The mountain trail, faint and overgrown as it was, twisted away down and to the west. The setting sun, blazing hues of orange and red over the far plains, shed enough light to reveal the tracks of deer over the bared dirt. The tang of early autumn bit into the air, just a hint, but enough to remind Tymun of past years, training under the myriad golds and yellows of oak leaves.
The ground beneath his feet was uneven, broken at odd intervals by cracks and roots. Dry dust puffed at his every step, settling behind him only to be disturbed again by the long trail of men, winding single file back up the slope.
The sun ahead sent thoughts spinning through his head, haphazard and deflecting at odd angles. It was fire, the sun; everyone knew that. It gave heat, it gave light. It gave life. The thought echoed the words of the Pirin mantra.
But therein lay his problem. They were no longer in the Empire. The Pirin faith held no sway here. He’d seen infidels create fire from hand, not two weeks past. That should have been impossible. It was impossible.
Tymun tried to banish the blasphemous thoughts for the hundredth time since that little village. He knew he was the only one who’d seen; neither of his immediate squadmates were watching when the dumpy, wrinkled farmer struck two stones together and produced a spark, igniting a bundle of straw.
A shout from below jerked him out of his reverie, and word spread up the string of soldiers. “The scouts found a good spot below. We’re making camp early, tonight,” Meto called back to him.
Tymun shrugged his shoulders, feeling the weight of his pack digging in, and thought that he wouldn’t complain. He would never say so out loud, of course, not where his fellows could hear, but he had no qualms about taking advantage of such a rare reprieve. It had been a hard month, out here in the wilderness north of the Empire. When they set out, it had been under the harsh heat of the late summer sun; more recently, they struggled through the chill autumn nights common in the Icefall Mountains. They were forced to hunt for most of their food, their supplies dwindling. Interspersing such thin meals with policing rural villages and hunting out rumors of Nera Nashan movements did nothing to improve his mood.
A sudden clatter behind him whipped his head around, his hand leaping to his sword hilt, images of Nera Nashan raiders attacking. Only for a moment, though. Stifling a smile, he watched with no small amount of amusement as their assigned Chaplain, Artius, tumbled to a halt against a dry plant next to the trail. Dirt covered his dark orange robes, and red stained his cheeks.
Grumbling to himself, the pudgy-faced priest dragged himself to his feet. He attempted to dust off his robes, but he succeeded only in spreading the dirt around even more. With a mild oath, Artius threw his hands in the air and then scrubbed them through the mess of black curls atop his head. His blue Pallonian eyes glared with irritation when he saw soldiers chuckling at his mishap. “Keep moving,” he snapped. “Camp for the night is close.”
The normally jovial priest suited action to words, lifting his robes and stepping more carefully along the path. Tymun shook his head and returned his attention to following in the wake of Meto, a dozen strides ahead.
Artius was acting out of sorts, and had been for some few days. Tymun had known him for almost a year, and was familiar with the man’s reputation as one of the better Chaplain attachés in the Northern Legion. He was always free with a grin, free with the hip flask of whiskey that never seemed to run dry, and surprisingly insightful when approached about matters of Faith.
For nearly a week, though, Artius had done nothing but grumble and grow increasingly distracted. Tymun hadn’t seen him take a drink from his flask in almost as long. It was downright strange.
When the forty men in their party were all settled down for the evening—the sun still not yet fully set over the treetops surrounding their clearing—Tymun endeavored to run into Artius, to see what was going on. To his surprise, he found the Chaplain overseeing the use of a bundle of firestones instead of an actual fire.
Frowning, Tymun stepped between two soldiers from another squad and approached the plump priest. “Firestones, Artius? You know they don’t work nearly as well, especially not with this mountain goat.” He gestured to the stringy meat cooking in the heated air above the sparkling gems.
Artius scowled up at him, not even bothering to get up from his crouch over the cooking pit. “Firestones will have to do.” He was rarely so curt.
“Did you take an injury, falling? I’ve heard that pain can sometimes be enough to interrupt even the most basic of prayers.”
