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A short story: "Transfiguration"

 
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Karristegn
dragonfoal



Joined: 20 May 2015
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 19, 2017 8:15 am GMT    Post subject: A short story: "Transfiguration" Reply with quote

So it's been two years since I posted my first Dragon Diceâ„¢ fanfiction to this site, and 3300+ views seems to say I have done something right. Here is my second attempt. It's sort of a sequel to "A friend of the wind", but it should make perfect sense even if you haven't read that one.
Like last time, I'm going to serialize, posting the story in 5 parts over the next few days. And of course, I do not mean to infringe on any copyright - this is my way of saying "Thank You!" to everyone at SFR for keeping the game around through all these years.
Enjoy!

TRANSFIGURATION
(part one of five)

Night had fallen over the swampland of Pauthynit, and the small band of warriors had settled down to sleep.
Taking one slow step after the other, Valloaree circled the perimeter of the camp. He kept his crossbow ready and his eyes fixed on the dark woods that seemed to be creeping in on him and his fellow acolytes.
Valloaree really didn’t mind keeping watch. Part of him actually enjoyed the silence and solitude that were an inevitable consequence of the job of the lonely sentinel. And silence had really become part of Valloaree’s nature over the past months. Ever since he and his fellows had left their mountain home city of Khoryvaght they had spoken very little, even among themselves. They had not only left their home behind, they had forsworn their Vaghan legacy of Earth and Fire and taken up service to a new master. The eternal enemy of Nature’s stewards – the dark power called Death or the Corruptor by the peoples of Esfah – demanded obedience from his servants, and readiness to fight and kill in his name. He did not expect his subjects to waste time on idle chitchat.
So no, the silence and the duty of keeping watch over his fellow warriors did not bother Valloaree. Nor did his surroundings cause him much discomfort. For although the swamp’s eternal wetness and moisture was utterly alien to him, he considered the Pauthynit as nothing more and nothing less than another place where he could fight and kill. He was aware that the darkness that covered the ponds, trees and few patches of dry ground like a shroud might conceal any number of wild beasts, hideous monsters and other kinds of enemies, but even this did not bother him. He and the other survivors from Khoryvaght had brought death to uncounted numbers of beings, and the Toxophilite had understood long ago that he, too, would one day sink into the cold embrace of his dark master. But ever since he had realized that there is nothing horrible in death, there had been nothing he had found horrible in life.
Still, the swamp had something to do with the two things Valloaree was bothered about. The first thing concerned the food. When they had been Vagha™, making a fire to cook by had been almost as easy and natural as breathing. In giving up the connection to the elements that had originally given them life, they had also lost the ability to use fire magic. During their journey through the Raenshaudoore Mountains and the windswept wasteland of Aang Salwarr, this had not been a problem – both had been dry places, wood was easy enough to find, and flint and steel provided the sparks to get a campfire going. Here, in the fetid and eternally damp swamp, this had proved to be nearly impossible. Of course, the lack of a campfire also meant that their resting place was less likely to be discovered by enemies or nocturnal predators, but to Valloaree, this did not really balance out the foul taste of the fish they had caught from the nearly stagnant swamp water. Gulping down raw fish that tasted like a long-used field blanket was hardly an improvement compared to the hearty, well-seasoned meat that had been on their plates in Khoryvaght, and even there constant fighting had been an inescapable part of life. The city had suffered from constant Lava Elf raids for as long as any Vagha™ could remember, and things had turned from bad to worse when the additional attacks by the bat-winged fiends from the higher peaks began. Their numbers already sorely depleted, the Vagha™ had finally decided to abandon both Khoryvaght and their elemental heritage after the strange small creatures from the wooded valleys had brought further death to their doorsteps with flaming mace and fiery arrows. No more than fifty of their warriors had been left when they set out on their quest in service to their new dark master, and now, after uncounted battles and skirmishes, less than twenty remained.
But – and this was the other thing that bothered Valloaree – at this point, the battlefield had become the only place where the survivors of Khoryvaght truly belonged. There was no other place for them now, not even here in the swamp, where the Corruptor’s guidance had led them. They had not known why Death wanted his Acolytes in the Pauthynit, but they had followed the directions given by Zoorig, their Enthraller, who was in constant communion with the somber power. However, their first battle in the swamp had turned against their favour: Even though they had teamed up with the Corruptor’s chosen beings, the walking dead, they had been defeated by the savage beastmen and driven away from the half-ruined temple that might have become a new refuge for them. Since then, the few survivors had travelled ever deeper into the near-endless swamp, trying to evade a possible pursuit.
Previously, Valloaree had thought that losing access to fire magic was the greatest loss they had suffered, and he considered that a small price to pay for what they had gained. But now, after days of skulking through the wet earth and between stunted trees, the Toxophilite sometimes wondered if they had not lost something much worse, since there was no place anymore which they could truly call their own.
As usual, Valloaree brushed these thoughts aside, not just because they distracted him from his guard duties, but because he knew them to be wrong. In leaving their home, they had gained an insight into the very nature of life on Esfah, as well as a purpose to their own existence, and both were inextricably linked. The insight was that Death will always triumph in the end, since all that lives must inevitably pass through death’s embrace. And the survivors of Khoryvaght now existed for the single purpose to allow as many creatures as possible to make that passage sooner rather than later. Their home was already dead – they had made sure that no living thing remained in the city when they abandoned it – and even the last memories of Khoryvaght would eventually die, once the last member of their ever-shrinking group of warriors had himself passed into the ultimate darkness.
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Karristegn
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PostPosted: Thu Jul 20, 2017 8:06 am GMT    Post subject: Reply with quote

