Callindra fell back on her childhood skills, snaring rabbits with simple traps. She was thankful for her practice skinning and preparing small game with nothing but Brightfang during her year in the wilderness. Her companions were grateful and seemed slightly surprised, although she was glad of Cronos’s ability to cook. Her efforts had always ended up tough and charred, but he had a knack for making even just a rabbit on a spit tender and juicy.
“So, does anyone know what Dergeras meant when he said the Fang in the Teeth of the Sky?” Cronos asked, sprinkling some herb he had plucked onto the meat he was cooking.
“Yes.” Said Vilhylm, surprising Callindra who had been about to say the same. “It is an impregnable fortress in the mountains called the Teeth of the Sky.”
“Oh, well that sounds like bad news for us then.” Cronos said.
“It was destroyed from the inside in the end. Treachery and deceit, greed and the lust for power were what destroyed the Fang.” Vilhylm said sadly. “It has become a home for fell things, the lost souls of the ones who succumbed to that base nature are said to still stalk its hallways and courtyards.”
“Or what’s left of them.” Callindra added somberly. At the other’s startled looks, she shrugged. “I read ‘The Rise and Fall of Invincibility’ once when I was laid up with a nasty injury. It was a good warning about what can happen when you don’t surround yourself with reliable people and let the desire for power rule your actions.”
“I had no idea you were so well educated.” Tryst said, “I’ve not read that tome myself, however I know it was in the personal collection of my Biscop. What else have you read?”
“Glarian brought me many books to read.” She said in a subdued tone, “I never knew how valuable the lessons they contained would be, when he brought them I only thought of them as a way to pass the time during my convalescence.”
“He was a wise man.” Tryst said, “He gave you the tools you would need to survive in the world, without you even knowing what he was doing.”
“And now I’ve abandoned him.” She said dully, “Left him to suffer while I escape with my worthless life.”
“We are all born helpless.” Said Vilhylm, “Doesn’t your training tell you to list your age as the amount of time you’ve been training?”
“I am not yet two years old.” Callindra said automatically, and then paused. “I suppose you have a point.”
“Some of us age faster than others.” Vilhylm said, “You’re beyond training, the world is a harsh place. You will either grow strong or you will perish.”
“Well that’s heartening.” Cronos muttered, taking the meat from the fire. “You aren’t going to die today at least, so how about we lighten the mood and eat.”
Callindra felt some of her anger dissipate as the banter of her friends soothed the hurt and loss away. They were still with her. She could become the person she needed to be in order to save her master. “Just hold on old man. Stay strong for me until I have the power to save you.”
The bear rose before them on its hind legs, roaring in animal rage. An unpleasant memory flickered in the back of Callindra’s memory, but she forced it aside, now was not the time for reminiscence. The beast must have young nearby to be acting like this, normally bears were docile and avoided contact with humans.
Brightfang sang in the air as she ducked under a paw that would have taken her head from her shoulders and the shock of the blade striking the animal’s leg with the combined strength of her swing and the bear’s. Something wasn’t right here.
Tryst slammed his hammer into his shield, getting the bear’s attention and Vilhylm appeared from behind it, or at least Callindra thought it was Vilhylm. His tall shape was covered in what seemed to be dripping mud. With exaggerated motions, he slung gobs of the mucky mass to splatter on the bear’s feet.
The animal stumbled, the mud causing it to falter and give Cronos an opening which he used to sink the edge of his bastard sword deep into its side. At the same time, Tryst struck from the other direction, his hammer fracturing bone. The bear roared in anger, but seemed not to notice the grievous wounds. Instead, it attacked the nearest target; in this case Callindra who had been sneaking up to deliver the killing stroke.
The bear’s claws raked her across the abdomen, tearing her armor and ripping into her flesh. Agony seared through the wounds, but she kept her focus and struck with a blow that used every muscle in her body in one desperate stroke. The sword strike Avalanche Down the Mountain removed the head from the shoulders. Callindra saw a strange emerald fire die behind its eyes before they closed.
“That was strange.” She said, wiping the blood from her sword and trying to ignore the pain of the slashes across her stomach. They had torn through her armor and the skin beneath but thankfully only seemed to be minor thanks to the boiled leather of her breastplate.
“What was strange?” Cronos asked, looking at her out of the corner of his eye.
“It was probably nothing.” Said Callindra, “But its eyes seemed to be a weird glowing green color.”
“I thought I was only imagining it.” He replied, bending over the dead animal, “I swear I saw the same thing.”
The corpse of the bear erupted into brilliant green flames. Before they could react, the headless body began blindly striking out, sending Cronos and Callindra flying across the clearing. She flipped in the air, grimacing in pain as the effort of righting herself to land on her feet caused white fire to spread across her wounded stomach muscles.
