Posted by: lordkyler | April 13, 2015

Damsel in Distress – Short Story Week

Renauld stopped for a short rest, his warm breath steaming in the cold mountain air. He looked with despair at the trail ahead. It had taken him three days to get this far up the mountain, and he still had no idea how much further he would have to go. Only the thought of Annea kept him going.

Sighing, he pulled a small piece of smoked fish from his pouch, and tried to make it last. He didn’t have much left. The wind gusted fitfully, bringing with it shards of ice. Renauld shuddered and wrapped himself closer in his leathers. He wished that he was old enough for the gift of flame.

But he wasn’t, so he had to make do. He forced himself to get up and keep moving. If he stopped for too long without proper shelter, he wouldn’t get moving again. He hurried onward, hoping to find a cave or crevice of some sort in which he could wait out the coming night.

This whole venture was ill-advised, he knew that. He had only the most meager supplies, his old and poorly-fitted scale armor, and fresh, unweathered leathers. He didn’t even have his second gift yet, just a rusty sharp-blade and a battered hard-shield from some ancestor years ago. But when the monster had come and snatched up Annea in its terrible grasp, Renauld was the only one that had volunteered to save her. So here he was on the side of a mountain, freezing to death.

A red light flickered up ahead, barely visible through the swirling snowfall. Renauld squinted, but could not make out what it was. He crouched low and made sure his sharp-blade was well in hand, then crept forward. As he grew closer, he heard conversation in the wild tongue, the curiously smooth and rhythmic speech shared by the most dangerous monsters. It was strange to hear such nearly-musical sound from such ugly and awkward beasts.

There were three of them, huddled around a fire. They were similar in appearance to the great black beast that had stolen Annea, but smaller and wingless. Where the black beast had been totally covered in an impenetrable hide, these monsters were less mature, and their armor had not yet covered their fleshy, brutish faces or their stunted fingers.

Renauld stared longingly at the fire and dreamed of being warm again. It was foolishness to attack the red beasts, of course. He didn’t have the gift of stone for protection, or the gift of fire for attack… a sudden thought came to him. He hadn’t yet been given the gift of wind, but even without it, his leathers were built for gliding. It would be a risk, but it might be worth it.

He looked once more at the crackling fire, and saw a haunch of meat roasting on a spit above it. That decided it. Moving softly, Renauld circled to the right, and when he judged he was in a good position, he stood tall and bellowed at the top of his lungs.

The red beasts took notice instantly and snatched up their crude weapons. The largest spotted him through the snowfall, and called to its companions. It charged with head low and weapon raised, seeking a quick kill.

Renauld waited until it was close, then dropped low and lashed out with a limb. The brute tripped over him and fell screaming over the side of the cliff, disappearing into the white void. A few seconds later his scream was cut short.

The other two monsters were more shrewd, and approached cautiously. So much for his plan of luring them all off the cliff. One monster carried a net. It seemed they wanted to capture him alive, just as the black beast had done with Annea. Renauld decided to take them by surprise, and, ignoring the knot of fear in his stomach, lunged forward. The monsters froze for just a second in surprise, giving Renauld a chance to strike. He attacked the monster who held the net, slashing at the fleshy exposed face. His blow was hasty and unskilled, but had the strength of panic behind it, and it cut across the brute’s furrowed brow. Cold dark blood fell like a curtain across the monster’s eyes, blinding it. The creature staggered backward, dropping the net as it pawed at its wound.

The last monster twisted its misshapen face in anger, and grabbed at Renauld. Renauld tried to twist free and roll away, but the beast was frightfully strong, and had an firm grip on his scale armor. There was no way he could squirm out of it in time. He only had one option. He planted his feet against the earth and shoved backward. The red monster, which had expected him to try and pull free, was caught off balance, and together the two of them went over the cliff.

