Justin leaned against Dog as he stood up. His palms were scraped and bloody but the heat was drying his blood quickly. Not wanting to risk attracting attention here Justin avoided using a healing spell and simply wrapped his hands in bandages. Dog waited patiently while Justin finished then he took a drink of water. He normally would have resisted the urge to hunger or thirst in the shadow-lands, however the loss of blood was plenty real and his body needed to replace the loss.
“Where to, partner?” Justin asked Dog.
Dog pointed his muzzle almost straight in front of Justin and the two began walking across the blasted landscape. It was hot, dry, and smelled of old bones and regret to Justin. What Dog's more sensitive nose told him about the hostile land Justin could only guess. The orb hanging above him stared down with the menace of a mindless titan. It radiated hate as much as it radiated heat but the hate was directionless. It was a spiritual and perhaps physical burden beating down ceaselessly from above. Justin imagined that the mesas that rose above the plain he was walking were eroded as much from the hate and spite as from heat cracking or the timeless eons.
Dog padded across the dried flesh and bones of the dead world. The white hellhound did not keep to a straight trail as he had before. He avoided the petrified tangles of old sagebrush and strange piles of broken basalt. The piles were low and small like pitcher's mounds made of crushed and flaked rock. Between was dust broken by jutting bits of basalt that thrust upward through the dusty alkali ground. Justin could feel the heat of the ground through his boots. He wondered how Dog could walk it barefoot.
“Oso,” Justin said, “Do you want something on your paws? You could fry an egg on the ground here.”
Dog looked up at Justin and gave a weary grin. Justin patted Dog's shoulder and the big animal leaned into him for a moment before they moved on.
Justin was not sure how far they had walked but they were making progress the flat alkali dust plain gave over to rolling hills covered in the odd leafless stone sagebrush. He glanced up at the orb above him. He had no intention of coming this way again if he could nor did he want to know what blind malevolence was behind the black sphere but it was almost impossible for someone who had made a study of the shadow-lands and realms between not to give some pause for the most noticeable feature.
The orb was a matte black in a dimly blue gray sky like a tumor surrounded by a bruise. It was ugly and after a moment he looked away. There was nothing to learn there. Maybe there was nothing in this realm that had ever or would ever live. Dog and he had traveled far from anywhere he had been before. Perhaps the sky was the eye of a titan? Justin thrust the thought from him and brought his attention back to Dog just in time to see Dog bounding forward and Justin heard weapons clashing and the shouts of combat.
************ ******************* ****************
Shandra and her father continued into the rolling hills. He had his bow nocked and held with just his left hand. His index finger kept a bit of tension on the bow to keep the arrow on the string but the nock itself was carved of sheep's horn and was designed to stay on. It was better to be safe than sorry though. Shandra carried her sheathed weapon in her left hand. The two both watched the way they were going and each other out of the corners of their eyes as they moved around the clumps of sage shaped rocks and jagged edges of basalt sticking up through the dusty ground.
Shandra had the honed senses of a wild creature and stopped poised like a panther to leap away or to pounce her right hand went to the hilt of her weapon. Her father paused to see if he could spot whatever had caught her attention. He brought his bow up to half draw and scanned the further distance. He caught something at the edge of his vision above and drew his bow back to his ear. Above them circled a pair of vultures. Shandra looked up and then back down whatever had caught her attention was closer.
She saw what looked like men riding horses with banners then her mind translated what she was actually seeing. The torsos were not actually human. There were four arms and the torsos were too long. The heads were only human shaped. The jaws opened at the bottom and were hinged sideways with saw-edged mandibles. The eyes were a series of compound eyes that gave small flashes as if they were mirrored surfaces. The bodies beneath were a horror out of nightmare. The bottom of the torso joined at a ninety-degree angle with the body of a giant scorpion. All of the creatures were the deepest black except at the joints of the scorpion body where it was a brilliant arterial scarlet.
Shandra examined her foes. The monsters were armed with clubs of stone in each hand but their greatest weapons were their size and the huge pincers on the front of their scorpion body. A quick glance told her the pincers could cut a man in two.
Don looked down and grunted as if gut punched. Then he began winging arrows swift as the wind towards the monsters' eyes. To their consternation the monsters batted the arrows out of the air with their stone clubs.
“Run,” Shandra said firmly and patted her father on the shoulder when he reached for another arrow. Instead of drawing an arrow he cased his bow and followed his daughter's fleet steps to the base of the last mesa they had passed. The scorpion-men pounded after them the sound of their skittering run like heavy iron bars slamming into the earth. They could feel the vibration of the charge just before they were running in the shadow of the mesa.
