All doors open, The Reckoning begins.
From untold outer-worlds, armies of men, demons, angels and gods did march across this Earth.
For forty days, blood did flow and this world did burn, while those whom passed went quick unto their earned life-hereafter.
At Reckonings end, all doors to the outer-worlds did shut, and never would they open again.
~ Arin the Seer, circa 5 years Before Reckoning (5BR)
The scrub then woodland grew to forest as they continued. With the Nullarbor Plain now long behind them, the words of the Venus there still drove them on.
“Your destiny, lies west” she’d said.
It was the half-elf, Ash, who was heeding her most. Of the five disparate travelers, it was she who truly needed to stand in the Shadow of the Serpent. There, in the south-west, was a connection to her barely remembered mother- She had to go. The four traveling with Ash had simply followed her lead, for that was the way the road seemed to head. Back the other way- that what they chose to leave behind.
Pup, the orphaned and heavily scarred dog-man, adopted by Ash and her friends long ago, drove the monstrous utility that they’d won in Eucla, and dubbed Demonic. Ash, seated in the passenger seat beside Pup, with her pet dragonet Newt and the lizardoid hatchling Egg snuggled by her feet, chuckled often over the dogman’s obvious enjoyment of the task- It was his long tongue, flopping out sideways from his toothy grin that gave it away. In the utility’s tray behind them, the young human woman, Tam, stood manning the heavy machine-gun mounted over the roof. Seated behind her, amid the haul of drums, boxes and crates, her somber older brother, Milo, ran a stone over his sword between wary glances all around.
Behind the utility they towed a brightly painted van. In its front seat, the young human marauder, Ando, sat, still learning to clean the rifle they had given him. In the van’s rear, behind the small copper still and their recent haul of hemp, the newest members of the group- human shaman Ru, and her large emu Drom, kept an eye on the road behind.
On the road, Ash was thinking, watching the steadily growing trees go by, it was easy to shrug off the perils of this world- grow complacent and let the mind wander sleepily over the changing landscape. This was unknown territory though, so it was best to be alert now, she thought, while the scenery rose up to surround them…
Demonic’s screeching brakes tore Ash from her reverie. Beside her, Pup was pumping the pedal to bring the big utility and its trailing van to a quick but steady stop. Ash realised too, that Tam had thumped on the roof of the cab.
“What? What is it?” Ash stammered, leaning forward to peer over the long high bonnet.
“Roadkill” Pup told her, his tongue slavering about his jaws in anticipation.
“Roadkill?” Ash repeated. “Hmm… Not everything is edible, Puppy”
“I got it” came the call from behind. Milo hopped down from the tray and slapped a palm on Ash’s door as he strode by it. Ash watched him continue ahead, while Pup cut the engine to get out and follow.
“What?.. Is that a… a demon?” Ando asked, appearing by Ash’s door with gun in hand.
Ash understood his trepidation. Months ago now, the two had met in the ruins of Norseman. Ando was part of a young marauder group who were camped there, and Ash and her companions had joined them for a night of revelry. A great fiery demon had dropped out of the sky that night though, cutting their party short, by slaughtering young marauders by the dozen in mere minutes. Ando fled with Ash and her friends, and had been travelling with her since.
The large mound in the road ahead did look a lot like a prone, scaly demon, Ash thought. The bodies of slain demons that Ash had seen however, mostly dissolved into vapor and gore before too long. So what was this in the road before them now? Such a creature perhaps playing possum?
“I’m not sure, And” she told him.
There was something draped over the scaly form too- A human, Ash thought. Curiouser and curiouser, she mused.
Concern imposed itself on her mind then- her dragonet Newt’s empathic intrusion as he climbed to her lap to sniff at the window. “Calm, boy” she told him, “We’re okay”. The dragonet gave her a lopsided look and a whine in response. “You stay here and watch over Egg please” Ash asked of him, gently moving him from her lap to the seat beside. The baby lizardoid at her feet lifted his head and mewled at mention of his name, and Ash gingerly extracted her feet out from under him.
Ash opened the door and stepped down to the road beside Ando, closing the door careful but quick behind her, least Egg try to follow. She looked up at Tam then, still standing in the tray, manning the big gun and covering her brother and Pup up ahead. A glance back and Ash saw Ru was out of the van too, cooing to her big bird to keep it calm. Ash patted the pistol in her belt to reassure herself further.
