The winter wind billowed over the heath.
Seamus MacLeod trotted with his two elk hounds as they scanned the air for the scent of prey.
The green hills were damp with the mist that passed perpetually under the gray cover of clouds.
Seamus was in his early twenties and stood just over six feet tall. His dark brown hair and coarse beard were ruffled by the chilling air. The young man took in the horizon from the crest of a hill north of his home, Cairn MacLeod. He detected the movement of a four-legged creature in the basin of the valley before him.
“Guyver, Caleb, seek!”
The lanky dogs responded to the command of their master and hurled themselves into full speed in search of game. Thunder rumbled in the distance as the hounds found the scent of an elk.
The chase was on and Seamus sprinted into the green valley with his bow and shillelagh in hand.
The dogs closed in on their prized target and in a matter of moments nipped and snapped at the elk’s hindquarters.
[To be continued.]
I first met Fistandantilus when I was in college. I was waiting for the bus that takes me home when he pulled over in a black, late model Cadillac.
The windows were tinted to a degree that I could not see who was inside. An electronic hum accompanied the lowering of the passenger side window.
I bent down to see who wanted to speak with me. The man had coal-black hair and a goatee. His appearance reminded me of old photographs I’d seen of Rasputin, the late Russian seer.
“Have we met?”
“Greetings, Paul. I know you don’t recognize me but welcome you to come along. My car is safe and it will protect you from the rain.”
It didn’t rain much in Los Angeles but when it did the storm came on us with full force.
I was looking for any escape from the cold and wet.
Once inside I glanced at the rear seat to see a sleeping body wrapped in a blanket. Strangely, the person looked very much like the driver of the car. The dormant man had an unusual scar on his right cheek. It was a symbol of some kind and I would later learn that it was a brand inflicted by a rival wizard.
“I was a friend of your father’s,” said Fistandantilus. “Now that he is gone he would want me to take you into my tutelage. My name is Fistandantilus, but you can call me Fist.”
[To be continued.]
The Legend of the Dwarf Hunter - Written and Illustrated by Terry Milligan and Matthew Darrow (Senegoth)
An icy, cold wind blasted through the spindly trees. At first all was quiet, but, near the roots of one of the larger oaks, a faint harmony of deep voices emanated.
From behind another tree a shadowy form ran across the snowy ground to slip into the increasing darkness.
Suddenly, the obscure figure reappeared closer to the large oak. The entity was hunched over, feeling for something through the encrusted snow on the ground. The form paused when the faint singing ceased; a whispered curse wafting from the dark figure's cowl. He moved away through the rapidly deepening snow.
The entity made good progress but he stumbled over an invisible obstacle buried beneath the icy surface.
At almost the same moment in which the figure hit the snow eleven stout shapes leapt from a portal at the base of the large oak. They were variously armed and sized.
The fallen stranger tried to lift himself but couldn't and he let out a cry!
The stout shapes drew their swords and unsheathed their bows and daggers of all sizes. The bowmen quickly shot their arrows through the cold wind. One shaft hit the dark figure squarely, but the bolt of iron and wood bounced off as if it were an eagle's plume lost in a zephyr. As the arrow pierced the dark cloak, a shower of golden sparks spumed forth along with a reverberating ring of steel upon steel being thwarted in the already dying winds.
The stricken one, now on his feet, was shaken. In the dying light the figure tilted back his head, causing his cowl to fall back. There stood revealed the flaxen locks and smooth features of an elvish youth. Ezrath gave an elfin cry and skittered into the surrounding woods.
The eleven stout shapes that had risen from the oak's base were dwarves. There were four types: three with red beards, two had them forked and braided. Six dwarves wore golden beards and two more had blue ones.
As soon as the elf rushed into the safety of the trees four of the dwarves ran behind the oak to return with several glowing lanterns.
Ezrath crawled helplessly, hoping for someone to aid him in an escape. There was no one, though, and the dwarves closed in upon him.
The dwarves were able trackers, but anyone could follow a trail of blood.
Ezrath turned, trying not to cough up any more blood, searching for something. If only he could find...yes!
