BEAST HUNTER’S SONG



BEAST HUNTER’S SONG, by Michael Liguori

“You’re a big fellow,” the serving girl said. She was a new face in the brothel, and though she stood a bit short for Sedrick’s tastes, her comely face and warm eyes and silky curls of auburn hair more than made up for that. Not to mention her bosom. Yes, her breasts were hard to ignore, pale and smooth and practically spilling out of the low-cut bodice she wore. “Tell me, what sort of dangerous beasts does a big fellow like you hunt?” she asked. “Dragons? You must hunt dragons, yes?”

Sedrick had always been larger than most men, but in the last year or so, inactivity had forced him to trade much of his muscle for flab. “No dragons,” he said. “I am a Master Hunter who specializes in the creatures of the Underlands. Trogons, Darkenids, Shadowfangs, those types.”

The young woman practically yawned at all that. “Oh, I see.”

Her response wasn’t a surprise, since few laypeople had ever heard of such rare creatures. But for beast hunters, what could be more frightening than encountering an adult Trogon in its underground lair? The creature was twice the size of a dragon, with two or three heads and terrible claws that could cleave an ox in half with a single swipe. And Darkenids, well, they were smaller but no less fearsome, winged creatures equipped with sharp talons and bony hides covered in misshapen horns. And Shadowfangs, those were—

“So, you’ve never faced a dragon?”

Sedrick sighed at that, shaking his head.

“How can you call yourself a ‘Master Hunter’ if you’ve never faced a dragon?”

“Lady, I’ve spent half my life slaying beasts no dragon hunter would dare face, hunting in dark places no dragon hunter would dare hunt.” He gave a pause, as if to release his frustration. “You know, there are worse things than dragons in this world.”

She frowned at all that. “Well, I’ve never heard of you, and the beasts you mentioned all sound made up. I’ll be back in a moment with your wine.”

The serving woman turned and went off. Sedrick watched her go, then his eyes absently wandered to the room around him. The brothel was located just outside the hunters’ barracks, so it was common for Sedrick to see all the familiar faces of his once fellow hunters. Right now the place was bustling as usual, with the many tables and benches of the common area filled with rowdy and hard-drinking patrons. Smoke wafted across the room like a murky shroud, obscuring the rear gambling dens and the four or five panel screens that served as privacy for the bawds and their clients.

“Something wrong, old man?”

Sedrick turned. Tannorin sat down on the trestle bench opposite him. He was a tall man, lithe and nimble and clad in undyed breeches and tunic and a traveler’s cloak that looked ready to break apart from overuse. An amiable sort, Tannorin was slow to anger and quick to laugh, his only fault being a love for idle chitchat, which sometimes exhausted a taciturn man like Sedrick. Still, today he was glad to see his friend.

“What could be wrong?” Sedrick replied. “You know my song—an old hunter, too tired to start anew, too poor to retire.”

“Not this again. You know—” He paused when the young serving woman placed a flagon of wine on the table, his eyes combing her supple breasts as if they’d seen nothing but prison walls for the past two years. Even as he spoke his gaze was still attached to her. “You know, Garen’s a fair commander. I just spoke to him about you. He’s coming here for a drink, you should talk to him.”

Sedrick shook his head fiercely. “To hell with that arrogant prick.”

The serving girl paused at that, but said nothing as she filled their earthenware cups and went on her way.

Tannorin watched her go. “Such a beautiful little thing. She must be new.”

Sedrick emptied his cup with a single gulp. “I don’t want to talk to him.”

Tannorin shrugged. “Why not? It’s better than you wasting away here or in the goddamn barracks. Besides, the north is where the real coin is, my friend. Ogres, dragons, hobgoblins, all those nasty things.”

Sedrick shook his head. All his life he’d been a hunter of the Underlands—it was all he knew. And now that was gone, taken from him because the High Lord of the Hunters had decided there weren’t enough beasts left to hunt. That made little sense. There weren’t enough beasts left to hunt because Sedrick and his company had been so goddamn efficient at their profession. He’d tried to explain that to the High Lord, but of course his words made no difference. In the end, he was being punished for something he should’ve been praised for.

