The Merchant’s Legacy
Part Three – Beasts in the Night
Night descended upon them well before they reached the hills. Besides a tiny stream, one that barely trickled across the plains through a much broader creek-bed, they set up camp. Dried and cracked mud, baked by the sun, and smooth worn stones marked where it had once flowed much stronger and deeper, but, like the rest of the countryside, it too had suffered from the prolonged drought.
The trees that huddled along the banks of the stream were dried and wilting, with leaves of greyish green and bark that dangled from the trunks in long strips, appearing much like torn parchment. They formed part of a small, airy forest that spread back up the creek towards the hills where the bandits laired.
They cleared a space and built a firepit, taking care that when they lit it that there was no chance that it could escape into the tinder dry forest about them. Hanging a pot over the fire, they soon had a stew of a few scraps of dried meat and vegetables bubbling away within it. Breaking apart hard travel bread, they spread across it even harder butter. While only a simple meal, they had eaten many far worse in the past.
Darkness fell and most settled down to sleep around the fire, wrapped in cloaks and using packs to rest their heads upon. Nhaqosa and one other of the band, a scrawny man with a badly scarred face called Katako, remained awake, tending to the fire and watching out for any danger that might approach during the night.
“Tell me, Kwaza,” Katako said quietly as he poked at the fire with a stick, sending sparks bursting upwards as the burning logs settled, “Where you come from, are there any fighting pits?”
“Not in the lands of my people,” Nhaqosa told him, “Nor any of those that we live alongside of either. Perhaps beyond them there may be, but if it is so, I have not heard of it.”
“If you did not fight, what did you do then?”
“I was a worker of stone, like most of my people. People from across many lands come to us such is our skill with stone to build for them. Many fair wonders we have raised over the years.”
“Will you return to it, when you return?”
“Perhaps. If we return.”
Katako paused, shaking his head as he did and prodding the fire again, provoking a fresh outbreak of sparks. “All I know is how to fight. I have been a soldier, a gladiator and now a mercenary. Is there a place in your world for the likes of me?” Nhaqosa could detect an almost pleading edge to the question, but also deep within it a resignation that the sentiment was little more than wishful thinking.
“There will be, I promise,” Nhaqosa told Katako, seeking to assure the man.
Katako still looked doubtful. “When you speak of your home, you always make it sound so peaceful, so restful, hardly the place for a man of blood and iron and battle.”
“That, I fear, was just simple longing speaking, painting from the desire for home rather than true memories. There are dangers a plenty still, and always a need for a strong arm, even if simply as a merchant caravan guard. For many long years my people have lived and worked and fought alongside the Maedari nations, a proud and noble people. Once, in the dreaming past, they were a nation until their king died and their nation fell apart, not unlike your Empire here, though it did not descend into the same level of chaos. Another nation, the Chelos, rose in its place, but there is still turmoil and many wild and untamed lands. A strong sword arm is always welcome.”
Katako nodded as he listened, at last seemingly satisfied but then his expression changed and he rose to his feet, reaching for the axe that sat at his side. He held up a hand motioning for silence, peering intently off into the dark of night before pointing upstream. Nhaqosa hefted his heavy stone maul, staring off in the direction that Katako had indicated in. His nostrils flared and ears twitched as he strained to hear, seeking for what had alerted Katako.
Initially he could detect nothing beyond the crackle from the fire and the slow, steady breathing of those who slept. Then his questing ears caught the faintest of sounds, the clatter of stones sliding across one another, followed by a soft skittering hiss.
Light from their fire reflected back from clusters of multi-faceted eyes, gleaming in the dark like burning jewels that scattered colour in a myriad of hues. At first it was only the eyes they could see, all aglow, but then the creatures the eyes belonged to began to emerge into the light of the fire. They appeared something akin to giant spiders, tall as a man, but a moment of study showed that, initial impressions aside, they were not truly spiders. They skittered forward silently on eight long legs, each leg bearing rows of razor sharp spines along them. Their bodies were covered in chitin scale armour that appeared in the dark to be of mottled oranges and reds in colour. More of the spines bedecked their bodies, while above their bulbous clusters of eyes were spiralled horns, much as were seen upon rams.
Nhaqosa let forth a bellow that shattered the still of the night, charging at the nearest spider-beast, his cloven feet hammering into the ground as he ran. All around the camp, slumbering bodies were shocked into wakefulness by the startling cry, hands groping instinctively for weapons close by.
The heavy stone maul in Nhaqosa’s hands screamed in a great arc through the air, slamming with brutal force down into the bloated head of the first of the grotesque spider-beasts. The blow reduced the head of the creature to a pulp, dark ichor spraying forth as it ruptured like an overripe melon.
