Now published in The Broken Plate!
Captain Rennis smelled the body before she saw it. The thick pungent stench of rotting meat permeated the stale air. She gagged slightly. The smell was thick and heavy, it clung to the surrounding trees, to her hair and clothes, to the very air itself. She was no stranger to the smell of death, but this time it was different. Darker. She couldn’t quite put it into words. The narrow twisting path finally opened into the clearing. Her men had reached the body before her and had moved it out of the burbling stream they had found it in. She bent down low. It was a man, or at least what was left of a man. He had been ravaged by some sort of beast, long jagged tears ran parallel down his back and his clothes were in dirty tatters. Part of his arm had been chewed off.
“What do we know?” she asked, not taking her eyes off the body.
“It doesn’t look good. I spoke with the people up at Ravenhill and the only person missing is a farmer, Uren Daal.”
She could hear the apprehension in her sergeant’s voice. She drew her dagger and gently lifted a flap of the fleshy red skin. No maggots. She sighed. “And…?”
“And…he was last seen a day and a half ago, by his wife, heading this way. Planning to do some fishing, she said.”
A day and a half. A body should not decompose this quickly. And there were no maggots or flies. The first time it happened it was an oddity. The fourth time it was a problem. Something tickled at the back of her head. A half-forgotten nursery rhyme her mother had told her once. She brushed it aside and refocused on the body.
“Send word to the capital. We need an archivist.”
Silence met her command and Rennis broke out in a cold sweat.
“Winters? Fuer? Jekk?” She rose slowly, drawing her blade. She spun in a slow circle; the glade was empty except for her and the body. Silence hung palpable around her. The air felt heavy, it was hard to breathe. There was a low hissing from her left and she whirled to face it. When it emerged from the trees her strength fled. She had hoped, prayed, it would be something—anything—other than what crouched before her. Sinking to her knees, she whispered, “Gods help us all.”
And then it pounced.
Felara Denn hated traveling. The carriage was hot and smelled like horse, and she swore that the driver was purposefully finding every rock on the dirt patch masquerading for a road. The carriage rocked once again causing her to lose her spot in The Historie and Mythe of Dunmuth. Again. Sighing, she closed the heavy tome and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to stem the oncoming headache. Irritated, she twitched aside the light curtain that kept the dust out of the interior of the carriage and leaned out.
“Madame Archivist,” he replied, riding up to the carriage window. As hot as Felara was in her Archivist robes, she couldn’t imagine how the knight felt in his full platemail. Yet as he leaned down from his horse, she couldn’t see a bead of sweat on his dark skin.
“How much longer until we reach…Ravenhill, was it? We’ve been on the road for nearly a fortnight now, and the maps don’t place it more than a six day ride from the capital.” She adjusted her robes awkwardly. Felbrect’s expressionless gaze always made her uncomfortable. “Although I’ve read reports of it done in as little as three.” Gods, she was babbling. She felt rose bloom on her cheeks; she hoped he would not notice.
“Six days of hard travel for a single rider, three if he has a royal seal and can ride his horses to death, making switches at the outposts.” His harsh black eyes swept from her to the caravan of soldiers—nearly a full battalion, “With our numbers it has taken a little longer. Fear not, we are near now.”
“Sir Felbrect!” a young messenger boy called, running up beside them. Mounted on his mighty destrier, the knight towered over the boy. Craning his neck, the boy shouted excitedly, “Sir, the scouts have returned sir! They request and audience!”
Felbrect nodded, reaching into the pouch at his waist he retrieved a copper penny and tossed it to the child. He nodded respectfully to Felara and then galloped off. She watched him go pensively. Sir Felbrect Connington of the Knights of Valor, the most renowned warriors of Dunmuth. What could possibly be in this borderland village that would interest the king enough to send a third order Archivist, a Knight of Valor, and nearly a battalion of foot and cavalry to investigate? Her musing was broken by the thundering return of Sir Felbrect. His usually dour face was even more grim, his mouth drawn in a thin hard line. He wrenched the door of the still-moving carriage open.
“With me. Now.” Felbrect was a gruff man, but always polite. This was serious. She dropped the book and scrambled, with his help, onto his mount. Together they flew off in a flurry of dust and hooves, leaving the rest of the caravan far behind.
They sped down the winding dirt road in silence, Felbrect because his mind was elsewhere, Felara because she couldn’t manage to get a word out with how fiercely the horse’s gait jostled her. She hugged her companion’s wide chest as they bounced violently across the land. She could feel her muscles screaming as she tried to stay atop the destrier. A lifetime of lifting books from shelves had not prepared her for this kind of exercise and she could feel her grip loosening. In terror, she squeezed her eyes shut, focusing all her might on keeping hold of that slick metal armor. Just as she was sure she was going to fall to her death, Felbrect pulled to a violent stop. Shakily, she slid from the animal and collapsed in a puddle of disarrayed robes and windswept hair, eyes still squeezed shut. She wasn’t sure she had the strength to open them.
