The Price of Safety (Rest of the Story)

This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning

Sharp Claw watched as the two warriors squared up to the creature, swords pointed at it.  Waiting to see what it would do.  The creature stood watching them, studying them, then slowly it moved closer.  The warriors tensed, experienced hunters studying the creature for any clue as to a weakness.  The creature behind stayed put, seemingly content to prevent their escape.

The approaching creature came slowly this time, walking up until the two warriors sword points touched the armour of its chest.  And there it stopped.  Warriors and monster stood motionless joined by two bridges of shining steel.

Sharp claw realised the creature could easily strike the warriors, that its massive reach was longer than the combined length of the warriors arms and swords.  Yet it stood still.  As the seconds passed he felt he could almost feel the creature reaching out to the warriors, urging them to try something.  Suddenly the spell broke and one of the warriors yelled, shoving the sword forward with all his strength.  It had no effect at all.

The creature reached out suddenly, wrapping its massive hand around both the warrior’s hand and the hilt of the blade, crushing both together.  The sword remained pressed against its chest with the warrior now hanging from his crushed hand, clearly in agony.

What had happened?  Had the creature gone mad?  Sharp Claw couldn’t tell. 

The warrior jerked once, twice, as the monster lent its own strength to the pressure of the sword against its chest.  The sword splintered into pieces, unable to take the strain, without leaving a mark on the creature’s armour.  Sharp Claw felt ice fill his body.  Their finest steel couldn’t even scratch the creatures.

He knew he should really move on now, catch up with the tribe.  The trap had failed.  The creatures were far too strong to fight.  The tribe’s only hope for survival lay in swift flight.  Yet he lingered, unable to tear himself away from the unfolding drama below.

The warrior with the shattered hand was dropped to the floor.  The creature threw back its head and let out a choking, coughing sound before stamping down with a massive foot, crushing the warrior’s chest.  It threw back its head and made the noise again.  Sharp Claw realised with a start that it was laughter.  Realised that these weren’t dumb creatures.  That there was intelligence there.  And realised that the chances of his tribe escaping were tiny.  Even the canniest creature could be tricked by a smart hunter.  Throwing these intelligent monsters off their trail, even for a short time, would be far harder.

The roaring laughter was cut short.  Taking advantage of the monster’s distraction the final warrior had managed to slip alongside it.  Having seen how little damage a sword could do to both its neck and chest he lashed out at the back of the creature’s left knee.  The creature shrieked in pain, stumbled and managed to swing round to face its tormentor as he prepared to swing again.  With a bellow of rage it threw itself at the warrior – ripping and clawing at him in a frenzy.  Literally tearing him apart.  Soon the two creatures turned to follow the path up the mountain, the path that would bring them to where Sharp Claw now stood.  One moving quickly once again but the other limping badly on its wounded leg.

Sharp Claw turned away from the sight sadly.  Ten brave men had died without stopping the creatures, but not completely in vain.  He had learnt some valuable lessons.  The creatures were intelligent, cunning, heavily armoured, faster than a snow cat and incredibly strong.  They also had emotions.  Could be angered and therefore possibly manipulated.  Crucially they did have at least one weakness, the armour behind their knees.

One of the monsters being wounded was important too – it meant only the other was likely to catch the tribe any time soon.

He broke into a run to catch his fleeing tribe.  The slaughter below had validated his earlier decision.  He had ordered the majority of the tribe’s warriors to flee in different directions to the women and children.  Ordered them to act as decoys, splitting the oncoming monsters into smaller groups.  Buying time with their actions.  Most probably with their lives.

Many had wanted to make a stand and fight.  He knew now that they would have been quickly slaughtered, as would the women and children he now ran to catch.

Their only hope now lay in the Sky Lords, in reaching the citadel ahead of the pursuing monsters.  And in the Sky Lords being strong enough to offer sanctuary.

* * *

When he caught the others they had stopped for a moment to rest and change who carried the youngest children.  He cast his eyes over them.  The women and older children looked grim but determined.  The younger children showed a mixture of fear, excitement and even boredom.  Here lies our future he thought to himself.  All our hopes for survival rest here.

Something about the scene jarred at him.  It took a moment to realise that standing at the edge of the group was a figure he did not recognise.  The man’s face was in shadow but he wore clothes of a sort that Sharp Claw had never seen.  Though white they seemed to shimmer with rainbow hues as he moved.  Could this be one of the legendary Sky Lords?