Most of the Underlands hunters, like Tannorin, were young enough to transfer to another company without issue, but it wasn’t so easy for an old veteran like Sedrick, who, at forty-four, was one of the eldest beast hunters around. He didn’t have the desire or the vigor or even the courage to start anew. What was he supposed to do? For the last twenty years he’d been a Master of the Underlands. He knew things no one else knew, things that required years and years of experience to acquire. He couldn’t just forget all that and serve as a fresh-faced greenhorn under some self-important twit half his age.

And yet, Tannorin was right. Sedrick couldn’t just waste away here or in the barracks. But what could he do? He couldn’t afford to retire. Being a beast hunter wasn’t as prosperous as one might think. Well, no, some hunters were wealthy beyond lesser men’s dreams, but they were known to hunt familiar threats. When a dragon attacked a city, everyone knew it. When a Trogon ran amok in the lower depths of the Underlands, no one cared. And why should they? Trogons don’t attack cities. Dragons do. So naturally, all the glory and the fame went to the dragon hunters, along with the heavy purses of coin.

So where did that leave men like Sedrick? Sadly, with very little. It was all a bunch of bull spittle, and yet no one did a thing about it.

“Swallow your pride, my friend,” Tannorin went on. “Even an old sot like you can benefit from something new. You were fearless once, you know. By the gods you were.”

Sedrick sighed at that. “That was a long time ago. Now my body’s too old and broken to start over. All I have is my experience in the Underlands, however useless that is now.” His eyes went down to his cup. “I don’t mind helping out at the barracks. I don’t mind cleaning the floors or washing—”

“Listen, Sedrick,” Tannorin cut in, “you know we all love you there. You’re a damn hero to those men, for everything you’ve done over the years. But you can’t spend your days cleaning puke and scrubbing piss off the goddamn floor. It’s just not right. Besides, you’re not happy. No, you’re not happy at all. You are a beast hunter, that’s what you were born to be.”

Sedrick said nothing to that. A moment later, the patrons of the common area gave a cheer, and Sedrick turned to see a tall figure entering through a tattered door curtain. Garen was one of the few men who stood nearly as tall as Sedrick, but where Sedrick was wide and hulking, Garen was slender and handsome. He was also the High Lord’s son, which made him one of the most famous faces around. More, he was a goddamn dragon hunter.

Garen smiled and bowed his head to acknowledge his admirers, then he found a seat at a table. The bawds flocked to him like termites on deadfall, but Garen took to the new serving girl at once, that auburn-haired beauty. They chatted for a time and soon Garen had an arm wrapped around her, his words making her giggle and blush. Sedrick shook his head and downed another cup of wine. He couldn’t help but stare at her. Rarely did he see a new face in this dull place, especially one so damn pretty.

But Sedrick was a drunken idiot, and his drunken idiot gaze lingered too long and she caught wind of it. And when she turned back to Garen she whispered something in his ear that made the young commander chuckle. “Oh, did he now?” Garen said. He turned to meet Sedrick’s eyes. “Yeah, he used to be a beast hunter,” he remarked to the woman, “but his time has passed. Now he’s just an old, fat drunk who’s outworn his welcome.”

The girl laughed at that. Sedrick gnashed his teeth and rose from his seat. Tannorin seized his arm. “Don’t, Sed. He’s the High Lord’s son.”

Sedrick calmed at that realization, though his eyes continued to burn into Garen. What bothered him most was that the bastard acted as if he didn’t even notice, laughing and drinking and enjoying the company of the pretty girl at his side.

 

*          *          *          *

 

Sedrick drank a lot that night. He drank so much that he remembered nothing of his walk back to the barracks, but next he knew he was lying atop his featherbed in his private quarters, watching the raftered ceiling spin and spin and spin. He hated that bastard Garen, hated him because he was young and wealthy and handsome and famous. But more than that, he hated Garen because the man was a goddamn fraud. He never had to work for his achievements, never had to hustle and sweat and bleed for all he’d gained in his life. No, he’d simply stood on his father’s name and watched the world come to him. He wasn’t even a talented hunter like his father. No, he was just a pissant, an ignorant little fool . . . he was a goddamn . . . he was . . .

. . .

BOOM BOOM BO-BOOM. The door thundered to life, rousing Sedrick at once.

