This is a continuation of the serial The Legacy, presented by Nerd Union. You can find the previous installments at this link, or on our Fiction Friday page. You can also purchase the Kindle Edition here
Part VII. “Fear”
The gap between the mountains got bigger the closer Jaun and Fel came to Drogoth. At night it was nearly impossible to see anything more than the faintest outline of the craggy earth just a days ride away. It was a clear night and the moon cast a light bright enough that you could make out the blue outline of everything around you, but hardly anything else. In truth, he had never seen a night this bright before. In the woodland the canopy was always overhead, obscuring everything in shadow. The night was so dark it was difficult to make out your hand in front of your face. Vulden had no difficulty navigating the night. The elven eye was more sensitive than a humans was, and the Talavir, the order of knights Vulden had belonged to, were trained night fighters. Vulden had tried to impart the lessons he’d learned on Jaun by waking him up in the middle of the night, throwing him into the black forest with nothing but a few sticks and a knife telling him he couldn’t come back in the house until he caught a rabbit.
Or that, at least, was how it started when he was twelve.
When it first happened, he was confused. Vulden had taught him the art of skinning an animal and later how to hunt and trap one, but he had always been beside him doing it with him. He was alone in the wilderness with nothing but a night shirt, a knife, and a few good sticks. At first he was just shocked, and then the tears came, and later, the anger. He had refused to do it. Once the morning came Jaun had walked back to the hut and Vulden was there. Vulden had told him it was time to grow up. It was time to learn how to be a man. Later, he learned it was not so much about how to be a man, but how to be a killer. It was about stalking your prey, learning their habits, where they live and eat, and snuffing that life out because in the end, their life is in your hands, and therefore it’s yours to take if you choose. Vulden wanted Jaun to be the predator, the king of the forest in his domain, and no one else’s, that is, before the real killers came.
Jaun and Fel had finally stopped for longer than a few minutes and made a fireless camp, in what had been the shadow of two massive rock outcroppings. Fel had taken the first watch, but was now sound asleep, with Jaun taking over the night shift. He probably should have been scanning the horizon, but instead he laid down in the dirt and looked at the sky. The stars were the most striking feature of this kind of night. In the forest, you could still make out stars, but they seemed so sparse, so dominated by the darkness of night that it was like an ever changing mosaic of light. Depending on where you moved, it seemed those tiny dots of light were points on an ever shuffling map. Now, on this desolate plain, he could clearly see the vast breadth of the expanse. There was a vast concentration of stars, almost like a strip, that cut across the black just below where the moon was. He didn’t quite understand the feeling, but it made him feel pressed down by this massive dome of starlight. There was almost this physical pressure that pressed him down, yet at the same time he was dizzy, almost as if he was untethered.
To be untethered was a wonderful and horrifying thought all at the same time, but he knew it was a fantasy. What was decidedly not was the trip that lay before him, and the dangers so very near. In all his lessons, Vulden never spoke about Drogoth, except only in the most vague and academic of natures. It was pure geography to Vulden. It was falahadirith, the land of forgotten things. It was the westernmost border of Marui’r, and at one time it had been a part of the elvish domain, but sometime in the innumerable years past it was branded forbidden, and crossing into it punishable by death. That fact had piqued his interest, but he could never coax the old elf into talking about it. All he would ever say was that the western part of the continent was lost and Drogoth, being the only sizable pass through the mountains, was sealed for a reason. Now that he was so close, he wished that Vulden had been a little more forthcoming. It was growing to be a theme when he thought of the old elf.
Jaun heard a loud grunt that made him nearly jump to his feet. He looked to the direction of the sound and saw Fel had shifted, the side of his face was planted firmly to the ground and what looked like font of spit began forming a wet pool in the dirt as he let out a deep snore, shifting again on the ground as if he was having a grand adventure of a dream. Juan hated that he needed him, a man that he couldn’t entirely trust. However, he had saved his life when he really had no reason to, and that showed that beneath all the brash exterior that Fel was might be a good man when it suited him, but he was the kind of man to follow his own moral compass and not that of nature or man. That was dangerous. If he felt the need, Jaun had no doubt that Fel would kill him, and if he did it would be when his back was turned, or while he slept. If he only knew the way to Unidor he would take his chances in the wilderness. If he had any money he would’ve hired a guide, someone who seemed a little more trustworthy. If he was a good liar, which he knew from experience that he was not, he would have disguised himself as a soldier and made his way to the front. He knew if he arrived in the general area of Unidor that he could sneak his way to the great city of Magi. After all, the Silver Tower could be seen for many miles around the Incantian. Instead, he knew he was going in the wrong direction; west. All his answers to Vulden’s death, and the reason why he was hunted by the most deadly assassins from the age of myth were to the east. Berethor, whoever he was, knew Jaun’s secret. He could feel the burning in his bones, the ache of desire, to know why. He was just a kid, finally coming of age in a world he was beginning to realize he knew nothing about. Fel knew some measure of the world, and for that he was better than Jaun. That he had to admit to himself, but he never wanted to become that man. He never wanted to be a thief and a murderer. Those were for lesser men, and he had been taught better. That was when Juan heard Fel let out a long moan as he stretched and passed gas with surprising force.
