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Riding the Viper
A Short Sword & Sorcery Story
Surveying the dim decay of the central chamber, Malash could not help but feel disappointed. She had known she stood little chance of unearthing her quarry within the decrepit halls of the citadel. No one had seen the Eastmoore wizards or their monstrous serpent mounts for generations—but she had fought so hard to get there. She had lost Zand to get there.
The last cold memory of his face lingered at the forefront of her mind. One of his eyes had been crushed by the faceted fist of an onyx golem, one side of his face reduced to a deep scarlet slash. Malash only managed to escape with her life by throwing herself down an incline and rolling beneath an outcrop of stone. The golem had lost interest when it couldn’t find her and lumbered away back down the mountainside. She hoped the razor-edged monstrosity had slipped on the ice and dashed itself to pieces at the bottom of a ravine.
Malash negotiated the last of the wizards’ ancient traps alone, jumping across streams that hissed with poison and dodging the shadowy, reaching hands of rock ghouls. The ghouls were ashy and incorporeal, burnt away in the light of the thin winter sun if they strayed too far. Still, the final curve in the path cut close to the mountainside and she had been lucky not to get caught.
She expected the end of her journey to be the most arduous. Breaching the citadel should have guaranteed an excruciating death but she managed to push the heavy, rust-stiff doors open wide enough to slip inside without so much as the piercing screech of a necrotic bat rattling over her head. Many of the wizards’ arcane trickeries had evidently been lost to time, which made her companion’s death even more pointless. Trust Zand to get cut down by the last faltering magicks of a wizard sect so long consigned to dust, their citadel was virtually unguarded.
Meeting Zand amidst the rough tumble of quayside taverns in Greygulf had seemed like fate. With his sword skills and her burgeoning sorcery, they should have been the ultimate team and their nights on the road had been spent dreaming about riches and revenge. If Zand could somehow claw his way back from the dead to appear before her now, Malash would kick him squarely in the jewels.
Adrenaline still flooded her body as she stood before the central chamber’s gaudy throne. The metal of the towering backrest was twisted and rusting. The plush velvet seat had rotted to slimy swathes of blackening plum. There was a figure on the throne, carved from a dark wood claimed by blight and creeping fungus. An idol, Malash guessed, or an ugly tribute to some forgotten wizard king. There was no one left to worship him now, and no one to care for his likeness. Its eyes were closed as though the hideous thing was sleeping, held upright by long tendrils of thorny vine that had wound through its moss-brittle hair and looped around its withered neck.
Malash was already sure her quest had been in vain. Nothing had stirred within these walls for millennia, but it couldn’t hurt to have a look around. There were two colossal openings in the wall at the far end of the room, both oval in shape. They glared at her like echoing mouths, inviting her to step inside and be devoured. Keeping one hand on the hatchet at her belt, Malash chose the opening on the right and began walking towards it. Perhaps there was treasure back there, something of value she could hawk back at Greygulf.
The weathered idol seated on the throne opened eyes the colour of clotted blood. A dark mouth fell open in the mouldering ruins of its face and it began to scream.
Malash tightened her grip on the hatchet. The screaming intensified to a high-pitched shriek, then careened to a stop. A voice bellowed forth, gnarled and ancient as the roots of mountains.
“Who goes there?”
Malash faltered, torn between answering this thorn-knotted sentinel or making a bolt for the exit.
“Who goes there? Answer, or die.”
The creature wrenched itself from the rotting throne with a sound like tree branches torn asunder in high winds. It rose to its feet, thorny vines still twisted around its limbs. When it moved towards Malash they snapped back and curled away. Malash snatched the hatchet from her belt, silently cursing Zand for the umpteenth time. Fighting monsters was supposed to be his job.
The figure reared before her but Malash stood her ground, swinging the hatchet in experimental arcs. Zand had taught her some basic skills; she could only pray they would prove adequate enough to protect herself. Now the sentinel was closer, she could see that what she had supposed was wood was actually thick, age-blackened skin. She could smell this thing, the rot and damp that had laid siege to much of its chest and upper arms, but also something beneath that, something deeper and more richly pungent. The smell of ripening flesh not washed for eons. This sentinel was alive and of human-kind. Its chest rose and fell with the effort of breathing and a vicious intelligence flickered within its rust-red eyes.
