Rune had travelled on many different caravans throughout Dezoris before, without sled, sleigh or ice digger it was one of the only safe ways to travel through the intrepid wilderness. The esper had never seen the caravans this fortified before, warding against the weather, against wild animals enraged by the storm, and of course against the Red Devil that many had heard of but few had seen.
Armed dezorian and palman guards walked along beside armoured carriages creaking in the snow, pulled along by trained rajago and laden with food and valuables. They were wary and had squinted eyes, trying to see through the blizzard before them. The futsnata spears they carried were double-pronged and deadly; gleaming in the cold. It had cost Rune nearly all of the money Laerma had given him to legitimately sneak his way onto the caravan, because in his weakened condition right now he didn't want to risk facing anybody with spears and a grudge against stowaways.
The money wasn't his anyway, so he was glad to give it away, save for a few meseta used to buy him a drink for warmth and for courage. That Torinco twelve year he had had in Aiedo felt like it had been in a previous life, separated by the coma. On this day Rune Walsh found himself in a snow-weed padded cargo carriage, surrounded by crates of food and furs, blankets and cured meat, sitting cross-legged alongside four other passengers and sharing a small portable flame.
It was cosier in there than Rune had expected. The cargo blocked the cold winds out and the weeded floor made it soft and comfortable to sit on, and the general heat from other living bodies raised the temperature of the room. They would have broken into the fur and blanket crates as soon as the caravan left the city if the guards didn't check on the cargo periodically, and nobody really fancied being thrown out into the storm.
His new travelling companions were all palmans, all male, of varying ages and creeds. The youngest looked no more than thirteen years old and was thin and tired; dreary-eyed, and the oldest seemed in his sixties but was in no way frail; a time hardened adventurer with salt-and-pepper beard and hair. There was also another man around about Rune's own age with shaggy dark blond hair; and a very large guy who was taking up a lot of space and fire.
Another person would have made the carriage awfully cramped, but as it was things were fine. The caravan rocked steadily as it ploughed on through the snow. "I'm telling you," the old man said with relish upon each word, "this weathers' just like how it was three years ago, and thirty years afore that. I was up wandering through the Skure mountains back then, and it were as cold as a witch's teat! This cold's like a blast of hot air in the face when compared to that winter."
"Thank goodness it's still technically summer, then. It's funny how the cold started and stopped so abruptly last time." The large man commented as he scratched at his collarbone with a chubby hand. "It lasted almost half a year and then one day everything was perfectly fine, as if somebody blew out the blizzard like a candle. Maybe it's the same here but I don't want to have to wait another five months for some sunshine. It feels worse this time around."
Rune had been keeping his cards close to his chest. He knew all about the dark side of this storm but there was no benefit in confusing unrelated people over it. He warmed his hands over the small portable fire. "I think everybody should prepare for the worst, stock up on firewood and preserves and wait for it to blow out. This cold can't last forever."
The young boy scoffed bitterly at this, and sitting next to the fat man he looked like a miserable wraith, pulling a tattered shawl more closely around his shoulders. "And what about the people who don't have homes no more? I lived in Lidra and my pa made me sleep in the coal cellar because I broke into his moon dew still. The next morning nearly everyone was dead. I never heard a thing. It was like a wind blew through the town and everybody got ripped up." The way the boy was able to deadpan this spoke of details left unexpressed; horrors left unsaid.
A big hand came down to pat the youth's small shoulder. "I heard all about that and the other towns too. I wonder if the demon and the storm are related. They did kind of show up at the same time. My trade outpost got entirely snowed in and we nearly starved to death! I used to be much, much bigger than this!" He laughed encouragingly to lighten the mood.
"So do you think that if we kill off the Red Devil the weather might return to normal, Augustus? That's another good reason to go and hunt the frosty bitch down. I'm guessing that Meese is her next hit; that's why I'm heading back there." The blond palman said, sharpening his dagger on a small whetstone.
"Then our goals are the same." Replied salt-and-pepper, who Rune vaguely remembered introducing himself as 'Dee' or something like that. "I'd like to see what she looks like. She's supposed to be a beautiful woman, the likes of which would make a man melt. Well, that doesn't sound too difficult to capture. A net and some chains should do the trick nicely."
"I'd like to put some holes in her first, if that's okay with you." Said the blond darkly, but before anybody else could say anything the doorway to the side of them slid open and a cold, chilling air blew in. A dezorian guard climbed up the ladder of the carriage and peered inside, checking on the cargo. He reminded Rune of that hunter Gisarg now so many miles away, but this one was older and that spear looked so much nastier than the hunter's whip had been.