TRANSFIGURATION
(part two of five)

“Valloaree.”
Strealay’s voice came through the darkness of the camp. The warrior who had been assigned as the second guard had not spoken loudly, but in the silence of the night, the sound reached Valloaree’s ears easily, especially since every one of their group had been trained in the ways of guard duty, and watching and listening in the dark had been drilled into them during their training. Valloaree’s reaction to the summons followed the routine he had been taught in the same drills: He went quickly to the center of the camp. Balancing his crossbow in his right hand, he gripped his axe with his left. Once he had reached the sleeping figure in the middle of his comrades, he poked at the sleeper’s shoulder twice with the handle of his axe. That was enough to awaken Laharis, the nominal leader of their group. Back in Koryvaght, he had held the rank of Skirmisher, which had put him into a position of command, and now that he was the only remaining senior officer among the Acolytes, nobody challenged his position. Used to the rigours of the battlefield, Laharis never slept deeply. And now, awakened by the very signal he had taught the others to use, the Bodyguard reacted with the speed and precision of a well-oiled apparatus. He was out of his bedroll and on his feet in a single fluid motion and immediately proceeded to wake up the remaining sleepers.
Valloaree knew that this was what Laharis was doing, but the Toxophilite did not stop in his own routine movements in order to watch or help his commanding officer. Instead, Valloaree continued on his way. He kept crossing the camp and went to the place from which he had heard Strealay’s voice. He knelt down next to his fellow warrior, held his crossbow ready to fire into the darkness ahead of him, and whispered a single word: “What?”
Strealay was as much a disciplined soldier as Valloaree. In Khoryvaght, he had served the army as a Footman, but now he counted simply as a Follower, which did not mean that his fighting skills had in any way diminished. He did not take offence at the Toxophilite’s curt, almost demanding question, but answered in the same whispering voice and in the same short, soldier-like manner: “Glint of metal. Southwest.”
Valloaree’s eyes turned in the direction Strealay had indicated. He could see very little. Raudian, Esfah’s moon, had just risen over the northeastern horizon, and though the satellite was ascending the sky as quickly as always, trees and shrubs obscured the area, filling the swamp with confusing shadows in which anything might hide.
Behind them, the camp was quickly waking up. Laharis and the other Acolytes were getting ready for a new battle, and they did so with an often-practiced silence and efficiency.
Ryvabo appeared next to Valloaree’s shoulder. The Runner’s job was to pass information from the guards to the commanding officer. Valloaree informed him: “Possible enemy movement to the southwest. Possibly armed or in armour.” As Ryvabo returned to the main group of soldiers in order to pass the information on, Valloaree’s eyes kept straining to make out any further details in the shadow-covered landscape.
Then he saw something moving among the shrubbery – a very quick motion that gave him no chance to make out clearly who or what had moved, but a definite enemy movement, and much closer to their position than Valloaree had expected. Whatever their enemy was, it was remarkably fast, and its movements in the swamp nearly inaudible. “South-west, close by!” Valloaree shouted to alert his brethren, and at the same time the enemy again proved its speed: The first word had hardly left Valloaree’s lips when something – metal reflecting the moonlight – hurtled through the air. A split second later, it hit Strealay who had still been standing next to him. The Follower did not even have a chance to cry out – the missile had hit his throat with deadly precision, and a choked gargle was all that was heard of Strealay’s death.