“What are you?”
She was not offered an answer. The huge decaying sentinel swung a hand towards her face, long, lichen-ravaged fingers reaching for her throat. Malash ducked instinctively and brought the axe up between them, driving it into the sentinel’s arm. She had hoped to lop the limb clean off but the blade jammed in the spongy flesh. She dropped and rolled away as the sentinel gripped the haft and wrenched the blade free. There should have been a rush of blood but a flowering of dark green moss burst from the wound, covering it over and sealing it shut.
Malash remained in a crouching position, hands flying to the first of four stout leather pouches attached to the front of her belt. She might be a poorly skilled warrior, but she was a moderately better-skilled sorceress and she wasn’t out of this fight yet. Seizing on a small bronze-coloured ball, Malash brought it to her lips and whispered her instructions. Talanese metal still responded to Gilaric, the first tongue spoken at the world’s dawn. She knew her pronunciation was terrible but it would be enough to gently coax the Talanese ball. Malash rolled it across the floor and uttered the final invocation.
The small metal ball juddered, rolled around with a grinding sound, and unfurled. It stretched and warped into thin, snapping tendrils that wound about the sentinel’s feet. One more command from Malash and he was brought crashing down to lie thrashing in the choking debris of the ruined floor. He roared.
“These pitiful bonds won’t hold me, stupid child.”
“No, but they’ll hold long enough for me to get out of here.”
“You should never have come.”
“I am inclined to agree with you.” Zand’s face flashed before her again. His ruined face leaking blood and gore into the dirty ice, his fingers still locked around the hilt of his ultimately useless sword.
Malash retrieved her hatchet and turned to leave. A deep rumbling made her pause. It felt as though the entire mountain was shaking. An echoing, rasping noise followed the trembling and a rush of stale air blasted from the oval tunnel on the right side of the throne, so fierce it blew back her hair and pulled tears from her eyes. Too late, Malash realised the oval tunnels were the exact size and shape needed to accommodate the colossal girth of a moonfire viper.
“You have woken Narcari,” the sentinel said. He sounded horribly gleeful.
His smirk soon changed to a look of confusion when Malash failed to run. She moved past him, quickly unbuckling the central pouch on her belt. The air erupting from the oval mouth of the tunnel was hot, scented with unfathomable age. It threw up dust and grit that raked her skin like minute coals, but she was jubilant despite her fear. A moonfire viper yet lived in the Fernheim Mountains. Her quest and Zand’s death had not been for naught.
With a final, searing blast, the viper exploded from the mouth of the tunnel and turned cold cerulean eyes in Malash’s direction. A long, anguished hiss rolled up from the serpent’s belly, dancing on the end of a red forked tongue. The snake continued surging from the tunnel, a glittering silver river of sharp-edged scales that curled twice around the vast room. Immense jaws framing fangs as long and cruel as Sirisonian scimitars opened wide above Malash’s head.
Malash was transfixed. The snake was as beautiful as she was terrifying, her pearlescent scales shimmering in the wan arms of sunlight filtering through the chamber’s high-arched windows. Wrapping her fingers tightly around the amulet in her pouch, she pulled it out and held it before the viper. It spun on a thick gold chain, the roughly cut ruby at its centre glinting like a bloody eye.
“I am your master now,” Malash said. It was an effort to keep her voice from trembling. “I free you from the wizards’ bonds.”
The snake watched the amulet swinging from Malash’s fingers with interest, head bobbing with the pendulum sway of the ruby as though entranced. Then she reared back with a guttural shriek and made ready to strike.
Malash turned to see the sentinel standing beside her, his hands raised in the air. The last shredded remains of the Talanese metal lay crumpled on the floor. The snake fixed her gaze on the sentinel, nodded once, and drew back.
