The Beast



 Austen Andrews
World News

Said a voice in her mind, Wake, child of earth, for the reckoning day is at hand.

Dasha knew the ancestors had called her to rise again. Yet the cry of her wounds informed her that she had not moved at all. She lay on the ground in the forgotten cave, a helpless meal for a dark-dwelling predator. The huge beast slavered nearby.

When her eyes cracked open she saw the warm gold of the candlelight. It sparkled on the reptile’s glassy scales. It gleamed on two rows of serrated teeth. This was her fate as rendered by Warlord Kabur, the greatest warrior of a race beset by the tragedy of dishonor. The Juka had embraced savagery again. Her hatred became an ember inside, stoked by each of the beast’s rancid breaths.

Said a voice in her mind, Delusions will not save you.

But it was Kabur’s voice she heard. Those were his last words before abandoning her.

The beast thumped closer, materializing from the darkness. It was weighty and low, its tail dragging, its talons chafing the cavern’s stone floor. Dasha tensed her body. Her strength was gone. She was too weak to heal herself, too weak to fight, but perhaps not too weak to flee. In the beast’s own lair she had little hope of escaping, yet she resolved to die on the move. The ancestors had presented her a few more seconds of life. She would honor the gift.

Her spine arched as she prepared to stand. The monster, startled, drew back into the gloom and exhaled a sultry hiss. Dasha got her feet beneath her and rose to a half-crouch. The exit lay beyond the creature. Escape hinged on the first move she made.

Something behind her glinted in the firelight. She glanced back to see a long weapon lying in the dust. It was Kabur’s halberd. Her blood painted its steely edge.

The Juka had left her a weapon with which to defend herself.

Her heart quickened. She did not have the strength to fight unarmed, but the halberd gave her a chance to ward off the reptile. With a backstep she retrieved the polearm. The monster parted its mighty jaws and crept forward, its putrid hiss announcing an attack. Dasha gripped the halberd’s shaft, tested its weight, then slashed the blade across the beast’s eely tongue. A percussive roar thundered in the cavern.

She sprang past the long-bodied creature and stumbled into the darkness. A muscular tail lashed about her. She knelt beneath it and chopped the meat with a desperate stroke of the halberd. The beast howled and spun around. She thrust with the spike at the tip of her weapon, which met the reptile’s open maw and punctured the softer flesh within. Dasha expended the last of her strength to push the spike deeper and deeper. Then she scrambled away. The monster howled and thrashed behind her.

Through the pain of her injuries, she forced herself to stagger on. Through the blackness she groped for the exit that lay ahead. When the predator did not give chase she felt a surge of relief, though she did not allow it to weaken her pace. A single thought burned in her mind: Kabur did not leave me to die. He left me alive to prove I was wrong. There is honor in him yet, damn that cunning snake!

And onward she reeled through the rocky gloom until all sense of direction had passed. Then black stone turned to glimmering crystal and she found herself in the arms of Meer healers. They brought her to the hollows under the mountains where her displaced people had sought refuge, where long ago the ancestors had dwelled in the crystalline bosom of the earth. In a flashing hall they dispelled her wounds. Then they led her to Master Adranath’s emerald chamber. There she recounted her tale to the wizened sorcerer, who answered with a doleful sigh. “Do the Juka know honor? Little does it matter, child. Their lord Exodus has loosed a fell wind over Ilshenar that cannot be retracted. Our people are devastated and winter is nigh. We must strike down the Juka for their crime.”

“But Venerable Master, I tell you that they are not irretrievable. They are more brutish than before, but not greatly so. Exodus has led them astray. Let us kill him and restore the Juka to their proper state. The ancient balance need not be foregone.”

“You are an officer, Dasha. Take what action you will. But our spells are prepared and our warriors stand ready. Tomorrow our enemies learn the price of disdaining the natural order.”

Morning came unseen in those glittering temples of crystal and fire. She spent many hours among the Meer troops, surveying the ranks of armored soldiers hungry for revenge. Never had she seen them gathered in such a vast display. When they moved, they glided in perfect unison. Magic lustered around them like stars. Her heart swelled with dark joy at the brilliance of her people. Indeed the Juka would regret their deeds when the battle roared upon them.

Yet the Juka were not the truest enemy. The ancestors themselves had forced her to learn that lesson. Rather the one called Exodus had brought this nightmare to the world, and it was he that Dasha would hold accountable. When the Meer army set forth, she would take her grievance to the Juka’s mysterious lord. Perhaps then might real justice arise from this chaos. Perhaps then might she quell the embers that still smoldered and sparked inside her.



From the Britannia News Network - The Journal of Ultima Online, December 18th, 2001.