Wednesday, April 30, 2008



The strangling darkness vanished in an instant. His claustrophobic prison burst apart and Flavius found himself soaring a thousand feet above the ground.

He screamed against the rushing wind, flinging forward his cramped arms to shield his head. His sword spun away. The ground weaved wildly, see-sawing back and forth with the shockingly close clouds. Out of the corner of his eye he saw what looked for all the world like a brilliant green winged serpent dart off faster than a bow shot. Which would've been proof of madness right enough on its own, but the enormous, tooth-footed spider-thing hanging in mid-air was proof of insanity of nightmarish proportions.

"English devils is what ya are, the lot of ya," Flavius shouted. "Cumberland cannae face Bonnie Prince Charlie without shitting his breeks, so he conjures devils from Hell to fight his battles for him!"

Flavius no longer sailed through the sky. The clouds receded at a disturbing rate as the ground, wreathed in smoke and confusion, leapt toward him at an equally disturbing rate.

"If ya bastards think ya can win by cowardly tricks, ya better think again. I'm Flavius MacDuff, descendant of Bellona's bridegroom himself, the great Thane of Fife! I dinnae need sword or musket to beat the likes of you--I dinnae even need ground beneath my feet, d'ya hear me demons?"

The ground spun dangerously close. In the distance, a flash of green caught his eye. The serpent returned, a streak of emerald rushing headlong toward Flavius.

"Aye, that's it, beastie!" he bellowed. "Face me like a man, and I'll beat ya to death with my bare fists! I'll knot yer coils and fight ya to Hell and back. Cumberland'll ken then what it means to rile a highlander whose heart beats with the blood of Clan MacDuff!"

The raindrops surrounding him, Flavius suddenly noticed, seemed to hover motionless in relation to him. It was an odd thing to note, he thought, particularly with the muddy field seconds away from hitting him very, very hard.

"Och," he muttered. "This gonna sting a mite."

The ground lunged for him only to be beaten by a flash of green. Flavius' headlong fall turned abruptly into a ripping sideways jolt, knocking the breath from him as the strangling darkness enveloped him once again.

His stomach twisted. Sweat burst from his pores only to boil away in the suddenly-scorching air. No, not air. The howling wind took on a harsher, more ominous tone, and try as he might, Flavius could not manage to inhale. What little breath he had left trickled out through his nose and mouth, snatched away by the unnatural heat.

Unnatural. Something had gone horribly--unnaturally--wrong.

A creeping horror overcame Flavius. Maybe... just maybe... What if he had struck the ground? If he was dead, then this evil heat meant that he'd smashed right through the earth and straight into Hell itself.

It had to be a mistake. Sure, he wasn't the most pious man ever to live, but his faults were few. He'd always meant to tithe some of his gambling winnings to the church, but the sad truth was that winnings came so rarely they were invariably put toward covering earlier losses. And uncovering bonnie lassies, too, but nobody could deny that was money well spent. There was drink, too. But a man’s got to drink.

He'd killed many English, true, but deep down he'd always assumed that would win him special honor in the afterlife, not damnation.

Flavius struggled against his confines to no avail. His battered body couldn't muster the strength. He'd nearly exhausted himself fighting the constricting darkness the first time it'd enveloped him only to be beaten severely. His bruises still throbbed.

If he could only draw a damned breath...

Flavius' stomach knotted again. A lurch went through his body, and he felt strangely heavier. Then he dropped hard against rough ground, sharp pebbles and stone gouging into his hands and knees.

There was air. Flavius lay motionless, sucking in great lungfulls of the stuff. Gone was the sulfur stink of canon smoke and the damp, boggy odor of the field. This crisp, dry air was strangely clear of those smells, with only the faintest hints of a curious background scent-- Burned apples, possibly.

He climbed to his knees. Blinking against the harsh daylight, he looked around.

Flavius perched atop a bare granite dome some twenty yards across. Twisted, stunted trees bordered the dome's edge, growing thicker farther down the mountainside. Beyond, a craggy blue-green mountain range stretched as far as he could see beneath a violet sky.

"Hmph," Flavius muttered, climbing to his feet. "This ain't Culloden."

He turned to find the coiled green serpent staring at him, wings outstretched.

"Take me through Hell, will ya?" Flavius shouted, and punched it square between its two rows of eyes.

The serpent squawked and shook its head.

“Oh, ya like that, eh? Have another.” Flavius punched it again.

The serpent walloped Flavius with a wing, sending him sprawling.

Flavius scrambled back up. The serpent slithered toward him, kakking and gesturing wildly. Flavius’ hand found his dirk, miraculously still in his belt. He may have lost his sword, but at least he wasn't unarmed.

"Yer a nasty bastard, right enough. Have a taste of this," he said, lunging forward.

Effortlessly the serpent slapped his hand with a wingtip, sending the dirk skittering across the dome.

"Right, beastie. I'll do ya for that!"

Shaking its head, the serpent reached up to its back and pulled forth a gleaming claymore.

"Ya dinnae scare me with tha-- are those whortleberries?"

The serpent thrust the sword at Flavius, pommel first. Instinctively he grabbed the hilt. Then his knees buckled and he dropped to the ground, clawing at his head, screaming.


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