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The Scorched

by Charlie C 3 months ago in Fantasy
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Chapter 1: They're All the Worst

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.

By the tombstone-grey palls of smoke unfurling toward the blackened sky, Shad knew they were too late. The Scorched emerged onto a shelf of rock overlooking Maera’s Valley, and any hopes he might’ve harboured were snuffed.

Shad’s fingers strayed to the amulet at his neck. He muttered a prayer for the people of the Valley, though he’d long since given up on the pantheon.

Still, his parents had been strict worshippers, which meant Shad had been, at least until he’d fled home to join the army.

And he’d ended up in the Scorched. Treading carefully down the side of the Valley, Shad could admit to himself that it was easier facing dragons than facing his parents.

His boot slipped on loose rock. Emmon swivelled to grab his arm before he went tumbling the rest of the way. Shad gave his sergeant a grim nod. The others fell in behind, and trudged single-file into the carnage.

When the sun had set yesterday, Maera’s Valley had been a paradise of lush grass. Herds of deer had frolicked along the fertile banks of Qara’s River. Birdsong had filled the ear of many an enchanted traveller, guiding them through the beauty until they came to the village of Maera’s Wake – the Wake to locals. The locals had been the hardy sort of these territories, committed to their work, but easy to smile upon a stranger. Those born in the Wake would rarely leave, and who’d blame them? The farms and breweries gave them honest work. Besides, the outside world – what they heard of it – was all plague and war. Shad had envied their naivety.

Now, the Valley was a blackened hellscape. No flower or blade of grass had survived the dragon’s onslaught. Trees clawed out of the ruined earth like hands frozen in death. Amid the funeral veils of smoke, nothing stirred. As they walked deeper into the Valley, the day darkened.

Shad kept his crossbow to the sky. No birds flew overhead. With the smoke obscuring the sun, it would be hard to see a dragon above them until it was too late.

The amulet rested cool against old burns on his chest. The touch eased his stampeding heart, and he glanced behind him at the others. Tucked between Gotarr and Jasal, the Kavanni sorceress Baan-La Kreya gave him a half-mouthed smile. With her precise scars curling around her eyes, the gesture wasn’t reassuring at all.

“Isn’t there anything you can do about the smoke?” said Shad.

The sorceress ran a finger along one of her hideously straight scars. All four of them paused to watch her, and Shad hoped they were as disgusted as him. Another of his parents’ teachings stuck in his head – the blasphemy of the Sorcerous Curse.

“No,” said Kreya.

“We should keep moving,” said Emmon. “Stay close together. Jasal, any tracks?”

Jasal crouched, gangling legs sticking out so he resembled a crab as he prodded the ash beneath them. Gotarr and Emmon watched the sky. Shad met Kreya’s amber eyes, and quickly turned away.

This part was the worst – the waiting. The actual fighting was always easier, because at least it didn’t offer so many opportunities to doubt what they were doing.

Shad’s fingers sought the cool of the amulet. His old burns prickled. Memories of fire and agony flashed by him. He was good at locking them away though.

The smoke shifted like mourners in a procession. Ahead, Shad made out the skeletal outlines of the first farmhouses.

What would those last moments have been like for the people of the Valley? Had they huddled together in terror, listening as the dragon’s fire obliterated their neighbours? Had they run to confront the monster? Had they died believing the legendary dragon slayers of the Scorched would soon be here to save them?

An invisible noose tightened on Shad’s throat. He took a drink of watered-down cider from his hipflask, and turned from the farmhouses. Kreya stood in his shadow, staring up at him with those unnatural, wide eyes.

The noose grew tighter as he stared back. Like most sorcerers, Kreya was shorter and thinner than a normal person, and her skin was smooth as porcelain. Smooth, except for the scars mapped around her cheeks, her eyes, her forehead, the backs of her hands. Under her black hood, her hair grew in erratic patches of stubble.

Shad would never admit it, but the girl frightened him.

“I can help,” she said.

“I don’t need help.” Shad stepped past her, toward the others.

Jasal sniffed at the ash. “Few hours fresh. Dragon’s still around.”

The familiar tension went through Shad. It went through the others too, and it made him feel like part of a circuit.

“Needs to rest,” muttered Gotarr.

“Right, crossbows loaded,” said Emmon. “If we’re lucky, we’ll catch the bastard where it’s made its nest.”

“Send it to the Makers while it sleeps,” said Jasal.

Emmon took the lead, his own giant crossbow, Bane, cradled in his arms. Shad walked beside him, unease creeping as they neared the farmhouses.

