|Isle of Thorns
Author: Cygnia PM
A 7th Sea story. Sent to investigate a mysterious artifact, three Explorers instead find themselves caught up in murder on a lonely Eisen isle with no escape in sight. A prequel of sorts to "Homecoming".Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Mystery - Chapters: 13 - Words: 38,814 - Reviews: 4 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 03-04-13 - Published: 11-09-09 - id: 5500737
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"Yes, fools...you are too late! Too late to-urk!" The arrow now embedded in Mannheim's eye cut his gloating short, dropping him to the cavern floor. In the span of seconds, Ulf let three more arrows fly. One bounced uselessly off the thick trunk of the behemoth, but the other two found their marks, sinking deep into the vine imprisoning Grace. Unfortunately, though it drooped, it still stubbornly clung to its prize. A deafening inhuman screech shattered the silence. David shrank back, blocking his ears, but the creature's bonechilling scream of anger still filled his mind.
"By the Prophets!" The look of horror on Fortunato's face showed that he was just as affected by the screech as the Avalon. "Doctor, what the hell IS that thing?"
"I wish I could tell you, Signore Valeri," Foreman's voice cracked in both awe and trepidation as he looked up at the creature. "Whatever it is though, I think Mister Pedersen just made it madder!"
"I told you this was your fault, Ulf," muttered the Swordsman. The Vesten ignored him, firing off another arrow that glanced off a thrashing vine. Fortunato shook his head. "We can't just keep-"
"Incoming!" cried David. One of the longer vines suddenly tore down a chunk of stalactite and flung it towards them. As the men dove for cover, the chunk slammed against the cavern wall, exploding in a shower of rocky shrapnel.
"You are just gnats to the Arctius, fleshlings!" It hissed sharply through their minds, like the wind whipping dead leaves into a frenzy. "It is useless to even fight!"
"Vodacce," said Ulf through gritted teeth. "Take the doctor and cut Grace down. You two need to get her away from that demon. I will cover you."
"Those vines are going to tear us apart as soon as we step out into there!" Fortunato shook his head in disbelief.
"Maybe...," David's gaze darted between the whole of the Arctius and the rest of the cavern. He gripped the strap of his satchel protectively. "...maybe not. When we run, just follow my lead. Mister Pedersen, are you ready?"
"By your mark, Doctor," grunted the Vesten as he readied another arrow.
Foreman tensed into a slight crouch, then took off running as he just hissed one word: "Now!"
Even though he should have expected it, the Avalon doctor's speed still caught Fortunato off guard. As Ulf fired his bow, the Vodacce nearly stumbled, taking off running after Foreman. Instinct begged Fortunato to flee to the back wall of the cavern as fast as he could, but he forced himself to stick to the doctor's erratic path. "He moves without sense" Ulf's comments from earlier echoed in the Vodacce scholar's head before being drowned out by another horrifying shriek of the Arctius. Its vines continued to flail and thrash wildly. One free vine tore off another stalactite and flung it mightily at the back wall. Foreman paused and Fortunato followed his lead. If the two men had made a direct run, they would have been caught in the devastating impact. Fortunato exhaled the breath he didn't know he had been holding, still terrified that somehow, the monster would be able to read his or the doctor's thoughts.
As if in rebuttal, a screech of frustration pierced their minds. Fortunato saw the Avalon flinch at the sound, shaking his head desperately as if to empty it from his very skull. The Vodacce drew in a ragged intake of air, sharing similar discomforts. He grimaced. The two men had cleared about three-fourths the distance to the imprisoned Grace. Far back from where they came was the now-distant twang from Ulf's bow. They could see the vile seedling still inching its way out of the pod and deeper into her belly. Worse still, three thick vines slowly weaved back and forth in front of her like menacing vipers waiting to strike. The doctor looked up at the writhing mass of thorny tentacles, then back towards Grace. His jaw clenched as he readied to run again.
"Wait!" hissed Fortunato as he grabbed Foreman's shoulder. He gestured at the cavern floor. The Avalon frowned in confusion, but then he saw and heard what the Vodacce had caught first. Nearly swallowed up by the shadows was a deep crack, almost as wide as two men's girths side by side. They could make out the sound of water lapping against rock. David nodded his thanks, then carefully vaulted over the crevasse. Fortunato was half a step behind. "That thing isn't throwing any more rocks at us, Doctor," whispered the uneasy Vodacce. "I don't like it."
"The Arctius knows we have to come to it," muttered Foreman. His run had now dropped to a cautious crawl. "It can afford to wait."
"I was afraid you were going to say that." The Vodacce groaned. "Where did it come from? How did it survive down here?"
"Probably from a time long before man ever walked Theah, I fear. As for surviving, who can say? I've got a few theories," David bit back a cough as the scent of dank vegetation now hit his nostrils. He shook his head as his eyes fell upon the shredded corpses of man and boar.