They arrived just before the monsters reached them. There was a narrow 'cove' in the rock it even provided a measure of shade from above. The monsters spread out a dozen or more each as large as a draft horse. Don had his ax and shield in his hands Shandra her golden hued glaive. A flurry of blows from the stone clubs rained down at them like hail. They blocked or dodged most of the blows and returned better than they received as the monsters pulled back clicking their mandibles to each other leaving a couple of severed arms and hands and a dead creature spurting yellow fluid from a cracked carapace.
“Go berserk but stay with me,” Don said.
“I don't know if I can,” Shandra replied tightly, “I usually just keep fighting until the bad guys are dead.”
“That's not an option here but you cannot survive much more of this,” Don reached over and touched where her bruises were spreading from under her armor. “That elven stuff is light but doesn't protect very well. It's either go berserk or get pounded into paste.”
The scorpion-men finished with their clicking, chittering conference and drove back in for the attack this time the blows from their arms came strictly from the side. Then down stabbed a pair of stingers. Don was expecting it and took a couple of punishing blows on his armor. He blocked the one lashing down at his daughter with his spiked buckler and met the other straight on with the spike on top of his ax. The spike drove deep into the leathery flesh around the stinger. He was trying to deflect rather than meet the blow with his shield head on and his arm was still driven down Shandra dodged nearly behind her father and that stinger thudded into the earth. She cut at one of the scarlet joints as neatly as surgeon and the tail rose up stingerless spraying yellow ichor.
The stinger Don jammed his ax into recoiled as fast as it shot forward nearly wrenching his arm from the socket. For a second he was exposed but the wounded scorpion-man was too engrossed in the pain of his tail to take advantage of the opening. By the time he had pulled back and another taken his place Don and Shandra were standing again.
“Okay!” Shandra shouted over the angry clattering of the monsters, “I'll try it. Please God don't let me leave Dad's side!”
She stepped back for the moment of concentration she needed and Don faced the monsters alone. He dodged, parried, and blocked in a whirlwind of gold but still took a number of blows fortunately his armor was much better protection than his daughter's. Their stone clubs still had the force of small battering rams and it was all he could do to hold where he was. Then he heard a panther's scream behind him, goose flesh rose all over his body and a chill ran down his back. Don had no memory since coming to this world of seeing his daughter go berserk and the results frightened him.
She stepped next to him transformed. Her hair stood out from her head like a red-gold halo, her muscles stood out in stark relief and her teeth were bared to the gum line.
Everything slowed to a leisurely crawl for Shandra. The lightning quick speed of the scorpion-men was nothing more than friends playing at badminton. A stinger lashed down at her head and she laughed as she caught the telson in one hand crushing it like a porcelain cup. She drove her six-foot-long weapon one handed into the join of the human and scorpion torsos of the same creature sawing the four-foot blade back and forth in the wound.
The monster quivered like a dying insect. Shandra kicked the tons-heavy body off the blade grunting in surprise at the weight and the traction the eight legs provided the scorpion body.
She looked over at her father who appeared to be moving in slow motion. Her own thoughts were basic and slower than normal replaced by a joyous rage that washed over her like fire. However, she remembered to be careful with her friends and family as they were very breakable when she was in this state.
Another scorpion-man skittered to replace the one she had killed and she pounced on the back of the one facing her father chopping its head off in two quick blows forehand and back hand before jumping back down next to her father. Stay here, something in her head commanded her. Shandra was on the verge of rebellion against the thought when she remembered her father looked very fragile next to these monsters best to stay where she could protect him.
The next pair of monsters that could come at them in the cove of rock learned nothing from the previous ones probably because they simply hadn't really seen Shandra in action. One died with all his arms sheared off and his “human” torso cleaved in two. The other had his face turned into a ghastly ruin by the golden blade of Don's ax then his head went flying to bounce several yards away. The others paused at this with more chittering. Shandra was ready charge into them in the open but her father held her back. She almost grabbed his arm to toss him away but stopped herself in time.
The scorpion-men pulled the dead carcasses of their fellows back by their tails watching to see if their trapped prey would take the opportunity to sally. They then walked forward much more deliberately using their upper arms as a distraction while snapping at them with their giant pincers.
