The cave was dark and stank of blood. Even the air seemed against him, thick and unyielding, dragging at his limbs, pulling against him as if desperately trying to return him to the light so far behind. But still he pressed on, sword in hand, into the beast's lair. He was calm. Lyncon had done this before; he did this for a living.
The farmer had hired him two days earlier, begged him to slay the monster that was devouring his livestock. A basilisk he claimed was the culprit and Lyncon didn't doubt it, they were not uncommon in this area. They had agreed a price and then parted, Lyncon setting off to his task. Find the beast. Kill it.
Finding the cave had not been hard though it had been much further from the farm than expected. Longs ruts in the damp earth and mud made for an easy trail to follow to the lair and Lyncon had wandered there meandering path for many miles, occasionally stopping to inspect the ground. From the tracks Lyncon guessed that the basilisk was big, larger than most he had slain before. The cave entrance, looming like a black mouth at the base of a rocky hillside, was littered with bones and stained with blood. Most of them were animal remains. Gathering himself, Lyncon took a breath and then stepped into the gloom, leaving Vanhelm behind, the big dog looking at him with that same lop-sided face he made whenever he worried. He was right to be worried.
Now, stepping slowly through the dark, Lyncon strained to use every ounce of his enhanced senses. Far off to his left, maybe half a mile, he could hear the steady trickle of running water, each tiny drop echoing off the rocks around him, signing their own merry song. The rest of the cave was deathly silent, as if all the sound had been compressed to nothing by the weight of the earth above. Lyncon moved silently too, an art form he had been taught when he was first made, all those years ago.
It was not long before he spotted the first corpse. A sheep, ravaged by teeth and claws, meat stripped from its bones. Little remained. There were more too, deer and cow, all savaged and devoured, leaving little more than bone behind. Then came what Lyncon had finally been looking for, a human body. In fact, there were six.
Lyncon knew at once that they were soldiers. In the gloom he could make out their armour and weapons, even the crest on a shield, a proud boar rearing on its hind legs, the symbol of House Marion. It made sense that these were here, tales of the beast would have surely reached the lord's ears and he would feel pressed into action by the grievances of distressed farmers. Sending six of his soldiers showed a willingness to help resolve the issue but also a grave misjudgement at the ease in which the beast would be slain. These men had paid with their lives for their lord's stupidity. Stupidity or cunning.
Kneeling at the first body, Lyncon was greeted by an ugly sight. While the man's armour had spared his torso too much damage, his face was a different matter. The creature had torn his head almost clean off, the nose and jaw were completely missing and only one eye remained, a white orb surrounded by red, fixed in a horrified stare. Lyncon removed his gauntlet and dipped his finger into the blood, cold but not yet dry. This kill was no more than a day old.
Standing, he inspected each of the other bodies in turn. All were grizzly affairs with several of the corpses missing limbs and one with its entire throat ripped out. Lyncon noted that most of the men were old, older than he would expect for soldiers. Perhaps Lord Marion was not as foolish as he had seemed after all.
Finally, beside the final corpse, he found what he had been looking for. A torch lay in the dead man's hand, the rags at the end charred and spent. He shook his head disapprovingly. This was almost certainly what had killed these men. Basilisks were drawn to heat, they saw the world through shades of hot and cold. As soon as these men had stepped into the lair with a torch lit they had effectively signed their own death warrants, the torch a bright beacon to alert the basilisk to their exact location. Of course, the basilisk had duly obliged.
Rolling the man over, carefully so as not to get blood on his boots, Lyncon found another torch at the man's belt, hanging limply, unused. Unhooking it, he took the torch and straightened up. Fire was a death wish in a basilisk's lair but it could also be useful, if you knew how. Determined now, Lyncon pressed on, drawing ever nearer to the beast within.
The werewarg didn't know how long he walked through the endless black, picking his way silently through cave. Time had no concept in the tunnels, no point of reference, and so became irrelevant, a forgotten play thing of the land above. The smell of death and rot grew ever stronger and stung his nostrils as he got closer so that he had to pull his collar up to cover his mouth and nose.
Eventually, the tunnel began to open out and Lyncon could hear the steady drip of water. Soon he spied a faint beam of light, descending from the heavens. When he reached the tunnel mouth he stopped, clinging to the darkness like flotsam in a storm.
Before him lay a large cavern, the rough walls opening up on all sides to form a huge natural dome, pitted with crags and pitch black fissures, perfect places to hide. At the top was a rough hewn hole, about five feet across, with water dripping from its rim into the pool below. The water was an inky black born of terrifying depth, its smooth surface only disturbed by the occasional droplet which it swallowed greedily. A beam of sunlight fell from the opening and cut the darkness in two like a blade, vanquishing the black to the tunnel where Lyncon now stood.
