Combatant: The Kacy Chronicles, Book 3
By A.L Knorr & Martha Carr
CHAPTER ONE (unedited)
The heels of Jordan’s boots clicked against the hardwood floor of the foyer. There was a squeak as her toe depressed the loose floor-board. The sound of a crackling fire drew her to the parlour. It was an inviting sound, a comforting sound given the maelstrom that whipped the leaves of the trees outside and threw pellets of rain against the glass of the windows.
Jordan paused in surprise. A strange dog was curled up on the carpet in front of the fire. A Greyhound, if she wasn’t mistaken, a racing breed with long limbs and powerful shoulders. He was curled into a ball with his back to her. White speckles dusted his ginger fur, and the fire threw his shadow long and soft against the carpet. The bones of his spine made a row of low mounds down his back. He was thin, this dog, the hallmark of his breed, she supposed.
The dog sensed Jordan’s approach and lifted his head, facing away from her, ears cocked. He got to his feet, slowly, stiffly, and padded in a small circle to face her. His jaw and mouth were dusted with gray, his once bright hazel eyes were milky with cataracts. A scar carved its way down the side of his face, just in front of his right ear. He had the noble face of the Greyhound breed, fine and sleek, but as they looked at one another, Jordan gasped.
This Greyhound was her father, Allan.
The fire blew out.
A wisp of smoke drifted from the blackened logs and disappeared up the chimney. Outside, the gale of wind and rain screamed on like a coven of vengeful witches. The shadows of the room turned blue and cold. These shadows were dead, the ones that lurk where fire doesn’t live. They were evil creeping shadows.
Jordan shivered. “Dad?” She took a hesitant step forward.
The Greyhound crossed the room on stiff hips and a limp. Jordan came to her knees, her heart pounding and her mouth dry with distress.
“Dad, don’t leave me.” Jordan’s voice trembled and her eyes pricked with tears. She put her hands on the dog’s withers. The Greyhound drew close and lifted a paw, resting it heavily on her knee. He whuffed out a sigh.
The Greyhound’s mind whispered to hers: I’m tired, Jordy. So tired.
“Dad, no. Don’t give up.” A tear tracked its way down Jordan’s cheek. “I’m coming for you.”
The Greyhound’s pink tongue licked the skin of Jordan’s chest, just under her left collarbone. She put her forehead against his. He licked her again, his tongue warm and slow.
“Dad, don’t leave me.”
He licked her again, always in the same spot, just above her heart. But moisture ran from the lick, up into the hollow of Jordan’s throat, against gravity. The droplet turned cold and spilled over her neck, into her hair. Jordan noticed only then, that the hair at the nape of her neck was damp. She shivered.
“Jordan.” The greyhound spoke in a woman’s voice, making her start and gasp.
Jordan flew awake like a small bird at the hoot of a Great-Horned Owl. Panting, her neck wet, her eyes darting from side to side. Where am I?
“You were dreaming, Jordan.” The whisper came from a dark shadow bent over her. It was accompanied by the pressure of a warm hand on her shoulder.
The sounds of the gale were real. Rain drove and whipped across the portholes, the creaks and groans of wood shifting and timbers rubbing against one another cleared Jordan’s memory. Another cold drop struck her below the collarbone and ran over her neck and into her hair.
She was still on the ship. It had been a dream. Just a dream. She exhaled in relief.
One of her wings jutted out awkwardly to the side. Her feathers trailed in water as it slid across the wooden boards of the deck. The other wing, she couldn’t feel, it had gone numb beneath her.
“Are you okay?” Eohne whispered, sitting in the empty hammock next to Jordan’s. “You were mumbling.”
Jordan wiped at her wet neck as another droplet fell from the ceiling and hit her just above her heart. She sat up and three ratty old blankets fell away from her shoulders. “I dreamed my dad was a dog.” Jordan yanked her trapped wing from underneath her body, wincing as the blood rushed back into it and made the whole appendage tingle.
Eohne’s shadow was still as the Elf absorbed this. “How curious.”
“A racing animal,” Jordan explained, wiping her wet neck and chest with one of the blankets. She realized her face was also wet, but this moisture had come from her eyes. She swiped at her face and the smell of mouldy fabric made her pull back with a moue of disgust. “But old, and stiff. His racing days were long over.”
“Hmmmm.” Eohne made a contemplative sound.
The two women swayed back and forth with the rocking of the ship.
“Where’s Toth?” Jordan asked, searching for the Nycht.
“Up on deck.”