This image of him changed immediately when the guard smiled a wide, friendly smile. He said something in native dezorian that Rune for the life of him couldn't understand, but it didn't sound like a threat or barked orders. Rune raised an eyebrow and turned to the others. "Anybody have any idea what he just said then?" The esper asked.
"He says that we are the lucky ones tucked inside with the sacred fire." Dhee answered, folding his arms and leaning back against a crate of salted meat. "All kinds of fire are sacred to dezorians, but that's just because we live in a place like this. There ain't much difference between the sacred fire and the great light, I reckon, when you look at things impartially."
Augustus shivered. It was like watching a small earthquake take place. "Someone tell him to shut the door, he's letting all the snow blow in." He complained.
Roland got up slightly from where he was sitting and said a few words in what sounded like very stilted dezorian. The effect wasn't what he had been expecting, the guard bursting out into a gale of laughter, sliding the door shut anyway. Snow that had lightly dusted the floor was beginning to melt already. "Uh… did I say something funny?" The youth wondered out loud, perplexed. "I thought I told him to close the door."
Dhee laughed in a jolly manner. "You told him to shove a chicken down his pants!" He announced. A few snickers circulated around the carriage for a while, as Roland flopped back heavily on the floor.
Time passed slowly, and boringly, along the caravan on its way to Meese. There was quite a lot of discussion and Rune slept at several points during the trip, so that after a while he lost track of the time of day. This was quite unusual for the esper who prided himself in always knowing which way the wind was blowing. His mind had become dull ever since the coma, but once he returned to the esper mansion he intended to sharpen it back to its original edge.
Somebody had assured him it would be another half day until they came to the junction between the Meese route and the mansion route, and by that point it would be getting dark, but Rune knew of some caverns in the nearby foothills that he could shelter in until the next morning. After that it was just a matter of hoofing it until he reached those high, familiar gates.
He had been mulling over those plans, off in his own little world, when somebody abruptly spoke his name and snapped him out of his reverie. "Hey, mind if I ask you something?" Dhee said, sitting across from the small flame so that the thin trail of white smoke coiled up all around him like a thin worm.
Rune removed his hand from his chin that he had been using as a pillow and straightened up from his gradual slouch. "Huh? What is it?" He murmured, coming out of his daze. Roland was carving something into the wall, Augustus looked like he was meditating, and the young boy was asleep. Even if the carriage seemed anything but private the conversation somehow felt confidential. Maybe it was the quiet, or the faint howling of the storm outside.
The old man pointed at Rune, interested. "What happened to your hand? Frostbite? Monsters? By the way you're holding it seems pretty recent."
He instinctively folded said hand under his arm. "… It's nothing. The cold got into it. That's all."
Dhee laughed softly. "That's the painless way to go." He waved at Rune, who then realised that the old man was missing a thumb and three of his own fingers. It was an old wound, mangled decades ago, cuts that looked like they had been made by saw blades rather than a good clean knife. "A sasquatch took these off me twenty odd years ago. We wrestled in a blizzard just like this one, we did, and when I had him in a headlock he threw me off and had a go at my hand. It wasn't so bad though; I can still swing a sword and get by and play."
He removed a strap from around his front and laid a moderately sized bundle into his lap, wrapped up in faded maroon cloth. There was a strange familiarity to its shape, and when Dhee parted the fabric Rune was reminded of his past, years and years ago when he was young and wet behind the ears, gallivanting around Motavia with the esper mansion only a faint memory behind him. "I haven't seen one of those in ages." Rune finally said, quietly.
The older man gave the traktar; a dezorian acoustic stringed instrument a gentle strum. It emitted a unique, folkish yet slightly mystical sound from the hollow midsection. He had it perfectly tuned, and for a man with only seven fingers he seemed to know what he was doing. "Oh, you like these things do you? Know how to play?" Dhee smiled. "Or d'ya have any good requests?"
Normally Rune would have asked to take a closer look at it, but as he was there was no point in putting his fingers to the strings, He was right-handed and he'd only cause himself pain, of both the physical and mental variety. There were too many strings and not enough fingers to depress them. Obviously the older man had conquered this detriment long ago. The magician thought back to the handfuls of songs he had learned on his travels and the accompanying music which could spring forth.
