Episode 1: The Curse-Wrought Beast
Burnt grass crumpled under the tracker’s boot sole as he picked his way past the stockade. He brushed a hand against the charred cedar stakes, and it came away covered in soot. The sights, the smells in this place, were strange to him. Unsettling shapes sprawled here and there, indistinct in the dimming light.
Feeling a presence behind him, the young tracker started. He spun around, only to find Eleanor. The Pact Keeper who had hired him leaned heavily on her staff, a hand held up to guard her mouth against the windswept ash swirling on the evening breeze. “You seem on edge Cole, or do I misjudge?” she pierced him with her gaze.
Cole remained silent. There’d always been battles in the stories he’d heard growing up, but this was nothing like the stories. A sense of great loss and waste hung over the place.
She nodded, seeing the downcast expression on his face. “You have never been on a battlefield. I won’t tell you that you’ll get used to it. In fact, I’d contest that It’s better if you don’t.”
Cole managed to find his voice again. “Is this what it was like during the Autumn War?” He cast about, taking in the singed, tattered pennants, and the dirt tilled by boot and hoof.
“Worse.” She took a length of linen ribbon marked with ink from her leather-bound folio. “These runes describe our quarry. Do you recall what I taught you regarding the Lexicon of the Seeker?”
“I do.” Cole recognized the runes on the fabric; they belonged to the First Language.
“Then, find the creature.” Eleanor held the spell ribbon out to Cole.
He took the ribbon, then brushed aside his sandy-blond bangs to get a better look at the runes in the dimming light. Fishing through the contents of his belt pouch, his groping fingers found, and extracted, a spell ribbon which he had prepared the night before. Pinning both strips of linen between his knuckles, he held them out in front of him:
Curse Wrought Beast — Find
The ink faded from the linen strip. The fabric fell to pieces, and the knowledge of the creature’s location took shape in Cole’s mind. The awareness was fleeting, threatening to vanish like smoke. “This way, he murmured. He pushed his woolen scarf of the out of the way of the quiver on his back and nocked an arrow to his bow.
The spell was fading fast, even the words of the First Language could only grant clairvoyance to a mortal for so long before the order of the world reasserted itself. He quickened his steps, striving to find the creature before the spell ran its course.
Then he saw it, a slouched silhouette outlined against the crest of nearby rise.
He came to a dead stop, turned to Elanor, and lowered his voice, pointing. “There.” They crept up the rise until only a few yards of stony ground separated them from the sprawled bulk of the curse-wrought beast.
Cole took a step towards the fallen creature, but Eleanor stayed him with an outstretched arm. The youth felt a wave of guilty relief as the Pact Keeper advanced ahead of him. As they drew near, details came into focus in the dim light: a body formed from cast iron plates and etched with runes, a slack jaw rimmed with sharpened teeth.
Was it asleep? Was it possible that the creature was already dead? The beast beast lay among the heaped bodies of a dozen soldiers. The fighting men were strewn about the creature like so many broken toys. They wore the blue and bronze of the Royal Army, now soiled with blood. A forest of spear hilts and arrow shafts jutted from the creature’s armored back, giving it the look of a massive, hideous porcupine.
“Keep watch,” Eleanor ordered. She knelt beside the hulking form.
Looking out from where the beast had fallen, Cole peered into the shadowed woodline some hundred yards away. A creeping gloom welled up between the rolling hills with the setting of the sun. All was still, however, and his gaze soon wandered back to where Eleanor was busy examining the creature.
The Pact Keeper ran her fingers over the beast’s plating, tracing the runes incised on the surface. She appeared troubled, but perhaps she was only concentrating. Shaking her head in apparent frustration, Eleanor produced her folio, leafing through the collection of notes and loose papers until she seemed to come across something. Curious, Cole moved to steal a peek over her shoulder.
So intent was he on the Pact Keeper’s investigation that only a wet cracking sound from downslope caught his attention. The tracker turned slowly to see something large and powerful looming in the shadows below. An iron-shod paw rested on the chest of a fallen spearman, and the dead man’s eyes reflected the fire burning inside the open cavity of the war-beast’s body.
Through lips frozen by shock, Cole managed to cry out. “Eleanor! Lady Eleanor, there’s another one!”
He retreated towards the top of the hill, taking aim at the nightmare thing below. As if in response to his shout, the war-beast flew into motion. It tore straight at him.
Cole loosed his shot. He reached for another shaft, not waiting to see if the first had struck home.
Pounding up the hill, the second curse-wrought beast closed quickly. Its clawed feet bit into the hillside, finding purchase easily in the churned, rocky soil.
Heart beating fast, Cole nocked his second arrow and let fly. It caught between the beast’s iron plates, and sank deep in the foreleg. The creature didn’t slow at all. Cole’s fingers shook as he reached for another arrow, unsure if there would be time to loose a third shot.
That was when he heard it: syllables from the First Language which he did not fully recognize. As he watched, the very ground swelled around the curse-wrought beast and enveloped the creature in a smothering embrace.
The strain on Eleanor was visible to Cole as she worked to assert her will through the spell. The curse-wrought beast struggled in its earthen bonds, ripping its torso free only to be restrained again.
“Bring it down,” Eleanor called out. “Hurry, before it escapes.”
This time Cole took careful aim. The arrow flew and planted itself between the plates at the base of the beast’s neck, burying itself in the sinew beneath.
The creature gave a roar, like the venting of a furnace, and raged against the spell holding it in place. Cole raised his bow, but before he could fire again the beast ripped itself free.
Cole heard Eleanor cursing bitterly as she rifled through her spell ribbons in the failing light. A tense moment passed. The curse-wrought beast circled. It limped on its wounded foreleg and tossed its head violently, frustrated by the shaft that jutted from the base of its neck. It’s ember-red eyes danced back and forth between Eleanor and Cole. Then, with no more warning than it had given on its arrival, it wheeled around and dashed back towards the darkened wood line.
“What now?” Cole asked. His breaths came quickly, and his chest was tight with mortal fear.
“We pursue,” the Pact Keeper announced. Eleanor’s features were obscured in the dimming light. He saw determination in those hard eyes, a determination he hoped they would have the skill to make good on.