“In this weather?” Jordan pushed the pile of blankets aside and put her feet on the floor. She felt around in the dark for her boots. The floor was damp and downright splashy in some places. Vertigo swallowed her as the ship lurched and she gave a groan. “Nevermind, I get it.” Jordan pulled on her boots and fumbled around her hammock for the long-sleeved leather jacket Eohne had purchased for her before they’d left Maticaw. Jordan loved it. It was specially made to lace up underneath her wings so they could be free. But best of all it was warm, lined with something fuzzy and soft. Jordan hadn’t wanted to ask what kind of animal fur it was. She’d worked hard to reject Eohne’s buying her the jacket but the Elf insisted. Where they were going, it was going to be cold.
“Do you think we’re getting close?”
“We are. The fog is growing thick, that is a good sign under the circumstances.”
“Creepy,” Jordan muttered, putting her arms into the jacket’s holes. The fabric draped over the tops of Jordan’s wings and she turned so Eohne could lace the back of it closed above and below her wings. Jordan fastened the metal clasps that ran up the front and instantly felt warmer. She laced up her boots next.
The two women swung in the hammocks as the ship’s nose took a dive into a trough, sending their stomachs lurching. Loud voices from the deck of the ship yelled commands in a foreign tongue. Heavy footsteps ran overhead, waves slapped the hull, ropes were yanked and sails hoisted. The whole cacophony blended together into a tense soundtrack.
“Care to move somewhere more solid?” Eohne gestured to a wooden shelf at the rear of the hold. It might have been used for storage but was currently empty. The Elf’s voice was strained. She grabbed one of the blankets from Jordan’s bed and got up.
“Absolutely.” Jordan’s stomach flopped over as they staggered across the floor. Muscles in her back complained at having slept in a swinging hammock for several hours. She marvelled at how sailors could sleep in such uncomfortable beds for months at a time.
Eohne spread the blanket on the shelf and the two women sat with their backs to the rear-wall, facing the bow of the lurching ship. Steps leading up to the deck were directly behind them. A couple of empty bottles rolled across the floor as they settled themselves back and grasped the posts either side of the shelf to help keep still.
The ship tilted and swayed. Jordan loosed a groan from deep in her gut.
“The Captain said this part of the Rodanian Sea is always rough. It’ll pass.”
Jordan turned her head away from Eohne and covered her mouth with her fingertips, wondering if she was going to lose her last meal. She breathed deep and the nausea eased. She sat back, letting her head fall on Eohne’s shoulder. The Elf rested her own head on top of Jordan’s.
“Tell me again,” Jordan croaked. “Please? It’ll take my mind off vomit.”
“About the rickshaws. I want to be thoroughly informed before we get to Trevilsom.”
Jordan grunted in agreement. “I can never remember the name.”
“Trevilsom Prison sits on an island surrounded by a dangerous sea,” Eohne began, her voice soft. The Elf lifted a long tapered finger and ran it in a straight line in the air in front of Jordan’s face from the top of her forehead to her sternum. The finger curved to follow the shape of Jordan’s bent neck.
“Whoa!” Jordan’s head snapped up, her vision had gone foggy. Before her opened a misty cartoon scene: a large island, mostly rock. A huge stone building with no windows save for a few on the upper level, wavered in the picture. “How are you doing this?”
“We learn it young.” There was a smile in Eohne’s voice, though Jordan could no longer see the Elf. “I haven’t used Charra-Rae storytelling magic for a long time. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I could still do it.”
“Your skills are intact, let me tell you.”
Small sea-birds wheeled in and out of the clouds hovering over the scene in front of Jordan. “Everything looks like its drawn by hand, it’s like a moving painting.” Jordan reached a blind hand forward into the scene, but she found nothing solid. Even her hand was not visible. “Keep going.” The lurching of the ship seemed to ease as Jordan’s senses were occupied by the story.
“Over eight-hundred years ago, the Kingdom of the Rakshaak giants was ruled by a selfish king named Keeriak.”
A tall bony giant of a man wearing long robes and a tall spiky crown appeared on the battlement of the ugly castle. His shape wavered there as though it was made of colored smoke.
“King Keeriak was a supporter of Rahzdon, a treacherous Atlantean who had plans to dominate your Earth. Rahdzon faced all other species in a battle for supremacy of Oriceran. Thankfully, he lost. The Prophets, including my ancestor, were the key to his defeat. Prophets still exist today to help ensure the treaty is upheld.”
“This is the treaty that prevents people from traveling back and forth between universes?” Jordan didn’t need to add that the treaty was only marginally successful at discouraging portal-hopping activities.