As Valloaree fired his own crossbow into the darkness, he heard Laharis’s voice behind him: “Agrarta’ah!” The Bodyguard had given the signal for the main group of warriors to advance, shields ready, and Laharis himself took the lead. Valloaree knew exactly what he had to do in this situation. As fast as he could from his kneeling position, he threw himself forward, face-down onto the soft, wet earth, allowing the advancing Acolytes to quickly jump over his prone body. When they had passed, he crawled over to Strealay’s unmoving form, grabbed the dead Follower’s shirt with one hand, and struggled to move his own body and that of his fallen comrade. He tried to keep on all fours and as low to the ground as he could to avoid any further enemy missiles while he dragged his fallen comrade to the place slightly to the left of the former camp, where Zoorig would be waiting. This procedure had also been part of their training, and Valloaree was grateful for that. Even though it was hard work to drag the corpse along and still hang on to your own gear and equipment while hugging the ground, it meant that there was a small space of safety left on the battlefield, and that a comrade was waiting there for you.
`Comrade´, in this case, though, was hardly a suitable word. Zoorig the Enthraller was second in command of their team, and the extravagant braiding of his beard had marked him out as a Theurgist even in Khoryvaght. Now that he wielded death magic instead of earth- and firecraft, he was an even more imposing figure, and Valloaree was always glad that they were on the same side. He knew that under the right circumstances, Zoorig could actually kill some soldiers with a single glance of his dark eyes.
Now however, Zoorig was looking at Strealay’s corpse when Valloaree reached him after several long, painful minutes of crawling along the damp mud. The Enthraller’s hand grabbed at the shaft that still protruded from the Follower’s throat. While Valloaree was catching his breath, Zoorig yanked the object out of the corpse’s neck – it came free with a sickening, slurping sound – and then muttered the syllables of a spell he had used many times before. The effect was as instantaneous as usual: Strealay’s body began to twitch. The motions started in the hands and feet and moved upwards and inwards from there. Soon the whole body was tossing and turning almost violently, and mere moments later Strealay was sitting up. The Follower coughed twice and spat out a small lump of bile and blood, then took up his axe and stood ready to fight again. The spell of reanimation had worked.
By this time, Valloaree had reloaded his crossbow and also felt ready to jump back into the fray. He expected Zoorig to send Strealay and himself back into the battle immediately, and when that order didn’t come, he turned around to take a look at the battlefield under the moon.
The Acolytes under Laharis’s leadership were used to fighting for Death, but now it seemed that they were also fighting for their lives. Even in the little light provided by a still-ascending Raudian, Valloaree’s scanning eyes could easily make out five or six small-sized, bearded corpses among the bushes. Laharis was not among them; he was still on his feet, parrying the blows of an enormous, not quite humanoid creature that moved much faster than its size would have warranted. Something was wrong about this creature’s silhouette in the moonlight, and it took Valloaree a moment to figure out what it was: it did not appear to have legs. Below the abdomen, there seemed to be only a very elastic, serpentine tail on which the creature moved along the slippery ground at an amazing rate. It wielded a sword with a curiously curved blade the likes of which Valloaree had never seen before, and its speed allowed it to dodge the Bodyguard’s most vicious attacks.