“This is worse than Cytrosa,” he muttered.

Emmon nodded, making his long black beard furrow against his armour. “They’re all the worst until the next.”

That was the truth of the Scorched, distilled into one of Sergeant Emmon’s grim aphorisms. Still, the man was a veteran – a fighter since Shad had been on milk. He’d earned Shad’s respect, unlike certain additions to their squad.

But, during a hunt, personal feelings were irrelevant. Shad focused on the horizon, what little he could see of it. The blackened bones of cattle crunched underfoot. The creaking of the timber left standing made a pitiful dirge.

“Should we check?” said Gotarr, jerking his crossbow toward the husk of a barn. It looked to be the only building left standing, even if it’d lost its roof.

“There’s nothing alive there,” said Kreya.

They fell back into the silence of the stalker. Shad kept glancing to the sky, though it never cleared much. The sun was a mere suggestion on the other side of the smoke. It reminded him of being underwater, and the noose returned. With the stale air carrying the tang of burning, the breath he sucked in wasn’t much better than suffocating.

“Tracks,” said Jasal.

The wiry man lay his palm against the blackened earth. A huge, clawed footprint dwarfed it. He measured the distance with his arm.

“Young.”

“Big though,” said Shad.

“And young ones are the most volatile.” Jasal brushed off his hands, sketching the print into his collection of dog-eared notes.

Emmon sighed. “There were reports of unusual wildfires at the other end of the Valley. We thought it was just superstitious locals, kids playing around or something.” The sergeant looked older as he rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Should’ve come back sooner.”

“Even if we had been here…” Shad gestured to the ruins and desolation.

Emmon’s gaze hardened. Another invisible wave passed through their squad. Crossbows loaded, the Scorched moved away from the burned farm.

It took them a few hours to reach the remains of the village. The trek was like something outside of time, with the smoke occluding the sun, leaving them in an eerie half-night.

Shad tried not to dwell on the collapsed buildings around him. The few beams of timber left standing reared like monoliths to a dead god. Every step further into the lifeless carnage dredged up poorly buried memories. All Shad could tell himself for certain: the pantheon hadn’t helped these people. Even Maera hadn’t intervened.

His gaze wandered the village, scouring piles of rubble. His boots kicked up small clouds of grey ash. All that was left of Maera’s Wake. He didn’t notice Kreya gliding alongside him until she spoke in her coolly detached voice.

“It still bothers you.”

“I’ve seen this all before,” said Shad.

“But it’s always the same?”

Shad rounded on the girl, though he had the sense not to raise his crossbow. She tilted her head, composed as ever. Smug was the word. But, of course, they needed her, probably more than they needed Shad.

“Don’t fall behind.” Emmon’s voice drifted through the sheets of smoke. Shad could make out the silhouettes of the others ahead. His heart drummed harder at the thought of being separated in this fog. When he turned back to the sorceress, she hadn’t moved, hands clasped behind her back, studying him.

Scowling, Shad marched away. It was always like this with her – the constant probing, the half-smiles and the all-knowing look. It wasn’t just the smugness; it was something like pity.

As he stormed through the Wake, kicking down a few slanting scraps of wood, the tightness returned to his throat. He spotted a well, the stones blackened and blasted, and hurried to it. Leaning over, he hacked up bile into the void below. His next breath stung, but his throat had loosened.

No sign of Kreya. It would be too optimistic to think she’d wandered off alone.

Shad swilled a mouthful of cider then spat it into the well.

Something groaned.

Immediately alert, Shad aimed his crossbow into the blackness of the well. “Someone down there?”

Did his ears trick him? Given he’d slept only a handful of hours in the last week, it was a possibility. He leant closer to the blackness.

“If there’s anyone down there,” he called, feeling ridiculous, “this is probably your best chance to get out alive. Ain’t no one else coming through here soon.”

Silence.

Shad bit his tongue. Hopefully, Gotarr hadn’t heard him shouting at himself, or he’d never survive the teasing. And hopefully Emmon wouldn’t decide he was insane already.

Something shuffled around in the well. He definitely heard a whisper. Clutching the stones tight, he peered down, squinting even though the darkness was impenetrable.

“If you don’t speak, I’ll assume you want to be left here.”

A voice emerged, tiny, fragile, crackling with terror. “My sister’s trapped.”

Shit. Shad squeezed his eyes shut. He pressed his soot-caked hands to his forehead, wondering why he’d had to call into the well. They were only here to kill the dragon. Revenge, not rescue.

