The Floodgate

Тема

Аннотация: After a fight, some warriors seek to return home. Others seek revenge.

The battle of Akhlaur's Swamp is over, and its heroes part ways. One becomes a wizard's apprentice and tries to unravel her mysterios lineage. Another hero returns to his queen, only to find that all is not as it was.

Hidden from them both, the Magehound broods. She cannot forgive those who drove her from power, and she will stop at nothing to be avenged. Her bitterness ensures that Akhlaur's Swamp was only the beginning for them all.

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Elaine Cunningham

Counselors and Kings Trilogy

Book 2

Prelude

The battle had turned against the laraken. The monster knew this, its enemies did not. They continued to fight with the frenzy peculiar to brave men who wish to die well.

Men had come into the Swamp of Akhlaur before, but these warriors were armed not with enchantments but with wicked swords and pikes and arrows. With them was a strangely familiar elf woman who was neither food nor foe.

The laraken advanced, shrieking like the demon it resembled and paying little heed to the arrows and spears that bristled its hide. Its taloned feet crushed the fallen humans. A casual kick tossed aside the body of the wemic-the mighty lion-centaur who had died protecting the elf woman. The battered соrpsе thumped and skidded along the sodden ground, splattering the surviving warriors with fetid water before coming to rest amid the lurching roots of a bilboa tree.

Still the laraken came, charging into the humans' ranks-and away from its source of life-giving magic. The monster's shrieks had less to do with battle lust than with mind-numbing hunger. Greenish ichor leaked from countless wounds, but starvation, not the humans' weapons, would be the laraken's death.

Its only nourishment was the elf woman's spells and the tiny draught of life-magic offered by the tall, red-haired warrior. The laraken greedily drained this scant sustenance, leaving the human as translucent as a dew-drop. Yet the man lived, and fought on!

So did his comrades, and none fought more fiercely than the dark-hawk human who clung to the laraken's back like a tick, slashing until the monster screamed with rage and pain.

The laraken's most formidable foe was the small female, a human whose eyes were dark pools of magic and whose voice could not be ignored. Her song lured the laraken onward, when every instinct urged it to flee back to the trickle of liquid magic that was its main sustenance.

She Who Calledperched in a tall tree, far above the battle. The magical song pouring from her filled the laraken with exquisite longing, both courting and mocking its hunger. Frustration slowly gave way to fear: the laraken remembered the long-ago wizard whose magic could not be eaten.

A flash of silver darted toward the laraken's eye and exploded into a burst of liquid agony. The laraken screamed and clamped its upper pair of hands against its ruined eye. Its lower arms flailed wildly as it raked at the warrior who had blinded it. Talons found human flesh. At last the man released his hold and rolled down the laraken's back.

Gripped by a desperate, mindless rush for survival, the laraken broke free of the singer's grip and hurtled toward the pool. The elf woman shouted a strange word and tossed something into the bubbling spill of magic. In an instant, the bubbles grew into iridescent, man-sized domes, which burst into sprays of life-giving droplets. As instinctively as a creature aflame, the laraken threw itself at the water.

Immediately the monster was seized by a liquid storm that dwarfed the fury of battle. The laraken fell-or perhaps flew-through the whirling white terror. Its battered senses registered the bruising tumble, the roar of the water, and the thunderous, hollow thud of the magical gate slamming shut.

And then, silence.

Dazed and disoriented, the laraken gave itself over to the water. It drifted, vaguely aware of the tingle of energy that whispered against its scaled hide and sank deep into bone and sinew.

After a time the laraken began to take note of its new surroundings. Water was everywhere, but not like the water in its home swamp. This was liquid magic-less dense than mundane water, more alive than air. The laraken could breathe this water, and each breath brought renewed strength.

The monster moved forward cautiously, speeding its way with swimming motions of its four webbed hands. It did not marvel at the beauty of the coral palaces or undulating sea forests as lush and colorful as a jungle. It paid no heed to the intricately carved arch framing the place where the magical gate lurked, just beyond sight and sense. The eel-like appendages that surrounded the laraken's demon face stirred. Reptilian eyes snapped open and took focus, jaws yawned wide, and fangs extended like unsheathed claws. The eels began to writhe about, snapping at a passing school of tiny, jewel-colored fish.

An overwhelming stench of magic engulfed the laraken, an acrid, gut-clenching odor that the monster instinctively recognized as danger. The laraken spun, snarling, to face the unknown threat.

A white blur swept in with preternatural speed. The laraken's first perception was vast size, and the yawn of a huge, hideous gate. In a heartbeat the laraken recognized that the «gate» was actually the jaws of a gigantic shark, easily wide enough to engulf its twelve-foot prey. Wedge-shaped teeth lined the jaws in multiple rows. Beyond was bone, and nothing more.

Instinct prompted the laraken to flee, but it sensed the futility of this course. Instead, the laraken leaped directly into the tooth-and-bone gate, diving powerfully for the open water beyond those empty white ribs.

The skeletal shark's bones folded around its prey. Cartilage creaked as the ribs clattered together and laced like tightly entwined fingers. The laraken's head slammed into the narrow end of the basket weave of bones, abruptly cutting off its dive to safety. Two interlocking ribs sheered off one of the laraken's eel appendages. The disembodied head tumbled free through the roiling waters. A passing fish snapped it up and darted triumphantly away.

The laraken hooked its foot talons on the shark's spine and swung upside down to grasp a pair of locked ribs with all four hands. Bracing its feet, the laraken threw its strength into wrenching the bars of its cage apart. The shark's flexible cartilage buckled, but would neither break nor give way. Frantic now, the laraken flung itself from one side of its prison to another until it was battered and bleeding.

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