It wasn’t uncommon for people to disappear in The Fingers. A wayward step while navigating its mires; a chance encounter with a mountain bear; or, if abandoned altogether by luck, crushed by one of the gnarled and slender trees that gave the forest its name. But when twelve children vanish in as many days, questions are asked and answers sought.
Gregor scoured the hillside, seeking those answers. Naked trees jutted from it like pins in a cushion, their leaves carpeting the ground in the brown and black of decay. It was to this hill the villagers of Grug—the small township bordering The Fingers—said the man with eyes like a starless night had taken their children. To the barrow of the Forgotten King.
“It seems an odd place for the Dakyra to be. Do you think they’ve found something? From the age of the Awoken maybe?” Jak asked Gregor, pausing further along the trail to look at him.
“Let’s hope not.” Gregor knelt and examined the soft mud of the ground, brushed leaves and twigs aside. “The villagers came this way too. Ten in all.”
“Love has a knack for making fools of us all.”
A group of men from Grug—the fathers of some of those that were missing, as well as a few volunteers—had set off that morning to find the children. Gregor and Jak had arrived in Grug not long after. Wherever in Tervia the Dakyra surfaced, you could be sure the Magpies would follow to end their plots of chaos and death.
“We can’t be far behind, but still we must hurry,” Gregor said. “Or I fear more death will ravage poor Grug.”
At the foot of the hill, they met a wall of trees growing upon a steep rise slick with recent rainfall. They lost the tracks of the villagers there on the firm and scrubby land, but in their search found the dried bed of an ancient stream and up it they climbed, using jutting rocks for purchase. By the time they’d reached the halfway point, cloud the colour of slate had moved in to smother the setting sun. Boughs creaked in a stiffening breeze. Padded baldrics and gambesons deadened the clink of their weapons and mail. Their black cloaks they pinned tightly about them with their magpie brooches, left side over right, to avoid snapping any searching branches.
The river bed wound to the right, and after climbing up what once had been a small waterfall, they came across swathes of moss growing vigorously amid the dying land. Gregor saw something in the mud amidst them.
“What do you make of this, Jak? Looks like the mark of a heel.”
Jak sunk to his haunches and pulled back his hood, freeing his shoulder-length brown hair. His ice-blue eyes scanned the ground. “One of our vigilante friends?”
“Too small. More like a child’s.”
Jak looked at him gravely. “I’m starting to get that feeling I get when they’re around. Like I can’t settle.”
Indeed his eyes were anything but still and more than a dozen times he’d scratched the base of his neck.
“Me too,” Gregor said. The Dakyra were murderous and without mercy in the pursuit of their quest to resurrect the gods of old. Gregor had faced them more times than he could count and never did it get easier, the same dread fear attacking his resolve like a great and terrible army besieging a little hill fort. He knew all too well what happened if they were not stopped, and he would not let that happen to the people of Grug.
Gregor led on. He hopped from a rock to a patch of moss and the ground beneath him crumbled. His stomach lurched, breath trapped in his throat. He clawed for purchase, fingers finding only moss that fell with him. His back struck an outcropping of rock and, though his mail absorbed the blow, it sent him sprawling face first into unending darkness.
Faint touches tickled his cheek. He pictured Anya there, blowing softly upon him. He saw her smile, her green eyes. Heard her laugh. The tickles travelled up to his forehead then down his nose and gradually his consciousness returned. He opened his eyes to find pitch darkness. When the tickling touches moved over his lips a dread fear struck his heart, one that transported him to another time, though it may well have been the same place. His heartbeat hastened; heat exploded in his body and forced sweat from his brow.
Gregor heard the crack of the beams, the rock of the mountain crumbling upon him. Then the abject darkness and a silence so pure that without hearing the beat of his heart he’d have thought himself dead. He hadn’t been able to breathe, nor could he move at all and nothing had distressed him more than when the spiders began to crawl over his eyes and nose, probing and biting him incessantly, scurrying up his nostrils and down his ears. All he could do was rock his head and blow through pursed lips for fear of them darting into his mouth.
But that was then, and now he found he could move, despite some pain. He rolled over and brushed away whatever was crawling upon him, rushed his hands through his hair, and stood up and patted himself down more times than he needed to. He’d faced hordes of enemies, killed beasts fell and foul, and yet, decades on, the very thought of those little eight-legged bastards sent his skin crawling. It made no sense to him.