“Where did you get that amulet?” the sentinel demanded.
“Greygulf.” Malash immediately regretted speaking so freely. The retreating pall of certain death had loosened her lips.
“I bought it from a witch. She said it was snake-charmed.”
“She was partly right but mostly wrong.”
Narcari appeared to be awaiting further instructions. The sentinel motioned for her to follow, then placed a firm hand on Malash’s shoulder and guided her in the direction of the lefthand tunnel. The snake came after them, slowly uncoiling as they headed into the tunnel’s midnight maw. The sentinel rapped his knuckles on the rock wall and uttered a word of power. The walls flared to hard, green light, bright enough that Malash could see the tunnel winding onward for what looked like miles.
“That amulet is not snake-charmed,” the sentinel said as they walked. “It is cursed. The ruby contains a nasty little hex created to break the line of moonfire vipers.”
Malash could feel the cold breath of the snake filling the space behind her. It crept beneath her leather vest and raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck. She thought about trying to attack the sentinel again, or making a swift break for the end of the tunnel in search of an exit. Both plans seemed infinitely foolish with a giant moonfire viper at her back.
The sentinel stopped before an archway carved into one side of the tunnel. There was a yawning space beyond and a ripe, fleshy smell that agitated the back of Malash’s throat. Another rap on stone, another word of power, and russet red light flooded the room. Malash took a step inside, surprise and wonder stealing her breath. The room was cavernous, stretching back so far and reaching so high it would have comfortably held ten moonfire vipers–and every square inch of the floor was covered with viper eggs.
“These younglings have been languishing for hundreds of your years.” The sentinel's voice cracked as he spoke. “They were trapped by the curse, unable to hatch, unable to die.”
Narcari gently nudged them aside and slid partway through the archway, head bowing over her unborn children.
“I do not know how that wretched thing ended up in the hands of a Greygulf witch,” the sentinel continued, side-eying the amulet still clasped in Malash’s hand. “My fellow wizards and I believed it lost, or hidden so well it would never be found. We tried to break the curse until our magicks were exhausted, until all that was left of us was Narcari and myself. All hope was spent.”
Malash looked down at the amulet. It was so ugly and small, it was hard to believe it held sway over such an enormous cache of moonfire viper eggs. She snatched it up into her palm and closed her fingers tight.
“You want this amulet, and I want something else.” She gazed up at Narcari. The snake gazed back. Malash knew this was not a deal to be brokered with the wizard. “I am in need of a companion,” she told the snake. “I left my last one broken on the mountain. I have work to do and I cannot do it alone. Or I am unwilling to. I am in pursuit of the warlord who laid waste to my village.” She tightened her grip on the amulet. “I owe that bastard a lifetime’s worth of suffering and torment. Will you aid me in return for the amulet?”
The viper’s jaws snapped open and shut. She emitted a soft hiss, as though considering Malash’s offer. Then she nodded her great head.
The wizard reached eagerly for the amulet. “I need only to destroy it,” he said. “May I borrow your hatchet? It isn’t strong enough to shatter the ruby in its current state, but a small charm will render it sharp enough to cut dragon hide.”
He took great delight in dashing the amulet to the ground and hammering it with the charm-forged hatchet until the ruby split and broke.
The mountains trembled at their passage as they raced down the treacherous slopes. The hardier winter birds scattered and the rock ghouls cowered in their stony crevices. Malash pressed tight against Narcari’s solid body, her legs wedged between scales the size of dinner plates. She already trusted her new companion implicitly. When they crossed the onyx golem, still wandering the icy paths like a drunken giant, Narcari side-swiped it with her immense tail. Malash turned in her seat with an exulted cry to see it tumble from the steep edge and shatter on the crags below.
Beneath them, another tremor radiated from the mountain. It was deeper than that made by their thunderous journey, emanating from the twisted roots of the citadel. The first brood of moonfire vipers to hatch in ten generations were throwing off the prison of their shells and turning eyes the colour of brilliant sea-crystal on the sleeping world below.
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