A Long, Dark Road (Part 3)

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5 of A Long, Dark Road This is the third chapter. I can think of nothing else to say about it.

Hatred is a creation of men and demons. There is no anger amid the dead.

  • Damien Malcus

"I could get in just fine," Kath said, exasperated, "you? Not so much."

"Why is that, exactly?" Varg asked as the two of them crouched alongside the road that led to a small town situated at the edge of a mountain tributary. Hundreds of thin, dark pines rose from the moist earth around them, their dark needles providing the two with ample shadow from which to scout out the town, the chill of the mountain air bringing with it the smell of smoke through the mist; the town laying pristinely beneath the towering monoliths of the dark primordial monstrosities, giving the dark and foreboding mountains an edge of calm surrealism.

The river that ran through the town could be heard softly as it wound its way through the dark soil and rock of the mountain earth, its waters serving as a lifeline for the town below as well as he dozens of others in the valley downstream.

Kath looked over the massive dragon; seven feet tall, clothed in bloody armour scavenged from the battlefield, wielding a sword larger than a modest armoury, covered in injuries and smelling of burnt meat with fangs sharp enough to tear through fur and skin both.

"Yeah, don't take this the wrong way," Kath said, turning back to face the town, its gates guarded by four bored-looking guards in green tunics, "but you don't look the 'harmless traveller' part."

"And you do?" Varg said, gesturing to the jackal's black leather jacket strapped tightly over her lean, supple body; her deadly recurve bow strapped over her left shoulder for easy access and over a dozen arrows poised for use in her quiver.

Kath sighed and undid her ponytail, allowing her midnight hair to fall freely over her narrow shoulders in loose waves. She then undid the first three buttons of her padded jacket and adjusted her chest, showing off her respectable bust, and stowing away her dagger in one of its many hidden pockets.

She stood and presented herself, changed from a battle-ready bitch to a gorgeous mountain girl in a matter of seconds. Varg looked first at her, then down at himself and grumbled.

"Fine, I see your point," Varg grumbled, "so how do I get in?"

"Well," she said, "you can kill all of them."

"Ha," Varg responded dryly, "Funny."

"So I've been told," She responded equally dryly, "I could try to convince them to let you in."

"And say what? This is my pet sex-dragon; don't mind the bandages: he's been a bad boy?" Varg said, sarcasm thick in his voice.

Kath smiled and winked at the dragon, "I can think of worse ideas."

Varg's expression changed from bored anger to embarrassment in an instant, any hint of a blush hidden behind his crimson scales. He shook his head and went back to the subject at hand.

"I could try to scare them out of my way," he suggested.

Kath nodded thoughtfully, "That could work, but I don't think that should be our 'Plan A.'"

"Any way to sneak in?" Varg asked after a few moments.

"Again," Kath said, "I could. You? Not so much."

"You don't think I can be sneaky?" Varg demanded.

"Oh no," Kath said, sarcasm dripping palpably from her words, "I'm sure the seven foot lizard with reflective scales and a fucking broadsword could just slip right in; what are we waiting here for? I bet we could just saunter right in and they'd never be the wiser!"

Varg grumbled deep in his chest, sending out a reverberating growl, "Fine, let's just get this over with."

"This was a bad idea," Varg growled under his breath to Kath. They stood in the centre of the road about twenty feet from the town's gate. The guards' eyes were wide as they moved to encircle the pair, their spears lowered as they called to the bunkhouse for reinforcements. There were four of them: a Labrador at their head with a distinctive officer's sash in addition to the green of the normal uniform; with him was a fox and two horses, a brown stallion and mare of such close resemblance that their relation was a forgone conclusion.

"State your business!" called one of the guards, a Labrador with short brown fur and long muzzle, his voice cracking in fear as he addressed them.

Kath moved to take a step towards them, halted by the point of a spear. She held up her hands non-threateningly as she answered the guard, her normal voice supplanted by a surprisingly sweet and delicate tone to match her appearance.

"Hail," She said, raising her hand daintily in greeting, "We seek entrance to this town."

"Ha! Fat chance," said another of the guards, a tawny fox with heavily rustled fur, as if he had just awoken from deep sleep.

"What he means," the first guard said, giving a meaningful glance to the other soldier, making the fox shirk shamefully back, all the while keeping his spear levelled at Varg, "Is that we can't allow potentially dangerous individuals into the town, not this close to the Deadmount."

