Chapter Three The Grassland
The world was deadly silent as they slid and scrambled down the stony hillside to the grass below. Riven led the way, looking for the best path, his Dwarven instinct put to a small, comfortable test on this lone steep mountain. At the foot of it, gravel and slabs of volcanic rock gave way to the grass. As he drew up to it, he felt his stomach grow cold.
All his instincts told him not to go into the grass, but he had no choice. He pushed the fear down, took a deep breath, and boldly stepped out into the wall of blades and stalks. The thick fronds seemed to tangle around his legs and drag sharply against the exposed skin of his forearms. He felt suddenly as if he was being suffocated, crushed, and pulled at.
Shannon stepped up beside him, put a hand on his shoulder, and pulled him back a step. The sensation evaporated in a breath of cold that made him shiver. He looked up at the man in black, his eyes watering, his breath ragged.
“Wait,” Shannon said softly.
Catching his breath, Riven studied the tall man. Shannon was watching the horizon as the slowly rising sun lifted above the cloud bank. The morning sun broke free and Shannon’s face was bathed in golden light. The sunlight made Shannon flinch and squint into the brightness of it. The chill and unease seemed to vanish, like mist hit by the first warmth of dawn. Shannon let go of Riven’s shoulder and let the dwarf take lead again.
He really was a striking man, Riven thought to himself as he walked out in the grass. It was no wonder that the Elven word for beauty was rooted in the name of that man’s race. Blue-eyed, black-haired Purtans were unrivaled in powers or appearance. It was almost a shame the race was nearly extinct, but civil war will do that to a people, no matter who they are.
The grass was deeper than the dwarf had thought, well over his head, making him unable to lead. Oirion took the lead for him without comment. It was wet, but not as bad as Riven would have thought with the rain yesterday. Still, it was wet enough that they were all soaked almost immediately, none worse than the dwarf. He didn’t complain and kept up a fast pace. He didn’t want to be in this grass any longer than he had to be. Even if the feeling was gone, he remembered it and was trying not to think about it too much. It hadn’t even been a half an hour when Cindie began to complain and ask about taking a break. They were all basically ignoring her, but her insistent complaining only got worse and became as irritating as mosquitoes in the ear when you’re trying to sleep.
Shannon, however, was quickly tired of her voice and his patience was not going to be spent listening to her all day. He stopped her, catching her arm roughly. Riven turned, expecting him to have a few sharp remarks for her, but Shannon didn’t say a word.
“Don’t touch me!” she shrieked. The others stopped to see what he was doing. Shannon drew a long silver and pearl dagger from under his surrcoat and in one move slashed her skirts off, ripping them away and leaving her in her puffy white bloomers. She screamed as if it was her skin he had torn off. Theo lunged forward to save her, but Dave caught him in one arm.
“Don’t,” Dave said softly to Theo, likely saving the young man’s life. Riven had the feeling it was death to attack that man, especially from behind.
Shannon threw the mess of silk at Ivan and shoved the sobbing young woman forward, back into motion.
Apparently, Shannon didn’t like the grass either, Riven thought, a little amused at his abruptness and the woman’s reaction to it, but glad for it. At least now she might shut-up for awhile. The lack of heavy silk would certainly make it easier for her to keep up.
“Don’t be upset,” Riven told the girl, moving her along and letting Ivan take his place in line behind Oirion. “He did it to help you. He’s just a little rough. Besides, it’s only a dress and a woman as lovely as you doesn’t need such to be beautiful.” He might have agreed with Shannon about it, but he was still a priest.
She smiled a little and then sagged against Theo. He put his hand on her back in a show of sympathy for her, but said nothing to offer comfort, nor did he seem overly upset. Dave shook his head and fell in motion once again.
Oirion was in the lead now, walking near Shannon. “There was no need to be so hard on her,” he said. “She’s likely never even been out of a city before. Have a little understanding.”
“It is important that we are out of the grass by dark, Brother,” Shannon said, visibly unconcerned for the girl’s emotions and distracted from the party. His attention was directed forward, as if he was scanning for dangers.
“Terrifying her won’t help her keep up,” Oirion said, irritated at the tone and arrogance of the man for assuming they were equals. Few would even think of calling him “Brother.”
Riven wanted to comment on the blade. They’d not seen it before and could have used it several times, but that seemed rather trivial to throw in just now.
“On the contrary; the more she fears me, the better I can keep her alive.” Shannon spoke with more meaning than his words alone could express.
Oirion bit his lip to keep his cool. He wasn’t about to fall into a fight over proper behavior. He wasn’t so petty as to fight over what title a man used to address him, or how he treated silly girls, but he wanted to. Even if, he thought to himself, it made him little better than his father.