"Theus, it's Syrneth," Fortunato cast a wary eye at the alert vines, coiling and uncoiling in readiness. An involuntary shudder went through him as he wondered how the Arctius could sense them nearing. "If you have any theories on how to take this creature down, I'm all ears!"
"Unfortunately, the only idea I've got right now would probably kill us as well," The doctor murmured, reflexively gripping the strap of his satchel. Fortunato couldn't tell if he was joking or not. "And, since that would defeat the entire purpose of rescuing, I'd really rather hold off on it if at all possible."
"So many little whispers, fleshlings! Are you whimpering to your god?" A high-pitched series of chuffing sounds like the rustling of branches now escaped from the monstrosity. With a sickening feeling, Fortunato realized that this was how the Arctius laughed. "Let us hear your prayers...let us hear your screams!"
"I don't know how effective my blade will be, Doctor. I might be able to get through one, maybe two vines-!" Fortunato raised his sword, shooting a worried glance between it and the sinewy tentacles. "If we can't make it to Grace in time..." The Vodacce's voice trailed off. The grim look on both men's faces made it all too clear that some fears were better left unspoken.
Ulf grunted, lowering his bow. The Vesten had hoped his cover fire would provide enough of a distraction for Foreman and the Vodacce to get to Grace and cut her down, but after the first couple of arrows, the abomination maddeningly ignored him in favor of focusing on the others. He gritted his teeth in anger. Plants were not supposed to move! And yet here was this demon, this "Arctius", its massive tentacles whipping in frenzy like those of the legendary Kraken. And like that sea monster of old, Ulf's arrows seemed to do little to hurt it. Or, worse still, it was intelligent enough to figure out that he wasn't the actual threat. At least the creature appeared to have no sort of normal sight as the doctor's irregular running had initially thrown its tracking off. The Avalon was indeed a very clever man, Ulf noted, with a level of keen experience that far surpassed any ordinary scholar. But all the cleverness in the world still didn't change the fact that the two men out there had only one sword to go up against that towering, writhing nightmare.
Ulf glared in impotence at his diminished supply of arrows. For all the needling he gave him, Ulf knew full well of the Vodacce's deadly skill with the blade. But deep in his heart, the Vesten feared that the vines of the Arctius would be able to strike faster and harder. If Doctor Foreman and Fortunato got caught by them, then all hope of saving Grace from that unholy terror would be lost. He let go of his bow finally, then drew Rabbitslayer out from its sheath. By itself, the long hunting knife probably stood less of a chance than Ulf's arrows. With a cold gaze, Ulf looked over the Arctius out in the cavern. Shadows danced in flickering torchlight as the Arctius hissed, its savage glee echoing in the back of their minds in mockery. Ulf's eyes narrowed sharply as he pulled himself up to his full height. It was clear that the Arctius did not see them as any sort of danger to it.
A low growl escaped Ulf. He would soon make the bestial plant regret that.
Fortunato swallowed, wiping his now-sweat covered palms on his trouser leg. If he and the doctor didn't make a move now, then the spawn of the Arctius would finish embedding itself into Grace and she would be elevated high out of their grasps. The Vodacce bit the inside of his lip, frantically trying to work out the best approach of attack. He had narrowed down his best choices to either where the Arctius' vines began to fork or where Ulf's arrows had already pierced the monster. A silent prayer was on the Swordsman's lips that Foreman would be able to pull Grace away and free her if the thick grip of the Arctius showed any sign of loosening.
With unnatural speed, two vines suddenly lashed out at Fortunato. On instinct, the Vodacce reacted, pivoting his body and bringing his blade up to parry. He pushed back the attack, but then the third thorny vine lunged, clipping the side of Fortunato's sword arm and causing him to cry out in pain.
"Valeri!" Foreman immediately took a step forward but the Vodacce quickly waved him off, not wanting the vines to exploit an opportunity to get between him and David.
"I'm alright!" Fortunato hoped he sounded convincing, but out of the corner of his eye he could see the blood welling up, staining through his newly torn sleeve. A sudden fear rushed through the Swordsman's mind, desperately praying now that there was no unknown poison lurking in the thorns of the Arctius to make matters worse. Fortunato tightened his grip on his sword and shifted his position again. His blade weaved back and forth in a wall of steel, a trademark of the Durchsetzungburg school. The Vodacce's wound throbbed painfully with the effort of keeping the vines at bay. At this point Fortunato didn't know if the plant creature was stymied by his defense or was just toying with him. Either way, he felt helpless, locked in a stalemate he dared not falter in while the spawn of the Arctius continued its assault into Grace.
"DEMON!" Ulf's bellow echoed through the cavern. "TASTE THE FURY OF THE VESTENMANNAVNJAR AND KNOW YOUR DEATH!"
And then a streak of fire suddenly slammed into the trunk of the Arctius.
The howl that erupted from the Arctius was indescribable.
