Somewhere in the gardens some fury had been released. Mestarés sincerely believed that an earthquake rippled through the already troublesome forests, sending all kinds of birdlife and critters running, presumably away from the epicentre of all the noise and tremors. Among these was a triple-tusk boar, a big creature, which they let pass through their ranks seeing that it only meant to flee the disturbance. Had it been charging at them it would have been a different scenario all together and Mestarés wasn’t sure anyone wanted to test how many bullets it could take before being brought to a standstill. So no, the boar, despite crashing through the undergrowth with all the alarm it could bring was not the problem.
Then came a noise that made Mestarés think he had lost his mind. It was some kind keening noise, and clicking too, like it carried with it not the hurry of fear as much as the hurry of hunger. Maybe they had been following the boar all along and by wretched luck had been led straight across the path of the Imperials: the spiders were not a welcome sight.
Among the monstra, the giant arachnids were some of the worst breeds of creatures Mestarés had ever encountered. They were not a garden variety pest, (Mestarés would rather not use that pun, but then again he’d also rather be doing anything else than be stuck here hunted down by something he should ordinarily be able to crush beneath his shoes). Whatever variety these creatures came in – and yes they were found right across the face of the planet – were of a breed that if you did not hate or fear them immediately, would do their best to win you over to the legions of men and women who could not even stand the smallest of their kind.
His men certainly had seen enough, and now being confronted with something that had half of them rooted to the spot was almost as bad as the men who jumped into action, firing wildly without order and without coordination.
Looking at how the spiders operated, Mestarés saw exactly why Fedaro ran around the world with the bayonet blade at the tip of his Musket. Unlike smaller spiders, these forest monstra came in a coordinated pack, and was as likely to come flying from above from a length of web as it was leaping from the ground.
The men who were not paralyzed with mortal fear shot at the spiders, very ineffectively, and they did not contain the threat without wounding one of their own.
The encounter did not last long, but in that brief period of time the spiders had wounded three men fatally and at least one of the Imperials was captured on a web, and then hauled up into the forest canopies until he was invisible. The last they ever saw of the young man were parts of him raining down on the rest of them as the spiders feasted. In response to all of that, the desperate gun-fire of a hundred men quickly reduced the spiders to obscene remains of hairy legs and carcasses mutilated and ruptured with spider blood.
When the last of the hordes of spiders were dealt with, Mestarés rushed to the man who had gone down in friendly fire.
Blasted amateurs! thought Mestarés in fury as he tried to stay calm, kneeling at the wounded soldier’s side and assuring him he was going to be alright. Jemead, the medic among them, was also there in a rush, and Mestarés was greatly relieved that he could take over, as his knowledge of treating wounds were limited to stopping the bleeding.
Sternroe did not keep his dismay in check. ‘Where in Belantine’s name did you learn to shoot?’ he demanded from the soldier who had shot his own.
‘Who’s Belantine?’ muttered Tony.
‘Shut up,’ mouthed Mestarés at Tony. Tony had been one of those who had almost shot one his own men.In fact he was very lucky he did not kill a few Imperials the way he was slinging his rifle around. On the bright side, his fervour, and the way he stood his ground, did down many spiders. Mestarés however was never, ever going to tell Tony that his recklessness had probably saved a few men.
When things had quieted down, Pryro, the man Mestarés had earlier given a promotion, came carrying a spider corpse like a sports bag, and threw it at the Captain’s feet.
‘Did you see the markings on the spiders sir?’ he asked seriously.
Mestarés looked at the creature then, recognizing for the first time the big bold white markings on the bulbous torso of the spider. It was an intricate diagram in the form of a block - a maze or warren was the best way to describe it - painted in such a way that it represented the passages of death, a concept of the peoples of the Nillhe era, and since then its myth and rituals had permeated through many cultures and civilizations. Its premise was that those who strayed into death could walk the maze and come back to life, and command the creatures of death, like the spiders here.
