The first night in the mountains began uneventfully and was only broken by howls of wolves and hoots of owls every now and then.
Cael had trouble sleeping, so he wandered around the campsite. The wagons had been positioned into a rough circle, and the tents were within. Cael thought it a solid protective measure, if they would’ve had more wagons. Now there were yawning openings between the carriages, enough for a giant to walk through. At least they had guards that looked half-competent and dutiful.
They hadn’t gotten far into the Mindspins, maybe less than half a mile up and a few miles forward. The road that they had taken all the way from Korvosa had diminished into a path, and the path looked like it would soon disappear after mile or so into the mountains. There were only stubby signposts every half a mile marking the way east towards Fort Thorn and Skelt. But Pavo knew the way well, as he had told Cael, and they hadn’t missed one milestone. Maybe his brother had been right about the caravan owner.
The mountains were dry, harsh and rugged, but full of life. Small vermin, rats and rabbits, scuttled in the night, hunted by smaller predators like foxes and lynxes. Tiny birds chirped happily, darting from one bush to another, and hawks and eagles soared the heights like guardians of the mountains, bound to their nests to sleep. Coniferous forests covered the mountainsides where they could grow.
Despite all that was said about the apparent safety of the Mindspins, Cael was expecting trouble. He always expected trouble. It was something he couldn’t avoid even if he wanted to.
He found himself soon outside the sleeping camp and sat down onto the edge of an outcrop. His booted feet dangled above a drop of hundreds of feet and he took in the breathtaking vista – the long valley they had risen from opened before him, and a few miles away he could spot the majestic slopes that were the other half of the Mindspins, a row of god’s teeth reaching high up, so high that everfrost covered their peaks. He had seen taller mountains, and more expansive mountain ranges from thousands of feet above sea level, but the crisp-clear air, the cloudless night and the full moon glowing and painting everything with pale light made the sight unique and stunningly beautiful.
It was silent save for the nocturnal animals and the long sighs of the wind caressing his bare head and face. A perfect night.
What would Aurora say about this, he wondered and for an instant he imagined the brown-haired, brown-eyed young woman sitting in his lap, her hands wrapped around him, her head resting on his shoulder. Would she be quiet, afraid the moment would be ruined if she uttered a single sound? Or would her eyes drink it all and make her describe the beauty she saw? He tried to remember how she smelled like, but couldn’t remember. It had been too long. The realization became a physical pain in his chest, an emptiness that felt like a boulder where his heart was. Tell him he’s an uncle. Her last words to him before he had fled. Those he would not forget.
Should he summon the courage to see her again? She had rested often in his lap, when they had ventured to the forests near Dunbreck to avoid prying eyes, to sate their lust, and to talk.
They can’t find you here, she had once told him playfully, with that sweet, mellow, slightly nasal voice of hers, as she stepped from one patch of moss to another, and he had believed her. She had enchanted him utterly. He had told her everything. About his past, about being hunted, about Belon and the search for him. He had never done that to anyone. Somehow she had made him open up to her.
He still couldn’t believe how a young, wise, stunning and passionate noblewoman like her had even looked at his direction. But she had. An image of her smiling surfaced, her kind eyes shining with desire and warmth, and Cael himself couldn’t help but allow a smile of his own.
Would she even spare me a glance if I came back? Or would she simply send me away? Demons, dragons and giants didn’t scare the killer. But seeing her..
Cael heard steps behind him. They were sure and deliberate, made by feet that had walked the same uneven grounds before.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
The half-elf recognized the hoarse voice. It was Therese, Pavo’s wife and the master of the caravan.
“It is”, Cael admitted, and the image of his loved one vanished, escaping into the night.
“The air is often pure here like tonight, so you can see the opposite mountainsides.”
Cael remained silent.
“You’ve taken my place”, Therese said and stopped just behind the sitting half-elf.
“I’m sorry?” Cael offered.
She sat down next to Cael, but crossed her legs instead. “There’s room for everyone.”
A minute or so passed without a word as the caravan master and the manhunter gazed at the scenic view.
“I hear you’re quite the adventurers, you and your brother”, Therese suddenly said. She didn’t turn her head at Cael but kept looking down at the valley.
“I wouldn’t call it that”, Cael said.
“What would you call it then?”
“We’ve led a hard life that amazes us without pause.”
“Haven’t we all?”
