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       The Hollow, p.12

           Andrew Day
 
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  Part 1: The Hounds.

  Not for the first time, Serrel Hawthorne questioned the choices he had made that had brought him to his current predicament.

  From the top of the tower, he could see the entirety of the city stretched out around him. The Legion had finally pushed through, and were making speed towards the fortress where he now stood. The fighting had been fierce, and fires had broken out in many places. The scent of smoke, and blood, and death was in the air. Serrel ignored it all, focused only on the elf in front of him who was, in all likelihood, about to kill him.

  The elf smiled grimly. “Last chance, boy. Turn around and walk away.”

  Serrel swallowed, not even bothering to pretend he wasn’t scared out of his mind. “I can’t,” he replied.

  “This isn’t your fight,” the elf said sadly.

  “I took the bronze.”

  “So? It’s just a coin.”

  “How many people have died? I can’t let you get away.”

  “You can’t stop me. Whether you live or die, it changes nothing.”

  Serrel sighed. “Well, I have to try.”

  The elf shook his head. “Very well, then.”

  For a moment, there was silence. Neither of the two moved, as smoke swirled in the air, and the sounds of men and women fighting and dying drifted up to them.

  Then the elf’s arm snapped up, and Serrel’s vision was filled with fire.

  It had been... well, Serrel wasn’t entirely sure, but it couldn’t have been more than a week earlier when Serrel and his fellow recruits had parted ways. He reasoned that, since they were all in the Legion together, chances were they would meet again soon. But it was a sad occasion regardless. His fellow members of Pond Scum, as they had been dubbed, had irritated him, angered him, made him laugh, made him feel like part of a family again. He was going to miss them.

  Well, maybe not Justin so much. He had been an arse most of the time. But the others, Victor, Kaitlin, Edgar, Bull, Mouse and Greasy Tim, even though he hadn’t known them for very long, he had considered them to be his friends.

  But they had gone their separate ways, off to different units aboard different ships to sail across the Dividing Sea to the Faelands. He couldn’t help but worry about what fate had in store for all of them.

  His apprehension shifted back to his own well being soon after he met his new unit.

  They were called the Hounds. He had heard very little about them beforehand, and most of that was just rumours and stories. They were supposed to be trackers and hunters, people who lived in the most wildest of places. In the Legion, they were the most elite of scouts, leading the way far ahead of the main army.

  In the hustle of Port Serenity, where the Legion was preparing to depart, Serrel spent a long time wondering lost along the docks until he finally spotted the Hound’s banner flying besides a smallish cargo ship. He was greeted at the gangplank by his new commanding officer and his sergeant, a scarred woman with pale skin and dark hair braided into several thick plaits.

  “Caster,” said the man in greeting as Serrel handed over his orders and snapped instantly to attention. “I’m Lieutenant Snow-”

  “Captain,” correct the sergeant.

  “Pardon?”

  “Captain,” she repeated patiently.

  “Oh, right. Promoted. Captain. I’m still not used to that. I’m Captain snow,” Captain Snow went on amicably. “Welcome to the Hounds. I’m glad to have you. We haven’t had a mage with us for some time.”

  “I shall do my best not to disappoint, Sir,” Serrel said.

  “Good lad. Sergeant Caellix here will introduce you to the rest of the men. Sergeant, please show our young mage below and get him settled.”

  “Yes, Captain,” said Sergeant Caellix. She gave Serrel an unfriendly grin that showed far too many teeth and went aboard the ship without waiting for him.

  Serrel rushed after her to catch up. She walked briskly across the deck, weaving between the sailors making the ship ready for sail, and made her way down to the lower decks.

  “What’s your experience in the wilds, boy?” she asked without looking back.

  “The wilds, Sergeant?”

  “The woods. The forest. You look soft and well fed. Not like someone who’s spent much time outdoors.”

  “I... When I was younger I would go with the men from town to catch rabbits.”

  “Rabbits. Well, you must be so proud.” Sarcasm dripped from her every word. “I’m sure small furry animals everywhere must quake in their burrows at your scent.” She snorted. “Let me be clear. We don’t want you. We don’t need you. We’ve gotten along fine without a mage for nearly a year now. If we were going to get one, I would have at least expected Holland to send us one who could tell his arse from a hole in the ground. The last thing anyone in this unit needs is a dead weight, tramping about, making noise and giving away our position. So you do what I say, when I say, or I will gut you and leave you for the scavengers. Are we clear?”