“I took no injury, thank you very much. My padding was sufficient.” For a moment, Artius almost sounded like his old jovial self. For a moment only, though. “We will have to do without my prayers and invocations for a time. I like it no more than you; less, in fact.”
Tymun opened his mouth to ask why, but an orange-sleeved arm came up to silence him as Artius turned his attention back to the firestones. “Let it be enough that I have said so. I am an orange-robed Chaplain of the Second Shade. I need not explain myself to a common soldier.”
Surprised, disgruntled, and a little peeved, Tymun puttered back to where his blankets lay, next to a similar pile belonging to Meto. “Flame-cursed goat is going to be bad again, tonight.”
Meto glanced up at him from the seat he had on the dirt, and his hands paused in the act of polishing his blade. “Firestones again?”
“Too much stone, too little flame.”
Meto groaned. “I don’t know how they get along with this kind of meat, out here beyond the Empire. We haven’t had anything better than tough elk for days, and you know we were lucky to even get that.”
Tymun nodded, glum. Mountain goats were everywhere, it seemed, and easily hunted, but any sort of game beyond that was scarce. None of them understood why.
“Well, maybe Artius will summon his nerve again soon and start using his little channeling invocation. It’s much more useful for cooking.” Meto didn’t sound all that hopeful.
Tymun grunted and settled himself onto the ground next to Meto, his legs folded underneath him. To keep his hands busy, he dragged over his sword and whetstone. Sharpening the blade always soothed him. If he had not been in such stunning scenery for the past weeks, with mountain peaks and glaciers all around, he may have lost his mind already. “We’ve been saying that for three flaming days.”
Meto shrugged at him and continued polishing his own sword. “What about that town?”
Tymun looked up from his sharpening and his hands stopped. “Which town?” He hoped his voice wasn’t as sharp as he thought.
“Three days ago, just on the other side of the mountain. I thought those infidels had a shifty look about them. I bet they knew something about the Nashans and wouldn’t say.”
Feeling a knot of tension come loose in his shoulders, Tymun nodded. Meto wasn’t talking about the old man making fire. Of course not. “It could be. I wouldn’t put anything past these heathens. Flame-forsaken bastards will deal with anyone, even beasts from Oblivion like the Avernen.”
Meto shuddered. “I still don’t even know if I want to find what we’re looking for. Sure as Oblivion comes, the swamps won’t be fun. Avernen flaming scare me.”
Tymun resumed the movements of the stone, though he told himself that it was not to keep his hands from shaking. His blade was running dull, that was it. “Avernen scare everyone, Meto. Pluck out my burning eyes if that isn’t true. The flaming things are unnatural.”
With a flourish, Meto finished wiping down his blade and spun it upright before him, and the setting sun flashed off of it into Tymun’s eyes. He raised a hand to block the glare, but it still reminded him of where his thoughts had been, earlier on the path. Tymun turned his eyes away from the glinting sword and stared instead at the cluster of firestones cooking the meat in the center of their camp. Fire flickered in the hearts of those stones, he knew, imbued through the prayers of Chaplains back in the Empire. No scouting force ever went beyond the border without firestones, even in summer, and he wondered why that was, when every scouting force also had its assigned Chaplain.
Thoughts dancing in his head like the flames inside those stones, Tymun wondered over his faith.
* * *
Tymun sighed as his boot stuck once again. Halting, he reached down and pulled on the overturned top of his boot, halfway up his calf. It came loose, and his foot once again came in contact with the sole. He ignored the brownish muck that clung to the bottom. Both boots were covered to above his ankle, and there was no end to the flaming swamp in sight.
All kinds stinging, biting, and downright annoying bugs swarmed around them. There were only twenty-six left, now, after the skirmish with Nera Nashan raiders two days before on the border of the swamplands of Averna. The natives of this country were vicious, conniving bastards who liked to attack with the dawn, and hated everything Letaalese. Their only redeeming quality was that they died easily.
Of course, nobody died that easily when they outnumbered you almost three to one.
Tymun’s other boot sunk into the squelching mud, and he cursed. Similar curses came from the soldiers before and behind him. It was flaming hell in the swamp, and being so far out of the Empire made it even worse. He slapped at a mosquito that landed on his cheek, and only succeeded in giving himself a stinging patch while the bug buzzed off. Tymun growled.
