Thrall Gongast would have happily allowed his life to end by the blade, as every good life should be ended. He would have gone into battle knowing it would be his last with his head held high and a smile – or as close to a smile as he could muster – on his face. Thrall did not smile, as a general rule, and hated jokes because then the laughter would come unbidden and without provocation.
There would be laughter in his life no longer, however, because he was facing the end of it right now. Ahead of him stood his end, not a battle like he wished or even a knife in the dark, which he would have preferred – assassination was something Thrall was very impressed by – but with a slow, lingering poison from the fires of The Desolation.
Oh, The Desolation: a hole in the world one thousand leagues across. Ringed with snow-covered mountains and boiling within, The Desolation kills all that comes near it not with frost or exposure – though many had ventured over the Moaning Mountains and passed on to the One Glade or wherever they thought their eternal souls went when a Great and Everknowing God came to rescue their souls and await the Neverlife together. No, The Desolation claims every life with that cowards weapons: poison.
The air was thick with it as Thrall pulled his cloak tight around his shoulders and trudged on, holding his withered left hand close to his body and dragging barren and harsh breath after breath through his hardened lungs. The sickness was setting in already and he was glad of it. Through the mist and snow, a peak could be glimpsed, maybe three or four miles away. Over it, the poisonous frothing wastes of The Desolation could be seen and any protection he had from the mountainside would was away, hopefully stripping his skin to his dusty bones and bearing him on the wind.
Even now, though, he could hear the screams settling just behind his eyes, the immortal words of his sire. “Do not walk further, Thrall, my Thrall, my glorious Thrall.” Ignoring the wails that gripped his attention, he moved one foot forward followed by another and another and another. His boots had frozen solid and his teeth – fangs, if one were being generous and truthful – stung with each bone-shattering gust.
His good right hand reached out and took a firm grasp of the rock ahead of him, worn smooth with time and exposure, only to be shattered by weathering. The tusk of stone held firm and he wrenched his huge frame up, finding a balance before walking his hand to another secure hold. The wind whipped and pulled at him. His grip tightened in reply. Still, his cloak was seized by the elements until a huge weight tugged him off the side of the slope and deposited him hard on his back. He rolled over, winded and growling with barely restrained frustration. Ahead, he saw it.
Four huge legs ending in claws the size of daggers struck the ground. The fur was white and clean, untouched by the billowing and wailing gale that surrounded him. Thrall thought for a minute that the creature was some illusion or hallucination caused by the poisoning until the great beast pulled back its lips in a snarl and dove.
Thrall rolled and his leg was caught fast in the vice grip of the creature’s jaw. On instinct, he reared back his free leg and laid the hell of his boot into the beast’s skull with a satisfying crunch heard over the storm. The white shape was sent flying, surprisingly light despite its colossal size. As it thudded along the icy ground, Thrall glimpsed teats along its underside. “No,” the voice behind his eyes growled. “Not teats, you fool. Stunted legs.”
“Baelsmog,” Thrall swore to himself. “A bloody lupe.”
The lupe rose as if lifted by its scruff by an invisible hand and shook itself. The fur moved slightly and settled. Its bright eyes, as blue as a clear day, stared deep into Thrall’s own and for the briefest of moments, the two existed in a state of peace. Then the lupe snapped at the air and let loose an angry and starved roar.
Thrall was to his feet just as the lupe’s left the ground. He could not draw Miranda in time and so raised his stunted forearm to smash into the lupe’s chest as the two collided. His right hand wrapped around the beast’s throat and gripped for purchase. Two handfuls of fur were torn from the wicked being before Thrall’s leatherbound fingers found the hard tube that it breathed through. He squeezed. Hard.
There was an audible crunch and the lupe’s squeal of pain was choked out of it. Its tiny teat-legs scratched and flailed at Thrall’s stomach uselessly as he forced his left forearm across the creature’s jaw. Pain shot up to his shoulder and he felt a mix of fire and ice as his arm bled underneath the squeezing jaw and was cooled by the unnatural drool that fell on his chest and solidified into tiny staligmites.
The great dog-beast’s eyes rolled up and the scratching weakened. With a lurch, Thrall threw its mass – heavier not than it looked earlier – to the side and drew Miranda from the scabbard on his back. The greatsword stood almost as tall as he and weighed half as much. A mighty creation of folded and hammered steel, it took most of his strength to lift it over his head but absolutely none to let it fall and split the lupe’s head like a rotten cabbage. He did not need a second stab to ensure its death – the muzzle was cleanly split from the rest of the skull and those eyes had already begun to fade to a dull white.
Steam spun from his sweating face and circled him in the wind. Sweat froze in beads on his grey cheeks and those fanged teeth of his jutted out from his lower jaw in an animalistic snarl. The voice behind his eyes laughed. “Yes, Thrall, my Thrall, look for more prey. Find and feed your lust.”
He shook the voice away as best he could and attempted to ignore it. He let Miranda’s tip slide to the snow and bite into the frozen ground. A blue stream rolled out from the lupe’s shattered skull and pool around the body. Thrall gulped in two breaths before a howl filled the air and the voice behind his eyes chuckled. One silhouette appeared on the rocks ahead of him, then a second and a third. Howls exploded all around him and his breath burst out in ragged gasps. Miranda was wrenched up and he adopted his best attempt at a defensive stance, ready to swing for his life.
The lupes move as one, their fur still and at peace. Ten paces away, they freeze and their eyes look skyward. There, circling above them, was a hugged winged shape. From it, a clicking scream burst forth, causing the lupes to howl in return. Thrall began to consider the chance that he may not die from poisoning after all, and that would be an awful shame.