Suddenly the snow was falling upward, the world was spinning the wrong way round, and time seemed to stretch out longer and longer. Renauld felt sick to his stomach, and wondered for a moment how anyone could enjoy the gift of wind enough to become a skydancer.

But he was still falling, and the red beast held him all the tighter from shock. Renauld cast away his hard-shield and unfurled his leathers like a pair of bird’s wings. But with the beast clinging to him, the leathers did little more than stabilize their fall. Renauld cut at the monster’s wrist with his sharp-blade, but the stupid creature was too panicked to even feel the cuts. Renauld slashed again and again, hoping to sever the muscles in the hand, but his efforts were fruitless. Either the blade was too dull, or else he was too weak, or else-

They crashed into a river, the body of the red beast breaking through the thin ice, and Renauld felt the cold hit as hard as the water itself. The dark water closed around them, and Renauld finally felt the monster’s grip go slack. He kicked free and began swimming toward the hole in the ice. He had never been so thankful for the gift of waters. It was the first gift among his people, given at birth. He had taken it for granted until this moment.

He wouldn’t need to worry about breathing, but the cold would kill him soon enough if he couldn’t get out. He moved as fast as he could, limbs flailing and churning the water, but the current was strong, and he could barely make any headway. His leathers dragged in the current, slowing him further. Renauld wished he had practiced with the gift of waters more. If he could propel himself through the water as some could, he would be out in a heartbeat.

He struggled to come up with a plan, but the cold was mind-numbing. His hard-shield was missing, but he was still holding his sharp-blade. Perhaps if he could get it into the ice…

He kicked upward against the ceiling of ice, and carefully flipped over so that he was facing it. It took several tries to get his sharp-blade to stick in the slick, smooth ice, but eventually he got it to hold. He pulled himself forward, swam as hard as he could, and then pulled the blade free and repeated the process. Step by step, he made his way toward the hole, feeling the cold sink deeper and deeper each moment. He had only a few feet to go when the blade fell from his frozen fingers and tumbled away in the dark current. He watched with numb regard, too cold to feel alarm or even fear. He kept swimming out of sheer momentum, only inches from being free, but he couldn’t seem to rouse the will for a final push. What were the odds he would make it to the fire in time, or overcome the wounded monster on the cliff-top? For that matter, how could he defeat the black terror without so much as a sharp-blade?

He tried to spend his last moments thinking of calming and beautiful things. His home. His ancestors and kin. Annea. But all he could think of was the terror on her face as the black terror carried her away into the sky.

Something surged within, banishing the stupor that had overcome him. It burned, like anger, or courage, or…

Or fire.

Acting on an urge he could not fully understand, he drew a deep breath, filling his lungs with ice and dark water.

He breathed out, and the river exploded.

The ice above him fractured and flew into the air like a fountain of glass, and the waters burst into steam, throwing him into the air by the force of their violent transformation. He tumbled through the air for some fifty feet, eventually landing on his back in a snowdrift.

He lay there for some time, staring at the empty gray skies. The gift of fire! He knew that it could come early, but he had never thought it might happen to him. The sensation was glorious. Warmth pulsed through his body with every heartbeat, and his breath puffed in the cold air like smoke. He could even see snowflakes melting as they came close to his hands, feel the snowdrift grow wet around him. He thanked the gods and his ancestors for the ancient pact that granted such marvelous blessings. And to think, the risks he’d been willing to take for a fire just moments ago.

Thinking of the fire… He didn’t have much need for the heat now, but the food was still tempting, and there was a chance he could use one of the monster’s weapons in place of his lost sharp-blade. He would have to get back on the path anyway.

After spending another minute reveling in his newfound power, Renauld pulled himself to his feet, shook the snow off his leathers, and found his hard-shield. With the extra energy granted by his newfound gift, he scaled the cliff with the ease of a squirrel ascending a tree.