Ahead, Artius was struggling even more. He had long since given up trying to keep his robe out of the fetid sludge underfoot, and the bugs seemed to fancy him more than most. The priest, slimmer than he was when they set out a month earlier from Barrier, at the northern border of the Empire, flailed about him in a vain attempt to ward off the pests.
Tymun gave half a moment to wondering why Artius wasn’t warding the bugs off with fire; he’d seen the Chaplain do such a thing many times before, campaigning in the Empire. He had some odd invocation that made bright yellow flames and smelled faintly sweet, but it was remarkably effective at sending any such airborne nuisances on their way.
It was only half a moment, though, and his foot suddenly found solid ground. He looked down in surprise and glee, marking the hard dirt that was rising from the murk. Stagnant green pools of water lay all around, but there was a clear trail of navigable ground running ahead. No wonder Artius was able to fling his arms about like that without worrying about what his feet were doing.
Tymun turned his head and grinned back at Meto, nodding down at the path. Meto’s face lit up, and he only stumbled once with his boot stuck in the mud before reaching the relative safety of hard-packed dirt.
“Looks like a hunting trail of some sort,” he remarked. “Maybe those burning Nera Nashan like the sport in here.”
Tymun resumed his pace, noting that Artius had pulled ahead. He muttered a reply to Meto’s statement. “As long as the ‘sport’ isn’t Letaalese….”
Meto laughed at his quip and replied that they had already scared off the natives days past. It was true enough; Tymun doubted they would try to attack again for a while, not after losing almost a hundred warriors.
His feet grateful for the stable ground, Tymun increased his speed and regained his position a few paces behind Artius. The cool dampness of the bog clung to him, though, and made him wish that the priest would produce a few firestones—or better yet, summon some flames, which would be dry as well as hot.
As if sensing his thoughts, Artius craned his neck around and glared at him, though the effect was spoiled somewhat by a bug landing on his forehead. The priest smacked it, leaving a bloody smear above his left eye.
Tymun averted his eyes and tried not to laugh. He could see, out of the corner of his vision, that Artius scowled before facing forward again. Tymun didn’t want the man to take it out on him, so he kept his eyes on the mire around. Which he should have been doing, anyway.
Odd trees grew out of the murk, vines draping from their upper branches and their roots spreading below the surface of the water. Low bushes clung to the rare strips of solid ground, their leaves brushing the wetness below. Not much moved, though there was a sense of life about him. He knew that fish and snakes and lizards lived in the water—a rather shocking incident the day before, involving a man from one of the other squads and a truly enormous snake, gave proof to that—but nothing broke the surface.
The odd splash could be heard, always beyond his vision or behind him, but the first movement he saw was a ripple in the water to his right. It was large. Almost man-sized.
Tymun slowed, eyeing the water there, his hand on his sword. He did not want to deal with another of those blasted snakes. Another ripple, this time closer to the ground on which they walked. Closer, and he could just see through the dim green water a hint of scales.
“By the Flame,” he muttered. His stomach began churning, bubbling in terror. A splash came, loud, from the same direction but further out. Small waves marred the surface in counterpoint to another ripple. Another. Another.
Tymun stopped, and Meto nearly ran him over. His sword was out, he realized, gripped in a fist with white knuckles and shaking like mad. His friend moved his attention from the canopy overhead and noticed Tymun’s state. Ahead, somebody barked a curse.
“Tymun? What is it?” Meto’s hand found his own hilt even as he spoke. Muttering came from the men following.
Tymun’s mouth didn’t want to open, his throat didn’t want to cooperate. Fear gripped him, held him, filling him with the knowledge of foreign terrors.
In that moment of hesitation, Meto’s eyes flickered to the side and back to his, widening with shock and horror.
Tymun’s mouth finally moved, and he uttered one word. “Avernen.”
With shrieks and hissing, scaly nightmares burst from the water all around them.