YOU IN THERE, OLD MAN?”

Sedrick rubbed his eyes. His vision was blurry, but at least the spinning had stopped. Still, his head felt as though someone had pounded it with a mallet. What hour was it? BOOM BOOM BO-BOOM. Each rap on the door was like a punch between Sedrick’s ears. “I’m AWAKE goddamn it,” he shouted. “Tannorin, that you?”

The door opened and Tannorin entered in a rush, his usual smile missing, his eyes wide with concern. Morning’s thick orange light poured through the far window, forcing the man to raise a hand and shade his eyes. “Sedrick, what are you doing?”

Sedrick looked down at himself. He was disheveled, bare-chested, and ready to hurl last night’s supper. “What does it look like I’m doing?” Before Tannorin could answer that, Sedrick added, “What the hell do you want anyway?”

“The High Lord is waiting for you in the hall. Did you not get the summons?”

“Waiting for me? Why is he waiting for me?”

“The city of Whitestar was attacked last night, during second watch. The western districts were all destroyed, the walls smashed like saplings in a gale. It’s worse than anything we’ve ever seen.”

Sedrick didn’t understand. “So? What does this have to do with me?”

“Because, you grumpy bastard, the beast that attacked the city was a Trogon. A fully matured, eighty-foot mother-raping Trogon.”

Sedrick was already in motion. He threw on his trousers and tunic and protective wools, then strapped on his chest plate and greaves and spaulders and padded cuisses. He sheathed a curved backsword at his waist, fastened the brooch of his tattered hunter’s cloak, and hastened out of the room.

 

*          *          *          *

 

The two men entered the hall through a pair of enormous doors, each lacquered in red and studded with thick silver knobs. Inside, glazed floor tiles ran alongside two rows of pillars, massive things, all black save for a distressed finish of red that looked like tiny flecks of blood on jet. Vermeil sconces decorated the walls; between them were bas-relief carvings of hunters and beasts engaged in deadly conflict. At the far end of the hall a long table stood on a dais, with four men seated around it. The High Lord Ereden was in the center, on a wide, thronelike chair of red oak.

“Glad you decided to join us, Sedrick,” Ereden said, frowning a frown so deep it must’ve taken him years to master it. He was an old man, perhaps frail at first glance, but there was no mistaking the hardness of his wrinkled face, the hardness of a man who’d overcome many tribulations in his day.

“Forgive me,” Sedrick said, “I thought it best to prepare my finest garb before attending this fancy little council.” He opened his arms to display the old and drab clothing he wore. “What do you think? Oh, don’t be envious of my good fortune, please.”

“Sit down,” Ereden said. Sedrick did, finding his place among the other councilmembers. Tannorin sat to his left. The two men beside him were familiar faces. Rynn and Kiven were both experienced hunters who’d served Sedrick for several years in the Underlands. Kiven was a hulking man with a snout for a nose and a gap-toothed smile, while Rynn was a compact fellow with a head full of dark, tousled hair that matched his tiny blackberry eyes.

The last man at the table was Garen.

“Why is he here?” Sedrick demanded.

Ereden raised a bushy eyebrow but otherwise ignored that. “Sedrick, we need your help. Whitestar needs your help. The Trogon that attacked the city . . . it was an elder beast, one of the largest ever reported. Scouts have located the beast’s lair in a mountain cave along the eastern ranges. We need your help, Sedrick. Will you help us?”

Sedrick’s eyes were still plastered on Garen. “You didn’t answer my question.”

Ereden sighed at that, like an old man tired of his nagging wife. “My son will be commanding the expedition.”

“What? I’m not taking orders from that little wretch, even if he is your son.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Ereden said. “These are his men now, you know.”

“So? This isn’t a goddamn jaunt through a flowery meadow. This is the Underlands. Garen has no experience here.”

Garen spoke. “Sedrick, I know you feel you’ve been treated unfairly—”

“Spare your pitiful remarks,” Sedrick snapped. “You have nothing to say on this matter.”

The young man’s face darkened in anger. “Maybe so, but right now I don’t give a rat’s tongue either. We have a Trogon attacking one of our closest cities, and it has to be killed. I don’t want your goddamn help, but my father here thinks it best if you came along.”

