The Usurper Within

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm

Welcome to the sequel ( subject to edits ) to 'Beyond Falcon's Reach.' You'll need to read the first book, available from Amazon, Lulu, and other retailers.

Chapter 19 (v.1) - Chapter 19

Submitted: September 09, 2019

Reads: 37

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Submitted: September 09, 2019




Chapter 19

The forest seemed to open up as Pultzer and Dizendra penetrated its interior - no more Cruel Bella traps now but just beyond them a constant series of stakes moulded from foul-smelling resin. They smoked like giant incense sticks and Pultzer was intrigued. “What are they for?” he remarked.

Dizendra was still suffering from yesterday’s disaster. With her guidance, Pultzer had covered her facial wounds and hands with soaked etumus leaves for their burn-relief, though shamen would have something better. The fugitives lacked knowledge of these parts.

She made a guess to distract herself from the pain. “To ward animals from the Cruel Bella perimeter, I think. The shamen hold wild beasts with great respect, but I can’t imagine it will be entirely successful.”

“There’s the proof.” Pultzer pointed to the remains of a bear. “Could easily have been us. I hate this place, but we have to find our friends.”

“How shall we reclaim their trust? They think we’re spies." The uninjured side of her face wilted in worry.

Snapping a branch for a walking stick made Pultzer feel rugged, even though he didn’t need it. “If we’re the enemy, Dizendra, why would we go back to them? Our willing presence will prove our loyalty.”

“That was no proof before," she shrugged.

“True, but look at you now. You’re badly hurt from the rain-trap. It could create sympathy for us, and damn well ought to!”

Her silence suggested grave doubts.

A little further and Dizendra pointed to where a bulky shape shifted in the glade, snuffled like a hound, then poked its lizard-like head into sunlight. Its body followed after to reveal crusts of natural armour.

“Great boulders, a skabatyke!” said Pultzer, crushing his volume to a whisper. “What’s it doing this far north?”

“No idea, Pultzy, but the smoke isn’t working. It's going to the dangerous part.”

Leaving the skabatyke, they moved on quietly. These steppe-creatures were dangerous if provoked.

A pitiful screach came back at them. Nothing furry made a noise like that. It was the skabatyke in terrible pain.

“Leave it!” shouted Pultzer.

“But it’s suffering, Pultzy. It’s triggered a rain-trap. Can't you hear the drizzle?" 

“Dizzy! What are you doing?”

“I know what Cruel Bella feels like. I’m going to rescue the poor thing.”

He grabbed her. “Fool! It will turn on you. It won’t know friend from foe.”

Dizendra ran back to where the skabatyke was trapped, not only under Cruel Bella rain but also in a deep sludgy pool. They were common in this region and could swallow a large animal without a trace.

They fretted what to do; the creature had rolled over to float itself like a boat, but that exposed its soft belly to the burning rain. Its cleverness had beaten the sludge but doomed it to Cruel Bella.

Dizendra held a long branch for the skabatyke's mouth. “Come on, Pultzy, help!” It took the cue and bit hard for the pull. 

Pultzer mucked in. “Good grief, it’s like shifting a galleon!”

“Keep going!”

Another blast of rain made the animal yowl, adding grit to the task. Finally, there was a shift in momentum before the skabatyke slithered from the sludge, out of Cruel Bella’s domain. Pultzer backed off. “Get ready to run."

Attack was not on the animal’s mind, however, only relief by the looks of things. With some trepidation Dizendra touched its flank, then her pats became strokes, lessening its stress. “Come on, Pultzy. You played your part. Join in," she beckoned. 

He laughed a little at the simple pleasure while the skabatyke purred like a cat. “Ha! It’s just a big softy. I wonder if it’s domesti …?” The realisation startled him.

“What is it, Pultzy?”

“A domesticated skabatyke is unheard of, but Pestilan had one, before entrusting it to his shanten friend. I remember the mottles of its armour ... a rare defect.”

He rubbed away the mud. “I don’t believe it ... the same marks! This is Pestilan’s beast, so our friends must be near, Dizendra.”

The name of Pestilan seemed to jerk the creature to fresh vigour. As it trundled into the forest, it nudged its rescuers to follow.