It was hot. Dave was sweating profusely. He seemed to come out of a daze. Wiping his brow on his sleeve, he looked around. He was walking along behind Theo at a hard fast pace. The sun was high in the sky, making it hotter out here than it had been on the mountain, but no one talked or complained; they just kept moving. They began to climb up another large hill, and he began to question how.
The pace they were keeping was impressive, but no one was panting or grunting, just marching blank-faced and fast. The priests might be able to do this, but the rest of them were not trained for this sort of work, certainly not the women, anyway. Dave was strong, but he was a sailor and had no illusions that he could walk at this pace all day. His strength was in his upper body, not his legs.
Looking around past the company, he could see the hills rolling back progressively smaller as they went out to meet the ocean. The lone mountain they had used as refuge for a month rose up, a blue peak of stone far back and to the east of them now. Trees had begun to grow in the rocky gullies and the mountains before them sent a cool sweet breath of wind at them, but the hills blocked their view.
He marveled at the distance they had gone, but he wasn’t surprised. He’d seen this sort of thing before. All the sailors knew that when Shannon was on board, they could face the worst storm and not get tired, no matter how long the storm lasted or how far they went. Even with that skill, the storm had driven them into the rocks and they could not escape.
Once, years ago, Dave had asked his uncle how he was able to keep the men from getting tired. Shannon had said that he took their fear and turned it into strength.
“Doesn’t that make you tired?” he had asked.
“Yes, it does, but not for the reasons that you might think,” he had said. Dave had always wondered what that meant, but never asked for more details. He feared he might have gotten answers he did not care to hear.
Dave looked for Shannon now and saw that the man was walking parallel to them, his head bowed as if he was searching the ground for something. Shannon always knew when someone was looking at him and he raised his head to meet Dave’s eyes. Dave felt that odd rush of fear mixed with excitement that a man always feels when he challenges death and survives. He quickly looked back to his own path. He didn’t want to think of his uncle as death, but at times he wondered. He had no doubts that Shannon was keeping them moving, and he didn’t want to weary the man any more than he had to. He relaxed and let his mind drift back under the sleepy influence of the spell. As he did, he wondered if Shannon had let him wake up so that he could see and know the truth. Dave wondered how it was that the two priests had fallen under the spell as well. Were they that tired or was Shannon that powerful?
As the sun began to sink below the horizon, they approached the wall of trees marking the end of the grass and the start of the forested mountain. Stone replaced the hard dirt and a thick moss replaced the grass, becoming the only abundant undergrowth here. The trees were tall and massive. Their boughs reached out creating a canopy of needles. Their great roots split the stones, making a jagged landscape. The sweet pine and earth fragrance of the forest was a welcome change after the salty dry smells of the ocean air and grasslands. Dave drew a deep breath in response to the new freshness, thankful that they had made it, his mind clearing into wakefulness.
“Look back,” Shannon said softly to Dave as he stepped past. Dave turned back to look at the grass. The two priests glanced at each other and then looked back as well. Dave blinked and let the Sight rise up into his vision. There was the trail, quite easily seen before him. Swirls of gold, lavender, and pink hung like perfumes over the golden footprints on the ground. Parallel to it, where Shannon had walked, was a dark trail that looked as if the grass along it had been frost-burned hard enough to shrivel and turn the blades black. As he stood looking at the grass, the brilliant sun went down. The grass began to move, even though there was no wind.
Riven inhaled sharply as he saw what was out there. The grass began to reach for the energy trail. Each blade waved through the residue, then curled in on itself like barnacles reaching and grabbing at food in the world around it. The thousands of blades moved like some underwater monster as it devoured the trail, folding in on it and then curling back. The grass that was burned in Shannon’s wake, however, lay still. Black steam seemed to rise out of the broken dead stems. Dave watched in horror as the grass next to the burned blades reached out, tearing and pulling at the damaged stalks. It was actually eating it… not just the energy, but the fibers as well until there was nothing left but a trail of exposed ground.
“What is it?” Dave asked in disbelief. He now knew why there was no life in the grass. The grass ate the energy, ate anything out there. He imagined the hell of being out there now, the grass turning into feeding leeches and sucking all life from a creature. He shuddered at the idea. It was like a nightmare come real. Shannon had to have known. That was why he had made them come so far in one day and why he had risked his magic being detected by the priests.
“We had heard of it, but I never thought I would see anything like it,” Riven said.
“Ah, Jamie, you’d love this one,” Oirion muttered, “carnivorous grass.”