It was his only chance of survival from slaughter by the iron weapons of the dwarves. The elf ran a bit further, stopped, and coughed again as he found a spot with enough snow for the task. He dug with all his might, his fingers bleeding from the jagged rocks hidden beneath the snow. At last the hole was big enough and Ezrath crawled in and covered himself.
The dwarves had advanced to within two hundred paces of Ezrath's hiding place as the elf covered himself fully. Then, two dwarves stood upon the elf's makeshift shelter.
Below the surface of the snow the hidden elf lay thinking about why the dwarves were hunting him. Ezrath was supposed to be the one doing the hunting. His air supply began to run out just as he heard the angry voices of the dwarves from above.
Out of frustration, one of the dwarves standing on the surface of the snow thrust his spear down into the hiding place. With sheer luck the dwarf's spear hit the huddling figure. Yet, the armor which protected Ezrath was made of plate-mail and prevented any more serious injury to the elf. The force of the blow, however, knocked out what little source of air remained.
With his last breath Ezrath recalled the gifts his uncle, Ladorthin, had given him as his “coming-of-age” gift: the elfin Orbs of Falstoi, providing the gifts of animal sense, temporary invisibility, fire being, polymorph self, and water being. Ezrath felt as if his lungs would burst for want of air, but he kept himself in check. He reached down to his waist pack and his numbing fingers closed around one of the orbs. Which orb it was he could not tell; he just hoped it would get him out of his predicament.
Then, suddenly, he was aware of life around him. Of the living things most seemed to be resting. Yet, somehow, he sensed a different presence close to him. He asserted his last bit of strength wriggling through the snow towards this presence. Just before he blacked out Ezrath felt the snow under him give way. Something firmly grasped his arm.
The warm hearth in the main room of Bard's Inn had a cheerful ambiance. The proprietor, Ladorthin, was closing for the night. Among the lingering crowd he overheard strange tales of snow creatures such as giant muskrats that supposedly lived deep under the snow, devouring lonesome travelers, and of ice dwarves which rumors credited with cunning, skill at tracking, and ruthlessness in battle.
As Ladorthin was throwing out the drunken revelers, one of the last slurred, “I gave my good will to Ezrath as he left on an adventure this morning.”
Ladorthin exclaimed, “Whaat? Are you sure it was he?”
“Of course it was. Don't you trust me?”
“No, but which way do you remember he went?”
“He headed east to the old forest of Belgaraz. You know, where Bezgo told everyone he saw those dwarves and creatures roaming around last week.”
Ladorthin thanked the drunken man, hurriedly pressing a gold piece into his hand. He rushed out into the night calling for the stable-boy to fetch his fastest steed with his finest bow and blade fastened to the horse.
Ezrath awoke in a warm, dark place. He felt strangely serene, at first thinking he was in the Halls of Valinor. He could feel a pressing stiffness in his chest, however, and could not draw a breath without coughing painfully. The elf heard a stirring near him and felt something warm and rough brush his forehead. He sat up quickly.
Then Ezrath remembered it all – the dwarves, the snow, the cold, and then, he realized that one of the five orbs had worked!
The elf tried to figure out which of the orbs he had chosen. It couldn't be that with the gift of temporary invisibility for cold can bite flesh unseen. It couldn't be fire being for he would be instantly drowned in the melting snow. It couldn't be water being for he would have frozen to death; and, it couldn't be polymorph self for he hadn't had any time to think before he blacked out.
Only one orb remained as a possibility. It must have been...the only orb left, that with the gift of animal sense. Ezrath realized that he must have been rescued by an intelligent animal of the forest who felt his call.
Suddenly, he detected a close presence and perceived what the entity was hearing, seeing, and thinking. Ezrath felt the coolness of a flowing river and saw a bright, golden sun. Reeds and willows bowed in the wind. Near him were the hidden homes of many creatures and, then, SNAP! – Ezrath was Ezrath again and he now knew he was with friends.
Out of the corner of his eye Ezrath glimpsed a dim, red glow. As he turned to locate its source his gaze fixed on some sort of wall.
A furry, shadowy figure ran across the source of light.