The sun was hidden behind the omnipresent clouds, but the world began to grow dimmer as night approached. By the time Renauld reached the top, the world was in a strange twilight, a swirl of snow and shadow, blending into one another so that it was impossible to tell what lay beyond his immediate grasp. He felt as though he were in a strange dream, so alive and vivid within, but lost in a formless and barren world. He forced himself to be wary. There were still monsters about.

He found one of the monster’s weapons half-buried in the snow, a strange implement, but better-crafted than he had first thought. It had only a single blade, long and rigid, attached to a small stick for grasping, like a spear with point and handle reversed. It was unwieldy, and would restrict his usual fighting style, but he would have to make do.

The fire had died to embers by now, but he could still smell the lingering scent of smoke. He approached cautiously, heart pounding and heat surging, ready to strike or burn at a moment’s notice. He found the campfire but little else. There was no sign of the wounded creature, or the meat. Renauld circled the fire in search of tracks, and found a trail of blood, leading in fits and spurts toward the mountain pass.

The beast had retreated, perhaps to recuperate. Or to find help. The red monsters had tried to capture him first, which might be the only reason he hadn’t been killed. Could they be relatives or cohorts of the black beast? They had a similar look to them…

It was the best lead he had, but he would have to hurry. The snow would bury the trail by morning. Renauld sheathed his new weapon, lit a torch, and began to run.

It was so much easier to run now. The cold was refreshing instead of numbing, and his blood sang with energy. But after a few moments, he grew accustomed to the sensation, and the reality of the situation began to weigh on him again.

Despite his new-found gift, he was still hopelessly outmatched by the black beast. The creature had swooped in from the skies, slain a fully-blessed elder and wrecked half the village. Before anyone could react, it had stolen Annea and flown off again, all within mere heartbeats. It was easily three times his size, with impenetrable skin, hurricane wings, and fiery breath hot enough to overwhelm his untrained water gift. His motley and awkward assets were poor comparisons.

But none of that had stopped him before, and it was too late to go back now. He would have to rely on his wits. Surely a beast so rapacious and violent could not be as clever as he was. He would have to find a way.

He could only pray that Annea was alright. He had never been able to gather the courage to tell her of his feelings, but he thought she might know. He would catch her glancing at him when she thought he wasn’t watching, much the way he looked at her. Maybe this would change things.

With his eyes locked on the trail of blood, and his mind preoccupied with thoughts of Annea, Renauld didn’t notice the monster’s lair until he nearly ran into it. Startled, he backpedaled, and promptly slipped and fell on his backside. He looked up at the towering structure with awe. It was a crude thing, in a way, built of rough-hewn stones pasted together with some sort of mud or saliva, but the sheer size of it was mind-boggling. It was as if someone had decided to build their own mountain. Renauld could not comprehend the time or effort it must have taken to build such a structure. Surely this was the result of generations, each monster adding another layer to the lair, like birds building some sort of massive nest. There was an opening in the clifflike walls, but it was criss-crossed with strips of hardstone. He would have to climb over.

Fortunately, he was a good climber. The handholds were more shallow than a natural cliff, but they were more regular. He took his time, though, as the stones were slick with frost, and one slip meant he would have to start all over. Occasionally he would run into a spot with no purchase, and would have to backtrack and find a different route.

Between the run and the climb, it was nearly dawn by the time he reached the top. He had almost forgotten it was still summertime, and the nights were short. He had been awake for nearly a full day now, and even the gift of fire could only do so much to relieve his weariness. He couldn’t turn back now, but he could hardly face the black beast if he was exhausted. He needed to find a hidden spot where he could rest. Surely that couldn’t be too difficult in a place this large.

He crept along the wall-top until he found a ramp leading down to the ground. He could see no sign of the black beast or any of his relatives, but with the constant snowfall, he might not know the monsters were near until they were on top of him. He followed a path around the base of the wall, where he would leave no tracks and could dive into a snowdrift at a moment’s notice.