With panic receding, Gregor took stock of his situation. His chin ached and after a few gentle prods, found the sting and moistness of a gash. The left side of his back throbbed too. He remembered hitting it on his way down. Jak. Above him, a waning deep-blue light shone through a tear in the gloom.
He wanted to call out Jak’s name, but with hunting a Dakyran such a thing would be foolish. Besides, he wasn’t quite sure where he was. Gregor reached into his travel pack and pulled out the small silken pouch that held his light crystal. A bright white glow beat away the darkness and revealed a room he could not have imagined. Standing in alcoves, smothered, to his dismay, in cobwebs, were sarcophagi. He was in the barrow of the Forgotten King.
With the tip of his longsword, Gregor picked off the webbing from the closest sarcophagus and flicked it into the murk. A rough humanoid figure was carved into the stone. Swirling shapes, weaving in and out, seemingly endless, lined the stonework. Gregor recognised neither letter nor image.
He walked around the edge of the room and came to a low-framed doorway, cobwebs hanging across it. Seeing no other exits, he slashed down the webs as if battling for his life and headed down it. The walls closed in to brush his shoulders and the ceiling lowered and forced him to stoop. He kept on taking deep breaths, fighting off the panic brought on by the claustrophobic passage. Relief washed over him when he reached a set of steps ascending into more gloom, and, buoyed by a sense of progress, took them two at a time. After traversing another confined corridor, he reached a chamber with three vacant doorways leading off it. Webbing, thick as bolts of silk, masked any details that may have been etched into the walls. His mind filled with the image of arachnids lurking in the shadows beyond the reach of his light and once more a shudder raced down his spine. But his fear of spiders was quickly forgotten when he heard a sound echo along one of the passageways.
Though at the edge of his hearing, he had no doubt what it was—the scuff of feet against stone. Gregor pocketed his light crystal, threw his back against the wall and drew his dagger. Despite his burst of adrenaline a sense of resignation filled his heart and mind, such that he wanted to drop his blade and flee. It had to be one of the Dakyra.
He waited, listened and heard nothing more. Did he imagine it? A symptom of the blow to the head? Is any of this even real? After a short while he peered down the tunnel, and when nothing stirred, ventured down it.
Light crystal hidden, Gregor stumbled along, wary of touching the walls for fear of cobwebs. A faint scent came to his nose and caused him to slow. A smell altogether different from the lingering odours of damp and mould and age. The rot of death. It reached the height of its foetidness at another low-framed doorway on the right-hand wall of the corridor. Gregor breathed deep and went down it.
On and on the tunnel wound, right, then left, then right again, until into view upon the left-hand wall crept an orange glow. A sound like chattering teeth ebbed toward him. It grew louder as he neared, as did the pounding of his heart. No matter how many times he’d faced the Dakyra the same feelings persisted, and always he felt close to succumbing to their corrupting tendrils.
From beyond the threshold came another sound: sawing. Gregor peered inside. Carved into the rock of the floor were crude steps that led down into a small chamber illuminated by a central and circular brazier, with candles flickering in recesses in the walls. An untidy pile of clothing sat against the left wall, and opposite that, a tall, bone-thin figure dressed in a sweeping black robe hunched over a table, right arm moving back and forth. Gregor could see the back of his pallid, hairless head with its maze of blue veins.
Upon the table lay a child, skin pale as the Dakyran and, moving at a crouch through the shadows just feet away, was Jak.
Gregor sheathed his dagger, drew his bow and nocked an arrow. Jak inched into striking distance, the Dakyran oblivious to his presence. Gregor pulled his bowstring taut and the limb beneath his fingers groaned. Gregor’s heart ceased to beat and there, above the horn grip, he saw a crack in the limb. It must have happened in the fall. The sound was slight, but in the stillness of the chamber, seemed like a falling oak. The Dakyran spun round with a swiftness that belied his brittle frame and, spotting Jak, slashed at him with his saw. It caught his arm, tearing through leather and flesh, and sent him reeling. The dagger fell from his hand and bounced against the stone. Gregor loosed his arrow. It cut through the air, wide of his target. Before he could nock another the Dakyran had Jak on his feet, blood-stained saw against his neck.
“I was wondering how long it’d take before the Magpies came.” The Dakyran’s bass voice filled every crevice of the room. The candles seemed to dim. Eyes of pure black regarded Gregor. No whites, no colour at all save the reflection of the flames that made them look like furnaces. He smiled. “Here to save the sheep from the wolves again? You should have seen them weep for their worthless lives.” The Dakyran licked his putrid, purple lips, revealing teeth filed into flesh-tearing points.