Sure, if you’ve been enslaved since you’ve been eight, been hunted by killers for years, and been burned by giant-kin sorcerers, frozen by the breath of dragons and flayed by the magic of wizards, yeah, your life’s been pretty hard, Cael thought about saying but didn’t. He wasn’t that petty. Therese was a normal person and he could sympathise with Therese and her life on the road. He pursed his lips.
“I’ve seen your slave brand”, Therese admitted. Oh. She was perceptive. “I can see where you’re coming from. I bet you didn’t acquire your citizenship in Molthune, or anywhere else for that matter”, she added. Smart too, Cael added sardonically in his mind.
“Your brother seems a good man, but you.. I can’t tell if you’re a fish or a bird.”
“What does it matter?” Cael finally made it a conversation again, and regretted it immediately.
Now Therese’s face turned to Cael’s, and moonlight fell upon it, revealing severity and single-mindedness.
“It matters, because I don’t want any added trouble into my caravan. We have our own to sort out. My husband might like you two, especially your brother, but I’m not so easy to fool.”
“That makes two of us”, Cael sighed, closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. He really didn’t need this.
“You stink of trouble, Master Greymarsh. Danger flows from you like a damned shadow. I see how you watch over your back, you escaped slave with your fine gear and clothes. Sure, we’ll take your gold, and take you to Canorate, but gods help me if trouble follows you and finds us. My boys-”
“Thank you for your honesty”, Cael murmured before the woman could continue. She sniffed and got up.
“My boys are everything to me. Everything. And this damn, gods-cursed route, it’s..” She let the words hang, her motives unsaid but her issues apparent, and left Cael alone to the cliff.
What a mother bear, Cael mused. It however didn’t change the fact she was right about him. And like her, he didn’t want any additional problems. He had enough as it were.
For two days they hiked up and down, but mostly up the unforgiving hills. It was a crawl, made even slower by a broken wheel on one of the supply wagons that Therese and the drivers spent a few hours fixing. Every day dawned in a crisp mist – somebody had not remembered to tell the Mindspins it was already almost summer. But to Cael’s amazement, they did not encounter any bandits or beasts. The most threatening thing had been a young male bear, but even that had fled at the sight of the convoy. The soldiers of Korvosa had done their jobs well, it seemed.
Pavo told them they’d reach Fort Thorn on the third day in the mountains.
On that morning, the brothers were riding on their own, a shout away in front of Marco’s lead carriage. The terrain was rugged, better suited for hiking or climbing rather than carriages. The convoy had to use the few routes they could through the serrated landscape. The path they were taking, a chasm thirty or so strides wide, wormed left, right and straight and was sided by steep slopes. The ground was arid – little more than bushes and stunted trees grew anywhere.
Fifty strides away Cael saw the scout, leading his mount slowly forward, keeping his eyes up on the slopes, as did the scarred killer.
“A good place for an ambush”, Cael made the offhand remark, to which his brother nodded. “Be on a lookout. The rabbits might charge”, Belon replied deadpan. Cael just snorted. Belon wasn’t stupid but he liked to ruffle his brother’s feathers.
“Have you thought about what you’ll do when we reach Dunbreck?” Belon asked with a serious tone.
“I haven’t”, Cael lied.
“Why the hell is it so important to you”, Cael spat, raising his low voice. Cael was tired of people forcing things – their problems – down his throat. Belon opened his mouth to retort, but none came out. The stubble-headed brother harrumphed. “Give it a rest.”
“No, damn it, I won’t”, Belon finally whispered. “You owe it to her. If there’s a child, you owe him or her the visit. It’s not going to be the same as it was with us, bastards raised without knowing who our father was, hearing only the stories our mother and grandparents told us.”
Cael didn’t reply but sulked. His brother was right, but Cael wasn’t going to admit it.
“Don’t you want to see her?” Belon asked, exasperated.
“Yes I do”, Cael snarled and was about to catch fire but heard something echoing in the distance.
A roar. A thunderous, bestial growl that had to come from something huge.
“What was that?” Belon asked and abruptly pulled his stallion’s reins. The animal reared and complained but came to a halt.
“I don’t know”, Cael said, frowning even more than he usually did. His mount had paused as well, and the dark-eyed brother was scanning the slopes with care. The eerie sound had come from up the hill, somewhere above them.
