Authors: Kristian Alva
Tags: #fantasy, #epic fantasy
"If not the Balborites, then who?"
She breathed a deep sigh and reflected for a few moments.
“I really don't know! It’s an odd case, because we don’t have a motive yet. Why smuggle enough poison to kill a hundred men? A few drops is enough to kill a man, and that would have been much easier to hide. Who needs a whole vial of the stuff? And for what purpose? The oil may not have been intended for someone in Parthos. Kudu oil is illegal everywhere, and Parthos is a busy trading post. Many merchants stop before heading onward to other cities. The poison may just be swapping hands—the final buyer could be somewhere else along the trade route. That’s even more worrisome.”
"What about the dwarves? They
’re at war with each other."
“Yes, I’ve thought of that. The animosity between the dwarf clans has really intensified lately. Dwarves are not known for letting go of their grudges, but would they stoop to mass murder and poison their own people? I don’t believe they are capable of such atrocities.”
"How about the greenskins?"
“They're a possibility, too. The orcs have been getting bolder at the northern border as of late. They would love to see all of the dragon riders dead. But poison seems almost too… sophisticated for them. Orcs are much happier swinging an axe at someone’s head, rather than taking the time to poison their food. It’s just not their nature.”
Brinsop wrinkled her snout in disgust. "
Those filthy greenskins,"
she spat. "
’d sooner roast a few with my fire breath."
Then she leaned forward and said,
“Come now—let’s stop this troublesome chatter. We are spoiling our fun, and I would prefer to enjoy these last few hours of our holiday. Fancy a rabbit hunt?”
Brinsop grinned, her red lips peeling back to expose rows of razor-sharp teeth. "
That sounds lovely."
Sela hopped on Brinsop
’s back, and they took to the air. She knew of a small creek that had attracted a colony of rabbits. The creek was merely a trickle of brown water, fed by a larger river up north, which twisted down onto the desert plateau. The water was brackish, but clean enough to entice animals to drink, and in the case of dune rabbits, to breed prodigiously.
Dune rabbits typically came out at dusk, emerging from their burrow-holes to forage through the desert shrub. They ate whatever vegetation they could find, while keeping a watchful eye out for the brown kit foxes and hawks that hunted them. Hundreds had already emerged to feed, scrabbling about on the sandy soil, eating their fill of the bright green stubble that had sprouted from a recent rain.
Sela inhaled deeply and smiled. The air was crisp and carried the faint scent of blooming cactus flowers.
Duskeye landed downwind and kept her distance, so as not to frighten their prey. Sela dismounted and gathered her hunting bow. “Look at all those fat rabbits! We’re going to eat well today.” She walked slowly toward the dunes, her feet whispering across the sand. When she was close enough, she reached up and drew an arrow from her quiver, nocking it carefully.
"No magic today, eh? You
’re doing this the old fashioned way?"
“It’s good practice for me; I hardly ever get to use my weapons anymore. Plus, I feel the creatures suffer less, when my aim is true.” Sela squeezed the shaft between her thumb and index finger, focusing her good eye on the horizon. Her first target was a large male, his back rigid atop the highest dune. Sela drew back and loosed the first shot. The black-feathered arrow found its mark, and the rabbit collapsed in the sand. The sudden movement startled the other rabbits, and they scattered. Even so, Sela was able to hit three more before the frightened creatures disappeared into their burrows. She recovered her arrows and collected her game, tying their necks together with a dry palm leaf.
Sela kept the smallest rabbit for herself, and sat down on a rock to dress it in the field. The rest she gave to Brinsop to enjoy.
"Only four today?"
“Bow hunting is fine sport, but this is enough food for me. If you’re still hungry, you can search for larger prey. There are greathorn sheep six leagues to the east, and if you fancy a boar, we could go north. There are always wild pigs at the edges of the Dead Forest.”
"This will satisfy my hunger for now."
Brinsop gulped the rabbits down without chewing.
Sela gutted her kill with her boot knife, expertly removing the skin and internal organs. She walked over to the creek and rinsed off the carcass before skewering it on a stick.
“Please roast this for me,” she said, handing the skewered rabbit to Brinsop. The dragon held it daintily, like a kebab, while breathing a low flame across its surface. The meat sizzled, filling the air with the heavenly aroma of cooked rabbit.
“That smells delightful,” said Sela, smiling. “I need to get some water.” She walked back over to the creek and filled a large metal cup, wrinkling her nose up at the smell. The water was barely suitable for drinking, and she would need to boil it first. She threw the entrails across the water so they wouldn’t attract flies, and rejoined Brinsop with her meal.
There was a single tree on the dunes, a scraggly palm that offered some shade. They both walked beneath its canopy, watching as the sunset filled the sky with brilliant color. Sela sat beside her dragon, tearing cooked rabbit from the skewer with her teeth, savoring each bite. Brinsop boiled the water for Sela using her firebreath, and Sela brewed some loose tea to enjoy along the rabbit.
“It’s beautiful here.” The air began to cool, and the rabbits ventured again from their burrows, their earlier scare already forgotten.
"It warms my heart to see you so content, rider."
“I’ve lived in the Death Sands for a long time, and I’ll never tire of it,” Sela murmured as she pointed her face toward the sun. In the distance, the sandstone plateaus turned orange against the gathering dusk. Purple shadows played along the dimpled surface of the landscape. “It’s a shame we can’t enjoy it longer. Duty calls, so we should get going.” She stood up and dusted off her breeches. A shadow in the sky caught her attention. Sela glanced up and spotted a large bird flying in their direction, silhouetted against the setting sun.
She tried to ignore it, but couldn’t help but look up again. The bird was much larger than a crow or the white-tailed hawks that were common in this part of the desert. “Hmm. That’s odd. Look at that bird in the distance.” She pointed to the sky. “It’s enormous, and I don’t recognize the species; it’s flying from the east.”