‘From which province do you come from Pryro?’
‘That explains at least how you know,’ said Mestarés. Epossos was an outlying province of Doma Arak, where the last of the soul-eaters were seen; those that returned from the dead. Pryro was too young to have been part of that conflict, but maybe he had been a boy at the time and it would’ve been hard to forget the horrors of that particular occasion. ‘Thank you private. Keep yourself alive through this, I would like to see you do well in the force,’ said Mestarés with a nod and quickly walked over to Sternroe.
‘That was not a quake.’
‘It certainly was a quake of some kind,’ said Sternroe snidely.
‘It was a temple being ripped open,’ said Mestarés.
‘Another one of those Stonegald beasts?’
Mestarés shook his head, knowing Sternroe was insinuating that another great lizard had ravaged one of the many ruins scattered throughout Scithea.
‘Me and my second in command recognize the markings on the spiders. They are commanded by a soul-eater. They are doing the bidding of a Sigotor that’s escaped its own burial confines.’
‘How do you know so much about this?’ asked Sternroe.
’We don’t need to get into that right now. I learned all I need to know when I saw Fedaro face one of these things down in Epossos.’
‘Has Fedaro then killed one of these soul-eater dilemmas?’ asked Sternroe.
‘Yes, but not without a lot of help. Also they come in different varieties. This one will be older, and has drained upon many hapless souls, and because it has lain for such a long time in its own ritual it will be stronger than anything else to be found in the gardens.’
‘So this beastie is like whiskey, they lock him up in a cellar and he gets a little more flavour, eh?’ said Tony, uninvited to their conversation.
‘Get back in line,’ snapped Sternroe at Tony.
The short man stomped off muttering angrily.
‘The important thing to know here is that the soul-eater will be drawn to Gloria’s dead spirits. That might even be the reason it has woken in the first place,’ said Mestarés.
Sternroe frowned and then seemed emboldened by an idea as comprehension dawned on his face. ‘So we if chase this soul- eater creature, it will lead us to the girl?’ asked Sternroe.
Mestarés could not believe what he was hearing. ’Or, it gives us the perfect chance to escape. The soul-eater, as it gets its bearings together, will rather chase Gloria than us, and in doing so will take care of our target for us.’
Fedaro was right. Sternroe was given orders to capture Gloria alive at all costs.
‘We can’t take that chance, we can’t delegate our responsibility to some fiend from a ghost story,’ said Sternroe.
‘The Soul-eater is nigh un-killable,’ said Mestarés flatly at one last attempt to dissuade Sternroe.
’Grow a pair, Captain, or take a walk. I need every man available. Who knows, maybe I’ll return home such a hero everyone will forget your misdeeds in the shadows my accomplishments.’
A flicker of rage passed over Mestarés that he did not act upon, but he was convinced then that Sternroe had made his last remark without repercussion.
An inhuman roar rang in the forest confines, and if there were any doubt that the Imperial men would count this as the most gruelling first mission ever, it was swept away by that very sound.
A roar sounded somewhere in the gardens.
‘Something very angry is pursuing us,’ said Gloria frightfully.
‘I guess I would be angry too if I was lying awake in a tomb for so long, unable to die from hunger or thirst,’ said Fedaro.
‘Can you tell us more about Ultair?’ asked Beluka.
‘I can tell you this much, I intend not to run into him.’
‘Is he a man?’
‘Sort of. Sacrificed by his own people, his heart was cut from his body. They wrapped his body in cloths washed by the blood of many virgins. The people that lived here, believed that if you go through the same process as a caterpillar, you will emerge as something greater. I guess they wanted to create some kind of god. Their priests cast many spells on him and he awoke as something no one quite expected. Being able to command creatures like the spiders and feasting on the souls of his victims I guess were his rewards for participating in such an ordeal.’
‘Blood of many virgins?’ asked Beluka as though that’s all he had taken from what Fedaro just said.