Shandra sheared through one of the claws but the second grabbed her by the waist. Normally the pincer would have cut her in half. However, berserk state made her muscles harder than seasoned oak and she screamed with as much frustration as pain that she couldn't get a proper swing at one of the joints to cut the pincer off.
Don was dodging the lower pincers which were fortunately slower than their thinner upper arms but he was taking a battering from the stone clubs. The monsters just had too many arms. One advantage he did have was that Connor the ranger and shadow warden had sparred with his friend Sioc many times. He was experienced with combat with a four-armed foe. The problem was that he usually came off the worse for sparring with Allan.
Don saw the pincer holding his daughter and threw himself between the pincers of the monster holding him while whirling his ax up then dashing it down on the brilliant red joint of the pincer holding his daughter. It was as thick as a five-gallon bucket but he sheared it half off.
Shandra was furious at the bug man for holding her and jackknifed upward kicking with both moccasined feet on the monster’s torso. The pincer ripped free at the joint spraying yellow fluid like a fire hose for a couple seconds before the pressure in its body grew too low and it slowed further.
Don was swept into the torso of the monster he was fighting and it began to crush him with the force of a mill-powered forging hammer.
************ ***************** **************
Justin looked down the slope and saw his father and sister fighting scorpion-men properly called girtablilu. They were the creation of the demon Tiamat created from her spite and anger to battle the younger gods. In the books Kantrus and Justin had read the girtablilu were terrible foes.
Justin heard the hellhound roar and saw Dog running forward to battle with the girtablilu. Justin concentrated for a half second and brought up an ice fortress walling off the little cove from the monsters outside. The fathom-thick ice wall cut two of the girtablilu in half. One of them was alive when the ice crushed his middle to paste against the stony ground.
The creatures had been created by an angry demon and knew magic like fish knew water. Their heads turned up hill and two charged at Justin while the rest began battering at the ice fortress. Justin knew the heat would do more to weaken his creation and quickly too. The ice was already steaming away where it touched the ground and the rocks around the edges of the cove. He hoped he had enough time to work the magic he intended.
Justin whistled for Dog like he used to for Oso hoping the hellhound would turn back because the spell he was going to use took into effect a wide area. He raised his hands said words in a language not meant for human throats then dashed his arms down as if dashing something to the ground. A storm of ice broke around the scorpion-men battering them down with spikes and hailstones the size of barrels. Dog danced through the storm and the hail and blades of ice missed him by a hair's breadth at the most but he made his way back to Justin's side where the ice did not fall.
It was bitter hail and ice filled with the hate of the realm around them and it battered the scorpion-men with the impartial malice of an idiot titan. It was also battering the ice fortress but it was a fathom thick and could withstand the storm. Justin watched for long seconds as the ice pounded down on the girtablilu cracking their carapaces and battering them as insects crushed under an icy boot. Stopping the spell was harder than starting it. This place liked to cause pain even to its own denizens. After long minutes of struggle and just when Justin was certain the ice walls protecting his father and sister would break he was able to regain control of the spell and stop it. The ice lay several feet deep in some places but it concentrated around the girtablilu who were buried yards deep in quickly melting shards and stones of ice.
It took another spell he was reluctant to cast here not wanting to attract attention but he was able to clear a way through the ice to get to his family trapped by the protecting ice. To Justin's mystical sight both of them were clearly spirits and not physical at all. However, here in the shadow-lands the distinction was often one without a difference.
The two of them were propped sitting against the back wall of the cove icy melt water deep around their legs and feet. Shandra was in her dazed and fatigued stated following her going berserk. She also had several bad cuts and bruises all over her body. Don gave Justin a wan smile and laughed when Dog checked out Shandra carefully. “Yeah, your my animal companion alright,” Don said chuckling.
“Come on, Shandra let's get some medicine down you,” Don said as he took a healing flask from Justin and helped her drink it. The effect was slower than it should have been but it did begin to heal her wounds and return her to her proper color.
Don drank another after he was certain the one would be enough for Shandra.
“Well, I can feel my ribs popping back into place. That hurt.” By the tone Don could have been commenting on the time of day.
“So you and Lassie here came to get Timmy out of the well?” Don asked Justin who looked at his father quizzically.
Shandra laughed, “What is it boy? Timmy's caught under the tractor in the barn? Lead the way Lassie.”
“No, Lassie was a girl,” Don laughed, “the dog who played her was a boy.”
“Stupid name for a dog anyway,” Shandra grumped.
“Justin,” Shandra hugged him fiercely, “you did real good. You too, Oso. Now let's get out of here.”