After a few tense minutes, he spied a stack of containers against a wall, probably some sort of plundered goods. Judging by the snow atop them, they hadn’t been disturbed for several days, and so Renauld thought it might be a good place to steal a rest. Just to be sure, he rounded the stack to make certain nobody had been by recently, and found the last thing he had expected to see. Annea.

She was tied to a pole with a collar around her neck like an animal, and lay curled on the ground trying to stay warm. She hadn’t been gifted with fire yet, and she had only a pile of rags and ratty furs for warmth. Renauld felt his heart stagger. How long had she been kept out here? The only sign that she was still alive were the white puffs of mist coming from her dainty nose. She still had her leathers, thank the gods, but they looked half-frozen.

He had to go to her. Sparing only half a glance for monsters, he bounded across the snow. He wouldn’t have much time – the sky was already lightening, and the snowfall showed signs of letting up – but he had to know she was alright.

She stirred at his approach, and shied away in fear until she realized who he was.

“Renauld?” she croaked. “Gods of fire! I can’t believe it!”

Renauld shushed her. “We have to get out of here as soon as we can,” he hissed. “Can you walk?”

“I think so. Where is everyone else?”

“It’s just me.”

“Are you mad?” Annea said, careful to keep her voice low. “How did you plan to beat the black beast all by yourself?”

“I’m hoping I won’t have to,” Renauld said. “If I can get you free, we should be able to get away before they notice.” He began to inspect her bonds. The chain and collar were made of hardstone, but the pole itself was wooden. He might be able to burn enough to pull the chain free. He didn’t have the time or the practice to burn through the chain itself. He started immediately, summoning his internal heat and focusing it on the point where the chain met the wood.

“I’m so glad you came,” Annea whispered. “You have no idea what they were planning to do to me.”

“Were they going to kill you? Or did they want some sort of trophy?”

“No, Renauld. You don’t understand.” She looked up and caught his gaze. Her clear green eyes were wide and fearful. “They harvest us.”

Renauld’s flame flickered. “What do you mean?”

“I have seen it. There are cages for the fully-gifted in a pit on the other side of the lair. They brought one out on the first day. He looked as though he had been here his whole life, but he was a skydancer. And then… and they… they murdered him. Cut him open and took his heart. A green monster ate it…” Annea looked like she was about to throw up or burst out crying, but after a moment shuddering, she pushed on. “Then the other monsters put a pair of wings on the green one’s shoulders and he flew. Renauld, I think the monsters steal our gifts from us.”

Renauld felt as though he had been plunged back into the river of ice. He had thought that the beasts were mindless monsters, filled with unthinking violence, like a wild beast. This was much worse. He shook his head, trying to clear off the dark thoughts, and redoubled his efforts to burn through the pole.

It was painfully slow going. The wood had to thaw and then dry before it would burn, and the ring holding the chain was set deep into the wood. He wasted no more breath on words, and Annea only sniffled as she tried to restrain back her emotions. The world gradually brightened around them, heralding the arrival of the day, and before long, the sun itself appeared, breaking through the oppressive clouds and filtering past the still-swirling snow. Renauld hurried. They could not afford to be seen.

Renauld had nearly burned the wood through when the black beast appeared.

•••

Corian Fesage was in a good mood this morning. After a long week hunting, he had finally bagged a prime specimen, a young female that would likely make a strong skywing. They were one of the most highly prized breeds, and would fetch a high price from some noble eastern pomp with fancies of flight. A shame half the bastards killed themselves with their newfound powers within a fortnight, but that only made his own talents all the more valuable.

He had indulged the last few nights with fine wine and a soft bed, but now duty called, and he had to don his armor and cloak yet again. There were dragons to tend to.

He walked with a slow step through the halls of Fort Hawke, nodding at the guards on duty. One of them had tried to rouse him last night with a story about Schell’s crew being attacked by a young dragon, but he had dismissed the report until morning. It was clearly preposterous, as dragons rarely ventured in the heights until they were mature, and even then they preferred the lowlands. More likely the man had made some blunder and wished to pass the blame.

