A few months back, Kerry wrote a little sketch for Nerds On Earth called “In From The Cold”. We’re proud to bring you the second chapter of this growing story today. Enjoy the further adventures of Bex and Sam!
The horses are on fire. Never seen that before.
Sam glanced at Bex, wondering if she noticed. The aubade had ripped the front wall of the Tearsford Inn clean off—Solid stone, been there at least eighty years, Basil’s granddaddy built the Inn, his brain helpfully volunteered—with no more effort than the barmaids clearing tablecloths at the end of the night.
As if that weren’t enough, the snowy wind blown up by the aubade’s wings had snatched up the fireplace’s embers, scattering them across the Inn’s yard, sparks spiraling onto the stable roof and doors. Old to begin with and now consumed by the spreading flames, those doors hung lazily off glowing hinges, driving the panicked horses, manes and tails aflame, toward the old bridge over the Tephis Na River. Bex didn’t seem to see any of it.
“Bex?” Her eyes slid from the night sky onto him, and he almost wished he hadn’t said anything. They were shifting rapidly, almost boiling, as his friend fought for control, half herself and half the Sister. A decade in and watching Bex struggle in the grip of the goddess never got easier. Who’s looking at me through those eyes?
“Rebecca!” he bawled, both to snap her out of it and to be heard over the deep whooomph whooomph of huge wings. “If we can get the beast to follow the horses down to the Tephis Na, we might can use the bridge to our advantage.”
Focusing on his words seemed to calm Bex, and she returned his concern with a slight smile and puzzled eyes. There she is. “You only ever use my full name when I’m in trouble, Sam.”
Rolling the dirk’s grip back and forth across his palm, Sam pointed to a buckskin horse galloping by at full tilt, saddle bags burning and screaming in fear. The courtyard’s muddy stones shuddered as the aubade dropped down onto the roof of the mayor’s house down the road. Shingles shattered and the thick roof beams snapped under its clawed feet as the massive head rose easily above the three stories of the Inn. The beast rolled its long neck around from its vantage point, looking for…what? Food? Enemies? Them?
In the growing inferno he could see fire glinting from one eye. Sam noticed with a twinge of startling pity that the other looked horribly disfigured. It let out a deep, almost lazy roar, and the head darted down out of view. A horse’s scream split the night and hooves drummed in every direction. All Sam’s pity evaporated. That fiend’s enjoying this. “So much for the horses. If we don’t get that monstrosity out of Tearsford, we’ll all end up cooked!”
Shooting him a grin, Bex stepped out into the street. “I’m no Starving Brother working a Koro street corner, Samhael Elden. Don’t you worry.” With no outer sign other than the terrible light in her eyes, she called to the Sister and gave way to the goddess. Glad she’s looking at the beast and not me with those god-haunted eyes of hers, he thought.
He stepped to follow her when a large pile of muddy straw at his feet muttered, “Lute…need my instrument…” Dropping to a knee and digging with one hand, Sam found the bard from the Inn. She was incoherent, left arm dangling at an alarming angle and cheek bleeding badly from a deep slash.
The singer continued to mumble through the straw and mud and blood covering her. “Not my lute…family heirloom…good King Arras…you shi…” she mumbled, her head lolling onto her chest. Thank Sol for the old Greffathi special, he thought as he fished a tiny glass orb out of his pack. It was labeled with a crude drawing of a broken arm drawn in bright red ink. He poured its contents out onto the girl’s arm and face with a hiss of steam. What, me worry?
The courtyard stones jumped again as the aubade leaped from the mayor’s roof down to the street. Pounding footsteps and a loud jangling grew louder as Sam watched the tonic work on the bard. Come on, come on! He looked up as the brute rounded the corner, color draining from his face at its sheer size. “Get to the river! Lure it to the Tephis Na bridge, Bex!”
His hair lifted toward the sky as a ball of light, gleaming the color of a late April moon and crackling with sparks, shot over his head. It hit the aubade square in the chest, the force of the orb knocking it back into the door of the Temple of Brother Sol across the road from the Inn. The goddess’s energy dissipated across its broad chest, electricity crackling across golden fur and sparks hissing onto dark red wing feathers.
Bex, her eyes shining horribly and fingers pulsing as she crafted another purple ball of energy, walked past Sam toward the temple. Stumbling to its feet, the aubade lashed out blindly with wings and arms and claws, three pillars on the temple’s portico collapsing in its rage.
“Sol’s wound, what is that fiend?” Sam, transfixed by the creature’s fury, jumped at the weak voice. The bard looked a horror, her face half covered in dried blood and tufts of straw sticking to muddy hair. But she stood next to him, the gnarly gash on her face replaced by a white scar and flexing her arm carefully. “You use a Greffathi tonic on me?”
Sam turned on her. How does she know that? “Where’d you learn that, bard?” he snapped. ‘Knowledge of the Sodality’s ways is limited to—”
“—initiates of the Greffathi Sodality only,” she finished. “Lecture me later, beefboy.” She rolled her eyes as she pulled a beaten up lute out of the Inn’s wreckage. “There you are, my boy,” she cooed. “Ready for an encore?”