Ereden nodded at all that. “You are the most experienced man here, Sedrick. Please, I am asking you for your aid. Will you put aside your grievances and help your brothers as well as your common man?”

Sedrick gave a sigh. What could he do? He nodded his head.

 

*          *          *          *

 

They entered the mountain cave two days later. It was a grand cavern, filled with jagged clefts and muddy passages and huge limestone chambers that led to narrow rift holes where only two men could fit through at a time. Garen led the armed and armored company through the dark, as if he’d done this a hundred times before. Of course the young fool had no idea what he was getting himself into, but Sedrick said nothing about it. He would let the Underlands speak for itself.

The five men moved through a circular passage, the light of their torches growing thinner and thinner as fresh air vanished around them. They entered a small chamber that reeked of sulfur and droppings and other foul odors. Boots splashed across the muddy earth. Garen grumbled and cursed after stumbling over a particular nasty hole. A shadow dashed across the wall behind him, no more than five or six yards away. Sedrick shouted at Garen to remain still. The young man seemed teetering between defying and obeying. Finally, he demanded, “What is it?”

Sedrick ignored the question. He called for Tannorin instead.

“I see it,” the slender man said, reaching down to grab an arrow from the quiver at his hip.

“See what?” Garen questioned. He turned to where the others were looking. “I don’t see anything. Just a goddamn wall.”

Sedrick gave the slightest shake of his head. “It’s there. Blending with the flowstones.”

Garen raised the torch for a better look. “There’s nothing on the goddamn wall. Has your mind left you in your old age?” He turned to the other men, signaling them forward.

But the others made no move. Unlike their impetuous commander, these were experienced men, former hunters of the Underlands. They knew very well the dangers down here.

Tannorin fired the arrow. Twang. The wall came to life—or, whatever was hidden on the wall came to life. A hideous creature, and a bizarre one at that—a humanlike figure from the torso up, but below that was a plated abdomen and hairy legs like those of a spider. The creature was thrashing from the pain of the impaled arrow, thrashing and thrashing until it fell and landed with a thump on the cavern floor. It died there, on its back, the upraised legs twitching like those of an insect.

“Shadowfangs,” Sedrick remarked to Garen. “Spiderlike things. They blend into the wall shadows and prey on unsuspecting victims. Keep moving.”

They headed into a passageway that was honeycombed with thick calcite rock. Another Shadowfang waited along a cavern wall, but it wasn’t near enough to be considered a threat so they let it be. The company climbed a narrow pitch and crawled through a diminutive passage to find themselves in an enormous limestone chamber. Stalactites reached down from the ceiling like long, spindly fingers, while helictites ran across the walls like old roots. A gaping rift opened where the cavern floor should’ve been, the gully so dark it seemed the water that flowed into it vanished into a bottomless abyss.

Sedrick immediately searched the area around the pit. He found a ledge that was jagged and narrow but suitable enough for crossing. He made a motion to Tannorin and the slender man came over and nodded at the find.

Garen asked, “We’re crossing this?”

Sedrick looked up and smiled at the young commander. “Welcome to the Underlands, my friend.”

Sedrick showed Garen what he needed to know to cross. How to position your hands, how to move your feet, how to balance your weight and how to recover if you lose your grip or footing. Still, the young commander hesitated. Especially when Sedrick pointed up and said, “Oh, and don’t make a sound. We don’t want to attract unwanted visitors.”

Even in the dim torchlight Sedrick could see Garen’s face had paled just a bit.

Tannorin made his way across the ledge first, his nimble and lightweight frame seemingly perfect for this task. Kiven and Rynn went next. Both men moved swiftly and efficiently, despite the years of being away from the Underlands. Garen, however, was neither swift nor efficient. He crawled a few feet along the ledge, then stopped, then crawled again, only to stop once more. Not only was he slow he was also loud, as his inexperienced and unsure hands kept dislodging rocks and sending them over the ledge. Still, to his credit, it didn’t take long before the young man fell into a steadier rhythm. Sedrick sighed with relief.

But then, the unthinkable happened. Garen’s hand slipped; a large rock broke from the ledge with an echoing crack, then went plummeting down into the darkness.

