Skyhammer hunts down a powerful sorcerer who plans to destroy the King and all magic power on Pingala.
Deep in the uncharted territories, Benjamin Skyhammer slashed through the last curtain of vines and emerged onto a ledge overlooking a red grass valley. A relic settled in the valley's center like a drop of egg yolk on the petal of crimson rose.
"So how do we get down?" Higgins delicately flicked a fanged spider, dead, off the tip of her rapier before joining him on the ledge. They shared an excited grin.
Sheer sides and a flat middle made the valley appear as if an enormous coin had been hewn out. A stream cut across the center but the rest of the ground was covered in bright red grass. Skyhammer imagined it seen from the sky as a drop of blood amidst the green of the surrounding mountains.
"I'm all for rappelling." Higgins strode to the edge and peered over.
Skyhammer's jaw clenched as he pictured the distance from the ledge to the valley floor. "Are you sure we couldn't find a path?" His eyes scanned either side of the ledge desperately then he pointed to the right. "Stairs! I'm sure there are stairs right there."
"You knew they were there all along, didn't you?" Skyhammer glared at her. "Imp." He took a deep breath and surveyed the terrain.
Skyhammer nodded for Higgins to continue.
"...trouble," she finished. To their left across the valley, three figures in grey clambered down the cliff face.
"Goblins." His hand gripped the hilt of his sword. No way would he let goblins claim this yellow relic.
Higgins grimaced. "We've got some running to do then." She started towards the stone staircase, then stopped.
Skyhammer followed her gaze to a creature soaring high above them. "A flyer too?" His eyes gleamed with excitement. "Nothing like a race and a fight to make a relic hunter's day. Come on!"
* * *
As Skyhammer ran across the valley floor, he wished the grass were longer so he wouldn't be able to see the three goblins streaking towards the cylindrical relic.
Higgins ran a couple of feet to his left. "Not slowing down back there, are you?" She grinned, pulling ahead slightly.
He didn't have the breath to answer. She knew, anyway, that he'd do whatever it took to claim the relic for the human race. A human just needed to physically touch the relic before the goblins. His long legs, his sword and his good friend Higgins would ensure that. He searched the skies for the flyer.
SPLASH! He'd forgotten about the stream. When he surfaced, Higgins was already at the far bank, shouting something at him. He caught his breath and with a few strong kicks was at the other side. The stream didn't cross the goblins' path. They'll have a bigger lead, he realized. His heart dropped.
The cylinder lay only a few hundred feet in front. The three goblins were slightly ahead, strung out in a line. Two-thirds the height of a human, with deeply wrinkled black skin and grey robes, the goblins looked like old men but could run like the wind. The last one was fat and slow but the lead goblin looked as determined to capture the relic as Skyhammer.
All the goblins had to do was touch the relic and all would be lost.
Higgins sped up slightly. "There's no way I'm letting them get this relic," she called over her shoulder.
Skyhammer ploughed on after her. The woman could run.
Over the top of the cylinder streaked the flyer; the winged woman was headed straight for Higgins.
Skyhammer opened his mouth to scream a warning but the flyer, small and graceful, veered off and darted near the lead goblin's feet, jabbing them with her staff.
Hope swelled in Skyhammer's chest. The flyer wore the orange livery of human royalty! A King's messenger. Come on, legs, he thought. His speed increased and he caught up with Higgins, then passed her.
The flyer was causing the goblins much anxiety, tripping them up and kicking their faces. She had already taken out the fat goblin with swing of her staff.
Higgins ran towards the middle goblin, leaving the relic for Skyhammer to capture. The lead goblin was now level with Skyhammer. He tried to outpace him but despite his short legs, the goblin managed to keep up. Skyhammer could now see the reflection of the sky and the grass in the cylinder. The goblin pulled ahead. Skyhammer forced his legs to go faster but perversely they seemed to be slowing down. He was not going to lose the relic, he repeated to himself.
A flash of orange spiralled down from above. A loud THWACK, and the goblin pitched forward, his fingers a hairsbreadth away from the cylinder.
Skyhammer gasped, then tripped and used the relic to break his fall. As his hands touched the cylinder, a wave of purple spread like ripples on a pond over the relic, momentarily changing its colour. He had captured the relic for the human race. A shiver of excitement shook his shoulders.
