The wind blowing in Kagur's face smelled of rot. She started running, and the soft earth, boggy with the coming of summer, sucked at her feet. Her five companions ran as well.
Eovath soon pulled ahead of everyone else. Like her, the blue-skinned frost giant was still growing, but he was already taller than any human tribe member, with longer legs and a longer stride.
He slowed down, though, when the several bodies on the ground came into view. It was too late to help them, and prudent to advance with caution in case their killers were still lurking about.
They didn't seem to be, though, which left Kagur free to inspect the corpses. The shredded flesh, glazed eyes, and flies that buzzed up into the air at her approach forced her to swallow away the stinging taste of bile.
Her squeamishness made her scowl. Like any Kellid warrior, she'd seen violent death before, and only one of the dead folk here had been a Blacklion like Eovath and herself. But they'd all become friendly since setting forth to hunt from a gathering of half a dozen tribes.
Borog straightened up from his examination of one of the corpses. A member of the Eagleclaw tribe, he was the oldest surviving member of the hunting party, with deep lines etched in his sun-bronzed face, pouches under his dark eyes, and white hairs speckling a close-cropped black beard. "Like the others," he said.
They'd all heard tales of other hunters encountering the same grisly end. They just hadn't let it deter them from roaming the prairie themselves. No true Kellid allowed fear to rule her, and even had it been otherwise, a tribe that didn't hunt wouldn't eat.
"Not all the others," Eovath said. His adolescent voice broke on the second word, but even then it was as deep as most men's.
Borog frowned. "How so?"
"The way I heard it," the frost giant said, "the first band of hunters fell dead without a mark on them. It was the latter ones that were torn apart."
The Eagleclaw warrior snorted. "And what does that tell you? That the first incident was something different than the slaughters that have happened since."
"Maybe not," Kagur said. Turning, she counted the corpses. "Supposedly, every band, including that first one, had one member carried off. And one of our own is missing: Dron."
One of the other hunters hurriedly checked Kagur's body count with the aid of a jabbing finger. Another touched the beaten silver good-luck charm hanging around her neck.
"All right," Borog growled, "maybe the same thing did kill the first party. At this point, what does it matter?"
"It doesn't," Kagur said. "What matters is picking up the trail." Studying the ground, she prowled away from the corpses, and after a moment, her companions followed her lead.
She hoped it would be easy to find tracks in the mucky earth, and bent blades among the new grass, and in fact, it was only a short time before Eovath called out: "Here! The sign isn't clear enough to tell what the killers are. But they came from the northeast and headed back that way, too."
"Let's see," Borog said. He stalked to where Eovath was standing, squatted to study the sign, then grunted in a way that suggested he agreed with the giant's reading.
"Let's move out," Kagur said, striding closer to the other two.
"No," Borog replied. "Red Rune Canyon is northeast."
Kagur blinked. That particular fact had momentarily eluded her. And while she'd only heard rumors about strange deaths on the tundra since the start of summer, she'd listened to tales about Red Rune Canyon her whole life. Every Kellid knew the place was cursed.
But in the present circumstances, that didn't matter. "We have to rescue Dron."
"Dron's dead," said Zorek, a lanky Eagleclaw of about Kagur's age. Blood had trickled out of his sleeve to stain the back of his hand. Several days previously, a ground sloth had clawed his forearm, and he picked at the scabby gash when no one was watching to slow the healing and make an impressive scar.
"You don't know that," Kagur said. "If the attackers wanted him dead, they could have killed him on the spot like they did everybody else. You don't know they really came from Red Rune Canyon, either."
"They could just be orc raiders out of the Hold of Belkzen," Eovath rumbled.
Borog shook his head. "Smell the rot in the air. Our friends haven't lain dead long enough to stink like that. That's the smell of the unnatural things that killed them."
Kagur scowled. "Maybe, but it doesn't change anything. Dron still needs rescuing, and our dead need avenging."
Borog took a breath. "Look around. There are fewer of us than there were of those who lost their lives already, and you, Zorek, and the giant are young and green. How do you expect to win where a stronger band of warriors already lost?"
"We can make a plan when we know more."
"Here's the plan," Borog said. "We'll return to our tribes, and the chiefs will decide what to do next. Maybe they'll decide to hunt and fight the killers properly, and you can ask permission to join the war party."
"By then, Dron will likely be dead or tortured."
"But you'll be alive, and Jorn Blacklion won't start a feud with the Eagleclaws because I let his idiot daughter come to harm."
"It's not for you to decide what the 'idiot daughter' will do," Kagur said. "You're not my chief, and I'm going after Dron even if nobody else does."
"No," said Borog, "you aren't."
If his voice changed, his eyes shifted, or his hand gestured to give a signal, Kagur didn't notice in a conscious way. But the rest of the hunters had drifted up behind her to listen to the conversation, and suddenly instinct screamed that they were reaching for her.
She tried to spring forward, but hands grabbed her forearms and held her back. She stamped on a foot and snapped her head backward into someone's teeth and jaw. That loosened the grips restraining her, and she wrenched herself free and spun around.
Spreading out to flank her, her three assailants came after her. Backing away, she reflexively reached for her longsword, and they faltered, as well they might. Young as she was, she was skilled with a blade, and they knew it.
But, her anger notwithstanding, she knew drawing a weapon would be stupid. She didn't want to kill folk from friendly tribes, especially when, as they saw it, they were only trying to stop her from coming to harm.
