Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 22.



Whatever had been launched towards us came to rest just shy of hitting anyone and landed in the dirt. There wasn’t anytime to investigate the object either, because hot on its heels came an unsettling sound. It was a high pitched shrill cry, the unmistakable call of a fearsome flying foe that nested in the cliffs near Emberhelm. They had come to be known as dawn devils; fiendish beasts that liked to appear in the sudden sunlight of dawn to strike at anything foolishly still afoot.

Against the blinding backdrop of a rising sun I couldn’t make out a count of how many creatures were zeroing in on us. The sound of the screeches stabbed at your ears and my heart sped up to supply me with ample adrenaline to face the fleet footed fears rushing right through me. While I readied myself against avian assault I made it a point to remind myself not to try to focus on locking on to any one dawn devil. If they struck in a swarm it wouldn’t do me any going to try to keep my eyes on any single one. My best strategy would be to take advantage of my reflexes and lean on my peripheral vision to aim my reactions. You can detect movement far faster than any discernable detail – and these things had us outmatched in the eyesight department. Plus, they moved wicked fast, even for something with wings.

Dawn devils didn’t typically hunt this far into Emberhelm, let alone have the reckless abandon to try and take down prey as big as any of us. Well, perhaps something gremlin sized. But they just didn’t generally go after anything as intelligent and risky as an elf or dwarf etc. It wasn’t that they couldn’t, far from it, they had just come to consider such things as too much threat for not enough gain. Early settlers had taken great lengths to defend themselves against the local wildlife. It wasn’t something a predatory forgets when it finds food too costly to consider hunting.

So why in all of Emberhelm would dawn devils be here, so far from their nests – from the safety and security of their territory to attack us? A glance at Glitch told me I might be the only one wasting time on thinking. My curious cohort was already sheathing his own blades to retrieve something else from his satchel. It was a strange shaped cylinder with a crude grip. Along one side was what looked like a hand crank and along its belly was a bulbous box.

The second the first dawn devil closed in on us enough to present a passable target, Glitch gave his grim gadget a quick crank and small sharpened spears of steel sparked into the air like hurling hail seeking only to deliver stabbing pain. There was a clack of clicking sound as his darts tried to do damage but the dawn devil banked easily aside to escape the bold barrage.

Seeing one up close is no laughing matter. These things have a wingspan longer than a grown man is tall and some reach proportions large enough to double that. Feathers of browns, grays and blues shimmer in the light in such a way that is simply dazzling in the light of sunrise. But they don’t call them devils for nothing; they are quick, clever and the thick layering of their formidable feathers can disperse a solid impact. I suppose when you live and hunt in a rocky terrain it helps to have a hide to protect you.

Two more dawn devils flew in a forked flanking formation trailing the first. As it cut sharply to avoid the impending impalement they dropped down to angled low and headed straight for Glitch. Like I said, these things had earned the name appropriately enough. While the first had drawn the gremlins fire the trailing two were taking advantage of the directed attention to attack.

Both Stane and I had spotted the strategy and were already in motion to intercept it. My sword swept into a vicious upward arc that had it retained its edge might have sliced a savage cut. Stane had opted for using brute blunt force by way of his axes broadside to slam into the other devil with a stunning strike. Neither of us was left with a smile of satisfaction.

Cursing we both immediately realized the flaw in out tactic; the dawn devils feathers absorbed much of the kinetic impact and dispersed it along them. Both birds were knocked from their flight towards Glitch, but our counter offense was already being shaken off. We had managed to smack them and that was about the extent of it.

My heart sank and I deeply started wishing that I wasn’t standing there holding a blunted blade. There were at least three dawn devils that I had counted so far. I watched the two we had blocked take back to the sky but I couldn’t find the third when I tried to look for it. The early morning sky was already aglow of golden hued crimson as dawn was rearing its head.

Glitch himself had even ceased his own miniature spear shooting flurry to try and track where his target might have vanished to. But those devils were simply too at home up there flying nobody knew where over our heads. The light glinted off the tip of my short sword and the rapid fire combat thinking areas of my mind seem to seize on that detail to spin off into an important point.