“That’s right, but that’s a story for another day. The island king was not only a follower of Rahzdon, he was obsessed with finding the secret to immortality.”
The scene wavered and changed. A cold stone room with a fire of green flames crackled behind the King as he bent over a stack of mouldering books. As Jordan watched, the giant got to his feet, swept a glass off the table with a hand the size of a car-tire and threw the goblet into the flames. A splash of thick red liquid sizzled against the hot stones behind the fire and ran down in streams, smoking as it went.
“Keeriak’s obsession took him abroad, even to the port-city of Maticaw.”
Jordan watched the giant disembark a huge ship, his enormous size making the dock sway and creak under his weight. Fish visible in the water beneath the dock darted away and Jordan thought she could hear the little creatures squeaking in the background, ‘Run for your lives! Swim away!’ Jordan chuckled at the cartoon silliness of the story.
The giant lumbered alone down the streets of Maticaw, while magical creatures darted into shops and dove under benches to escape his baleful gaze and clumsy footsteps.
“How do you know all this?”
The giant stopped lumbering, his expression went from malevolent to vacant.
“My ancestor, a Prophet named Firohne, left a journal,” came Eohne’s answer. “I’ve read it front to back several times over. The Elves of Charra-Rae know this history like they know their own faces because Firohne was given the forests of Charra-Rae as a reward for what he did. He was our pioneer, and as you know, Charra-Rae is our home even today.”
“Where were your people before that?”
“We were part of the Light Elves kingdom. We still bear some resemblance to them but we’ve had eight-hundred years to evolve our own magic.”
“Okay, sorry to interrupt. Please continue. The King looks bored.”
The King’s face was relaxed and good-natured, not unlike an expression Eohne wore most of the time. As Eohne resumed the tale, the giant re-engaged and snapped back into character. His bushy brows slammed together and his mouth twisted cruelly.
“Firohne sold King Keeriak an Elvish potion, which when drunk and allowed to course through the King’s veins at the passing of the full-moon, would turn the Rakshaak King immortal.”
The scene morphed into an indoor meeting between King Keeriak and a very handsome chestnut-haired male Elf wearing satin robes. The Elf and the giant sat together, heads bent in serious discussion. Firohne’s lips moved soundlessly and he reached into his cloak and pulled out a small vial. The greedy King snatched at the vial and threw a sack of coins at Firohne, who caught it with a secret smile.
“What the giant didn’t know, was that Firohne was part of the movement to stop Rahzdon and his cohorts from taking over Earth. The potion was a lie.”
“Your ancestor was a treacherous Elf,” Jordan murmured.
The cartoon Firohne made eye contact with Jordan, his face a picture of innocence. He said in Eohne’s voice, “All for a good cause, my friend,” before dissolving away. “Keeriak took the potion back home to wait for the full moon.”
A new scene materialized: Keeriak strode back and forth impatiently in front of that same crackling green fire. A window in the background displayed a half-moon, then a three-quarters moon as it waxed in time-lapse. King Keeriak grabbed the vial from the table as the moon popped into full-size. He tossed the whole thing, glass and all, down his gullet.
“King Keeriak died. Sort of.”
Keeriak went stiff and his tongue flopped out of his mouth. His eyes turned into black buttons and he fell over to the sound of a long descending whistle. He crashed to the floor with the snapping sound of breaking branches. The King’s shape remained still but the room behind him wavered away and became a huge dark tomb, with large bearded heads of stone jutting from the walls.
“His people buried him and swore vengeance, but little did they know…”
A hole in the ceiling of the tomb where the King lay appeared and widened, showing again the passing of the moon.
“One week later, the Rakshaak King came back to a kind of half-life.”
“Like a zombie,” Jordan added.
Eohne’s voice grew thick with drama. “Worse than your zombies.”
The shape of the King blackened and thinned, his robes dissolved away revealing a long body with sharp angles, made more of shadow than any real flesh. The dead King slowly rose from his place in the tomb. The head was featureless and drifted above the shoulders, neckless. Instead, a column of smoke held the chin suspended above the collarbones, and there the head bobbed.
“So, spooky.” Jordan felt her flesh marble with goosebumps.
“King Keeriak became the first Rakshaak guard of Trevilsom, though it took him some time to turn all of his people.”
The bony giant made of shadows and smoke bumped his floating head on the stone ceiling of the tomb, making the head bounce like a balloon. As the giant made his way up the stone steps, he repeatedly hit his head against the ceiling. A hollow sound, like coconuts being knocked together, accompanied every bump.