  “Yes, Sergeant.”

  “You aren’t one of us. You want to survive what’s coming, you better learn to move like us, sound like us, smell like us, or you won’t last a day.”

  “Yes, Sergeant.”

  “What’s your name again, boy?”

  “Caster Serrel Hawthorne, Sergeant.”

  She snorted again. “Well, Fresh Meat, welcome to the Hounds. Don’t get comfortable. I expect your stay to be short and messy, with a bloody end.”

  “Can’t wait,” Serrel muttered.

  Waiting for Caellix below were two huge black and tan dogs. They bounded up and down and weaved around her legs playfully. Caellix snapped at them loudly in some language Serrel didn't recognise, and the dogs dropped to their haunches side by side, tails wagging and tongues lolling.

  “This is Vost and Ripper,” Caellix introduced. “Don’t pet them, they will kill you. Boys, this is Hawthorne, our new mage. Neillin ut.”

  The dogs looked at Serrel hungrily, and he hoped that last phrase Caellix had said was “No Eating.” From what she had said to him so far, that seemed unlikely.

  The rest of the men and women of the Hounds were at the forwards end of the ship, stowing their gear for the voyage, resting, playing cards, and generally killing time. They looked up briefly.

  “Who’s the Fresh Meat?” asked a man with a huge messy beard. He grinned, revealing black teeth.

  “This is our new mage, Dogbreath. See he gets settled, and stays out of the way. Don’t eat him.”

  With that, Caellix turned and left. Dogbreath rose from his seat and came over to give Serrel a closer examination. He poked Serrel roughly in the arm.

  “Hardly any meat on him at all,” Dogbreath said. “I bet he’s all chewy.”

  “Leave the scrawny kid alone, Dogbreath,” said a girl nearby.

  “Just saying hello to the new Fresh Meat. Heheh,” Dogbreath chuckled to himself. Up close, Serrel quickly understood the reason for the name. His breath was rank.

  “Yes. Well. Hello,” Serrel greeted the others, and instantly felt like an idiot. He could feel twenty pairs of eyes boring into him, quietly assessing his worth and judging him. He saw a couple of head shakes, a pair of rolled eyes, and more than a few laughs of amusement.

  “There’s a spare spot in the bow,” said the girl helpfully, before she returned to sharpening her sword and ignoring him.

  “Um, thanks.” He stepped around Dogbreath, who had started sniffing him, and carefully wound his way through the mass of animosity that was his new unit to the very front of the ship. The Hounds had all seen their share of battles. Their weapons were all worn, but reliable, clothes frayed and patched. Most of the men were thick and muscular, either bearded or in need of a shave. The women were lean and athletic. Everyone had a look of a hunter, or a ranger. People who had spent the majority of their lives outdoors and knew what it meant to be a survivor. In his new and neatly cleaned uniform and with his polished new warstaff, Serrel felt so out of place.
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  There was an empty hammock right up against the curve of the prow. There was very little space to move, but Serrel made the most of it. These people didn't care about him, and would care even less if he made a fuss. He decided that for the foreseeable future, the best option was to just shut up and stay out of the way.

  And Holland thought this was the best place for him?

  Serrel shrugged off his pack, and sat down with his back against the hull. He held onto his staff. He had just got it, and was feeling protective. Then he noticed the man opposite him. He was neater than the others, with brown hair and a beard that was actually trimmed once a week, and sat cross legged on a large chest, hands on his knees, and a look of peace and harmony on his face.

  Then man opened his eyes, and smiled airily at Serrel.

  “Ah, the new mage,” he said.

  “Evening,” Serrel said lamely. The man’s smile creeped him out. “I’m Serrel.”

  The man ignored him. “You have any of the Elixir?” he asked.

  “Vorkeph’s Elixir?”

  “Yes. Have any?”

  There was a glint in his eye Serrel liked less than his smile.

  “Just say no,” said a man nearby as he secured a group of bows for transport.

  “No,” Serrel lied. “They didn’t think we’d need any.”

  “Pity,” said the man on the chest. He closed his eyes and went back to meditating.

  “Ignore Morton,” the second man told Serrel. “He’s a bit...” He twirled his finger around the side of his head, “Weird. As long as he stays off the Elixir he’s fine.”

  “Good to know.” Serrel adjusted his coat, making sure the pouch
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