Things did not go well with the Doomfang.
Firstly, it did not fall for the bait. One glance at the putrid mess that was a week ago, a human arm, and it had howled in revulsion and fury. This was unexpected to Baleric and Ozzy. Especially Baleric, who had earlier insisted there were reliable records of Doomfangs craving human flesh. When Ozzy glared, he defended himself by claiming the arm they used was too decomposed. They should have sliced one from a fresher cadaver.
“Oh, so now it’s a gourmet,” Ozzy snapped.
“Well, he was once the town’s richest merchant …”
They bickered as they fled, while the Doomfang pursued relentlessly, occasionally vanishing into a side passage, or leaping to a ledge above, to emerge moments later ahead of them. That, incidentally, was the second disappointment. The records Baleric had so much faith in were totally inaccurate. Obviously, Doomfangs retained a high degree of human intelligence and memory after turning. Baleric and Ozzy didn’t need to look into the beast’s jaundiced eyes to know that the monster was way more familiar with the crumbling ruins than them.
“Enough!” Ozzy wheezed, darting into a crevice to avoid a boulder the Doomfang had sent tumbling from above. Like most mages, he wasn’t too athletically inclined. Although he did fare reasonably well in the deadly-chase and-avoid so far. “I’m ending this now,” he raised his right arm. “Recentio Agarati …”
“No!” Baleric yelled. Loud enough that even the Doomfang halted momentarily. “I said before! We are not to kill it!”
“It’s dying to kill us! Have you not noticed?”
“No! I … I have a way to distract it.”
Later on, he would deny vehemently, for days, that it was not just pure luck. That he actually had a plan from the start, a clear notion of what he was aiming for. Reaching into his satchel, Baleric wrenched out everything, then held up high the flashy Fool’s Gold medallion he had pocketed from the manor. After brandishing it for a few seconds, he flung it towards the monster. Success. A victim of its previous instinct, of its lifelong greed, the Doomfang hurtled unthinkingly from its ledge in attempt to seize the medallion with its jaw. Moments later, accompanied by a shower of rubble, it plummeted to the rocky flat before Baleric and Ozzy. There was a sickening crunch. A broken howl. Once the dust cleared, the two humans saw the rear left limb of the Doomfang twisted to an unnatural angle. Its jaw also drooled blackish blood.
“Recentio Agarati …” Ozzy mouthed. One finger towards the spot between the Doomfang’s eyes.
“No,” Baleric blocked Ozzy’s intended fire spell with his hand, which brought on a fresh glare from the mage. “It’s hurt badly. It can’t harm us now.”
“You don’t know that! Nothing you’ve said so far have been right.”
“It’s hurt,” Baleric insisted. “Injured! Can’t you see? It wouldn’t be able to harm us now.”
As if in defiance, the Doomfang roared. It came out chortled, thin. It also stayed rooted at where it was.
“Come on,” Baleric tugged. “We can still do this right. Just … just keep that spell on the tip of your finger.”
“Why not I just …”
“Go!” And he was off. Sprinting down the passage that led to the largest hall of the ruins. In fury, the Doomfang released another strained howl.
“You’re sure it was because of these … these treasures.”
The serf swallowed. His eyes had never dared to meet Baleric’s, and now they looked towards the ground. Almost as if in shame. “Everyone knows it’s because of those things,” he whispered. “Cursed objects. Ancient things. Evil spirits came when the master brought them back.”
“Nonsense,” Ozzy said coldly. Since the start of the conversation, he had regarded the serf derisively. “Doomfangs are victims of lycanthropy. In the southern lands, they call them werewolves. One is only created by the bite of another.”
The serf didn’t argue. Lifelong subservience long taught him other ways to defend his viewpoints. Better, safer ways. “The master seldom leaves the manor,” he said softly. “These, these things. The master pays for sellswords and sorcerers to find them. Even when the master does leave the manor, he is always heavily protected. You have met those men, have you not? I’m sure you do not doubt their capabilities.”
“Let’s assume,” Baleric raised a finger. “That your master was indeed transformed the way you claimed he was. What was the relic that did it? Was it a weapon? An accessory? Some sort of scroll or robe?”
No answer from the serf. And something about the way he kept his body still and his head further down told Baleric that it was pointless to expect any reply. Eyeing Ozzy, he sent the mage into the unlocked treasury. While awaiting his companion’s return, he attempted a different route of questioning.