Glancing round, Lyncon could see clear signs of his quarry. The floor of the cavern was littered by bones of all shapes and sizes, scattered around in untidy heaps. Some of the rocks were painted with blood, dried crimson pools that decorated the walls and floor. Not far from where he stood, Lyncon noticed a scale, lying amongst a carcass and glinting emerald in the weak sunlight. As for the basilisk itself there was no sight. He knew it would be holed up in one of the many dark crevices. Listening carefully he could just make out its slow breathing as it eyed him eagerly, waiting to strike. Steeling himself, Lyncon reached for the torch.
Torch in hand the werewarg steadied his breathing, slowing his heart rate to that well below that of a human. His sword was in its sheath and he missed its familiar weight in his hand, the touch of its cold steel against his skin. He focused his senses and loosened his muscles beneath his armour. Finally ready, he brought the torch up to the flint in his other hand. In one fluid movement he lit the torch and threw it out into the cavern. For a moment it looked as if it would not light, the flames shrinking and dimming as if they too were afraid of the beast, but then they flickered and grew again with oil fuelled courage, burning bright as the torch clattered onto the stones.
No sooner had the torch come to rest than the beast was upon it. Dropping from the heavens like a scaled emerald lightning bolt it dug its huge claws into the ground and snapped its jaws at the flames with vicious fury. Lyncon did not wait for an invitation. Silently, he drew his sword and sprinted forwards, head down and eyes fixed on his target. Reaching his prey, he swung his swung his blade with all his strength and brought it down hard into the basilisk's scaly flank, the steel biting through flesh. The basilisk screamed in agony, head raised to the heavens, the sound echoing around the cavern, and lashed out with its tail catching Lyncon square in the chest and sending him sailing through the air to land in a heap some metres away.
Winded, Lyncon growled and picked himself up as quickly as possible. The basilisk turned to meet him and fixed the warrior with a cold stare, its amber eyes filled with wrath and agony. The monster was bigger than expected, its head alone the size of a small horse. Its long body was thick and powerful with muscle, gleaming slightly in the weak sunlight as its scales rippled with mesmerising grace. Its two limbs jutted from its body at jaunty angles, the powerful arms each ending in small hands that were dwarfed by the three foot long talons that protruded from just above the wrist. As if sensing his eyes upon them, the basilisk raised an arm and smashed one of the talons into the ground, shattering the rock beneath as if it were as brittle as glass. Then, without anymore warning, the beast flung itself into an attack.
The creature flew at Lyncon with terrifying speed, teeth bared like rows of sharpened daggers, but he was ready. Graceful as any dancer, he spun away to his left while ducking beneath the monster's flailing arm. As its head and limbs sailed past Lyncon straightened and swung his sword upwards with both hands, catching the basilisk in its softer underbelly and cleaved a jagged gash in its emerald scales. Writhing in pain, the creature turned and stabbed at him with its huge claws but it was too slow, Lyncon had already leapt away and retreated, sword raised.
This time the basilisk was more patient. It eyed its prey with caution as it slithered across the cold stone, a second scarlet tail dragging behind in streaks of blood. It hissed at him in a low, menacing tone as it moved to flank its attacker, eyes fixed on the werewarg at all times. Lyncon matched its moves, turning so as to always be facing the creatures gaze while being mindful of the tail snaking behind him. He calmed his breathing and racing thoughts while he swapped his grip on his sword, holding it now so that the blade faced downward. He steadied himself for the next attack, channelling his senses. He did not have to wait long.
The basilisk was cunning. It knew its foe was expecting a frontal assault so it swapped tactics. This time it attacked from two directions at once. Almost simultaneously, it swiped its tail at Lyncon's back while swiping at him with its left arm, aiming for his head. Lyncon less saw and more heard the tail approaching fast behind him. Without paused he crouched and then sprung up, back flipping clean over the oncoming limb. At the same moment he held his sword out, the blade parallel to his arm. The weapon caught the claw of the beast as he spun and deflected it away, momentum carrying it forward to bury into the rock. No sooner had Lyncon touched the ground than he swapped his sword grip and swung down hard, hacking off the basilisk' arm in one clean blow.
The serpent issued a deafening scream of agony, so loud that Lyncon sank to his knees in pain, his heightened hearing burning with the creature's fury. Seeing its opponent was weak, the basilisk seized its chance and launched forwards, jaws open. Lyncon just had time to spin and raise his sword in front of him before the monster was upon him, striking him hard and pinning him against the cavern wall.
Now they were at a stalemate. The basilisk had pinned its prey against the wall, preventing its escape, but Lyncon was far from helpless. He had managed to raise his sword and wedge it between the monster's two powerful jaws, propping them open with the point lodged in the basilisk's lower gum. As the creature bit down the point dug in further and it wailing in agony.
For a while they were both still, eyeing each other as they contemplated their next move and regained their strength. Lyncon fought for breath as his body was crushed against the cavern wall, his vision beginning to blur. He tried to wriggle free but his arms were both pinned in front of him, clinging onto his sword with a grim determination to survive.