Seeming to sense Sharp Claw’s attention the man turned and started to walk towards him.  Sharp Claw was struck by the poise, the sense of power that the figure radiated.  Though not particularly old looking he seemed to radiate both great age and great wisdom.  Cradled in his arms was a long rectangular metal device.

Nearing Sharp Claw the man stopped and spoke in a deep, rasping voice.

“What brings you here?”

“I seek the shelter of the Sky Lords for my people,” replied Sharp Claw formally.  “To protect them from the creatures below.  Legend says that when the mountains of ice crushed life from the world Jarl Wolfslayer sought refuge for his people, our ancestors, with the Sky Lords and it was granted.  In this time of need we once again ask for your protection.”

“That was a long time in the past,” replied the old man smiling.  “Six hundred years and more.”  The smile left his face.  “If you remember Jarl Wolfslayer do you remember the price?  The price of safety?  The price Jarl Wolfslayer paid?”

Sharp Claw nodded.  “I do.  The price is the life of the leader.  My life.  And I am prepared to pay it.”

The old man came closer.  Stood almost nose to nose with Sharp Claw, studying him.  He felt stripped to the core as if those eyes could see everything he was, everything he’d ever said, everything he’d ever done.  Finally the old man nodded.

“You are worthy, as is your request.  You have accepted the price.  We will shelter your people till the monsters below have been slain or have departed.”

Sharp Claw let loose a deep breath then held his arms outstretched.

“Thank you.  I am ready now.  The price will be paid.”

He closed his eyes, tensing for the blow… or lightning bolt… or however else he was to die.

The old man’s laughter made him open his eyes again.

“We are not barbarians,” the old man said.  “You will pay the price, but not here and not in this way.  First let us get your people to safety.”

With a wave of the old man’s arm what had appeared to be solid rock beside the path flickered out of existence, revealing the entrance to a cave lit by glowing orbs in the ceiling which seemed to neither burn nor flicker.

“The creatures are close,” the old man said.  “Your people will be safe here until more help arrives.  Once the wall is back in place nothing will be able to harm them.”

The tribe were uncertain but with Sharp Claw’s urging they made their way into the cave.  While not huge there was ample room for them all.

As the last of the tribe were still entering those inside started to yell and scream, pointing out of the cave’s opening.  Sharp Claw spun around to find one of the nightmare creatures charging up the path.  The uninjured of the two ambushed creatures must have almost flown up the mountain to catch them so quickly. 

Bringing his axe up Sharp Claw stepped forwards, determined to buy enough time for all his people to enter the cave and for the entrance to be sealed again. 

The creature charged across the ground towards him.  Fifty paces… forty… thirty… twenty… then it leapt.  It flew threw the air towards him and then… then the world seemed to come apart around Sharp Claw and for a moment he floated seeing, feeling, hearing nothing.

Sound was the first sense to return.  A roaring thunder, like standing beside a huge waterfall.  And screaming, an inhuman screeching sound.

Then touch.  The wind of something moving quickly past his face travelling from behind.  And heat.  A feeling of intense heat on the same cheek.

Taste.  The iron tang of blood on his tongue.  Had he been hurt?  Bitten his tongue somehow?  Gone berserk as a few warriors did before fighting?

Smell.  A burning smell, like old charcoal but more acrid.

And finally sight, which allowed him to piece together how the messages from his other senses linked up, though he still couldn’t make sense of it.

The monster was stopped midway through lunging at him with its razor sharp claws aimed at his chest.  A hail of something bright was flying past his cheek from behind him to crash into the creature, shoving it backwards.  Shredding its armoured hide.  Within seconds the creature crashed to the ground.  Dead.  Nothing in that many pieces could possibly be alive.  The bright hail stopped leaving his cheek seeming to glow in its absence.

Turning he saw the old man now stood holding the metal box differently, one end pointing towards the dead creature.  The end of the device glowed red hot and smoke was drifting from it.

Behind he saw his people.  The stragglers were not entering the cave and some already in it were starting to leave again.  That gave him a focus.  Stopped the world seeming to spin around him.

“What are you doing?” he bellowed.  “Get into the cave now.  There’s more of those demons on the way!”

