Tyler smiled wryly as he faced the others.
“I hope that list doesn’t turn out to be a book,” the mage remarked. “Though I wouldn’t bet against it.”
At his comment, the three laughed. Tyndur was guffawing so hard he nearly dropped the battle axe.
“Now, that would be one book I would love to read,” he uttered after regaining his breath. “The memories each and every entry would bring! That alone would be worth bringing along a barrel of mead!”
“I believe they’re waiting for us, sire,” spoke Kobu, meaningfully looking down the slope.
Tyler turned around and glanced at the caravan below them. The humans had disbanded their square, but a number had formed a line abreast formation facing the bluff.
Other warriors were tending to their dead and wounded, while a few, armed with spears, were walking around the fallen lizards, making sure they were all dead. The leader of the caravan was positioned at the back of the warriors standing at the ready.
“Form up and let’s see who they are,” said Tyler.
The party went down with Tyler making sure he doesn’t make a stupid spectacle of himself by tripping and falling down the slope. A broken neck would be preferable than sniggers behind his back for the rest of his life. He knew his companions were as sure-footed as mountain goats given their experience. But Tyler recognized his limitations – a city boy born and bred. Learning to move fast in rough terrain was a skill born out of experience and training.
As they reached the foot of the rise, he activated the shield again. This time, a taller one, a barrier which went up past his head. Tyler knew his group had saved the asses of the caravan, but it didn’t mean they wouldn’t turn on the party. He was learning how to survive in this world, but knew his survival skills had gone up but a notch.
As the party came to within twenty feet of the waiting warriors, Tyler called a halt. Kobu walked to him and offered to deal with the situation.
“What languages do you know?” asked Tyler. The man was the perfect person to handle the situation, he suspected. If what the Feathered Serpent had said was true, diplomacy would be part of the skill set of Kobu, the war leader.
“Primarily Greek. I can handle the language of Skaney, Kemet, and the Inkan Kingdom. A smattering of the imperial languages of the west. Plus, some languages of the black kingdoms and empires to the south of the Zhong Empire. Being a soldier and a mercenary had its perks.”
Zhong Empire? Interesting, thought Tyler. That also means Kobu has knowledge about a lot of lands I don’t know anything about. Some might have familiar names, but I guess a lot are beyond what I know. Should have watched that history channel more often.
“I agree it would be best if you deal with them. But keep to within five to six feet in front of me. Otherwise, you’ll be beyond the shield barrier,” advised Tyler. No way he was going to risk any betrayal from the waiting caravan.
The exile walked forward, held up his right hand, and said a greeting in Greek. The armored leader came out from behind the line of warriors and removed her helmet. Long black hair tumbled down, freed from the confines of the metal cap.
The three at the back of Kobu exchanged glances. Few women adopted the formal study of magical arts because of the time needed to perfect the skills, except in Skaney where magic was taught as part of battle skills. Astrid was a product of those warrior academies.
But in Kemet and Hellas, women predominated in priestly or ritual magic. The spells and abilities they learned could be quite deadly, being broader in scope than mere battle magic. Though in all the kingdoms, magical practitioners were subjected to a form of structured teaching. And now, here in the Barrens, they found a woman warrior, not of the known kingdoms, who had skills similar to what the Norse called battle magic. It was a surprising exception to what was practiced in the larger realms.
Tyler observed the woman carefully. She had brown complexion and a small but wiry frame. She was beautiful though a facial scar running down the left cheek marred her looks. The mage tried to examine the men at her back, but their armor hid most of their features. But their complexion and height mirrored that of the woman.
Then he observed some differences in the armor worn by the strangers. The cuirasses were indeed Greek in design, but it was complemented by chainmail. The chainmail extended to the upper arm and also had a cowl, over which the metal cone helmet, framed by studded iron or steel, was worn.
They also wore thin pants which looked to be made of some cloth. Cotton, assumed Tyler. But they had metal greaves and leather sandals as well as gauntlets, though the armor pieces looked like they were made of bronze. Below the Greek cuirass was a kind of tasset – bands of metal connected or tied with leather to form a low skirt. The entire combination looked strange to Tyler, not falling into what he remembered as hoplite or Roman armor.
The woman also raised her right hand and answered in Greek. Unfortunately, Tyler’s mind during the exchange was on observing the strange armor and he missed the discussion.
