be hardly an hour before they approached whatever this clearing would be.

He was right. Within an hour the trees totally gave way, but the party was not prepared for what laid in front of them. Before them was an immense shining lake stretching a mile across and a mile to either side. The opening allowed them to see a clear bright cerulean sky for the first time since first entering the forest, and the luminous sun’s rays reflected off the surface of pristine azure water. But what was most surprising about their discovery was that on the opposite side of the lake there lay buildings. These were not small huts that Paschal assumed Junglefolk would inhabit either. They appeared to be made of stone and some even were two stories tall. There were enough of them for a village of a dozen families to inhabit with room to spare.

The group stood in awe at the sight, mesmerized by the presence of such complex structures this far south. Paschal found himself recalling the jungle temple from the story that Soris had told so many days ago. The Jungle holds secrets he thought. Paschal wondered at how a sight could bring wonder, fear, and relief all at the same time.

Tes-Amen was the first to address the group, “Would you look at that. We best investigate… whatever that is. But remember Menes’ words, prepare for anything.”

It was Soris who spoke up next, “What in the name of the Dragon is this? Surely we’ve found the lake. I can’t believe it, we’ve actually succeeded. We can head back then, and just report to Menkhet that we’ve found the damned place. I can’t believe it. Why bother investigating? He only told us to-”

Tes had enough of the jabber and cut him off, “We’re going to investigate the place. You’re welcome to head back alone by yourself through the jungle for a week though. I’m sure no harm will come to you. Now we’ll follow the coastline of the lake, it should make for an easy enough walk. Keep your eyes on the village. If you see any movement among those buildings, point it out right away.”

The walk over was physically easy, but intensity took hold of Paschal’s mind. He never broke sight from the village and though he could not see any movement, the uneasiness in his stomach did not subside. The buildings lay eerily still, but they were not in disrepair. Why wouldn’t Junglefolk inhabit a place like this? The flora surrounding the lake was similar to the rest of the jungle but the bark of the trees was a lighter, almost sandy brown in contrast to the dark mahoganies of deeper into the jungle.

When the group was close enough to inspect the buildings in detail, the material was stunning: white shining marble that reflected sunlight as well as the lake itself. The stone temple found at Kefet may have been intriguing, but this was an enigma.

“How did the Junglefolk get ahold of marble, and why aren’t any of them here?” Paschal asked.

He had expected Tes to address the question, but it was Menes to respond, “Unless it wasn’t built by the Junglefolk. Its inhabitants may be absent or they could be hiding. Either way it is not my desire to be taken by surprise. We ought to scope out every inch of the village as a group, with one eye always looking behind.”

It was well-spoken advice, enough for Tes-Amen to grunt approval, the trek had taken its toll on him and Paschal sensed it. His face grew longer and paler than before, what had been a sharp copper faded to a tan. His eyes were bloodshot, specks of crimson amidst a sea of sand. Menes had noticed too, Paschal figured. He had hardly uttered a word before, let alone a command.

The group neared the first building, a small one story block crowned with a flat junglewood roof. Menes led them to stand against the back wall lest they signal their presence too soon. He motioned to Paschal to inspect the front. Paschal drew his machete and creeped around the corner. “Wait!” Tes-Amen whisper-shouted, though dragonborn were not known for their stealth capabilities. Paschal figured if anyone in the building were unsuspecting before, they weren’t now. He turned back and saw Menes extending his hand with his dagger, hilt first. “Take it,” he whispered, “better for close quarters… should things go wrong.

At this point Paschal doubted anyone was in the building but he grasped the dagger nonetheless. The hilt was a fine ivory, common among the dragonborn in the savannahs near the Khabash River. The blade was pure steel, nothing fancy, but sharp and effective. He fastened it into his tunic’s belt and snaked across the corner on the balls of his feet. When he turned the corner again, he saw the front face of the building lacked a door, just a darkened rectangular cavern in the marble. He inched along the front wall and peered in.

There was no furniture whatsoever, and no sign of inhabitants. The floor was not dirt however, but marble like the building itself. All that lay before him was an unlit excavated cube of polished marble. Whatever settlers this town might have held were likely long gone. On his return around the building he didn’t bother walking quietly, there was no true risk. He addressed the rest of the group,

“This building is empty. It’s just a hollowed block of marble, I suspect no one has been here for a long time. I think the place truly is empty.”

“Perhaps,” Menes responded, “But we ought to examine the other buildings. We’ll start with the largest one, it’s the most likely to host anything or anyone. With that investigated, we might be able to lower our guard a little for the rest of them.Draw your weapons and follow.”