“Tell me about your master. About Sir Wilheim. How was he to you?”
“The master is a kind and generous man. Who cares and looks after those who serve him.”
“Really? That’s not the impression I got from the village. From what I was told, your master was quite a miser, and a bully too. Someone who valued his gold and treasures more than human life.”
A slight shudder over the serf’s shoulders. Again, he refrained from arguing. “The master’s temperament changed as of later. After those two sellswords brought back that chest from the Sightless Sea, he became … irritable. Impatient. Then he was very ill for a month. Only to recover miraculous. After that, the, the killings began.”
The serf left it as that. And Baleric didn’t need him to continue for he already knew the rest of the grisly story. The bloody deaths around the manor. Wilheim’s own wife ripped to pieces. Then the random killings around the village, frequently in open sight, with shreds of Wilheim’s robes still on the rampaging Doomfang. “Something bothers me,” Baleric said. “Why the castle ruins? Why not somewhere else, like the iron mines across the farmlands? Or the forest? Did Sir Wilheim have any connection with that castle?”
“I am unaware. But the master owns many estates. Perhaps he owns the castle?”
“He couldn’t have. That’s left over from the Spectre Wars. That’s empire property.”
“The master does have some connection with …”
“Nothing,” Ozzy announced, emerging from the treasury. “Plenty of things inside. Mostly valueless. None remotely magical too.” He held up a handful of chains, pendants, trinkets and medallions, and for the first time the serf stood upright, his crinkled face horrified. “These aren’t even of archaeological value,” Ozzy declared. “Trust me. I aced that class.”
“Noble mage,” the serf blabbed. “You can’t, you can’t take …”
“We must,” Baleric said coaxingly. “But we wouldn’t take everything as payment for resolving this, this crisis of yours. We would just take …” Randomly, he selected two chains, three trinkets, and the largest medallion. “These would suffice.”
The serf didn’t look gladdened at all. But he knew better than to bargain. “Would you really be able to …”
“I have taken down worst things than a man-wolf,” Ozzy said. “Single-handedly. Without weapons.”
“Would you have to … to …”
He couldn’t say it, but both Baleric and Ozzy knew what the question was. “We would try not to,” Baleric assured. “But know that this is not your master anymore. It’s a feral beast. Bent only on murder and carnage. If it comes to that, we will slay it. I promise you though, we will do our best to keep him alive. I promise you we would try everything in our might to bring your master back to you.”
“Figured it out?”
“Figure out what?”
“Why here?” Ozzy glanced around the halls. “Lycans might be aberrations of nature. But they still prefer to be in the wild.”
“How should I know? Maybe he always wanted this place. Wanted to be his own king and everything. You heard what the villagers said about him.”
“What about …” Ozzy mused, nuzzling his nose with a knuckle. “What turned him. Surely you didn’t believe that nonsense about cursed relics.”
“That, would be something worth investigating after we get back. But I wouldn’t be the one doing it. That’s not my job.”
Ozzy faced him, his eyes suspicious as well as critical. “I never did figure out what exactly you do at the Wyvern’s Tongue. Something tells me though, you’re not one of those churning out the accusations and scandals. You don’t have the,” his eyes mocked. “Literary finesse.”
“Just so you would know, mage, we call them features. Everything written is also based on facts and discoveries. We don’t, churn out stories, the way you just implied.”
Ozzy had a lot to say about that. But their conversation was cut short. A rumbling started echoing from the lone passage leading to the hall. After near an hour of hesitation, of suspecting it would be walking into a trap, the Doomfang had finally decided to attack again. Growling, foams glistening around its misshapen fangs, it plodded into the vault. At the sight of Baleric and Ozzy, its growl deepened. Its back also flexed, as if in readiness to pounce. But beyond that, it remained at the entrance, well away from the two humans. Hatefully, it snarled. Its eyes burned with rage. With raw fear too.
“Let me handle this,” Baleric said. Slowly, he proceeded, both hands up before him. “Sir Wilheim. We mean you no harm. We’re not here to kill you.”
“He can’t understand you,” Ozzy couldn’t resist retorting. “He’s … gone. This is, this is now a …”
“A big dog,” Baleric mouthed. “A doggy who needs to be shown who its new master is. Who its new owner is.”