“It’s your turn to sleep kid.” Fel said with a yawn. Jaun had sat up as soon as he heard Fel stir, but then laid back down right where he was and let his mind go blank with exhaustion.
The kid snored like a grown man at least. He didn’t talk like a man, or drink like a man, but he at least made noises like one. It was almost like he was accustomed, or even comfortable with sleeping on cold hard ground with nothing but the clothes on his back as padding. He laid on his side, curled up, with one hand underneath his head like a pillow and the other underneath his unshaven cheeks. He didn’t blame the boy for sleeping with his hand on his knife. When he slept he always kept at least one weapon in arms reach. It was standard practice in the wild, especially this close to Drogoth.
He pulled his cloak tighter around his chest and shuffled closer to the rocky outcropping. It was damned cold tonight, much colder than he was used to this deep into the spring. The wind whipping around the side of the rocks created the faintest whistling, so faint it almost sounded like the rocks were breathing. At least with his back to the rock he could warm up the air around him before the wind took all the heat away. The wind came from the direction of Drogoth, from that desolate place between the mountains. It acted almost like a great funnel for the wind. It was always windy there, and you were almost always walking into it. Here against the rock, though, Fel could get a good view of the plain. From Sweetwater the plain began a steady crawl upward until it reached the jutting peaks to either side of Drogoth. It was hardly noticeable while you were on the plain, but at it’s crest you could see for miles down, that is, in the daylight. This deep into the night you were lucky to see more than fifty feet ahead of you before all became obscured in shadow. All Fel could really see this deep into the night were the bluish outline of the rocky outcroppings all around him. He’d kill for a fire, but it was too dangerous. Even if there were still riders from Sweetwater tracking them, they would never come this close to the forbidden land. The real danger came from the two towers on either side of the lip of Drogoth. They were impossible to see at night, but he knew they were there, and he could almost feel the gaze on his neck from those battlements. They had originally served as watchtowers for the elves, and had been concealed by their magic, but the spell that concealed them had been broken by the time that Fel arrived with the survivors of Anaroth. Initially, they seemed a good place to stay until scouts had ample time to map their way through to the other side of Drogoth. He and his brother barely escaped with their lives after setting foot in the northern keep. He was fortunate that it had been during the day. If it hadn’t been, they would be dead.
It made him feel cold, and it made him grip the hilt of his sword tighter. It was night now, but he was ready. He knew what lived in those towers now, and had no intention of making a foray into them, nor moving out from behind this rock. In the morning he could do so, but not a moment before.
In the daylight Jaun could take in the fullness of what he was about to enter. The mountain ranges sloped sharply down on either side and were punctuated by ancient looking towers that were covered in a thick, wiry coat of vines that stretched from the top of the battlements down to the wall that ringed the base of the towers. It was hard to make out the details of each one with the distance between them. He and Fel stood about equidistant from each tower and the space between them was probably a days ride. When he first saw them, he’d asked Fel about them, but all he would respond with was a sharp look and a comment: “They belong to the dead, boy.”
The pass was wide, but it did not seem so much like a pass as a shorter, less steep mountain that proceeded from either side of what he had always imagined was supposed to be a valley. It was crowned by scrub brush and skeleton trees that seemed to perpetually lean in his direction.
“I must admit, I am not looking forward to us traveling though here on horseback,” Jaun spoke wearily as he looked at the craggy slopes.
“I sure as hell wouldn’t either,” Fel quickly replied as if remembering a nightmare. “But we’re not taking the horse.” He untethered the horse from a stunted tree and pointed it in the direction they had ridden from the day before. Once finished, he smacked it on it’s hind end, which sent it running.
“You said this place is dangerous? Why wouldn’t we want to travel through as quickly as possible?”
“Because we’d be dead before we got through, kid.” Fel took the meager canvas bag that contained the last of their food and slung it onto his back. “Horses are loud, big, and have a unique smell. All the critters in Drogoth will smell it and know they can eat off it for a week. Makes us a large target. We’ll be best without one.”
Jaun was flooded with a mix of relief and despair all at the same time. He hated riding on horses, but he could not deny their speed advantage.
“So if we get into trouble out there, we are not going to be able to run away.”
Fel shook his head. “Hopefully we won’t get into trouble at all. There’s just two of us, which means we won’t be a big target. We should be able to sneak through. If we get spotted, we have to pretend we’re the hardest pair of badasses this side of the rift. If that doesn’t work ,we fight. If that fails, I imagine you know what comes next.”
Jaun followed behind Fel as they walked toward the slope.
“How much do you know about this place?” Fel began. “Other than it’s forbidden.”
“That sums up my knowledge of this place.”