It was still a point. Dawn devils could tense up and take a strong slam into even a rocky wall in the pursuit of their prey. In fact I have heard tales from elders of Emberhelm about them clutching up their catch of the day and diving into a cliff wall to tenderize the meat before returning to their nests. But one mistake some of the young ones made before they had mastered hunting or the technique itself was to veer too sharply near the sharp jutting crags. The others would leave them there to rot, not even bothering to pick the corpses clean. Some said it was to keep the breeding pool strong, to weed out the weak or ignorant among them.

To me at the moment in particular I didn’t care about so much the how or why about dawn devil culture, let alone customs. What mattered was something I could use. And one thing I could use was tactical knowledge like the fact that their feathered forms were susceptible to being pierced much like anything else. I may not have an edge to bring to bear, but I did have one sharpened bit of steel available to me, and I had every intention on making the most effective use of it.

“Stane, Glitch; we need to stab them, bludgeoning won’t work on these things,” I advised. I had their number now I aggressively admitted to myself and tried to watch for another attack. Glitch had already hefted his handmade contraption anew and had it held before him while he scanned the sky for anything to present itself. Even Stane had his own axe shifting slowly in a swaying pattern while he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, eager to engage again.

This time there was little warning when a dawn devil raced down towards us. It seemed to melt from the air itself out of nowhere and I only caught sight of it out the corner of my eye. The sudden motion made me jerk and spin to face it, almost a second too late too avoid a beak-shaped battering ram rushing at me with vicious talons to accompany it. I whipped my blade up for a thrust to strike at it but found my opportunity was already past.

The dawn devil twisted itself into a wild roll that drove it back up and over my head, carrying it out of my range before my sword could even attempt to serve me as a short improvised spear. While my focus was distracted by the dazzling shimmer of dawn’s sun rippling right over me I had missed the presence of its partners. They had been flying just behind the lead devil in a tight straight line formation that had rendered them invisible at the speed they had swept in.

It was a potentially deadly price that I should have paid in full. Instead it was discounted down from death to a particularly painful cost. Ravaging my back claws raked right up to slip through armor and find flesh waiting for them. The blow nearly drove my balance completely clear from me and I only avoided landing prone by throwing my sword arm out in front of me.

With my guard dropped and my struggle solely centered on staying upright the third dawn devil had had me dead to rights. But a violent volley of rigid rain roared forth from Glitch to catch it in the chest and a shriek of sheer shock punctuated it. The beast bellowed as it abandoned its assault and fought to fly for desperate freedom. A deft axe dealt it a blow that denied it any manner of escape save one that carried it from the land of the living.

Raw rage ripped up through me at having been hurt and with the added incentive of repaying in kind I pushed the pain from my mind. They wouldn’t try the same trick twice, I’d wager; especially after the last pass had already cost them one of their number. We had brought one of them down, now the odds were in our favor and the advantage of dawn wouldn’t exist for much longer.

“Next pass keep your eyes open,” I snarled, shaking slightly. “First fiend to show its face is mine, you two take the second.” After a few tense seconds I decided to add an extra observation as well; “they’ll likely not come at us from the same direction this time.”

I heard Stane make a sound that I expect was meant to be his admission of agreement. Glitch actually managed to make an entire word that I could comprehend; “understood.” Neither had necessarily had to even say anything, in truth I barely could have turned enough attention towards them to handle much in the form of a legitimate conversation. But some part of me had disconnected and relaying strategic assessments to your squad in a fight is a hard habit to break. I guess it had been a bit since I had been in a similar situation and was reverting to those habits.

My thoughts slowed until they became still like a tranquil lake and I relaxed my grip on my sword. These dawn devils were too good at what they did and this was their preferred period for hunting. My eyes couldn’t provide me with that precious period of warning to alert me in time for a response. I had learned that the hard way from the last pass. In fact, the pain was still creeping its way through to remind me despite my best efforts to ignore it.