That incensed the Doomfang. Incensed whatever remnant of relic hoarding, arrogant Sir Wilheim left in it. Snapping aggressively, it pounced. A failed attack. Both because of its earlier injury and because of Baleric’s sword. Baleric didn’t slash with the weapon. Instead, he smashed the flat of the blade against the Doomfang’s snout, relying on nothing but brute force to send the monster tumbling towards the heart of the hall. To ensure the monster stayed down, his left foot also lashed, smashing right into the Doomfang’s underside. As the injured monster foamed and writhed, Baleric retreated gracefully to where Ozzy was. He barely broke a sweat from his countering.
“If you could, fearsome mage.”
Ozzy’s eyes rolled, and he lifted two fingers and a thumb. The caging spell he used, Arcurus Infarnatem, had one of the longest incantations in containment sorcery. But there was no rush. No danger too. Even from the shadowy corner he hid at, Ozzy could tell Baleric’s kick had crippled the Doomfang. Moreover, so as to prevent the farce of earlier, he had sprinkled the ground with Solar Dust. Whatever the truth behind Wilheim’s turning, he was still a Doomfang. Like vampires, Doomfangs burnt under the light of the sun. Already, the beast’s fur was sizzling all over. Bits of it started smoking as the containment circle glowed into existence around it.
“… Infarnatem, Agaratius.”
The cage took shape. A polyhedron with edges of sorcerous fire. The Doomfang, Wilheim, howled mightily for one final time, and threw itself against the shimmering walls. Then it was whimpering, curling up. Miserably, it licked the reddened patches on its paws and snout.
“Why Agaratius?” Baleric demanded. “You looking to make roasted leg of wolf?”
“It’s to keep it quiet,” Ozzy growled, not too unlike the Doomfang. “The flames do not burn it, do you not know? They only inflict the impression of burning? I don’t want it howling all the way back to the village.”
“I didn’t say we’re going back to the village.”
Ozzy blinked, momentarily confused. “You told the serf …”
“We’re returning to the Capital, Oz. We’re bringing it to headquarters. Why do you think we came in such a large carriage?”
“You … I,” Ozzy composed himself. “You told the villagers, and the manor attendants, that you’d be bringing Wilheim back to them. In one piece.”
“So I did! But obviously it’s not going to do them much good with him still in this, form,” Baleric gestured with exaggerated distaste. “He’d be of use elsewhere. Such as with us.”
“I do not … Explain yourself, Baleric.”
“Erikus and I discussed this. I didn’t tell you earlier because I knew you would protest. Our readers are getting bored, you see. Sceptical too, especially about events happening so far from the capital. We need to show them proof. Proof beyond just words, or those crystal illusions of yours. So this time, we’re bringing the monster back for display. Later on, we’d research him. Do a little digging for what actually turned him. And write about it if we find anything.”
For a moment, just a moment, the rage from being deceived flared in Ozzy’s eyes. A rage threatening enough for Baleric to tighten his grip around the hilt of his sword. It faded quickly though, and Ozzy segued back to his usual self. “In that case, I’m charging double payment. For having to transport this, magically, all the way back to Ceris.”
“I brought the gold. Knew you would demand that.”
“And if you do find anything behind his turning, I expect to be informed.”
“That, I cannot promise you. You’d have to discuss with Erikus.”
Ozzy glanced at the Doomfang. Now a pathetic, whining creature locked within an arcane prison. In many ways, it did remind him of a dog. Those battered pariahs that loitered around impoverished hamlets. “He was once a good man, as I remember,” he said quietly. “I was in this county two years ago, when I was still an apprentice. The story goes, he got obsessed with collecting relics from the wars. He believed there was potent magic to be found. An obsessed man becomes uncaring, callous, and careless quickly.”
“Are you telling me that so that The Tongue could include it in the feature? Sorry, that, you have to discuss with Erikus too. As I told you, I don’t write the features.”
“So you’re just in charge of capturing thing,” Ozzy raised both arms. The containment cage glowed purple, instantly putting the Doomfang to sleep with a slumber enchantment. “You earn your gold by capturing and creating stories for the Wyvern’s Tongue.”
“I uncover the stories, mage,” Baleric corrected, and sheathed his sword with a smile. “I uncover the stories, mage, and I bring them to the Tongue.”
Doomfang – A Cerisean Empire Story
Doomfang is the first of my short stories set in the fantasy realm of the Cerisean Empire. I will be posting more stories in this series in the coming weeks. Do check them out!