“According to some of my people, this land wasn’t always this bad. I was never much into my history lessons, but what I do remember is once we were all banned from it, the Elves created this slope, which years ago was much larger. They threw up the plain and laid it on it’s side. Created a huge mess I hear, but time’s beaten it down, made it more of a hill than what it was.” Fel walked up to a relatively large tree and stopped. “Where do the Elves get off anyway, banning a whole continent from using this pass. No wonder everyone hated them so much. The arrogance.” He reached down and grabbed what looked like a rock. As he pulled it off the ground, Jaun saw it was not a rock, but a cleverly disguised handle to a door.
Jaun came up and looked down into it as Fel climbed down a short ladder. Inside was an armory. There were twenty bows hung across one side of the dirt walls, with matching quivers full of arrows. On another side were various axes and short swords, on another were bracers, helms, and heavy boots.
“Dammit!” Fel shouted as he kicked a crate. “No food.”
“Should there be?” Juan replied.
“Well, yes? Why else do you think I’m upset.”
“You get upset about a lot of things. How is this any different?”
“You pick now of all the possible times to start having a sense of humor,” Fel grumbled as he stared at the empty crate.
“I like to think I’m a man that can change.”
“Are you a man that can walk two days across a desert without food and water?”
“I’ve gone without food and water before, now we are just adding a bit of sun to it.”
Fel chuckled at the understatement, beads of sweat already building on his brow. “You’re good with a bow, right?”
“I like to think so.”
“Good.” Fel grabbed two bows and two quivers and passed them up to Jaun. “Don’t touch the arrowheads without gloves.”
Fel grunted as he climbed out of the pit. “They’re poison tipped. It’s the only thing we can kill the drakes with.”
Jaun carefully pulled and arrow out of the quiver and examined it’s tip. It was coated in a black mucus that he had never seen before.
“This is the second time you have mentioned drakes. What are they?” Fel slung the quiver and bow over his shoulder and started walking up the embankment without a word. “Are you going to answer my question?”
“Follow me and I’ll show you!” He shouted back. Jaun moved up the hill with the bow and quiver slung over his back, unsure if he liked where this conversation was going. Vulden had never spent much time teaching him about the monsters of the world. He was always more concerned with politics and war, and the dark nature of man than he was about the darkness of nature. He said that monsters were just the reflection of our fears and nothing more. There were an impediment to civilization, just like a river that’s prone to flooding or a plague. They are a thing to be swept to the side, a distraction in the argument of good and evil.
At the crest of the ridge Fel stood holding a collapsible spyglass. He could already feel the sense of dread in Fel’s voice.
“See those black dots in the distance. Look at them through this.”
Jaun took the instrument from Fel and fixed one of his eyes to the end. Through it he could see the beast. This one flew through the sky on featherless wings, it’s black flesh stretched tight across four bony protrusions that looked something like fingers. The wings connected like a birds to the sleek, scaled body. Behind the wings there were a pair of legs that were swept back while in flight and held close to the long, snake-like tail which trailed the beast. It’s head was shaped like a lizard’s, but longer and thinner, with a set of curled horns sprouting from above it’s brow. It’s slit yellow eyes gazed down at the desert floor.
It was hunting.
Jaun stared thoughtlessly at it for a moment before he drew the spyglass away. Once he did, he saw a least ten other black dots floating in the distance. Jaun knew his mouth was wide open, but he did not possess the power to put it back into place.
“Those are the black drakes of Drogoth. The children of Valadros. We must tread carefully. The danger is real. When I tell you to hide, we hide. When I tell you to run, we run. If you listen to me you might survive. If not, you will die, because I am not going to risk my neck for you.”
Jaun couldn’t conjure words. All he could feel was the fear, and with it came the memory of being in the niche the moment the avatar came down to kill him. The red eyes and the feeling of his knife going hilt deep into it’s head. He wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to.
He felt a heavy hand on his shoulder and a voice speak as it gripped him tight.
“I know that what you’re feeling right now. I know how it can grab you by the throat like an animal and pin you. The fear can keep you frozen for the rest of your life or you can tell it that it can’t have power over you. Fear is good because it tells you when you are out of your depth, but we are human, we are always taking on more than we think we can handle. The difference between a man and a boy is a man takes power over his fear and doesn’t let it control him. Don’t let fear control you.”
“I,” Jaun began before he felt like cotton became stuck in his mouth. “What if I can’t?”
“When I found you by that river you were beaten to a pulp and near death, but you weren’t dead. Do you know how many people have survived being attacked by a single avatar?”
“No? How many?”
“Only the great men of history. Lets take this step and make history.”
Slowly, Jaun felt his left foot move forward.
“Good!” He slapped Jaun on the back so hard Jaun stumbled forward and began walking with him. “We’ve got to make use of this good sun before it gets dark. That’s when they get hungry.”
“Fel,” Jaun spoke, his elocution becoming more like normal as his fear receded to the background of his mind. “What do you mean by ‘let’s make history’?”
“Well, I don’t know of any two people that have traveled through Drogoth alive by themselves. Not saying it hasn’t happened before, but it will make one hell of a story.”
Jaun kept putting one heavy foot in front of the other, but the fear did not go away.