“No cackles from the Magpies? A pity. And I’m sure you want to know what I’ve been doing here.” The Dakyran nodded in the direction of the table, upon which lay a naked, headless body. A great gash stretched down from neck to groin, the rib cage snapped and pulled apart.
“Where are the others?” Gregor said, realising the stupidity of his words as soon as he said them. The Dakyran barked a mocking laugh.
“Poor Magpie. So naive. They’re dead, of course. If it counts for anything, I didn’t kill them. Well, not all of them. That I left to the reason for me being here.” He shuffled back to the table, Jak his shield, and with his free hand picked up the leg he had been sawing. He tossed it into the void beyond the table and within seconds of them hearing a thud, the chattering sounds from earlier began once more, followed by the crunch of breaking bone. Gregor’s bow groaned again. He reduced the strain on the string, praying to the Goddess of White and Black for it to hold.
“I’m sure you’ve heard of the Khatadün. The rats of your beloved Grug soon will. It’s taken a fair liking to the taste of human flesh,” said the Dakyran.
Gregor recognised the name—creatures of the Northern Reaches of Ickadea. Most people believed them a myth, conjured by village elders to dissuade youths from wandering into places dangerous and unforgiving. They were said to have eight legs with a long, segmented body and a carapace tough as iron. And for Gregor, troublingly arachnid. Only fools were quick to dispel such stories as make-believe. Ignorance brings with it comfort. Gregor knew all too well that some grain of truth often lay within the tale.
But why would the Dakyra need such a fell beast if indeed it existed? It troubled him greatly, though not, at that present moment, as much as his creaking bow.
The conversation had given Jak an opportunity to slip free the blade secreted up his forearm. He locked eyes with Gregor—a signal.
“Don’t believe me?” the Dakyran said. “How about a little demonstration?” The Dakyran lunged for a lever beside the table and yanked it up. Jak plunged his blade into the Dakyran’s gut and spun away, giving Gregor a clean shot. His arrow sunk into the Dakyran’s chest and he slumped to the ground with a gurgling gasp.
“I’ve heard gangs of amorous cats quieter than you,” Jak said, examining the cut to his arm. It was shallow, the bleeding slight.
“Good to see you too, brother” Gregor replied.
“Come on, let’s burn the bastard.” Jak began to pour some of the oil from his skin over the Dakyran’s body.
“There’s no time for that,” Gregor said.
Gregor sighed. The bodies of all Dakyra had to be burned lest the evil which corrupted them escape. Gregor doubted the truth of the age-old superstition, but who was he to chance it?
Light crystals aloft and with the smell of burning flesh growing in their nostrils, they found a pit about fifteen feet deep, empty save for the odd bone. A door hung above a tunnel on the far side.
They jumped down and raced along the tunnel, passing rocks and dust knocked from the walls by the Khatadün. Given the width was about twelve feet, Gregor wondered whether they could do anything to stop such a monster. They had to, though. Grug stood at the bottom of the hill. The hundreds who lived there wouldn’t stand a chance.
They dashed on and after rounding a bend spotted something ahead. A lighter patch of darkness stood out amongst the gloom—a night illuminated by the moons and stars. Obscuring it was a spindly silhouette.
The sight put an extra step in Gregor’s stride. He cared not that it was a giant spider-like thing. Indeed, his long-held fear of spiders seemed trivial now that he was faced with a beast bred to kill, and by the Goddess of White and Black, he would do all he could to stop it.
A wailing screech echoed along the tunnel and with it the shouts of men. The villagers. The exit gaped before them now and as they burst into the night the horror of the Khatadün was laid before them. Its spider-like legs were thick as young trees, arching high over its centipedal body. Its body was dark as mahogany and moved with a frightening swiftness. It reared up on its hind legs, standing tall as a house, and revealed a mouth capable of engulfing the lordliest of barons, with rows of razor-sharp teeth flexing in their gums. Around its mouth were small arms tipped with a hook-like claw. It uttered another eardrum-bursting squeal and waved its front legs as if digging in the air. The men from Grug, armed with flails, pitchforks, picks and a couple of swords, stood wide-eyed with mouths agape. All but three of them fled. The beast scurried toward them.
To his right, Jak sent four daggers spinning toward the Khatadün. Each one embedded in its hide, and instantly it reacted, its body spinning around. It came straight at them. Jak rolled to the right. Gregor’s legs went numb.