Then, the lamp (for that was what the light source was) burst into brightness and Ezrath could see that he was in a cave. In front of the only apparent way out was a strange creature. The elf thought it to be a cross between a large muskrat and a badger. Alarmed, Ezrath reached for his sword, but it was gone.
Before panic set in the creature spoke and, surprisingly, Ezrath understood its words. The animal said, “Do not be afraid. I am a giant muskrat. I heard you cry out from a pile of snow that fell from the roof of my cave. I healed your injuries but you will be stiff. We haven't seen one of your kind for many years. Our Grand Rat would like to see you. Please, follow me.”
Astonished, Ezrath followed the giant muskrat through twisting and turning tunnels. As they passed the entrances to tunnels on their right and left Ezrath heard strange voices singing far in the darkness. For some time they slowly descended. Then, suddenly, the roof of the tunnel disappeared. The walls of the tunnel leapt away from each other and became carved stone.
In the center of this “hall” was a murmuring crowd of similar furry creatures. When they spied the young elf, however, they all scurried into dark corners in the distance, leaving an old, grey muskrat sitting on a stone throne.
He grunted, “Are you he that summoned my follower with the old magic?”
Ezrath stammered nervously, shifting from one foot to the other.
“My uncle, Ladorthin, gave me five orbs of power.”
Immediately cries emerged from the shadowy corners.
The old muskrat was still for a moment. His grey eyes glazed over as he remembered days of old when rivers were young and trees were alive. But, then he said, “How was it that you were in our wood? I had heard that there was a band of dwarves nearby.”
Ezrath answered, “My parents were killed by dwarves in the ancient war. I came to avenge them. But, my luck turned, and the dwarves ambushed me. I was badly wounded and my only chance was to hide in the snow.”
“We know of your injuries,” said the old rat. “When Gilim found you your rib was broken and your head was bruised.”
The muskrat leader continued, “We healed your broken rib. And, now, I recall from my memory of the war in ages past the location of an old stronghold built by your people. It is deep in the heart of the wood but you will find sanctuary there and weapons for battle. We have received word from other friends of the forest that the eleven dwarves are close on your trail.”
“You are now an hour's march from the stronghold. If your luck goes well you may once again see the fair fields of Valinor. Remember, you are pursued by eleven desperate trackers who know that if you reach your beloved elfin home alive their dooms are sealed.”
“Thank you, Grand Muskrat,” replied Ezrath. “I vow if I reach Valinor my people will repay you well!”
“Unfortunately that must never happen because your people have hunted my brothers for many generations. The secret of the old forest must be kept safe at all costs.”
“But, then, why did you rescue me and why is it we speak with one another as friends?”
“All I can say is that the answer is in the orbs.”
Ladorthin rode for hours. He stooped over his horse, looking for signs on the ground under the light of the moon and stars. The faint crunching of his horse's hooves was the only sound made in the deathly stillness of the early morning forest. Ladorthin followed his nephew's scanty trail through the silver fingers of the sleeping trees.
Suddenly, his nephew's tracks came to a stop. Ladorthin realized he was in a small clearing. In front of him was a large oak tree. Many smaller yet deeper tracks curved around the oak and doubled back. Leading away from the looping tracks were other identical tracks. Before following these footprints Ladorthin inspected the area behind the large tree.
Circling around he found a round door, about three feet high and three feet wide. It was ajar. Ladorthin silently drew his sword and looked inside.
Bending through the low door, Ladorthin entered a small room carved out of the tree. There was an opening in the floor with a ladder going down. Cautiously he gripped the ladder. Ladorthin descended a short distance when his feet touched bottom. He was in another room with a table at its center. There was a row of shelves covered with strange tools and jars. A few sealed cloth sacks emitted a strange, pungent odor.
Ladorthin saw nothing of use but noted that several of the trunks around the room appeared to have been hurriedly flung open and rummaged through.
The uncle realized that the place was a stronghold for dwarves and that Ezrath must have run into trouble there. Taking one last look around, Ladorthin climbed back up the ladder. Once outside the tree, he began following the trail of the dwarves and the staggering of an elf going into the wood.
Following the elf's tracks, Ladorthin found a place where the footprints abruptly stopped in a pile of snow. Reluctantly he began to dig, afraid of what he might find.
