The sun shone brightly over the caravan as it wobbled along the half overgrown road. Weeds and small bushes shared space with pock marks and stones as the group picked its way along. Hardly anyone travelled east of the Tri-Peak Mountains anymore because of few villages and even fewer farms. The Sol’ Natei Woods were the realm of the Elves and few were invited to their most sacred forest. Still the caravan made a monthly trek along the old road to bring basic supplies to the outlying villages.
Duncan Taurel snapped the reigns as his lead horse, an aging Clydesdale, began to veer off the road a bit. “Come on Agnes, you old bitty, stay on the road,” he pulled on the reins a bit to the right to bring the old girl back in line.
Maria Taurel leaned against her husband for support as the wagon shifted back on course, “Eschua knows we don’t need another busted wheel.” Her corn silk hair, graying in some spots spread over Duncan’s shoulder. She laid her head as best she could on him as the wagon bobbed up and down along the road. The sunlight brightened the many freckles that sprinkled her weathered face. Both her and her husband had made this trade run for quite a few seasons and they had seen a great many things. Beautiful grasslands rolled off to their right crashing into the sea in a splash of greens and blues. To their left stood the mighty trees of the Elven realm of Instillende Sol. Like mighty sentinels, the trees towered into the shimmering sunlight high above. Many trunks were wider than some castle keeps and over hundreds of feet tall. Like a great wall the trees at the edge of the forest crowded next to one another competing for space and creating a natural barrier.
Duncan looked towards the trees himself as he answered Maria, “Yeah and we only have one more spare until we reach the next village.” The Clydesdale shook its enormous head and snorted as a light breeze picked up. Duncan rubbed the back of his head as he stretched his back and yawned. His salt and peppered hair whipped around his shoulders from the breeze, brushing a fallen leaf off. The leaf twisted and swam through the air as it glided toward the wagon floor.
2 wagons back from the Taurels sat one of their sons’, Malak. At age 12, and being the older brother, Malak was more serious in many things. He was always spending time with the merchants and the guards, asking hundreds of questions, practicing sword play, pestering people about their trades, and always holding himself like he was already a grown man. He was unlike his younger brother Tristan, who was always playing, always getting into trouble, and always trying to get out of working.
Malak sat on the wagon seat next to Dwarven merchant out of Silverhall. The Dwarf’s red beard had streaks of white and gray interwoven throughout as it dipped below his knees and then looped back up to where he had tucked it into his belt. A birch wood pipe sat lazily to one side of his mouth as he talked to the lad and puffed away on some Orium leaf. Malak’s bronze skin glinted in the sunlight as he leaned forward with the reins of the wagon. The Dwarf, Drogo, showed him how to guide the horses along the road.
Laughter could be heard from farther back along the caravan as a little boy with jet-black hair came running down the side of the road with a chocolate colored mutt nipping at his heels. The boy swung a stick in his hands back and forth teasing the dog as if he was going to throw it. They chased one another around a field to the west of the road as the caravan wobbled along. Maria stood up in the wagon, “Tristan stay close to the caravan,” she called out, “and don’t tease Brutus like that.” She sat back down as she shook her head and chatted on with her husband.
The boy stopped and looked towards the trees as a sudden cry rippled from the woods carried along on the breeze that had picked up. It was distant and fleeting at first. Tristan didn’t think much of it as Brutus snatched the stick from his hand and bounded off across the field and back to the caravan. Tristan turned back to the trees for a moment, staring past the gargantuan tree trunks that seemed older than time itself. They towered into the noon day sun and Tristan did his best to see their tops but to no avail. The dog barked at him and Tristan spun around to see Brutus under the third wagon wagging his tail.
Tristan giggled and he took off after the dog. As he came up toward the wagons he glanced over at his brother Malak, “Come on Malak, come play!” He smiled and ran between the wagons.
Malak shook his head, “Drogo is teaching me how to drive the wagon, maybe later.” He waved at Tristan and then turned back to the horses.
