Battle of the Kobold Gods
They ran until the sun set, by which time they hit upon a clear road. That was lucky for them, as none of them liked the idea of maintaining this grueling pace through a forest in the dark. They ran until the moon rose, and it was hard to tell if that rustling sound was something in the trees or just the dull drone of the wind in their ears. They ran until sunrise, by which time both of the twins and Tuli were asleep on their feet...which indeed looked exceedingly uncomfortable to Sarahi, though she was only barely managing to keep herself alert. All four of her paws ached, and she understood how much Nayeli had downplayed their need for treatment when they arrived. The Sha'khari would be surprised to find any flesh still on the pads beneath her toes. They ran until the sun was high again, and all but Nayeli appeared to be some bizarre form of undead, sprinting down the road. Even the horse’s tongue was lolling, and it could not understand why its legs refused to be still, however much it tried to stop.
Finally, mercifully, Oro pulled the beast to a stop as they prepared to enter a pass between two mountains. Sweat soaked their fur, and their shoulders trembled as much as their legs as their muscles seemed surprised and confused by this new change of pace. “You’ll want to get dressed,” the Rabbit grumbled to Nayeli, “I hear hooves and steel over this next hill.” Sliding from the saddle, he landed hard and had to catch himself against the beast’s side, causing the Lioness to rush to his side with concern.
“What is the matter?” she asked, having never seen him so exhausted from a single sleepless night...and she had seen him go days on end without even a nap.
But his answer was to push her away and quickly put some distance between them. “The fusking smell,” he complained, fanning his nose as he glared at the Ferruda, then added with an accusing finger aimed at Sarahi, “Especially that one. I can hardly keep my eyes open around all of you.”
She blinked at him, then laughed. “Yes, I imagine we are all in dire need of a bath. Don’t release us yet, though,” she added quickly, feeling the grip of the tendril on her legs start to weaken, “If any of us sits down now it’ll be hours before we can stand on our own again.” She said it loudly enough for the others to hear, as a warning against succumbing to the temptation she knew they all felt. “You’ll either have to endure walking us into camp as is, or...,” she glanced around at the woods to either side of the road, “Maybe there’s a stream...nearby...?”
Nayeli was distracted from what she was saying by a sudden cry raised from the nearby camp. They couldn’t tell what had been said, but it was soon followed by a loud horn, then the sound of many, many shouting voices. It sounded disorganized. Afraid.
“The camp is under attack?” the priestess balked, “They should still be quite far from the battle lines.” She felt Gorgorond tug at her legs, moving her and the others off the road, as if Oro already had some idea of what was coming. The Rabbit remained in the road, arms crossed under his customary scowl.
There was a collective groan from the Ferruda as their legs suddenly lost Gorgorond’s support, and they all but collapsed onto the ground between the trees. Oro only kept the horse standing, leaning against it as if he’d spent all morning waiting here for someone to notice him. The first one that did was a Ferruda wearing the uniform of Nazeen’s soldiers, sprinting over the hill rather than taking the longer path along the road. “You there!” the man shouted on seeing Oro, “Get out of here! Go! Go!”
The Rabbit snorted, even as two more soldiers joined the first in cresting the hill, then a dozen more, all dashing towards him. The next thing, all the army seemed to be coming over the hill, soldiers and cooks and smiths alike. The first one, who had shouted at him, continued urging Oro to flee without sparing a breath to explain from what. He did not, however, waste even one stride in passing the Rabbit and continuing down the road. The Rabbit and his horse remained like a rock in a stream as the rest of the army parted around them.
“Hey, princess!” Oro shouted to the woods over the din and the scramble, though they could hardly see him through all the fleeing soldiers, “Looks like your army’s full of fusking pussies! How has your country existed until now?” Sarahi gnashed her teeth and rubbed her forehead, wondering what she had done to merit such pointed spite in the short time he’d known her. She consoled herself with the thought that maybe this was, once again, just the way he always was.
One of the soldiers, seeing Oro not taking advantage of his horse, flung himself onto the beast’s back and grabbed for the reins. He was on the ground, one leg crushed under the animal’s sides, before he quite realized it was falling. His scream of pain was drowned by the horse’s own. All four legs had disappeared below the hips and shoulders, consumed by Gorgorond. Stepping around the beast, Oro put the tip of his sword to the almost-thief’s throat. “Explain this route,” the Rabbit demanded, “And I’ll make it a quick end. Or don’t, and I’ll make it slow and barbaric. I’ll enjoy it either way.”