Many of them reminded him of Alys. Gods, how many times had they traded a song for a place to sleep for the night, to drive away vicious monsters, or just for the pleasure of listening to it? Rune had never been a bard, but it had been a hobby. Something different. Something unrelated to his mission and his destiny and his damned purpose in life. For an adolescent that sort of hobby was a veritable anchor to life, and Alys had liked it.
One song stuck in his mind, though he couldn't remember the precise reason why. "Do you know 'Winter Lovebirds'? I haven't heard that one in forever."
"I know the tune, not so much the words 'cause that's an esper song. This hardly seems the place for a love song like that."
"Play it anyway." Roland interrupted, carving the last letter of his name into the wall.
"I'm an esper, so I know how it goes." Rune explained to him, laying his hands in his lap. "Go on, play it. I'll lend you the words."
"Right then, if you say so." Said Dhee, and strummed the traktar one more time to warm himself up. The song was old, far, far older than any of the people in the caravan, one of those songs that travelled between people and cultures and over time gained weight, carrying memories. Rune himself hardly remembered the words but they hovered there on the very edge of his mind, perhaps part of the memory of a Lutz that had gone before. He had a passable singing voice but it was Dhee's dextrous playing which took the centre stage. It filled the caravan with music, woke the young boy from his slumber, roused Augustus from his meditation and for a very short while blocked out all thought of the surrounding storm.
Esperine was a strange language. It came from no particular race of people, but was born from gifted individuals with the proficiency for magic, espers, in order to inscribe their magic and materials down on paper without outsiders getting a hold of their secrets. Over the course of time it evolved off the page and into other aspects of life. As the Lutz Rune was as fluent in esperine as he was in the common tongue, but he preferred the simpler, common language any day. Still, some of the songs sounded much prettier in the language of the espers.
The song ended with a bang. Literally. Ausgustus felt the door rattle behind him as something was roughly thrown against it, hard enough to startle him and alert everybody else in the room. That wasn't a common occurrence, and Dhee's hands stilled on the traktar. "What was that?" He demanded. "Did we hit a tree or something?"
"Now that you mention it…" Rune muttered, slowly rising from his seat and interrupted in his song. He focussed on his immediate surroundings. It was easy to stop paying attention after such extended boredom. "We've stopped moving. I don't think the caravan has been moving for the past ten minutes or so."
That was really odd. The caravan was only meant to halt once it reached its final destination in Meese. The passengers all looked at one another in varying degrees of confusion. Rune was about to open his mouth a second time to suggest an investigation when another thump, far more powerful than the first, vibrated through the wood and metal caravan like a slow wave. It was like something gigantic had disturbed the ground outside; a small earthquake. A feeling of dread washed over the esper. He had a thought, but…
Rune moved to the sliding doorway and with a heavy, strength-draining push he hauled it open. The blizzard came back in like a raging, unwanted guest. The others followed him except for the young boy, who retreated into the corner furtherest away from the door to hide from the cold. For a few moments the four of them were snow-blinded, used to the low light of indoors, but eventually faint shapes emerged from the howling white.
They were large shapes, and amidst the high winds they could hear both shouting and screaming. The blasting air chilled Rune's body immediately but this time he was properly dressed and geared, so there was a low chance he would freeze straightaway. The thump they had heard earlier had been the body of a palman guard thrown against the caravan, upside down, blood pouring from a chest wound and already cooling in the snow. At a glance Rune could see the fall had broken the man's neck, bent at an excruciating angle.
Somebody groaned in horror behind him, but he didn't look over his shoulder to find out whom. Huge shadows in the storm were moving about like macaroni, like mountainous humps before disappearing from sight and reappearing in a different area. The screams accompanied each disappearance, and then Rune put two and two together and finally understood.
"Oh shit." He said, his body awash with a sinking feeling. "Snow worms. The storm must be making them crazy."
"The guards are supposed to deal with things like this!" Augustus exclaimed, paling at the sight and the screams, hoping that saying it out loud firmly enough would somehow make it true.
"Doesn't look like they're doing a very good job of it." Rune announced sourly as he climbed down the ladder towards the ground, angling to the right so as not to disturb the body of the felled guard. He had no weapons, his staff lost to gods knows where, but he still had his bare hands and his magic. Hopefully that would be enough. He glanced up at the others still on board. "Well? Are you guys coming?" He demanded.