Raw and primal, the initial screech it had let out during Ulf's first volley of arrows was that of mere annoyance compared to this - a maddening howl of sheer pain and shock any intelligent being ever burned by fire would know. The air, already dank and foul, now reeked with a cross of scorched peat and swamp gas. Scowling, Ulf thrust the torch again at the Arctius and watched with grim satisfaction at the vines shuddering and trying to recoil from the flame he carried. The Vesten had the faint hope that the abomination would catch fire, but the cavern air was far too damp. And, no doubt, the make-up of the Arctius itself was similar to green wood. There would be no sudden bonfire to help their plight.
"To the Abyss with you, demon!" snarled Ulf as he lashed out with Rabbitslayer, cutting across the most recent burn mark on the closest tendril.
At the far end of the cavern, David could only watch in awe at the attack of the Vesten. His jaw dropped a little. He breathed "I can't tell if that's insane or bloody brilliant..."
"Foreman, MOVE!" Fortunato was already rushing forward, hacking away at the retracting vines. "Grace...go for Grace! We don't have much time!"
Fortunato's bark spurred the Avalon to action. Ignoring the screams of the creature, David ducked past a writhing vine and wrapped his arms around Grace's upper half. The Highlander mewled in pain, squirming a little in his grasp, but David held on, pulling with all the might his lank frame could muster. "We're here, Grace...just hold on!" The Vodacce brought his sword to bear one more time with another deep slash and finally the vine loosened its hold on the Explorer enough for the doctor to pull her free. Foreman carefully scrambled backwards a few steps, trying to maintain his hold on Grace while getting out of range from the vines.
The Arctius shrieked with rage. Two vines whipped towards Ulf and, though he managed to dodge the first, the other succeeded in knocking the torch from his hand. With a heavy THUD, it then pounded the flames down to embers. Ulf barely had time to register it before a smaller tendril lashed out and ripped across his chest. Meanwhile, across the cavern, Fortunato had resumed his parrying stance. "Can you run with her, Doctor?"
"I can manage, Signore Valeri," grunted Foreman. "Just keep yourself safe!"
Fortunato sprinted to follow, nearly stumbling over the rocks as he dodged a tripping vine. He glanced over worriedly to see David pausing to catch his breath and cradling Grace in his arms. The young woman's skin was ashen and her grey eyes were now glassy and unfocused. Her breath came in shallow gasps. "Theus!" Fortunato's eyes fell upon the seedling, now free from its pod, still embedding itself into Grace. Its bulbous root mass quivered and curled in anticipation of sinking into flesh. With a look of horror, Fortunato suddenly grabbed the seedling.
But before David could finish, the Vodacce had already sliced the root mass off.
Fortunato didn't know whose scream of agony was louder, the Arctius' or Grace's.
"Valeri, you IDIOT!" The white-hot anger on the doctor's face was a look Fortunato never thought the Avalon could have been capable of. "Do you know what you just did?"
"I was... That thing...I was trying to get that thing out of Grace!" Fortunato still held onto the tendril, now trying to flail out of his hand. Tiny pinpricks poked the palm of his hand, like brushing up against a nettle. The Highlander thrashed in David's arms as another high-pitched cry of anguish escaped her.
"That 'thing' was alive, Valeri!" hissed David. "I could have risked getting it out of Grace once we were clear of this cavern, but now that you've wounded it, its death throes are going to tear apart her insides!" He shook his head. "And that means I've got to get it out of her NOW!"
"I panicked," Fortunato swallowed. In the distance, he could Ulf's roars of rage, still locked in battle with the monster. That was something at least. "I didn't know!"
"Back of the cavern. We've got to get as far away from the Arctius and pray it doesn't start throwing rocks again." Foreman spoke rapidly. "We can't let it get inside her...keep holding onto that seedling, Valeri. At least until we can set Grace down. I think I've got something that might help, but as soon as I start removing it, I need you to hold Grace steady." The doctor's cold gaze bore into Fortunato. "Can you do this?"
"Yes," nodded the Vodacce. "I'm sorry."
"I know," David's tone was less harsh, though the dim light of the last flickering torch in the cavern made his face look grim. "But we have-"
"FLESHLINGS!" The screech of the plant monstrosity cut the Avalon off. "YOU WILL NOT ESCAPE THE ARCTIUS!"
"Shut UP, demon! You-OOF!" Ulf was suddenly interrupted by a thick vine slamming into him, knocking him to the rocky floor. Another sick, chuffing laugh erupted from the Arctius.
"ENOUGH OF YOUR WORDS, FLESHLINGS! WE KNOW YOUR WEAKNESSES. YOUR PITIFUL STRUGGLES AGAINST US WERE AMUSING. BUT NOW...NOW YOU FIGHT ON OUR TERMS!"
One vine of the Arctius reached for the last torch. With one cracking whip, the flame was extinguished - and the cavern was plunged into total darkness.