“Brothers, what was it”, Pavo yelled from the lead carriage far behind them. The convoy had stopped and the caravan owner was standing on the wide driver’s bench, looking forward. He didn’t know to be afraid yet.
Another roar, longer and clearer, pierced the air. Its source was also closer this time.
Ahead, Cael could see the scout turning his mount and launching to a gallop back towards the convoy. He was in a hurry.
He got maybe five strides before out of nowhere, several spikes, half an inch wide and a foot long, zipped through the air and hammered into him, throwing his body wildly off the mount, killing him instantly. The horse screamed in terror and now without a rider came faster back towards the caravan.
Cael tried to determine where the spikes had come from and followed their trail back up the steep hill.
“Shit”, Belon muttered and unsheathed his greatsword from his back and donned his helmet.
Realising the severity of the situation, Pavo cursed behind them and then started to frantically issue orders.
Where are you, Cael asked the attacker, his eyes looking for a target. There. Behind a boulder. It was massive, easily the size of a mammoth.
It leaped down from the cliff and its bulk slamming on the rocks beside the dead, ruined scout threw dust and pebbles into the air and sounded like a small earthquake.
“What is that”, Belon asked in awe. Cael had no idea. It was a monstrous beast, its head that of a dragon’s, but it had the body of a lion with four viciously clawed limbs, and a tail that wasn’t a feline’s but rather looked like the latter half of a snake. From the tail protruded countless spikes. The perversion’s hide, a nightmarish mixture of scales and fur, was blue and it even had two scaled wings of a dragon that it had used to control its fall.
It roared a challenge and sunk its sharp, long teeth into the scout’s body, thrashing it in half. Gore spattered all the way to its maned neck.
There was alarmed screaming coming from the convoy. Cael could identify Therese’s and Pavo’s voices, and even little Mico’s.
“The guards won’t stand a chance against that thing”, Cael muttered as the monster feasted, one black eye on the brothers.
“They won’t. That’s why we have to kill it, you and I”, Belon replied with cool certainty, his voice hollow and metallic under the helmet. The broad sword in his grip shone like mercury, and its surface rippled like there was a mirage surrounding its blade.
Cael sighed. Time to play the hero.
He reached to his slim backpack, pulled his skull mask out and placed it on his face. A calmness enveloped him. Elemental powers and wrath began to warm and quicken his blood, but he held them in check. For now. In his mind, he was standing on a frozen, wind-swept and snow-covered lake. He was in control of his soul. Under the ice, only bubbles formed.
Both warriors dismounted and urged their horses away with slaps against their hindsides. Cael unshouldered his rune-covered bow and whispered words of magic. The bow shuddered, as if it had awoken. Glowing veins of yellow and red appeared along its length like it was burning within, and the runes etched into it began to blaze.
He felt no fear. He wondered why. It wasn’t self-confidence, but something else. The fire within melted all his doubts.
“Get back here, brothers”, Pavo yelled. Belon looked over his shoulder and just shook his head at the man.
“Keep clear, we’ll handle this!”
Several caravan guards had now taken positions around the lead carriage, armed with long spears. Behind them stood others with bows and arrows. The mercenary captain, Dangoyle, was directing them, trying to sound as if she was in control, but Cael could see the way she looked at the monster from the edge of her vision. Cael spotted Therese behind the guards, holding little Mico close to her lap in a tight embrace. But where there was fear in the mother, there was excitement in the son.
My boys are everything to me, she had told him. Danger flows from you like a damned shadow.
“What’s the plan?” Cael murmured and focused to the task at hand. The hideous dragon-lion roared, its jaws black and bloodied. Its first course had ended and it wanted more.
“I’ll keep it away from you and the caravan and you shoot it dead”, Belon said and launched into a run towards the monster.
Into danger to save the helpless, Cael grimaced. He remembered a time when a small town had relied on his help against monsters, but he had failed them. He had known the people who had suffered because of it.
Despite himself, despite who he had thought he was, he had risked his life to make it good.
What the hell, this is what I do best anyway, he told himself and reached to the mouth of his arrow quiver. If for nothing else than to prove Therese wrong.
His brother ran like the wind, unhindered by the bulk of his resplendent armor of black-and-gold, the broad two-handed sword, its blade as wide as a man’s palm, in one-handed grip above his head. The beautiful red cloak flapped after him, making Belon look like a big target. It was alright. Cael knew that was what he wanted.