Tristan groaned, “You’re always learning something from someone, come play…” He stopped for a second to look at his brother. He shook his head and sighed as he saw his brother turn back to the horses. “Oh well…” he muttered, as he again chased after Brutus.
A few minutes passed by and again there was a cry carried on the wind. This time it sounded closer, unnatural, and its high pitched tones made Tristan’s skin crawl. The caravan came to a stop and giving the reins to Maria, Duncan jumped down from the wagon. He surveyed the trees, trying to peer into the dense foliage beyond. A few of the other merchant men jumped down from their wagons and came up to Duncan. Malak tossed the reins to Drogo and leapt off his wagon.
“Malak stay here,” Drogo called after him as he jumped up from his seat nearly dropping his pipe. The dwarf tied the reins on the wheel brake and then plopped down to the ground. He heard a second guttural cry that caused a shiver down his spine. He looked into the woods for a moment trying to determine the origin of the sound. He heard it again, and this time it was joined by two others. Drogo quickly dashed to the back of the wagon and rummaged around until he found his bronze short sword and an oaken buckler with steel bindings. He slipped the buckler over his left arm and grabbing his sword he headed for the group of merchants.
Tristan knelt in the grass beside Brutus stroking the dog’s chest. His heart raced faster after hearing the multiple cries.
He wanted to go to his mother but he couldn’t move.
The blood in his veins was like ice.
His eyes shifted back and forth, tracing the tree line as he looked for the origin of the screams.
Maria jumped down from the wagon when she saw Malak running toward his father. She intercepted him, “No Malak, you will stay with me,” she quickly turned Malak away from the group and herded him toward the wagon.
“Mom, I want to be with dad and the other merchants,” he complained, “I am nearly an adult.” He tugged against her grip.
Maria stopped and quickly turned around to her eldest son, “You are the eldest son but you are still my child and right now you will heed my command and come with me,” she gave him a look that dared him to disobey her with more complaints.
“Ye…yess mother,” he quickly shut his mouth and looked back at the men gathered by his father. Head down, he followed his mother back to the wagon, still sulking quietly behind her.
“Duncan, what is that sound?” Richard, a Merchant out of Southford, asked as the men all peered into the forest. Some milled about; whispering in the back of the group, but all 12 merchants listened for Duncan’s reactions.
“It sounded like an animal, but I can’t be sure,” Duncan shook his head, “the trees are muffling the sounds and with little visibility I have no way of knowing where it’s coming from.” He didn’t like it; the guttural cries were getting closer over the last few minutes. He had heard sounds similar once before, but he prayed he was wrong. He shuddered as memories from a time in his past he tried to put behind him.
Drogo had come up to the group then, the merchants surprised to see him armed. “You have some idea Duncan, trust your instincts,” he had noticed the shudder in the man, “I know the sound too, all too well.”
There were murmurs again flitting around the group. Some of the men shuffled about uneasily as they looked from the dwarf and back to Duncan. “Duncan what does he mean? What do you think it might be?” Richard had his arms crossed and wasn’t too happy that the man might be keeping something back. He didn’t like it when things were kept from him, especially when it dealt with the safety of his merchandise. He had spent his whole life on this caravan, carving out a life for himself and making his money where he could. He didn’t like it that the others had chosen Duncan over him to be the caravan leader. He had been in the group for more years than Duncan and his family had, he had seniority and was outraged when he wasn’t picked.
“Richard, I don’t like to alarm people when I don’t know for sure about something,” Duncan eyed the merchant, he knew there was bad blood between them. “It sounds like unwanted guests, no matter what they are,” he turned to face the rest of the men, “we need to gather the wagons up and bring everyone together.” Duncan pointed to the field where his son, Tristan, sat with Brutus looking intently toward the forest.
“Why not make a run for it?” Richard thought he saw a chance to slip in as the better leader, “we are better off heading down the road then risk everyone being ambushed here in the open grass.” He smiled as he saw some of the merchants nod in agreement.
