The Taken
The Taken     Prince Alek Carmelo threw dry beans at a tin cup in the command tent. On the edge of Wayward Desert and the dry scrub and wood of the Barrenlands, the winter encampment was more boring than he ever envisioned. The conscripts drilled in the morning and afternoon. Patrols watched for the enemy, naga and scorpid, but none had been spotted in weeks. There was nothing to do but practice swordsmanship, and he was tired of the routines. If Drel and Lulan hadn’t left for the southern camp investigating the missing messengers, he could have learned new foreign techniques. Not for the first time, he wished he’d brought paints and canvases.

     He threw another bean. Missed. At least Dez could explore the camp without creating a stir. Anytime Alek went out, the soldiers stopped what they were doing and saluted. He shouldn’t be embarrassed, but his upbringing in the castle never prepared him for life in the field. Fighting and tactical maneuvers, yes, but being around soldiers during every part of the day was something new. They weren’t like the castle guards.

     Dez slipped in under the back edge of the tent while footsteps pounded around the circumference. Dez usually took shortcuts, whether or not it was prudent. The sade race doesn’t care about human protocol. Living in an abundant tropical forest kept them from craving a proper life, much less a material one. 

     Dez shivered, rubbing his bare arms. He wore a forest green tunic with no sleeves, and short beige breeches. Reluctantly, he wore brown boots, specially made in Tuono before the war to fit his extra long feet. The sade foot its self was proportional to a human male’s, but the toes were long and flexible, callused on the bottom for gripping tree bark. Sade were build for life in trees.

     “I’ve told you, it gets cold as evening approaches. Where’s your coat?” Alek tossed another bean.

     “Coat? That blanket with armholes? I don’t know, but never mind that. There’s news.” Dez skipped along the edge of the tent, dragging his finger along the canvas.

     Alek sat forward on the stool. “Something’s happening?” In a whisper he added, “Finally.”

     Advisor Orestes, out of breath, called from the tent flap.

     “Enter.”

     “I’ve news, Captain Alek,” The advisor said. “A solider from one of the patrols has gone missing. Conscript Christos.”

     “Missing?” Alek waited for more, puzzled.

     Before the advisor could continue, Dez blurted, “He’s gone. There’s no trace of him. No blood, no discarded clothing or weapons.”

     “Deserter?” 

     Dez shook his head. “He wandered off from his partner, and when he didn’t return, his partner went looking for him. He found a clearing in shambles. Dry vegetation trampled, branches broken, earth disturbed. Clearly a struggle, but no blood anywhere.”

     “Kidnapped? Too bad Drel has already left. This could be related to the missing messengers. We should have had three come in from the south by now, just routine. Maybe more if anything unexpected happened. I hope Drel finds out something.” Alek was glad to have the elven adviser’s help in the crusade to push the evil races back underground. Of course, it served Drel’s purpose to be here. An elf out of elven lands was rare, but Drel considered himself a wandering historian. He’d chronicled the first two great wars, and he planned to record this one also. 

     Alek stood. “I need to speak with…”

     “I’ll get him.” Dez slipped out of the tent.

     “Tover,” Alek finished.

     “Shall I send for him, Captain?” advisor Orestes asked.

     “No.” Alek smiled. Friends since childhood, he trusted Dez more than any other person. Dez would get Tover. As distractible as he was, Dez was surprisingly focused when it mattered. 

     Tover entered the tent and sat at the map table.  Lumen were short and pale, even paler than elves. They rarely travel outside of their territories deep under the western mountains. Tover was the only one Alek had ever seen. “Dez says a conscript disappeared while on patrol.”

     Alek and Dez had befriended the normal-sized eyed lumen, Tover in the sade Trade City along with the elven pair, Drel and Lulan. Normal-sized eyes by human standards, though Tover thought poorly of them. Lumen have large eyes and see well in the dark. Tover’s eyes were a defect, though he could still see in the dark. Lumen would think him freakish and strange, but the small eyes helped him fit in topside with humans, elves, and sade. 

     Alek nodded. “I’d think this the work of the enemy, except…”

     “They spill blood,” Dez added.

     “Yes. Neither the naga nor the scorpid are inclined to cover their tracks. And why no blood, yet trampled vegetation?”

     “I haven’t seen anything that would explain this.” Tover complained that he couldn’t see well in daylight, even with his goggles. He didn’t realize how observant he really was, noticing things that others normally filter. The fact that he hadn’t seen anything weighed on Alek’s mind.

     “Send a troop to scout the area,” Alek told the advisor.

     Orestes saluted and left with Dez at his heels.