Pulling his hands off the cylinder, Skyhammer turned to see the fat goblin, not dead after all, releasing his arrow at the flyer now perched on top of the cylinder, eyes closed and chest heaving. Skyhammer leapt into the air, yanking his sword out in an attempt to bat the arrow away. He missed. The arrow sank into the flyer's thigh and she tumbled back, off the cylinder, out of sight.
The fat goblin notched another arrow.
Higgins, her back to the fat goblin, danced in battle with the middle goblin who was desperately fending off her attack with his short sword.
The fat goblin pointed his bow straight at Skyhammer and grinned. Then he slowly turned so the arrow pointed straight at Higgins' back. He looked back at Skyhammer and grinned again. A knot tightened around Skyhammer's heart.
"Higginsdownnow!" he screamed as the arrow travelled the short, too short distance between the goblin and Higgins.
She dropped to the ground instantly.
Skyhammer took off, barrelling across the grass, straight for the fat goblin. Frantically grasping for another arrow while backing away, the goblin dumped his quiver on the ground. Then Skyhammer was upon him, slashing and skewering like a madman.
"He's dead, Skyhammer!" Higgins' voice cut through the haze of anger that enveloped him.
He glared down at the deceased goblin.
"I'm okay. We're okay. We got it. We did it." The middle goblin sprawled lifeless at her feet.
They opened their Snapshot Whorls simultaneously. Right arms raised in front with index fingers pointed, they circled their arms in a growing spiral. A shower of gold sparks trailed behind their index fingers until glowing rings, four feet in diameter, hung in the air in front of them. Their arms dropped. A three-dimensional image popped into the center of each ring, the last Snapshot each had viewed.
Skyhammer's Snapshot was from the previous night. Higgins had killed a venomous crocodile, and they'd been examining her fighting tactics over breakfast that morning. He wished the Snapshot's view was from a position behind him instead of from what humans jokingly called their third eye, right between their eyebrows. He'd love to critique his own fighting form but could only rely on reports from other humans' Snaps. Of course he'd rather have Snaps the way they were than no Snaps at all. Life without magic powers was bad enough, life without Snapshots would be a nightmare.
Now he flicked his index finger to cycle through his Snapshots to the present. A minute between each Snapshot still left a lot of action out.
He glanced over at Higgins' Snapshot Whorl as he waited for his Snapshots to cycle through to the fight. Her Snapshot Whorl showed him a gray fog although she was obviously studying her Snapshots very closely.
His Snap showed Higgins parrying an attack from the goblin. He squinted. She was obviously trying to use Pignodgenol's riposte but she needed to keep her sword tip up a bit more...
He flicked to a previous shot - the flyer attacking the fat goblin. The flyer!
A flick of his wrist closed his Snapshot Whorl. "They shot the messenger."
"What messenger?" A look of confusion crossed her face.
"The flyer. She was the King's."
"Where is she?" Higgins closed her Whorl as well, glancing around.
"Behind there." He indicated the cylinder.
She raced around the relic.
Skyhammer, suddenly bone-tired, trudged after her.
"Get my bag!" Higgins, on her knees, leaned in close over the flyer's body. "She's still alive but the arrow is stuck in her leg."
Skyhammer hurried back to where Higgins had dropped her backpack in the fight. He had her medical kit out by the time he returned to where she had set the flyer gently down on the gore-spattered shirt she had worn in the fight.
She reached back without looking and took the kit from him. The flyer's wings were tucked under her shoulder blades so she resembled a miniature human woman. She was only as long as the shirt.
He gently placed another shirt from the bag over Higgins' bare white shoulders.
The flyer's eyes fluttered open.
"How exciting," she murmured, looking into Skyhammer's face. Her eyelids squeezed shut. "Ohhhh!" She arched back as Higgins yanked the arrow from her tiny leg. Her eyes opened to watch Higgins inspecting the tip.
"Poisoned." The word floated from the small winged woman like a leaf on the wind.
Higgins cupped the flyer's face with her hand and nodded. Skyhammer knelt beside them.
"... message... from King..." The flyer inhaled a tortured breath. "Snapshot altered... murder...return...Four Hills... Amoebas...relic... for magic..." Her body went slack.