The following is a short story written up for the Fantasy Faction monthly short story contest, featuring Fianna and Carse from the Peregrine and Blade series.
Eldritch viridian magefire wreathed the surface of the much abraded statue, flickering and dancing across it as if with a life of its own, devouring no discernable fuel. Within the flames, amethyst sparks crackled and flared into brief existence before just as abruptly they were gone.
Thrice the height of a fully grown man, the statue stood askance in a forest clearing, the long aeons having worn its features unrecognisable with wind and rain, snow and storm, so that the best that could be said of it was that it appeared humanoid.
The lingering scent of coming snows suffused the air of the cold forest clearing, settling upon two figures that studied the statue, and the flames about it, with cautious contemplation.
One, a man, tall and slender, his movements languid, wore a silk shirt of pale blues. Across his shoulder hung an embroidered baldric that supported a rapier with a gilded hilt. Sleepy eyes set in a long face beneath dark hair swept the length of the statue, thoughts subsumed in that somnolent expression.
The other, a woman with auburn hair, and shorter than her companion, wore a shirt of iron scales and moved with a wary step, coiled ready to pounce like a wolf on the hunt. A broadsword in her hand, marked by much use, she never remained still and her hazel eyes roamed the forest glade, and beyond, ever alert for the slightest hint of danger. Compared to the man, there was something primal about her, a dangerous edge seldom seen but in predators of the wild.
“Careful Carse,” she said quietly as the man stepped in closer to the statue, and the emerald flames that surrounded it.
Carse licked one long finger delicately before carefully pressing it against the stone surface of the statue. The flames coiled around his hand, yet no ill effect came of it for they burned cold and illusionary, mere vestiges of the real thing.
“My dear Fianna,” he responded, removing his hand from the flames, “If there is one thing that I know, it is the workings of the Mysteries. This, it is not dangerous, merely a display of coloured lights meant to amuse, and to distract.”
“It does that well,” Fianna replied, peering intently around the clearing, her attention focused switched from the statue given it no longer posed a threat. In her blood and in her bones, something felt wrong though, an innate sense of danger that had come awake, and she sought out the source of it.
Beyond the trees, a wild tangle of ancient fir and pine, the ground beneath them heavy with their fallen needles, wild mountains rose away in the distance, clawing at the sky with rugged grandeur. Craggy peaks, their shoulders laden with snow, were lost in dark, rolling clouds that spilt down them like roaring waves crashing to the shore. The pair of them had come to the depths of the far north, where even summer bore a chill touch in the air and few but the hardy lived.
“The question remains,” she went on, “As to what they are meant to attract the attention of, or for.”
“That I can not say.”
“I do not like it,” Fianna growled. “It smells to me of a trap.”
“It always does for you.”
A grim smile made an appearance on Fianna’s face. “With good reason too.”
From among the trees there whispered the faintest of sounds, barely a murmur that passed unheard, little more than the rustling of fallen leaves and needles.
Fianna span, her hackles raised, sword leaping to the ready, as keen ears became alert to the noise, to be met with the sight of a creature emerging into the clearing that defied belief. Serpentine, yet vast beyond that of a mere snake, in girth it was as thick as a man was tall. Eyes, keenly cold fixated upon them, utterly alien and incomprehensible in their depths, yet possessing a cunning awareness that no beast could match.
Instead of the slithering scales of a serpent, it was clad in feathers in a multitude of bright hues, of the entire spectrum of a rainbow in its glory. Vast feathered wings were tucked up against the length of its body.
The name came to them at but a glance, a name passed down in myth and legend, for none alive for generations uncounted had seen one alive, yet all knew of their form. The ancient Xoacana, steeped in evil and the black arts, had feared them most greatly, and were said to have hunted them down to the last, though, perversely, had raised statues to them through out their lands, and those statues dotted the ruins the pair had seen many times.
Yet here one of the creatures existed, in the flesh, and shocked as they were that it did so, they could spare no though as to the why of the matter.
“Ware the eyes!” came Carse’s warning, yet already he was too late and his words slurred to an end before he had finished, all vigour ebbing from his body. The eyes of the dread beast locked upon those of Fianna and Carse, boring into their minds with a terrible, hypnotic power. There descended upon their minds a stupor, their thoughts becoming elusively, tantalising just beyond their grasp, slipping away as they tried to form them. Upon their limbs there bore the full brunt of the couatl’s might, for they became heavy with fatigue as if weighed down with a great many chains.
The couatl slithered in closer still, whispering across the grounds, towards its paralysed victims. Its lidless eyes of ancient ice stared full into theirs, and in them reflected back, among the whirling dark hues, a cruel curiosity about those before it.
For all his knowledge of the Mysteries, his keen mind and cunning intellect, Carse was one city born, where man was accustomed to the mastery of one over the other, and he swooned beneath the withering assault of an intellect far superior and far older than his, and far colder than that of any man.
Born upon the wind swept hills, beneath an open sky, where survival was a daily struggle and no man bowed to another, Fianna’s mind was not so easily mazed beneath the reptilian eye. Freedom she valued above all else, and considered those that bowed and scraped as weak willed. Despite the weight upon her limbs and the fog clouding her mind, she fought to free herself of those mental snares, straining against the psychic bonds that entangled her.
Her wild Aedring blood sung in her veins at the effort, lending strength to her struggles. A groan was torn from her lips as nigh on unbearable pain racked her body as her will met that of the one ensnaring her. The clash of the ancient and the young teetered back and forward, and in those moments Fianna received a flash of images, of darkness and an emergence into the cold light, of events that she had never seen and nor could make sense of. And then her will imposed itself upon her own body, shrugging aside the dominance of the couatl.
As the grip of the reptilian mind began to loosen, the bonds about Fianna started to part and the thought numbing stupor lifted, her faculties restoring.
Not a moment too late did she regain control, for the couatl’s mouth had opened and a flickering tongue darted towards them from between venom tipped fangs. With a purpose of will, and the striking speed that would have done a mongoose justice, Fianna lunged for the couatl. The sword in her hand struck a fell blow, plunging into one of its eyes.
A shrieking hiss reverberated around the clearing at the strike, and the assault upon their minds shattered in an instant. The couatl reared back, tail whipping across the ground. Such was the force with which it moved that it tore the sword from Fianna’s grasp, a brutal wrenching sending shockwave through her arm. The feathered wings of the beast snapped outwards as it beat at the air, picking up a swirling mass of dust and needles.
With but a glance and not a word spoken, Fianna and Carse turned and fled back into the trees, their flight pursued by the enraged shrieks of the couatl. Neither wished to face the wrath of the wounded beast, one that remained deadly even despite the sword lodged in its eye.
They ran until their limbs burned once more, this time with fatigue, weaving among the trees, ducking beneath lashing branches and jumping fallen logs. Only when they could run no more and they were confident that no pursuit followed did they slow down.
“Tis a shame about your sword,” Carse stated as they jogged along, after catching some semblance of breath.
“The beast can keep it,” Fianna responded. “I am in no hurry to return to reclaim it. If any are brave enough to defeat it, then they are welcome to the sword. Hraega’s Blood, but the world is a dangerous place enough already without a couatl on the loose.”
“Then we had best hope there is just the one, and not the prelude to more of them making their presence known.”