Then Meto’s sword, flashing past his head and severing an attacking arm, glistening with swamp water. I’ll need to buy him a drink whenever we get back to civilization, Tymun thought. He stared down the serpentine face of the nearest Avernen, its tongue flickering between fangs, its flat nose flaring to get his scent. Behind, it, a smaller creature thrashed on the edge of the water, clawing at the bleeding stump of its detached arm.
Without a thought, Tymun brought his sword up in front of him, finally assuming a guarded position. Meto stepped close, breathing hard, lurid crimson Avernen blood already staining his blade. The Avernen sprung forward.
It carried no weapon, but it did not need one. Its claws whistled through the still, damp air, sharp and cruel, faster than Tymun could have ever predicted. He stumbled back with a curse and an awkward parry of his sword; blood welled up through a tear in his sleeve.
Meto stepped into the opening, driving his sword into the joint between arm and shoulder. The Avernen hissed and twisted, thrashing, trying to wrench itself away from Meto. He declined to make it so easy, and Tymun recovered, ignoring his wound, to bury his sword in the creature’s chest.
They met eyes over the thing’s dead body.
Sounds drew closer to Tymun’s consciousness, and he realized that there were Avernen attacking up and down the line. Even as he wrenched his head around, he saw two, three, four of his squadmates go down. The snakelike creatures, though not as big as the men they fought, were vicious and fast. He swallowed hard as another Avernen surfaced from the waters to his left and hissed at Artius.
The priest was cowering in his orange robes, pale face covered in sweat, his mouth moving wordlessly. As far as Tymun could tell, he wasn’t even trying to utter a prayer in his own defense, much less support the soldiers in their fight. Tymun growled and threw himself at the Avernen, tackling it from behind.
Impossibly, it twisted in the grip of his arms and grinned up at him with fangs that dripped a yellowish, viscous fluid. Venom, Tymun realized. It was going to bite him. And he was going to die. He shoved himself backward, trying to untangle himself, to scramble away from that horrible fate. The creature lashed out, its claws faster than he could contend with, and raked lines of fire down his uninjured arm. He screamed, and red tinged the edges of his vision.
Again Meto saved him. With a roar, the Pallonian crashed down onto the Avernen, his fists pummeling its face, its neck, its throat. But he was not fast enough to avoid its bite. With a snarling hiss, the Avernen twisted again, so quick, and managed to sink one fang into the back of Meto’s hand. He yelled, yanked his hand back, and stared in horror at the wound.
Before the Avernen could do anything more, Tymun found the grip of his belt knife and slit its throat.
Not three feet away, Artius sat curled into a ball, his arms wrapped around his legs, eyes wide and terrified as he watched their struggle. Tymun saw him and with a snarl, got to his feet and struck Artius with one fist. The priest keeled over with a squawk.
“Burn you, Artius!” Tymun’s anger tore free, and he gestured wildly at the madness up the path of dirt where Avernen and Letaalese scouts still killed each other. At the moment, none were near or unoccupied, but he knew that would change within moments. “Do something!”
The priest shook with fear, his mouth open, breathing hard. Tears leaked from his clear blue Pallonian eyes. He only stared up at Tymun, unwilling or unable to respond.
With a scream of frustration, Tymun shoved the pudgy man back into the dirt and reached for Meto, looking to his friend’s hand. It was bleeding, and already swelling from the venom. Meto looked from the bite to Tymun, his face grim but panic in his blue eyes. “Tymun….”
“Don’t say a word. We’ll get help, but we need to get out of here first!” Tymun recovered his sword from where it had fallen, partially in the waters of the swamp. He eyed the green murk nervously, only turning away when he was satisfied that no more nightmares would surface. With the sword, he pointed ahead. The fighting had moved further away from them. “Kill the flaming bastards, then deal with it.”
Meto swallowed convulsively, clenching and unclenching his hand. He gave Tymun a jerky nod.
Tymun ignored the worthless priest lying in the dirt and moved past, breaking into a run as they approached the remnants still fighting. There were a half dozen Avernen tangling with five Letaalese. Just five, Tymun thought with a snarl. Out of almost thirty. He screamed his anger at the snakelike things and threw himself back into the fray.
Read the next chapter: “The Heart of the Phoenix”