Not A Hero
Run. He was out of breath. Run anyway. He was tired from running for hours. Keep running. He wanted to stop. He slashed his way through dense ferns and shrubs as he ran, hopping and skipping at times to avoid the partially glimpsed rocks and roots that rose out of the ground. He was good at this, in peak condition despite the mosquitoes and hunger, but the Slizers were better. They live for this. He could hear the slight whistling of the wind sliding over their scales as they ghosted through the dense mangroves behind him, and faint rattles as they coordinated the hunt. He was lucky he was still breathing. If you could call this luck, anyway.
High ground. He had to find it. Or something defensible, where he could face his Death with a fighting chance. There! A massive weeper loomed above an otherwise sparse mound protected by a moat of brackish water, some three hundred span off the riverside he had been more or less following. Somehow, his numb legs kept pumping as he angled towards the mound, leaping with great bounds over the thick and snaky mangrove roots. His luck held as he plunged into the shallow, icy moat, splashed across and then scrambled one-handed up the mound. Flinging his back with a painful thud against the smooth trunk of the giant weeper, he gasped in great, long and shaky draughts of moist swamp air as he held his sword out on the ready, scanning the dark shrubs and roots beyond the moat. Made it.
The swamp was not a quiet place, but he couldn’t hear anything over his gasps. Aha! It was not a bright place, yet he could see the shimmering yellow glints of Slizer eyes peeking out at him from the undergrowth. And there! Just their eyes. There! That was Lazy Eye, as he called the droop-eyed one who led the the ambush on his party and captured the survivors. Resdec. Tantam. Cax and Zog and the rest. And me. After a bloody night of sport that ended with all his companions dead, they set him off as prey with nothing but the sword in his hand. This was their swamp, and they lived for the hunt. Seven sets of yellow eyes began to spread out along the moat from either side of Lazy Eye, who remained directly across from the swordsman, gazing with malicious intent. Eight in all, down from the ten started out that morning. Still too many.
Amazingly the Slizers did not cross the moat. They remained hidden amongst the mangroves, spreading further around the mound. While the swordsman tracked their eyes, sliding around the weeper’s trunk, he discovered that the mound was actually a small island. Having surrounded the island, the Slizers seemed content to wait him out for the moment. Think! As his breathing slowed down he could not help but remember the night before… He had no idea what to expect. Death as morningmeal. He made his peace with the Mother Crystal during that long night of tortured screams. Got Resdec. Got Tantam. Got Cax and Zog and the rest. They came for him at dawn, hauled his cage down from the tree it was strung up in. Got me, too.
Lazy Eye itself dragged the swordsman out of the cage, lifted him up standing and pushed him into a circle of its packmates. Prepared for Death, the swordsman still could not help but take their measure. They were man-sized lizards with rattle-tipped whiplike tails, thick arms and hands half-webbed with inch-long diamond-hard claws. They stood upright on powerful legs and each of their feet ended in three talons, also diamond-hard, two in the front, one large and one small, and one on the heels. Tore Resdec up into bloody shreds. At first the Slizers were indistinguishable from each other as their shiny, mottled green and black scales made them nearly invisible in the swamp from head to toe, but he could now see that there were subtle differences in the pattern and hue of their scales. And there was Lazy Eye. They wore nothing, were smoothly androgynous and could walk and run on fours as well as two, making them extremely dangerous predators that lived and hunted in packs like wolves. Roasted and ate Zog and the rest in front of Cax. Though they did not need weapons they’ve been known to use them in a blood rage. Chopped Tantam into pieces with his own axe.
Fortunately, Slizers were thought to be nearly extinct as a species; only a few packs were spotted in recent years along the northern border of the vast Marshfold which lay between the Reavingsea to the south and the A’quonese lands to the north. The rolling Sandwatch Hills defended the Marshfold’s western flank from the sandstorms that plagued the Wasting, while the impassable Jaggerreaches guarded the east some six hundred leagues away.
All this the swordsman Knew from his tour as an University guard at the city-state of Jalanaxos, where during his free time he would sit in on various classes Listening to the Professors of Geology, Geography, Culture, and even Anthropology. It was one of several reasons he was sent on this mission into the Marshfold, despite his relative youth and inexperience. His Knowings would be of tremendous benefit to the team. Tell that to Resdec now, Lord Wayndaf. Or Tantam. Or Cax and Zog and the rest. No amount of Listening could have prepared the swordsman for this, though.