Then, he sensed a familiar odor, not that of death, but that of a creature Ladorthin had vowed never to approach again. He knew, now, who had found Ezrath and, also, of the only other entrance to these creatures' dwelling places. Ladorthin knew he must get there at all costs to meet his nephew. The danger was that not only was Ezrath being stalked by dwarves, but that he had been informed of the old fort. Ezrath's arrival there must be avoided at all costs.
Ezrath bade the muskrats farewell and stepped into the daylight. The briars and bushes clenched behind him. He was in a strange part of the wood. There was no more snow and the trees were the waving, green ash, spruce, and elm of midsummer. He stood at the bottom of a steep hill covered with impassable thorns and hedges. Before him was a small glade bordered by the trees.
Remembering the advice of the grand muskrat Ezrath set out following the path of the mid-afternoon sun. It was near dusk when he saw the ancient fortress. Backed by the red sun, the silhouette of the huge tree was overwhelming. This was the heart of the forest. High in its branches generations of birds thrived. The fields around it were scarred with the ages of mystical battles.
Ezrath was taken aback. Not only was this the biggest tree he had seen, it was also the grandest structure he had beheld. During every siege in this tree's history it had been hollowed out, bit by bit, and built higher. For thousands of years skillful artisans had dedicated their lives to this grandest of trees. As he passed through the main gate Ezrath saw enchanted carvings in the walls that climbed up into the creaking darkness.
Grondolic and his ten comrades followed Ezrath's tracks for a day.
We've stalked this elf through snow, cold and this blasted thicket.
At dusk Grondolic saw the forest open to a field and the giant tree fortress.
We sense our prey prowling inside. It is only a matter of time. We will wait until dark.
Ezrath walked for a while. The only source of light was from a small opening high above. Suddenly torches ignited alongside the elf, illuminating a long hallway. As he neared the end he saw that it opened into a huge room. There sat a giant man looking directly at him.
Nervously Ezrath spoke, “I am Ezrath, son of Ozroth of Valinor. I am pursued by eleven dwarves. I have been told I might find refuge here and, perhaps, find the means to aid myself in battle.”
The giant spoke, “You may call me Morgoth. I know of your predicament. I will help you fight these dwarves. They are outside. We have an advantage, though, for I know this old tree well. It has many surprises. I also have a store of unique weapons. Come, we must hurry. We have a lot of work to do!”
Grondolic's band piled brushwood around the tree. The wood not only provided light for the marksmen, but also barriers for a charge.
Around the main fire Rundig and Ulmo sharpened axes.
Nili and Rili wrapped swabs of cloth around arrowheads and dipped them in an acrid mixture.
The dwarves lit the fires, bathing the tree fortress in an eerie, red glow. They commenced a charge. It was about one hundred yards between the fires and the tree.
Ezrath and the giant man were ready for the attack of the stout humanoids.
Before the dwarves came any closer Morgoth raised his longbow and fired a shot that arched in the air. As it hit the ground in front of the dwarves, Grondolic, the eldest, saw that Ezrath had replaced the usual, iron head with a glowing, crimson sphere.
The burst of an explosion blinded the attackers. The preternatural fire burned two dwarves to a crisp and the shockwave threw a third hard to the earth, never to rise again.
The dwarves, angered by the deaths of their kin, ran in frenzy toward the gate. There they found the orb of water being. The magical artifact lay just six inches under the ground’s surface in a sack of pressure-reactive spark dust. All the dwarves heard was a faint click before a torrential flood swept four of them away.
Unleashing a battle cry, Ezrath and Morgoth simultaneously leapt from the tree. Mid-way through their fall the elf transformed into a were-bear while Morgoth disappeared completely.
Standing bewildered, one unlucky dwarf found his shoulder cut while another felt a dagger in his back. The latter goblin managed to turn and thrust his own blade into Morgoth’s chest.
Ezrath surged in were-bear form at the last two dwarves. The were-bear knocked them out of consciousness.
Ladorthin and his horse galloped into the battle scene.
Grondolic awoke with his head burning with pain. In the stillness he thought he was the only survivor of the battle. He walked over to Rundig, his dead nephew, to mourn him. Then he saw other living people.