“Gods!” she heard Felbrect swear. It was startling enough for her to open her eyes. In her 15 years as an Archivist she had never heard so much emotion from him. When she saw what had drawn out his curse, she too wanted to swear. Or vomit. Or run screaming back the way they had come. Instead, she reached into her satchel and retrieved a small golden orb. Pressing on the small groove centered at the top of the sphere, she began speaking in low measured tones.
“I have reached the village of Ravenhill. Sir Felbrect and I went ahead of the caravan, presumably because of the reports Sir Felbrect received from his scouts. The first body is male, unarmed, facing away from the village, at around 700 paces. He has been decapitated.”
As she was recording, Felbrect had unsheathed his sword and strode forward toward the village. She picked herself up and hurried after him. As they strode through the carnage, she continued her duties. “There do not appear to be any survivors. Men, women, and children were all slain indiscriminately, many suffering from evisceration, amputation, or decapitation. The size and power of these wounds imply some sort of bladed weapon, although the scale and the relative lack of damage to the buildings suggest that this was not the work of raiders….hold on.” She bent down, rolling one of the bodies over. It was a young woman—or at least had been, before the three large gashes running down her spine had ended her life. Her sightless eyes gazed at Felara and a finely crafted necklace on a delicate gold chain glinted from her hands. Felara frowned. “Definitely not raiders.”
She sat back on her heels, puzzled. “Who slaughters an entire village but doesn’t take any valuables?”
“Cultists?” asked Felbrect.
Felara jumped, she had forgotten he was there. She ran her hand through her hair, thinking. “Well…yes, there are several cults that demand human sacrifice, Goulav and Kuen being the most prominent, but…”
“Look at how the bodies are laid out,” she said, working through it as she spoke. “The ones near the entrance, to nearly 400 paces in, were all struck down where they stood. They didn’t even realize they were under attack. Combined with the kinds of wounds being dealt, this attack was swift enough that they didn’t have time to react.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” replied Felbrect, catching on immediately. “It’s open fields for at least half a league leading up to where we the first body is. And cultists move in groups. There is no way so many of them would have been caught off guard in such an attack.”
“And look,” she said, pointing ahead of them. “That’s the first body we’ve seen with a weapon. By the time it took for this man to realize they were under attack and arm himself, whatever was attacking was nearly halfway through the village.”
“Whatever? Do you suspect a creature instead of a person?”
A pit was growing in her stomach. “I have a theory. Come on.”
They sped through the wide main street of Ravenhill, Felara recording the whole way.
“The volume of corpses are increasing as we near the center of the village. I hypothesize that earnest armed resistance began as villagers drew toward the center to defend themselves. We will find our answers at the center.”
The buildings fell away into a large cobbled square, where bodies lay strewn out in a radial pattern, all pointing inward toward…
“What in the gods is that?”
Ignoring the knight, she approached slowly. She had difficulty focusing. This couldn’t be real. At the center of the carnage was a creature that hadn’t been seen in the lands of Dunmuth in over four centuries. The Archivists kept record of the histories of Dunmuth, but they had never forgotten their true purpose, an oath sworn in the dead of night by the first of her order. To keep watch, vigilant for the return of the Icathi, the dreaded demonspawn that had once almost ended humanity.
She knelt in front of the carcass. It was a hulking thing, roughly humanoid. She estimated nearly eight feet tall when it stood upright. That was concerning, there had never been records of any Icathi taller than 7 feet. There were also no mentions of the large spines running up its forearms. She didn’t want to think about what that implied. Its wide boney head had been split open by a woodsman’s axe, a severed hand still gripping the haft. It had four eyes lining the lower ridge of its skull, right above a set of deadly looking mandibles. Although they gazed out at her lifelessly, she swore she could still feel its malice radiating through her. Its ashen grey skin was dull in the sunlight, except where its blood had spilled out from numerous cuts. Somehow, it was still wet, and it glowed in the sunlight, and impossibly deep and bright red. She reached her hand out to touch it…
“…dame Archivist!” She felt herself yanked to her feet. Her head felt fuzzy.
“You were about to do something very foolish.” Felbrect bit off each word like a sword stroke. With his nostrils flared and neck bulging in anger, Felara suddenly got a very clear insight into why he was nicknamed “The Bull.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was think…thank you.”
“Just doing my job,” he replied gruffly, returning to the stoic demeanor she was used to. “What can you tell me about this…thing?”
Her head was finally clearing up from the shock of seeing a myth in the flesh (or at least she prayed fervently that it was only shock that clouded her thoughts). “We need to go, NOW!” she shouted, hiking up her robes and sprinting toward the outskirts of dead village, where they had left the horse.
“Wha-? Wait up damned woman! Why are we running? What is the danger?”
Without breaking stride she shouted over her shoulder a single word. “Icathi.”
Before she realized what was happening there was an arm circled around her waist and she found herself hoisted onto the knight’s shoulder as he ran full tilt down the street. Reaching his mount, he tossed her on the saddle like a sack of meal and leapt onto the beast himself. Felara barely managed to upright herself and grab onto his back before they were flying through the hills back toward the caravan. The wind whistled around them, but through that there was something else, a high-pitched kree that was just barely audible.
