Garyl had spent a long time contemplating what death felt like. He always imagined a sensation of bitter coldness, which is why he smiled when he woke to find himself immersed in water from the waist down.
Unfortunately, when he opened his eyes he saw not Kajeel’s smiling face, but the toothy grin of a sea monster.
The creature before him had dark green hair which moved on its own accord and was more than a dozen feet long. Several of the long, oily tresses looped around Garyl’s arms and legs, binding him and suspending his body upright in the freezing temperatures of the Greyflow River. Its androgynous torso sat above the churning water, sitting atop a huge serpentine body that coiled several times around on the base of the riverbed. The human visage vanished at the creature’s face, which looked like a hungry eel and regarded its prisoner carefully through lidless eyes.
“You have offerings for me?” the creature inquired in a sharp, high-pitched voice when she saw Garyl’s eyes open.
Garyl squinted through his left eye. The blow from the dagger had left behind enough swelling to obscure his vision just a little. He could see the forms of the cultists who had captured him along the riverbank, but couldn’t make them out as more than shadows. The sun hadn’t risen yet, which meant he hadn’t been unconscious for all that long. Unfortunately, an hour or two in the wrong direction was all it would take to get lost in the Dragonlands…if, of course, he survived long enough to escape his current situation.
“You have offerings for me?” the creature asked again, the sharp tone of impatience creeping into her voice.
“Yes…an offering of the dead.” Garyl flexed his muscles experimentally, only to find that the seaweed-smelling hair of his captor seemed as strong as steel bonds around his body. “If you are Vezara, I can give you an army.”
The creature lifted its chin and its tendril-like hair hoisted Garyl out of the icy river. He shivered as the breeze blew right through his soaking wet clothing, but still felt glad for the respite. “Vezara I am,” she said. “But why would I need dead? There are plenty for me to feast upon in this land.”
“Not to feast,” Garyl corrected. “I offer you the dead to serve. I can make them walk again. If you wish, they can even serve as a vessel.”
“A vessel?” Vezara looked perplexed. “As in a ship?”
“No…as in a vessel for a soul. A dead body doesn’t need to remain the same person when it comes back. Any soul can inhabit a corpse. In time, they can even reform the body—make it stronger. This could lead even the Dragon-God to return, if you could find a way to direct his soul.”
“Derrezen? In need of a vessel?” The creature made a noise that sounded like a drowning person sputtering for air. It took Garyl a moment to realize that she was laughing at him. “The Dragon-God needs no help from little mortals like us. He has already made his preparations.”
Vezara lowered Garyl back into the water slowly, showing no desire to stop until her prey was entirely submerged.
“V-vessel or no,” Garyl stammered as numbness began to take his limbs once again, “you c-can use my magic. Blackwood hunts down those loyal to the Dragon-God even now. You n-need forces to protect you, and I can easily r-replace the two I k-killed.”
The River Hag stopped just as the surface of the slow-moving river touched Garyl’s chin. Her long eel-like body swayed slightly and she stared at Garyl for a long time with fish-like, unblinking eyes. Finally, she spoke again.
“Forces to protect me?” she inquired, her voice slightly mocking. “Does it look like I need protection from puny mortal like you?”
“Y-yes,” Garyl said, his teeth chattering.
“And why is that?” Vezara asked.
A crossbow bolt drove itself deep into her oily hide in response. Vezara turned her head incredulously to seek the source of the attack, only to gape when she saw that it had come from one of her own forces posted along the riverbank.
The man who had knocked Garyl unconscious already had another bolt loaded in his crossbow. Before firing, however, he flipped a dagger out from beneath his cloak and hurled it toward the woman approaching him from the side. The woman had her hand on the hilt of a sword but never got to draw the weapon. Instead, she keeled over as the dagger pierced her left eye. Then the man started to move, running away from the other Crimson Claw forces before pausing just long enough to take another well-aimed shot at the River Hag.
Garyl heard a gurgling scream as the bolt pierced Vezara’s neck. The hag released her binding hold on Garyl, dropping him into the dark, icy waters of the Greyflow. Placing a hand on the hilt of his own blade, Garyl kicked furiously with his feet to push himself away from his captor and further downstream. Unfortunately, his cloak tangled him up and he sank deeper down, unable to fight the current.