‘I might’ve made that part up, but the rest of it is certainly true. ’
’Can he be killed? asked Beluka.
‘I hate to admit this, but I don’t think anything I carry on me currently is going to do it any harm.’ Having said that, Fedaro noticed Beluka walked all the more faster.
I can’t agree more big man, let’s get out of here.
Fedaro fiddled with his Musket, not voicing aloud the fact that he had less than a hundred and fifty rounds left. Of these at least some were some specialized bullets of which he made sure the most appropriate ones were all set in a magazine he would only slam into the Musket when face-to-face with Ultair. The bullets in that one would deliver a cocktail of agents that had worked for Fedaro against a variety of deadly things in the past, including a soul-eater, albeit a much weaker one than the one they now faced. The three types of bullets Fedaro thought would most effective here was a high dosage acid round, a tessenair shot that was known to undo magical protection, and a bullet with a toxin that supercharged the rate at which blood coagulates. If this Ultair had any blood to speak off, Fedaro was going to do his best to slow him down by petrifying his insides with his own blood.
‘Can you use your powers?’ he asked Gloria, not feeling too confident about his special bullets.
She shook her head frantically.
Fedaro sighed. ‘Can you use your bow?’
She looked unsure.
‘We might need you to fight too okay? I’ve seen you kill a giant lizard. Now I can only assume you are shy of using your powers against something that drinks the very essence of your bond with dead spirits, but I need you to show some courage and use the bow and arrow. Alright?’
She said nothing, but Fedaro saw some kind of agreement in her eyes, as though she was resigned to the fact that they would not leave the gardens easily, which Fedaro considered to be a healthy attitude at the time.
‘What’s your bow called?’ asked Fedaro.
’All weapons of Arterra are of the moon. My bow is called the Crescent,’ said Gloria.
’Crescent moon?’ asked Fedaro thinking of the shape of a sickle moon. ‘That’s quite clever. Did you name it that?’
‘No, it was my father. ’
Fedaro nodded. ‘From now on, that bow of yours carries the fury of your people. Anything your people had ever done, is now reduced to you getting out of this place and use your bow the way it was meant to be used. It’s your survival and your instrument by which the world will know your people. Do you get that?’
‘Yes,’ said Gloria.
‘Good girl,’ said Fedaro, and moved on with as much speed as circumstances allowed. He hoped Beluka had some stamina in him, not sure that Gloria could move any real distance yet with her ankle.
Their trouble came again the form of spiders, homing in on what Fedaro thought was all Gloria’s doing. He considered asking her if there was some facet of her ability that she could mute, so that Ultair and his spiders would not smell her out so easily so to speak. But given her limited control he had seen her exercise so far he was guessing that that was not really an option for her. The first few spiders Fedaro dealt with promptly and they seemed to make a good deal of ground without trouble. Fedaro’s instincts told him this was all wrong and that even though they were heading in the right direction, something bad was already waiting across their very road.
Things had grown quiet and then the creature treaded across their path, its patient approach a horrifying aspect.
Of all the creatures in this Jungle, Ultair was the very worst of them. It identified itself as an eater of souls. It was not a monstra, but rather a sinister creation of the rituals mankind had practiced here eons ago, that much was now confirmed. Fedaro was certain its man-like shape was at least eight feet tall. It looked like most of its skin had been turned inside out, with flesh having rotten over the course of time, in essence being a walking carcass, its eyes literally looking like glowing coals. It had war paints on its body, all white shapes like those on the spiders; its only clothing being a loincloth and a rudimentary belt. The aforementioned flesh of its body was a mahogany colour, and he looked as hard and unbendable as the tree that inspired that colour.
‘Do not run!’ it commanded in an inhuman voice, its rotten teeth bared in a lipless mouth, and the sound of its voice carried a component as paralyzing as any toxin made for that purpose. Fedaro pushed at Beluka’s shoulder.‘Now is not the time to start listening to dead things, go!’ While he said it Fedaro traded the magazine of his musket with the one holding the cocktail of special bullets.