Menes led them a few hundred paces to a giant edifice of dazzling marble. One prism of marble stacked on another to create a two story building with a balcony surrounding the top story. And on top of that lay a gabled wooden roof. As they approached the front face, Paschal noticed this building too, did not have a door, just a shadowy entrance giving way to a dark chasm of cavernous marble. Menes was still not satisfied it seemed and motioned to the group to enter the building, and for Tes to watch their rear as they did so.

The light from outside was dim, but the sun was still bright enough for them to see through most of the room. Again, Paschal saw nothing but a marble floor and similar walls.

“Empty,” he heard Tes whisper.

“Truly,” replied Menes with a perplexed tone.

“Very well, Tes responded. The relief seemed to replenish enough strength in his voice for him to lay out a plan, “We’ll survey the rest of the buildings and if clear, we’ll camp here for the night. Then it’s back to Kefet to report our findings on the morrow. And we can put this Jungle behind us.”

Menes gave him a quizzical look, “Brother Tes-Amen,” he started, “I think it better to begin our departure this night we can sleep in the jungle as we have so many nights before. I mislike a place as queer as this in a land as strange as the Jungle.”

Tes snorted through his nostrils, “Menes, caution is the mark of a wise man. Undue superstition, however, is folly. So long as we post a guard it’s many times easier to defend a structure than a camp in the jungle. We’ve been lucky so far, but why take the chance? To soothe your worries, I’ll give each of us a shift as guard.”

Menes’ lack of response made him seem satisfied, but his face was still showed worry. Paschal had been reassured by Tes’ renewed strength and command, though it seemed to do little for Menes. Nevertheless, they followed Tes, inspecting the remaining ten or so buildings. At each they found the same empty, unlit caverns nearly identical to the first building Paschal had surveyed. The emptiness aroused suspicion in Paschal, though the relief from the lack of inhabitants had caused outweighed the nagging feeling.

Afterwards they set off towards the great hall again to set up camp. The sun was nearly set by this point and the interior of the structure was even darker than before, nearly pitch-black without a fire. They sat near the entrance and Menes started a fire just outside the entrance to the hall. They sat down beside it and dined on dried treecat yet again. Fortunately, they had been able to refill their casks with water from the lake while inspecting the buildings, so the dried meat was easy enough to wash down. Paschal took a gulp from his. He had not tasted water so pure since drinking from the springs outside Teropolis as a boy. If the gods really did drink nectar, he suspected it tasted more like this than even the finest wine.

Tes-Amen turned to Soris, “You’ll be having the first watch. Stay out here. You can keep the fire going if you want. All we’re like to find is beasts and the last thing we want is a ghostbug swarm indoors.”

“Of course I’ve gotta keep watch first in the abandoned town. Leave the punishment for Soris, as always.”

“Calm down, softscales, it won’t be so bad. You can handle a little guard duty. Even I think you’re capable of that,” Tes responded.

It was good to see him in decent spirits again and as grating as Soris’ complaints were at least there was a hint of normality in them after all the strangeness on their journey. After supper, the group made preparations for sleep. Tes said they would wake before dawn like usual to get ahead of the heat on the journey back. Paschal was happy to hear it: the marble town was terribly eerie even if it was harmless, and returning to Kefet was a suitable proposition. And for the first time since embarking, Paschal found himself thinking about the reward he’d earned. It would not be a grand sum, but it’d be gold. Coupled with his earnings from Karphame, it’d be enough to purchase a plot of land somewhere, perhaps even outside Teropolis. It was a nice dream, but Paschal did not dwell too long on the thought. Thinking about spending gold is often a bad idea before it’s in one’s hand. Paschal had seen the gamblers and debtors in Teropolis before. Orphans and bastards who either could not or did not want to think about tomorrow and would rather gamble and drink away their money. Paschal did not know what his future held, but he knew it would be far from that.

Paschal laid his head on his pouch as a makeshift pillow and drifted off into sleep. He found himself back in Kefet sitting beside the stone shrine. Although when he glanced around, the village was gone and only the shrine remained. There were a dozen hooded dragonborn beside him, wearing only the brown roughspun robes of a monk. They circled the dark crimson altar, chanting in the Dragontongue. Their chanting shook the air around Paschal and caused birds and wildlife to flee the area, squawking and howling. The individual voices amalgamated into a sonorous singular chorus, perfectly refined but still steeped in layers of various timbres. And suddenly the dragonborn opposite of him jerked his head up and looked Paschal straight in the eye. His face was white as snow and without any blemish. It held none of the scaly outlines of usual dragonborn, a perfectly smooth plane of snow. The eyes were a piercing pale blue, icicles penetrating into Paschal’s soul.

