Ranulf shivered under his shirt of padded chain mail, welcoming the first rays of jungle sun. Soon enough it would be steamy hot, the wilderness coming to dangerous life under Tarag's fervent sun.
"Kick that scaly buzzard bait you call a mount and make it move", he growled. "Get humping, or I'll leave the both of you to find your own way out of here."
"Patience, Warrior," Hissath answered, his voice an unlovely slow croaking. They were an unlikely pair. Ranulf was tall and rangy, with broad shoulders and a shock of unruly hair that had given him the nickname of 'Ranulf the Red'. Hissath was short and slender, his scaly skin showing greenish highlights as he moved. He was sluggish in the early morning chill, but as soon as his blood warmed he would become a swift and deadly fighting machine. Ranulf had purchased him on a drunken impulse, far away in the southern swamps of Tarag, but long before the slave-geas had faded to nothing they had become an inseparable team of fighting men.
Hissath's mount, a giant lizard from those same swamps, groaned and hissed as its owner booted it in the ribs, but got to its feet. He slung his few belongings across its ridged shoulders and settled himself for another day's ride.
"Now we'll be on our way. You will s-soon find it hard enough to keep up with Fangeen on your panting plow horse."
"Plow horse! Now that's enough! More than enough from you. Flame would carry me swift as a mountain breeze through this stinking mess if we didn't have to wait for you and your scaly mule..."
His keen eyes scanned the trail ahead while they talked, alert for any sign of danger. They had stuck together through good times and lean. The heat of battle had welded them together as man and man, eroding the status of master and slave to a half forgotten memory. Time and again each had guarded the other's back, surviving as a team while comrades-in-arms had fallen around them.
"The trail grows wider," Hissath observed. "Broader, yet darker. Yet the sun seems bright enough..."
"Darker? In broad daylight?" Ranulf jeered, shaking his head so that locks of red hair escaped from under the rim of his iron cap. But even as he laughed he loosened the sword slung across his shoulders. Hissath's hunches had saved their necks more than once.
It was well that he did. With no more warning they were surrounded by a silent rush of shadows. Flame reared, neighing and flailing his hooves, and plunged ahead. Ranulf reined him to a halt, then plunged back into the thick of the shadows in search of Hissath.
"Ho! To me!"
The clotted darkness broke apart as Fangeen lurched ahead. Side by side they faced their attackers in the gathering darkness.
"Yah Ssillah Ssithanth!" Hissath cried out, holding his dagger aloft so that the rosy crystal in its pommel flashed in the fading sun. The light reflected onto the blade of Ranulf's silvery sword, breaking into shards of flame that drove back the encroaching dark.
Through the half-light a pack of shadows like giant hounds leaped at them. Shadows with eyes ... and teeth! Ranulf's sword sliced only air, as did Hissath's lighter weapon. They felt the pang of tearing flesh as phantom teeth ripped and tore, hurling them from their saddles. Then somehow their swords were striking home. The shadows fell back, then closed again. They stood in some dark place, their feet in squelching ooze, their mounts nowhere to be seen.
Again the icy slash of phantom teeth, but their swords were wreaking havoc now. They fought off their shadowy attackers, great gaunt hounds that grew more real with every moment.
Hissath held aloft his dagger with its rosy gem. Its light was weaker here, a pale glow that only faintly outlined their attackers. The hounds were almost solid now, falling back bleeding and maimed.
"Yah Ssillah Ssithanth!"
Again Hissath's cry kindled the crystal's light. Ranulf's sword caught the pulsing glow, weaving it into a wall of flame that drove their attackers back into the surrounding gloom. Then the jungle surrounded them once more. Back to back they stood panting in the greenish light, while nearby their mounts grazed peacefully.
"Where'd they go?" Ranulf's pale blue eyes blazed with battle fury. "What were they?"
"An ancient curse, one only hinted at in dim legends. I had not believed that any still knew how to call them." Hissath's voice carried only a trace of sibilance now that his reptilian blood had been warmed by battle. "You would call them Shadow Hounds, as good a name as any. They draw their victims to their sphere by the power of their bites, but then they may be struck in return if their victims can but see to fight them."