Unless his prize had escaped during the night… Corian quickened his pace, headed for the courtyard to ensure the safety of his most recent catch. He opened the doors quietly, as he was wont, and took a moment to survey the weather as he headed for the holding pens. The weather was clearing, a good sign. He might manage another hunt tomorrow.

Then he turned the corner and saw the strangest sight he had ever seen. A juvenile dragon stood over his prize, breathing flames onto the pole and chain. This was shocking enough, but the dragon was holding a sword, of all things, and had a discarded scale from a grown dragon on his back like a shield.

Corian could do nothing but stare. He knew of dragons that were exceedingly clever creatures, and he had even seen them using simple tools, such as vines, spears, or their flint claw blades. But to see one with a sword, here in his own fortress? He could scarcely believe it.

All of a sudden the young male dragon noticed him. It stopped breathing fire and snarled at him, its leathery wings spreading as it prepared to charge. Corian came to his senses and prepared for battle. A dragon with such spirit would make a fine inferno when he matured. He would just have to take care to capture him alive. A little true fire should teach the beast who was master here.

Corian drew a deep breath and called upon his inner fire.

•••

Renauld acted quickly when he saw the monster draw breath. He now knew that the gift was stolen, but that made it no less fearsome. His only hope was to block the flames. He shrugged his hardshield off his back and held it wardingly in front of him and Annea. It had come from a stonewalker long ago, and while it was not as tough as it once was, it was still more than capable of turning a flame.

He had scarcely raised it when the attack began, searing, blue-hot flames that rushed around them like a river parts around a stone. Even with the gift of waters, the heat threatened to overwhelm them, but there was nothing to do except wait it out. If the gift was stolen from a fireheart, it would take a moment between breaths for it to be restored. He would have to strike then.

Sure enough, after an agonizing minute, the flames sputtered out, and Renauld threw his blackened hard-shield to one side as he charged. But between his haste and his dazzled eyes, he failed to notice that the black beast had approached during the firestorm, and was now waiting only a few feet away. He rammed into the beast’s impervious hide with a sharp clang, and fell stunned into the snow.

The creature laughed – a hideous sound – and picked Renauld up with one hand, doubtless using strength stolen from a stonewalker. He threw Renauld against the wall of the lair with a casual flick of his wrist. Renauld managed to spread his leathers and catch himself before he slammed into the stones, but the creature was already on him again, thick boneless wings spread in flight.

An armored claw grasped him by the throat, holding him fast. Renauld struggled to bring his unwieldy weapon to bear, but the black beast snorted with disdain as it bounced off his unnatural black scales. Renauld tried for another blow, but the monster batted the weapon aside as if it were a child’s stick.

Renauld struggled feebly, but he had been exhausted before the battle had even begun, and he was now unarmed. The black beast looked at him appraisingly, bright eyes glittering from behind an armored mask. It seemed to reach a decision, for it let out a cry in the monster tongue and unfurled its wings. Renauld felt his stomach drop as they launched into the air, and his head spun from the unexpected motion. All he could think of was how he had come to this.

How foolish had he been? To think that he could fight a monster such as this? One with the gifts of all the fully-gifted elders? It had been lunacy.

The black beast paused in the air. The whole of the lair lay below them, a ring of stones. It looked so small from up here. He could see the pits Annea had spoken off, with his brethren chained up below. Massive brown and gray stonewalkers with stunted leathers, red and black firehearts casting a hellish glow over the dark pit, bright blue skydancers with snowy wings bound, and scores of younger prisoners. The black beast descended toward the pit, and Renauld knew he would be joining them-

Where were the seaborn? Renauld scanned the pit a second time, but saw none of the lanky, dark green seaborn, those that embraced the gift of waters. No, of course there wouldn’t be. There were no bodies of water up here that would be large enough for a seaborn to develop, and those that were fully grown spent most of their lives in the depths. They would be fiendishly difficult to catch, if you were not already gifted.