Momentarily losing his sense of direction, Garyl spent a panicked second trying to figure out which way he needed to swim to get free of the water. The river seemed to conspire to drown him, and for a moment Garyl felt himself thrown far back in time. He recalled another desperate swim, another sea monster pursuing him, and a horrible choice he had made in order to get free.
No, Garyl said firmly in his mind. Don’t look back. Move forward instead.
He still couldn’t get free of his tangled cloak, but he soon found that he didn’t need to. His feet touched something solid—whether a jutting rock or the riverbed itself, he didn’t care. Fighting to keep his balance in the river’s current, he pushed his palm downward, twitched three of his fingers, and imagined the leg of a grasshopper. His limbs responded with a prodigious leap that sent him hurtling through the air, free of the water and able to breathe air once again.
He waved his blade overhead in a large circular motion as he began his descent, and gravity seemed to loosen its hold on him. He fell in slow motion, taking the time to survey the scene on the riverbank before he entered the carnage down below. The man who had attacked Vezara had taken down two more o his fellow cultists, but the battle had now turned against him. The black-furred beasts with poisonous tails circled him now, ready to leap upon him. Rather than prepare for battle against the creatures, the man had to focus all of his effort on dealing with Vezara. Although the bulk of the creature’s body remained in the water, her humanoid upper form had slunk onto land. Her hair lashed out like a series of thick green whips, each strike coming closer to entangling the Crimson Claw soldier who had betrayed her.
Garyl surveyed the scene in less than a second and noticed one very important fact: everybody had seemingly forgotten about him.
The hound-things had to go first. Fortunately, they and the other cultists were still hurting from the spells Garyl had thrown earlier in the evening. He decided to give them another taste of that. The moment his boots touched ground, he thrust his sword forward, pointing it at the hounds as they closed in. He felt arcane energy fill the blade, then flow into his own body. He pushed it outward, using the bond that he and his blade shared to recall the same devastating lightning strike that he had used before. But this time his mind wasn’t clouded by fury. With the benefit of clarity and extra focus, he directed the lightning toward one of the beasts. It struck true, then arced to each member of the monster’s pack. Within moments, the creatures lay prone on the ground, smoke rising from their singed fur and their limbs twitching.
“If you stay and fight, you’ll either die at our blades or wind up eaten by an angry eel-woman,” Garyl warned the other members of the Crimson Claw. “But if you run now, maybe this will just be a scary story you’ll tell your grandchildren someday.”
The two remaining cultists glanced toward the furious-faced Vezara, realized that they had the advantage of land speed over a creature that was half-eel, and fled. For her part, the River Hag didn’t seem to care. Instead, she focused her fury on the man who had betrayed the rest of the group. Her tendril lashes came faster and more furious now, striking the man’s skin hard enough to draw blood. Finally, she looped one lock of hair around her prey’s ankle and lifted him into the air quickly enough that he dropped his crossbow.
“You betrayed your order,” Vezara said. “People who devoted their lives to the noble goal of bringing this land’s true ruler back to life. As I devour you alive, you can tell me if it was worth it.”
“You can’t eat him alive, because he’s already dead,” Garyl said. “That man died back when your people took me, electrocuted by the same lightning magic that I used to dispatch those hell-beasts. Luckily for me, some other recently-freed soul was there to step in and take control. Does that sound about right?”
The man smiled and gave Garyl a wink. “Right you are, honey.”
Garyl grinned as he saw another advantage before him. Kajeel had maneuvered the River Hag far from shore, leaving her long thing body exposed and partially on land. Vezara lifted her captured foe high in the air and toward her long fangs, but Garyl moved faster and stopped her from delivering the fatal blow. He had spent decades running away from deadly creatures, but now harnessed that speed and charged toward his foe. He swung his blade in wide arcs, cutting deeply into Vezara’s exposed flesh.
The River Hag gave a high-pitched scream that sounded like a dozen vultures screeching in unison. She whirled around and swung Kajeel like a bludgeon, releasing her at the perfect moment and sending both of her attackers colliding into one another. Garyl’s lungs ached and a shudder ran through his body as both of them hit the ground, but he managed to keep hold of his sword. That proved valuable a moment later when Vezara lunged at him, fangs bared and seeking his throat. He snapped the sword up at just the right moment and thrust its point into the River Hag’s jaw. Bone crunched and the smell of rotten fish grew even stronger as the blade forced its way through the back of Vezara’s head.