“No Richard,” Duncan noticed a change in the man and it wasn’t for the better of the group, “if we make a run for it, we risk damaging the wagons that are already stressed from this trip.” He held Richard’s stern look with one of his own, “If a wagon breaks down then there is no chance of escape and we still would be caught defenseless.” He knew what Richard was doing and he wasn’t about to back down.
“You would rather risk the group out in the open then make a run for it and have a chance of making it?” Richard raised his voice and took in the looks of the other men as he belted accusingly back at Duncan.
I have him now, he thought.
“We have a better chance if we round the wagons up in a defensive position. We won’t be caught on the road defenseless and we have a better chance of saving ourselves as well as the cargo.” Duncan snapped back and was encouraged by other men who nodded in agreement. “This discussion is over, we will defend ourselves and not tuck tail and run and risk getting attacked on the open road.” He glared at Richard begging him to say more. The other men whispered and nodded in agreement.
Richard shook his head in disgust and stormed back to his wagon. The screams soared just then, not one or two but several and with the wind through the trees it seemed to sound everywhere. The fuming man stopped abruptly and stared back at the forest intently. He thought he saw movement amongst the trees. More screams bounced back and forth amongst the trees and the sounds of branches snapping and leaves crunching could be heard. Richard turned back to see the men quickly rushing for the wagons, families scurried about to find something to protect themselves with. The horses reared and bucked as the screams were joined by a hellish roar. First one, then several others bellowed as the origin of the sounds burst through the tree line.
Massive feline creatures almost as big as the horses bounded from tree trunk to tree trunk, their claws ripping deep into the bark and leaving severe gouges. The trees seemed to shudder under the beating as 7 creatures burst through the tree line. Some were carrying orcs while others were alone.
“Oh, God!” Richard hoarsely called out. He ran for his wagon and jumped up. He snatched the reins from their perched and began whipping the backs of his horses. “Move you useless beasts. MOVEEE!!” He angrily whipped at the horses causing them to rear up and then bolt off to the side of the road near the woods to get around the caravan. “Dirzamon Tigers!!” He screamed at the top of his lungs.
Why were they here? They were from the Mozob Wastelands on the main continent.
Duncan saw Richard barrel up the side of the caravan nearly running down people as he tried to flee. “No Richard!!” He raised his hands up and stood in the path of the wagon. “Don’t flee; they are too fast for the wag…” But Richard wouldn’t listen to him, his eyes bloodshot with rage and fear he whipped the horses faster. Duncan’s eyes widened with shock as he saw that Richard was going to run him down.
“Duncan!!! Watch out!!” Maria screamed from atop the wagon with Malak at her side. Duncan at the last second, waving his hands to stop the wagon, leapt out of the way and rolled under his own wagon. The horses galloped by in a mad dash, ripping up dirt clods and stirring up dust. The wagon swayed back in forth from the outrageous driving and bumped the side of the Taurels’ wagon as it streaked by.
Two of the tigers turned as they saw the wagon break away and took off in pursuit. Their furless skin twisted and perverted, from the Wastelands’ atmosphere and the evil that lurked there, rippled and seemed to pulse with translucent light. Their mouths salivated with anticipation of rending the flesh from the human before them as they bounded quickly across the field. The other tigers and the orcs rushed towards the caravan wagons. The orcs let out their guttural screams again as they swung their weapons and the beasts howled in unison.
Duncan scrambled out from under the wagon and ran for the back of it, sliding to a halt as he turned the corner. He reached around the back searching frantically for his bow and arrows. Other men gathered weapons while wives and children tried to settle down the horses and calm the younger children. Arrows began to fly through the air smashing into wagon wheels and piercing the cloths of covered wagons. Women screamed alongside their children as the tigers closed the gap between them. Men knocked arrows and began to fire back, while others came out from behind the wagons brandishing iron swords and simple shields.
Tristan watched all of this in horror as he clung to Brutus, who was barking relentlessly towards the invaders. The dog tugged and tugged at Tristan’s grip, barking and hopping up and down. “No Brutus, stay here.” Tristan cried as he held tighter to him. He closed his eyes at the screams, trying to shut out the nightmare before him. Suddenly Brutus broke free and shot off toward the wagons. Tristan reached out trying to grab him as he dashed away, “Noo!!!”