"Dizendra, I think we have someone to vouch for us."


How long did Tianna have for battles of the heart when a much bigger, wider-reaching skirmish was brewing? She might win or lose without Dan, but she much preferred to be with him to the last, and was sure he felt the same, just as sure that he did, in fact, have feelings.

She had no right to do what she did, her inner voice admonished, and this was hard for a woman of the north. Sorry was not her strength, neither of her proud folk.

She tugged the flap of their hut, calling for him softly. There was no answer. 

"Dan? Are you in there?"

"Yes," he sighed. 

"Aren't you speaking to me?"

A pause, and then: "What a great way to make me, as I verbalise my response. First blood to you. Well done."

"Please, Dan," and by subtle sense she knew she could and should enter. He was lying on a bed of straw, gazing to the wicker roof, wearing for the first time a shaman headpiece of black bear and ibex horns.

"Dan, what are you doing?"

"Lying on a bed of straw."

"Yes, but the ..."

"The hat helps. Don't ask why."

"But let me help, firstly by saying ..." Tianna found herself struggling.

He got up. "By saying?"

"I'm sorry."

His eyes welled. "Thanks, that means a lot to me, truly. I do have feelings, Tianna, but I deal with them as one of the mountain-kind, because that is what I am. Do you understand that … I mean, do you really understand?"

She sat at the end of his bed, marking the hinterland between him and her. "Maybe not fully, but I want to. With all that's happening ... I'm not sure if I have the strength. I suppose that's why I goaded you, to see how close you are ... in spirit."

He sat up straight. "If you mean how much I'm on your side, there's no question. If you mean how all this is affecting me ... deeply, Tianna ... deeply. I suppose I shelve my experiences conveniently, to save the impact for later, like that explosive putty I once made ... locked in a strong-box to limit the damage."

Tianna thought of her father, and those who died fighting for her in Dartingvale. "It's like landfolks' grief after the losses of battle. We don't weep until the cremations."

"Not a bad comparison. See, we're not such aliens." 

The flap nudged as if caught by a breeze. It was Pestilan with the latest from the look-outs. It was not good.

Far from the all-out, single-wave attack hoped for, the Vipers' catastrophe at the passage had made them keenly aware of the stupidity of such an act, so their new strategy was slow but effective erosion, disabling the Cruel Bella vines limber by limber as they closed in, like an encompassing, circular vice. The only upside was extra time afforded to the opposition as it waited in the forests, trembling like a badger about to be torn from its hole. The slavering dogs were clawing from the daylight, gnashing with incisors of sword and sharp-edged shield.

Pestilan stooped a little. "Sorry it's such a downer, mateys. Then again, you both look ready to kill yourselves right now."

"What are our chances, Pestilan?" asked Dan.

Tianna looked to him in surprise. Pestilan the war-master? Hardly. 

"Oh, we're totally screwed."

"Is that all you have to say?" Tianna balked at the flippancy.

Pestilan rolled his brown eyes. "What did you expect, a detailed schematic of how everything will turn out the way you want? You're as bad as Cullis. Look ... there are two realities … well, actually many more, but let’s keep it simple.”

Now Tianna rolled her eyes.

"Yes, two realities, so listen well. The first is the apparent, physical one ... all the regular shit you think you see and know, and this is the realm that most dim-witted drongoes of this world adhere to, in the blinkered belief they are normal and therefore most worthy examples of bipedal life."

Tianna clumped straw to her ears. "Oh no, Pestilan, we've no time for lectures."

He forged on defiantly. "Actually, this is the best time, because, Tianna Fell and Danule Peravian, you are shot through with fear, blinded with it. You must look harder, into the other reality."

"Which is?" posed Dan. 

"The one in which you win." Pestilan grinned, almost child-like.

Tianna felt her mind could snap. Did her father have such times in his shaman dealings? "But you just said we're screwed."

"I did, but that's in this sphere, the consensus reality. But, if you draw strength from your inner realm with enough conviction, courage and good intention, it can alter outcomes in strange ways. Trust me. I'm a shaman."

"You mean we could beat the Vipers after all?" offered Tianna.

