Authors: Clayton Emery
Ebook version 1.0
Heat belched all around him. Brimstone bubbled just under his nose. He was afire. His smock ignited, as did the skin on his elbows and knees. He screamed at the sudden pain, and forced his eyes open to see this new attack, to get away.
The water was gone. Instead, the creek bed roiled with black, sticky tar. Huge gas pockets burped sulfur. Things charred and long dead floated on the surface. The tar was near boiling, and Candlemas was elbow-and hock-deep in it. It stuck to his face and neck, and burned where it touched. He wailed with fright and agony as he plucked himself free and grabbed for the shore.
The monster was there to meet him….
The Netheril Trilogy
“Watch it! It’s a”
The land around the pair extended for miles in all directions, flat as a white tabletop. Yet the part they’d trodden on suddenly erupted upward like a snapped rug, then twisted and curled high as a man’s shoulder to engulf them.
Sunbright Steelshanks, barbarian, grabbed his much-smaller companion Knucklebones, part-elven thief, by one arm, and hurled her a dozen feet to plow into powdery snow. By the time the thief had rebounded to her feet and whipped snow from her eyes, the barbarian was gone.
Not gone, she realized, gulped down. Entrapped.
Some monster like a wide, flat rug, diamond-shaped like a manta ray from the ocean, had whirled upward from the tundra floor to snare Sunbright, then slammed itself and its prey hard against the ground.
The leathery thing was a dozen feet across, big as a tent, and strong as a yoke of bulls. Though hard to see against snow and winter-white sky, Sunbright was wrapped like a mummy in white folds so tight that Knucklebones could see knobs marking his belt buckle, back scabbard, and the iron rings of his moosehide boots.
She didn’t look for long. Whipping out a dark-bladed elven knife, she pelted toward the monster, powdery snow flying from her boots, and drove the slim blade into the creature’s hide directly above Sunbright’s head. As the creature jerked, she sliced sideways, fearful of scalping Sunbright. The hide was tough as a boot sole, and stiff with white hair sharp enough to pierce her hand. She heaved and sawed with her blade, parted flesh, but drew no blood, only a white ichor that froze instantly in the chilly air.
Her carving was rewarded by a brief glimpse of Sunbright’s topknot and trailing horsetail, hair so blonde it was almost white, giving him his name. His face was dangerously blue from suffocating.
Sucking air as if drowning, he gasped, “My sword! Cut out my”
The vision was whisked away. Astonished, Knucklebones saw the wound seal as if by magic. A white-on-white line glowed, then the hide was as smooth and tough as before. As impervious to harm.
Inside the rolled-up carpet-beast, Sunbright kicked, kneed, flexed, bit, tussled; all to no avail. Even his brawny arms, pinned alongside his head, could only shove the living walls away a hair. He was locked in a white chamber tighter than a coffin, lungs and stomach constricted. He would have blacked out already had not Knucklebones let in fresh air with her knife. The monster healed instantly, and would wrap tighter until he suffocated. After that, the snow lurker would take days to digest him, gaining life and warmth from his rotting carcass. Sunbright had seen reindeer skeletons with the ribs and pelvis crushed, marking a lurker’s attack.
He kicked, but both legs were trussed tight, as if roped. Bucking his back and buttocks did little good, for he couldn’t gain leverage against the ground. As part of its brutal attack, the snow lurker rolled over and over, humped, and flattened like a gigantic inchworm. Such gyrations would disorient and panic prey, squeeze air from the lungs. Whirled around and around, Sunbright felt his stomach lurch. He’d already banged his nose against the leather hide twice. Blood and snot were salty and bitter on his tongue, foul enough to choke him. Biting did no good, for the leather hide was slick with blood and sweat.
Strength alone couldn’t save him. He could only hope Knucklebones got his message. Otherwise this hot thrashing darkness was a preview of hell.
Yet the elven thief fought two menaces. It was bad enough trying to catch the bucking lurker, it rolled as fast as she could run. Now, where the beast had left a diamond-shaped impression on the ground, there was exposed gray-green tundra moss. And from a hole in that lumpy ground issued a flood of white ants as large as her foot. Hundreds of them.