Two great arms crashed into his side, knocking him off his feet, the wind from his lungs, and sending him bouncing across the harsh ground. Gregor coughed, groaned, clenched his jaw with the pain, and forced himself to his knees. The Khatadün was already on him. He slashed as he drew the longsword from his back, but the beast retreated a step, making him seem swift as a decrepit old man. It loomed over him, fangs snapping. It’s hooked arms furiously swiped, and one caught onto his cloak and began to pull him toward its mouth. Gregor lost his feet, the grip on his sword too, and he clawed at the earth, fighting to get free. Gregor screamed like he had back in the cave all those years ago.
The arm pulling him suddenly went limp. The creature wailed like a blade on a grindstone and he recoiled with his hands over his ears, doing all he could to scramble away from it. When the sound faded he looked and found the villagers standing defiantly before it, one swinging his shortsword, another thrusting with his billhook. The third lay motionless behind them on the floor, the severed arm of the Khatadün by his side.
The beast screamed and recoiled again and half-turned away from the villagers, revealing an arrow in its back. Jak loosed another, the point embedding in its head, and the beast staggered and screeched its worst yet. It reared up again and darted for the trees. Jak loosed another shaft, but it found its stride and escaped into the gloom of the forest, heading for the lights of Grug in the valley below.
“Go! You must stop that thing!” the sword-wielding villager said, helping Gregor up. He had a head of grey hair with a frame that had once been well-muscled and strong. A brave man, battling with his own fears. Gregor felt ashamed.
Jak was already heading after it, and he turned back and looked at a motionless Gregor, exasperated.
“What are you waiting for?” he roared.
Gregor stared at him, and after a few moments, scrambled to catch up. The hill was sheer in parts and the path meandered, ruling out a straightforward descent, but the Khatadün didn’t have to follow such a route, racing through the foliage, bringing down small trees and snapping low-hanging branches. They followed its course and soon the ground levelled and the orange glow of the town became visible.
Over and over Gregor told himself to be strong, to be fearless. He knew in his mind not to be afraid, yet his body was wracked with nausea, willing him to stop, to flee. He battled on, his pace sagging behind Jak’s. At a tree, he had to stop, retching and breathless. I have to do this. I will do this. A harrowing cry rang out from the village. It wasn’t human but equine. Terrified neighs and cries rang out and then wails of great pain. Gregor strained his legs, left the forest behind and made his way through the wooden homes of Grug. The sounds led him to the square, where the Grug Inn stood. Outside of it was the Khatadün, viciously attacking the defenceless horses tacked up to the hitching rail. Jak stood not far away, sword drawn. From the Inn and surrounding houses, people appeared only to hurriedly withdraw.
Gregor drew his sword and headed toward Jak, but before he could catch up, his companion leapt onto the beast’s back and began to hack away. The Khatadün thrashed, trying to free itself of the biting itch it was unable to scratch. Jak embedded his blade deep into its back, but couldn’t yank it free. It reared up and fell backwards, and Jak was thrown to the ground. The Khatadün twisted and quickly regained its feet, legs reaching for Jak’s sword, protruding from its back. Warily it approached Jak, who had regained his feet and armed himself with his last weapon—his dirk. Gregor ran. So did the Khatadün.
Its front legs knocked Jak down and in a heartbeat, it was over him. Gregor hacked at its closest leg as he ran into range, steel slicing through it. The beast screeched, reared and staggered, but Gregor did not falter. He hacked, again and again, chopping limbs and tearing rents in its body like a man possessed with battle lust. The creature twisted and recoiled and writhed in pain. It turned away from Gregor, doing all it could to flee his wrath, stumbling just as he had done through the tunnels of the barrow. Gregor caught up to it, leapt onto its back and pulled free Jak’s blade. Its legs collapsed and with a weak squeal, it sunk to the ground. Sword in each hand, Gregor brought them down with all his might into the heart of its milky, orb-like eye and stilled it completely.
He yanked free the swords and jumped down off the beast. Jak writhed under the creature’s weight and Gregor, skin crawling but now too tired to care, heaved up the beast for Jak to scramble out. And then he sunk to the ground beside his companion, breathing heavy, too tired for words, but he mustered a few. He looked at Jak.
“I hate spiders.”
BIO: Richie Billing writes historical fiction, fantasy and stories of a darker nature. His short fiction has featured in Kzine, Aphelion Webzine and Far Horizons, and his debut novel will be published by Fiction Vortex in Spring 2020. Most nights he’s up into the wee hours either scribbling away or watching the NBA. Find out more at richiebilling.com.