"Who, us?" Kath asked, batting her eyes seductively at the Labrador, making him smile softly, "I assure you we will be no trouble, sir."

"I'm sure you won't miss...?" the Labrador said, relaxing noticeably as he raised his spear and stepping closer to Kath.

Kath extended her hand to the guard, allowing him to kiss it gingerly, "Talia. My friend there is Tarak," she said, gesturing to the dragon and emphasizing the word 'friend.'

"Well, I'm sorry miss," the Labrador said, "but the dragon isn't getting in."

As if to punctuate the dog's words, the fox prodded Varg with the tip of his spear in warning. Varg responded with a steely glare and menacing growl. The sibling horses backed away from the imposing dragon, sensing imminent danger; the fox, however, was either too stupid or too blind to recognise this and proceeded to poke the dragon again.

"Touch me again and you lose an arm," Varg growled, stepping forward to loom over the severely shorter fox.

Kath glanced backwards at the dragon, giving him a warning glare and nod, begging him not to antagonize the man; simultaneously, the guard captain was issuing a similar look of warning to the fox, one that, tragically, went unnoticed by the over-confident guardsman.

Time seemed to slow as the guard thrust his spear forward again, aiming to prod the dragon's ribs once more, only for the tip of his spear to pass through the empty air where the dragon had been only moments before.

A look of confusion crossed the guardsman's face as the full realization of the situation hit him, just before Varg did. The dragon's fist stuck the fox squarely on the jaw, sending the guard sprawling onto the loose cobbles of the mountain road, blood already beginning to pour from his nose and busted lip, as he looked up at the dragon in dumbfounded confusion.

"Now let's just calm down here..." the captain said, moving to stand between his soldiers and the angry dragon, "no need to let this get out of hand."

His words went both unheard and unheeded as the remaining two guards lunged at Varg, thrusting their spears in unison. Varg slapped the tip of one spear away, continuing the motion into a spin that took him out of the path of the second attack. Varg lashed out a clawed foot, sweeping the legs out from under the male horse to send him to the ground in a graceless sprawl.

Varg knelt beside the guard, gripping the stallion's mane in one hand to drive the horse's head into the road, sending the man face-first into the land of dreams. His sister was quickly upon Varg, driving her spear towards the kneeling dragon. Varg moved only slightly, twisting just enough to allow the bladed tip of the weapon to slide past him. Varg grabbed the shaft of the spear as it passed him, jerking it in the direction she had thrust it, taking her by surprise and pulling her off her feet to tumble over her prone brother.

Varg rose to stand over the defeated guards, turning from them with an unimpressed snort. The fox had risen from where Varg had thrown him, rubbing a hand over his muzzle where Varg had hit him, spitting blood onto the ground and drawing a narrow short-sword from a battered scabbard at his belt that seemed worn more from neglect than actual use.

"I'm gonna gut you, you overgrown lizard," the fox snapped, holding the blade before him, his grip on the sword making it clear he was proficient, if not skilled with is use.

"Guardsman, stand down!" yelled the captain, drawing his own blade, but too afraid to stand between the furious fox and his opponent.

"Tarak!" Kath said pointedly, "don't do anything you'd regret," Varg was too focused on the fox to even gaze in her direction, rendering her venomous gaze moot.

The fox lunged towards the dragon, closing the distance between them with surprising speed; slashing at the dragon's gut with rapid precision. Varg avoided the sword by a narrow margin, its tip sweeping through the chain armour like butter, sending shattered links to the ground with a cacophony of jingling metal, exposing a narrow sliver of the dragon's muscular abdomen to the cool mountain air.

The fox continued his advance with a series of equally frenzied attacks, occasionally clipping the dragon's cloak or armour, but never landing a hit on the massive figure himself. Varg remained calm, face a mask of ambivalence as the frothing fox's attacks became more and more wild. Varg was slowly pushed to the edge of the road into the low bushes and brambles that marked the beginning of the treeline, the fox's swings now devoid of any of the skill that had been present, now nothing more than wild slashes and furious grunts as the dragon avoided them with indifference.

With a savage scream, the fox swung heavily at the dragon's head, blind to the smile that emerged on his opponent's face as he stepped back from the fox. The fox's shortsword slammed into the trunk of a narrow aspen, dull steel sinking almost entirely into the soft wood. Varg stepped forward out of cover of his makeshift shield, taloned hand closing around the fox's throat.