Perhaps… perhaps the black beast had not stolen a seaborn’s heart. Perhaps it was not immune to fire himself. Renauld had nothing left to lose. He drew a deep breath and unleashed all his fears and anger directly into the black beast’s face. The reaction was immediate. The black beast recoiled, releasing Renauld as it tried to protect its face. Renauld snapped open his leathers and began to drift slowly downward.

The black beast tried desperately to reach its face, but its own armoring stopped it. Blinded, it began to veer to the side, heading toward Renauld. Renauld folded his leathers for a moment and dropped out of the way, and as the beast passed overhead, Renauld unleashed a second spurt of flame. The black beast’s wings caught on fire, and it fell in flames toward the lair far below. It continued to claw frantically at its faceplate, and somehow managed to shed it and try to clear its eyes. But it was too late. The black beast crashed face-first into the walls of its own lair, and lay in a still, crumpled heap.

After a long moment, Renauld let go of the breath he had been holding and allowed himself to believe that the creature was dead.

However, he was not safe yet. Down in the lair, red monsters swarmed like ants, attracted by the battle. There were too many for Renauld to fight, but he might be able to free Annea and run while they were distracted by the death of their leader. He tucked in his leathers and dove for the ground.

But Annea was not where he had left her. The black beast’s flame had reduced the pole to ashes, and Annea was nowhere to be seen. She must have escaped. He searched the lair, and finally spied her heading for the pit. He adjusted his course and arrived at the same time she did.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, landing with a thump on the blessed ground.

“I have to try to free them,” Annea said, tugging on the lock to the gate.

“We don’t have time! We will come back, I promise. What the monsters have done will bring a war upon their heads. But we have to leave now or we will die.”

Annea looked grim, but after one more longing look toward the pit, she came with him.  Together they bounded across the yard, all attempts at stealth abandoned. Red monsters spotted them and gave chase, armed with nets and clubs, but their weight caused them to sink into the snow, slowing their pursuit.

Renauld led Annea to the ramp, and they soon reached the top of the wall. Unfortunately, this was where the remains of the black beast lay, and there were dozens of red monsters crowded around him. More stood guard at the base of the wall. There was nowhere they could run, and nowhere they could glide. Renauld froze. They were surrounded.

“Renauld, grab me,” Annea hissed. Renauld did not want to go down without a fight, but the lure of a first – and last – embrace persuaded him. They would not make it out alive, regardless.

He held her close with all the passion he had harbored for years, but was surprised when she did not embrace him back. She seemed to be eating something.

“Annea, what are you-” he began to ask, and then the word were forced back in his throat as they shot into the air. For once, he managed to scream, but the sound died away as silence surrounded them. Annea was flying! Her leathers spread wide, and quivered with the force of the wind rushing past.

Renauld looked at Annea in wonder, but she seemed so grim. He could not understand why. They were saved, and this was a miracle! Among their people, the cycle always begun with the gift of water, then fire, wind, and stone. It was rare to claim a gift early, nobody skipped one…

A dread realization came over him. They had killed a skydancer in front of her. Perhaps a piece of the heart had come loose, and in desperation… Suddenly their escape did not seem so wonderful. They drifting through the clouds, slowly angling downward until they left the mountains and came upon the riverlands, their home. The sight filled him with both joy and dread, for he knew what must come next.

“I shall be accursed,” Annea said at last. “I have stolen a gift. I have… eaten… one of us.”

“You only did as you were forced to do,” Renauld said fiercely. “You know where the true blame lies.”

“So… what will happen now?”

Renauld looked down at the wild forests, at the place of his people, his family, his life. Everything would change shortly. “A war,” he said. “A terrible war that cannot end until one of our races is extinct.”

They flew on in silence.

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