As Valloaree watched the unfolding battle, another one of his comrades – it might have been Ryvabo, but it was hard to tell in the moonlight – fell to the ground with a muffled, choking gasp. Even from this distance, Valloaree realized that this death had not resulted from the blow of a blade; it had rather seemed that the shadow-shrouded opponent had but lightly touched the Acolyte’s head. Having seen many battles at smaller or greater distances, Valloaree decided that there had to be some kind of poison involved in such an easy kill.
He was still wondering why Zoorig didn’t give them the command to take part in the battle when Strealay suddenly shouted: “Valloaree, get down!”
The Toxophilite reacted almost on time. In a single motion, he half-turned, bent his legs, and lifted his crossbow, ready to fire. But even as he moved, he felt a very small pricking sensation, not much stronger than an insect’s sting, on his neck, and as he sank into his kneeling, defensive position, he felt the spark from that little sting grow to a searing hot flame.
His battlefield-trained eyes took in the situation around him in an instant: Above him stood a human-like creature, but the bald head and the scaly skin that reflected the moonlight in unexpected ways marked it out as something very different from any humanoid enemy Valloaree had ever faced. Its mouth was open, and two sharp fangs glistened in Raudian’s radiance. Valloaree was struck with the realization that these fangs had just touched his neck a moment ago.
Three paces away, another creature had sunk its teeth into Zoorig’s neck. It had grabbed the Enthraller from behind with two strong arms, and then had thrust forward its cobra-like head to bite him.
Valloaree saw all this in minute detail in the split second before he fired his crossbow, and at this distance, he could not miss. The bolt hit his own assailant straight in the chest. The near-human form fell backwards with a strange hissing sound coming from his mouth, and Valloaree could have sworn that he saw the tip of a forked tongue flutter out from the fang-filled mouth. At the same instant, Zoorig had drawn his blade and thrust it backwards into the body of the creature behind him. It, too, let out a dying hiss before it fell over and away from the Enthraller. Valloaree had just enough time to see the enemy’s small round eyes with the slit pupil, and he could not read the expression of that inhuman face. It should have been a look of surprise, or fear, or both – but the Toxophilite thought, absurdly, that it might have actually been an expression of triumph.
It had taken the Acolytes mere seconds to dispatch their enemies, but it had been enough time for the flame in Valloaree’s neck to rise in intensity to that of a roaring fire, and to spread over into his chest and arms. He saw Strealay standing nearby, his axe ready, looking unsteadily at his two comrades.
“Are you alright?” the Follower asked. “They crept up on us from behind like the night itself, without a sound, and…”
The pain still grew. Valloaree heard Zoorig’s gruff answer that cut Strealay short: “If it is the Corruptor’s will, we die tonight. Otherwise we live to bring the gift of death to others. Now go to the battlefield and do what you can. I will see to our safe refuge here that has been so sorely invaded.”
But the last words sounded dull, like they were reaching Valloaree’s ears through a thick layer of cloth. The pain from the bite had now exceeded the heat and power of a heroic funeral bonfire, and as the last of his strength left his body and his crossbow fell from his hands to the muddy, wet ground with a splash, he remembered what he had thought as he had watched the battlefield: there had to be some kind of poison involved …
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Karristegn
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PostPosted: Fri Jul 21, 2017 8:40 am GMT    Post subject: Reply with quote