“Let’s go see” she told Ando, moving to follow the other two.
Ahead, Milo with sword in hand and Pup now with his brass knuckles on, edged nearer to the brown scaled lump in the road.
“What am I seeing?” Milo asked.
Pup sniffed at the air and his grin grew bigger. “Dragon!” he enthused. “Young, tender… Dead!”
“A dragon?” Milo repeated, astonished. “W-what about him?” he asked, wondering about the humanoid draped over the dead beast.
Pup sniffed again. “Not sure. Good as dead. We leave him for maggots”
Milo shuddered, involuntarily picturing Pup chomping on a maggot filled haunch. Since Milo and his sister had joined with this group only a week or so ago, he’d learned quickly that the dogman had a broad standard when considering what was edible and when. He tried not to let Pup see his revulsion though, mostly because he knew that the dogman would enjoy it.
“He’s breathing…” Milo realised, lifting his sword to his shoulder, slowing his step.
Pup growled. “Hey you!” he called to the humanoid form. “Oi!”
The prone man did not move.
They rounded the dragon corpse, Milo going by the head and Pup at the tail. The beast was the size of a large horse, with rust-coloured metallic scales and horns, and tattered wings curled around its body. It was badly wounded, with large and bloody claw-like rents all over it- no doubt the cause of its demise. Pup moved to the human draped over it- slumped from the far side, face down and arms spread over the dragon as if maybe hugging it.
“Oi!” Pup called again, stepping to prod the man with an outstretched furry toe.
The human suddenly lifted his head, sucking in a long and rasping gasp. Startled, Pup skipped back from him, brass-clad paws up and at the ready. Milo, on the other side of the man, clutched the hilt of his hefted sword tighter, and was dancing a little on his toes.
The man between them then flopped back, head back and arms out wide as he dropped to his knees on the road by the dragon. Exhaling a sorrowful moan, his raked and blood crusted eyes cracked open so to see.
“Aaa-aah!” the young man cried, eyes now roaming wildly. “End this! Do it!” he called to the sky.
Pup and Milo glanced at each other, still shuffling about and unsure of what to do.
“What is it?” Ash called out as she approached. “What in the blazes is going on?”
* * * * *
They sat at the small campfire, with Pup and Ando circling noisily on watch at a distance.
Ash and Milo were waiting patiently- Newt and Egg curled and napping by Ash’ side, while Ru changed the poultice on the worst of the found man’s wounds. She used some of her healing magic on him first, she’d explained, but still had much to learn in that regard, so her traditional medicine would have to do a lot of the work, over time. Beside Ru, Tam saw to dinner, humming quietly to herself while turning a large kangaroo haunch over in the glowing coals. Finally finished, Ru sat back and the prone man gingerly pulled his shirt in to place.
“The dragon is hidden” Ash told him, “pulled off the road like you asked”. It was Pup who had done the heavy work- the tall dogman’s incredible strength allowing him to drag the dead dragon with ease.
“Uh-I… I thank you” the man said. “Her clan will want to retrieve her body, if I can return to them to tell”
“They’re over west, on the coast?” Milo prompted.
“Yes” the man said. “I hail from their too”. He was coughing then- wincing at the pain of it, then blinking his raked eyes- lifting a hand to rub at them.
“Ah!” No!” Ru told him, grabbing his hand firmly and pulling it away. “You’ll open it again. Leave it alone”, she said. The man nodded.
Ash smiled at the young shaman, glad she was along on their trek- for her stoicism, as much as there to patch them up when needed. “Do as she says” Ash told the man, “or she’ll feed you to her bird”. The man considered the large emu, seated behind Ru, looming over her shoulder. The man raised his one good eyebrow in appreciation.
“So, your name then?” Ash asked him, “and how’d you come to be travelling through here with the dragon?”
The man’s eyes closed for a moment- a slight wince- from the pain of loss rather than the rake across his face. “I am Kendrik” he finally said. “Kendrik Dragonthrall. My companion’s name was Tesnhefina… Tes, I called her”. He swallowed, pausing again for the moment before going on. “My family serve Tesnhefina’s clan” he said, “Tes and I have known each other since we both were hatched.”