The poor man could barely understand what was being said to him, but he had enough wherewithal to scream, “Kobolds! The kobolds broke through!”
This earned him a contemptuous sneer from Oro. “A pack of fusking kobolds routed your army? Pathetic.”
“NO!” the man blurted out, “Their—!”
His words were cut off by an ear-splitting roar that echoed between the mountains and made the earth tremble under Oro’s feet. The Rabbit turned back toward the hill as the echoes faded and were replaced by the beat of massive wings. His eyes and smile were suddenly maniacally wide with excitement. “Oh! Their dragon,” he sighed, as if he’d never seen anything more beautiful than the embodiment of greed and death winging its way back into the sky to chase down the meal attempting to escape its minions. Its scales gleamed like emeralds in the sunlight, dripping trickles of dark ichor that hissed and steamed wherever it landed, and its eyes burned with a malevolence to match Oro’s own. They fell on Oro and the man beneath the downed horse and judged them not worth the effort of descending on. Instead it spat one large glob of viscous death in their general direction and turned its eyes further down the road to the few fools who had not yet scattered into the trees.
“By the Authority, vested in me,” Nayeli’s voice echoed through the trees, “I command the ground: stand firm!” In answer, a block of packed dirt and rock shot up between them and the incoming glob, which splashed around either side of the men in the road and within seconds dissolved the impromptu shield.
Oro didn’t so much as blink, his eyes following the dragon’s arc overhead as he drew his sword. “I haven’t tasted dragon yet,” he mused, drawing back his arm. The sword hummed as his arm arced forward, hurling it end-over-end toward the flying beast. “Don’t turn your tail on me!” he shouted, drawing its attention. The creature turned its massive head slightly to the side, to glance back over its shoulder in surprise at the surviving creature...and the spinning blade found home in its eye.
With an enraged roar, the dragon made a hasty landing, scratching at its face as it whipped its body back around to face the little thing in the road that had dared to injure it. The trees wilted and turned dark as its tail lashed between them, and its body scarred the road with each drip of the strange ooze that seeped between its scales. Its one good eye locked with Oro’s, murder and fury reflected perfectly between them.
The Rabbit’s attention was diverted, briefly, by Nayeli crawling out from between the trees. “Stay put,” he commanded her, knowing full well she was intent on getting to the soldier at his feet, now silent and unconscious, if not worse. She was not easily deterred, naturally...but even she had to rethink her chances when a band of kobolds crested the hill behind them. Caught between the dragon and its private army, Oro glared in irritation at Nayeli, knowing even he would be hard-pressed to protect her in the midst of this fight.
The dragon roared again, threatening the integrity of all eardrums for miles. The kobolds stopped in their tracks and knelt...bringing a fresh smile to Oro’s face as he returned his attention to the approaching beast. “So it’s a duel you want, huh? Nothing would make me happier!”
Gorgorond surged. With a faint crackling sound, Oro’s sides expanded and arched back, forming a pair of small wings on his back resembling the dragon’s. His chin seemed to detach from the rest of his skull, and his snout elongated. Even his ears fell back to form horns arching over his elongating neck. What started as a scream soon became a roar nearly as loud as the dragon’s as Oro’s form had come to resemble a small Oskling: a cross-breed between man and dragon.
Sarahi, limping out into the road amidst all this to drag Nayeli back to cover despite the bloody paw-prints she left with each step, found the priestess staring at what Oro had become with wide, fearful eyes, one hand clutching her mouth and the other above her heart. “No! No, Oro, you cannot do that!”
“He does what he pleases,” Sarahi hissed, grabbing her ankles and hauling her uncomfortably back to the treeline, “And you know it!”
“You don’t understand,” Nayeli groaned as they both collapsed just at the edge of the trees, “Gorgorond can’t hold defined forms like that. Remember the tendrils that moved us: like strings of sinew, taking firm shape only around our legs. It’s like muscle, or empty skin. It needs a frame...a skeleton...to give it shape.” She winced as she looked back at Oro once more, just as the Rabbit-turned-Oskling charged toward the acidic wyrm with naught but long, narrow claws to bare. “For him to do that...Gorgorond had to disassemble him inside. It’s using his distended body to force this shape...and he only survives because it keeps connected what needs connecting...allows blood and thought to flow through its own channels from vein to vein and nerve to nerve.”
