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Beyond the Black Fangs

Old Guy

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Beyond the Black Fangs

JR Hume

Don't listen to that fool. He's singing nonsense. I know. I was there.

Bards say there was three hundred of us when we left the outpost and struck south along the foothills above the stinking bogs of the Emerald River. Above the bogs its waters turn blue-white and icy cold, fresh from glaciers high in the Black Fangs. The river tumbles down narrow gorges interspersed with vast, flat fens. Careful travelers keep to the west, away from swift, narrow channels and sucking cold swamps. We thought of ourselves as careful.

I rode scout for Captain Bane, an experienced commander, slow to blame and punish; a man known for sound judgment. He led Wolf Company, eighty-five troopers, veterans of the constant wars around and within the Empire. Hagen's Horde rode along with us -- a mounted militia demi-company drawn from the hard rock mines fringing the western edge of the Rockrib Desert. They numbered no more than forty, half of them teamsters. No matter what lying bastards say, we only had 120 men at the start.

The plan, as I understood it, was for the whole force to climb Nameless Pass, staying west of the Emerald, as I described. Beyond the rocky saddle at the top of Nameless, we were to make our way down into the pine forests and set up camp. From there, scouts would spy out the best approaches to Castle Dread, that fabled haunt of the warlock, Frederick Dread.

Our orders were to kill Dread and destroy his castle. I never knew how that was to be done. The captain died before we crossed the pass and if Lieutenant Ricker knew, he didn't discuss it in my presence. We had with us a warlock of our own, Zorn by name. What part he was to play, if any, I can only guess. He was a wasted, pale wight, heavily cloaked for the most part. Had a gray pony marked by a single white mark on his rump. The mark was not unlike a hand print; some swore it glowed under moonlight. For my part, I avoided the mage and took care not to cross behind his pony -- by night or day.

Two days into our journey, Wolf Company crested a steep rise and rode right into an outlaw band. I and one of my scouts were a mile or more in advance of the main body. Later we figured out that the brigands had been encamped beside a stone outcrop to the west. The outcrop hid them from my flankers and by the time they rode down the shallow cut that led to the river road, we two forward scouts were out of sight to the south.

The meeting dissolved instantly into a confused melee. Barstool generals call battles like that meeting engagements. Soldiers who've been in one know that such a polite term can't really describe the terror and violence of an unexpected meeting with an enemy force. It's more like a surprise bar fight -- with knives and guns.

Within five minutes all eighteen outlaws were cut down. Nine Wolf troopers were killed and six wounded. That count of dead to wounded tells the story -- the fight was quick and lethal. Worse luck, Captain Bane was shot twice. One bullet broke his left arm and passed on through; the other lodged in his belly.

Ricker and Lieutenant Hagen, the militia commander, urged that we return to the outpost so the captain could have decent medical care, but he wouldn't hear of it. We cut limber trees and rigged two travois, a field-expedient cargo carrier known since ancient times. Then we forged ahead, carrying the captain and a trooper named Mingo, who had been unhorsed during the fight and knocked senseless. Captain Bane died two days later. We buried him on the west side of Nameless Pass. Some speak of naming the pass after him, but I doubt it will happen. As a label, Bane is no better than Nameless.

We made camp that evening not far from his grave, near the top of the pass. A thin trickle of water that would grow into the Emerald River ran a few paces below our bivouac. Hills on either side of the stream supported scattered stands of pine trees. Thick clouds obscured the night sky and hid a waning moon. I bedded down with my scouts near a pair of round boulders. By chance, we were at the lower end of our camp and near the horses.

Hours later, in the blackest hour before dawn I awoke suddenly and rolled to my feet. One of the horse guards stood a few feet away, facing upslope, rifle at the ready.

"What is it?" I whispered. He shook his head. A horse whickered softly. The sentry walked past, moving quiet, rousing men as he went. I woke my scouts.

Wolf troopers practice for alarms in the night. Men crept from their bedrolls, weapons in hand. Small groups clustered near trees and rocks. Several troopers drifted down toward the horses. I heard nothing louder than a muted footstep and the soft cocking of revolvers.

Then, someone, probably a sleeping militiaman, cried out at the touch of a guard. Less than a second later a chorus of howls froze the marrow of my bones. Pergs, blood-mad mountain savages leaped out of the dark, booming their war cries. A blast of gunfire shattered their charge, except at the top of the camp, where militia soldiers struggled free of bedrolls and pawed for their weapons. Warriors dashed among them, swinging their iron-headed clubs. Men went down, skulls smashed. Perg females followed hard after their men, keen blades thirsty for wounded soldiers and for scalps.

I killed two in the first rush, then shot down a third as he dashed down toward the horses. One of my scouts fell, brained by a thrown club. More savages rolled in from above. Gunfire erupted all around. Militia horses and mules screamed and surged against their picket ropes. Our war-trained horses shifted about, but stayed in place.

As I knelt by a boulder reloading my revolver, a shrieking, half naked warrior slashed Mingo's throat as he lay on his travois, all unaware. I killed that one while he howled his victory cry and shot the woman who scuttled out of the dark behind him. She crawled toward me hissing her hatred. I put two more bullets into her brain before she shuddered and lay still.