’Such insolence! I, king of Scithea, come awake with mankind not obeying my commands? What has time done to my world that peasants live for their own purposes?’ it roared as it came trudging forward, its movements still jerky and disjointed as though the centuries of sleep had not been kind to its limbs. With Ultair’s approach Beluka was off in a different direction, disappearing from sight with Gloria and Fedaro lifted his Musket at the incoming creature.
Fedaro steadily fired, knowing he was simply wasting lead, not even sure he was causing Ultair pain even though his flesh exploded where the bullets struck. The mercenary could not make a study of it given the circumstances, but he was certain the body of Ultair was renewing itself by some dark art. Coming too close for comfort, Fedaro also turned and ran.
Fedaro had no idea how long or how far they fled the creature, moving just fast enough to stay ahead of it, and the petrifying agent of Fedaro’s bullets surely gave them some space to work with. But they were moving haphazardly now and were more likely to go further into the gardens instead of getting out of it. Also, they were tiring, while Ultair was simply regaining his strength and becoming faster by the minute. All of that was not even counting the hordes of spiders that seemed to hunt them now. They came from all sides, and from above of course, and sometimes emerging from places like they had burrowed themselves into the most unlikely hiding spots. Fedaro had trouble following their movements, dedicating his efforts to warding off the spiders of greatest threat and keep on moving at all costs.
Beluka stomped some of the spiders, again, which seemed to be an amicable solution given that his hands were occupied.
Gloria had seemingly found some volition, climbing onto Beluka’s shoulders, with her moon bow which had been strapped to the Hippo’s backpack, holding herself in place by wrapping her legs in underneath the Hippo’s arms. While the hippo kept moving, she was stinging the spiders were her arrows. Fedaro was very impressed; she had to his guess at least ten years of practice with a bow, missing her target less than once every five shots, which under the circumstances was still quite amazing. Add to that Fedaro did not need to waste all his ammunition.
The girl has courage. If only she could maintain this, we might escape here. She also pulled the makeshift spear Fedaro had cut for Beluka from his backpack and handed it to him, who, now with his hands free, could use it effectively against some of the spiders who came too close. Had it not been such a dire situation, Fedaro would certainly have stopped and laughed at how the Hippo’s spear was starting to resemble a giant spider-kabob as he skewered creature after creature. Between the three of them they did a good enough job to fight through the worst of it.
But the spiders also laid traps, stray webbing laid across their road. Fedaro cut through the webbing with his bayonet and used a fire-shot to blast his way through where the spiders had weaved a giant circular web waiting to seemingly swallow them. Fedaro and the rest crashed through the cinders as the fire consumed it.
Beluka in the meanwhile had started to pant heavily, his legs becoming numb by now and Fedaro knew he could not continue on. Fedaro sympathized with him, knowing most men could not even carry the load he had for a few paces, never mind running with it at long distances. In fact that he had made it this far was a wonder.
He halted his party, knowing Beluka was soon going to fall over anyway, and that the spiders were an endless horde that would sooner or later overwhelm them.
‘What now!?’ said Beluka breathlessly.
‘Sit down a minute,’ said Fedaro as he casually fired dead another encroaching spider, hearing the rhythm of the greater horde bearing down on them and surely foreshadowing Ultair’s appearance.
‘We will have to do something about Ultair, or we won’t make it out.’
‘Can’t we keep running!?’ asked Beluka.
Fedaro shook his head, almost in amusement. ‘You certainly can’t. If the opportunity presents itself, make sure you get out of here. But don’t you dare leave the girl behind,’ he added that last part as a firm reminder that the only reason he valued the Hippo was because of the girl, and that without her he would discard him to whatever fate Scithea could conjure.
With resignation Fedaro looked back, the hordes of spiders drawing closer, Ultair himself no doubt making his way through the bush in angst anticipation of feeding on the spirits of Gloria’s people.