“Sire?” asked Kobu.
“Oh, sorry about that,” said Tyler, “I got caught up observing their armor.”
“They said they come from a small village right in the direction where we are headed. At the foot of the mountain range. They’re on their way to trade with the Pelasgians. Of course, they thanked us. Their leader says you’re a mighty mage. Her name is Keshini.”
“Keshini? Doesn’t sound Norse or Greek. I doubt she comes from Kemet or the southern lands. Those territories are too far from here,” remarked Tyler.
“They could be descendants of ancient exiles from those lands. But, I agree, it’s not a possibility. Such migrants would have been welcomed in Kemet,” observed Kobu. “That land accepts people from all over provided they hew to the traditions of Kemet and are willing to fight for the kingdom.”
“And what we do now?” asked Tyler. “Wait. What I meant was – are they hostile? And if not, what are their plans? As for us, we know where we are going.”
“I believe they’re not hostile. Rather, they’re quite afraid of us. They did see the impressively murderous show we displayed. They know even one of us can wipe them out,” said Kobu.
“Their plans then? Casualties? We could help in the healing, if needed,” Tyler continued.
Kobu asked the woman, though Tyler could perfectly understand the reply. He appreciated Kobu’s small deception. Better to let strangers underestimate what you know or can do.
“They suffered three dead and some injuries among their men. The leader says thank you, but they could handle the healing themselves. They plan to continue with their trade mission, although I inferred we can’t go with them as they hold those routes as secret.”
“That’s fine with me. We don’t plan on going that way. That would be a circuitous way to getting to Skaney. Well, if they don’t need our help, I guess we best be on our way,” answered Tyler.
Kobu talked at length with Keshini. He felt some fear from the leader when the exile mentioned the direction where they’re headed.
Curious, concluded Tyler.
As the companions started to continue their journey, Keshini gave Kobu a token by which they would be identified as friendly by the village.
“You believe that village story, sire?” asked Habrok when they were out of sight of the caravan.
“No, Habrok,” Tyler laughed. “The caravan was a sizeable one. The warriors were well-equipped and armored. Their leader was a warrior-mage. No mere village could come up with that ensemble.”
“True,” added Kobu. “We will find a village, maybe a large one. But that settlement would be just for show. There’s a civilization in these parts, surprising as that may seem, being on the edge of the Barren Lands.”
“They must have excellent concealment magic,” spoke Tyndur, “I didn’t come across such a civilization the last time I was here.”
“I guess we’ll know when we get there. We…” the mage started to speak and then stopped.
“Sire, you might want to know several energy signatures are coming straight for the group. Still at a distance, but moving fast. And the Elder signal had become quite clear and distinct. But we guess that can wait,” said Hal abruptly, jolting the mage from his reflections.
“Isn’t that obvious, Hal? Of course, it can wait!” answered Tyler with some irritation as he immediately let his energy examine the area. Hal was right. He could feel several distinct and strong energy forms coming for them.
“Something’s coming! From that way! Burrowers!” he immediately shouted as he faced in the direction of the incoming threat. The rest followed suit.
Damn these open plains. Crawling with all kinds of predators, I presume. We are at a distinct disadvantage here. They’re under the ground. Surprise will be on their side, seeing that they could just pop out from anywhere, assessed Tyler. I have to bring them out to the open. But this goddamned land will just soak up any magical energy. Then an idea came to him.
“Kobu! Dig me a hole past the topsoil!
The exile immediately transformed his weapon into a Shaolin spade and quickly dug as Tyler swiftly strode to his position.
“Is this sufficient, sire?” asked Kobu.
“It will do, as long as it’s past the magic-absorbing topsoil. Take your positions! I’ll try to drive them out into the open!”
Tyler held his staff up and softly called to it.
“Nehua. Come. We need you. But don’t step on the ground. Stay aloft.”
A foggy stream immediately came from the rod and quickly formed into the form of the Aztecah spirit, floating above the ground. Tyler was a bit taken aback when he saw Nehua smiling.
“Finally! I get to be of help!” exclaimed Nehua.
“There are several approaching creatures, but they’re underground. We don’t know what they are. I need you to drive them out to the open. But be careful. And don’t step on the ground, it drains magical energy.”
“Of course, my lord. Can I kill those I can?”