Eventually, it was the basilisk that made the move. With a crash it dug its remaining claw into the cavern wall sending chippings clinking onto the floor below. Then it, slowly but surely, began to bite down. Powerless, Lyncon could only watch as, with a sickening squelch, the sword point punctured the creature's lower jaw and began to descend further. Blood, thick and hot, pooled at the werewarg's feet, spilling over his boots. Still the monster continued, all the while its eyes fixed on its prey in a triumphant stare. Its jaws crept closer until a tooth rested and then pierced Lyncon's forearm, puncturing armour and skin alike. Lyncon gave a cry of pain and the basilisk began to bite harder, sensing its victory was near. Soon it would feast.
Lyncon felt the old familiar warmth building inside of him, flowing round his body as his limbs began to tingle. His wolf blood called to him, crackling inside like pent up electricity, building until it finally reached its breaking point. He let it happen. Let it take him. With a roar his face morphed, twisting and contorting in an instant, to become that of a wolfs. With ferocious might he stretched and bit down on the basilisk's snout, his newly formed fangs tearing through scales and flesh to rip free a chunk of flesh. The basilisk recoiled in pain and the werewarg seized his chance. Yanking his sword free he wriggled free of the basilisk's grasp and swung his weapon in a vicious cut, lopping the monster's head clean off. It fell to the floor with a sad slap. It was done. The basilisk was dead.
The farm was quiet at this time of night, the still air only stirred by the occasional braying of the animals. Even in the dark Lyncon saw Vanhelm stiffen at the scent of sheep on the breeze but the big dog knew better than to bolt for the fields. Lyncon reached down and touched one of the dog's long floppy ears, soft and warm beneath his calloused hands. His friend lifted his head to look at him, tail already wagging, and Lyncon gave him a gentle scratch under the chin.
"Come on boy, let's go claim our prize" said the werewarg, voice surprisingly soft for such a grizzled man.
As they neared, the livestock began to become restless. The sheep bleated and huddled together while the cows brayed loudly in alarm and gave the occasional kick. Most would think it was the basilisk head at his belt but Lyncon knew better. Animals could smell the wolf in him, sense what he really was; a predator.
Ignoring them, Lyncon strode past and was about to knock when the door sprung open. The farmer, pitchfork in hand, froze for second, fear flitting across his features before being replaced with a scowl.
"Shoulda known t'was you. Scaring the animals." He glanced down at the basilisk head in wonder, a smile now emerging. "You did it? You kill the beast?"
"Can I come in?"
"O course. Please do." The farmer stepped aside to let him pass.
The farmhouse was small and uncomfortably warm, three simple rooms of thick stone heated by a roaring fire in the centre. A hole in the thatched roof let the smoke out but to Lyncon the air was still thick and dirty. He cleared his throat and set the basilisk head down on the table.
"I killed your monster. You owe me."
The farmer grunted, suddenly surly again. "Yes, yes. I'll fetch you what I got." He moved away, his large belly swaying in front of him. From one of the rooms a woman appeared, her eyes widening in fear at the sight of Lyncon and his trophy.
After rummaging in jars the farmer returned. He held out his hand to the werewarg, offering three silver coins. Lyncon took them but did not turn to leave.
"The agreement was six." His face was set stone, unmoving, his eyes piercing the farmer with a cold stare. His voice had turned deeper, more intense.
The farmer shrugged. "S'all I got." Seeing Lyncon's expression the farmer averted his eyes to the floor. The werewarg could taste fear and sweat in the air.
"You promised me six silver pieces. A deal is a deal." He gently rested his hand on his sword to emphasise the point.
The farmer's ugly cheeks flushed red. "That's all I got, honest. Got no more. Market has been poor these last few days." When he could see Lyncon was unmoved he pressed on. "How bout a horse? Could give ya my finest?"
Lyncon shook his head. "Don't like horses and they don't like me. That won't do."
"But I got nothing else!" the farmer pleaded.
The warrior was unmoved. "Fine. You have paid half your debt, a debt you agreed to save your livestock. If I slaughter half your animals, that would seem we are even." He turned to leave.
"No!" yelled the farmer. Gripped by desperation he began to frantically look around the room for something else to offer. Finally his eye settled on his wife. "How about her? She's good, she'll do all you want. She cooks and cleans and will do whatever you ask in the bed an all. She's all yours"
At this the woman screamed, overridden by great sobs of terror and betrayal. She ran to her husband but he just cursed her and struck her hard in the jaw with the back of his hand. She sunk to her knees, sobbing.
Lyncon had froze, caught off guard by the farmers suggestion. He seemed to consider his options for a moment, still as an old oak. Then he moved, all at once. He drew his blade and, with two hands, drove the sword back and up, under his arm, to catch the farmer just beneath the collar bone. In one great heave he wrenched the sword down and opened the man's chest, guts and innards spilling out to mix with the straw at their feet. The woman screamed and scrambled away. The farmer only looked on in shock at his own entrails as Lyncon removed his sword, pushed open the door and disappeared into the night. The farmer collapsed and died, staring into the dead eyes of the basilisk head next to him