I really miss my bike, thought Fedaro, who rarely faced a problem he could not escape by simply burning rubber and strangling the throttle.
The Sigotor beast came crashing through the undergrowth and at least one truth was then confirmed; the spiders having cornered them would not initiate hostilities, at the risk of destroying the anchor that kept the spirits bound to Ellion. Ultair understood this now and his minions formed ranks around them, though not moving in for the kill.
The red eyes came hovering through the thick of the woods and Ultair roared at seeing his prey at last within his grasp.
When he emerged Fedaro levelled his musket and peppered him with bullets that partly petrified Ultair’s movements, and when Fedaro was satisfied the incoming creature was as encumbered as he would ever be, he charged straight in.
Fedaro rammed the bayonet into the stomach of Ultair, trying to drive the muzzle of the musket straight into the insides of its chest, and then pulled the trigger. The fire-shot exploded right through the right side of Ultair’s body, that initial blast of flames so violent that the left sleeve of Fedaro’s tail coat caught alight. Yet still wrestling with the beast he ignored his searing arm and ripped the bayonet further through rapidly disintegrating flesh, tearing the right side of the creature’s torso clean off, from the sternum to the cuff of the shoulder. With the intact part of its body Ultair retaliated as though oblivious of the pain, and back-handed Fedaro senseless. The only good thing came of it was that Fedaro had taken the fall in such a way that the fire was gone from his arm. The tail coat was meant to take some heat, but still the sting of the flames brought tears of pain to his eyes. He looked up, delirious and worried that his arm had suffered permanent damage, but still very much focussed on the threat at hand - Ultair was not done for yet.
Right then Beluka came charging and with the force he struck Ultair he might as well have been mounted on a great warhorse. To Fedaro’s eyes Beluka looked like one of those enormously strong oafs who were just too clumsy to be of any real use, the kind who knocks something over in the kitchen and then while trying to clean up his mess makes a greater hash of it. But his strike was expertly done and composed, precisely what Fedaro would have done could he replicate the sheer momentum Beluka had. The wooden spear in the hands of Beluka first struck through the outreaching hand of the undead beast and a split second later the spear struck into the body as well, picking the creature up in the process and ramming it to the base of a giant tree, its feet hanging two feet in air, half its torso missing and its hand pinned to its body while the spear was lodged deeply enough into the tree for it hang there, suspended in the air. Ultair roared, as though Beluka had managed to pierce the only nerve that could excite a pain-sensation in its body. Looking at it Fedaro could not believe their luck, seeing a being like Ultair pinned and helpless by a length of wood. It roared and struggled continually.
Now is the time to run! thought Fedaro. He had the impulse to try his arsenal of tricks to see if one of them would be enough to put Ultair out of his misery once and for all.But he was certain nothing he had could entirely destroy Ultair and he did not want to give the thing a chance to come loose and pursue them further. The black blood on the blade of the bayonet would have to be enough for now. Fedaro scooped up Gloria in his arms, knowing Beluka was too tired to keep on carrying her.
‘Run as hard as you can Hippo!’ he cried.
Just as they got moving, the hundreds of spider servants started to pursue them again even though their master was incapacitated, and Fedaro thought they were doomed.
And then Gloria’s people intervened. It became apparent that Ultair was caught up to such an extent that Gloria’s spirits were no longer at threat of being absorbed by the soul-eater. Even as Fedaro ran with the girl in his arms, beings of an otherworldly nature appeared at his peripherals every few paces, and the grey-armoured men stood their ground with their swords and intercepted the incoming spider horde, halting them in a clash where twenty dead warriors hacked and slash through a stampede of arachnid. It was enough for the three of them to escape. Relieve swept through Fedaro. You did it girl, he thought thankfully.
In the distance the first cold winds came sweeping through the forest corridors, the hellish Desolates already breathing into northern edge of Scithea, bidding Fedaro, Beluka and Gloria, a dire welcome.