Sarahi took a moment to mull over what that meant. “Then that roar...”
Nayeli nodded again. “As much pain as wrath, I’m sure. And when it is done...please, don’t die,” she whispered, as much to the Authority as her rampaging husband.
The Sha'khari looked at her in genuine disbelief. She had admitted he was cruel, and heartless. Even she described him as a demon, a monster to be leashed because it could not, seemingly, be destroyed. She had endured years by his side, none of which Sarahi would describe as anything but abusive, based on what she had seen thus far. And yet she prayed thus. “You...actually love him?”
Nayeli only nodded, not interrupting her fervently whispered prayers.
Sarahi decided this would need discussing...later. For now they needed to duck their heads and crawl further away from the edge of the road, if they could. It took a moment to coax Nayeli into dragging herself back to the rest of the group, and they had to force themselves not to look in the direction of the endless roars, squeals, and sound of cracking and falling trees. Once they had regrouped, the priestess promptly began reciting a different prayer, lightly brushing her fingertips across their blistered and bleeding feet, soothing the pain and stemming the scarlet flow. One by one she blessed them each, then made a second round to accelerate their healing, then a third to strengthen and condition the reforming skin.
“Oh, sweet Spirits, you’re a life-saver,” Diya sighed, flexing her toes as (pleasant) feeling returned to them.
Nayeli nodded with a smile. “I would be a failure, both as priestess and person, were I not,” she chided.
“But what about you?” Kylan inquired, pointing to Nayeli’s still swollen and slightly bleeding feet. She looked appreciative of his concern, and was about to explain when a terrible shriek pierced the forest, and the sounds of battle at last fell silent.
“Come on,” Sarahi urged her, seeing the priestess’ immediate worry. She and Tuli helped Neyali get up and seated on the Sha'khari’s back.
A strange sight awaited them on the road: a wide space where the trees had been reduced to splinters and rot, the road itself spread and scooped out in a slurry of bubbling rock, and a weary-looking Oro limping toward them on misshapen legs. The dragon who had been his opponent was nowhere to be seen. The scarlet monster all but collapsed at Sarahi’s feet, the body condensing and drawing its extremities back in amid muffled screams and many crackling sounds.
“Oro!” Nayeli immediately dropped from Sarahi’s back, forgetting her own still-injured feet, and knelt beside him. He was more-or-less a Rabbit again, curled up on his side and shivering as he clutched his own knees to his chest. When she found his face, though, he wore nothing but a contented smile, showing his grit teeth.
“Now...that,” he wheezed when Nayeli’s face came into his field of vision, “Was...a...meal...” He coughed then, staining the ground in front of his face red, and resumed holding in his sides, which seemed to have not quite settled back into their original places.
Nayeli began praying over him immediately, leaving Sarahi and the others to contend with their next problem: the numerous kobolds now emerging from the woods on all sides of them. They were small, not much bigger than Diya and Kylan, but wire-strong and armed with fine weapons...some of which had probably been looted from the army’s camp while the battle still raged. They approached cautiously, but Sarahi was becoming increasingly uncomfortable the closer they got. The little group of Ferruda was unarmed, unarmored, and their only experienced fighters were currently preoccupied.
Sarahi raised up on her hind legs, tall and (hopefully) ominous, displaying the claws on her front paws and giving the nearest kobold as stern a look as she could manage. She was nonetheless surprised when the lizard-like creature laid its spear down at her feet instead of trying to run her through. Every kobold in the ranks behind it followed suit, until the group was surrounded by kneeling, unarmed lizards. The one who had approached her first looked up at her, pointed at Oro, and said something in a guttural language she did not understand.
“I...uh...” Sarahi lowered herself cautiously to the ground, and tentatively stooped to pick up the spear at her feet. The kobold made no effort to interfere, but spoke again, pointing more emphatically at Oro. “Any idea what’s going on?” she asked, looking at her companions.