Something above hissed, a harsh sound, like a viper disturbed in its den. Sedrick cursed; he urged Garen to hurry, but the young man refused to move. He simply clung to the ledge like a treed cat.

Sedrick climbed onto the ledge and crawled toward him. A great shadow descended from crannied ceiling. A huge beast, twice as tall as Sedrick and likely five times as heavy, and yet it moved through the air with ease, its leathery wings flapping and flapping and creating a sound that shook the chamber like an angry gust of wind. Rynn shouted a warning to his companions from the far end of the pit, but the noise only caught the creature’s attention. It swooped down and latched massive talons onto Rynn’s armored shoulders, plucking him right off the ground. The poor man screamed an awful scream as he was carried off into the darkness.

Kiven shouted for his friend. Tannorin loosed arrow after arrow. Sedrick couldn’t focus enough to see if any of them hit, because Garen kept screaming. “What was that?! What was that?!” He wouldn’t stop. The sound of his voice made rocks crack and tumble. Sedrick came up behind the young man. “GAREN,” he said in an urgent whisper. “Shut up and MOVE.” But Garen wouldn’t listen. Another shadow passed above, stealing the light of the torch for a moment or two. Sedrick shouted for Tannorin.

Twang. Twang. Arrows soared through the air. But none seemed to hit their mark.

Garen was babbling. “I don’t want to die here. I don’t want to die here.”

Sedrick hissed at him to be silent. He even considered throwing him off the ledge just to shut him up. But thankfully, the young fool seemed to regain his senses enough to close his mouth. Now Sedrick could hear the winged thing fluttering above him. It swooped down; Sedrick jabbed at it with the torch. Orange light flashed and illuminated the hideous beast—a giant man-bat of some sort—its face wrinkled and ugly and fitted with huge ears but only a pair of shallow craters where its eyes should’ve been. It opened its mouth and let out a terrible hiss, but Sedrick didn’t quail. He drove the torch directly into the thing’s face. The creature’s hiss twisted into a bloodcurdling shriek. The torch fell from Sedrick’s hand. He pulled out his sword and slashed its chest, tearing through flesh and tissue and bone. Warm blood splashed onto Sedrick’s face. He could hear the shrieking beast spin and spin as it plummeted down into the darkness below.

Half blind and overextended, Sedrick nearly tumbled off the ledge himself. But somehow, somehow, he managed to hang on and regain his balance. A heavy breath of relief left his lips. Garen was there, still clutching the ledge, still too petrified to move. Sedrick had to pry the man’s fingers free in order to get him to continue forward.

At last the two men reached the other side of the pit. Tannorin helped Sedrick to his feet, while Garen remained on his knees, head bowed as he thanked every god he could think of. Kiven rushed over and kicked Garen in the face. Tannorin seized the bigger man, but Kiven didn’t ease up. “Let me go,” he shouted. “That goddamn bastard—that mother-raping son of a whore! He got Rynn killed. I’m going to rip his goddamn heart out!”

Sedrick grabbed Kiven and threw him to the ground. The big man landed with a grunt. Sedrick grabbed the trim of his cloak and used it to squeeze tightly his throat. “He’s dead, Kiven,” Sedrick shouted. “Rynn’s dead. It’s a goddamn bunch of rot but killing Garen isn’t going to change what happened. Let it go, Kiven. Let it go.”

Kiven clawed at his neck for relief, his eyes bulging and his face empurpling. Just as his strength began to fade, Sedrick released the choke. Kiven slumped over, his body shuddering as his lungs took in gulps of precious air. Calmness and reason soon returned to the big man. Sedrick helped him up.

Garen was standing nearby, wiping the blood from his lip where Kiven had struck him. He began stammering like a goddamn fool, reprimanding the big man for his insolence.

“Shut your mouth, Garen,” Sedrick warned.

But Garen was too frantic to listen. “W-what in hell was that thing anyway? It d-didn’t have any goddamn eyes.”

“It doesn’t need them,” Tannorin told him. “Darkenids roost in the high crannies and hunt by sound. You should’ve been quiet. Sedrick told you to be quiet.”

Garen was quiet after that. He even allowed Sedrick to openly take the lead of the company. Were it not for Rynn’s death, Sedrick would’ve enjoyed seeing that brash young fool so shamefaced. Still, down here, Garen’s inexperience was a danger to all his companions. Sedrick had tried to make that clear at the meeting, but of course, his words went unheeded.

