Greetings, Loyal Reader!
I had thought to complete and publish my first-ever Jason Cosmo novelette Rainy Daze several weeks ago, but other obligations have prevented me. Now I’m back at it. While I bring the tale to its mini-epic conclusion, I present another morsel to whet your appetite.
We rode blind now, or nearly so. Ghostly lightning gave occasional glimpses of the trail ahead. Mercury continued to lead the way. His flameless lantern, an enchanted crystal sphere attached to a leather loop hung from the horn of his saddle, shone faintly. The dim glow was enough for the rest of us to follow without, we hoped, serving as a beacon for pursuers.
Mercury found the path with the aid of his sunshades. These wondrous enchanted spectacles absorbed sunlight during the day. The energy so gathered could could be released in various ways. One such use was seeing in the dark.
Though wet, chilled, miserable, and exhausted from a hard day’s travel, we dared not stop moving. Whatever was behind us, it was getting closer. The wailing sound above the wind was now discernible as a chorus of baying howls from multiple throats. Though he said nothing, I knew Merc was thinking what I was thinking: the Red Huntsman.
Every bounty hunter in the Eleven Kingdoms wanted to collect the fantastic ten million carat price on my head. The Red Huntsman was one of the most dangerous. Even in Darnk, where crime was rare and bounties were paid in pine cones, we had heard of his exploits. He was a powerful fighter, ruthless and unstoppable, who kept a pack of giant wolves as hounds. According to Merc, the Huntsman was last seen in Brythalia. If he had since come north and found our trail this could be a long night indeed.
Or, for me, a very short night. Depending how things went.
“How long until we reach shelter?” I said.
“How should I know?” said Merc.
“I thought you might have come this way before.”
“Why would I? There is nothing of interest to anyone out—get down!”
Mercury grabbed my arm and all but yanked me from the saddle. The twins screamed. A large, dark blur swooshed over me and thwacked to the ground nearby, throwing up a geyser of mud and water that splattered us all. Not that we much minded, being already thoroughly drenched in mud and water.
“What was that?” I asked, righting myself.
Merc flashed a quick beam from the flameless lantern, revealing a gnarled and splintered tree stump newly embedded in the ground beside the trail. It had the circumference of a wagon wheel. Five men could not have lifted it, much less flung it through the air with such velocity.
Giants? Ogres? A renegade catapult crew?
“Stumpthrower,” said Mercury. “Off to the right. Probably aiming at the light. Not the brightest of creatures.” He extinguished the lantern. “Follow as best you can in the dark.”
“Wait! Stumpthrowers are real?” I said.
“Why wouldn’t they be?” said Mercury.
“I had almost convinced myself they are imaginary. Like the Jib-Jab Man.”
“The Jib-Jab Man.”
“The terrible, terrible Jib-Jab Man? He’s made up, right?”
“Some local flavor of boogyman, I presume?”
“Of the worst kind.”
“Then fifty-fifty he’s real or not. You don’t really know with those sorts until you look. And it’s best not to.”
“Fair enough. But what does a stumpthrower look like?”
“Imagine a badger the size of a rhino and twice as mean.”
“That’s a stumpthrower.”
“Oh,” I pondered this. “What’s a rhino?”
Merc sighed. “Nothing you need worry about.”
The howls of pursuit once more broke through the wind.
“Worry about what is behind us,” said the wizard.
We pushed on through the deepening night. Our spent horses staggered across the rocky wasteland beneath the awful majesty of the towering dark clouds. The steady percussion of the thunder, and the implacable rain beat at us. No stars could we see, nor even the horns of the waning moon. A bewildering medley of distant roars and bellows and cries sounded at intervals from every point of the compass, keeping us mindful that many fell things indeed stalked these dread hills, heedless of even a storm so terrible as this.
At one point a fantastic red streak slashed across the sky. Whether it marked the passage of a comet, a dragon, or some winged fiend of the Assorted Hells, I could not say. But its ominous afterglow lingered for many a minute before fading like a dying ember. This did not help my spirits at all.
On a downward bend of the trail, Rubis’s horse, unnerved by one crack of thunder too many, nipped at my steed’s flank and darted past me, taking the second position. Sapphrina’s horse bolted after its companion. My steed, irked to be passed once, was not standing for twice. The beast shouldered her mount against the rocky bank, blocking the way. The jostling of the horses almost pitched Sapphrina from the rain-slick saddle. I caught her arm and steadied her as we remastered our mounts.
“Thank you, Jason,” said Sapphrina.
“The horses are cranky.”
“The horses are tired,” she countered. “Your wizard had best find a suitable rock to hide under soon or we’ll be walking the rest of the way to Brythalia.”
“I’m sure Merc knows what he’d doing.”
“Are you? Well, you’ve known him a whole several hours longer than I, but I can’t say I share your faith.”
“What do you mean?”
“He has no idea where he’s going.”
“Neither do I.”
“Yes, but you aren’t bossing us to hurry this way, hurry that way, on we ride!”
I laughed at her impression of Mercury’s curt speech.
“You’re a fair mimic.”
“I have my talents,” she said. “As you may learn.”
We urged our horses up the next rise, joining Mercury and Rubis on a rocky overlook that gave a broad view of the surrounding country. We looked back the way we had come. A dramatically sustained barrage of lightning illuminated the hills. We saw, at last, what was chasing us.
“Dear Gods above,” said Mercury. “We’re doomed.”