A bony hand appeared when he opened his eyes. The fingers unfolded to reveal a pair of poison-green pellets. He followed the arm to Kreya, grimacing. She showed no emotion.

“These will help your bones withstand the jump,” she said.

“You can’t tell how deep the well is,” said Shad, looking around for Emmon so he could take charge.

“A child survived the fall.”

Alone in the dark, ash falling on his upturned face. Maybe he held his sister’s hand as she struggled against the debris pinning her down. When the fire had gone out, the fear must’ve stayed. Even a child could comprehend the agony of being abandoned.

The dark was worse than the fire. The waiting.

Kreya cocked her head to one side. “Or we could shoot a red-bolt down there, and end their suffering before it gets worse.”

Shad blinked, then put on a disgusted face, though he was certain the sorceress could read his thoughts. In truth, it would be easier to give them a swift end. It wasn’t as if there was anyone left to look after them.

“It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak,” said Kreya.

Shad glared at her. That the same quote from the Book of Maera had flitted through his head a moment before didn’t seem coincidental. She gave away nothing, her hand still frozen in front of his face with the two green pellets.

“I see tunnels leading away from the well,” said Kreya. “I can show us the way out.” Her fingers began to curl back around the pellets. “Or we could turn our backs on the weak.”

Shad snatched the pellets from her. He slapped them into his mouth, and his eyes watered at the acidic taste. He clawed for his flask. The bitch had poisoned him!

But, with arrogant calm, Kreya produced another pair of pellets from her satchel, swallowing them down with only a momentary flicker of disgust. Shad gulped down a mouthful of cider, yet the bitterness lingered on his tongue. As he gagged, Kreya strode past him.

“Wait…”

She climbed over the stones, and plummeted into the well. Shad froze. A dull thud echoed up. Still, he waited.

“You’ll survive,” Kreya called up.

Shad gave the village a final look, hoping for Emmon to emerge and give him the order to leave the well. The Wake stayed silent.

Gnawing his lip, Shad hauled himself over the stones. He hung dangling over the darkness, only daring to glance into it for a second.

“I’m coming down.”

But his fingers wouldn’t let go. He stayed there, hands aching from the strain.

“Time is short, Shad,” said Kreya, and it was the first time he could remember her using his name.

Shad couldn’t hold on any longer. His grip snapped, and he fell. Fetid air whooshed up around him, then he slammed into soft earth, his knees buckling. The shock made him shake like a struck gong, but a pat of his legs revealed no broken bones.

Scratching sounds, then a flare of light illuminated the well. Kreya held a burning clump of what looked like moss in one hand. She turned toward a pair of children.

The boy cringed away from her, the light revealing horror in his eyes. The girl, whose lower body disappeared beneath a chunk of rock, didn’t move at all. Blood spread out around her, and her own eyes were empty.

Shad moved without thinking. He seized the boy by the arms, and dragged him away from his sister’s corpse. The boy must’ve known. But it was easier to believe he’d done some good, shielding him from seeing the body.

“Right, let’s find a way out.” Shad patted the boy’s shoulder, but he just stared at the ground.

Shad’s burns prickled under his armour. He reached for the amulet. His fingers closed on nothing. He choked on the phantom rope at his neck, heart building to a gallop again. The more he groped for the amulet, the hotter his skin burned, the tighter his noose constricted.

“Kreya…” Shad’s voice shrivelled. He looked around the dried-up well, but all Kreya had left was the glowing ball of moss, which floated before him. She’d run away, the sneaky bitch.

The boy sniffed. Shad forced himself to breathe, then turned back to him.

“Keep hold of my arm, lad. We’ll find our own way out.”

The boy stared, silent tears running down his cheeks. Shad shouldered his crossbow, and offered the boy his arm. A tiny hand closed around his wrist, where the chain mail protruded from his shirt sleeve.

Shad grabbed the floating ball of light with his other hand. The damp, cold texture reminded him of dead fish, and he withheld a shiver of revulsion. The glow spread along the walls of the well. After a few careful paces, he came to the tunnel Kreya had mentioned. No doubt she’d slipped away through here while he’d been distracted.

Emmon wouldn’t punish her, of course. Somehow, Shad predicted he’d carry more than his share of the blame for this excursion. Even the notorious Sergeant Emmon feared upsetting a sorceress. No one worried about upsetting the young dogsbody of the squad, yet it had been Shad who’d put a hole in the wing of the wyvern they’d fought in Dendrall. And it had been Shad who’d woken them all before bandits descended on their camp three night back.