“Oo! Oo! I might have one!” Tuli suddenly announced, practically bouncing on her feet. “I heard once that kobolds worship dragons like gods. So maybe that dragon was their god. And when Oro looked like a dragon, they figured he was our god. Then our god ate their god, and...now they want to worship the stronger god?” she shrugged, realizing that might be a bit too much of a leap to be believed.
Oro, hearing the suggestion, chuckled to himself, spurring a new round of coughing. “Erg...tomorrow...tell them...I’ll eat them...tomorrow...”
“Shh,” Nayeli urged him softly between her prayers, “Don’t talk.”
“Sure!” Tuli agreed, stepping up to speak to the kobold in front of Sarahi, since it seemed to be speaking for their group. She paused for a second, then turned back to Oro. “I don’t know how to speak dragon.”
Oro chuckled again, as a red tendril shot from his back to wrap around Tuli’s face, covering her mouth and nose. “Gorgorond does.”
She clutched at the scarlet mass, scratching it and desperately trying to peel it from her face. It looked for a second like the tendril was trying to smother her, but in the next blink it had conformed to her face, opening to allow her to draw frantic breaths into her lungs...and then diving down her throat as well. The frightened Ferruda could feel it reaching all the way to her vocal chords and begin plucking them like harp strings.
What issued from her mouth was not her own words, or any words she recognized. It was barely even her own voice, as another seemed to be mixed with it. But whatever it said was understood by the kobolds, who immediately raised a cheer and bowed as one toward Tuli. Then they collected their weapons and began making their way back toward the conquered camp.
Tuli gasped and clutched her throat as the tendril of Gorgorond released her and sank back into Oro’s body. “Please,” she gagged, “Please warn me next time. That tastes terrible.”
“Idiot,” Oro muttered quietly, as he finally seemed to be relaxing.
“What did she tell them?” Sarahi asked, at the same time as Nayeli warned, “Don’t go to sleep!”
“Can’t help it,” the Rabbit sneered, “Your smell...”
“Go! All of you!” Nayeli immediately told them, realizing their combined scent was affecting him again, “Find somewhere to bathe!” It would help just to have them move away a space, but a bath would help prevent the problem resuming as soon as he rejoined them. Right now she was just worried that, if he fell asleep before she’d finished healing him, he might not awake again.
Sarahi looked a little offended, but gestured for the others to come with her. They were headed toward the remains of the horse, to recover what belongings they could, when Oro gave them some final instructions. “Camp...safe. Wait...there...” The Sha'khari wasn’t sure she’d call a camp overrun with kobolds who had been their mortal enemies not ten minutes ago “safe”, but she promised to at least have a look over the hill, and let Nayeli know what they decided. The priestess hardly cared at the moment, lost in desperate prayers for healing power.
She couldn’t say how much longer she knelt there praying over what seemed each and every bone that belonged to him. He complained the entire time, mostly about being bored and sleepy, with the occasional drop of praise for the dragon he’d just killed. Apparently it had been a terribly wicked creature, and a vicious fighter, leaving him with a wonderful aftertaste and the satisfaction of a victory well-earned for once.
Sarahi returned, her hair still damp and most of her fur unbrushed, wearing a new (and arguably more sensible) blouse and leather corset. A light blanket, weighted with leather around the edges, was draped across her back and wrapped around her hips, hiding much of her legs without getting under foot. “You should stop now,” she said, laying a light hand on Nayeli’s shoulder, “Nature can do the rest from here. You are exhausted.”
“Finally,” Oro sighed, sitting up and getting a feel for his balance before rolling to his feet, “Someone shows a little sense.”
The Sha'khari frowned sternly at him, but let it go with nothing else. Now was not the time to antagonize either of them. Her only concern was getting Nayeli back to the camp, as the Ferruda’s own injuries had yet to be treated and she was clearly nearing the end of her (admittedly considerable) endurance. Nayeli gratefully accepted Sarahi’s offered hand, but winced as she got her feet under her. Despite his continued grumbles, Oro easily lifted her up and sat her on the Sha'khari’s back, his lips curling in a sneer when Sarahi briefly offered to carry him as well. “If I can’t manage on my own, I’ve come to the fate I deserve,” he scoffed, walking beside her instead with a hand on Nayeli to help keep her balanced.