They moved on for a while longer, traversing cautiously down muddy drops and climbing over steep slopes and uneven slabs of shelfstone. Soon, the men could feel a rumbling at their feet.

“What’s that now?” Garen asked.

“The Trogon,” Sedrick said.

Rocks cracked and broke. A stalactite dropped from above, crashing to the ground with a hollow thud. Garen shielded his eyes from the dust and debris. “That noise . . . what is it doing?”

Sedrick shook his head. “Don’t know.”

The company came to the entranceway of a massive limestone grotto. Sedrick stopped there, kneeling to unsheathe a dagger.

Garen scoffed at that. “A dagger? That’s what you are planning to use to slay this creature? Are you mad?”

Sedrick ignored that and untied a pouch from his belt. He pulled out a cluster of tiny mushrooms with gloved fingers, scraping the fungus from a piece of timber and coating the tip of his blade with the greenish foxfire. “The Touch of the Black Armillaria is lethal enough to kill a dozen Trogons. But only if the beast is struck in its exposed parts—eyes, mouth, anal vent or underbelly will work, but easiest is the dead skin at the base of its claws.”

Garen nodded. He approached to better examine the greenish sheen on the blade.

“Not so close,” Sedrick warned. “The poison will kill you before you even feel the prick of the blade.” When Garen took a step back, Sedrick turned to face the waiting chamber. “Now let’s have a look at this monster, shall we?”

They crept inside the giant lair like ants invading a cottage. Torches weren’t a necessity here, as huge spears of light shined down from gaping fissures in the enormously high ceiling. The Trogon lay in the center of the chamber, surrounded by piles and piles of discarded bones. Sedrick couldn’t believe how massive the creature was—certainly among the largest he’d ever seen. It was lounging on its side, its powerful wings curled against its body, its forelimbs extended out in front of it, one claw holding in place a bloody carcass of some huge prey.

The ground continued to tremble as the creature’s three heads all fed simultaneously. The middle head was the largest and most dominant of the three, wolflike in appearance but with black scales and red eyes and a maw fitted with terrible fangs. The left head was smaller and serpentine in shape; it used its long neck to dart in and out and tear chunks of flesh. The right head was the smallest, its face flat and wrinkled and listless like that of an old giant. It had but a single eye, filmed in white and barely open.

Sedrick cursed under his breath. Garen responded to that at once. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“It’s a Severath Trogon, the most powerful of all three-headed Trogons.”

The company observed the beast in silence for a while. Both the center and serpent heads occasionally nipped at each other like hungry jackals, but neither bothered the one-eyed head. Nor did One-eye seem eager for its share of the kill. It simply moved in, slow and patient, taking tiny bites and chewing with its tiny mouth. “Are you sure?” Garen asked. “That one doesn’t look so dangerous, it looks old and half blind. And its mouth is so small.”

“Fool, the third head is the most dangerous. One look into that eye is said to cause a man’s flesh to burst into flames so hot they burn blue as the summer sky. That is no jest, young man. Do NOT look into that eye. Do you understand?”

Garen took a step back, his mouth falling open. “I thought . . . I thought nothing was more powerful than a dragon . . .”

“Well, you thought wrong,” Sedrick said. He watched the Trogon continue to pick at the carcass. When at last it seemed content with its meal, the beast rolled onto its side and stretched out its forelimbs like a cat lazing in the sun. The center head released a low grumble, its giant black tongue lapping at its black muzzle for a time. Spittle and blood and bits of flesh splashed upon the cavern floor like giant droplets of rain.

Sedrick instructed his men. “Tannorin take the left, Kiven the right. Distract it if you must, but if I should fall, just get the hell out of here, do you understand?”

The men nodded. Garen was left staring wide-eyed—first at the beast, then at Sedrick. “What about me?”

“Best if you stay here. You’ve done enough already, haven’t you?”

Garen lowered his eyes at that.

“Be safe, old man,” Tannorin said, reaching up to place his hand on Sedrick’s shoulder.