Lazy Eye pointed to the bright white orb of Solarus rising in the East, and then pointed to the dimmer, red Nunimo setting in the West, and said “Rrruunnnnssss till rrredfallss! Then wee huntsss till whiitefallssss.”
“What?” said the swordsman. ”Redfall? You mean when Numino sets? How.. How can you talk?”
Lazy Eye shook its head and the shiver went down its body to the tip of its tail, which rattled in accompaniment as it hissed, “Nooo talksss! Rrredfallsss! Rrrrruuunnnnsss!!”
A sword, his sword, was thrust into the swordsman’s hand and he fumbled after it, almost losing his grip. His balance was lost, though, and he landed hard on one knee. The scaly circle parted and he was shoved towards the edge of the camp as he rose unsteadily to his feet. ”Rrrunnnnsss!” Lazy Eye said, and the swordsman needed no further encouragement to leave his questions to the wind.
He ran until a loud rattling pierced the gloomy mangroves. The hunt was on, so the swordsman decided to do what he hoped was the unexpected and stopped running. Spotting a straight fallen branch as long as he was tall, he snatched it up, chopped off the smaller twigs with his sword and crudely whittled down the tip. Now he had a serviceable spear. He knew he had little time before they found him. Their forked tongues actually tasted air and they could track a scent better than Lord Wayndaf’s famous halfhounds of which Zog was the best. And Lazy Eye could speak.
Since the Slizers could track, the swordsman decided to retrace his path back some forty paces, then found a large stand of shrubs to hide in. Soon enough, one of them slithered close by. Intent on the swordsman’s scent, it did not notice anything as he sprang up and flung the makeshift spear towards the base of its skull. Got you! At this range, the swordsman’s meager spearing skills was of no consequence. His meager spear-making skills were wanting, though, as the spear’s tip shattered upon impact, striking only a glancing blow. In the seconds that followed, the swordsman barely managed to dodge aside as over twenty stone of Slizer pounced past. Just as quickly, the swordsman swung back and was rewarded with a solid, meaty thunk as his sword bit deep into a muscular, scaled thigh. For real! As the Slizer let loose a loud throaty rattle that was sure to bring the rest upon them, the swordsman followed through and chopped its head off. One down. That was the other reason he was chosen for the mission – his Knowing of swords.
And then, just because, oh screw ‘em, he propped up the spear and thrust the severed head onto its broken tip. The yellow eyes popped out and the long forked tongue dripped blue blood to one side of its gaping mouth. Serves you right, Iggy-poo. This could make them angry and hopefully careless, but the swordsman couldn’t count on that as he was being angry and hopelessly careless. As he turned to run again a heavy blow smashed against his temple and sent him sprawling across the ground, his sword landing at the taloned feet of the Slizer that hit him. Lazy Eye. It was not alone, either – its fellow packmates had also surrounded him.
“You know those talons of yours’d fetch a good price at the Far Spires Market,” the swordsman spoke as he stood up, hoping to buy time. For Death to have the last laugh. “They’d make a nice set of goblets for some Lady’s hold.”
Lazy Eye bent down and picked up the sword. It sniffed at the blood that still spattered the blade and then slowly licked it. It stood and extended its left forearm, sliced it once with the sword, then tossed it back at the swordsman’s feet. Blue blood welled out of the cut and dripped as Lazy Eye pointed back into the forest. ”Rrrrruuunnnnsss!” it hissed.
So the swordsman ran. And ran for hours, hounded by the Slizers close behind. There were many close calls – too many, and he knew they were toying with him. Once, he thought he gave them the slip when he found a creek and followed it upstream a ways. They soon picked up his scent and the hunt was on once more. At another point he slipped and fell, twisting so he landed on his back. An overzealous Slizer lept on him, but with sheer luck the swordsman managed to get his blade up in time to impale the lizard-thing. Before he could get up he was surrounded again and disarmed so that Lazy Eye could do another mad ritual with the sword, adding another cut to the healing one from earlier.
“What the Ethers do you want from me?” pleaded the swordsman as the sword was thrown back at his feet.
The last rays of Solarus faded into the West as the warm red evening glow of Nunimo grew in the East. The swordsman slid down the trunk of the giant weeper, the trials of the last few days having finally caught up to him. Let them come. He had not the strength left to fight them all. He would sit, and he would rest, and he would stare back at Lazy Eye while he waited. If he was lucky, he might get in one last blow. For Resdec. For Tantam. For Cax and Zog and the rest. And for me.