Maria whipped around as she remembered Tristan, “Tristan!” she screamed at the top of her lungs as she held onto Malak. Malak sat in his mother’s grip terrified and amazed at the sheer power of the creatures and the precision of the orcs.
The Dirzamon Tigers slammed into the wagon train. Some smashing through or turning over wagons as they burst out the other side. Others turned on the men, snapping at them or bashing them aside with their colossal limbs. The orcs either continued to fire arrows at close range or pulled out wickedly looking axes and swords to do battle. War cries sounded off, weapons clashed and howls pierced the afternoon sky.
The two tigers that had broken off to chase after Richard came racing up on either side of his horses. They snapped and hissed at the beasts sending them into a chaotic gallop that wrenched the wagon forward, almost tossing Richard out of his seat. The tigers pulled back as one and came around the left side of the wagon. Richard grabbed his sword and swung wildly at the closest beast. The tiger whipped its head upwards and grabbed the blade from his grip, ripping it away from him. It then jumped up and slashed out at him, carving long gashes in his shoulder and arm, nearing ripping it off of him.
“Ahhh!” The man screamed as he dropped the reins and clutched his arm. Blood poured out profusely from the gashes. The two tigers roared at the scene with some close to ecstasy as they saw the blood stream down his arm. They veered off for a moment and built up speed as they prepared for the final assault. Richard frantically grappled with trying to catch the reins as they whipped about chaotically from the back of the horses.
He didn’t see what came next until it was too late.
The two tigers came at him from the left side at almost a perpendicular path. The first one lunged for the lead horse, sinking its claws into the back and stomach while its fangs dug deep into the neck on both sides. Biting down hard Richard heard the bones snap and the sinews pop in the horse’s neck, piece by piece. Jaw dropped, he heard a noise to his left. Time slowed down as he turned his gaze toward the sound. With each inch he turned, the sound grew louder, his heart thumped louder, and the ice in his blood hardened even more.
The final inch brought his doom as he looked into the gapping maw of his demise.
Tristan looked on as he watched the caravan ripped apart by the beasts. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he wanted to scream but nothing would surface. He knelt in the grass with his hands on the ground in front of him. He couldn’t see his father, but he heard him shouting. The wagon that had held his mother and brother was now overturn but they were nowhere to be seen. Even Brutus wasn’t to be seen though he heard the occasional barking.
Suddenly a Dirzamon Tiger burst through the caravan with an orc on its back. He galloped around in circles as if looking for something. Tristan backed up slowly as he looked around for his father or mother. One step at a time he began to rise and back away. His heart pounding in his ears, he watched the two continue to dance around. The tiger salivating and its muscles pulsing as the orc flicked his gaze Tristan’s way. A crooked smile erupted across his twisted and battered face. He kicked the beast in its sides and charged off toward Tristan.
Tristan turned to run, still no words on his lips. He could hear the heavy breathing of the tiger and the low growl as it raced to catch up. The pounding of the animal as it rushed toward him seemed to pound in sync with the pounding of his heart. He thought he heard shouting nearby but he dared not look back for fear of being caught. A rock loomed out of the ground to his left and he made his way toward it, zigzagging through the field.
The orc screamed in elation as his mount came rushing up on the right side of the child. He reached for his club behind his back and raised it above his head, bellowing a war cry. As he was about to swing, a whistling sound surged up behind him as an arrow blasted through the cheekbone of the tiger. The animal convulsed a second and then tripped over its own feet as it lost control. Its blood red eyes rolled back in its skull as it collapsed face forward into the dirt. An explosion of debris washed over the orc rider as its mount dug through the ground from its momentum.
Tristan heard the whistle a second before he was slammed in the back and thrown head first into the rock. His head smacked hard against the stone as blackness followed the sharp pain and cloudy vision. It was the blackness that blanketed his existence, that blackness that held him for what seemed like eternity, and it was the blackness that almost consumed his being…