In response Roland took a great leap off the caravan and landed nimbly beside Rune, whipping a dagger out of his belt. Like that the palman reminded Rune somewhat of Chaz, albeit an older, rougher, more cutthroat version of the youth. It was probably the only reminder of that kid left in the worlds, now that all his friends were dead. Rune tried to derail that ugly thought. Roland's stance was tight and defensive, to keep himself warm in the snow.
Dhee didn't hesitate either, though he couldn't just jump from high places like the younger folks he climbed down the ladder and checked the body of the fallen guard, in the slight hope that the poor soul could be saved. It only took a few moments for him to shake his head and stand up, wiping the blood from his hands onto his pants. "It's been happening for weeks now; the storm messes up the way they judge direction and distance and different worm colonies collide into one another. It becomes a war zone." He called out over the wind, loud enough for the others to hear. "I think the caravan ploughed straight into one."
It was common knowledge that snow worms travelled deep underground and only came to the surface for air and to hunt. Nobody could have prevented anything. Within seconds the colony would have been upon the caravans. Well, Rune had some good experience at dealing with creatures of a wormy nature. As Augustus made his way down the ladder Rune grabbed him by the arm near the lower rungs. "Can you go and gather anybody with significant injuries and bring them to a shelter? You look like you can lift a man pretty easily."
Augustus relaxed. He wasn't being asked to fight. Through any kind of adversity the big man considered himself a pacifist at heart. Helping out hurt people was something he could do. "Yeah, no problem. I'll take them up to the front of the caravan where the head guards must be." He shouted back up into the carriage. "Hey Billy! Are you coming out?"
A weak, frightened cry bounced back at him. "No! Go away!" He yelled, obviously intent on staying put.
There were twelve giant snow worms in total; two colonies of six. As Rune, Dhee and Roland ran out to the front lines of the skirmish Rune hoped that maybe injuring a few of them would encourage the rest to get lost. Otherwise, either way, there was going to be a massacre on their hands.
Rune coughed as he sprinted through the white drifts. The extra exertion was already making him feel tired. He knew that he was not ready for this, and it was a far cry from the journey Laerma had hoped for him, but this was how things were. If he fell short there would be no miraculous rescue waiting for him a second time.
"Stay together," he warned his new companions as the ground began to rumble beneath their feet, "and let's go."
What happened next could only be chalked up to pure chance; unfortunate chance when seen from the caravan's point of view. The towns that had been hit by the Red Devil were all in the Meese/Jut area, Lidra, Majimra and Reshel, and the caravan route slashed through those lands like a curved sword blade. On Dezoris Mieus was alone, and had been alone for five weeks now. She liked it that way. She didn't need any help at all.
She had been walking in the foothills of the mountains, parallel to the caravan route without even knowing it was there, simply taking the easiest path wherever the road would lead her. If she found another town that would be her next mark. Her method of Siren's Way was looser, more relaxed than her Motavian counterpart, but she was already many times more successful. Three layan villages had been wiped clean, barely a handful of survivors between the lot of them. Dead layan bodies were far more valuable than any measure of land grabbing and diplomacy. Her master permitted her wanderings because she was so successful.
As long as she was better than her partner on Motavia Mieus was happy. The environment had changed her over time, the ice and snow and unbearable chill freezing her to the core. This didn't stop her, her heating system kept her moving while her perfect skin and body became encased in sheets of armour-like ice. She did not fear biomonsters, if any came upon her they'd be shredded just as thoroughly as any layan or enemy.
But now in the late afternoon in the middle of Dezoris' current storm Mieus could have sworn that she was hearing a strange sound, some kind of highly-pitched song. It was dreadfully hard to hear with the winds and the snow constantly blowing against her face but if she fiddled with the audio settings within her inner ears she could tune out the lower frequencies and focus on the higher ones, just on the verge of her artificial senses.
She was standing there, motionless, like a statue with her head cocked to one side. It didn't sound like any natural noise, more like something emitted by a machine, but she knew that the closest mechanized facility was much too far away to be creating any kind of audible noise. Mieus felt drawn to it somehow, even though it would pull her away from her whimsical path through the foothills. It would lead into the valley, towards flat featureless ground with no landmarks in sight.
However, she was cautious. Wandering off with no idea of what to expect was a sure-fire way to get herself into trouble. Mieus searched her belt and took out her little communicator, finely-tuned so that she could send and receive audio messages straight from Zelan. Communications software built into her body worked fine for short distances, but anything further required separate aids. Mieus hadn't been able to program this one properly, but fortunately a nice android on Zelan had worked it out for her.