Varg lifted the fox from his feet with callous ease, holding him face-to-face as his feet dangled over a foot from the ground, sporadic coughs slipping through his vulpine lips.

"Varg, don't!" Kath screamed, pushing the guard captain from her path.

Varg cast a glance in her direction, giving a curt nod before throwing the fox across the entire span of the road; the fox's narrow limbs flailing weakly as he fell from the arch of Varg's throw to land in a crashing heap on the loose cobbles of the road.

The guardsman rolled onto his hands and knees, one hand moving to his throat as his breath came in wheezing gasps. Varg stalked across the road, stepping over the crumpled forms of the two equine siblings until he stood over the bloody fox. The dragon kneeled over the wheezing guardsman and pried the guard's hand away from his throat, twisting the fox's arm to force his elbow to straighten.

With a sickening snap, Varg broke the man's arm at the elbow, the joint left unhinged and unnaturally twisted under his tawny fur. The fox looked at the odd bend of his arm for a few seconds before sinking into a ball and screaming, eyes locked upon the horribly disfigured limb, too far gone in shock to truly feel the full extent of the pain.

Varg rose from the fox's side, a look of disgust coating his face as he moved to sand in his original position, folding his arms calmly over his chest, only the three wounded guards and his damaged armour indicating anything had happened at all. Kath and the captain stared at the dragon, the Labrador's eyes wide with both fear and awe, and Kath's alight with furious anger.

As if on cue, the remainder of the town's guard arrived, their faces changing from dogged determination to anxious trepidation as they beheld the three unconscious forms and their massive attacker.

The guards surrounded Varg and Kath, giving the two of them a wide berth as they checked on their fallen comrades.

"What's all this then?"

The assembled soldiers and their captured charges turned to face the source of the voice: an elderly fox, his vibrant red fur diminished by encroaching splashes of gray; he walked towards them slowly, a heavy limp aided by a dented walking-stick. Behind him was a hooded figure, following several feet behind, dark robe concealing any visible features.

The old fox looked over the scene and made a clucking sound in disapproval. Motioning for the captain to come to him.

"Well Captain? What the hell are you fools up to now?" he asked, prodding the Labrador's chest with the walking stick.

The reinforcements glanced at the elderly man, eyes darting back and forth between him and the two prisoners anxiously; their weapons remaining steadily aimed at the travellers.

"Couldn't just play nice for five minutes..." Kath grumbled, glaring at the dragon.

"I am being nice; I warned him didn't I?" Varg said, glancing sidelong at the nearest guard, chuckling as the man flinched back, "I could've used the sword."

"Sir," the captain said, saluting the fox, eyes darting over the hooded figure nervously, "These two wanted to get through the gate," he said gesturing to Kath and Varg.

"And?" the old man asked impatiently.

"Your grandson poked the dragon with his spear, and well..." the captain swept an arm over the pile of guardsmen, where the reinforcements were helping the horses up and a medic was trying to calm the whining fox to examine his arm.

The fox shook his head in disappointment, moving to get a better look at the two captives, brushing aside one of the soldiers to stand within the circle.

"What's the point of having you out here if you can't even stop one person?" the fox asked, walking to stand directly before the Varg, no signs of fear in his face as he examined the dragon; his gaze moving quickly over the dragon and the jackal before nodding, content with his judgement.

"What are your names?" the fox asked, holding up a hand in Kath's face just as she began to speak, "your real names."

Kath closed her mouth, taken aback by the old man, "I'm... uh, Kath and this is Varg."

The fox looked over his shoulder to glance at the hooded figure, who nodded ever-so slightly.

"What do you want?" the fox asked, turning back to face the two.

"We were hoping to equip ourselves better," Kath said, dropping her adopted tone to embrace her normal voice once more, "food, furs and the like."

The fox looked back at the hooded figure, who nodded again, the motion hardly perceivable under the cloak.

The fox laughed, poking the dragon with his walking stick before turning to face the bewildered guards, "going to leave our stores empty, feeding and clothing this one."

Kath looked around the gathered soldiers anxiously, opening her mouth to speak, only to be cut of as Varg addressed the fox himself.