     Alek wanted to ask what Tover thought of his decisions. Older than he appeared, Tover played an integral role in the Second Great War, helping to destroy the dark elves’ Globe of Darkness. Alek had a hard time wearing the mantle of future general, heir to the Anza throne, to be in charge and responsible for the welfare of so many. Sometimes he wondered if his father’s enthusiasm for the war had something to do with making a name for his son the Prince, to stand out among past kings.

     Tover blinked.

     “Are you going to scout the area tonight?” Alek asked instead.

     Tover nodded. He was an unofficial part of the campaign, like Drel and Lulan. They had experience Alek tapped into for planning, training, and execution of battles. 

     Alek nodded. “Good. If there’s anyone out there that my troops can’t find, you will.”

#

     Nothing new came in the reports that followed. Conscript Christos wasn’t found, and no enemies were lurking near the camp. The only relief from the doldrums were missives received and sent concerning the next stage of the campaign. Messengers were paired with guards. Hopefully, they’d make their destinations. Alek retired the beans in favor of sketching scenery of the local wood. It wasn’t like the trees back home. The plant life was well suited for draught conditions bordering on the desolate hot sands. 

     Just as he finished the curve of a branch, Dez popped in, eyes wide. 

     “It’s happened again. This time it was an off duty soldier, conscript Sander.”

     “The same?”

     “Come look. I told Advisor Orestes I’d bring you.”

     Alek followed Dez into the west wood, tailed by his personal guards. A group of soldiers parted as they passed onto the site. Orestes bent, examining the stump of a small tree. The trunk lay sideways, smashed. Alek looked around at the overturned dirt and crushed foliage, trampled like a family of kodiac had a nice little game of tussle earlier in the morning. Everything about the scene fit that description, except instead of tufts of fur lying about, there was one boot, ripped down the side.

     Alek picked it up. “Looks like he was here.” He circled the perimeter. 

     “I’ve sent scouts in every direction,” Orestes said. “So far, no one has picked up a trail.”

     “Just like last time,” Alek mumbled. “Except for the boot.” He was startled by the appearance of Tover near a tree. He couldn’t get used to how the lumen seemed to pop up out of nowhere. “Find anything?” 

     Tover shook his head. He had his goggles pulled up over his eyes.

     Dez swung up into the branches, the thin trees bending under his weight. Experienced enough to know what would hold him and what wouldn’t, he climbed higher and swung into larger trees, disappearing in the leaves.

     “Nine days,” Tover commented. “I wonder… It’s similar to the interval between the missing messengers.”

     Alek nodded. “Perhaps it will come again. We’ll set a trap.”

#

     At dawn nine days past the second disappearance from camp, Tover, Dez, and Alek peeked out of a makeshift hidy-hole under a bush. In the clearing beyond, four large rams staked to the ground munched on the yellow brittle grass and brayed. They seemed a bit twitchy, stomping and bleating.

     Alek had left strict orders at the base. Everyone was confined within the encampment except patrols, and those were to strictly maintain ranks, no wandering. The exceptions included a squad with the captain located on the other side of the clearing, Alek, Tover and Dez. They’d catch the perpetrators of the disappearances one way or another.

     The day wore on and Alek began to doubt the original two events and the missing messengers were related. Everyone maintained complete silence. He began to wish for a tin cup and a handful of dry beans. If his patience was sapped, he wondered how Dez kept it together. If anyone could be accused of robust, nonstop energy, it was his sade friend. Alek glanced over and noticed Dez sleeping.

     “Just great,” he thought, leaning over to shake Dez’ shoulder, he caught Tover’s expression. The tilt of his head, the slight turn. He must have heard something. 

     Alek heard it, too. Except, he didn’t hear it. He felt it. A low rumble, like many hoof beats in the distance. “Horses?” he mouthed.

     Tover shook his head. The sound grew louder.

     Alek looked at the sheep expectantly. They bleated louder than before, pulling at the cords pinning them down. They would bolt if they could. Alek kicked at Dez, then grabbed him before he could spring into the nearest tree, a common sade reaction to being woken suddenly when on the ground.

     “What-“ Dez started before turning his head to the sound at his feet. “I feel it.” He looked at the sheep and shook his head. “Move!”

     Tover nodded and disappeared. Lumen were fast. 

     Dez tackled Alek, and they rolled out of the hidy-hole. A loud rumble covered their crash through the brush.

     Before Alek rose from the tangle of limbs, Dez hopped into a tree. He started to ask Dez why, but already knew the answer. Humans are too slow.

