- Issue #61 – Higher Education
- Issue #62 – Poor Relations
- Issue #63 – Storm Cage
- Issue #64 – Stormfall
- Issue #65: Fond Farewell
- Issue #66 – City by the Lake
- Issue #67 – Emet
- Descendants Special #6 – Things to Come
- Issue #68 – One Week
- Issue #69 – Crashers
- Descendants Giant-sized #2 – After-Party
- Issue #70: Gold and Glory
- Issue #71: Yellow
- CynQuest: Yellow Fallout
- Issue #72: Turmoil Returns
- Descendants Annual #6
Issue #71: Yellow
Cyn didn’t remember her birth parents. Her earliest memory though, had been of Laurel taking her from the arms of one of her ladies-in-waiting and sitting her on the saddle n front of her. From that day onward, Cyn had loved riding.
She had never thought of horses as anything scary. That was changing.
By the dying light of the camp fire, she saw movement in her peripheral vision: another packhorse she hadn’t seen earlier. For the first time she realized just how much bigger a horse was than a person, how hard its hooves looked, and how big its teeth were.
The animal lunged for her, those huge teeth seeking to tear a chunk out of her. It paid for it as Cyn gave it a cut across its sensitive nose, causing it to scream. Oh yes, she remembered, horses screamed like things from the most hellish nightmares.
Under that noise, which would be vibrating in her bones for days afterward, came the noise of the others waking to find themselves beset by horses that acted like wolves. A gale kicked up as Duke Smythe activated his powers, and reverberating chanting was proof that the Sorceress was awake.
Cyn didn’t have time to track what was going on with the rest of the expedition because the slice to the nose wasn’t proving enough to dissuade the horse attacking her from thoughts that she might be a meal. The animal circled to her left, wary of the sword in her hand.
“Come on if you think you can get a bite.” she taunted even though the horse couldn’t understand her. Somewhere of to the side, the wind surged and she saw a horse being bowled over by it and a tide of what looked like thick, black smoke; Duchess Keyes’ signature. That beast let out another wretched equine scream as it landed hard on its side and rolled across the hard-packed earth.
Sensing her distraction, the horse lunged again, but pulled up short of getting another slash across the nose. Both it and the princess heard the shouted challenge and boots pounding the dirt as Captain al-Utt made the scene.
“Princess. Where is your mother?” He said, somehow conveying with a look his displeasure at her and by extension, her mother for taking part of the drawing of lots when it came to taking watch. No doubt, he felt he could have better protected them if they hadn’t. The horse seemed to think it was an open opportunity and leapt (Cyn had never seen a horse perform a standing jump) at the captain. All it managed was to get was a mouthful of the captain’s personal weapon, an ancient bronze spear that had been passed down through the ages as the captain thrust the haft into its open mouth to hold it at bay.
Horse teeth were designed to tear and grind vegetation, but not decades old, nearly petrified wood. Though it almost knocked the man off his feet with the force of its strike, he managed to use his grip on the spear and the horse’s own powerful bite to keep himself steady.
Cyn couldn’t tear herself away from that sight; a man dueling a horse with a spear; to check, but still said, “Still up on the battlements.”
But Captain al-Utt wasn’t listening. He was staring into the crazed beast’s eyes. As his Device came into play, rose light began to spill from his own eyes. The horse shuddered, then eased its grip on the spear, and sat down on the ground so hard that Cyn imagined it hurt.
A dry, rasping inorganic sound came from the direction of the camp, followed by another horse-scream that seemed to go on and on, rising and falling in pitch. Cyn turned to see one of the packhorses entangled in barbed wire. It was trying to move away from Warrick and Christina, the latter of which was holding one end of the terrible weapon in a hands sheathed in heavy gloves.
Now that she was facing the camp, Cyn saw that a total of five of the animals had attacked the camp, all pack animals. In addition to the one that had been bowled over (which wasn’t rising and was likely suffering a broken leg), the barbed-wire tangled one and the one Captain al-Utt had subdued, one other was rooted to the ground, its feet encased in blocks of ice too heavy for it to effectively move, and the last was occupied by Callie, who would stop just long enough for it to try and bite her before dashing aside faster than it could see.
The Sorceress’s voice continued on, despite the threat being over. She stood in the middle of camp with her hood up, the formerly dimming fire called to sudden life as if bidden to cast her in its orange light. Her staff was raised over her head and her eyes tightly shut. Arcane words spilled from her lips, heavier and more fluid than any human tongue.
Then it was as if a tension no one had noticed was lifted without warning. Cyn felt a tightness recede from her chest and the air felt less dense. The horse Callie was distracting stopped following her, opting to merely stand and look at her with its dumb animal eyes, now robbed of their predatory cunning. The entangled beast still and the one trapped in ice still struggled, but they too lost the bestial edge to their motions.
It was only then that Cyn saw it: a dome spreading out over them, its highest point over the Sorceress and extending out to encompass the battlements and the grassy patch where the other horses still slept or grazed. At first she though the dome to be made up of fireflies or wills-o-the-wisps, but when she sharpened her eyesight, she saw that the dome itself was invisible. What she saw were millions of things impacting the dome and annihilating in flashes of amber light.
