Chapter 8: A Beast of Wing and Fang
Most of the elder races tend to stick with their own type: humans among humans, elves among elves, naga among naga, and so forth. There is also great distance and geographical boundaries between many of these people, which is good considering the suspicion and hostilities that often develop. Dwarves and Elves are a classic example. Although its been over a dozen years of peace between the GundurMach dwarves and the elves of Telteyshallow, The conflict that most recently ended was said to be over two hundred years old. It is estimated seven million troops were killed in the fighting and some thirty million in all died from direct effects of the war.
But I digress. And now I come to the crux of the problem. If we are all related, how is it that some of us take the form of a dragon and others take the form of a man? How is there a mixing of bloods?
There is a magic that exists: the ability to skin-walk, or shift into the form of another. Though I cannot accomplish it, I have seen it done in my many years by seven different persons. One let me see the transformation many times as he appeared a normal man of average height – and then an elf of nearly nine feet! So it is that some among us that look human were not born human – yet these beasts share our carnal urges and often indulge themselves. These couplings do result in viable offspring that almost always take the form of the mother.
Occasionally the children are quite a bit more. Every once in a while, a child is born exhibiting strange magics and abilities rarely seen. Chimera tend to grow much larger and are usually very gifted. It is hard to know how many become adept at skin-walking, but I imagine many – if not most – are gifted at disguising themselves. Chimera tend to have very singular appearances and are quite noticeable when they choose to be. Thanks to chimera, we know that the elder races are in fact kissing cousins – despite their very disparate appearances.
- The Elder Races of the World: Considerations, Arguments, and Refutations, by Aogostua Veribos, page 3
Fedring called a council together. He included Gliedian, high commander of the camp, and of course, the surgeon and ancestrian, Celt. Several other good friends and esteemed colleagues with influence and money were included in the small conference, but noticeably missing was the ranking Jay.
"Should we not include Meriona?" Celt whispered to the Corpus Majoris, a bit anxious at the prospect of leaving her out of any important discussion.
Fedring grimaced and dismissed the idea. "That glorified whore? I have no interest in her money or connections, much less her opinion," he whispered with a snarl. "She should try doing her job and not always playing with men or knives!"
The room was spacious and held a large table. Fedring set the wyrm staff in the middle of the table to begin. "Gentlemen!" he exclaimed. "We find ourselves in possession of this rare and beautiful artifact!"
All eyes turned on the Corpus Majoris and the staff before him. Cautious hands went out to meet the object and slid along the fine detail of scale and tooth.
"The detail of the snake is magnificent," one of Kezodel's Degorouth lieutenants glowed as he rubbed the stone skin of the serpent. "This piece could fetch as much as five hundred, maybe a thousand gold sols..." he said almost reverently.
Gliedian snorted to hear the estimation. It was further confirmation that Trohls know nothing of money.
"Considering the intricacies of the beast wrapped around it, the staff is plain and garish," Celt noted. "I bet this is not the original mount..." He tugged at the staff and tried to separate it from the snake – but Meu had a vice-like grip on the weapon and did not come free.
"Where did you get this?" Gliedian asked the Majoris.
"The last caravan apprehended a man wandering the Wibbeley road. Indeed, I have the captain himself to tell you." Fedring smiled as he stepped to the door and brought Leverkusen into the room. Leverkusen swallowed and bowed before the gathered dignitaries. There was little that came from a room full of Baradha that wasn't trouble. "What can you say of the wanderer that had this staff?" Fedring asked the captain.
Leverkusen nodded. "We found him dancing and chortling as he waved the staff about. He also had a pack filled with the implements of a healer. He knows Ministrian, though he does not speak it. He makes the noises of a halfwit. His tongue is in a terrible condition."
"He did not fight you?" Gliedian asked.
Leverkusen shrugged, "There were many of us and only one of him. He could not hope to win such a fight. He surrendered as a prudent man must."
"He did not run? No trickery? Nothing?"
"We came around a blind corner, and he was right there. He was away from his horse. He could not escape us. He gave up as soon as he saw us," Leverkusen shrugged. "It was the wise thing to do."
"A halfwit you say?" Celt continued.
"A mute for sure," Leverkusen answered. "His tongue is in a terrible condition."
"He cannot be the staff's original owner," Celt frowned. "I put a dozen sovereigns on it. This staff is a thing of rare and potent magic, I can assure you of that! It certainly does not belong to some halfwit!"
"Did he tell you anything concerning the staff?" The High Commander continued.