Then, like smoke on the wind, the battle whisked away. Someone moaned. Single shots rang out as men made sure of downed savages. The surviving Pergs vanished into the night. Nothing more than an occasional whisper of moccasin on stone marked their departure. In the morning we tallied forty-one dead enemy -- twelve of them women.

Thirty-four Wolf troopers were killed and nineteen wounded, along with Lieutenant Hagen and ten of his men. Fifteen militia soldiers died. Zorn and his pony were still with us, apparently unhurt.

The militia would go no further. Captain Bane might have convinced them to stay, I think. Lieutenant Ricker could not. Hagen himself offered to remain, but he was too badly wounded. We moved camp to a wooded knoll and spent a day looking after the casualties. Four more died in that time.

Hagen and his men left the next day, along with all the remaining wounded. We were not sorry to see the militia go; they were unhandy and dangerous to have around. Corporal Valens and I were the only scouts left. We moved across the pass ahead of Lieutenant Ricker and the remaining thirty-three men of Wolf Company.

Two days travel brought us to the lower reaches of the pass and into the domain of Frederick Dread. We found a hidden canyon suitable for a camp, then Valens and I went ahead to scout in the direction of the castle. Zorn came with us, for protection from Dread's magic. At least that's what Ricker said. I didn't like having the mage along. It seemed more likely he would attract unwanted attention.

We passed through sheep meadows overgrown with grass, two with the remains of rough stone-built shelters such as shepherds use. Lower down we began to find abandoned farms. The land was rocky and too steep for comfortable farming. I distrusted what we were finding, but could identify no obvious threat. Zorn examined each tumble-down hovel. If he discovered anything, he failed to share it with me.

That afternoon we found a village. Two hours of observation yielded nothing. No movement. No sounds. Not a wisp of smoke.

"Where are all the people?" I asked Zorn. If you have a mage along, he ought to be good for an answer or two.

"Gone, obviously. But why? That's the real question."

"Okay. Why?"

He mounted his pony and started down toward the village. "Let's find out."

But we didn't find out. There were no people in the place -- dead or alive. I went through a couple houses and discovered little in the way of personal possessions. When the villagers left, they took their stuff with them. I told Zorn what I'd found.

He nodded and stared at the road we assumed led to Castle Dread. "Frederick Dread had these people here in order to supply food and wool and labor for the castle. If they're gone, then he must be gone. But where?"

I laughed. "You're asking me?"

"The question was rhetorical." Zorn sat quiet for a few minutes. Finally, he said, "We have to go to the castle. I sense nothing ahead of us. Either Dread is gone or . . ."

"Or what? Something bad?"

"Bad, yes. But for me. Not for you."

I didn't trust Zorn even as far as I could have tossed him, but we mounted up and rode in the direction of Castle Dread. It wasn't far. The road wound through a shallow notch in a low hill then continued straight down an easy slope to the castle.

Except the castle mostly wasn't there. There were heaps of shaped blocks and rotting piles of timbers, all overgrown with weeds and brush. It wasn't very dreadful or threatening.

"Looks like old Dread ain't home," I said to Zorn. "Now what?"

My answer was a soft sigh. His empty robe collapsed and slid into a heap beside the pony. I noticed that the mark on the animal's rump was gone. Zorn never reappeared. I think he rode into that little valley fully aware that things might go real bad for him, but he went anyway. Wizard or no, you got to give him credit.

We stripped saddle and tack off the pony and left him there. Valens and I circled the castle once and found nothing but more dreary wreckage. We rode back to the village and spent the night there. Next day we checked the castle once more, then got the hell out.

I had to take Lieutenant Strick down to see for himself. He gazed at the ruins for a long time. Finally, he shook his head. "The magic has gone away."

"Gone away? Where?"

"Damned if I know, sergeant. Zorn told me he hadn't been able to work anything but minor magic -- personal magic -- for nearly two years." He turned away from the remains of Castle Dread. "Let's go. There's nothing here but ghosts."

I didn't see any ghosts. We were two weeks getting back to the outpost.

So that's the real story. Wolf Company didn't rub out Frederick Dread. We fought savages out of the Black Fangs, but no demons out of Hell. I don't care what you heard or what them damned bards sing about. Dread was gone when we got there.

Officers and Imperial mucky-mucks dream up bat-brained missions and bards like to sing about 'em. But it's soldiers and troopers what have to do most of the bleeding.

Zorn? He went out like a spent candle. I figure he got sucked down to wherever the magic went. All the mages I know have gone to dealing cards or selling patent medicine. There ain't no future in the wizard game.


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Some of you will know that the Black Fangs are a mountain range occupying a fantasy land I've used for several tales of humor (so called). I should post a map one of these days, I suppose.

This tale is an attempt to write a semi-serious story in the same setting. I may do it again -- depending on the muse, of course. The decaying Empire ought to be a good setting for some slash and hack stuff, eh?



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