"Allow me to apologize for injuring your men," he said, voice calm and respectful, leaving both Kath and the assembled guards agape, "but your grandson was being an ass."

The road was silent for several unending seconds, the weight of Varg's words laying upon them like a layer of thick cloth, broken only by the fox's raucous laughter.

The grey fox patted the dragon on the back heartily as he laughed, "Nothing new there, then!" he said, oblivious to the confounded stares directed at him.

He turned to face the hooded figure once more, "You can go now Aric, these ones are telling the truth."

The figure, Aric, nodded and turned away from them, slowly marching away from the group, watching the two of them from over his shoulder as he disappeared into the town.

Varg watched him go, brow furrowed in unease as the silent figure walked away, passing like a shadow through the stone gate.

"Stand down, stand down," the fox said, waving away the spears raised against the dragon. The guards complied hesitantly, moving to sheath their weapons, "These two won't be a problem anymore, will they now?" The fox said, glancing meaningfully at Varg.

"Of course not, sir," Varg said, nodding curtly towards the older fox.

The man snorted, "about time I get some respect here," the man set off towards the town at a leisurely pace, waving for the two travellers to follow, "So, what brings you two to my town?"

"Like I said," Kath replied as she and Varg moved to walk behind the man, leaving the guard captain to follow after several seconds of confusion, "We need supplies for our trip."

The man led them past the gate, the remainder of his guardsmen following behind, two of them carrying off the wounded fox towards the barracks to find a medic. The buildings of the town were relatively uniform in structure, though their design was quite unique for each one. They were composed of dark mountain wood and pale plaster, both used generously in an effort to keep the cold mountain weather at bay. Most were narrow and tall, built upon small areas of land, and added upon with new floors to compensate for their small lots, the tallest buildings standing up to four stories. Adding to their height were the high, steeply sloping roofs, most of which were covered in dark wooden shingles or slate on the finer homes and businesses.

Thick, wafting woodsmoke filled the air, adding to the near-constant mist that covered the southern slope of the mountain, giving the town a hazy, dreamlike appearance; the looming darkness of the mountain range bathing the town in constant shade, only further intensified by the thick, low lying clouds that hung miasmic over the forested range.

The greyed fox lead them through the evenly cobbled streets to the town centre, several shops and taverns arranged around a single stone statue, its likeness hidden behind decades of erosion and mossy growth. At one end of the courtyard was a small church of some sort, stone raised into an ancient temple surrounded by a comparatively large graveyard, mossy earth broken by narrow slivers of stone.

Varg looked over the church, surprised to see a temple of the old faith still standing after so long. The fog seemed to cling more thickly to the church and adjacent graves, playing tricks as the fog twisted maniacally in the shallow breeze. A single ghostly figure drifted through the field of graves, black cloak concealing its features as it passed through a side door into the church, disappearing into its darkness.

"Who was that man, Aric?" Varg asked, pausing behind the man as he continued to lead them through the city. The fox turned and followed Varg's gaze to the churchyard where the silent figure had disappeared.

"Aric? He came here a couple years ago, restored that old church and moved in," the fox shrugged, "He's never caused trouble, so people don't really mind him."

"Where did he come from?" Kath asked, seeming to share Varg's curiosity about the mysterious man.

"Never really said," The fox said, "Mentioned he had been trained at the academy in Branburg, but besides that he's never really talked about it. I think he prefers to keep to himself."

Varg raised an eyebrow, "He's a mage?"

"Yup," The fox replied, continuing to lead them through the town towards the inn across from the church, "I brought him along when I got the alarm, he's good at telling when people are telling the truth or not."

"Mind-reading is a very difficult thing to accomplish," Varg said, his tone adopting a professional attitude, "I'm surprised the Grandmage of Branburg would allow someone so talented to go off on his own."

The fox gave the dragon a scrutinizing gaze, "he did mention that his leaving was... less than cordial."

The group of them entered the inn, noses suddenly assaulted by the aroma of fresh bread and strong ale. The building was surprisingly roomy, a large fire pit set in the centre with the tables arranged around it; townsfolk sat and drank, pausing there merriment only for a moment to gawk at the massive dragon as he arrived before returning to their drinks. One corner was dominated by the bar, its wooden surface scarred from countless drunken parties. Behind the bar was a middle-aged goat, his long beard tied into a knot under his chin; he stood calmly, a thick glass mug in one hand and a cleaning rag in the other.