His bravery seemed to astonish the monster, as it turned its head to the side a fraction. Then its snake’s tail lashed out a like a whip and several spikes released towards the swordsman. Just at the last second his form seemed to flicker in and out of existence, and most of the spikes flew through him and struck ground uselessly. One hit the bold warrior but it glanced off his ancient full plate. Belon hadn’t slowed down at all.
Cael had his bow up and was already aiming, two shafts nocked and the bow string pulled back. The beast was fifty strides away. Hitting it was child’s play for the master archer, and the arrowheads were forged of adamantine, the hardest metal known in Golarion, nigh-indestructible.
They barely pierced the strange hide of the monster.
It shrugged off the pain with a grunt and took to the air, half-leaping, half-flying. In mid-jump it opened its maw and a bolt of surging electricity speared from within. Belon was fast but even he wasn’t as quick as lightning. With an ear splitting crack the lance of energy hit him squarely in his chest and slammed him backwards fifteen feet, like a child throws away a toy. The draconic creature landed next to him with a ground-shaking thump, and it got up onto its hindlegs, preparing to tear its fangs and claws into the heavily armored warrior.
Belon’s form was buzzing and crackling with discharges of electricity, and he struggled to get up. Wisps of smoke trailed from him. He hadn’t let go off his greatsword, but he was not going to evade the monster’s attack let alone strike back at it.
Cael had to buy his brother time. Nocking a single arrow this time, he took quick aim and let loose. Midair, the arrow alighted, becoming a firebolt. It hit an inch below the monsters right eye, and it sunk deep. The beast shrieked in agony and thrashed its head left and right, as if denying the existence of the harm it had to endure.
Feel the burn, feel it, Cael demanded in his head. His blood stirred anxiously with first boiling bubbles of wrath. Cracks appeared on the ice of his mindscape. Damn it, get up, brother.
Not wasting his chance, Belon rolled aside and got to his feet. As if nothing had happened, he bellowed a metallic battlecry and charged the fifteen-feet tall monstrosity.
The beast saw him coming, angled its body a bit and lashed at the little man with its long serpentine tail. It was a low swipe, one a man of Belon’s size couldn’t duck beneath, but high enough that a man in heavy full plate had no chance of leaping over. The spiked tail came fast like a whip. The beast had fought knights before. It was a finishing blow that would shatter bones and turn men into pulp.
But Belon was no ordinary man. At the last moment he jumped up on the run and bent his feet in the air. The tail passed less than an inch beneath him, hitting nothing but air. A single heartbeat and Belon was back on solid ground, and his adamantine-forged and thrice enchanted sword replied with a forceful sideways slash. Yellow blood fountained as the blade cut deep into the creature’s thigh and went through like the scaled hide was little more than fabric.
New arrowheads kept snapping into the monster’s bulk. Carrying a spark of raw elemental energy, each erupted in a miniature explosion upon impact. Even though letting loose every two seconds, the target was so massive that Cael didn’t miss a single arrow, but they only slowed the monster down. He had to get a clean shot at its eyes or open maw to inflict real damage.
Favouring one leg, the monster stepped back and let out a blasting howl that showered Belon with human blood, bits of meat and saliva. It spread its wings wide and prepared to take off.
“Don’t let it fly!” Cael’s brother shouted over growls of the beast and charged anew, the blade over his head like an executioner’s axe.
There was very little the archer could do but pepper the monster with more arrows. Its massive wings beat once, twice and it pushed itself to the air. Belon scrambled forward and managed one more slash in desperation and cut a superficial wound to the creature’s belly.
Then it was in the air. And it wasn’t escaping.
No, it wanted easier prey. It gained altitude first, and then came straight towards Cael. Behind the archer, the crowd screamed in terror and started to back down behind the non-existent cover of the pitifully few spears.
The killer watched the half-dragon, half-lion dive, legs first, wings spreading to control the descent. It opened its jaw.
Cael’s magical longbow fell to the dirt a few strides from him. The time for ranged combat was over. His gladii blades sang as he unsheathed them from the scabbards on his belt.
A spear of lightning shot out from the beast’s open maw, criss-crossing towards the lone warrior, and connected in a blink. But it never hit Cael. His form had become incorporeal, like that of a ghost, and the surging energy went through him and burned the ground beneath to cinder. The sound of the discharge was ear-shattering.