TRANSFIGURATION
(part three of five)

As his mind was swimming in a sea of darkness and pain, it occurred to Valloaree that he had never bothered to imagine what his own encounter with the dark master would be like. In Khoryvaght, a death on the battlefield had been a cause for rejoicing that culminated in the lighting of the funeral pyre. The fire consumed the fallen hero, and the ashes was then interred in the mountainous ground from which the life of the Vagha™ had originally come. In that way, it was hoped, the spirit of the fallen warrior would come to rest among the ancestors of his people, to the rejoicing of the living.
But the survivors of Khoryvaght had turned their backs on the elemental fire that had given them life, and from the elemental earth that bound the Vagha™ to the highlands of Esfah. Neither Firiel not Eldurim would smile upon him now, Valloaree knew. Still, he could not have formed any anticipatory image in his mind of what would happen to him now, on what he expected to be his final voyage into the oblivion that waited in the ultimate darkness.
He saw nothing, and he heard nothing. All his senses were reduced to the feeling of the pain that had been searing all his nerve ends as the poison from the snakeman’s bite had taken its course through his veins. In a small, distant corner of his consciousness, he wondered if Zoorig was nearby, or if the Enthraller was sharing his experience.
And then, every fibre of his soul resonated with a titanic voice, almost like a violent roll of thunder that sounds so loudly that you can actually feel it in your whole body. It was an unforgettable and intensely frightening experience that literally shook Valloaree to the core of his soul. Its power was enough to make the Acolyte forget even the fiery glow of the poison.
“Valloaree of Khoryvaght,” it said, every syllable filled with a dark, majestic force, “you entered my service when you foreswore your Vaghan birthright. That service will last until the end of eternity.”
And then, to Valloaree’s surprise, a second voice continued. Its words came much more softly, but no less majestic than those of the first voice. The sound carried the power of ocean waves crashing onto the shore, as well as the soothing sound of small brooks running down the side of a mountain at the same time: “You have chosen your way in life, Valloaree of Khoryvaght, and no power in the world can change it but your own.”
As the voice spoke – Valloaree was not even sure if it was a man’s or a woman’s voice – something unexpected happened. Valloaree felt no longer caught up in total darkness. From somewhere – or from everywhere at once – a greenish light seemed to illuminate the big, eternal nothing in which he was suspended.
The voice continued: “There is only one thing I can do for you now. I can make sure that the way you have chosen does not end here.”
These words brought a fresh shock to Valloaree’s already fear-struck mind. But the voice did not give him much time to reflect on what exactly it was that caused this additional horror. It went on: “Death has found you, and deemed you worthy of serving him in cold blood, and in a form of his choosing. But, as the water that finds its way by whatever course it wants to take, your new form will also know liberty, and will be free to go where it chooses.”
As it spoke these words, the voice assumed a tone that reminded Valloaree of bubbles of air that slowly rise to the surface in a stagnant pool of water. At the same time, his impression of being suspended in a sea of greenish-black nothing gave way to a distinct feeling of sinking, as if heavy leaden weights were suddenly attached to his feet. The voice spoke to him one last time, but now the words sounded muffled and slightly distorted, as if coming from a great distance or through a thin wall: “Remember, Valloaree: Your fate is in your own hands.”
And this time, the first voice, thunderous, soul-shaking, awe-inspiring, was quick to add: “Make no mistake, son of Khoryvaght: You are mine for all eternity. The time will come for me to call in that which duly belongs to me.”
At these words, Valloaree’s conscious mind blanked out and took refuge from the horrifying threat in something it believed to be sweet oblivion.
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Karristegn
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PostPosted: Sat Jul 22, 2017 8:37 am GMT    Post subject: Reply with quote

TRANSFIGURATION
(part four of five)