Sam looked down her in disbelief. “Listen here, you glib little mudball—my last healing tonic’s the only reason you’re on your feet at all right now.” He heard the metallic rattling again near the temple door. “Now put that moldy guitar away and run!”
The aubade, panting in anger and pain, had unhooked the clasp of what looked like a thick rope around its neck. A heavy leather whip, metal grip ending in a ring and oiled length tipped with a large, viciously hook, uncoiled to the ground. Cracking the lash over its head with a roar, it lurched out of the temple’s wreckage down the road toward them.
It swung the whip at Bex, the hook shattering the stones at her feet into flying shards. Bex, preternaturally agile in the hands of the Sister, was rolling out of its path before the lash hit. She rolled to her feet and threw two more balls of light at the aubade. It caught one with the whip, the energy dissolving harmlessly along its length. The other orb missed completely and sheared the last pillar standing on the temple’s front cleanly in two. The roof collapsed with a groan under this assault, burying the aubade under a pile of marble pylons.
The bard reached into her lute’s soundhole. “Time to roll,” she murmured. She pulled out some thick putty so brightly blue it looked almost white. “My boy’s got another song to sing.” She turned to run, paused, and pivoted back to Sam. “I’m Cere, by the way.” She took off back past the Inn, yelling, “Head for the river bridge—I’ve got an idea!” over her shoulder as she limped around the corner.
“That’s what I said,” Sam muttered, glancing back at Bex. She waited expectantly, looking for any sign of movement from the ruined temple. So much of the Sister’s power flooded her that she trembled, taut as a drawn bowstring. “Bex, let’s get out of here while we can.” Looking down the street he saw faces—scared, angry, in shock—staring out of windows and doors. “Bex. Folks’ll have questions we can’t answer.”
The goddess turned Bex’s body to glare at him. She breathed power out of Bex’s mouth like mist on a cold morning, speaking an incomprehensible language. Refusing to give ground, Sam stared right back. “The bard—Cere—survived the aubade’s attack. She’s headed to the Tephis Na, says she has a plan. If we’re lucky, we can follow her out of town and sneak back to Lesh.” The Sister started to speak again, pointing at his dirk. Whatever celestial language she’s speaking, it doesn’t sound particularly good, he thought.
Behind her what remained of Sol’s temple was turning into an inferno. Most of the torches mounted on the portico’s pillars had spilled onto the ground, guttering weakly, but one had been knocked back through the destroyed door into the holy space within. It smashed into the dozens of small votive figurines that townspeople left at the foot of Sol’s statue. Through the doorway he saw flames, leaping around the bronze feet of the god as sanctified oil spilled from the broken clayware and caught fire.
Without warning the aubade burst out of the maelstrom. Pumping enormous wings, it lifted into the air with an earsplitting howl and cracked the lash in fury. With an enormous crack! the whip jumped and hooked onto Bex’s ankle, cutting into her leg and pulling her off her feet. She screamed in agony, the Sister’s hold on her broken by the intrusion of human sensation. Bex’s face looked suddenly empty and drawn, like stage curtains dropped unexpectedly. Opportunistic coward, Sam thought bitterly.
The beast pulled savagely on the whip and Bex was bodily lifted off the ground, flailing like a fish caught on a giant’s line. Sensing victory the aubade pulled higher into the air on dark red wings. Sam grabbed the thick whip instinctively, hoping to cut the line before Bex was either smashed on the scenery of Tearsford or carried away. More tremendous jerks on the whip heaved them both into the air before crunching back into the cobblestones with lung-crushing force.
The dirk made a poor rigging knife, but he sawed feverishly at the rope. Throwing a glance over his shoulder, he saw the aubade preening in triumph, single eye gleaming balefully. Stalking slowly in their direction, it pulled the whip arm over arm. Bex, knocked out and bloody from the hook still embedded in her ankle, bounced over the street stones as the whip jumped out of Sam’s hands.
He gasped raggedly on hands and knees, hair hanging over his face. He caught slight movement at a shop corner. Ears ringing, Sam wondered what his dirk could do against the aubade’s thick fur. Then Cere stepped out smoothly of the shop’s door, clutching an armful of the Brother’s votive statuettes and apparently unaware of any danger. “Watch out! Bard! Singer!” He swore he could see her eyes roll from thirty feet. “Cere!”
Ignoring his calls, Cere flung a clay figurine at the beast. It bounced harmlessly off its thick fur, but her voice caught its attention. “Hey, moron!” she shouted as she wound up for another throw. “Look over here, you Sol-cursed bastard! I’m talking to you, filthy Moonbringer spawn!” The second figurine cracked against its wings, the oil splattering on red feathers that shivered in fury. Turning toward Cere the aubade caught a third squarely in the face. The beastdropped the whip and lunged toward the bard in one violent motion.
Seeing a sudden opportunity, Sam crawled over chunks of marble toward the temple ruins. He snatched up one of the torches and the still-intact votive statue that Cere had thrown. Mustering his strength he threw the figurine as hard he could at its broad wings. Running at the beast, he noticed the torch sputtering and prayed to the Brother it’d stay alight long enough for his plan to work. The aubade’s wings were shining with the holy oil. This will either work spectacularly or fail spectacularly, his brain offered.
Then he thrust the torch toward the beast, and its wings burst into flames.