Strange high pitched squeals echoed from among the trees all around as more spider-beasts came scampering in on their spindly, spined legs. One reared up and spat at Nhaqosa, sending a spray of webs whispering through the air to coat his body. As it impacted, he felt them sting and burn at his flesh and begin to harden around him. With a loud roar he strained against the congealing bonds, veins standing forth and iron hard muscles cording with the effort. For a human the webs, perhaps, would have proven too much to burst, but the strength of a giant minotaur was prodigious in comparison and the webs reluctantly snapped and parted under the effort.
The camp had descended into the madness of a rolling, unexpected melee in the dim light of the fire, some engaged in melee, swords and spears and axes singing in the air, while others struggled against the webs spat forth by the beasts. Even rudely awakened and shrugging off the vestiges of sleep, the band had reacted with instincts honed in the brutal school of learning that the gladiatorial fighting pits had been.
Nhaqosa viciously kicked aside the twitching corpse that lay at his feet and stomped forward, searching for further of the spider-beasts to slay. Near at hand, someone lay upon the ground, struggling against the webs that had brought them down. One of the beasts stalked towards the bundle, fangs twitching and moist with foul venoms, expectation high in readiness for a meal. Nhaqosa leapt forward, crashing a double handed blow from his maul down into the beast’s back, forcing it to the ground as legs splayed out and chitin cracked. The beast squealed and thrashed at the vicious blow that had landed upon it, trying to scramble away. Nhaqosa pressed on, hammering away it twice more before its broken body ceased twitching, laying still in a pool of fetid ichor that stung at the eyes from the fumes of it.
Nhaqosa looked around the camp, eyes searching out for further threats, but the danger had been dealt with. The spider-beasts either lay dead around them or were fleeing, trailing ichor from their wounds. A few of the band were also down, wrapped in the clinging webs that the beasts had spat upon them. Others were hacking away at the webs with knives in an effort to free them. Their skin where the webs had touched had been left red and raw, burned by the venomous substance. Nhaqosa looked down at his own arms and the marks left upon them. It still stung, though already the pain was fading into a mere itch. He fought down the urge that came upon him to scratch at it.
“Kwaza!” Abasan called out from where he knelt beside a figure that lay upon the ground, curled up tightly, body shaking. Concern was apparent in his voice and expression. Nhaqosa strode with giant, hasty steps across to join him.
It was Katako.
“He has been bitten,” Abasan explained, showing the minotaur the man’s arm. Two puncture marks were visible upon it, the flesh around it already swollen and red.
“The venom will need draining, and quick,” Nhaqosa rumbled. “We need to hold him down.” Nhaqosa rested his hands upon the man and, joined by others, held him down. Abasan drew his dagger. With a deft cut, he sliced across the fang marks. Blood and worse poured from the wound, a pungent smelling, viscous liquid that brought water to the eyes from the fumes of it. Katako screamed at the cut, back trying to arch. Nhaqosa and the others held firm, preventing him thrashing. The scream gurgled away into a soft whimper. Abasan leant down and sucked at the wound, trying to draw the venom out. He spat away a mouthful of blood before repeating the process again. The second mouthful he spat out saw him breaking into a spluttering cough, his face twisting into a grimace. He took a waterskin offered to him, rinsing out his mouth repeatedly before spitting away the water.
“Hopefully we got to it in time,” Nhaqosa rumbled, resting a hand on Katako’s sweat soaked brow. It did not feel as if the man had a fever of any kind. “The rest will be up to him.”
They bandaged the wound up tight before laying the wounded man down beside the fire, throwing a blanket over him. The bodies of the spider-beasts were dragged well away from the camp and the stream, piled high deep into the forest and there left to rot. Nhaqosa doubted that even the most desperate of scavengers would make a feast on their bodies.
“What were those things?” Nhaqosa asked Abasan as they tended to Katako again, making him as comfortable as they could. The man shivered and sweated away in a drowsy sleep. Elsewhere in the camp, the rest of the band returned to their rest.
“I do not know,” Abasan replied. “I have not seen their likes before, nor heard of such things, but these days there are many such strange beasts new come to the world, monsters vicious in nature and cruel in intent.”
“And as the more they appear, the more people think that I am likewise a danger,” Nhaqosa noted.
“It is not true, Kwaza,” Abasan object, vociferous in nature, offended by the very suggestion.
“That is because you know me, my friend. When I walk into a village that has not heard of me, they simply see a dangerous looking beast. To them I am just another monster. Tell me, how did you first react upon seeing me?”
Abasan lowered his head, a haunted look fleeting across his face. “I at first thought you were a beast as well.”
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