When Valloaree’s consciousness returned, his first impression was confusion. After his experiences, it was strange to once again feel the weight of his own body. But the confusion gave way almost immediately to a feeling of overwhelming surprise. This was grounded not in the fact that the Toxophilite had opened his eyes to obvious, clear daylight and therefore had obviously missed several hours. Instead, his surprise centered around one single, all-important question: Why was he still alive?
The wet ground of the Pauthynit made a sloshing noise as Valloaree sat up and looked around. He saw his crossbow just a few spans away on the ground and concluded that he was probably still in the place where he had fallen in the night. Indeed, the clearling looked like the campsite the Acolytes had chosen the previous evening. But if he was still in the same place, where were his fellow warriors of death? And what had become of the snakemen who had attacked them in the night?
The answer to the second question, or at least a part of it, was lying only two or three feet away: the body of the bald humanoid he had shot down during the night. Valloaree rose to his feet – he wanted to take a close look at the corpse – and realized that his body felt strange. There was a tingling sensation in his arms and legs (which he attributed to an aftereffect of the poison attack he had so mysteriously survived), and when he stood, he felt that there was something wrong with his vision. It was not a blurring of any kind, on the contrary, somehow everything around him looked … sharper, more clearly defined than ever before. But that was not all. It took Valloaree a moment to understand the reason for his new perspective: He had never before looked at the world from this point of view because he had become taller over night. That understanding came when he looked down his body and his mud-drenched clothing, stretching his arms away from his chest to check them. No doubt – both his arms and legs had not only increased in length, they had also become more slender during the last few hours.
His thought of investigating the body of the fallen opponent already forgotten, Valloaree shook his head violently in an attempt to clear his mind. A new fear was about to overwhelm him. What on Esfah had happened to him?
He finally pressed both hands against his head, trying to steady himself. In doing so, he felt a curious sense of gratitude as he became conscious of the fact that at least there were still five fingers on each of his new hands, albeit unusually long and slender fingers. Their skin, he realized, felt unusually brittle and dry, almost as if –
The thought was stopped by a new sensation. Something was wrong with the face on which his fingers rested. Something was not there that his fingers should have felt, but didn’t feel.
Shaking with fear, Valloaree lowered his hands, looked around, and then fixed his eyes on the pool of swamp water that had been near their resting place. He staggered towards it, his gait unsteady both from the unfamiliar new length of his legs and from the terror that held his heart in its iron grip. It took him less than fifty steps to reach the pond, where he sank to his knees to study the reflection of his face in the still, dark water.
His new, augmented vision saw a face more or less unknown to him. His head seemed to have become longer, the nose so prominent in all the Vagha™ had visibly shrunk, and most importantly, as he had suspected, the trademark Vagha™ beard was gone. In fact, there was no hair at all on his whole face, and even the hair on his head seemed to have begun to fall out. Even as he watched, some tufts of hair were falling from his scalp into the pool that served Valloaree as a mirror – a mirror that showed him a person he could hardly recognize.
“Valloaree.”
The voice had come from behind him, from the direction of their former camp site, and although there was a new quality to it, Valloaree had recognized it immediately. He looked up from the reflecting water of the pool, turned around as well as he could – he was still kneeling, after all, but found that his new body seemed to be more elastic than in the past – and asked: “Zoorig?”
The sound of his own voice again fanned the terror he still felt at his transfiguration. Just like with the Enthraller’s voice, there was some new and unknown element in the timbre that had never been there before. In speaking the name, it sounded in Valloaree’s ears almost as if he had drawn out the initial consonant into something that resembled a hissing sound.
But when his eyes fell on the powerful magician who had been his commander, his fear and horror rose to yet another level of potency. For although Valloaree’s own body had been transfigured almost beyond recognition, Zoorig had gone even farther along a similar path. The Enthraller’s head was bald with scaly skin, his eyes had grown very small – Valloaree’s new, keener sight could actually make out that the pupils in Zoorig’s eyes were slitted – and worst of all, his legs had been replaced by an enormous snake-like tail, on which he slithered along the ground with remarkable speed and in almost total silence.
And finally, Valloaree understood what had happened, although the understanding did not diminish the horror and loathing he felt: The snakemen’s poison that had affected both Zoorig and himself had not been meant to kill them. It had been, instead, a twisted means of procreation.
Zoorig smiled at him when he saw the understanding in Valloaree’s eyes. It was a very cold smile, and it looked even more cruel than before in the nearly unrecognizable face. He held out a long, cylindrical, metal object to Valloaree, and the former crossbowman grasped it. He immediately understood that it was a two-pronged missile of some sort, probably the very object that Zoorig had drawn out of Strealay’s neck in the previous night.
“Come, Valloaree,” Zoorig said, “we have work to do.”
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Karristegn
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PostPosted: Sun Jul 23, 2017 8:34 am GMT    Post subject: Reply with quote

TRANSFIGURATION
(part five of five)

