The Caravan

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A beast will kill to fill its belly. A man will kill to satisfy his cruelty. A fiend will kill because it knows nothing else.
- Sir Carrel of Castan


Anger and disgust bubbled in Cray's chest like vomit climbing the throat. The smell was faint on the western wind, but Cray found it overpowering just the same. And it wasn't only a smell - it was a taste, a humming of the teeth, a sense that evil and desecration were close.

Cray found that his right hand was reaching over his shoulder, groping at the empty air beside his ear. Slowly, he relaxed his fingers and let the arm fall to his side. There was a bitter taste in his mouth.

Like a one-armed man, sensing pain in a limb that is no longer there. What a sorry creature you are, Cray of Stooria.

Setka's new familiar rose on creaking legs and stepped to him, snuffling at his hand in the vain hope that more blood was forthcoming. Setka, however, had faced his beak into the wind, queerly entranced by the foul stench that it carried.

Dazi looked at Cray, tendrils of air grasping at the tattered edges of his hood.

"Well, sir knight? What do you make of this?"

Cray came forward. Yes, there was no doubt that the wind was coming from the trade road itself. It was as if they were caught in the throat of an enormous monster, and its rank breath was being thrown in their faces.

Little wonder that no-one walks this road any more.

To Dazi he said, "The same as you, of course: there are fiends on this road. They are far away, for the time being; and in that time we can either push farther west, or turn tail and let this wind blow us all the way back to Syan."

"So we carry on as before?"

"We carry on as before. It would do us little good to leave the road; they will find us wherever we are, so we may as well keep our feet dry while we wait for them to show themselves."

But they waited in vain, that day and the next. The air grew steadily fouler, but of their unseen enemies this remained the only sign.

On the second day they came across a convoy of ruined caravans. The best of them had run off the road, and lost a section of its roof to a lantern fire. The worst of them had been blasted apart, splinters of wood and tatters of canvas strewn from one end of the great road to the other. Cray, after scanning the ruins with a sweep of his eyes, stepped to a certain spot on the road and kicked at the dust with his boot. A white chunk of bone, a stout femur, came loose, and Cray turned it over with his foot as the Fees gathered close.

"Pony," he said shortly. "But I see no teeth or claw marks. This beast was killed, but not eaten."

"What does it matter?" Dazi said.

"It matters a great deal, if you would pause to reason why."

"I would not. That is meant to be your domain, sir knight."

Cray kicked the bone from this path. "And so it is. We move on."

They walked throughout the day and into the night. Twice Setka paused to feed his familiar, the jack-wolf's tongue lashing out greedily to lap up the blood that dripped between his fingers.

The stench of fiends grew greater and greater, and Cray's mood worsened. He did not fear what lurked further down the road, only wished for it to appear and bring an end to the wait - and to the stench. It scraped against his nerves, rang in his ears, and stabbed needles of pain into his temples. It played tricks with the eyes; the air grew darker and darker around them, even while the sun was in sight, and when it sank below the horizon it was replaced by a ghostly blue glow solid as mist.

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