“Oh gods,” she sobbed.
“What? What is it?” asked Felbrect, sword out as they sent sprays of dirt as they rounded each bend in the road.
“They hunt in packs,” she whispered.
Moira Ballas, the First Archivist, leader of the Eternal Watch, bawled like a babe. When the shudders had finally left her body and there were no more tears left within her, she leaned back and looked at the small golden orb that sat before her. Felara Denn, one of her top Archivists had been sent out to investigate disturbing reports in the borderlands. She had returned hours earlier, more dead than alive. Covered in cuts and dressed in rags, it was only by pure luck that one of the soldiers had recognized the recording device she had clutched in her hand, so tightly that none of the soldiers could remove it from her. She rubbed her tired eyes as she rewound the device, hoping that she had misheard, knowing she had not. Icathi. The name echoed off the rough stone walls of the tiny room, sequestered at the top of the Watcher’s Tower. Icathi. It was a name that once sent people fleeing in terror. Now it was less than a legend, forgotten as time had pressed onward. She fingered the heavy iron key that hung around her neck. Ostensibly it was an emblem of her station, to represent that she held the key to the empire’s long history. Only she and the First Archivists before her knew its true worth.
She rose to her feet slowly, her joints creaking in protest. Not for the first time she wondered who’s idiotic idea it was to keep the First Archivist’s office at the top of a gods-forsaken tower. She reached a veiny hand into the pouch at her waist and drew out some poppy leaves to chew. She had a long way to go and they would help with the pain and stiffness. Down, down, down the winding staircase she went, her hand trailing the ancient stones, as if to draw strength from them. She paused briefly at the ground floor, gazing wistfully at the solid oak doors that separated her from the outside. That was not where her destination lay. Reluctantly, she knelt and wove her hand in a complex pattern over the floor. Hidden runes glowed to life and the floor parted to reveal another set of stairs descending into the bowels of the earth. Where the tower above was weathered stone, rough cut and heavy with age, the tower below was smooth, carved from the living rock with lost magics. The walls flashed ancient runes of power, protection, of binding. Their faint blue glow washed across everything in spectral brilliance.
She was near the end of her journey. The air had become frigid and ice spider-webbed the walls. The runes had increased here, so many overlapping that it had become a steady blue glow on either side of her. Her breath came out in short puffs that swirled around her like the spirits of the dead. At last the spiraling staircase ended at a large iron door. Horrific depictions of the Icathi were etched deeply into it, images of them devouring children, dancing upon mountains of bodies. But no matter what they were doing, every single one of them had their large flat shell-like heads turned toward her, eyes glaring malevolently. She clutched the iron key around her neck in comfort. Whether from magic or simply her body, it had warmed in her hands, and she let it go briefly to wipe the sweat off her palms. Licking her lips, she approached the door under the silent eyes of its carved guardians. In the center of the door was a carving of an Icathi that looked different from the rest. Its head was rounder, more compact. As far as she could tell, it was blind, there were no eyes carved. Its mandibles were gaping at her in a grotesque leer. With one more shaky breath, she took the key off her neck and inserted it into the creature’s maw and turned.
There was a great clanking as hidden gears rumbled to life for the first time in centuries. A seam split the door in half, and they swung inward. Inside was…blackness. Moira knew that there had to be walls just beyond the reach of the light, but the thick shadows whispered that if she were to walk through them, she would end up walking for eternity, lost in their folds. The only light came from a web of glowing chains that ran from ceiling to floor, suspending a body covered in rags, spread eagle in front of her. It was the body of a woman, a little older than poor Felara, just a shade past the robustness of mid-life. Her skin was ash-grey, and through it, a web-work of brilliant red shone, an abstract pattern that mimicked veins, but that Moira knew were impossible. Two smooth metal bracers were attached to either of the woman’s arms; the origin point of the chains. The woman’s head hung limply and her brittle white hair covered her face. She remained motionless as Moira stepped into the room. She sent a silent prayer to the gods (could they even hear here down here?) and then whispered the words, words she had never dared to speak out loud before this, words that had been whispered to her by the previous First on her deathbed, words passed down since the first First, since the Binding. As the last syllable left her lips, the chains snapped back into the bracers and the woman fell gracelessly to the ground. There was a moment of utter silence, and then:
“So,” she said. It came out like a rusty hinge, a voice cracked and warped from centuries of neglect. The woman lifted her head, her hair parting. Moira gasped and stumbled back, nearly falling. The woman’s eyes were dark as pitch, but her pupils shone red. The network of veins congregated at her face, seeping from her eyes like lightening tears. Her mouth twisted into a feral smile, revealing sharp fangs.
“So,” she repeated, more clearly as her body remembered its functions.
“So,” she said once more, rising slowly to her feet, never taking her eyes of Moira. There was a note of perverse joy in her voice. “They have returned.”