Laurel spoke first. She’d been coming down the stairs to lend her aid in the battle when it had ended. Now, she stopped on the stair and drew herself up, her posture making it clear that regardless of what just happened, she was In Control. “What just happened here?”
“The fault is mine, Majesty.” said Lisa, lowering her hood. “I underestimated how long it would take for the Canker to corrupt the horses. I’ve raised a shield against it and all should be well.”
Cyn looked up at the dome and the amber flashes. She’d seen shields against physical attacks and knew that they were ablative. She wondered how much of the constant assault this one could take before succumbing to a death of a million cuts.
She found Wil making her way to her, bow still in hand. The other woman’s eyes had been searching for more danger before they locked with Cyn’s. Both of them frowned. Wil was thinking the same thing; wondering how long they had before the animals or even their own companions turned on them.
“What are the casualties?” Laurel asked, resuming her descent from the battlements.
“Not many, thanks to Cyn’s warning.” said Duke Smythe. He tipped his head toward the horse he and the Duchess knocked down. It still wasn’t rising, not even making an effort. “Though I think Alexis and I might owe you a horse.”
“If it’s still breathing, I can heal it.” said Melissa, who hadn’t acted during the short battle.
“But you won’t.” Laurel said, moving to surreptitiously check on Cyn, though to the young woman in question, there was nothing surreptitious about it. “We may need every iota of your power to heal humans before this is done. Put it out of its misery. We’ll redistribute whatever is absolutely essential in its load to the remounts.”
Melissa folded her arms and straightened her spine. “I’m not about to use my Device to kill.”
There weren’t many people who could so bluntly defy the Queen, no matter how fair and just the woman was. Aside from her father, the former king, all the people who could do that without repercussions were there in that ruined fort.
Laurel didn’t even bother pointing this out. She just nodded and calmly turned to Duke Smythe.”If you would, Ian?”
The Duke nodded and raised a hand. His Device, the Chaos Gauntlets, hummed softly and a breeze wafted over the downed animal, a tiny whirlwind that settled over the horse’s nose and mouth. The snorted once, tried to raise its head in brief panic, but already, it was smothering; falling asleep. Forever.
It didn’t slip Cyn’s notice that Duke Smythe gave the creature a slight nod as it passed. It wasn’t much, but it was a sign of respect, of honoring it even if it was a beast of burden because it hadn’t needed to die. It wasn’t food, or sport, or in the end dangerous in and of itself. It was just a victim of circumstance.
Cyn hadn’t given the animal’s death much thought until that moment. Then she got the significance: it had died because of the Canker, or rather its master. The same man or creature they were seeking out. She looked away, finding that she wasn’t the only one doing exactly that. Warrick and Christina shifted uneasily, then, without a word, got to work carefully disentangling the horse they’d caught in barbed wire.
She almost went to help them, but then Wil finally reached her. “I think your watch is over, Cyn.” She said, laying a light hand on the Princess’s arm. “You should probably try and get some sleep.”
“Are you kidding?” Cyn asked, gesturing to the rest of the camp. The others were carefully wrangling the rest of the bewildered pack horses and bringing them back to the grassy spot where they’d been originally left. “How do you expect me to sleep after that?”
Wil gave her a pointed look, then let her gaze trail up to the conjured dome where the sleet of invading particles hadn’t let up. “You’re going to have to try. We’re still a day and a half’s ride to the Canker and we might not get another chance.”
As it turned out, Cyn didn’t sleep that night and she wasn’t sure if anyone else in campe did either. Her mother sure didn’t.
The Queen built a second, smaller fire next to the wall and Cyn watched from her bed roll as she conferenced with Captain al-Utt, Melissa and Lisa. An hour into the conference, Kareem got up and roused Christina, who joined the discussion briefly before fetching some supplies and setting to work on something by the thin light of a small lantern.
An hour before dawn, she sent the others to sleep and produced a book from the pack. Even through slitted eyes and at a distance, Cyn knew what book it was: the Book of Reason; one of the Four Great Text of the ancient magic which comprised a kind of bible for all things magical.
This, the Queen consulted until well after dawn, when she personally began to wake her companions, leaving those she’d held in council for last to make up, however little, for their lost sleep. At last, everyone was up and ready to move again, leaving behind only a small pile of good deemed no longer worth their weight now that the group was down one packhorse and with a second being packed lightly so it could recover from its barbed wire wounds.
“There will be no more forward scouting.” Laurel announced to the others. “Nor ranging far from the group at all. Until further notice, we ride in close formation; I will ride behind with Captain al-Utt with the pack animals and remounts under on weaker shied while Lisa maintains a stronger one over the rest of you.
“If anyone starts to feel not themselves, it is your duty to the Kingdom to report this. The same goes for if you notice someone else acting differently from the norm. What we face now is an enemy who will strike at our very natures if he is able and our best defense against him is each other.”
