The sounds of dancing and music echoed across the fields surrounding Neuasut. The bonfires that had once blazed about the fields had burned low, but the merrymaking had shown no signs of slowing down in the warm night air beneath the three bright full moons that passed overhead. Even amongst the dancers, there were plenty of other reveling types as they watched the dances, listened to music, and drank to their heart’s content. Many chatted away as they gazed into what was left of a once towering pile of logs. Conversations of the current holiday and holidays of the past allowed some to remember the past while others danced to celebrate the future.
Around one fire not too far from the edge of town in the shadow of a watchtower, conversations went from local politics and news from the traders that frequented the highway from the south. The off-duty soldiers in their civilian garb enjoyed an extra drink of ale and the extra ration provided by the quartermaster for the special occasion. The young men, mostly conscripts and a few career enlistees, talked of the bountiful harvest of furs and other goods being bought and sold in the markets over the holiday that would be shipped back south after the celebration.
Not more than a dozen yards away, a man stood leaning against the village’s outer rampart, watching the soldiers and listening to their conversations. He occasionally looked down at a notebook in his hands and drafted from a pipe, but otherwise did not look out of place. He was fair-skinned like most men of the north with dark hair graying at the temples. His clothes were layered and worn but otherwise mended and clean, as was most of his appearance. He closed his notebook and studied the field adjacent to the town glancing from fire to fire, looking for something.
As he was looking, a girl not much older than eighteen darted out of the village gate to his left and made a sudden stop. Her abrupt arrival startled the man who was fixated on the field of bonfires. “Achara! You nearly scared the life out of me. Did you find anything?”
“Nothing,” Achara said, breaking eye contact and inspecting the field, “I’ve searched every square inch of the fort and haven’t found a trace of anything.”
She wore a hooded traveler’s cloak of wool that was died green. She pulled the hood off her head revealing her slender face and delicate features framed by light brown tendrils. Her eyes were a mix of brown and gray and sparkled as they reflected the nearby fire’s light. Being tall for her age, she looked at the man in the eyes without looking up at him.
“We’ve tracked it for weeks. It led us here, so where could it be hiding?”
The girl shrugged, wisping her light brown hair out of her face. “Do you think it could have moved on?”
“Best I can tell, it’s still around here, and it’s given no signs that it has moved on. But it’s not like this thing to stay around populated areas for any amount of time. It getting so close to people like this makes me nervous…” he said as his voice trailed off. He gathered his outer cloak around him. “I’m not used to this kind of crispness on this holiday. It’s supposed to be hot,” he said, changing the subject.
“Well, Camon, how many have you spent on the northern edge of civilization?” she asked.
“A few, but I don’t recall the last time I was north of Rahtneua for one,” he said as he tucked his notebook into his belt. “You stay here and rest. I’m going to have a look around.”
Camon left his post and started wide, avoiding coming too close to the soldier’s fire. He circled away from the town around the perimeter of the field dotted with fires. There were several encampments of revelers pitched on the edge of the coniferous forest. The tall, ancient spruce and lodgepole pines towered at the edge of the field, making a wall of their own. The terrain was rocky but fertile. He could see well with the light of the three moons. They were brightest on the days when all three were full. However, the complex array of shadows made patterns on the ground and could easily confuse even the most familiar.
The man looked out over the field, then unfurled his hand with his palm facing the ground. In his left hand, he reached in his pocket and clinched something. He closed his eyes and made a guttural hum, then open them. He waved his hand over the ground slowly with an occasional twitch. He kept doing this as he walked from place to place, stopping every several hundred feet from searching the surroundings and listening. He continued this for at least an hour until he had patrolled the entire perimeter and made his way back to the gate and Achara.
“Find anything?” she asked.
“It’s still here, but I could not get a good read on where exactly. It could be close or miles away. Its presence here is lingering though. It’s looking for something…or someone,” he pondered.
“I wish I knew. But one thing is for sure: it’s not us,” he said looking at Achara.
“How can you be so certain?”
“We’ve been trailing it for the better part of two months from The Pass through the Maenamsam wilderness right up here to the edge of civilization. It knows we’re after it. It just doesn’t care,” he surmised.
“Well, I hope you’re right,” she said.
After a few minutes of silence, the man retrieved his notebook and scribbled some notes in it with a pencil and placed it back in his belt, “We’d better get some rest. I set a ward around the entire encampment, so we’ll know and be ready if it does reveal itself.”
They gathered their things and went back through the gate in rampart down the broad road that went straight through the fortification to the center courtyard, which marked The Northern Road’s terminus. At the center of the square was a massive stele towering one hundred feet in the air. It was topped with a sculpture depicting a large grizzly bear standing on its hind legs, paws out, and showing its teeth. Inscribed on the stele were many destinations, distances, names emperors, and names generals responsible for building the great Road North.