Mieus contacted that nice android now, sitting down on a snow-encrusted rock and crossing her legs, resting a hand upon her knee. After a few seconds the connection was picked up. "Hello Ronnie, are you there or is your shift over already? Mind if I talk to you for a few minutes?" She called sweetly.
"Mieusy! How are you? What's the special occasion? You don't usually call in these hours unless you're really bored." The communicator said right back to her in the voice of one of the administrators back on Zelan. Ronnie wasn't very special in any way, shape or form, but if she called Zelan through him she could be sure her line wouldn't accidentally be connected to Demi, who she knew was up there, somewhere.
Besides, Ronnie was a male android and as long as they had some degree of emotion Mieus was beginning to remember how she could make men do whatever she wanted, regardless of what it was. It was just so easy it was almost criminal, and even androids were not immune. "Aww, do I really need a reason to talk to you when you're always so nice to me? I'm all by myself on this big scary planet; I'm so alone. Do you know anything about funny-sounding noises? Ones that kind of sound like your ears are ringing?"
"Maybe your ears are ringing, babe." Ronnie laughed, but then reminded himself to keep his voice down as he was hardly in a private area. From across the control room Debbie glanced at him for a few seconds before continuing her work. He lowered his volume a bit. "Why are you asking about things like that?"
"Here, I recorded a sample of the sound with all external noise filtered out. I'll broadcast it to Zelan through the nearest satellite, so lookie carefully at your terminal for a present!" She chimed as she worked through all the preparations to send a sound file wirelessly. Of course, she could just hold her communicator out into the air and hope that he could pick it up from there, but the chances were unlikely. The thing could only really pick up voices and some faint background sound, that was all.
After some time Ronnie responded to her. "Okay, I have it now. Give me a moment to analyse it." Obediently, Mieus sat back and waited for any kind of interesting results. The storm didn't bother her much. To her the snow felt like she was being pelted with soft feather down. Soon her connection got back to her. "Um, Mieus, baby? Are you sure this is the file you wanted to send me?"
Mieus was surprised. "Huh? Of course it is. Why wouldn't it be?"
"Because this sound sample is blank. I can't hear anything on it. Maybe there's a fault in your audio hardware. The low temperatures could have damaged it. If that is so then you could come back to Zelan and Master Siren can repair you. Hey, if that happens then we might be able to talk again in person!" He could not mask the eagerness in his voice.
"But that can't be! I can hear the whistling loud and clearly! Are you sure you're listening to it right?" Mieus protested, pretending that she hadn't heard that last part.
"Oh, well… I don't know what to tell you." Ronnie conceded, not sure how to go forward. If he couldn't make the beautiful mieu-type happy then she might decide to stop talking with him, and that was one of the few major perks of his post there. Close by him Whistler, faintly hearing the word 'whistle' in Mieus' sentence, perked up and whistled at Ronnie. Within those peeps and squeaks was some good advice. "Oh… Whistler is saying that mieu-types have a more highly developed audio system when compared to conventional androids. You're probably hearing something way out of my range. Lowering the frequency now…"
He sounded relieved. As for Mieus she was getting rather anxious, bored and wanting to continue on in her journey. Her contact on Zelan wasn't meant to be taking so long. She sighed and scraped the tips of her claws lightly against the sheets of ice down her thighs, leaving faint trails in the frost. "Ronnie," she cooed, only a step away from a whine, "are you done yet?"
"I have it now. This is an interesting sound, Mieusy. It's some variety of supersonic wave, fluctuating like a mathematical language. It must be coming from some kind of life form or awakened AI. I'll put it aside for a deeper analysis later." The blond android promised over the communicator.
That appraisal had been no help whatsoever, telling the girl nothing she didn't already know. It was a big let-down. Mieus had thought she'd actually found something unusual. She pulled the communicator away and stuck her tongue out at it in disappointment, then returned it back to her ear. "Okay then, you go ahead and do that. In the meantime I'm going to follow that sound and find out where it's coming from. If it's a layan signal I'll stop it and whoever's making it dead in their tracks. Talk to you later."
She clicked the communicator off, standing up from the stone. She began the downward descent into the valley, without any idea of what she was about to encounter.
It appeared that she and Rune's paths were destined to be crossed all over again.