Wil rode up beside Cyn and leaned over to say quietly. “Have you told her about the strange things going on with you?”
“That’s got nothing to do with this Canker thing.” Cyn said, keeping her eyes forward. “It started before we even came near whatever’s bouncing off the shield up there and I might say weird things, but I’m not trying to hurt anyone.”
“Princess…” Wil started.
Cyn reached over and put her hand on the other woman’s arm. “Wil, I’m still me. Believe that. And if you ever start to think I’m not me, I want you to put me on ice. Maximum cold, understand? With this,” She touched the Amulet d’Fac’smil, “I don’t think anything the others can do can kill me, but you can stop me at least.”
Her closest friend swallowed, but looked her in the eye. “And if you think the same of me, Princess?” What her tone conveyed was not questioning what would happen, but asking for confirmation.
For a moment, Cyn was quiet, staring at her handmaiden, bodyguard and friend for long moments even as the others started moving around them. Wil held eye contact and slowly dipped her head as if urging her on. “I… will.”
She wanted to look away, but Wil grabbed the hand she’d laid on her arm and guided it up to the hollow of her throat. “Right here.” She said, “Through the windpipe and out through the spine. It’ll be quick. Painless.”
“I’m not talking about this anymore.” Cyn said, sorry she’d bought it up. She just wanted to assure Wil that she wasn’t turning on the group, not to…” She kicked her horse into the trot and maneuvered her way up to Warrick and Christina.”
Will looked up at the dome. The attack had leveled off with the rising of the sun, but hadn’t stopped. Then she looked around at the foliage just outside of where the dome. The grass was tinged blue and she spotted and oak tree whose bark was split with the emergence of weeping thorns.
They rode hard into strangeness. Outside of the protective spells around them, the natural world was bent beyond understanding. Several trees sent crowns skyward with had, bowl-like structures instead of leaves, grass grew up into towering spires, twice they spied animal carcasses being picked over by swarms of now-predatory songbirds.
Lisa expended energy to remove their horses’ fatigue in a gambit to reach the tower at the Canker-in-the-world sooner rather than later, and no one was especially eager to rest. This was especially true when at midday, they stopped at a stream where the water ran thick as if it were clear honey and smelled faintly of peaches. They decided to subsist on the water they carried in case it was toxic.
It was both a blessing and a curse when their gambit, both with their horses’ health and their own paid off. The sun was less than an hour from setting when they emerged from the trees onto the desolation.
Where the Canker’s effect further out merely mutated and distorted nature, living things were not made to weather the constant, warping flux for long periods. Five miles in all directions of the tower, the animals had all fled and the trees, once merely turned strange, started dying. Closer and they had not only died, but fell down in brown and gray lumps of slurry that leaked water that was either viscous or sublimed into tendrils of lazy, slimy steam.
Amid the entropic field, the landscape itself twisted, sending up jutting fingers of dirt, inexplicable loops of rock, or random fissures that meandered for miles.
At the center of it all, the tower stood untouched. Gray stone that had weathered decades stood in defiance of whatever warped power emanated from the Canker. No one stood guard at the gaping hole in the side where once there had been doors, long rotted before any of this began. Nor did anyone stand guard at the top. It looked abandoned as it had been for all of living memory.
“There’s only one way we’ll make it across that unseen, Majesty.” said Captain al-Utt.
“Full dark.” Laurel said for him. “But the shields will light up brilliantly then and we’ll still be visible.” Without taking her eyes off the tower, she addressed Lisa. “Is it possible to come at it from the Astral side?”
“Unlikely.” said Lisa, “The Astral is in flux as well. We might lose people along the way with only myself, Your Majesty and Captain al-Utt to guide us.”
“Not enough fliers either.” noted Duchess Keyes. “We would have to make multiple trips.”
“I can do it.”
Callie had barely spoken for the entire trip, so when she stepped up then, it was to the shock of everyone. Of them all, she was the alien among them; known only to the Queen and then only as a spymaster. No one knew what to expect of the outsider.
“You’ll do what?” Duchess Keyes asked, honestly confused.
The spymaster shrank a bit under noble scrutiny. “Carry everyone across, milady. My Device doesn’t just make me fast, I can carry a person along with me. At that distance…” She took a moment to mentally gauge the distance to the tower, “it’d take me just over two minutes each way.”
“While not carrying myself or Lisa, you’ll be without protection from the Canker.” said Laurel. “Two minutes unshielded each way. And unlike everyone else, you’ll keep experiencing it.”
“There doesn’t seem to be any other way, Majesty.” said Callie. “And it is my duty to risk health and well-being for the Kingdom. I welcome the chance, Majesty.”
Laurel looked at her young spymaster for a long moment, then placed her hand on the woman’s shoulder. “You are a credit to the people of our nation, Callie and You will be honored for your bravery when this is over.” To the others, she called, “Dismount, everyone. Miss Kreiger will be taking us across. To the source of this evil and to the salvation of the Kingdom of May.”
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