Startled from their shock the remainder of the tribe quickly made their way into the cave.  Sharp Claw moved to join them but the old man placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him.

“Your path lies a different way,” he said gently.

Great! thought Sharp Claw.  Keep reminding me I’m going to die.

The old man turned to the cave and made a complicated arm gesture which caused the cave to shimmer and the rock face to reappear.

“Of course the arm movements are completely unnecessary,” he confided, turning to Sharp Claw with a smile.  “But they will remember the magic gestures and not wonder how it’s really done.”

“Will they be able to survive?  How long will they be in there?  Will there be enough water and food?  And fresh air?”

“They won’t need any.  Time within the cave has stopped.  Nothing and no one can harm them.  Once all the creatures are destroyed we will release them and it will seem as if only seconds have passed to those within the cave.  Now, let’s get on.  The main force of those creatures is heading for here so this is where we must stop them.  We need to join the others about ten minutes up the trail, but we need to be quick.  Several hundred of those creatures are going to be here very soon.”

With that the old man turned and started running up the mountain path, setting a pace that had Sharp Claw panting as he tried to keep up.  The old man moved with astonishing speed despite his age.

“How many men do you have?” Sharp Claw managed to gasp.

“Other than us?  Seven.”

“Seven?”  Sharp Claw exclaimed.  “Seven?  What chance do they have?  Against hundreds of those monsters?”

“More chance than you’ll have on your own!” chuckled the old man.  “Now come on, move faster.”

Sharp Claw did as the old man asked, though part of him wondered why he made such an effort to avoid death at the hands of the monsters when his life was already forfeit.  He thought back to what the creatures had done to the ambushing party and all thoughts of slowing or stopping fled.  He could almost feel one of their claws bursting through his chest.  The image brought a surge of adrenaline which let him keep pace with the old man as they sprinted over the crest of a hill through a narrow gap between the side of the mountain and a sheer drop.

With a yell of surprise Sharp Claw tripped and stumbled, landing at the feet of what had startled him so.  It was a giant metallic statue of a man wearing bulky armour.  It stood at least three feet taller than any man he had ever known.  Though from where he now lay in the dust at its feet it seemed even larger.

As he took a few gasping breaths the statue startled him again, this time by moving.  A hand went to the helm, a fully enclosed item made of light blue metal except for jet black eyes.  Sharp Claw half expected the statue to squeak and squeal but it moved silently.

The helm was unlocked and raised, revealing a huge grin plastered across a face that only a mother could love.  Scars covered it, the nose was crooked and flattened and a vicious looking burn covered most of the right side.  Yet the eyes twinkled, radiating amusement.

“Up you come!” the voice was scratchy, coarse.  Suggesting the extensive damage extended to his throat too.

The metal clad warrior reached down, grabbed Sharp Claw’s arm and lifted him to his feet without apparent effort.

“You won’t want to be standing there in about two minutes,” he continued in his gravelly voice, before chuckling.  “I thought being injured meant missing out, but I still get to fight.  Now get over there behind those rocks so we don’t have to worry about you.”

We? thought Sharp Claw. 

He had been so focused on the metal clad warrior that could only be one of the Sky Lords to notice the others.  Six more figures clad in metallic armour but carrying a variety of different objects which Sharp Claw guessed must be weapons.

The old man joined them, nodded to the warrior who had spoken, then led Sharp Claw past the metallic warriors into the cover of some rocks. 

“We’ll be safe here, and can still see what is happening,” he said.  “You were talking to Captain Van Sarn.  Not the prettiest of people at the best of times and he picked up a nasty burn injury recently.  We couldn’t keep him away from this fight though, he insisted on leading the defence.  Most of the others here are injured too. We don’t normally keep a defensive force planet bound.  Anyway, settle down and enjoy the show.”

As they sat watching Sharp Claw still couldn’t see how seven men could stop so many of the monsters.  Three of the warriors took positions close to the narrow entrance with the Captain at the front, the others stood further back and to the sides.  The Captain replaced his helm.  Then they all stood still, waiting.