The four at the fire with him considered his words, giving understanding nods that prompted him to continue.
“The clan won territory between the south-west capes only a few years ago…” he told them. “My people travelling with them as they went. Naturally, the clan soon learned of the forest tribes said to be over this way, and of the few human strongholds said to be along the southern coast, too. Older dragons though, they take their time in deciding who is friend or foe- who is a threat and what to do about it. Tes and I, however… we heard them talking. We were of age, and so we decided that we could fly east- meet with these forest tribes and take their measure for ourselves”.
“Fly?” Tam asked, a little incredulous, the roo haunch momentarily forgotten. “You ride on the back of the dragon? Through the air?”. Her companions too, were slack-jawed at the thought.
“Yes” Kendrik admitted. “Tes chose me to be her rider. Young dragons of the clan often form such a bond with a vassal. It is a great privilege among my people. I am eternally grateful to her for choosing me…”
Drifting off, Kendrik fell silent, sullen, so the others gave him the long moment he needed.
“What happened here then?” Ash finally asked of him.
“Tes and I found a clan of the forest tribe, a few days to the south-west of here” Kendrik told them. “We had spent a few weeks with them, when they received word that some of their people had gone missing, somewhere near here. Tes and I volunteered to scout ahead for them while they travelled here by foot. A day ago, we encountered some of those missing, not too far away. They had been attacked by a great beast- a troll, one called it, though the other said bunyip. They were badly wounded, but they bade us to find and follow the beast to its lair, if we could, so that their tribe could deal with it when they arrived. We did so. Further down this road there is the ruin of a town. We found the beast’s lair there, under a bridge- I have never seen a road bridge that large still in-tact…. Foolishly, we underestimated the creature and attacked it. It is quite large- nearly the height of two men, and it has great strength… and wounds inflicted on it... they heal incredibly fast, right before your eyes. The damage we dealt it- it did not even matter. It slashed me across the face and the gut before I could know it, knocking me clear from Tesnhefina’s back. It then grabbed her, and the two fought tooth and claw. It was too much for her- tore her apart… Her last desperate act was to break away, snatch me up and make a frantic flight. I remember little but the wheeling of sky and trees. We must have plummeted to the road where you found us, but that is all I remember”.
The four sitting by him remained silent, considering his story while he closed his eyes and lay back to rest.
“Is dinner ready yet?” Pup called out on approach. Ando hovered some distance behind, a silhouette beyond the firelight.
“Geez Pup” Tam cried, “You’ve already eaten the rest of this roo, and you still want more?”
“I like it cooked too” Pup whined.
Tam sighed. “You can have a bite or two” she told him. “but that, is it!”
“We should meet with this forest tribe” Ash told her friends. “Take Kendrik to them”. The others seated at the fire nodded agreement.
“I will want to see that creature dead before I leave this place” Kendrik said, still in recline. He cracked open his eyes again then, lifting his head to look at Ash. “It is the least I can do, for Tes”.
Ash nodded. “I was going to suggest we see this town too. See this troll or bunyip or whatever it is for ourselves.”
“Yes! Fighting!” Pup said, and struck a muscular pose, growling in effort.
“Rest first” Ru told Kendrik.
“And eat!” Pup demanded, now dancing around and hanging over Tam’s shoulder.
“Shouldn’t you be on watch?” Tam asked him, elbowing him out of her personal space.
“My nose is on the job” Pup said, taking a big sniff, drooling and eyeing the haunch on the fire.
Kendrik was still looking at Ash, she realised, feeling a little awkward, and the look he saw on her face prompted him to speak.
“Your ears” he said. “You’re… elf?”
Ash blushed and absently lifted a hand to the point of an ear. Growing up among humans, she was constantly aware that she was not quite one of them. “Half-elf” she told him. “My mother…”
“Yes. I have heard of some dark skinned elves, weeks in the north…” Kendrik told her. “Very glad I am to have met one this day”.
Ash blushed again, smiling, and turned her gaze to the fire. “Eat and rest” she said- a glance at all of them. “Tomorrow we’ll head in to town”.