Rune couldn't perform at the level he and the others had met while fighting the Profound Darkness three years ago, like a trained athlete not exercising his muscles and mind he knew he had dropped down to intermediate level skills, or worse. Attempting anything more difficult than a gifoi could stress his mind into damaging itself, so he planned on making do with whatever he had left at his fingertips. The cold winds of the storm sliced at his exposed skin like razor blades, but he could just hear the crunching steps of his comrades in the snow, following right behind him.
There was no question as to which direction they needed to go. The shadowy humps of the moving snow worms were landmarks enough, and even without that they merely had to follow the shouting and the spots of blood seeping into the ground. Rune passed another guard who was lying prostrate in the snow but he didn't stop to check on him; there was no time and anyhow he was already struggling to his feet by himself. With luck Augustus would get to the injured man soon enough.
They also had to be mindful of huge holes in the turf, burrows that the snow worms had used to erupt out of the ground and into the open air. The worms were smaller than their motavian counterparts but what they lacked in size they easily made up for in hostility. These ones were large enough already. Rune and the others finally made it to the front lines, meeting up with two other guards armed with spears, trying to drive away their enemy with threatening gestures and jabs.
The snow worm they were matched against had reared up like a serpent ready to strike, at least three storeys tall with a tubular mouth lined with hooked, jagged teeth. Thrusting the spears up into the air at the creature and shouting at the top of their lungs seemed to make it uneasy, caused it to hesitate, but it was not backing down or away. One of the guards noticed the sharp crunch of snow as Rune halted beside him and half-turned to the Lutz while still warding away the monster. He was a huge palman, with huge black hair and beard.
"What are you doing here?" He barked loudly at the weakened esper. "You are meant to be safe in caravan! Go back! We take care of this!"
Yet he was hardly in the position to say that they didn't need any help. The only way the caravan was going to commence was if there were still enough guards remaining after the snow worms had figured themselves out and left. Rune refused to listen to their escort. "A few of your friends are already dying or dead. You don't have time to worry about where your cargo is." He announced firmly.
Before the guard could answer him the snow worm leaned forward and dove straight for Rune and the two guards. It was actually targeting the ground beneath their feet, but snow worms hunted that way as they skimmed the surface for food and then brought it down with them, into the depths of the underground. It was like having a mountain falling down on top of them. The guards took their spears and fled, running off in scattering directions while all Rune felt he needed to do was look up.
Were those other two passengers still there with him? He could hear Dhee trying to catch his breath and Roland uttered a low curse word, hardly audible in the blizzard. If they wanted to survive this was the point at which Rune's magical powers had to come back to life. It had to be stronger than the little licks of flame he had conjured back at Laerma's hut; it needed to be strong enough to turn away a rampaging monster. But if it was too strong, if his pull for the magic exceeded the health of his spirit then he might throw himself back into a coma, or induce an aneurysm in his head. It would just have to be a risk he needed to take.
After all, who had ever heard of a Lutz without magic before?
Its goal was the tasty morsels on the field, but before it could get a mouthful of palman it ate fire instead; a ball of red hot flaeli sent hurtling into its gaping maw. He'd cast better even on his off days, but by the skin of his teeth it was enough. The worm convulsed and choked on the spell, falling to the left and crashing down a ways beside Rune, curling up in the safe, white snow. Smoke streamed from between its teeth and a smell began to rise along the winds; the stomach-rolling stench of burnt snow worm.
It was in shock for a few moments, as anyone would be after swallowing a hot coal like that, then it wriggled itself back into life and leapt downwards, forcing itself below the frost and crust of Dezoris. The palmans had to shield themselves from the debris that burst out at them, hunks of rocks and ice, but soon enough the worm was gone and only a hole replaced it, one large enough to lose an entire caravan carriage in.
A local silence took over amidst the blizzard and the battle. Rune was rather surprised at himself; he hadn't expected to drive the snow worm away with only one fell swoop. Dhee and Roland weren't very familiar with the works of espers either, so they were understandably impressed. The two looked at Rune as if he had… well, performed a very baffling magic trick. The older man frowned at him, rather than a smile. "So you really are an esper. I'd mistaken you for a simple braggart. Do you think you could do that thing again?"
As draining as casting that first spell had been, Rune was pretty certain that he wasn't running on empty just yet. He brushed loose strands of hair that had come free from his ponytail out of his face. He sighed. "Yeah, again and again until all the fighting stops. Next."