Standing over the body of the big man was a pair of elves, mourning their ally.
Ladorthin sensed the dwarf watching him and spun around, his eyes burning with rage and his sword drawn.
The dwarf wielded his ax and growled like a wild animal.
Ladorthin and Ezrath looked at Morgoth.
Grondolic stared down at Rundig.
The enemies gave each other a final look of sadness and resignation. They each sheathed their weapons and picked up their slain relatives. They headed in opposite directions.
Robotic Augmented Neurologic Automaton
The skies over Earth flared purple and red in the light of the setting sun.
RANA was a mechanically enhanced human cyborg. His faculties of perception sensed a whiff of open air in the twilight breeze. It was a weekly ritual for RANA to climb the Hollywood hills and study the stars and constellations as they emerged through the fading marine layer of clouds over Los Angeles.
The sights and sounds of the city below were customary to RANA. It was the year 2126. The streets were filled with evening traffic. People drove a variety of eco-friendly vehicles ranging from electricity-powered sedans to natural gas burning trucks and scooters.
The traffic was heavy as families made their commute home. The parking lots of the local grocery stores were jam-packed as customers rushed to purchase staples for the evening meal.
RANA was quick to spot Orion's Belt, and the planets Venus and Mars. The high-pressure, robotic mines on Venus gave the greenish planet a sporadic, metallic sheen visible to RANA's magnesium-fortified retinas.
Mars, on the other hand, was populated by both humans and cyborgs like RANA. The red sphere was covered with web-like cities that were connected by vacuum transit tubes. This architecture made Mars sparkle and pulsate in the night sky over Earth.
Much of RANA's skeleton was reinforced with magnesium. This metal had been chosen by the scientists at the L.A. Lab for its strength and light weight. RANA descended from the Hollywood hills and reclined on a grassy hilltop nearby. He enjoyed the time he had to listen to birds sing and crickets chirp.
A steady stream of large aircraft and spacecraft made the descent over Los Angeles International Spaceport to land on the variegated tarmac.
As a cyborg, RANA needed to be constantly on the lookout for Smashers. The Smashers were conglomerations of hostile human youths that were known to attack and dismantle cyborgs to sell their electronic and metallic components on the black market.
RANA made his way down from the observation point. He enjoyed passing through the lights of the nighttime city. Many cars and trucks passed him by despite the late time of day.
In a few moments RANA's proximity system activated his optical Head's Up Display. Someone bearing heavy, metallic weapons was approaching from a side street.
Before he could react, RANA was riddled by a hail of bullets. None of his vital components were damaged and RANA turned to face the source of the attack.
A gathering of Smashers straddled jet bikes as they continued to fire their weapons.
RANA was jarred and shaken by the ballistic assault, but his electric armor held strong. The cyborg's HUD indicated his armor was functioning at 97%. RANA activated his shoulder cannon and fired a controlled barrage of heavy rounds at the jet bikes of his adversaries.
The Smashers swerved in a flurry of random directions to avoid RANA's counterattack. They were not quick enough to evade the heavy rounds issued from the cyborg's digital weapons lock.
A few the jet bikes were disabled by the returning fire. Their riders turned tail and fled from the battle scene before their vehicles were rendered completely defunct. The conflict was terminated, and RANA contacted his mechanical engineer via an encrypted bandwidth.
“Doc, are you there?
“This is RANA. I've got a code red situation here.”
“Yes, RANA, I'm here,” a tinny voice spoke through the cyborg's audio communication system. “I can see you on my global positioning screen. Do you want me to pick you up with the rescue copter?”
“Yes, please, Doc. I'm doing fine but should run a diagnostic program on my armor technology. I don't know if the Smashers plan to return tonight but it's a good idea to leave the area as soon as possible.”
RANA scanned the scene for a suitable hiding place. He opted to rest on the crest of the Hollywood hills.
The jet bikes of the Smashers did not return during the few moments that it took for Doc to arrive. The rescue copter was a sleek device. It sported a pair of turbojets from angular delta wings. They formed a V below the spinning blades that kept the aircraft aloft.
[To be continued.]