“Begone from here fell thing!” Tryst shouted, his polished shield flashing with a white light of Divine origin.
In response, the bear turned swiftly, seeming to target him with unerring ease in spite of being headless. The priest stood his ground, a grim look on his face. Callindra started from her shocked state as she realized the young man was truly willing to die for them. For her.
“Haiiiii!” A battle shout from ages before erupted from her throat and she flung herself forward, dropping to a knee at the last moment in a devastating stroke that split the undead animal’s Achilles tendons (Howl of the Winter Wolf). It teetered uncertainly and at this moment, Tryst struck it a savage blow on its neck with his hammer.
“Oh hellteeth!” Callindra swore, trying to spring out of the way as her torn abdominal muscles gave out on her. The finally unmoving corpse of the bear fell heavily on her, filling her nostrils with the stench of death and a strong smell of brimstone.
Once her friends had stopped laughing, they levered the beast’s carcass off her. Callindra climbed painfully to her feet and wiped Brightfang on the bear’s fur before carefully sheathing him.
“There’s a small road over there.” She said, pointing. “Maybe there’s a village or something.”
“Are you hurt?” Tryst asked, concern on his too pretty face.
“Some cuts from the claws.” Callindra said and grimaced, “Maybe some fractured ribs from when it struck me, or perhaps from when the bedamned thing fell on me. Regardless I wouldn’t mind finding a town where we could at least purchase bedrolls if not tents and horses.”
A rustling sound caused them all to turn as one, A second bear flew out of the trees at them, moving at an astonishing rate but strangely silent. Callindra could see emerald fire shining from its eyes.
Moving Brightfang in a whirling double arc to test her tender ribs, Callindra moved to intercept the creature, grimly intent on disabling it as quickly as possible. Before she had taken a half dozen steps, Cronos barked three words of Arcane Power and a sheet of brilliant red fire burst from his outstretched fingertips, washing over the bear and burning it to a crisp.
As it tried to rise again, Vilhylm and Tryst smashed into it from either side, breaking bones and driving it to the ground. Callindra looked at Cronos, who was rubbing his ribs and grimacing in pain.
“I didn’t want to deal with it.” He said shortly, “Pretty sure the other one broke a couple of my ribs too.”
“I hope there aren’t any more of them.” She said, looking around and not sheathing her sword just yet.
“Let’s get moving.” Vilhylm said, no longer appearing to be covered in swamp muck. “If there are other things that are … infected in the same way as this one we should try and find a place where we can take shelter.”
They began moving down the dirt track, looking around at every forest sound. As they rounded a bend, the walls of a small keep came into view. The gate was closed and guards were on duty along the walls. Callindra wondered if this was normal for a remote outpost such as this. Normally her understanding was a city that engaged in regular commerce had the gates open all day.
“This feels wrong.” Vilhylm said, glancing at the closed gates. “Unless at war these gates should be open. Where are the livestock? Where are the workers tending the fields?”
Callindra followed his gaze and realized that the clearings they were walking through were paddocks and gardens, not just land logged for lumber or cleared for line of sight. Weeds grew ankle high among the crops and there were no animals in the fenced paddocks.
They approached the gate and could see that the stone wall and stout wooden gate showed signs of recent damage. A few scorch marks marred the seasoned wood above the steel banding that sheathed the bottom few feet of the door. The soldiers on the walls trained nasty looking crossbows on them and called out for them to halt.
Tryst approached, his spotless white surcoat and gleaming shield shining like a beacon. “We are weary travelers, wounded from fighting beasts upon the road and seeking shelter.”
“Come to the side door.” Came the curt reply from above. Tryst complied, moving to a steel sheathed door bolted into the stone wall. A slit opened with an oiled scrape of steel on steel. “Look into the slit, I need to see your eyes stranger.”
“What is the reason for this treatment?” Callindra demanded, “We are tired and injured!”
Tryst waved her to silence, “Remember the bears.” He said and she thought of the emerald flame that burned in the infected beasts eyes.
“It can affect humans too?” She whispered, the implications turning her blood to ice.
Tryst removed his helm and leaned forward to look through the slit in the door. After a moment, the man on the other side gruffly told him to step aside and allow the next one to step forward. Only when they had all been checked for burning green eyes were the heavy crossbows raised and door opened.
“No offense intended.” The guard said, “Those… things wreaked havoc before we figured out how to identify them. We lost many.”
“I am a healer.” Tryst said, “If you have wounded I can help.”
The guard looked at him, the suspicion in his eyes slowly being replaced by hope. “I’ll take you to the mayor and then if he agrees you can see to our injured.”