The bird continued in their direction before finally slowing down. She could see it clearly now—the bird had a distinctive tuft of crimson feathers on its head. “Brinsop,
“I can see a red crest on its head! It’s a blood raven: a Balborite messenger bird!” The raven began circling overhead. “It’s spotted the rabbit entrails by the creek,” Sela whispered frantically. She hoped the bird was hungry—blood ravens were greedy scavengers and seldom resisted the temptation of an easy meal.
Brinsop crouched low behind the palm. "
’t let it escape—shall I kill it? I could bring it down with my firebreath."
Sela shook her head.
“No, no… please wait. I would prefer to capture it alive.” The bird swooped down and hopped over to the bloody mass, gorging itself on the rabbit scraps. Sela stood motionless underneath the tree. She tilted her head and caught a glimpse of the scroll tied to one of its brown legs. “Look at its foot—there’s a tiny scroll on it. I can see it from here. Someone is expecting this message. I need to intercept it without the receiver knowing.” Sela’s brow furrowed as she struggled to remember the spell that would lull an animal to sleep without injuring it. It had been so long since she’d used it. The bird finished its meal and waddled down to the creek, splashing around in the muddy water to cool itself. “Let’s see, it’s something like…”
’s getting ready to fly away. Hurry, Sela!"
“Okay, okay! I hope this works.” Sela’s hands began to glow faintly.
At first, nothing happened. The bird tottered back up the riverbank, cawed loudly, then spread its wings to fly away. Sela wondered if the spell had misfired.
“Wait!” Sela was frozen in place. “Wait a second…”
The raven opened its beak to caw again, but the cry tapered off into a whine. The bird stumbled, blinked twice, and collapsed.
“Yes!” Sela shouted, pumping her fist into the air. She rushed over and turned the bird on its side, snapping the thread binding the scroll to its leg. The scroll was protected—sealed with a glamour so that it could not be opened improperly. Sela easily deactivated the spell, and runes materialized on the parchment.
"What does it say?"
Sela drew the scroll close to her eyes and squinted, struggling to decipher the symbols.
“Rubbish! The writing is so crude—like that of a first-year mage.” She cleared her throat and read the scroll aloud. “It says, ‘The last oil smuggler has left our fortress. Make your final arrangements with the priests. I agree that the dwarf rider and his dragon must die.’ ” She looked at Brinsop. “The
could only be Tallin. There is no other dragon rider with dwarvish blood.
"Can you tell who sent it?"
“No, there’s no signature, and no seal. But that isn’t surprising, considering the content of the message. This bird wasn’t flying from Balbor. This must be a response to an earlier message. Whoever wrote this is in the northeast. I recognize the rune patterns—there is a specific northern dialect in the spoken and written forms. I was trained to recognize the difference during my apprentice training.”
Sela bent over the bird and replaced the tiny scroll on its foot. Then she and Brinsop went back to the tree and crouched down. “
she said, and the bird woke up. It stood and shook its head, bewildered. Seconds later, it spread its wings and continued its westward flight.
“Well, that answers one question, at least. Now I know why they’re smuggling kudu oil into Parthos. Someone wants to kill Tallin and Duskeye.”
Skera-Kina approached the foggy shore, maneuvering her little sailboat to a flat point on the beach. As the murky shoreline came into view, she knew that she had arrived at the shores of Dead Man
’s Pass. Mount Heldeofol was just a few leagues away. Few dared to venture so close to orc territory. She preferred to come ashore near this ghostly place, knowing that she could be safe from the prying eyes of the mainlanders.
As she stared out into the mist, she wondered how anything could survive here. Day and night, the orcs burned black shale. Plumes of black smoke wafted up from their caverns, darkening the sky with a permanent haze. A foul breeze, laced with ash, carried the burning stench of their smelting pits for hundreds of leagues.
The hillside was dotted with lifeless trees, choked by hanging moss, their trunks darkened by the contaminated air. A few diseased saplings struggled to take root, each of them reaching their skinny branches up into the gray sky. Most of the native animals had left the region, driven off long ago by the noxious air and blighted landscape. The beach was littered with decomposing seaweed and dead fish, the result of tainted runoff from the orc caves.
There were no birds and no butterflies here—the only flying creatures were bloodthirsty clouds of mosquitoes and biting black flies.
Orcs destroyed everything.
The only beasts that remained were feral hogs, resilient scavengers that reproduced quickly and destroyed the natural landscape. The boars ate any rubbish they could find, and damage to the remaining vegetation was considerable. Grassy meadowland had been replaced by vast expanses of stinging nettle and thorny horn weed, a tangled mess that choked any other plants that attempted to grow in the blighted topsoil. No cultivation was possible; any good farmland had long ago been destroyed. The eroded earth, laced with coal soot from the orc caves, fell into the sea and left an oily scum upon the water.
This year, the winter storms had been extraordinarily violent. The black sea hammered the shoreline so viciously that the bluffs had been stripped away, exposing dark bands of weathered rock spreading from the shoreline down into the ocean.
The snarling thicket of brush meant there was no place to hide or make camp, and any paths through the area were narrow and full of danger. Any human, dwarf, or elf unlucky enough to be captured here would be dragged back to the orc’s lair, where they would be put up for ransom, made a slave, or… worse. Still, none of that worried Skera-Kina as her boat hit the sandy beach.
She tried to survey the coastline before jumping out of the boat, but thick fog obscured anything in the distance. Nothing was visible beyond the bluffs. She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled sharply. Moments later, a huge blood raven answered her call, circling down to land on her forearm. She caressed the bird’s head with her finger. “Did you see anything, my pet?”
The raven squawked its reply, and she understood his primitive bird-language.