"He would only say it was a wyrm," Leverkusen shrugged. "Personally, I suspect it is a holy relic – though it is nothing compared to the relics of Ooroiyuo and Naharanha," the finished with a grin.
"And who has asked for your estimation, dear captain?" Fedring glared at the man. He raised a hand. "Do not answer. Instead, let me ask a pertinent question. Do you think he stole it?"
Leverkusen gave a shrug, "It is possible. He had a fine set of knives and a dozen or so poisons. Perhaps one of the heathen kings gave it to him for services rendered," he elaborated.
Fedring lifted a gold sovereign from his pocket and stared at the captain. "Do you think he stole it?" He repeated the question slowly.
Leverkusen swallowed to see a gold sovereign on the line. Slowly, he began to answer. "He is a rather common specimen to be carrying such a fine staff. His clothes are dingy and stained. Despite his luggage, his appearance is not one of a healer." Leverkusen lifted his eye from the gold and locked his eyes on Fedring, then looked about the others gathered. "I think it is not his. Considering what I know of the race, I am of the opinion he stole it – along with the pack."
Fedring smirked, "It seems the true owner of the staff is unknown to us! There is nothing to do but hold it in trust until the rightful owner comes forward!"
This caused a stir among the others. Fedring took the opportunity to lead Leverkusen to the door.
"Thank you, captain, thank you," Fedring patted him on the back, gave him the coin, and pushed him out of the room.
For sometime, the men argued about the staff – all except Gliedian. He watched with growing skepticism as the others mused and considered the possibility of fantastic magical properties. Celt the ancestrian threw bones and tried divination tricks, but they seemed only to add confusion to the discussion. After a time, Gliedian grew bored of their wild speculations. The High Commander of the camp stood and turned toward Fedring. "I for one must be going. A couple scouts are missing, and one of our northern lookouts has not sent in a report for three days," he began as he stood.
Fedring snorted as Gliedian stepped from the room. There was always a scout or two missing, and there was nothing in the north to report except the occasional waokie! Still, the air of mystery about the object was shattered. The others grumbled their regrets and excused themselves to other tasks. Fedring gathered the staff in hand and followed the others out.
Meu did not know the Ministrian language and so she could not follow what was said. With nothing else to do, she sat still and listened to the strange tongue of her investigators and wondered what conclusions they drew. Mostly, Meu wondered when she might have the opportunity to escape. She certainly couldn't risk coming to life among this many men. They might put her in a proper prison if they knew she lived. Or worse, they might kill her outright. Several of them had weapons. She felt her best chance was to simply wait them out. Eventually, they'd have to set her aside.
One of the members pulled a pouch from a pocket and threw several bones and polished gems on the table. Although he threw these trinkets multiple times, they only seemed to add more confusion to the discussion. Argument proceeded for the better part of an hour before one of the members stood, made an excuse, and abruptly left.
The others scratched their heads and slowly disbanded. The fat man took up the staff once more. He nodded and shook hands with most as they shuffled out of the room, and spoke with one as they approached a large stone house. There were guards in front. They stood a little straighter and gave a salute as the fat man entered. He grumbled, and half saluted as he walked in.
More guards stood in a hallway outside various apartments belonging to high-ranking officials. Upon seeing the Fedring, one produced a key and opened the door while the others saluted. The guards eyed Meu, though none of them spoke. The fat man grumbled as he stepped inside, then closed the door.
Compared to the rest of the camp, this was a palace, with soft rugs and fine furniture! The man placed Meu on a table and sat before her. For some time, he stared at her jeweled eyes, fine wings, intricate scaling, and needle point fangs. He tugged at the various parts of Meu with his fat fingers and tested their security.
Meu thought he only meant to check her integrity, to see if she might fall apart at the first knock or trauma. She believed he would soon grow bored and eventually set her aside. But the fat man fetched a pair of pliers from a drawer and began to tug at her in earnest! Meu became worried. He pried at her various accents as he muttered to himself. He yanked at her jewel-like eyes, and became more and more insistent. The tugging gave Meu a headache, and her anger flamed as Fedring continued to pry and twist at her left eye.
If she remained stone, he could eventually pull an eye from her, or yank a fang. In this form she was very solid – but not indestructible. With enough pulling, this fat idiot could do incredible damage. He might even kill her! Meu decided to take the chance. She began to soften her tail.