They had stalked across the length and breadth of last night’s battlefield, and they were not satisfied. True, the Acolytes had sold their lives dearly – they had counted eight dead snakemen – but they had paid an almost ultimate price. Fifteen corpses of Vaghan appearance had been lying on the wet swamp ground. Laharis was among them, cut up into nearly unrecognizable pieces, and of all the warriors who had been Zoorig’s and Valloaree’s friends until last night, only one remained unaccounted for: they had not found Strealay’s body.
They didn’t have to talk about what to do, they knew by instinct, or perhaps it was somehow in their blood. They had spread out to look for their former comrade, Zoorig slithering towards the south and Valloaree scouring the area east of the battlefield.
Over the course of the day, Valloaree had become used to his new body, and he had also had the chance to adjust his mind to his altered state. The terror of the morning had given way to a new mixture of emotions. On the one hand he felt cheated. He had expected to find death on the battlefield and oblivion thereafter, and both had once more eluded him. On the other hand, this new form was much better suited to his surroundings than his stocky Vagha™ build had been. For the first time since he had entered the Pauthynit, Valloaree felt comfortable. Even the horrible taste of the raw fish was no longer as bad as he remembered it.
Late in the afternoon, he found a trail of booted footprints in the spongy mud of a small mound of earth, and the distance between the steps unmistakably indicated someone with short legs. Valloaree stood up and looked in the direction the prints pointed towards, and his sharp new vision showed him a small moving figure in the distance.
A smile crept into Valloaree’s hairless face, on which some very small scales were already beginning to form. He knew that his quarry would not escape him.
As he crossed the swampland in long strides that slowly but surely brought him closer to the fleeing Acolyte, Valloaree realized another beneficial aspect of his transfiguration: In Khoryvaght, he had been a simple crossbowman, but he had hoped and striven to eventually become promoted to the rank of Marksman. Once they had decided to become Acolytes of Death, Valloaree had been locked into the rank and role of the Toxophilite. He had found out in the morning that his new body lacked the strength of arms to wield the crossbow in an efficient way, but the weight of the trident in his hands felt more natural to him the longer he carried it. After all these months, he now had the feeling that new development, new growth was finally possible for him. That idea was a little frightening … but at the same time very exhilarating.
The sun was already low on the western horizon when Valloaree had closed the distance enough to definitely identify his fleeing prey as Strealay. As he once again increased his pace to move into striking distance, Valloaree’s heart began to beat faster. He felt the chill of the hunter in his veins as his grip on the double-pronged, two-and-a-half feet long missile tightened. In spite of the speed at which he moved along the wet soil, he hardly made a sound. Only a few more minutes would close the gap sufficiently for him to get a clear shot.
Strealay actually did him a favour by finally stopping. The Follower had been marching all day, obviously thinking himself the only survivor of the battle, and had tried to reach the eastern edge of the swamp (which Valloaree knew to be still many miles away). He had to be exhausted from a full day of walking and running through the swamp, and he also had to find a place to rest for the night.
Valloaree did not give him the chance to rest. He closed in on his former battle-brother to a distance of perhaps a hundred paces. Then he pulled his arm backwards and threw the missile with all the power of his transfigured body.
Strealay never knew what hit him. He hadn’t even heard Valloaree’s approach, and the missile hit him straight in the back. Valloaree was not yet used to this type of weapon, so his aim had not been as precise as that of the snakeman who had taken out Strealay the night before with the same missile, but his lifelong experience as a crossbowman coupled with his sharpened eyesight were still enough to get the job done. Strealay fell straight onto his face into the wet earth on which he had hoped to find some rest. His body twitched once or twice, and then lay silent.
The sun had now fallen below the horizon. Valloaree took the last few steps towards Strealay’s body and kicked it, just to make sure the Follower was really dead. He then yanked the missile – his new weapon of choice – out of the corpse’s back, turned around and began the long trek back into the heart of the Pauthynit.
He was sure that he would soon find others of his kind. Others who, like Zoorig and himself, had been infected with a poison that was not meant to kill, but to preserve life by altering and adapting it to the swamp through which he now stalked. They would be his future battle-brothers; an army of snake people derived from different races of Esfah, each one mutated in a slightly different way, all of them ready to strike from the darkness with sword, trident or poisoned fang. They would bring death or life to those who entered the swamp, or perhaps to those around it, according to their own choice. Like the water that was part of their essence, they would go where they pleased, for their destiny was not written in stone or fire.
Night had once again fallen over the swampland of Pauthynit, and Valloaree of Khoryvaght had found a new home.


THE END

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope you enjoyed the story.
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