Nights of Fire
Part Six – A Favour Returned
By the time the first light of the following morning had arrived, the snow had begun to fall heavier. Overhead, the sky showed grey and dreary, thick with clouds that roiled across the heavens, a heaving mass that threatened worse to come. The company commenced their ascent up towards the mountains into the teeth of a strong breeze that whipped the snow into their faces, following along trails made by wild beasts, along hillsides and ridgelines.
The cloud sunk down lower, spilling from the peaks and ridges, rolling like white waves towards them until they were lost within it. Nhaqosa kept them going, pressing them forward as the tug of the pendant grew stringer yet. No longer did he have to grasp it to feel the pull. Each step brought them closer to their final destination, one that Nhaqosa could feel in his bones that they were almost to.
The day dragged on, lost in cold winds, snow and the rolling white clouds. Not until late afternoon did the monotony break, when Lakach called out from ahead where he was scouting out the way.
“Up here, boss. We have a tower.”
Shielding his eyes from the snow and the wind, Nhaqosa peered ahead through the misting clouds. They had been climbing up towards a saddle strung between two peaks which towered away to either side of them, their heights lost to sight. At the crest of the saddle stood the dark form of a tower, half shrouded in the clouds. A more sinister looking place Nhaqosa couldn’t imagine. Of formidable size, dark spires abounded upon it, and near its heights a light shone in a solitary window, a pale beam of blue light that glowed with an unnatural luminance.
“Alianore, do you know of this place?” Nhaqosa asked.
The blonde haired woman shook her head. “I do not recall there ever being talk of towers in the mountains,” she responded, speaking loud to be heard above the winds.
Nhaqosa nodded slowly. “Searching for a detour is not an option, given how hard it has been to find our way through these mountains. We shall continue on, but remain vigilant.”
Slowly they continued on, climbing up towards the crest of the saddle. The tower loomed larger the closer they came, all the while the details of it standing out clearer to them. Leering stone gargoyles clung to its sides, statues of twisted, winged creatures of talons and fangs and claws. Sharp spikes jutted out from its walls, from some of which flew tattered black rags. Narrow windows were shut up tight, bar the one that shed the light above.
No sound issued forth from the tower, and no one emerged as they reached the crest and looked beyond. Below, on the far side, there lay a plateau beneath the tower, and upon it they could see figures locked in a bitter contest.
Three were the giant white furred beasts they had seen earlier, the yhara-te. One of the trio was much smaller than its two companions, a cub, and it was being protected by the larger pair by means of hurled rocks and crude clubs. Around them were strewn the bodies of their attackers but they had been forced up against a sheer rock face and could no longer retreat. Their white fur was marred with blood from wounds as they made a last stand.
Opposed to them, arrayed about the plateau, were more of the dark robed mindbenders of the kind that had assailed Nhaqosa and his company during the night, while closing in on the yhara-te were their diminutive minions.
Nhaqosa studied the scene as he unlimbered his might maul. “One of the yhara-te came to our aid in a time of need, and so it is fitting that we return the favour. Lakach, you will lead the bows from up here. Keep those mindbenders distracted. The rest, follow me.”
Packs were shrugged off and roughly piled up, while weapons were drawn. Lakach made ready his crossbow, slotting a quarrel into the grove and winding back the string. With him were three others, including Alianore, stringing arrows to their short bows.
Nhaqosa started down the reverse slope of the saddle, headed for the plateau, flanked on either side by grim faced warriors. This time they had not been rudely awakened from their sleep and were purposeful of intent. Such was the steepness of the slope that they could only make their way down it with studied caution, and Nhaqosa knew that they could not make it to the plateau, and the clash, undetected.
A shout came from one of the mindbenders as he turned and spotted them. From above a crossbow quarrel lanced through the air and struck the man full in the chest, followed by arrows that fell among the rest of the enemy. Only one of the arrows hit, as they were battling the height and distance and the winds that gusted around through the mountains, making it a difficult shot.
Nhaqosa let vent a bellow, as all surprise had fallen away, his fell cry echoing through the mountains and carried upon the wind. He raised his maul high, snow falling about him. Down the last part of the slope he scrambled, as fast as he could safely manage, great cloven feet stomping on the snow and bare earth.
A large band of the mindbenders’ minions turned and raced towards them. Nhaoqsa led a charge in reply, bellowing all the way. The sight of the giant minotaur in full charge was enough to give pause to most, and yet the short creatures pressed on, unfazed.
The impact of the two forces colliding was ferocious. Nhaqosa smashed his way through with vicious swings and kicks, leaving his companions to deal with the minions while he barrelled on towards the dark robed mindbenders, steeling his soul for what he knew was about to come.
It hit him with the force of a gale, an overwhelming sense of dread and terror that buffeted him. Cold sweat beaded across his face as its icy fingers clenched at his heart. For a moment there existed the utter compulsion to simply drop the maul and flee, to abandon the fight he knew he could not win. Malicious eyes bore down on him, tightening the screws of dread, and he slid to a halt, all momentum lost.
A crossbow quarrel slashed past Nhaqosa, striking one of the mindbenders in their throat. He stumbled and fell, clutching at the quarrel as the blood flowered freely between his fingers. As he did, just for a moment, the fear lessened. Nhaqosa growled deep in his throat, body shuddering as he sought to throw off the dread that clawed at him. He forced himself forward, straining against resisting muscles.
A great hand reached out and he grasped one of the mindbenders around the neck, lifting him off his feet. He squeezed tight, crushing the throat. Tossing the body aside, he raised his maul and unleashed a fearsome blow on another, shattering the skull of his victim. The fear besetting him wavered more and his limbs felt lighter, no longer weighed down with the same dread. Bones fractured and skulls shattered as he flayed about, throwing himself at the foe.
Realising that the fight was rapidly turning against them, the mindbenders turned and fled back towards their dark tower, while their minions covered their retreat. One of the yhara-te dated forward, pelting rocks at their retreating forms to speed them on their way, while the other pounded on its chest, letting forth howls of victory. Then the giant figure turned back to the young one, who Nhaqosa could now see had been injured. It collected up the young one in its arms as the rock thrower knuckled its way over to stand before Nhaqosa.
It made a gesturing motion towards Nhaqosa, bidding him follow, all the while making questioning hoots.
“Looks like we are meant to follow, Kwaza,” Abasan noted.
Nhaqosa nodded, turning towards where Lakach and those with him were perched above. He gave a piercing whistle and waved the group down. “Let’s find out what they want.”
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