Rozak and Tarajel, two sword wielding thieves, find themselves battling more than foul weather when they go in search of...
Storm in the Jewel
By Martin E. Stephenson
About the author
She pulled her dark leather breeches and thigh-high boots up over long sinewy legs. A cuirass of leather and tortoise shell armor she fastened on next, covering her muscle toned bosom. Her face was wide with dark, cat-like almond eyes. As she raised her hands behind her head to bind her long brown hair, her watcher flicked away one of the annoying nymphs that had discovered his presence. He barely had time to dodge the dagger as it bit into the tree, a finger's breadth from the temple of his skull.
"Show yourself," Tarajel said angrily.
The man stood up from behind his leafy cover. He was tall but not overly and catlike muscles rippled beneath his skin, a hide that bore the tanned scars of adventure in foreign places. An arm's length broad blade was sheathed at his waist and he wore no more than the customary short breeches and stag's skin boots of these northern lands.
"I am Rozak," he said with a deep chuckle in his voice, "and I mean you no harm." He plucked her dagger from the tree with a tug and flicked it into the ground at Tarajel's boot. "I see you had enough sense to not bring a horse into these woods." Travel into the Great Northern Forest was always done on foot--at least by those wanting to stay alive. Seems the true natives of this place, the diminutive Treefolk, the indigenous people of the forest, had acquired a taste for horseflesh and could smell one mile away.
"Then why do you follow me and hide behind bushes to watch me bathe like some city-bred dog?" Her hand went to the sabre she had instinctively belted to her waist.
"Two nights past you drank too much at the Inn of a Thousand Charms," Rozak said as he stepped further into the sunlit clearing. "I overheard you brag, to some foolish man you later robbed, that you were headed to these woods in search of the Storm Jewel and the treasure that comes with it. I figured you might need some help…or company. Someone familiar with these woods and the legend of that particular stone."
His thick black mane was pulled back in a short tail, a wisp of gray at his temples, framing a rugged, but not unfriendly face. She had noticed him that night too, yet had more of a need to finance her journey by victimizing some unfortunate than to satisfy her lust with a handsome freebooter.
"I hadn't drunk too much," she replied, "I was feigning it to relieve that man of his purse. And your help is unwanted." Tarajel unsheathed her long blade in one fluid motion, sunlight shimmering across the translucent southern steel.
"Whoa now, woman, don't be hasty," Rozak said as he strode over within striking distance. She hadn't even seen him unsheathe his sword, but it was already in his hand. "I don't want much, certainly not some stone touched by darkness. I'm only interested in the gold and silver that are said to be hoarded along with it."
Poised like to cats about to pounce upon each other, the two adventurers circled in the clearing. "And what do you know of the Storm Jewel," Tarajel hissed. The sprites had all gathered on overhanging branches about the edge of the clearing now, to watch the drama unfold.
"All the Northland children know the tale of the Storm Jewel," Rozak replied, "that's how our mothers frighten us off to bed." Without taking his eyes from hers he sidestepped a piece of deadfall. She did likewise in turn. "The great Dark Mage, whose true name has been lost in the Paths of Time, once was a good man who had a great love for a certain beautiful woman. But his love for gaining knowledge and power through the unseen forces had overshadowed his love and he took to these woods to seek after such things…things better left unknown."
Their blades touched and sang for an instant as he continued. "His sweetheart missed him much and being blinded by such silliness she followed him into these woods seeking his company. Being winter at the time a terrible storm rose up and swallowed her and she was never heard from again. In his despair the Dark Mage called upon all the forces he could muster and gathered all the winter storms meant for the future into some great jewel where they are kept today, bound by his magic."
Tarajel feinted back then forward again to parry an attack that didn't come. "For centuries the Southern Kingdoms have sent emissaries bearing great wealth into the Great Northern Forest, seeking that sorcerer, in order to persuade him to unleash those bound-up storms, so that the water they carry would move south, like they once had, and quench the drought that plagues your homelands. Right?"
"Correct. But none of those delegations have ever returned," Tarajel replied. "And the rains do not come. But all that wealth is here and if I can break that stone…or kill that wizard, my people can see water fall from the sky and prosper once again. Ever watch children die of thirst?" Her face tightened in sincere anguish. A perplexed look washed across the warrior's face for a moment, he hadn't counted on the infamous Tarajel, the thief who stole (and squandered) the Crown Jewels of far-off Shardia, as being one on some social crusade.
"Our mothers tell us that those who have gone looking for that old sorcerer are bound into protecting that accursed jewel, their wealth robbed and enslaved forever in the mists of his dark lair," Rozak said. "And if you don't get to bed on time he'll put you in there too." He mocked a high female voice and laughed, regaining his composure at the sight of his opponent's scornful look. He was honestly trying to break the tension. "But there must be a truth to the tale. We see the winter season here, but no hard storms in these lands, and your lands are ever thirsty. That's why you need…" Rozak stopped in mid-sentence, cocking his head to view the south end of the clearing, his nostrils flaring, seeking scent on the breeze.
Tarajel moved to slap the flat of her blade at his shoulder but the big man parried without even a glance in her direction. "Shhh, listen," he whispered. "No birdsong, no nymphs."
Just then the thick underbrush at the edge of the clearing that had caught Rozak's attention parted and a little man appeared, obviously in a state of panic. He stood half Tarajel's height and pale body was covered from head to toe in nothing but a swirling array of blue tattoos. He held no weapon. He was babbling incoherently at the two stunned onlookers.
"A man of the Treefolk," Rozak explained, answering the question Tarajel hadn't yet asked. "Something's very wrong. They never travel alone or unarmed." With that both the combatants forgot about defending against each other and focused their attention on the panic-stricken indigene and the woods about them. The little man shouted more of his confusion at them and lunged forward. He didn't take a full step before the woods and brush behind him exploded, sending splintered pieces of tree scattering into the clearing. Rozak fell back against Tarajel, as if to cover her from the chaos flying about them. Then they saw it.