 He channeled the voices of the other dragonborn into one and spoke out, “Akh Nekkhet, Bankh Nekkhet!  Akh Nekkhet, Bankh Nekkhet!  Akh Nekkhet, Bankh Nekkhet!”

“I… I don’t understand”

“Akh Nekkhet, Bankh Nekkhet!  Akh Nekkhet, Bankh Nekkhet!  Akh Nekkhet, Bankh Nekkhet!”

“Please…I-I-I don’t” Before he could finish, a wave of serenity washed over him. The confusion departed from him like cold from a man before a fire. The time of Mortals, the time of Sorrows.

Paschal’s eyes shot open. Before he even saw Menes, he heard the scream. The fire from outside was dim but enough to see his immediate surroundings. He bolted up from the floor, machete at his side. Instinctively, he pivoted towards the source of the sound. Menes was sprawled on the floor, howling in pain. His left arm was extended and mauled, bite marks interspersed across the ragged meat.

But the truly horrifying sight was lying on top of him: a beast with oily fur, black as midnight, larger than a bear, but leaner and longer. It stood on six legs and moved with a savage quickness, its pointed snout tearing into the throat of Menes with voracious ferocity. Its teeth were jet shaded daggers with blackness giving way only to the fresh bright crimson from Menes’ neck.

“ARRRGHHHH!” Tes-Amen came sprinting from the opposite side of the room with his spear drawn and pointed. Charging at the beast, he extended his arm, marked by that white snaking birthmark. Tes thrusted the steel-tipped spear forward with a strength that surpassed that of giants. It would have shattered the beast’s shoulder, but it slunk under the blow like a geyser falling into the earth. Just as quickly it turned its head to the side and then up, latching onto Tes-Amen’s free arm with its honed fangs.

Paschal did not have time to think and rushed towards the creature, a mixture of fear courage and madness coursing through his veins. He reached back with his right hand and brought down the machete like a hammer upon the neck of the beast. He hit his target with a force that shook his shoulder. The beast gave out a low deep growl, not the high-pitched yelp of a wounded animal. Paschal went to wrench the machete from the beast’s neck, but it stuck in the flesh and blood like molasses. The wound oozed a viscous black liquid that seeped onto the blade of the machete as well. When Paschal finally slipped the machete free, the creature took its sights and jaws off Tes and turned to Paschal. It lunged at his arm, mouth agape, with the speed of a viper, baring dark black daggers of teeth.

Paschal jerked his arm back in to dodge the attack, but the beast was too quick. The teeth clamped onto his arm and he dropped his machete. Piercing agony ran up his forearm as he felt the creature’s jaws clamp down and teeth sink lower into his arm. The beast toppled him over and pressed two legs onto Paschal’s chest, pinning him to the ground. The beast’s snout loomed in front of his face and its black eyes were barely discernible from its face but they transfixed on Paschal’s throat, eyes of hunger.

The beast let go of Paschal’s arm. The limb fell limp to the ground, useless. He stuck out his left arm reflexively to protect his esophagus. The teeth of the creature bore into that as well, another sharp bout of pain inflamed his arm, worsening as the beast sunk his teeth deeper and deeper into the tissue. The creature loosened his jaws and lurched towards Paschal’s neck.

 Its teeth never made contact. Just as it snapped its mouth closed, the creature jerked off to the side, tumbling over itself. Paschal saw a long wooden shaft sticking out from its side and Tes-Amen standing triumphantly over it. The dragonborn glowed with courage and exultation for a moment and then clutched his arm. It was sagging out of his socket, but Tes lurched towards the downed beast. With the strength he could still muster, he stomped on the neck of the beast with his boot, but like Paschal’s machete, his boot was slow to come out and was covered in stygian blood. The beast rose from its prone position and stared down the dragonborn. Tes clasped his wounded arm, bracing for another tackle from the creature, but the pounce never came. The beast darted to the side and bolted out the entrance to the hall, its six legs barreling over themselves. Just as quickly as it came, it vanished, a shadow fading back into the night,

Paschal hadn’t noticed Soris until that moment, who sat cross-legged beside the ruins of the fire, staring into his palms. Unmoving and catatonic, he hardly breathed. What had happened? How had he missed the beast?

Paschal didn’t have time to ask the sorry watchman. Tes-Amen crouched down and picked up the machete Paschal had dropped a moment ago. He wielded it in his left hand awkwardly, but there was still a fearsome strength present in his grip. Paschal could see his eyes were an opaque dark blood-red. Bloodlust ran hot through him. He marched over to Soris and bellowed out,

“You fucking shitscaled coward! Where were you when that beast snuck up on us? Where were you when that beast mauled us? You’ve killed Menes and you’ve cost me an arm! Damn it look at me! Look me in my eye!”

