The sparse oaks of the foothills gave way to thick stands of highland cedar. The air was tinged with the fragrant scent of the conifer forest, and Cole stopped to take in the high-country air. He and Eleanor had gone three leagues before the rank smell of the battle field had fallen behind them, but it had clung to his nostrils in the hours and days since then.
The curse-wrought beast’s trail was easy enough to follow. In two days he had only lost its tracks once. The creature left its sign everywhere it went: swaths of bark scraped from tree trunks, riverbeds churned by its passing, deep paw prints the breadth of a man’s face. The beast was an engine of war, not a natural predator like a cougar or a swamp cur. It was not built to stalk, nor hide, nor hunt.
No spell was necessary for Cole as he pointed out the tracks to Eleanor. Nonetheless, the Pact Keeper seemed pleased with his work.
“You know the wild’s well, Cole. Apprentices your age can’t even tell which way is North.”
“But they know the First Language,” Cole countered. “I’d say that’s a bit more impressive.” He knelt and picked a sprig of wild onion, nibbling on a stem as he passed another to Eleanor.
Ahead, the trees thinned out into an open hillside meadow where the forest had been cleared away and was only just beginning to creep back in. Toppled foundations peeked out above the tall grass, square blocks of quarried stone scattered about like a child’s toys. Moss covered and weathered, they still showed the telltale mark of human hands.
The tracks here seemed fresher, shoots of grass still tamped down under the creature’s iron-shod paws. Cole stopped and unslung his bow, testing the tension of the string. “I think we’re getting close.”
The Pact Keeper set her jaw and looked over the grassy hillside. She seemed to be taking in the field of play, and Cole knew better than to interrupt her.
“A fortress of the Autumn War,” she noted dryly. “Would you believe me if I told you these walls once reached above the treetops?”
Cole looked about. He could hardly find one stone that still rested atop another. It seemed implausible to the tracker that these ruins could ever have been so grand.
“Fitting that we’ve chased the war-beast to a place like this. Keep your head about you. The creature may not be the only danger here.” They crossed the meadow, eventually coming to a cut in the hillside where a passage into the basement levels of the fortress had once existed. The vaulted ceiling had crumbled, leaving only rib-like arches that stretched over the collapsed passage. Farther in, the tunnel still stood intact. Its darkened entrance beckoned.
Cole led the Pact Keeper into the hillside cut. As they neared the mouth of the passage he cast the same spell he had before:
Curse-wrought beast – Find
As the ink vanished from the spell ribbons and awareness of the creatures location entered his mind, and he felt a rising panic. Cole had expected to sense the creature’s presence in the buried tunnels ahead, but instead it was behind them–behind and above. The creature was more canny than he had imagined. Sure that the predator was watching them even now, he tried not to look up towards the crumbled vault where the beast waited.
“Lady Eleanor,” he said. “It’s behind us. I think it’s about to…”
Appearing on the lip of a crumbled stone arch, the curse-wrought beast stared down at them. Its armored bulk tensed and it sprung, landing heavily at the bottom of the hillside cut. Pacing back and forth it blocked any escape. Cole saw, however, that it still limped from its earlier wound.
Eleanor reacted quickly, drawing on the Lexicons of the Storm and the Castigator:
Lighting — Curse-Wrought Beast — Destroy
Cole turned away and shielded his eyes as the blast lit the hillside cut with a blinding blue light. A lightning bolt arced from above the Pact Keeper and struck the curse-wrought beast, causing a section of its armor to explode into metal bits that clattered on the collapsed masonry all around.
The sharp odor of a thunderstorm drifted through the air. Risking a glance through parted fingers, Cole could see the beast staggering, smoke trailing from its flesh. It regained its senses, bounding forward. The tracker leapt out of the way as it barreled past and disappeared into the mouth of the darkened passageway.
Wide-eyed, Cole took in the burnt grass and scorched rocks that testified to the Pact Keeper’s abilities.
“I had no idea you could do something like that,” he said, crouching down to feel the still-warm surface of a blackened piece of masonry.
“It took all of last night to properly scribe those spell ribbons. I had hoped it would be enough to finish this.” She flipped her folio open and took out two more linen strips. “It wasn’t as if it was a simple spell.”
Light – Exist
What looked like a drop of liquid daylight coalesced in the Pact Keeper’s hand, and she led the way into the darkened passage through the lowest vaults of the ruined fortress. Cole followed close behind.
Within the passages each step stirred up motes of dust that swirled in the warm light of Eleanor’s spell. Still, it seemed that they were not the only one’s to tread these halls recently. Besides, the beast’s prints, Cole thought he could make out the faint impressions of boot soles. These were old, but not so old as the fortress itself. They passed a heavy oaken door that had long ago been ripped from its hinges and lay splintered on the floor. When this place fell, Cole thought, it must have been chaos.
Soon they came to a crossroads with branching tunnels leading to either side.
“Did you prepare another Find ribbon,” Eleanor asked.
“I did,” Cole replied. “But we don’t need it yet.” In the dim light he could make out where the huge paws had disturbed decades of dust. The tracks led to the right.
They followed the passage as it wound upward until they entered a large chamber strewn with crates and casks. Thick stone pillars supported the sagging ceiling and a darkened forge sat unused in one corner. The only exit Cole could see was a staircase at the far end of the room, but it was choked with rubble.
Now it was time for the spell. Once again, Cole’s awareness expanded, reaching out to find the creature. There, he thought. It’s low to the ground, behind that pillar near the forge. He pointed, and Eleanor gave a terse nod. She circled around, giving the pillar a wide berth.
Cole had his bow drawn back, waiting for the hulking shape to explode out from the shadows. He watched, but nothing came. The tracker approached the place where Eleanor now stood and followed her gaze to where the curse-wrought beast lay.
Burnt and broken, the creature was sprawled across a heap of ruined crates near the base of the forge. It lay still, the furnace glow from within its rib cage had faded, and the ember red light behind the eyes was gone as well. This time Cole knew it was not asleep. He let the tension off his bowstring and looked to his mentor expectantly.
She crouched and opened her folio, comparing the runes on this creature to the etchings taken from the other fallen beast.
“It’s as I expected. This one was wrought by the same hand as the first,” she noted. She looked over at the darkened forge. It was cold and disused, but not covered in the dust that coated everything else in the ruin. “It looks both were made here, as well, but by whom? Still, it’s better that we don’t linger in a place like this.”
“Is this the end of your business in the Shalelands then?” Cole asked as they made their way back onto the surface. He squinted when the dimness of the passage gave way to warm afternoon sun.
“No, but we’ve come to an impasse.” Eleanor lowered herself onto one of the toppled stone blocks that dotted the grassy hillside. “I was hoping we could follow the creature back to where it was forged, but it only fled to this forgotten place.”
Cole plopped down in the tall grass across from the Pact Keeper. Behind her shoulder something caught his eye. Clouds? No, it was the smoke from a badly concealed fire.
“I think there’s a camp over there,” he exclaimed, pointing at the trailing wisps. No sooner had Eleanor caught a glimpse of the smoke, then a grin spread across the Pact Keeper’s face.
“Good eyes, Cole. We should pay them a visit.”