With a grimace on his face, Fedring set aside his pliers and wiped his forehead. He was sure the eyes were jade, and that alone made them incredibly valuable! Just to have the eyes was a great treasure! But to find them so secure! He stared into Meu's bright green eyes once more, and spoke to her of his frustration. As he did this, Meu knocked the pliers off the table with her tail and began to soften the top half of her body. She only needed a few seconds...
Fedring cursed as he bent down for the pliers. He huffed and puffed and picked them off the floor. As he sat up, Fedring was puzzled that the wyrm now moved. He muttered something as he stared at the creature in rapt fascination. He slowly stretched out his hand. Meu lashed out and struck the man. She disgorged as much venom as she could.
Injured and frightened, Fedring pushed back from the table in an effort to get away. His chair tipped back and crashed to the floor. Fedring spilled from the chair and onto his back. Meu spread her wings, dropped off the table, and landed on Fedring's chest. Fedring pushed at her as he tried to get away. He sputtered and swore as he struggled with the long form of the wyrm. He grabbed her by the body and squeezed as Meu bit him again and again.
An incredible amount of venom swept through the fat man's veins. With so much of it in his blood, Meu's commands were immediate and overwhelming. Stop fighting! she ordered. The command was beyond mere language and Fedring immediately stopped in his struggle. Meu curled up on his chest. She fanned her great wings and showed her fangs. Does it bring you pain? she asked. To know I will kill you?!
Terror and rage surged through the man. He jerked to the side, but Meu held him still. She considered biting him yet again to make his torment supreme.
"Your highness? Majoris Fedring?" A voice called through the door. "Are you okay?"
Fedring sputtered. A froth gathered at the corners of his mouth.
Order them away, Meu thought.
"Mind your own damned business!" Fedring roared at the door. He flung the pliers which bounced off the wall with a knock, and clattered to the floor.
Be still! Meu ordered once more, her eyes locked on the Majoris. His stillness was nearly complete. If he could have willed his heart to stop, he would have done it. Indeed, Fedring held his breath as Meu fed him thoughts of his impending death. You will suffocate, and you will die, and there is nothing you can do about it, she thought to him. Terror and fright surged through his mind – but there was no fighting her. She was in control.
Fedring's mind began to unravel. Darkness set in. He passed out. Unconscious, he was beyond Meu's command. He took in a sharp breath. The Majoris coughed and sputtered. He huffed and puffed and slowly began to breathe normal. His eyes fluttered open and Fedring woke once more. He flinched when he saw Meu still on his chest, but she controlled him once more. Fedring sobbed despite his constricted muscles and she allowed it.
Where are we? Meu commanded, as her rage had dissipated – if only a bit. Tell me what is happening here. She commanded.
Fedring's thoughts turned to the two forts. To the west, The Invader's Fort was occupied by an army of fake Soats – Ministrians in essence. To the east stood the smaller fort, manned by Ministrians in proper dress, and a contingent of militia men from Ebertin. Most of the Trohls were secret collaborators and agents of Kezodel – but a few came as observers of other militias loyal only to the Bouge people, that wished to investigate the troubles for themselves. They were unaware they were presented a ruse. The hoax was meant to stay their hand while Kezodel sold the occupants of the western lands to Minist.
Despite appearances, there was little actual fighting. The twin camps served mostly as a processing center for Bouge slaves, purchased from Kezodel and the Courts of Ebertin. The prisoners were taken west through Wibbeley, into Minist, and eventually to the slave markets of Tikatis and Umsuppa where they were sold for every imaginable purpose. Some, the young men that might fight for coin, went south to Rynth Falls, where they were tricked, trained, and waited for the day the Empire deemed was proper for their revenge against the Saot – a day that quickly approached. They fomented war, so those that knew how to profit off such things might do so. And what of the ones that saw through the ruse, that would not participate in the fighting? Fedring crippled their hands and set them in front of the Invader's Fort to beg or die – whichever they wanted.
For several hours, Meu plumbed the thoughts of Fedring. Not only did she learn the layout and purpose of the camps, she learned where the Ministrians held the shaman, and noted where the Majoris hid his personal coin and the coin of his office. She discovered the important players about the camp and how Fedring felt about each of them. Yet, with all this information, Meu was not finished. Her eye still ached, and she decided to torment Fedring once more for his rude treatment. Indeed, she meant to spill him open completely, she was so enraged.