These arctic ants churned tunnels in the snow to chase the lurker. Knucklebones reasoned that the ants took advantage of the lurker’s attack to scavenge leftovers. The thief got in their way as both struggled to catch the rolling monster and its prey. Ants swarmed over her. In passing, they tasted her flesh. Pincers like pliers ticked hunks from her neck and hands. The insects must have found her sweet, for some unheard signal brought more ants rushing. Within a minute, a dozen white ants big as rabbits galloped up and down her furs and gear, nipping at exposed flesh, drawing blood.
Knucklebones yelped, swore, and swatted. With one hand she grabbed the thorax of an ant, cold as an icicle, and squeezed. Brittle legs windmilled as the carapace cracked. Acrid chilly glop stained her hand, and stung in an ant bite. Another bit her ear alongside her leather eye patch. She batted it away, losing a piece of her ear to icy jaws.
Yet Knucklebones was raddled with scars from years of fighting, and could ignore pain and distress to keep herself alive in a fight. So could Sunbright, for he still squirmed within the leather folds of the snow lurker.
Pushing aside the irritation and threat of the antsenough of them could strip her to her bonesshe pursued the humping monster. The beast slowed, tiring, but was still dangerous as a kicking horse. The man trapped inside slowed too. Sunbright was running out of air.
Thinking furiously, Knucklebones tried to time the erratic flailing of the lurker, but found no pattern. It could as easily roll over and crush her legs as tumble the other way. Finally, she locked her elven knife in her right fist, blade sticking out and away, and leaped.
Though the lurker’s hairy skin was slick with snowmelt, the nimble thief managed to wrap her legs around it, but only for a second. The creature reacted to the unnatural touch with new energy, humping high and slamming the earth, then rolling to toss Knucklebones off. She tapped a foot against the ground, slid her bottom along the slick skin, and stayed atop it. The horizon jumped and danced, her stomach lurched, but she only needed a second.
Slashing hard at the end of her arm, she sheared the skin along the ridge where Sunbright’s mighty sword Harvester was strapped across his back. The wicked slash parted the flesh so it wept white ichor, though the ends immediately began to close. But Knucklebones’s clever hands had done their work. Seizing the two-handed, leather-wrapped pommel, she yanked it free of the scabbard, a sword nearly as long as she was tall. As the heavy, back-hooked nose pulled free, the lurker’s wound had already sealed around the blade, and Knucklebones cut it anew by drawing the blade.
Sliced twice, the tundra beast pitched her off with a sideways lurch. The small thief tumbled to hammered snow hard enough to jar her teeth, but she retained her grip on the huge sword.
Instantly she rolled to her feet, held the long blade high despite its great weight, and raced after the snow lurker again. The twin cuts she’d made were already invisible. She prayed Sunbright hadn’t blacked out.
The lurker had enough intelligence to track Knucklebones as a threat, so it curled itself almost double and sprang to arch away. The grim thief pursued. Outlined in white leather, like a body under a sheet, she saw Sunbright’s shoulders, his elbows vainly pressing against the living prison, and the thrust of his jaw. His hands, she guessed, were pinned by his ears. Bad, considering what she had to do.
Stumbling, diving, combining power and grace, she slammed the knife at Sunbright’s face. The razor-sharp blade skimmed through the first layers of white hide, then parted to show tanned flesh. The snow lurker twisted away, but she pressed on, twisting as if carving a steak from a mad cow. From deep inside she heard a gasp, and took courage that her lover was still alive. With a final wrench, she hollered, “Give me your hands!”
The wound was healing fast, but Sunbright’s fingers protruded through the slit for just a second. In that second, the nimble thief rammed the pommel of the great sword into Sunbright’s numbed fingers. Then the gap sealed, or tried to, for the sword blade projected from inside the monster.
Exhausted by her mad dashes, Knucklebones dropped, unable to close for fear of being sheared herself. She could only pray to Shar, the God of Thieves, the Greater Power of the Gray Waste; with herself trapped in a white waste.
The lurker fought, rolled, curled, twisted, but even banging the ground couldn’t shake the steel blade from Sunbright’s iron grip. Through a mist of her own breath, Knucklebones watched, fascinated, as the barbarian’s trapped arms flexed, pushed, unbent.
Then the great hooked sword Harvester of Blood sliced through the lurker like an axe through fog.