Sedrick nodded. Kiven wished him well next. Garen simply studied Sedrick as though he were mad. Maybe he was mad. After all, only a madman could feel as alive as Sedrick did right now. He was back in the Underlands, back in his world. The rush was indescribable, a rush that nothing else in his life had ever measured up to. How could he explain that without sounding like a madman?

The center head continued grooming itself as Sedrick crept through the shadows toward it. He maneuvered around jutting rocks and protruding stalagmites and the seemingly endless piles of bones. Large bones, small bones, some longer than Sedrick was tall, many with old bits of flesh and gore still clinging to them. He saw skullcaps and jawbones and scapulae and femurs of beasts he could never hope to name, and he also saw—

A bone went skittering across the chamber, kicked by Sedrick’s careless boot.

The grooming ceased at once. The center head’s cold lupine eyes turned toward the direction of the noise.

Stupid, careless idiot! Sedrick thought to himself. He was a veteran hunter—how could he make such a novice mistake? He noticed that his hands were shaking. Still, that wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, considering the very sight of this enormous beast would’ve sent even the most formidable men fleeing. But Sedrick held fast, remaining hidden in the shadows. Minutes passed, long, terrifying minutes, before the beast’s head finally went back to grooming itself.

Sedrick took another step. Then another. One more. The toes of the Trogon’s clawed feet spread as the beast gave a massive yawn, a sound so loud it shook the chamber and nearly stole Sedrick’s balance from under him. When the rumbling finally stopped, Sedrick took another step.

He was close now, so close, no more than five or six yards away. Another sound emerged from the beast, but this one didn’t come from any of its heads. The thunder of its flatulence reverberated through the chamber like the burst of a firebomb. The stench struck Sedrick like an invisible fist, a stench so foul it caused his eyes to water and his knees to buckle. He tried to cover his face with a linen rag but it was no use. His body quivered as it worked to suppress the urge to vomit. No, by the gods, not now, don’t you dare.

The beast broke wind once more, a deep, bellowing sound that was more like the breaking of boulders. Sedrick rubbed at his stinging eyes. He took another step. Then another. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. He took another step . . . but his legs gave out and he dropped to his knees. A gurgling sound rose in his throat. By the gods, no, no, no! He couldn’t stop it. His mouth just opened and everything came rushing out.

The beast sprung to life.

Time seemed to grind to a halt. Sedrick—still dribbling chunks of vomit—dove for cover behind the piles of bones. The beast’s three heads swept across the chamber. A furious roar from the center head threw Sedrick back, and suddenly there were heavy white bones falling all around him, clanging and ringing as they struck his armor. Next he knew the beast was rushing toward him, its center maw opening like a giant chasm of fangs . . .

Arrows streaked through the air. They clinked off the beast, like flower stems against stone. The wolf head turned and gnashed its teeth at Tannorin and Kiven, who continued to fire arrow after arrow. It’s distracted, Sedrick told himself. Strike now, now, NOW!

Dagger in hand, Sedrick rushed forward, but the beast was quicker. The snap of its scaly tail sent Sedrick tumbling back to the ground, half-buried by broken bones and shards of rock. He could do nothing but cough and cough, and when he finally pulled himself out of the wreckage, he expected the Trogon to be standing over him. But no, the beast was still focused on the others. Sedrick had another chance to strike. But no—where was the goddamn dagger? He kicked at loose bones and looked this way and that. Where is it? Where is it? There! The poisonous foxfire shone weakly beneath the ribcage of some huge and half-eaten carcass.

Sedrick scooped the weapon up and charged. He saw Tannorin thrown into the air by the center head. The beast gave a single chomp and pieces of the poor man’s body fell like bloody crumbs from the Trogon’s mouth. Moments later, Kiven screamed an awful scream, his body enveloped by bright blue flames—bluer than the summer sky indeed.

Sedrick wanted to run; he wanted to get the hell out of this place and never look back. But no, he was no coward. He forced his eyes back to the Trogon. The beast still had its back to him, its rear foot so close Sedrick could make out the yellowish cuticles of its scaly toes, could see the layers of hard, plated skin. Sedrick took a step forward, then another, then another, then . . .

He plunged the dagger into the Trogon’s flesh.