“A Rakshaak leaks a toxic poison that contaminates any magic around it. When Keeriak emerged from his tomb, he addled the minds of his own people and they became disorganized, confused, and unable to take care of themselves. They died soon after, becoming Rakshaaks themselves.
The Rakshaak emerged from underground into streets full of giants, who made soundless screams and scattered before him. They fell away and dissolved into the same kind of tall neckless creature as their former king. They fell into step behind him until there were no living giants left, only an army of tall dark neckless wraiths.
“Trevilsom guards feed off the fear and confusion that they create, which is why the island became a place that everyone left their criminals.”
The vision of the army of Rakshaaks dissolved into another scene: a rowboat on the ocean. A devious looking little man tied up in more rope than what was needed to moor a ship. He was tossed from the rowboat onto the island, and the three oarsmen (the fat plumes in their hats waved goodbye) turned the boat around and sailed away. The little man jumped to his feet, ropes falling away, shaking his fist at the now distant vessel.
“Watch behind you, little man,” Jordan said, her warning surprisingly sincere.
The little man whipped around and his hair grew white in an instant. A Rakshaak approached, its dark lumbering shape crossing the land and its long skeletal fingers reaching. As the moon swept by in fast-motion, the man’s form slowly dissolved. The fog left over seeped into the Rakshaak. Its neck grew long as it absorbed the mist, the smoke lifting the head higher as it fed.
“That’s a ghastly story, no matter how silly you make it look. Can I have my sight back now?” The scene dissolved away and Jordan’s view of the dismal ship was back. She shivered. “If we get too close to one of the giants, we’ll lose our minds and become Rakshaaks too?”
“No, you wouldn’t become a Rakshaak. Only the original giants became Rakshaaks, they are finite in number and thankfully cannot reproduce, as far as I know. If you’re in the presence of one of them you’ll soon become so addled that you won’t be able to find your way off the island, let alone out of the prison. You stay there until you die, with the Rakshaaks feeding off your fear. They are motivated to feed and water the prisoners and keep them alive for as long as possible, so they can continue to siphon their own sustenance from them. It’s a nasty business.”
“But you’ve got magic that will protect us from this toxic poison.”
Eohne nodded. “I invented it a long time ago, for a school project. It will work, but it will also decay over time.” Eohne pulled her knees up into her chest and wrapped her arms around herself. “We have to get in and out of there, quickly.”
“My poor father. It’s a good thing humans don’t have any magic for them to leech and make him crazy.”
“Yes, that’s a good thing. But Firohne wrote of the effects the noxious magic has on humans.”
Jordan remembered. “A coma. What else did Firohne write about in his memoirs? Tell me something that can help us.”
The story had been entertaining, but now that the cartoon vision was gone, the reality of her father’s situation set in. Allan was in grave danger. As a being the Rakshaaks could not live off, it would only be a matter of time before they simply discarded his lifeless form, threw him into the ocean, leaving him to drown.
“Firohne wrote of the caves under the island as being the only way to access the prison while delaying coming into contact with the toxic magic until the last possible moment. He said that a strong magical being could fight off the effects of the Rakshaaks and preserve their sanity for a time. If they were strong enough, they might descend into the tombs of the old kingdom and find the pools leading to the underwater tunnels.”
“They’d have to be one heck of a swimmer,” Jordan murmured.
“I wish Blue were here,” Jordan said, rubbing her upper arms. “I miss the little guy.”
“He can’t come where we’re going. You know that.”
“Do you think he’ll do as you asked?”
“He’ll do it.”
Jordan spoke with confidence, but she’d never asked Blue to do anything without her before. Jordan had penned a letter to Sol, who by now would be frantic with worry. In a short a message, Jordan told him of Allan’s predicament, who she was with, and that they were going to Trevilsom to rescue her father. She never gave him any specifics of their plan, there hadn’t been time for that. And she hoped that Sol would take some comfort knowing that Toth, the intimidating Nycht mercenary, and Eohne, the brilliant Elvish inventor and magician, were her allies.
She’d tucked the letter into a cylinder, fastened it to Blue by way of a collar they’d acquired in Maticaw, and given the dragon instructions to return to the apartment on Upper Rodania. He’d even flown in the right direction, and that was comforting.
“I think the storm is coming to an end.” Eohne’s words broke through Jordan’s musings. It did seem as though the waves had lost some of their power.
Footsteps pounded on the steps behind them. The women hopped down from the wooden shelf.
The pockmarked face of a young sailor appeared, zeroing in on the Elf and the Arpak. “Trevilsom approaches,” he said. “Cap’n won’t go much closer. Best get ready.”