"Maybe, but the received reality we are currently engaged with is bloody strong in its impact ... as I said, cemented by fear. So, work backwards. Imagine you've already won ... believe it with all your heart, and who knows what will happen."

Pestilan seemed to judge the precise moment to leave, while Dan was still wearing his bear hat. 

"I ... I can feel it!" he said, smirking.

"What do you mean?" said Tianna.

"The other reality! It's ... it's channeling from the great bear spirit. Graaghh!"

"Oh, shuttup Dan," Tianna laughed, and threw herself into his mad nuzzling and pawing. Their love might be honey for the taking yet. They just had to believe it. 


At times like this, Pultzer could see Dizendra's agent skills spring from the shadows. She spotted things few others would, like the camoflaged entrance to what she guessed to be a submerged shaft. She was proved right when she walked over to investigate. 

"This opening is level with the smoking sticks," she observed. "The shamen have to cross between the interior and open fields somehow, and this is it. They must have more of these shafts for the entire perimeter."

"Don't tell me you're going in," Pultzer whined. “Our skabatyke is impatient to move on."

"It can wait." She plunged into darkness as Pultzer watched, then considering how long she was taking, leaned against a tree. Something slithered over his shoulder - perfect food for the beast. With whip-like acuity he snapped the snake's neck and fed it to the skabatyke’s eager mouth. "Taste good, yes?" he coo'ed. Its tongue flickered. "Another, my hungry friend? I'm afraid I can't see any more snakes. How about some juicy pomlins? There's plenty in these woods." Its dismissive snort told Pultzer not to bother. Skabatykes were strictly carnivores. 

Time passed until he worried. What was she doing, exploring the world's core? He turned to the animal. "I remember your name now, my handsome battleship. It's Barney. That's what Pestilan called you."

There was no nod, but its eye dilation was probably saying yes. 

"Well, Barney, I'm sure you’ll agree that our girl has been down there far too long. We must check up on her."

Barney’s mass filled much of the soil-damp space as they entered. "Hmmm! These shamen have clever skills, but construction's not one of them, do you agree Barney? I mean, look at those flimsy supports."

He called ahead for Dizendra and got no response, then plodding on it dawned: this shaft went much further than he thought, reinforcing to him the depth of the Cruel Bella defence.

Charm-bones brushed past his face - little skeletons of bizarre fauna. To ward off evil spirits, Vipers, or both? He felt afraid. If Barney wasn't here, and Dizendra not lost to him, he might have run back. 

"Dizendra!" he called again. There was only silence. He estimated being halfway along. Where was she?

Daylight filtered ahead. "Ancestors, I thank you!" he exhaled with relief. And yet, the illumination was interrupted by movement, by bodies, and the bodies were fighting.

"Dizendra!" he shouted again, running forwards with dagger drawn. As soon as he reached her, she was bounding back. "Vipers!" she spat. "Too many. Can't punch with these burnt hands ... had to kick, and kick." Covered in bleeding gashes, she pushed Barney and Pultzer to reverse. "Run!"

The Vipers were fast in their chase. In no time she was fighting two soldiers, giving Pultzer the break to escape. His mind reeled. The legion must have uncovered the shaft exit in their border surveillance, at the prime moment for Dizendra’s emergence.

He couldn't leave her, and neither could Barney. "You want to charge, do you? Here's your chance." Pultzer fired up the skabatyke as it stomped and ploughed its head into the soil, its lead-up for throwing its full weight to where Dizendra was under attack. For all her clever, weaponless parries, a slice from a Viper sword opened her shoulder in a bloody spurt.

"To the roof, Dizendra ... now!" Pultzer yelled. She pulled herself flat along the upper vaultings just as Barney pulped the enemy like wine-grapes beneath his feet. Back to ground, she swooped into Pultzer's arms, but he didn't feel heroic enough for that. "Come on, to the woods," he shouted, rushing his companions along.

The shaft supports looked so fragile that Pultzer tried veering Barney to centre-passage, but the skabatyke’s erratic force dislodged one strut after another. 

Timbers creaking, roof bulging in falling soil, they crouched for the inevitable.



















© Copyright 2019 Jay Northearn. All rights reserved.


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