Shad sighed. His footsteps squelched against cloying mud. The light showed only slime-covered walls, long scratches etched into the ancient bricks. Their slow slog through did little to draw Shad away from his thoughts.

“What’s your name, lad?”

The boy didn’t react at first. Shad was about to ask him again when he spoke in the same frail voice that’d drawn him to the well.

“Maero.”

Shad kept walking, Maero clinging to his arm. Old water dripped from above them. Gods only knew how close the rock was to caving in and burying them both. Something scurried past so quick Shad caught only the flicker of a whip-like tail in the light of the glowing moss.

Rats. Always rats. Rats, crawling, gnawing, all over, the stench of their bodies, their breath. Unable to move in the dark. The rats all around. Closer.

Shad stopped himself from falling into the old memory. He was older now. He’d find a way through this mess of tunnels.

The taste of bile returned. The old grip on his throat didn’t slacken. As he’d prayed before to the gods he didn’t believe in, he cursed the parents he’d left behind.

Besides, the darkness wasn’t so bad here. He had…

The noose tightened again. All he had was a ball of sorcerous light from someone he was sure despised him.

Why?

Why had he chosen to act the hero? He was no hero, just another opportunist in a world of bastards.

Maybe the lad reminded him of the past. Maybe he was trying to atone for something. Maybe he needed to pull his head into the present and stop fixating on questions he couldn’t answer.

Another rat scurried past, going the other way, so its malevolent black eyes flashed his light back at him. Shad kicked at it, but his foot struck the wall. Water trickled down onto his neck. Maero looked at him with a hopeless expression, and Shad walked on with the boy a step behind.

The tunnel branched. He took the left on instinct. Some things it was better not to spend too long thinking about. The new tunnel branched, so he took the left again. He traced the scratches on the walls, wondering if they’d looked different in the last tunnel, trying to ignore the voice that told him he’d wandered in a circle.

What could leave scratches in stone?

Another rat, big as a terrier, came bolting out of the darkness. It ran straight for Shad’s ankle, and his light reflected from its massive fangs. The damned thing was rabid, clearly hungry for flesh.

Shad’s heart rose into his constricted throat. He pushed Maero away, and grabbed for his crossbow. The rat’s eyes gleamed with evil intent.

Horrid, putrid, bastard creatures. Shad would kill every one he saw.

Those ugly teeth, made for gnawing bone, glinted like sabres. The coarse fur blended with the mud. Its tail lashed with glee.

Shad aimed at the thing. It was a pace away from him now.

He slammed his finger down.

A red-bolt soared. Shad flung himself at Maero at the same time the tip of the bolt struck the rat. His crossbow fell into the mud. He pinned Maero against the wall and waited.

A second after the rat’s body flew back, the fat bulb of aga-tree resin fixed to the bolt’s head cracked and exploded. Flames ripped outwards. The noise smashed against Shad’s eardrums. The heat baked his skin. He clutched Maero tight, hoping he hadn’t just roasted them alive.

Or buried them.

In the darkness, he heard the ancient walls groaning. Dust and bits of rock fell over his shoulders. Stupid, stupid idea. If Emmon had seen him loose the red-bolt in such close quarters, and at a rat, he’d probably tell him he deserved to be entombed under Maera’s Wake.

Shad held the shivering child to him, one hand going numb as it clutched the ball of light. He dreaded opening his eyes. As long as he kept them screwed shut, the imprint of the light stayed, reassuring.

The ringing in his ears abated. Shad didn’t know how long he’d been huddled against the wall. He opened his eyes. The tunnel was painted black by the explosion, and the rat had undeniably been vaporised. But the world hadn’t collapsed on top of them. He let out a ragged sigh.

“My ears hurt,” mumbled Maero.

“It gets better. Let’s just keep walking. Be out soon, yeah?”

Maero allowed Shad to pull him away from the wall. Shad walked on a few paces, kicking aside crumbled bits of stone, before he became aware of another noise.

He paused, and pushed Maero behind him. He held the glowing ball of moss up as high as he could, though his arm throbbed.

It was the echo of the explosion.

No, it was voices.

Shad’s jaws clenched. He realised he’d left his crossbow behind: all he had was the short-sword at his side. The absence of his amulet suddenly seemed an omen. He’d invited all the ghosts back to torment him.

But, no, it wasn’t voices.

The sound slid closer, less and less like whispering the nearer it came. Squeaks and squeals. Thousands of claws scuttling over each other. Rats.

A tide of rats.