“Have you spared nothing for yourself?” Sarahi asked Nayeli as the priestess leaned against her back with a grateful sigh. The bleeding had stopped, but the Ferruda’s pads were still visibly raw and painful.
“The bastard doesn’t allow it,” Oro answered before Nayeli could explain, “The-So-Called-Authority plays at being a family man, and provokes generosity by forbidding his children to use their blessings on themselves. She can command the wind and the sea, tear down mountains and pull the sun beneath the earth, but only for other’s sake. After that she has to hope that they will do her the same courtesy.” He rolled his eyes to show how much trust he put in that kind of reciprocation. “She can even heal a monster and a demon, but can’t so much as ease the itch of a mosquito bite on her own skin.”
“Not true,” Nayeli admonished softly, her customary smile somehow finding its way back onto her face, “I am quite good with my medicines, if I may say such of myself. But you only ever suffer injuries that require miracles to mend.”
Sarahi...wasn’t quite sure what to think of that. Coming from Oro, she was immediately suspicious of how it was framed, but themes of family and community bonds were thick in what little she knew of the Order’s scriptures. She would have to ask Nayeli for more honest details later. For now, the explanation sufficed. “We’ll have to see what medicines can be found in camp, then. I don’t mind carrying you until then, so please be at ease.”
“So the princess doesn’t mind a little manual labor, huh? Maybe you won’t be worthless,” chuckled Oro. Nayeli reached out to pinch one of his long ears, a silent plea for him to stop, if only for a little while. Somehow, he took the hint.
“Oh my,” the priestess blinked as they turned the bend in the road, and the camp came into sight at last. Oro had been right about the safety of the place: the kobolds had already made a roaring fire and seemed to be cooking a feast with every kind of foodstuff they could find. Two of their number had been posted as lookouts on the road, and likely a couple more had been spared to watch the mountains, but the rest of those that weren’t cooking were busy cleaning up the camp.
“It’s been like this ever since we crested the hill,” Sarahi acknowledged, “They were already carrying off the bodies when we got here. I’m not sure where, or what’s to become of them, and I’m not comfortable thinking about it...but the kobolds took great care to get them out of sight and prepare food and baths for us.”
“Baths?!” Nayeli perked up, glancing around.
Sarahi pointed to a large tent. “Inside there. We weren’t too keen on getting undressed around them, but we used the towels they brought and the water they heated to wipe ourselves down, at least.”
“By the Authority, I’d die happy in a bath right now,” the priestess sighed, leaning against Sarahi’s back again, “And that’s exactly what would happen if I set foot in one, too. I don’t trust my balance.”
“Well you can rest over here,” Sarahi comforted her, gesturing toward the even larger tent they were now approaching. The kobolds had apparently been taking everything of value they could find around camp and stacking it in loosely organized piles around the wide circle of canvas. “They gave us the Commander’s tent when we asked where we could wait. And I’m not sure I can call what else they’ve been doing ‘looting’, since everything seems to end up here. It’s more like they’re making an offering to the dragon Oro.”
“Hey! They’re here!” called Tuli, who had been standing outside of the tent idly watching the road, seeming unbothered by a pair of armed kobolds stationed to either side of the entrance like guards. She waved and smiled brightly as she practically danced toward the trio. Unlike Sarahi, the Ferruda had apparently been content to put back on the thin, revealing robe they had worn for the selection. Nayeli wondered if maybe the twins had misjudged how much top she would need when they were buying spare clothes... “Whoo!” the Ferruda cheered as she spun to a stop right in front of Sarahi, “We were worried, but you don’t look like you’re going to die.”
“...Idiot?” Even Oro looked dubious that the remark was aimed at him, rather than Nayeli, but Tuli didn’t stand around long enough for them to clarify. She skipped back a little as the twins emerged from the tent, eyes full of relief at the sight of Nayeli, and urged them to hurry inside. Apparently being freshly washed and well fed had not made the pair any more trusting of their...captors? Servants? Probably part of what made them uncomfortable was simply not knowing for certain their relationship to the kobolds now. “Have they given you any trouble?” Oro asked as they passed under the thick canvas door, held open and then obediently shut by the guards outside.
“Nope!” Tuli chimed right up, “In fact, it’s more like they’ve been playing a game of trying to guess what we might like next and bring it to us before we ask.”