The young wizard and the two priests turned to find that Shannon had led the others farther up the mountain and away from the grassland. They clambered up after them, feeling a little uneasy at turning their backs on the deadly grass.
In a clearing, the others stood around waiting, waking from the day’s trance.
“I suggest that we keep moving,” Riven said, as he reached the others in the clearing. He didn’t think that he could sleep this close to the grass, now that he knew what it was. He envisioned one of the party members getting up to relieve himself, stumbling into the grass and the death it promised.
“Is anyone too tired?” Oirion asked, no more eager to stay than the dwarf. Everyone looked around, but no one said anything, not even Cindie. She started to, but one look from Shannon and she went silent, half hiding behind Theo.
That lack of fatigue worried Oirion, but he put it out of his mind. If they had stopped to rest even once, they would be out there right now. The idea made him ill.
They didn’t make it far before the long hike began to take its toll. They started to stumble and fall, the dark making it only worse. Riven called a rest. Everyone dropped to the ground and didn’t get up; they lay back, aching and exhausted. Something had carried them through that hell. He closed his eyes and prayed thanks to God for His aid and blessed the angels that had helped them get through it.
They slept late, waking up sore and stiff. Even Riven felt the strain of the hike. He stretched, watching Oirion do the same. For a moment, he almost asked Oirion where Father James was, but decided against it. If Oirion had wanted to talk of the man, he would have by now. Whatever was going on was nothing Oirion chose to share. It was a risk to have a partner. Sometimes bonds went bad and even men as famous as those two might have had trouble with it.
Breakfast promised to be the last of the supplies, down to the final crumbles in the tin of nuts. Fortunately, Shannon appeared with three little rabbit-like creatures that he handed to Tavia. She set to work cooking them at once. The extra rest was welcomed and the food even more so.
Tavia brought a portion of the hot meat to where Shannon stood, just to the edge of the camp. He was watching a little trickle of water that escaped the broken stone and then vanished again.
“You need to eat,” she said. He had eaten less than anyone, yet provided more than anyone. More often than not, he declined meals that he scavenged up; this time was no different.
He turned those Purtan eyes on her. He said nothing for a moment, expecting her to just fall back, she suspected, but she had grown up with eyes like that and was not put off so easily.
“I ate,” he said in the soft Whisper of the Purtan nobility, still used by those old enough to recall the Empire as it once was.
“I don’t believe that,” Tavia said. “Not even a Purtan can keep going on what you eat.”
He put his gloved hand on hers, pushing the little bowl of meat away.
“If I ate that now, it would make me ill. Give it to the others. I will not eat it.”
She almost wanted to argue, but he was probably right. He’d eaten so little, the greasy little rodents would likely turn his stomach. She relented and turned, deciding on who should get it. She settled on Theo, slipping over while Cindie stared at Ivan. Ivan was telling her about the city of Jakorta where he had a coastal palace.
Theo looked up from rubbing his sore legs and saw Tavia holding out the bowl of meat. He took it and whispered “thank you.” He was starving, usually giving his food to his wife. He had been thin to start with and now he looked ill.
Riven said a prayer as they each drained the last drops of the watered wine they had carried. Afterwards, they all filled their canteens from the little trickle of water Shannon had spent the morning watching. It was not sweet as the mountain streams Tavia knew of, but was drinkable. She wondered if Shannon had put some sort of purifying spell on the water. There were no plants along the trickle and that seemed odd to her. She said nothing, but nodded her thanks to the man just in case.
Riven took the lead as they headed up over the rough ground, southward, with no real idea where to go or what they would find.
“Let’s stop,” Oirion said to Riven. Riven was contentedly picking his way up over the new territory, nearly oblivious of the others. He looked back as they crawled up after him, strung out down the mountain.
“This isn’t a good place,” Oirion said. “There’s a pond back there. We could run back down; see if we can catch something to eat tonight. Maybe get Ivan to bathe.”
Riven chuckled despite himself, but seriously considered the idea and the weary group. Ivan definitely had begun to smell after the sweaty hike the day before. The man was not even ashamed of his stench. He laughed and wafted his clothes, sharing the smell with a great chortle. It was wearing on Riven’s already low tolerance of the man and likely Oirion knew it.
“Let’s just cut over so it doesn’t seem like we wasted the hike,” Riven said. “We’ll stop for the day. Bathing would be good and they all need rest.”
Oirion nodded and moved ahead to scan for trouble. He wanted to get to the water first to make sure it was clean. The trail cut sideways, dropping over a low ridge and winding back down, not that far from the others. Oirion stopped to watch them through the trees and saw Shannon bringing up the rear with a slow even step, not at all labored. He followed behind Theo who struggled and panted in the high altitude.