Soris stared at his hands still, inexpressive and numb. It seemed all personhood had left him. Tes reared back with his left arm, raising the machete high above his head.

“No! Don’t!” Paschal shouted.

It was too late. The Machete came down with the force of an avalanche. Soris never even flinched. One clean cut from the dragonborn was enough to sever the head at the neck. The lifeless crown fell into Soris’ arms as his spiritless body slumped over onto the ashes of the fire he had failed to tend, a crimson river sprouting from its neck.

Tes turned to him, pearls of fire had replaced his eyes and his breathing was arduous and heavy. Rage consumed him; there was no soul remaining, just a vessel of fury and bloodlust.

“And you wished to save the coward?!” he vociferated, “You’ve killed us all! That damn beast wanted you! Then I’ll oblige him.”

“Tes calm down!” Paschal cried out. It was in vain, nothing stopped the rage of the dragonborn rushing towards a man. Paschal tried to collect his thoughts but the charging lizard induced an unconquerable panic. The panic at least allowed him to muster enough strength to rise to his feet and meet his death head on. Instinctively he tried to pull his right arm to his side, but the searing agony was too great to do anything but let it dangle lame. In a moment of clarity he remembered his tunic belt. The dagger he thought. It may be his only chance. Paschal forced his left arm across his body to his right hip and felt his fingers clasp around the ivory hilt, tortured with burning through the whole motion.

The tawny-scaled dragonborn had drawn near and stood over him with eyes of rage boring into the human’s body. Tes let out a great war-cry and raised the machete back above his shoulder. Paschal seized the opportunity. With fear and hot blood running through him, he wrenched the dagger free from his tunic and thrusted his left arm up with the reflexive quickness that only fear of death could bring.

The blade pierced through the lower jaw of the lizard and penetrated the skull. Paschal heaved the ivory handle out from the dragonborn’s jaw, covered in blood. He dropped to the ground, exhausted from the movement and inferno blazing through his limbs. As he fell, Tes stood dazed for an instant and then collapsed hard onto the ground with an unsanctimonious thud.

Paschal lay on the ground in a cavalcade of blood, pain, exhaustion, and death. He took a moment to catch his breath before he attempted to tend to his right arm. He used his left to rip a piece of tunic off himself and then painstakingly wrapped his right to stop the bleeding. The pain was unbearable, enough to almost knock him out, but Paschal knew that if he slept with this wound unwrapped, he’d bleed out. When the bleeding had been controlled enough, he closed his eyes. His chances were slim he knew, but he’d done all he could. Death couldn’t be half so bad as the pain of two savaged arms.

Just as sleep began to take hold, a low rumbling sound shook him awake. No he thought how could it be?. Looming at the entrance was the beast, even blacker than before. A six legged portrait of a starless and moonless night sky. And the eyes were black suns, absorbing any light that managed to find its way to them. Just finish it Paschal thought. Exhausted and half-dead he hoped it’d be a quick death.

The beast stalked over to him and pressed its legs on his chest again, the familiar pin of night. But the creature did not bare its teeth or snap at his throat. Instead, it pushed its snout up to Paschal’s bloodied nose. Its eyes were fixed on Paschal’s and then a great chill took hold of him. At first, he thought it was death’s cool grip snatching away his life once and for all, but when the beast stepped back and broke his stare, the chill subsided. The beast gave one last penetrating stare into the human’s eyes and then prowled back to the entrance of the hall. He bounded off into the night, silently as he had come so many times before.

Paschal did not have the energy to contemplate why the beast had spared him; he barely had enough to keep living. Finally, it seemed he could succumb to his weariness and wounds. He fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

The human woke upon a soft wet bed, his head resting on his pouch. He rolled himself over to lie supine and then sat up. He found himself in soft wet mud beside the shining lake. But when Paschal looked to his right, he saw no buildings, no marble, and no wood roofs, just the flora of great Hekht trees and variegated flowers on bushes and shrubs. The shining city had faded back into the jungle as mistily as the black beast. The only evidence of the last night’s struggle were the three dragonborn corpses laying a few yards away from Paschal’s resting spot. They were decayed though, and had been picked clean by wildlife while the man slept. A few maggots still crawled around their empty eye sockets and mouths, but little matter besides bone remained.

Paschal mustered enough strength to stand. The pain in his arm was hot and sharp, but more bearable than he’d remembered from the night before. He shambled over to the lake and dropped his head to take a few great gulps of the shining water. It was still as flawless as before and did much to quell the desert growing in his throat.

Paschal rose one last time, walked back to where his body had left a soft imprint in the mud, and grabbed his pouch. He set off along the lake and into the jungle with one goal in mind: return to Kefet.

 

 

 


Submitted: April 05, 2019

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