“Fortunately they don’t seem to mind being told ‘no’,” added Diya, giving Nayeli a hand down from Sarahi’s back. Between her and Kylan, they eased her straight from the Sha'khari’s back onto the large bed that was set up on one side of the room.
“They’re very accommodating,” Tuli agreed, “What did I say to them before?”
Oro yawned as he passed her, adjusting the scabbard on his hip so that his sword could lay flat under the small of his back even as he flopped onto the bed behind Nayeli. “That tomorrow I will make dragons of all who please my wives,” he growled, “So be sure to point out your favorites. Now leave me alone. I need no ritual tonight.” Without so much as wiping the dirt from his feet, the Rabbit laid back with one arm across his chest and the other resting loosely on the hilt of his sword and went right to sleep.
“Make...dragons?” Kylan tilted his head, “Can he actually do that?”
Nayeli, sitting at the edge of the bed, looked over her shoulder at the sleeping Rabbit with an expression that said she feared he might, or else that he meant something much worse. “Well, I’ve never seen him make anything but corpses, but I have never yet heard him tell an outright lie. There is often a twist to his words, so we will see tomorrow what he meant.” She breathed a long exhale, her body visibly relaxing as it left her lungs, then turned her attention to the gathered group with a warm smile. “Thank you. All of you. Our first night together has been rather more intense than I ever would have imagined. Please be assured it is not always like this. Actually...today was a first in many ways.”
“I can’t speak for the others,” Sarahi stated, rubbing her forehead as though she did not like what she was preparing to say next, “But I am more concerned about your priorities than even his...behavior.” She pointed accusingly at the Ferruda’s tender feet, which she was carefully keeping lifted off the ground, occasionally flexing her toes to be sure they still had some feeling in them. “How can you be reassuring us instead of doing something about this? Tuli, have the guards bring some of that hot water from the baths, and...what else do you need?” she asked Nayeli bluntly.
Nayeli blinked in confusion for a minute. Then she laughed. “I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since I was with anyone willing to look after me. Salt, please, and the little red box from my pack. If anyone is comfortable going out to find the medical tent, there should be similar boxes stocked there. I wouldn’t mind taking this chance to replenish my own supplies.” Tuli and the twins disappeared out the door on their errands, leaving Sarahi with Nayeli.
A surprisingly uncomfortable quiet fell over the tent for a moment. The Sha'khari gave Oro a wary look, confirmed that his eyes were closed and his breathing calm with sleep, then frowned at Nayeli. “I understand that we are the newcomers here. Intruders, even, on your relationship. But now that we are here, you cannot continue to ignore your own needs while making excuses for him. I will not stand for it.” Nayeli’s smile did not falter, but her eyebrows arched in surprise at the sudden lecture. “Furthermore...and forgive me for sounding heartless...but it seems to me that if he had died today, you would be free, and no one could say you did not fulfill your duty. If the chance ever comes again, I suggest you allow it...for all our sakes.” A little more quietly, she added, “Honestly, I’m surprised you’ve survived this long without strangling him in his sleep.”
Nayeli shook her head slowly. “It will be a hard habit to break, I imagine, but I will learn to lean on you all. In this short time, you have already proven reliable. I hope you will come to trust my abilities as well. As for the rest...there is much to be explained, and you will have it all in detail tonight. But I will never allow him to die while it is in my ability to prevent. Although, today was the very first time there was even an opportunity for that, and I don’t expect such will come again anytime soon.” The priestess spread her hands then with an apologetic shrug. “Also, while I will promise to do nothing to stop you trying to strangle him in his sleep, you ought to know that Gorgorond does not sleep, and all that he perceives is known to Oro when he awakes.” She motioned for Sarahi to keep calm, as the Sha'khari suddenly looked very anxiously at the sleeping Rabbit directly behind Nayeli. “Don’t concern yourself. If he says anything, it will probably be to invite you to try your hand. He has made it his personal mission to kill every living soul on the face of the earth, and fully expects to be met in kind. I think he’d be insulted if you did not wish him some amount of harm.”
“Every soul except you?” Sarahi probed, still looking uncomfortable, “Why?”
“No, I’m only being reserved for last,” the priestess smiled, “So that he can go to Hell with a clear conscience.”