He moved on to the next one. Roland and Dhee were forced to follow, but it was easy to keep up because Rune wasn't able to move very fast; each step seemed to sink his legs deeper and deeper into the drifts of snow. Roland wasn't sure about what he could do. All he had was his daggers, short range weapons which were useless against such creatures threatening their caravan, but Dhee didn't have any weapons at all and he was still following Rune, and he was old, so the blond palman kept up as well.
The next monster closest to them was significantly larger and tougher; an elder of its species, and it was duelling with another snow worm younger and smaller than itself. They fought by rearing up against one another and lunging and slamming their heads together, trying to knock the other down and rake sharp teeth against stretches of mottled skin. It was like watching two mountains do battle, while between and all around them tiny guards tried to deal as much damage as they could with whatever weapons they had on hand.
Some of the guards' spears were stuck into the lower hide of the monsters, like little arrows, streams of clear goo seeping from the small wounds. Those guards were not so averse to seeing aid in the form of other people coming out of nowhere. One young dezorian grabbed Rune for support as his bloodied and rapidly frostbitten leg was beginning to give out. "We have to stop them fighting! If they move closer to the carriages they're liable to crush them!" The youth cried, groaning as the pressure was removed from his leg.
"What the hell happened to you?" Rune found himself asking the guard. It didn't make sense. Snow worms ate people with no mess or fuss. It was an instantaneous thing and worms could not close their mouths to bite or gnaw, so why was he seeing so much blood on the snow, so many small, palman-sized wounds? Rune remembered the guard thrown against their carriage. A snow worm could have hurled him with ease, but what about that gaping wound on his chest?
The smaller snow worm thrashed its tail as its elder scored its open mouth harshly against its side. One poor palman who had his spear jammed deeply into the creature's rear was tossed high into the air, maintaining the grip on his weapon's shaft for dear life. The tail bucked and suddenly the man's grip was gone, hurled away and vanishing within moments. There was a distant hoarse cry, a thud, and then it was over.
The young dezorian was trying to elevate his bleeding leg away from the ground but he kept swaying and Rune kept moving around so every so often he would hiss in pain and discomfort. "I don't know what happened! I was running towards my friends and then something sliced my leg open! I'm not sure what it was; it all happened so quickly!" He moaned.
"Just a question; do snow worms have eyes?" Roland interrupted, craning his neck up to look at the two clashing beasts. The man fingered one of his daggers as he said this. He was born and raised on Dezoris but lumbrical anatomy was not something he had been big on in school.
"Yeah, but they're mostly blind." Dhee replied as he walked over to the moving, pulsating wall of flesh. He placed a hand upon it. It wasn't nearly as wet and slimy as he would have guessed from looking upon it, and its body was covered in small ridges, like a tiny less threatening earthworm. "They have two little eyes right above their mouths but below the feelers they use to do talking, or some such. Huh, I wonder if I can…" Against all logic and sanity he started to climb.
It was surprising that he could get proper footing and handholds in the monster's skin, but Ghee was getting some pretty good height already. Rune stepped away from the worms while holding up the wounded dezorian with one arm. "What the hell are you doing?" He shouted angrily, showing his indignation. He couldn't in good conscience throw fire spells at a monster while there was a person climbing up its side. There was always a chance Rune might accidentally hurt him.
He was in for more bad news. Roland had a brainwave while watching Dhee climb the monster and sprung into action. "Hey, that's a great idea!" He exclaimed and launched himself up onto the other snow worm, climbing with impressive agility up its belly. Rune had no freaking idea what the two hunters were trying to prove, but it left him stranded down there, practically alone and unable to cast. Sure the worms were probably big enough to hurl flaeli at to his heart's content and not hit a single ally, but even a minute chance was still a chance. He did not want somebody else's blood on his hands.
Rune retreated with his casualty and left the guards remaining there free to poke and prod at their two adversaries. At this point the cold of the storm was beginning to penetrate even the thick furs and leather he was wearing. Everything else felt numb. One thought which filled him with horror was the thought of his hands and feet turning dead and black all over again, and imagining how many digits or limbs he'd lose next time.
"Goddammit, I just wanted to get to the mansion in peace! Is that so freaking hard?" Rune snarled at the blizzard in general, finding solace in annoyance and frustration rather than despair. For him the familiar, safe places in the worlds felt like they were rapidly growing short.
"You know," the dezorian coughed weakly as Rune tried to get them both up a snowdrift with minimal fuss, "I think I am starting to remember what happened to my leg. It wasn't much, but almost the second before it happened from the corner of my eye I saw some red. It was hard to see in all that snow and I was in a hurry, so I forgot about it." The lad sounded pensive, well, as much as he could while in dire pain.