Camon observed the fort, admiring its construction. It had high, stone ramparts on which four men could walk abreast around the entire structure. The walls aligned with the cardinal directions and were a quarter-mile on each side with a watchtower at each corner. The fort itself was a strategic construction. He felt dwarfed by it, which to him was just another reminder of Imperial might like everything they built. As they walked through the village, they passed businesses related to the fur trade, including tanners and tailors. The tanning smell was heavy in the air, almost putrid, even though it was forbidden in the city itself. Many merchants were still open even though it was late, selling wares related to trappers and the hunters’ trade. The street was crowded with the wagons of merchants who bought their wares to be sold further south before the cold of winter came. The buildings in the fort were, like the ramparts, two or three-story stone structures with thick timber frames to support the shale rooves.
Camon and Achara walked towards the edge of the broad avenue, and just before they reached the central plaza, they ducked into a small inn. The inn was quiet, though signs of revelry showed with a fire in the fireplace still burning and a few patrons sitting around finishing the last of their drinks, although most had gone home.
Achara looked around the room, “Seems quiet…maybe too quiet.”
“I’m not sure what to expect. This is the edge of civilization, and before the end of next month, most of these people will be journeying south for the winter before the roads become impassable with snow,” Camon said.
“Exactly… seems like there should be more activity – preparations for the passing and the migration south,” she remarked, “A passing thought. Maybe I’m just on edge from whatever is lurking out there.”
“Get some rest. It’s been a long day,” Camon said. He walked over to a staircase that went up to the second floor of the inn where the rooms were. The girl watched for a moment, trying not to make eye contact with anyone, and after a few more minutes of watching, she too went upstairs to find her room. She drifted off to sleep. After what seemed only like minutes, she heard a voice calling, “Achara…” She stirred awake, opening her eyes heavy with sleep. She was a bit disoriented but could still see the moonlight from the three moons streaming in her room’s window.
“What time is it?” she asked, “It can’t possibly be yet morning.”
“You’ve only been asleep for a few hours,” Camon said. But his expression changed to a grave seriousness, “It’s here and on the move. Whatever it is looking for is somewhere nearby.”
“Are you certain?” Achara inquired as she stood up. She was still in her clothes, and she opened the door.
Camon was standing there looking down at a stone in his hand, “As I said earlier, whatever it is, it has been avoiding human settlements for months until now. It’s lingered here for some time, and it tripped my ward about 5 minutes ago beyond the edge of the woods. We need to move fast.”
Achara was still in her cloak, but she had removed her belt. She grabbed it and put it around her waist and grabbed her dagger and sheathed it in the side. She put on her boots and was up and ready. They left the room and quietly tiptoed down the hallway to the stairs, down through the inn’s common room, and out the front door into the broad avenue. It was deserted, but the moons above lit it up nicely.
“Should we split up?” Achara asked.
“No. Stick together. We have no idea what we’re up against. Quickly now,” he coaxed as they trotted south down the avenue towards the south gate they had used earlier. It was still open. As they got closer, they slowed the pace and walked as naturally as possible through the gate guarded by Imperials. After they made it through the gate, they walked down the road for some way before veering off into the field where the bonfires had all but gone out. Smoke from the fires was still hanging low in the fields. All the revelers had long since gone to bed. They trotted to the middle of the field before Camon came to an abrupt stop. Achara, who was close behind him, almost ran into him.
“What is it?” she asked. Inscribe on the stele
“I felt its presence… It’s moving along the edge of the forest…” He closed his eyes, tucked his chin, gripped the stone in his hand, hummed a guttural tone, and then looked up westward towards the stand of trees that looked like a towering wall along the edge of the field. He swept his hand with his palm to the ground back and forth several times, then announced, “It’s moving north, not more than a mile from here.”
Achara gripped the hilt of her dagger, “That’s moving away from us. Should we pursue it?”
“No… I’m pretty sure that it will come this way soon. There are several encampments that way, and it’s avoiding them. Whatever it is looking for isn’t there. My guess is that it will circle back north of the fort and come south soon. We should head east of the fort. There fewer encampments over there because the ground is unlevel in rocky. If what it’s looking for is in the fort, then that will be its point of attack.”
Achara and Camon started a wide arch trotting at a brisk pace towards the east, staying middle way between the tree line and fort at the center. After passing the smoldering remnants of several bonfires on the fort’s east side, they got to the northeast quadrant. Camon stopped and repeated the sweep with his hand, “It’s north like I suspected, but it’s not moving…”
“How far is it?” Achara asked
“Hard to say if it’s not on the move…” Camon paused. He then repeated the sweep another time, this time with a white-knuckle grip on the stone. “We’ve never been this close. I can feel its presence as if it was standing in front of me.”
“Camon, look…” Achara said, pointing north. Camon looked, and he could see a flock of bird silhouetted against the moonlit sky.
“Shades! It’s moving again, this time southwest, away from us! It’s staying just in the tree line. My probing has made him not want to come this way,” Camon cursed.
“Your mistake has given away its course, though. For certain, it wants to come into the fort, but this time from the west,” Achara observed.
Camon loosened his grip on the stone, “Quickly, to the fort. We’ll go through the north gate”. Achara and Camon broke out into a full sprint. The fort was at least a quarter of a mile away from their current location and slightly uphill. They were already tired from the wide circle of a path that brought them to the northeast side of the fort; nevertheless, they mustered their strength and ran as fast as they could.