One second the white rolled body was whole, the next a rent six feet long slit it like a fish. From the rent spilled a gasping, blue-faced, white-smeared Sunbright, who collapsed on the snow, melting it with his body heat.
Knucklebones wept for joy out of one good eye, ran to her huge lover, and grabbed his shoulder to pull him upright. The ravenous snow lurker was already curling back, slithering, pursuing.
“Runat an angleto its path!” Sunbright wheezed. He was pale but smeared with blood, eyes red, throat raw. Assisted by the thief, he gamely jogged in his big boots across the trampled snow.
They ran and ran, stumbling and lurching, always at an angle from the deadly pursuer that rippled along the snow after them with the smooth grace of a manta ray swimming under water. Yet slowly the two humans pulled away, for the huge beast was tired. And finally, glancing over her shoulder, Knucklebones saw nothing.
“Wh-where did it go?”
Sunbright slammed to a halt, sobbed for breath so hard he drooled, but he pointed out a shimmering square on the snow. Knucklebones saw the white surface ripple and tremble, then lie smooth as if never trodden. The effect was all the weirder because their footprints began just at the edge of the silent square. The lurker had burrowed under the snow within seconds.
“Will it come after us?”
“No, but let’s keepwalkinganyway.” Plodding, trudging, they left the disturbed spot far behind. Only then did Sunbright collapse to his knees and wash his bloodied face clean with snow.
“I must be” he rasped, “the only barbarian to everescape a snow lurker! Thanks to your deft hand.”
“I was afraid I’d split your skin to the skull!” she admitted. Knucklebones’s knees were weak, so she sank beside him. The barbarian didn’t mind the snow and cold, but she found kneeling so chilly it was painful. Born in a lofty city that drifted south in winter, she had barely seen snow a dozen times in her life. Now she was surrounded by leagues of it. She’d never get used to this frozen wasteland. There wasn’t even wind to fill it.
“There were ants, too,” she panted. “Big white ones that bit.”
“Just a nuisance. Brush them off.”
Knucklebones fingered her ear, and found bloody scabs. Her flesh was too numb to feel much pain, despite a fur-lined hood.
The two were dressed for the weather, at least. Knucklebones wore a coat of brown sheepskin with the fur turned inward and the sleeves cupped into mittens. Her legs were clad in blue wool leggings tucked into boots made of reindeer hocks with the hair still on. At her back hung an ox hide pack stuffed with jerked meat, oatmeal, and dried fruit. Her long elven blade hung on a thong to thump on her small bosom, immediately handy. Beside it was strung a yellowed knucklebone, her namesake, the hardest bone in any animal’s body. With the hood up, all that showed were tufts of dark, unkempt hair, a pale nose reddened by cold, and one good eye with a slight slant. The other bore an old knife wound and a leather eye patch. Under her coat she wore woolen sweaters. Her fingers were deeply indented from brass knuckledustershence part of her namebut she’d shucked them because the intense cold made her clumsy.
In contrast, the tundra-born Sunbright wore little.
Red woolen leggings were tucked into iron-ringed moosehide boots stuffed with moss for insulation. A long green shirt reached to his knees, but only a thick scarf and sheepskin mantle hung from both shoulders, with a pack and Harvester’s scabbard binding the mantle in place. He wore no hat, despite that his temples were shaved and his white-blonde hair dragged back into a topknot and horsetail. When the wind blew and Knucklebones’s teeth chattered, Sunbright dragged the scarf up to warm his ears. Just to look at his naked forearms and chin made Knucklebones shiver.
As did looking at the naked land. For the thousandth time, she turned a circle for a landmark. Anything would do: a hill, a tree, a bush. But there was only snow-clad tundra, rising slightly in spots, dipping here, but altogether too flat. Even the horizon was a blur, white snow meeting a white sky. She had no idea of their direction, destination, or distance covered. Left alone, she’d go mad in hours, run screaming in circles, crying like a child until she collapsed and died. Or was eaten.
“Are there many carpet beasts out here?” she asked. Even her voice was lost in the wastes, like the squeaking of a baby rabbit. She barely reached Sunbright’s breastbone. He could have slung her across his shoulders like a lamb.
“Lurkers? No, not many. There’s not much for them to eat. And when they do catch something, reindeer mostly, though sometimes polar bears, they curl up and digest for months. My people kill them when they can. I should have been more alert, should have seen its track.”