If my eyes could be defeated then I would just have to turn towards my other senses. Despite the inherent foolishness of the act, I closed my eyes and removed my focus from my field of vision. I trained my attentions on the sounds and smells that swam all around me in my surrounding. There was a vivid array of aromas and noises that were available. Sorting through them all was like looking through a haystack that had been rolled down a city street; there was all manner of things mingled into the mix.

Desperately I pleaded to myself that fate was going to grab fortune and together they might enjoy each others company long enough to show me some smiles. I drifted through all the details and tried to find anything that could lend me an edge. And as I canvassed the complex components of everything around me I did start to piece some fragrant fragments together.

This far from the cliffs there shouldn’t be as strong of a scent of fresh flowing water, much less that of the fish that lived therein. Dawn devils weren’t above diving into the depths to claim a catch anymore than they would to snatch up something from the ground. Either strategy would take advantage of their keen eyesight in the early morning hours.

Then there were the sounds; the soft morning breeze wasn’t particularly strong but it carried on it the somber silence that there always was when so few people were up and about. I could make out three pairs of breathing lungs and the beating bodies containing them. The crank on Glitch’s curious little creation even squeaked just a hair as his hand absently turned it maybe half a degree.

But the faint odor of lingering fish was growing stronger. As it did it came with an increased distortion in the air. It wasn’t the clearly identifiable flap of feathers surging through the sky. Instead it was almost akin to the sound of an arrow sailing straight to seek out its target. That target, I was quite certain would be me.

I resisted the initial impulse to rip my eyes open and jerk my sword out before me. That hadn’t worked well for me the last time and I was sure that it would only strip me of the timing that I would need. If their own eyesight could spot my swords steel brought to bear before then it might adjust its attack before I could attempt any form of offense of my own.

Clinging to my gambit I poured all of my concentration into keeping my senses sharply trained on the sound and smell that continued to make its way towards me. Against all my wishes to the contrary my heart hammered harder in my chest and a little voice from somewhere far behind me began whispering questions about the strength of my strategy. I couldn’t completely argue with it either; it wasn’t the best battlefield strategy I had ever heard of. But sometimes you have to trust your instincts. I trusted mine enough to stand in the street with my eyes closed and waited for death from above to come and try to deliver it.

I could almost taste the thick near tangible tang of fresh air after a storm on my tongue. Every part of me was screaming at me to take action for the sake of my survival. And yet I held back, pressing my resolve to the brink of breaking.

Just as I could feel my nerves staring to falter I felt the air become calm and sensed something moving suddenly in front of me. My eyes ripped themselves open, but not before my arm had already ignited into a surging stab that sent my sword straight up and ahead of me. It all happened with such lightning speed I couldn’t immediately process it.

I never felt the blow as the dawn devil’s momentum married with the sharpened steel tip of my sword. Nor do I consciously recall spinning in to roll with the impact that carried it clear past me to collide with the waiting ground. In a whirling blur of chaos and confusion I found myself already in motion to reach Stane’s side. The vicious veteran was facing the last of our fearsome flying fiends with ample enthusiasm.

Glitch had fired forth a short burst of blazing bolts that caught the air just to the right of the dawn devil, driving it low and to the left. The altered course would carry it straight into Stane, who was already anticipating the encounter and leapt into the air. By the time I sprinted into range with my own sword all I could do was watch as an axe angled neatly down into the passing neck of the predator turned prey. It hit the ground hard and rolled for a respectable stretch before friction alone seemed able to overcome its speedy descent from the sky.

Just to be sure I provided each bird-like body with an extra piercing to its chest and then rejoined the others. Glitch was busy tinkering and adjusting his weird little weapon before slipping it back inside his satchel. Stane was occupied himself with wiping what remained splattered along his axe.

After a long series of silence we all gathered around the small object that had started the strange scenario. “Perhaps we should try this again,” I proposed politely “Stane, old acquaintance mine; we need to have a little talk.” He didn’t even look up, merely answering me with a single terse word in reply. “Aye,” he said. It was the only word spoken for several long awkward minutes as we all stared at the shattered stone-like remains of what looked to have at one time been an egg.