Before they reached the gate, there was a scream, then the blast of a trumpet. A commotion started filling the fort. They heard the clamor of men rushing to arms and civilians rustling to get out of the way. Torch lights and candlelight began to appear in windows. The fortress was awakened.
Camon and Achara finally made it to the north gate, but they had been shut by the time they got there. “Shades!” cried Camon. He dashed westward along the base of the wall with Achara quickly behind him. They rounded the northwest corner of the fortress and flew towards the west gate, halfway opened, and apparently abandoned. Camon and Achara ducked under the gate and rushed down the avenue towards the central plaza. The sprint seemed to be taking too long.
When they got to the plaza, they stopped dead in their tracks, panting for air as they gazed in horror at the sight before them. A beast eight feet tall at the shoulder stood clawing at the stele at the center of the plaza, and perched upon it was a woman who had somehow managed to climb it and was clinging to one of the sculptures protruding from its side. The beast was at least twenty feet in length and bore the shape of a wolf with an arched back. Instead of fur, it was covered in grizzled quills. Its teeth were white and flashed in the moonlight as it tried to claw at the woman. Its limbs had claws like knives, and its eyes glowed yellow.
A phalanx ten files wide and five ranks deep marched out of the keep that occupied the plaza’s northwest corner. The frontmen carried heavy steal-strapped shields emblazoned with the bear’s head on it while the pikemen raised their pikes as they left the keep behind and trotted into the plaza. Their heavy armor clanked with heavy thuds as the phalanx came to face the beast head-on. They charged steadily towards the beast, who saw the threat and wheeled to meet them. The captain gave a command, and a horn blew. A volley of arrows from a nearby tower came down on the beast to no effect. The phalanx came closer still, and the captain gave a command, and the ranks lowered their pikes and started the steady trot towards the beast.
The beast then charged. He ducked his head and tore through the pikes that snapped like twigs. He reached the shield wall and smashed through it and knocked over the men, tossing some of them effortlessly like rag dolls. After plowing through the line, the beast turned, and before the phalanx could regroup, the creature smashed through the line again, scratching and clawing as it went. One soldier’s scream was cut short as the beast’s powerful jaw snapped the man in two. Those who were able after the second charge ran for their lives. After dealing with the phalanx, the beast wheeled back towards the stele.
Camon, still recovering from his running, dropped his cloak, as did Achara. Camon grabbed his sword from its sheath and brought it to bear. The blade was double-edged and broad and had been polished to a mirror finish, but otherwise was a plain-looking sword. Camon brought the sword up and gripped it with two hands as it shimmered in the moonlight. He gritted his teeth, tightened his grip on the blade, and let out a low growl that built upon itself until it was a shout. The shout exploded from his mouth towards the beast, which turned its head and stared at him, then wheeled to face him.
Achara looked at Camon, then at the beast, and stood frozen with fear. Camon looked over at her, “You might want to stand clear…this might get messy.” She came to her senses and broke for cover.
The beast looked at Camon, then started a charge. Camon loosened the grip on the blade, letting the sword fall then rise again. He repeated this motion, and the blade began to glow until it no longer looked like a sword of metal, rather a blade of white flames. The beast met Camon head-on, but Camon was ready. He sidestepped the charge and wheeled the blade in the deadly arch that cut the creature down the side. The beast howled in horror, stumbled, then fell rolling over itself. After a few seconds, it gathered itself back up into a crouching position. This time though, instead of charging, it pounced, unloading like a tightly wound spring. The beast flew and caught Camon off guard, striking him with its head and knocking him back. Camon’s sword flew out of his hand, landing some distance from him, and it went out. The beast’s momentum carried it past Camon, and it screeched to a stop. It turned again and faced Camon, who had not gotten up or been able to retrieve his blade.
Achara came charging the beast out of nowhere with her dagger drawn. She planted the dagger firmly in the creature’s side, and it screamed in pain, but not for long. It turned to face the new threat of Achara, who was now defenseless.
Camon rolled over and stumbled towards his sword, but not before the beast charged at Achara. Achara was able to dodge the charge and somersault out of the way of the creature who skidded to a stop when he came up empty. Camon now was on his feet with his sword in hand. He whirled the blade again, reigniting it. The beast turned towards him again, ignoring Achara. Camon, not knowing to expect a leap or a charge, stood his ground. This time, the creature charged. Camon whirled and sidestepped in a fluid motion, just as the beast was about to pass him. As the beast past, Camon’s blade met the beast’s neck under the chin, and it cut through the grizzly quills until the beast’s head was separated from its body. The head fell to the ground and rolled while the body collapsed into a heap and lay motionless. The beast’s eyes stared lifelessly but still glowed, which faded over several seconds from bright yellow to black. The body and head began to smoke, then smolder, then eventually were engulfed with flames. As they burned, the body and head disintegrated as pieces rose into the air as embers and were carried away like chaff in the wind.