"But who summoned them? And why?" Sword still bared, Ranulf crossed to where Flame and Fangeen patiently waited.
"I know not, Warrior. The traces of magic are weak, almost as though the spell had been set long ago. Yet I do not think that this is true. Perchance we shall find answers farther along this trail."
They looked to their wounds, finding only torn cloth and skin, and pale marks as of old scars. Marks that faded even as they looked, leaving only a trace of weakness.
"Their attacks drain life," Hissath explained. "The weakness will be gone in a day or less. Yet it is not the Shadow Hounds we should fear, but that which sent them."
He crouched for a moment in the trail, drawing lines in the dirt with the point of his dagger. When he looked up his eyes were blind, shielded by the opaque third eyelid of his kind. The tip of his pointed tongue slid out past his thin lips, intensifying his resemblance to the giant swamp lizards his people claimed as ancestors. Then his eyes shone bright and green and he was again Hissath, warrior and friend.
"Old, so very old," he whispered. "There is an ancient evil here, yet it is as new as yesterday. Whoever or whatever called up the Shadow Hounds, it must have been more than a mere Lesser Adept."
"Is that what you call yourself? A Lesser Adept?" In their journeying Ranulf had often poked fun at his companion's interest in minor magics, calling it unworthy of a fighting man's talents. Now, though, he only listened respectfully.
"Not even that. I only dabble in the Art, and my Talent is very small..."
The sun was high when the trail opened out into a broad clearing. They pulled their mounts to a halt under the last fringe of trees, weapons at the ready. At first glance they saw only an expanse of grass and brush, but the growths were too regular to be natural.
"Fields," Ranulf observed. "Or they were once. They look overgrown, deserted."
"I think not. Are those not huts?" Hissath pointed to a cluster of vague lumps on the far edge of the clearing. "I think I see smoke."
They urged their mounts forward. As they drew near they could tell that the fields were better tended than they had seemed. It was as though a glamour hung over the broad clearing, a tricking of their senses to dull their interest and urge them to pass on by.
"More magic?" Again Ranulf's hand strayed to the hilt of his silvery sword.
"Faint and old. A potent spell once, but worn almost away by the passage of time. When it was new we would have ridden on by, not even noticing that a clearing was here."
The straggling huts looked even shabbier as they came near, and a pervasive odor of dust and decay overlaid the usual stench of human and animal filth. Many of the huts had long since gone to rot and ruin, and the others looked like a strong wind would topple them. Would have done so long since but for the support of trees that had grown up at random in their midst.
The villagers prudently stayed hidden, but a whisper of movement and a scuffle of feet betrayed their presence. Finally, from the largest and best-kept of the huts an old man tottered forth, his pudgy body half-revealed by a tattered robe and filthy loincloth.
"Welcome, good Sirs." The voice was strong and resonant, a startling contrast to its source. The old man was wrinkled and bent, his scalp boasting only a few strands of dirty gray. A once-proud nose curled down as though to protect a nearly toothless slit of mouth, but Ranulf's attention was caught by the eyes.
Those eyes! Were they too young for the shrivelled face, or too old? Old, he decided. Old and wise. He held back, remaining silent and letting Hissath return the greeting and give their names.
" ... Wandering soldiers, looking for employment. Know you of any castle or nearby town where we might be welcome?"
"I, Gromlech Dan Melth, welcome you to our poor village. You must be hungry and weary from your travels." The arthritic fingers made vague soothing gestures, and Ranulf warily noted a slight lessening of his tensions. "The time of the noon meal draws near, and I invite you to stay and sup with us. We in this village have but little to do with the wider world, but perhaps there is one among us who can tell you what you wish to know."
As they dismounted the villagers began to put in a timid appearance. They were uniformly small and slender, with olive skins and lank straw-colored hair almost hidden under layers of dirt. The men wore only loin cloths, women scanty bark cloth skirts, and a few of the naked children wore beaded anklets. They all gazed at the strangers with solemn interest in their large brown eyes.
"Come with me. My grand daughter will serve us."
.... There is more of this story ...