A huge reptilian head swung into the clearing, the noonday light shimmering off its iridescent scales. Black-slotted eyes focused in on its prey and its mouth opened revealing rows of teeth like obsidian daggers, framing a gaping pink cavern. A gust of its sick-sweet breath washed over them as its tongue shot out like some great pink snake, coiling around the tattooed man's waist, instantly choking the breath from him. Time seemed to slow for a second as the tattooed man disappeared down into the beast's gullet feet first, a look of utter despair on his face. The great creature hadn't even bothered to chew.
"Run!" Rozak commanded as he grabbed the still dazed she-warrior by the arm, flinging her ahead of himself. They splashed through the shallow pool and into the forest. Rozak looked over his shoulder just as the beast seemed to catch their scent, its massive bulk lumbering forward in chase.
Branches and thorns reached out to scratch and bite as the two plunged full stride into the woods. They could hear the crash of timber as the giant lizard-thing's massive claws tore bushes and saplings apart as it charged after them.
"What…is…that...thing?" Tarajel panted as she ducked beneath one more moss-encrusted overhang.
"A Shambler!" Rozak had to run and leap with his large frame bent at the waist. "I've never seen one alive," he shouted. "Keep moving!"
They pressed on; their hearts pounding in their throats, glancing panicked looks behind, never quite seeing the huge reptile, as though its scales had blended into the darkness of the forest. But they could hear it coming, its wet tongue snapping about in the air as it pushed forward after them.
"Ahead…that light," Rozak panted. Through the thick growth they could see a shaft of light beaming down. Another clearing lay straight ahead. "Looks like rocks…boulders."
The warrior knew it was no use to continue their desperate run. If they stopped to attempt a climb up one of the trees the beast would either rear up into the canopy or knock the tree down. In the past he'd seen the paths of their destruction, and once had found their great bones molding in the woods (and had wondered what, other than old age, could have killed such a thing) but had never seen one face to face. He knew it was futile to continue running, that unless the dragon changed its one-track mind, it would give chase until they were exhausted. They had to reach a highpoint and make a stand or be swallowed whole like the unfortunate Treeman.
"If we can reach an outcropping we might be able to put up a fight."
Tarajel struck a half-insane look back at the man a moment ago she had considered killing, realizing now that she would need his help in order to have any chance at staying alive. "Put up a fight?"
They burst through the thicket and into the light. A round expanse, and at its center a semi-circle of hewn stone. Not an outcropping at all, but megaliths. Both noticed immediately, even in their hurried state, that the ground too seemed fashioned by human hand; interlocking stones of various shapes and sizes, the only vegetation being patches of orange lichen.
"No cover here," Rozak snapped. Tarajel was breathless from the race. The woods behind them shuddered. It was too late.
But nothing happened.
They caught glimpses of the shimmering hulk through the trees, felt the ground rumble as it passed back and forth, snapping trees aside. But it did not come.
"Why does it toy with us?" Tarajel said, her blade scanning to and fro, following the beast's movement.
The pink snake of a tongue lashed out from the thicket, almost catching Rozak by the boot. Both jumped back against one of the towering stones. An unearthly coldness bit at them. An unseasonable frost seemed to fill the air around them, seeping up from the ground.
"Damn," Rozak muttered. "Supper for a Shambler or stay in this wretched place that stinks of..." Both saw his breath rise like a fog as he spoke. She said it first. "Magic?"
The forest snapped and popped again. In its instinctive hunger the giant lizard lost whatever hesitation it had held. It lunged from the thicket, claws first, into the clearing, horrid mouth wide-open, tongue flailing, its heavy breath pushing aside the unearthly coldness.
The ground beneath it gave way.
Rozak and Tarajel looked on in amazement as the great beast disappeared into the earth, its long, serrated tail flailing about, almost striking them, the strange brickwork coming apart like a hundred puzzle pieces. A huge rear claw rose up to grip at nothing before falling away into the darkness below. A freezing updraft came at them. But the unraveling of the pavement didn't stop. Neither hesitated, running through the center of monoliths back towards the woods, the hollowness beneath their feet charging like a flood. Behind them the stone circle disappeared into the avalanche as though some huge earth giant below the surface had opened his mouth and swallowed them whole. As the brickwork gave way beneath his feet, Rozak grabbed his reluctant companion by the rear of her breeches and lunged for the edge of the clearing, hoping the cave-in would stop there. It did.
Rozak caught a handful of briar vine, the thorns biting into his callused palm. With a heavy thud Tarajel hit a smooth cliff face. She hung there like a sack of grain, stretching the big man's arm. After a second she stirred and let out a low moan. Rozak could feel the vine above slowly giving away; its fibrous tendrils plucking dully as they snapped like some strange out-of-tune instrument. He couldn't hold on to both much longer, his shoulder and back muscles stretched to their limit, the thorns digging deeper into his palm, a crimson rivulet snaking down his arm.
"Woman! What do you see?" He said.
She moaned again then gave a start, suddenly aware of her predicament. She strained a look up at him. "Nothing…a smooth wall leading down to blue mist…darkness."
Rozak tensed his arms. He noticed the smoothness of the wall also. Blue and smooth like wet ice.
"Cling to the wall as best you can as we drop, it's our only hope," he called down to her. "Cling like a fly," he added.
"Before we drop? What do you mean, before we…"
Above them the vine cracked the air like a slave-master's whip and they quickly descended into darkness.
Click for the Conclusion
Table of Contents
The Storm in the Jewel is copyright Martin E. Stephenson. It may not be
copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used
for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to