     His meander of thoughts stopped short when he turned. The head of a giant bristly worm twisted in the air. Tendrils whipped about the enormous hole that was its mouth. Scales on the side of its body gouged the side of the only tree left standing near it. The covering of their hiding place was ripped to pieces in the monsters enormous maw. 

     The mouth-hole honed in on Alek, and the beast slithered farther out of the ground. 

     “Great Thaden!” a soldier shouted from the other side of the clearing. “A lurker!”

     “Protect the Prince!” Orestes ran at the monster, sword raised.

     Alek unsheathed his sword, but thought he’d be worm food before he could damage the thing. 

     Tover Jumped on top of the lurker, knife jabbing against scales, to little effect. Alek lost sight of the lumen when the worm rolled.

     The lurker sped up, and Alek ran. He dodged and swerved, but he couldn’t shake the large mouth. Hot, sticky breath brushed against his skin. The smell reminded him of digging in the cook’s garden. It smelled like freshly turned soil. The soldiers tried to catch up. They shouted from behind the creature, but the lurker kept Alek its target.

     “Over here,” Dez cried. 

     Alek turned, running as fast as he could. Branches struck him, scratching his face and hands, tearing at his clothing. He glimpsed Dez up in the trees, but Alek didn’t have time to take to limb. A hot blast of air hit his back.

     Amidst the adrenaline burning in his limbs and the racing heart pounding in his chest, Alek wondered what his father would think of his only son being eaten by a giant armored worm.

     Alek turned. It was no use. He couldn’t out run it. 

     Dez leapt feet first onto the trunk of a dead tree. The tree snapped, the jutting top falling into the oncoming lurker’s mouth. The worm paused, tendrils gnashing on wooden prey. Snaps popped as splinters filled the air. 

     Tover tugged at Alek, to pull him away. Alek wondered when he’d stopped running. His men ran up beside the beast, slashing and hacking at the unbending scales.

     “No, wait.” Alek pulled free of Tover’s grasp and ran at the worm.

     The lurker rolled, crushing half of the men in the troop. 

     Alek called to the survivors. “The mouth!” He charged in, slashing at the mouth opening. The skin rolled, opening and closing, with thorny teeth facing inward toward the beast’s gullet. The mouth had no scales. Alek jabbed at the loose flesh, tearing it into ribbons. The men caught on and joined the assault.

     The lurker lifted its head high, rolling it in a circle, a loud breath rushing out of the bleeding hole. 

     The men jumped away from the waving head, waiting until it dropped and they could attack the unarmored mouth.  

     It didn’t. The lurker lifted higher off the ground, soaring up to the treetops. 

     “Get back,” Dez yelled. They ran.

     Alek looked back in time to see the animal’s head come crashing down. He rushed forward to meet it, thrusting his sword into the oncoming flesh, driving it to the hilt before being knocked down. The head disappeared into the earth, pushing up dirt while it created a new hole. It slowed, then halted. Half of it’s hard scaled body was exposed. The soldiers slowly approached as leaves and debris drifted down, covering the bare patch of earth.

     Alek reached out, touching the hard body armor. The lurker spasmed and Alek jumped, removing his hand. Its muscles relaxed completely, slightly flattening the round mass of the body. Alek touched it again. “It’s Dead.” The scales felt cool and smooth under his fingers. “Guess I’ll need a new sword.”

     Dez climbed on top of the body and ran the length of it. “So that’s what got Christos and Sander.” He slid down the tail.

     “Do you think there’re more?” Alek wiped blood from his neck.

     “Why would I know? It’s best to be careful now that we know they like the edge of the desert. Enough sand to roam, yet a better source of food.” Dez scratched the back of his head.

     “You saved me back there. Thanks.”

     “That’s what I’m here for, why I came on the campaign, to protect my best friend.” Dez grinned.

     “Except when you’re sleeping.” Alek pushed him playfully.

     “Well, you didn’t warn me how boring it would be.”

     “And if I had, would you have stayed home?”

     “Nah. Hey, where’s Tover?”

     Alek looked around, shrugging. “Last I saw him, he was on the back of the lurker.”

     Dez’ smile fell. He eyed the bodies lying in blood around the lurker.

     “Right here, guys.”

     Alek and Dez jumped.

     Tover stood in the shadow of a tree.

     “Are you always so quiet?” Alek gave the little man a pat on the back. “Good to see you.” He watched the soldiers gathering the dead to take back to camp. “I need to send word to my father, Drel and Lulan.”

     The bleating of sheep sounded in the clearing. Alek would have to remember to have them brought back to camp. 

     Dez nodded. “Let’s get back to camp.”

References: Tover, Dez, Alek, Elf, Human, Lumen, Sade, Naga, DarkElf, Scorpid

 
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