His ears rang but still Cael heard his brother shout his name. The helmed Greymarsh was running as fast as he could, but he was so far away. The beast was the dark one’s for now. His cloak streamed behind him and he made a backflip, landing gracefully two strides away, arms and gladii extended to the sides. The mammoth-sized magical monster landed with a boom right where the skull-masked half-elf had stood a second earlier, pulverizing rock and leaving craters into the burned ground. It screeched and hissed in irritation, and its reptile eyes darted back and forth. It couldn’t believe the little prey had evaded it.
Cael became fully physical again and leaped forward, intent to give the monster no quarter. The blades of his gladii were only a little over a foot long, but both were doubly enchanted, one forged of adamantine like the broad weapon of his brother, the other of cold iron, bane of demons. They had cut through tougher opponents before.
The monster reared and tried to slam him with its healthy front claw. Cael flowed past it untouched, pushing for its hind-legs. Passing under the shadow of the monster, he charged and stabbed once with all his strength. The adamantine blade dug into the left hind thigh all the way to the hilt. It wasn’t enough, he knew it. Drawing more of his magical powers to the fore he became a blur, pulled the gladius out, and stabbed anew, this time with both blades. The monster roared in pain and scrambled around as the hind leg gave in. It tried to butt Cael with its spiky head but the killer danced with it, moving too fast for eyes to follow, stabbing wherever he could, painting the rocky dirt beneath with yellow ichor that was the half-dragon’s blood.
From the side of his vision he caught a glimpse of sunlight reflected from gold. It was his brother, storming across the length of the chasm to join the fray. He was still twenty strides away. All too far.
He stabbed again. But this time, the cold-iron blade got stuck, and he couldn’t wrench it free. He should have let it be, but he didn’t.
The spiked tail lashed and struck him to his back. One of the protruding nails went through his mithral plate and burrowed deep into his body. Cael gasped in pain and flew uncontrollably to the ground. It had almost broken his spine.
Cael’s world spun from the pain in his lower back. He had suffered worse, but knowing it was of little comfort. Despite the agony, he forced himself around in the dirt, expecting the follow-up of thousands of pounds of clawed pressure flatten him. Or a massive jaw closing around his torso and ripping him in half.
It never came.
His brother was there, dueling with the beast, helmeted face to scaled snout. The monster was reeling from the punishment it had taken but was still wildly snapping at Belon, trying to get the heavily armoured warrior between its sharp teeth. He ducked, evaded, rolled, but slashed and cut, his greatsword cleaving left and right, up and down, wide and deep. His opponent was tiring, dying with every cut suffered, with every drop of blood lost. It realized it had tried to bite something too tough to stomach and its majestic scaly wings spread out like released sails, beating once, throwing dust into the air.
Cael’s mindstate resembled that of a frozen lake, but now the ice cracked around him. Something was trying to get through. It was fire, in its rawest elemental form. From the cracks, boiling steam burst with an angry hiss. The half-dragon had hurt them, almost ended their lives, and the killer wasn’t going to suffer it to survive and run to fight another day. And he needed the fire to give him strength.
He got up. The rune of wrath blazed on his brow and his eyes literally caught fire. You tried to kill me and my brother. Hate seeped through with hungry flames and his vision went murder-red as it cleared. You will die like all the others. Cael’s pain subsided, forgotten, unnecessary. Unproductive. The beast’s wings beat anew and its wounded legs left the ground.
Without a sound but his blood howling in his ears, Cael launched into a run and jumped after the monster. He burrowed the gladius into the monster’s lower back, and it faltered in its rise momentarily. His left hand found purchase among the thick fur and he dragged himself up, pulling the sword out as he went. The beast screamed in agony but it couldn’t shake the killer loose as all its strength went to its wings that were working harder with every booming beat.
Stab, grip, pull. Stab, grip, pull. His rage was not uncontrolled. It was calculated, primed, focused. He was no berserker. Cael inched his way along the beast’s back and soon he was hanging by the half-dragon’s maned neck, his free arm around it as if he was trying to strangle it. He didn’t know how high up he was. He didn’t care. He burned with the cold desire to slay. The lake surface shattered from a dozen more places, the ice venting steaming fury.
The beast blared in panic, flapped its wings, unsure what to do.
Cael stabbed it for the last time, forcing the tip of the blade through its neck into its brains.
Then he and his unusual mount fell like a brick.