“Please do. I don’t believe they’re friendly,” answered Tyler. “You can use that hole to enter the ground. Again, be careful about the soil!”
“I’ll take care, my lord,” said Nehua as she disappeared. The mage saw a tiny mist enter the hole Kobu had dug.
I have to fix that ‘my lord’ thing. It just wouldn’t do. I could have used Birki, but I think Nehua’s powers are more developed at this point. That earth elemental said he still had to get used to his more powerful form anyway. Unless Nehua can’t take care of whatever is coming, thought Tyler. He quickly joined the rest though their faces were full of wonder. It was the first time they had seen the Aztecah spirit in her form. Then he noticed the expressions of the group.
“Hey! Something’s coming, remember?”
“My apologies, sire,” said Habrok as he positioned himself beside Tyler. “I didn’t expect the Aztecah spirit to be a young girl.”
“Me too,” commented Tyndur. “But we’ll see in a few moments what she can do.”
“I guess we will all be surprised. Speaking from experience, such elementals are quite powerful, even at a young age,” chuckled Kobu. His weapon had shifted again to a naginata.
“Let’s spread out. But move quietly. I have a suspicion whatever is coming tracks our location by sound,” advised Tyler. And probably by scent. The smell of those dead lizards must have mobilized a lot of the predators of this land into action. Or made them hungry.
Without warning, the ground about fifty feet in front of the waiting companions violently erupted in a geyser of soil and rocks, the large, sudden and powerful discharge showering them with dirt. As dirt fell back into the field, they could see a huge, burning elongated object, broken in many places, and bleeding black slime all over its body. Another forceful eruption of dirt followed. And then another. All with dead or almost dead giant worm-like creatures. Some were cut in half while others were like the first, clearly broken in several places along its long body. All had one thing in common. They were on fire.
At the macabre sight, all Tyler could think of was melange from that movie. Like the lizards, the huge worms were of a sandy color and the mage could see the large and sharp teeth of its mouth. It had no eyes that he could identify. It was but a long living tube of flesh with a mouth full of fangs at the end.
Carnivorous, thought the mage. An observation reinforced by the sudden emergence of other worms which began to feed on the dead ones voraciously.
Oh, cannibalistic too, came the added observation.
Suddenly, the ground beneath Kobu opened up, and a large hungry orifice full of deadly teeth emerged and powerfully clamped around where the man was standing. Part of its long body followed its unexpected lunge out from the earth.
Tyler’s heart sank at the sight even as Habrok’s arrows started to bury themselves in the beast. Tyndur was already leaping, and as he landed, the exposed body of the worm showed a large flaming gash. The einherjar continued his assault on the exposed form.
Abruptly, Kobu appeared in the air near the mouth and swung his weapon. Then he vanished and reappeared at Tyler’s side, to the mage’s immense relief. Tyler attacked up with a large, flat force blade directed at the place where Kobu had struck. The frontal part of the worm fell down, cut clean through, Tyler’s magical construct finishing what the exile started.
The company turned its attention back to the incoming worms. The mage could see more geysers of dirt erupting from the ground, each delivering a dead or dying beast. All were on fire.
That many? thought the shocked Tyler, even as more of the creatures, of different sizes, appeared and savagely feasted on their own.
“Get back!” the mage shouted. Tyler flung force blades as quickly as he could at every worm he could see. He didn’t need them following the party if their dead kin weren’t enough for their appetite.
“Hal! X! I could do with some targeted blasts! We need to kill as many as we could!” he shouted inwardly, with panic in his voice. He recognized the burrowing ability of the beasts as their most dangerous characteristic in a land where Tyler could not detect where they were.
Multiple beams burst from the mage, each vaporizing parts of the exposed creatures, instantly killing them. Tyler continued throwing his force blade spells until no worm was moving.
“A few escaped, sire. They burrowed and fled,” said X, just as explosions of dirt started in the distance.
“Nehua will take care of them,” answered Tyler. For some reason, he felt proud of the childlike spirit of wind and fire. He then walked towards the small hole where Nehua entered the ground. There he waited.
A glance at the field where the worms were showed him the scale of the gory devastation wrought on the predators. His view of the land was blocked by the torn and broken bodies of the monsters. Black slime covered the entire field. Here and there, a flame flickered, refusing to die out. We massacred them, that’s how I would describe what happened. Though their own helped make it more nauseatingly messier than the norm, Tyler thought.