"Red?" Rune repeated, for some reason piqued by that idea. "What do you mean by seeing red?" It reminded him of something, but for now he couldn't pinpoint what.
"I don't know. I really don't know. Argh… oww!" His leg finally gave out and he went down, nearly dragging Rune along with him. It was only by the strength of the esper's arm that he didn't faceplant into the snow.
Rune frowned. He guessed it wasn't really important right now, so he wiped the frown off his face and focussed on what really mattered. "Alright, I'll bring you back to the caravan, but from there look for a fat guy called Augustus. He'll help you out." They started moving again. It was like taking part in a three-legged race, limping and balancing and trying hard not to fall.
Heading down the slope Rune felt the snow shift and before he knew it the ground erupted and another snow worm flew out at them, wriggling and curling around to stare at them with its near-blind eyes. Were it not for its highly-developed sonar system it would not have been able to tell anyone was there at all. It was only a child, a baby scarcely the size of a tree. Rune looked at it for what it really was; an obstacle blocking the path back to the caravans and the dezorian's safety.
But he had already figured out how to deal with things like these. The magician extended a hand out in the direction of the beast. Waves of heat began to rise from the velvet of his gloves, though it was hard to see in the wind. Rune could definitely feel the magic heating up his hand, and oh gods did it feel good. "Don't worry kid," he reassured his companion, "this'll only take a second. Flael-"
Too late, it was already upon them. It hung a left and smashed into Rune from the side, throwing at him all the force and weight that a moving tree could. Something went crunch and Rune heard a hideous scream, but all he knew was that it was not coming from his own lips. He hit the ground with his shoulder first and his neck and cheek touched snow, while a good handful of it found its way into the furry collar of his coat.
He waited to feel the pain and it came just as expected, his left side bruised and throbbing with agony. Rune pulled himself up into a sitting position as quickly as he could manage and concentrated again; trying to call back the interrupted spell while looking all around to see where his target had slithered off to. A dark patch in the snow caught his eye.
The guard had absorbed ninety percent of the snow worm's assault. His chest had caved in as if he had been smashed by a battering ram, but there was a surprisingly little amount of blood. His clothes were probably soaking it all up. He looked dead, like a smashed pumpkin. If he wasn't dead he soon would be, and if he still drew breath all Rune could do was pity him. That dezorian… just by being there he had saved Rune's life.
Fire reignited in the magician's blood. He hauled himself up and as the worm came out of the ground a second time Rune blew its head off with a single spell, shouting out the incantation "Flaeli!" that ignited the magic and watching with rage-tinted satisfaction as hunks and globs of half cooked worm meat scattered itself over the ground. It did make him feel better for a few moments, but looking back down at the guard's body made it all seem so pointless.
Now there was no reason to go back. Rune heard a mighty roar behind him and glanced over his shoulder into the wind, but he was not too far away to see. Dhee had scaled up to the head of the elder snow worm using nothing but his balance and his strength, and with two huge hands he grabbed a hold of the worm's wiggly, sensitive feelers. He wrenched and pulled. One of the feelers tore off, and then came the scream which echoed for miles and miles around. For a creature like that it was like poking out an eye. The seasoned hunter triumphantly rode the shocked and reeling snow worm all the way back to the ground.
Speaking of eyes, that was Roland's current target. His plan was pretty similar to Dhee's, only he took both his daggers from his belt and, while balancing precariously on the monster's head, leaned down and stabbed its blind eyes out. He used the feelers as leg holds as he performed his dirty work. Roland wished that the blades would go right through the eye sockets and into its gelatinous brain. Once the hunter was done he too fell with the worm all the way down to the ground, but unlike Dhee he lost control and landed in the snow many yards away.
Rune was at a crossroads. He wasn't quite sure where to go. A part of him didn't want to leave the body of the dezorian lying there dead and alone, but doing anything else was impractical. Perhaps in part he felt letting that dezorian die was an affront to Gisarg and Laerma, who had helped him so much without any obligation to do so. There was of course no connection to them through this guard besides race, but still…
He also noticed it from the corner of his eye. Rune turned sharply and braced himself as if he were about to enter battle, then he froze. Shit. It made perfect sense, he just hadn't had the time to notice it. "Oh damn it; I should have known it was you." He groaned.
Mieus folded her arms and smiled at him.
"And a fresh hello to you too, sweetie." She said.