Show me your secrets, Meu ordered. Meu thought she was a worldly creature, immune to the shock and horror of ruthless people. Indeed, the slaving of the Bouge did not surprise her, much more, shock her. But the Corpus Majoris was a fanatical and devious man. His secrets included many terrible things: malfeasance, manipulation, hypocrisy, conspiracy, torture, murder, molestation - the blood of children stained his hands. The blood of men, women, and a surprising number of children ran through his treacherous fingers. The extent of his crimes mirrored the slow climb of his political power, and Meu realized that in the Ministrian Empire the rotten ruled.
The rotten: they were called Baradha among their own kind, and they ruled with an iron fist, gloved in velvet. Meu thought to destroy the Majoris. There were a dozen ways to kill him, any of which would be easy enough. Yet, she reconsidered. In part, she knew he'd simply be replaced by someone just as rotten. Besides, Fedring's death would put the camp on high alert, which would make freeing the shaman all the more difficult.
Repent, Meu ordered, and showed Fedring the sins of his heart. The Corpus Majoris began to sob anew. He squirmed and bawled as snot ran from his nose. There was no remorse in his black heart except that Meu knew his lies and treachery. His crimes did not haunt him, only their discovery, and possible dissemination.
Meu slithered to the window. She unlatched it as the disgusting thoughts of Fedring rang in her head. The light of dawn crept into the room. She was surprised that her interrogation had lasted so long. Meu leapt from the window and spread her wings. Though she might secure physical distance from this wretched beast, the reek of Fedring's sins flowed through her thoughts, and would continue to do so for several more hours. She'd injected him with so much venom – too much venom! Indeed, she was now very low.
Meu surged into the sky. She pushed herself straight up into the early morning air and regarded the forts from a height. She considered marching the fat man into the shaman's cell and ordering his release. But Meu knew such a simple plan would not work. It was easy enough to put a man in prison. To get him released was another matter, even for a man as powerful as Fedring. There were regulations and procedures that must be followed.
Due to a lack of sleep and an incredible headache caused by Fedring's rude pliers, Meu decided to disappear for a time, to rest up, and consider her options. She angled down and aimed for the trees just outside the fort. She cut close to the stone tower, in hopes of getting a good look at it. She was not giving up, she told herself. She was merely regrouping. She didn't see the archers at all.
"I tell you, it's right there!" Petaerus pointed up in the sky.
"I don't see it," Dolif said as he blinked his eyes against the gathering light of dawn.
"Right there! How do you not see it?!" Petaerus roared at him. He muttered a curse as he pulled the bow off his shoulder. "It's coming down!" He said as he nocked an arrow.
Dolif pulled his bow and also nocked an arrow. He aimed in the same general direction, though he couldn't see the thing... and suddenly there it was! A gross beast, long and thin, with wide, massive wings – the largest, strangest bird Dolif had ever seen!
The creature twisted past the great stone tower and angled over the wall just past the guards. Petaerus followed the beast, and as it dipped toward the trees, he fired. In the low light before dawn, it was impossible to see if the arrow hit. The beast curled up and dove into the underbrush as the missile passed. Dolif also fired, but he did not have a good read on the creature. His arrow was off by a wide margin. Petaerus frowned at Dolif, and Dolif shrugged.
"What do you think it was?" Dolif asked.
Petaerus shrugged and lowered his bow.
"Biggest damned bird I ever saw," Dolif noted. "Do you think you hit it?"
"So you did see it!" Petaerus turned on his friend.
Dolif huffed. "Did you not see me shoot at it?"
"You aimed that shot? I thought you just..." Petaerus turned toward the trees, swayed a bit, and pretended to release an arrow with a shrug: a mock of Dolif's wild shot.
Dolif glared at his friend.
"Stay here, I'll go see..." Petaerus stepped toward the stairs.
"Non! You'll get us in trouble again!" Dolif blocked the way. "You know the protocol! Send one of the gate guards!"
Petearus frowned, but he knew Dolif was right. He leaned from the tower and whistled. "Who's down there?" he yelled to the gate.
From the ground, Derris looked up at the archers.
"Oh, fuck you," Petearus whispered as he frowned at Dolif. "It would be Derris..."
"Derris!" Petearus shouted down from the tower. "I shot a bird!" He pointed into the woods. "Go see what I hit!"
"A bird?!" Derris called back, bothered that he should be sent into the woods for such a small thing.
"Not a bird!" Petaerus held his hands close as he said the word as an insult. "But a bird!" Petearus threw his arms out wide and said it as if it were some type of angel. "Go see and know that it is mine!"
With a frown, Derris shook his head and made his way through the gate. He stepped into the woods. Though he thought it was a waste of time, he had to follow the order of the tower guards. About such things, they had authority.