The elderly fox motioned them to a table directly next to the fire, motioning for them to sit before doing so himself; sinking into the comfortable wooden chair with a thankful sigh. Varg sat closest to the fire, enjoying the waves of heat that assaulted his scales; Kath sat next to him, hooking a finger into her jacket's collar as the heat rose to uncomfortable levels. The fox and his guard captain sat on the far side of the table, the fox seemingly oblivious to the heat and the Labrador's tongue lolling from his mouth in a pant. The fox waved to the bartender, holding up four fingers, then cast a look over at Varg, the lumbering dragon all but purring in the blissful heat of the fire, before extending another hand to make the total eight.

"I don't believe we gave you our names before," the fox said, extending a grey-furred paw to the visitors, "I'm Tsal, mayor of Kadak."

Kath and Varg both shook it, nodding thankfully to the bartender as he delivered the mugs of ale.

"I'm Brandon," The Labrador said, extending his own hand to Kath, taking far longer than necessary to shake hers before passing it briefly to Varg, "Captain of the guard here."

Varg took a heavy swig of ale from the mug before him, nearly draining it at once before speaking, "Thank you for your hospitality, especially considering our... eventful arrival."

Tsal shrugged and took a sip from his own mug, passing Varg another glass before answering, "It's not the first time my grandson has done something like this; although after the lesson you taught him, it might be the last."

"I made sure not to damage the bones too bad," Varg said nodding to Tsal as he gratefully accepted the mug, sliding his chair closer to the fire, "it should be fully healed within the season."

"Good," Brandon said, momentarily taking his eyes off the jackal, "as much as the kid's a pain in my ass, we need all the men we can get for the guard."

Tsal nodded thoughtfully, "Especially since Malcus and Skjoll bit it."

"Why's that?" Kath asked, returning Brandon's lustful gaze with a teasing smile.

"Malcus was born here," the fox said, "seemed too sentimental to burn it to the ground and use our guts as decorations at the Deadmount. Skjoll just never seemed all that interested in conquest."

"Morgana on the other hand," Brandon said, pausing to take a heavy draw from his mug, "that crazy bitch would give anything for that graveyard out there; she's always been eager to get her hands on a corpse."

Varg nearly choked as ale spilled from his lips in surprise, "Malcus? Damien Malcus used to live here?"

"Yeah," Tsal said, "Born right down the street. Sister still lives there, I think..."

"And that doesn't worry you at all?" Varg asked, incredulously.

"Nope," Brandon said plainly, going back to flirting with Kath, who was busy eating up all the attention she could muster from the guard.

Tsal looked at the pair of them and sighed, turning to give Varg a more satisfactory answer, "I've spoken with the woman many times, and Aric has always kept a close eye on her," He paused, sipping from his mug once more, "Damien moved away to Branburg when he was five; lived there until he, Skjoll and La Fey attacked the academy and escaped with their disciples."

Varg nodded, seemingly content with that answer. He had slowly been sliding his chair towards the fire until he was practically sitting inside it; he extended an arm towards it, letting the flames lick the scales of his forearm as he sank into blissful comfort.

"I figured you'd enjoy that," Tsal said, "I know how much you dragons enjoy those fire dens of yours."

"You know a lot of dragons, then?" Varg asked.

"Met quite a few of them during first war against the Deadmount," the old man said, "back before I got this," he said, pointing to a long and jagged scar that curved its way down his right leg.

"You were in the army, then?" Varg asked.

"Yeah, worked closely with the dragons," He said, gaze lost in old memories, "they would fly over and distract the necromancers while we charged in on foot."

"I take it you were in that battle to the south a couple weeks back?" Tsal asked, handing Varg another mug and waving over the bartender to order more.

"I didn't think anyone would've heard about it yet," Varg said quietly, golden eyes staring through the fox into the past, "Not many of us got out."

"We heard of it from a merchant that passed through a few days after," Tsal responded, taking a mug from the waiter and handing another to the dragon. The two of them raised their mugs in toast, the motion gone unnoticed by the flirting canines at the other end of the table.

"To the dead and their battles," the old fox said, quoting an old dragon war chant, "Let them rest with glory."

Varg tapped his glass against the fox's, "And to the living and the battles to come; let them earn theirs."