The serpent head reacted first. It spun and gave an awful hiss, which immediately alerted the other two heads. The Trogon’s great shadow loomed over Sedrick, blocking every sliver of light in the chamber. The wolfish head growled a growl that seemed to rise from the very bowels of the Underlands itself. Droplets of gore from its mouth splashed down upon Sedrick. This is it, Sedrick thought. I’m going to die.

But no, the growl turned into a painful wheeze, and the Trogon staggered back, tottering on its feet. It looked drunk for a moment, a huge, drunken beast swaying in the air, then it came crashing down, BOOM, slamming into the grotto floor with such force that the entire chamber seemed ready to collapse. The limbs of the massive Trogon thrashed for several minutes, scattering bones and breaking rocks, a few of which whooshed by Sedrick’s ear. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, the beast began to weaken, more and more and more until at last, it lay motionless on its side, breathing heavy breaths, over and over until at last death came to take it away.

All that remained was silence.

Sedrick stood there, his body dripping blood and gore and filth, his mind lost in some otherworldly place. Time meant nothing at that moment. Everything was gone, every thought fleeting, as if sucked away by a giant void of blackness. The Trogon was dead, the task done, but Sedrick felt no joy in that. Why not? He’d lost his entire company for one, and secondly, with the only known Trogon now slain, Sedrick would have to return to his old life . . . the life of an unemployed, unappreciated, unhappy man.

Sedrick moved closer to give the beast one final look. His eyes narrowed. The creature’s belly—something didn’t look right there. He lit a torch and went closer. Flames highlighted the mottled skin of its sagging abdomen.

The beast was gravid.

A flicker of hope filled Sedrick’s heart. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . he’d not have to return to his old life after all. You see, Trogon eggs were internal. They could hatch months after the mother’s death, as their shells thinned and thinned to no more than a layer of mucous. Trogons grew quickly, too. In just two years the hatchlings would be as heavy as ogres; in two more they’d be larger than some dragons. Certainly Sedrick would be needed, and being needed meant all the coin and fame and rewards that came with it.

A sudden grating of movement startled him. It was Garen, crawling out from beneath a mound of broken bones and rubble, his face a twisted, ghost-white grimace. Sedrick went over and helped the man to his feet. “We need to leave,” he said. “Darkenids will be swarming this place at any moment.” That was a lie, but he needed to get the young man away from here. The hatchlings had to survive. No one could get in the way of that. “Garen, are you listening to me?”

Garen’s eyes were locked on the Trogon’s corpse. By the gods, had he seen it, too?

“It’s dead, the Trogon’s dead,” Sedrick told him. “Listen, we need to go. Now.

Garen ignored him. “Is the beast is carrying eggs?”

“They’ll die without their mother,” Sedrick said. Another lie.

Garen frowned. A strange look filled his eyes. Was it disbelief? Suspicion? Goddamn it, the man was too difficult to read.

Urgency drove Sedrick to clamp a hand on Garen’s armored shoulder. “Listen to me, we have to leave. The darkenids will be drawn here and we don’t have Tannorin and Kiven to fight them off.”

Garen pushed the hand off him. He took a step back, eyeing Sedrick like a foeman across the battlefield.

Silence filled the chamber once more, cold and thick with tension.

“By the gods, Sedrick, you truly are among the most wretched of men.”

Sedrick tightened his grip of his torch. “And you are so much better? An arrogant little churl whose fame stems only from his father’s name?”

Garen’s curved backsword hissed from its scabbard.

Sedrick threw the torch. Garen raised his sword arm and defended the blow, but he was left off balance and blinded by the flash of light. Sedrick shoved his dagger into the young man’s side, between the leather straps of his cuirass. Garen’s body jerked. “Goddamn it, Sedrick, I’ll gut you for—” His knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground, dead before he could finish that last sentence.

Sedrick remained there for a while, quietly wiping the poison from his blade with a scrap of linen. When that was done, he sheathed the weapon and turned about, making his way out of the mountain cave.

___________________________________________________

Michael A. Liguori is currently writing his fourth fantasy novel. For some reason, he refuses to give up the dream of traditional publication. He graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in English, and now spends entirely too much time reading and writing and getting lost in fictional worlds. He’s also a musician, a gamer, a cat lover, and an Autism advocate.


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