After a while, Nehua’s figure appeared before him.
“That was fun! I hit them from below! You told me about the soil, so I avoided contact with it! Did I do good? Did I? Did I?”
Tyler laughed. Nehua’s joy was infectious. Her arms were all over the place, waving with excitement.
“You did good, Nehua. I am very proud of you,” said the smiling Tyler.
“Wait until I tell the others! They’ll be so jealous,” laughed the spirit.
The rest of the group had walked closer to the two. Nehua turned her attention to them and then curiously looked at Tyler.
“These are my companions, Nehua. We lack two, but we hope they’ll be back,” said Tyler, answering the spirit’s quizzical look. Then the mage introduced the three to the spirit.
“Oh, we’ve seen them before! We just didn’t know their names!”
“My gratitude, Nehua, for the timely and very effective assistance,” said the exile.
“My thanks too, Nehua,” said Habrok, raising his bow.
“A show of might and will;
doth a child display,
Saving four good men,
and teaching damned worms the error of their ways,” recited Tyndur who then gave a slight bow.
“I like him! He’s funny!” said the spirit.
Tyler laughed again.
“You don’t know how funny, Nehua. But prose is one thing Uncle Tyndur can’t teach you,” Tyler remarked with a smile. “Now go back home. You have an exciting story to tell.”
“That I do!” exclaimed Nehua as she vanished back into the staff.
“Still a child, but the power she displayed was considerable,” commented Kobu. “You are indeed fortunate, sire. As she matures, the spirit will become more powerful.”
“Well, the child has her heart in the right though I resent the comment about my prose. I know it’s not that good but, sire, you didn’t need to tell the lass. I am her uncle after all! And you heard her – she likes me!” boomed Tyndur.
“Truth is important to children, Tyndur. You wouldn’t want us to lie to Nehua, do you?” Habrok butted in.
Tyndur stopped and stared at Habrok.
“You got me there, ranger,” he finally answered, followed by another bout of laughter.
“Let’s hurry and leave this place. Carrion attracts predators, and the Barrens appears to have an inordinate share of the unknown and lethal kind,” announced Tyler with a degree of urgency.
“I agree, sire. Blasted mutated worms! What’s next? Giant ants?” exclaimed Tyndur who was hurrying to take up his position on the right flank.
“Don’t talk like that, Tyndur,” shushed Habrok. “For all we know, there could be giant ants in the Barrens.”
With that sobering thought, the party immediately hurried to leave the location. It was a foregone conclusion that the area will be swarming with predators, scavengers, and carrion-eaters in a short while. By unspoken agreement, members of the group didn’t want to see any more of the unique fauna of the Barrens. They could already observe flying specks in the distance coming their way.
“Sire, mind if I ask something?” said Tyndur.
“Of course not. Ask away,” replied Tyler.
“What did Nehua mean by others? There’s more of her kind?”
Tyler thought about his answer. He didn’t want to lie to Tyndur. The einherjar had proven himself over and over again as a valued member of the party.
‘Yes, Tyndur. But still very young. Though I would prefer that we keep their existence a secret,” Tyler answered.
“And that goes for everyone. I know you can hear me,” added the mage.
“Excellent, sire. I hope the others grow up fast. If we can do that kind of damage with one young energy spirit, imagine what we could do three or more! Our enemies will shit in their armor!” declared Tyndur.
“Then we just need to help and guide them,” answered Tyler. “They need energy to grow. But not tainted or dark ones. Such kind of energy would corrupt or destroy them.”
‘Where can we find the energy they need?’ asked the einherjar, clearly excited about the possibilities.
“From deities and magical beings. Even being around them for a while enables some of their aurae to enter the staff.”
“Hear that, guys? We need to find and bash some god’s head in,’ shouted Tyndur.
Tyler shook his head in resignation. The man was clearly addicted to battle. He’d prefer to fight for something even if what he wanted was being given to him on a silver platter.
“About the Elder signal, sire?” X suddenly spoke up.
“It’s getting stronger and is coming from the direction where you’re going. A few more miles and we’ll be able to communicate with it. From the kind of pulses we have received, the origin is clearly an Elder shrine. It appears to be an intact one.”