Monday, January 21, 2008



Flavius hacked down. His sword caught his attacker across the chest, dropping him to the ground in a gurgle of blood.

Flavius dropped his shield and clutched his belly, pressing hard. His gut throbbed, but he felt no pain--only the hot wet blood running down his arm and legs. The Tommy Lobster who'd stuck him--a boy, really, yellow-haired and no older than William--thrashed on the ground, moaning and pawing at his wound. Icy rain rippled the puddle of Flavius' and the boy's mingling blood on the ground.

Doubled over, Flavius stumbled away from the English line. Shot whipped past him. Bellowing highlanders emerged from the clouds of smoke. Flavius barely heard them. Some charged past him, attacking the English with axes and swords held high. Still more fell to the English muskets. Flavius jabbed his sword into the ground for balance, barely keeping upright. "Yer a damn sorry bastard, Flavius," he muttered to himself. "Lettin' yerself get stuck by a wee lad like that. Why nae let him kick ya in yer bawz while he's at it?"

The edge of his vision pulsed, like a million glowing ants swarming around his eyes. He struggled to breathe. Whenever he took half a breath, ragged entrails slipped from his belly and over his arm. The rain burned like fire where it struck his skin. The stench of powder smoke choked his nose.

Flavius tripped over an outstretched leg, falling to his knees. Colonel McGillivray lay there, sprawled and broken.

"Well. That's that, then." Flavius leaned heavily against his sword. "If I'd known ya planned on getting yerself killed, MaGillivray, I wouldnae taken ya serious about that rallying business."

A strange sound came to him then, the sound of a glass rope shattering underwater. His vision flickered. The next instant, a monster from which nightmares come stood before him.

Flavius blinked hard, but the apparition remained. Twice as long as a man, its body was thick and serpentine, covered in feathery scales that glinted like emeralds with an underside the color of ripe barley. It settled onto the soft ground as its wings flapped to a stop. It had two pair--like a dragonfly--but these were covered in featherscales and had three small fingers at the middle joint of each wing. A row of three faceted eyes lined each side of its bulbous head, and two bristled antennae twitched in an agitated manner. It's mouth was like a puffin's beak turned on its side.

The monster slithered toward Flavius, chittering and kakking, gesticulating wildly with its wing arms. Flavius wrenched his sword from the ground and jabbed it out toward the serpent, holding it at bay.

"Get yerself back to whatever Hell ya sprang from," Flavius said. "Ya'll nae be taking my soul to yer master on this day, ya devil."

It flapped and shrieked in response, rearing up to tower over Flavius. As he followed the beast up with his sword, he lost hold of his wound. Flavius' belly pulled open. Entrails sloughed out.

"Ach!" he cried, falling back over McGillivray's body.

The serpent-thing hovered above him. Flavius waved his sword feebly at it.

"Let me die in peace... ya bastard. D'ya nae... know who I am?" Flavius' breath came in forced wheezes. Words were difficult to form. "I'm descended of the... Thane of Fife himself. Bellona's... Bridgroom."

The serpent coughed once, then made a low hissing sound. It's antennae stopped twitching and lowered to point right at Flavius.

Flavius gasped. His guts began creeping back into him. Those intestines that had been sliced and torn fused back together. Then the great long gash through his stomach closed itself without even the trace of a scar.

"Wha...? What are ya?" Flavius noticed now, for the first time, a row of slender, form-fitting pouches belted beneath the serpent's wings. It slithered backwards, shaking its head. Then it reached up to its back and drew forth a long, gleaming claymore.

"Well. That is a bonny great sword, aye," Flavius said for lack of anything better. "My grandfather had himself one like it." He peered closer. "Damn. That's nae-- are those whortleberries? It cannae be a MacDuff sword... can it?"

A cluster of sliver berries adorned the end of each angled cross-hilt, with embossed leaves decorating the arms themselves. The serpent deftly flipped the sword over, catching the flat of the blade with its fingers. It then offered the hilt to Flavius.

Bewildered, Flavius wiped his brow with a forearm, smearing himself with blood. Around him the battle raged, distant and forgotten. Cautiously, his own sword held ready, he reached his left hand out to grasp the claymore.

A strange sound split the air, the sound of bronze thread being unstitched by a gale. His vision flickered. A shadow loomed across him. The serpent looked up sharply, its antennae in a frenzy. The gleaming claymore dropped into the muck.

Flavius turned, dreading what new nightmare he might see.

The second creature stood taller than a horse on eight splayed legs with too many joints. Each leg ended in a swollen, clublike foot. The body was warty, flat and crablike, the color of hazelnut, with no visible head.

It took two aggressive steps toward Flavius, then lifted the leg nearest him. The foot unfurled and widened like some horrible flower bud, opening into a gaping maw filled with concentric rows of teeth. Piercing black eyes ringed the edge mouth.

Flavius raised his sword to meet the new threat. "Get yerself back to whatever Hell ya sprang from," Flavius said. "I didnae let this other beastie take my soul, and I'll be damned if I let you!"

The creature struck, blindingly fast. It slammed down atop Flavius, swallowing him whole. It reared back, the head-foot undulating with disturbing ferocity. Then the maw peeled open, vomiting bloody gobbets of what had once been Flavius MacDuff across the battlefield.


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