When it came the attack was silent and devastatingly fast.  One moment the path was clear, the next it was packed with black bodied monsters rushing to reach those who stood in their way.  The defenders meanwhile stood stock still.  The first of the monsters slammed into them, clawing and hammering at the metal clad forms of the defenders.  But with no effect.  Claws that had been able to shred Sharp Claw’s warriors didn’t even scratch the defenders armour.  But they still swarmed up the path.  At least a hundred forms pushing and clambering over each other.  Penned in by the awesome strength of the defenders.

Now, finally, the Sky Lords’ weapons started up.  One spat deadly streams of small objects, as the old man’s weapon had.  Others spat sheets of flame, beams of light or in one case nothing visible though the creatures in the way were jerked apart in front of his eyes.

The path was awash with black skinned body parts and blood from the creatures.  But still they came, rushing to their deaths.  Sharp Claw watched the sight grinning at the turnaround in fortunes for the monstrous creatures, feeling that somehow justice was served by their destruction at the hands of an unimaginably stronger opponent.  That his fallen warriors were avenged.

And then it was all over.  No creatures remained alive.  The warriors turned their weapons off, many of the strange devices making pinging noises as they cooled.

“That’s the lot,” said the old man.  “Stupid creatures attacked in a bunch and just kept coming.  Not the brightest we’ve ever faced but tough none the less.  I doubt they found their way to this planet by accident but whether they were sent here as a serious threat or a decoy we don’t yet know.  Still.  That doesn’t worry chief Sharp Claw does it.  Your people are safe and now you need to pay the price.”

So here we are, thought Sharp Claw. 

He doubted he could best this one old man from what he had seen, and as for the others… he’d be like a child trying to fight a bear.  Besides, he’d made a deal.  Now the Sky Lords had delivered on their side he couldn’t do anything but stick to his part.

“Very well,” he sighed.  “Can I ask that you kill me here.  Under the sky so my spirit can fly to the home of my ancestors?”

“Kill you?  Why would we do that?” asked the old man.

Sharp Claw felt his anger rising as the old man toyed with him.  Biting it down he replied.

“You know the deal.  My people’s safety for my life.”

Now the old man smiled gently.

“Yes.  Your life.  Not your death.  Your life.  You are ours now.  One of us.  And if you can manage the training you too will wear the armour you’ve seen today.  You too will be a Sky Lord.”

For a few moments Sharp Claw’s head span.  He couldn’t believe what he’d heard, yet it made a kind of sense.  The legends all talked of the price being the leaders life.  If his people never saw him again they would assume that he had been killed to buy their safety.

“So did Wolfslayer live too?  Did he become a Sky Lord?”

Now the old man grinned widely, blue eyes sparkling.

“Oh yes!” he chuckled.  “I did.  I faced the choice you took, I agreed to forfeit my life and like you I had no idea what that actually meant.  I completed the training after finding out and I’m still here hundreds of years later.  It’s good to know I’m still remembered by my people’s descendants though.”

For Sharp Claw this was the final straw.  Shock after shock had taken their toll, now the world span again.  He tottered, felt the old man… Jarl Wolfslayer…  grab his arm… then blackness descended.

* * *

Sharp Claw stared at the land below, recognising a few features but not many.  The land looked strange from so high up.  It was rendered different, alien, unknown.  Like his future.  Jarl Wolfslayer had spent time explaining to him some of the details when he awoke but so much was still a mystery. 

He now knew that the Sky Lords recruited from the best of the young people from the tribe, and other tribes, snatching them when they hunted on their own.  But each of them was given chances to evade capture, and he’d done so three times without once knowing he was being hunted.  Doing so had ruled him out from being chosen.  The rule was in place to avoid stripping the tribe of all its best warrior bloodlines.

His bargain for his people’s safety changed that, meant he would soon be starting on the training and enhancements to his body to turn him into a Sky Lord.  Training and enhancements that the young warriors struggled to survive, and he was far from young.

Wolfslayer had helped, warning him of what was to come.  Why it was needed.  How best to prepare.  And giving him this gift.  A flight high above the world he had known in an elegant flying machine.

Sharp Claw had even taken the controls for a short while.  A brief experience he was determined to repeat.  He smiled to himself.  Whatever tests were to come he would pass.  The memory of this flight would give him the strength he needed, help him to struggle on.  He would succeed, would become a Sky Lord and would fly this craft again.

He was still smiling as the aircraft flew back into the dark mountainside hangar, where the training and testing would begin.

The End

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