Much to Garyl’s surprise and dismay, the River Hag refused to die. With a sickening scraping noise, she pulled herself up and away from the blade. Her body slid off the metal and swayed as though she had lost her balance. One eye glared at her assailants furiously, but the light seemed to have gone out from the other and it looked sightlessly ahead. Garyl propped himself up on one knee and held his sword aloft, challenging Vezara to strike again. Much to his relief, the River Hag though the better of it and slid away from the pair, moving into the waters of the Greyflow and then vanishing beneath the surface.
Neither Garyl nor Kajeel pursued her any further. They stood wordlessly and then retreated a fair distance away from the river’s edge. Kajeel stopped only long enough to pick up the dropped crossbow.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Kajeel said. “Maybe that stab will leave her bleeding to death somewhere upstream.”
Garyl wiped his blade on his cloak, then sheathed it. “Or maybe she’ll draw the attention of an even bigger, more dangerous predator. Either way, I’d rather not find out how that particular story ends.”
Kajeel nodded in agreement. They both quickened their pace as they moved away from the river and toward the safety of dry land.
“When did you figure out it was me?” Kajeel asked after they had reached a distance she considered safe.
Garyl rubbed his swollen temple. “Nobody packs quite the same punch as you, my dear.”
“I’m a man now,” said Kajeel as she scratched her underarms when they finally stopped to rest. “I liked it better when I was a corpse.”
The sun had risen now, burning off some but not all of the mist that seemed to eternally cling to the Dragonlands. Garyl welcomed what little warmth it granted, since his clothes were still soaked through from his trip into the river.
“Technically, you’re still a corpse,” he said. “You’re just fresher this time.”
“True,” Kajeel responded. “And I expect I won’t be staying for much longer. I just wish I knew how you all dealt with these dangly bits.”
Garyl stumbled from exhaustion and paused in his stride. He rubbed his eyes, then pressed on.
“Should we stop and rest?” Kajeel inquired. “I know I have a certain advantage when it comes to stamina.”
“No,” Garyl said. “Thanks to you, we’re close to the border already. Soon we’ll be…I mean, soon I’ll be out of the Dragonlands.”
Kajeel put a hand on Garyl’s shoulder. “You’re not alone out there, you know. I do watch you from time to time. I may have died here, but my spirit still wanders.”
Garyl stopped walking. He placed a hand upon Kajeel’s and patted it. “I’m glad. I just wish I could see you, too.”
“Well, we’ll always have the Dragonlands,” Kajeel replied.
Garyl shook his head. “No, we won’t,” he said sadly. “The fish are spawning, the mists are fading. The bodies that used to just lie freshly dead have begun to decay. It’s taken time since Derrezen died, but nature is taking hold here again. One day I’ll use the ritual to call your spirit into a new body, and I’ll find that it doesn’t work.”
“But I’ll still be there,” Kajeel said. “You can always be certain of that.”
“If you see me from wherever you are, you know that my life goes on without you. But I’m allowed to miss you.”
“I’d be insulted if you didn’t.”
“No,” Garyl said, “you wouldn’t. You’d be understanding. You always had more patience and kindness than me. I’m still trying to catch up to where you were.”
“And how is that progress going? Do you think you found what you needed here?”
Garyl nodded. “Getting the bad guys to talk…that’s one of my talents. The River Hag didn’t confirm everything to me, but she gave me enough evidence to make another inductive leap.”
“So what now?” Kajeel asked. “You’re not going to kill her, are you?”
“I hope not,” Garyl responded. “I’d rather take her to a fair.”
“A fair.” Kajeel chuckled, and the two began walking again. “I remember when we used to go to those. It seems we always stole from the wrong person or set a fire in the wrong place.”
“You did the stealing,” Garyl corrected. “I set the fires. But they were really your fault.”
“I was always trying to impress you…and things always got out of hand.” He sighed and looked into Kajeel’s eyes. “Falling in love with the most beautiful souls…that’s one of my other talents.”
He stopped and kissed Kajeel on the lips. Then they continued their journey out of the Dragonlands.
“What’s so funny?” Kajeel asked as she saw a grin form on Garyl’s lips.
“I’ve never kissed you with a beard before,” Garyl replied. “It tickles.”
Image: Tony Webster