This time, the tightness in his chest and throat didn’t come. He glanced back at Maero, the boy showing him his own fear reflected. Again, he cursed every decision he’d made since that day abandoned in the darkness.

The rats had come to reclaim him. The gods had judged him for his lifetime of cowardice.

Shad’s fingers crushed the ball of moss, and droplets of molten fire spattered the mud. The jostling of thousands of rats swelled into a horrific tumult. The vanguard of their procession appeared, impossible to discern the individual creatures, their bodies and faces squashed together. A million black eyes, thousands of bared fangs.

Maero hugged Shad. Shad let him, and he raised the glowing ball of moss high. The walls writhed with rats, all flowing toward them.

Someone barged into him. He stumbled, pulling Maero with him, but caught himself before he could fall against the wall. Kreya stood between them and the rats. She’d snatched the glowing moss from him. As she raised it, the onslaught of rat bodies crested in a mound as high as the tunnel ceiling.

Suffocating… In the darkness… The rats chewing through his flesh as he strained for one final breath.

No.

Fire burst from between Kreya’s fingers. The moss ruptured, and tendrils of light swept along the tunnel walls. The rats screamed, breaking into columns. They streaked past Shad and Maero, but kept clear of them. Watching them run brought an even more terrifying thought to Shad. But the darkness had been toying with his mind ever since he jumped down here. Surely, surely…

The flood of rats diminished. The last stragglers went scurrying past, squeaking and stinking of fire. The tunnel was left hushed. Shad went to the wall, to peer at the scratches left in the stone.

“Kreya.”

He turned to the sorceress, only to find her on her knees, the fiery gel dripping from her hands. She sagged to one side, and he ran to her.

Another sound, louder. Scraping. A deep, growing rumble.

Shad hoisted Kreya up. Her head lolled, eyes rolling into her skull. The last droplets of light spattered onto the floor, and the abyss closed around them.

Shad propped the sorceress against the wall. He scrabbled for his sword. Maero hunkered down beside Kreya, attention fixed on the other end of the tunnel. The scraping intensified. The tunnel trembled, and dust sifted down. The light continued to shrink. Breath stuck in Shad’s throat.

“Kreya, wake up.”

She mumbled something. The grinding, scraping rumble ahead made Shad’s bones vibrate. He closed sweaty hands around the hilt of his sword.

The scraping stopped. The last light died where it had fallen. Shad’s breath rattled out in the pitch blackness. Maero whimpered. Kreya mumbled something again.

Darkness. Buried. Lost forever.

A roar like a landslide made the tunnel shake. Shad’s knees threatened to crumble. Somehow, he kept his sword up.

In the darkness, a crimson ball of fire ignited. The dragon filled the tunnel. Flames burst from between the prongs of its jagged beak, and Shad pointed his blade.

The flames petered out halfway between them. They left stars floating in Shad’s vision, the dragon’s blazing eyes among them. He readied for killing fire.

The dragon reared its squat head, molten fire dripping between its teeth. It sprayed flame at the ceiling in another warning. Shad shifted his stance, but his sword never wavered.

Maero stepped in front of him. Shad didn’t even notice until the boy had already walked out of reach. The dragon’s focus rested on Maero.

Shad knew his best chance was to run now. Maero had nothing left. Kreya might as well be dead. He might still find a way out of this maze alone.

But he stayed. The dragon watched Maero advance. A hard ball formed in Shad’s gut the closer Maero got to the beast.

Maero reached out, laying a hand against the dragon’s muzzle. Shad’s arms dropped. He could only stare. This wasn’t how dragons behaved. This wasn’t what Emmon had taught him.

Maero smiled by the light of the dragon’s breath. He stroked the creature’s muzzle as if it was no more dangerous than a puppy.

Maero turned to smile at Shad. “It’s all right.”

The dragon opened its maw. Crimson light washed over the walls, silhouetting the boy.

Shad ran without thinking, the heat buffeting him. A mountainous voice made him halt.

“They will help us?”

Shad dropped to his knees from the force of it. The dragon… talked.

Maero spoke, his voice no longer so fragile. “They will. He is a good man. He will do what needs doing, no matter how hard the journey becomes.”

The boy definitely had no clue who he was talking about. Shad was, and always would be, a coward.

“Show him.” The dragon’s voice rumbled again.

Maero raised his hands. Sparks shimmered from his palms. Shad clambered to his feet, coughing on the hot air.

“No,” he said. “Not me, I can’t help you, lad.”

“Wait,” called Maero.

But Shad ran back into the darkness.

Fantasy

About the author

Charlie C

Attempted writer.

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