The young man stopped to catch his breath, lifting his eyes up to the others ahead of him. Shannon stopped and waited for Theo, then looked over through the tree at Oirion. Oirion felt himself flush with energy that was out of place and uncomfortable. He felt an unlikely surge of violence toward the man, but turned and headed back down the slope toward the pond.
The water was about a hundred feet across with bushes along the far bank; a little stream drained into it from the mountain slope to the south. Oirion stood looking at it, his hands on his hips. The water looked clean and clear, but he wasn’t so sure. He could scan that there were fish and what looked like a healthy eco system, as healthy as a warped territory could be, but he was unsure of it. Rushing into unknown waters was a bad idea anywhere and certainly here was no different. Part of him just did not think it could be that easy.
Riven led the group down to the pond as Oirion continued to study the water.
“Hey!” Riven yelled at Ivan. “That pond might not be safe.”
“It’s a damn pond!” said Ivan, already pulling off his armor as he strode for it.
“Ivan, it’s warped,” Dave objected, trotting down the slope at him. “You don’t know what’s in there. Let the priest scan it out first.”
Ivan waded in, sloshing up to his waist. He turned around and waited with his hands on his hips.
“Oh look, its fine,” he said before he plunged in sideways, swimming out farther.
“Ivan!” Shannon said firmly. “Get out of the water!” It was the loudest his voice had ever been. It wasn’t that loud, but Ivan heard him. He paused in his swim, as much surprised to have Shannon sound so firm as for the fact that the man objected to the swim. He had thought Shannon fearless and to have him show caution was nothing Ivan expected.
“Why?” He had no time to get an answer as he was jerked under.
Oirion moved to run for the pond. Shannon grabbed his arm, pulling him back with surprising strength.
Dave was already down the slope and into the water. He dove in, barely leaving a ripple behind.
“What the hell are you doing?” Oirion demanded, pulling free. “Ivan needs help.”
“Two men in the water are enough. Help in other ways.”
Riven already had his hands raised and threw a lance of blue-white power that hit the water’s surface, sending rings of shock outward from it. As the shockwaves expanded, a shield that was hiding something in the water flickered. Riven had another lance ready, this one of fire. He hurled it with his body and spirit. It shot through the air, hard and straight.
Dave broke the surface, gasping hard. He coughed as he pulled Ivan up to get a breath. Ivan choked and sucked in some air, and then both were pulled under again. Oirion moved into the shallows and used a trick he had learned from Jamie: a lure. He “bled” out energy into the water with heat added to fake a strong presence, drawing the attention off the smaller prey and onto him.
The reaction he got was harder and faster than he expected. The monster rushed the shore and snapped. All Oirion saw as he leapt back was massive yellow teeth. He tried to escape the best he could with his feet in the mud, but teeth tore his vest and shirt, staggering him forward into the shallows again. The massive gray and black eel-like creature recoiled like a snake as Oirion lost his balance and plunged forward, his arms sinking into the mud. Oirion found himself chest deep in mud, his head under water.
The creature dove again with its mouth open, showing a hundred teeth pointing in all directions. Its whole body was strong muscle and its skin was sleek and dark. It moved faster than Oirion was able to. Oirion rolled sideways hard, his head barely out of the water. He saw it coming down at him. Before the thought fully hit him that he was about to be eaten, Shannon was over him, all black leather, with Ivan’s sword.
As the creature dove, Shannon swung. The thing’s head came off, separating from its body at an angle, innards spilling out. The force of the creature’s momentum carried it forward into Shannon. It impacted him, knocking him back, and he tripped over Oirion. He was unable to catch himself in the soft deep mud and hit the muddy water. Both were drenched in the reeking blood and whatever else that spewed from the wound. Oirion gagged on the smell of it.
Shannon and Oirion both had to struggle to get out from under the creature. Shannon got up and turned on Ivan. Dave was helping Ivan out of the water. His pants were torn to shreds and his legs were bleeding. Dave stepped up to block Shannon’s cold, angry look.
“Do not ever do that again,” Shannon said. Then he looked down at Oirion, who was getting up a bit shakily. “And I said help, not make yourself into bait.” He threw the sword, sinking it into the ground at Ivan’s feet. Striding out into the water, he washed his face and then pulled his braid out and tried to scrub the filth out of his long hair.
Oirion hadn’t come that close to death in decades and was a bit rattled by the encounter. He went out as well, but not as far or deep, to do the same.