She hitched her foot, faking another step backward, and when they advanced, she threw herself at them. She punched Zorek in the solar plexus and made the breath whoosh out of him, but then her other two opponents grabbed her. One kicked her left foot out from underneath her, and they dumped her onto the ground.
Kagur thrashed but couldn't break their holds. Panting, Zorek came up behind them with a length of rawhide in his hands.
A big blue hand caught him by the shoulder and flung him aside. Then Eovath bashed the other hunters away from her with two sweeps of his fist.
Grateful as she was for the help, Kagur winced. Eovath was stronger than any human, and he hadn't held back.
Fortunately, her assailants weren't seriously hurt, as they demonstrated by scrambling back to their feet. Unfortunately, they too deemed that the confrontation had escalated from a scuffle to a deadly serious fight, and they snatched for the weapons slung from their belts.
Eovath lunged, caught Zorek before he could ready his axe, and heaved him into the air by his throat and arm. The lanky Eagleclaw's face turned red, and he made gurgling sounds.
Borog hefted a javelin. The upper edge of the leaf-shaped steel point glinted in the morning sunlight. "Let him go."
"You might kill me," Eovath said, his yellow eyes gleaming like the spear point, "but not fast enough to keep me from killing your kinsman. One shake snaps his spine. One squeeze crushes his windpipe."
"No!" cried Kagur, leaping to her feet. "I mean, no to both of you! Borog, what's the sense of killing us to keep us from risking our lives?"
"I never threatened to kill you," Borog replied without taking his eyes off Eovath. "Only the slave."
She put her hand on her sword hilt. "Eovath is my brother, and if you hurt him, you'd better kill me."
Borog's jaw tightened. "Fine. Go. Your father must know what a stubborn fool you are. Maybe he won't blame me."
Eovath sneered and tossed Zorek away.
Once Kagur and the giant were on the trail and sure their erstwhile companions weren't following, she asked, "What were you going to do if they called your bluff?"
The giant smiled a crooked smile. "What makes you think I was bluffing?"
"You wouldn't really kill friends of the Blacklions."
"They didn't seem much like friends when they jumped you."
Still, she doubted their father would have approved. But if Kagur and Eovath had offended the Eagleclaws, Jorn Blacklion would make amends with gracious words and gifts. Meanwhile, his daughter and foster son had a hunt to complete. She paused to inspect the ground before them, then pointed at the clearest track she'd found so far: the unmistakable impression of a boot.
Eovath nodded. "You were right. Dron isn't dead. In fact, he's fit enough for his captors to march him along."
For a moment, Kagur was certain that was the way of it. Then she noticed additional tracks a couple paces farther along. "I hope so. But look here. The 'captors' were wearing boots, too."
Eovath grunted. "Then maybe they are orc raiders, despite the putrid smell. Or Kellids turned bandit."
Kagur looked up at him. "You sound disappointed."
"Haven't you ever been curious to see a ghost or a demon?"
"I suppose. Is that why you agreed we should come after Dron?"
"I agreed because no one should be dragged off into slavery."
Kagur frowned. "You're not a slave, despite what Borog said. No Blacklion thinks of you that way. Not anymore. Not for a long while."
The frost giant shrugged his massive shoulders. "We should keep moving."
They did, loping across windswept tundra and past ponds surrounded by patches of yellow-green moss and stunted diamond-leaf willows. When the trail led near ripe red bearberries, they gobbled some and picked more for later. Gray-white hawks with crimson beaks floated in the sky, and wild mammoths trumpeted in the west.
Animals grew scarcer, though, as the terrain became hillier and the trackers drew near to Red Rune Canyon. By the time the sun was sinking toward the western horizon, and the notch between two stony walls came into view, Eovath and Kagur were the only moving, breathing things in sight.
"It's nearly dark," Eovath said. "We could camp here and head in come morning."
Kagur shook her head. "Let's cover as much ground as we can."
Unfortunately, that wasn't a great deal more, for when, peering about for lurking orcs and other dangers, they prowled into the mouth of the canyon, they found it was already twilight inside. They had to stop not long thereafter lest they risk losing the trail.
They camped beside the creek that ran down the center of the gorge and supped on more bearberries and bison jerky. Kagur had swamp tealeaves in her pack as well, but it would be foolish to build a fire to brew a beverage. Someone or something might spot the light. So far, however, Red Rune Canyon had done nothing to justify its sinister reputation.
Later, when Eovath was on watch and sleep continued to evade her despite the day's exertions, Kagur came to a decision. "It's just orcs. Orcs bold and cunning enough to hole up where humans are afraid to go."
"What about the rotten smell?" Eovath replied.
"How many clean orcs have you fought?"
"What about the first hunting party, slain without a mark on them?"
"I don't know, but—"
Eovath suddenly peered farther down the canyon. "Something's there."
Coming Next Week: The dark secrets of Red Rune Canyon in Chapter Two!
Enjoying this story? Check out the further adventures of Kagur and Eovath in Called to Darkness, available now!
Richard Lee Byers is the author of more than thirty novels, including the Pathfinder Tales novel Called to Darkness (also starring Kagur and Eovath) and the first book in R. A. Salvatore's War of the Spider Queen series. In addition, he's also the co-creator of the critically acclaimed young adult series The Nightmare Club, and the author of a new urban fantasy series beginning with the novel Blind God's Bluff. He's written one previous Pathfinder Tales web fiction story, "Lord of Penance".
Illustration by Eric Belisle.