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       The Hollow, p.14

           Andrew Day
 
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never seemed to shut up. He had a tall tale for every occasion, and the weird thing was that a rather large amount of them ended up being true. For instance, there had been a mage named Barnaby in the unit, and he had indeed been devoured by werewolves, though Serrel could never get a clear picture of how this had happened.

  “Poor ol’ Barnaby,” was all Brant would say. “It’s how he would have wanted to go.”

  “I bet he tasted stringy. Heheh,” was Dogbreath’s contribution.

  “Oh, dear,” was what Captain Snow said, before he had to go for a lie down to “calm his nerves”, as he put it.

  “I don’t know,” said Holly Wells, the girl who had spoken to him the night before. “Maybe he was too busy asking stupid questions and wasn’t paying enough attention to his surroundings. Like all mages,” she added pointedly.

  After Serrel, Holly was the youngest member of the Hounds, and had only just managed to escape the stigma of being Fresh Meat herself, and wasn’t eager to be relabelled by dint of association. Though she did grudgingly point him in the right direction when he needed it, for which he was grateful.

  Serrel decided not to ask Sergeant Caellix about Barnaby. In fact he had decided to avoid her wherever possible, until the unlikely event that she warmed to him. Serrel figured this would happen somewhere between his term of service ending, and hell freezing over. Caellix made his old training sergeant, Reage Holland, look all warm and cuddly by comparison, and that man had once broken a trainee’s arm, just so they could practice healing spells. Serrel had a mental image of Caellix painted blue, with an axe in each hand, screaming as she charged down a hillside to pillage a defenceless mountain village. He found out later he wasn’t that far off. Not even about the paint.

  After Caellix, Dogbreath was the longest serving member of the Hounds. Serrel had no clue just how old the man was, it could have been anywhere between forty and a hundred. He couldn’t decide if Dogbreath was crazy, or had simply been hit on the head one too many times. His black toothed smile was bad. The way he barked and howled like a dog was weird. His laugh, usually following some comment about how tasty or unappetising he thought you might be when served in a stew was downright disconcerting. But what got to Serrel was the way he would turn around to find Dogbreath standing a few inches away, grinning maniacally. Then you got the bad breath in the face, the smell of wet dog, and a far too detailed view of an unwashed beard that Serrel swore had things moving in it.

  Captain Tobias Snow was the complete opposite of Dogbreath. In fact, he looked almost as out of place in the Hounds as Serrel, with his fussy little beard always neatly trimmed, and his uniform clean and pressed. He smiled a lot, and everything he said was in a jovial and convivial tone. Orders often seemed phrased like polite suggestions that it would have been rude to ignore. He had the bearing and the air of superiority that Serrel often associated with stuck up lords, and yet the scruffy and all too common Hounds had nothing but respect for him. Apart from Caellix, whom Serrel heard muttering several times, “That bloody beard.”

  Then there was Morton. Like Snow, he seemed out of place in the Hounds, and the rest of the group tended to leave him to his own devices most of the time. According to Brant, he had been a mage himself at some point, but supposedly he had become addicted to the Elixir of Vorkeph, the magical concoction made with the distilled essence of the ether itself, and was no longer capable of weaving. The Elixir, also called Magi’s Bane or more colourfully, Liquid Damnation, could replenish the energy within a mage, but if you weren’t careful, and used that energy too quickly, it would also drop you straight down the Hollow quicker than you could blink. Serrel knew that from experience, and thought he might have understood the reason for Morton’s creepy, glassy eyed expression.

  The Hounds kept Morton because he still knew a great deal about plants and herbs. Out in the wild, it paid to know what species of mushroom was safe to eat and which would give you a long agonising death. He was also supposed to be especially knowledgeable on the flora and fauna of the Faelands, which was why Caellix endured him. Morton at least had a use, something Serrel at the moment failed to possess in her opinion.

  It was going to be a long boring trip. There was little space in the hold, and the deck was was often filled with soldiers milling about and getting in the way of the ship’s crew. Caellix tried to keep everyone busy by making them help out, tying rope and scrubbing the decks, but for men and women who lived for open land and dark forests, for long journeys and the hunt and the chase, it was only a matter of time before they began to grow restless. And Serrel suspected the game of choice was soon going to be “pick on the Fresh Meat”.

  Sometimes being right was no fun at all.

  It was midday on their first day at sea. There was no land in sight, just the endless waves of the Dividing Sea and the huge blue expanse of sky that was broken only by a few wispy clouds. Serrel was trying to be helpful by coiling a long rope for some of the sailors. The crew of the ship, particularly the Captain, were rather old fashioned and still considered having a mage onboard to be bad luck, and Serrel was hoping to look as unthreatening as possible.

  “Do you sleep with that thing as well?” asked a scornful voice behind him.

  Serrel turned to find Caellix had again sneaked up on him in that way of hers. She was worse than Dogbreath. If you were downwind, you could at least smell him coming. He was relatively harmless in his way, as well. Whereas Caellix at that moment was holding a well made and most likely very frequently used spear at her side.

  Caellix glanced at his staff, which was propped against the rail of the ship while he worked. Serrel took it everywhere with him. That was one of the first lessons Holland had drilled into the members of Pond Scum. Your staff never left your sight.

  “I always keep it with me, Sergeant,” Serrel said carefully. “It isn’t much different from carrying a knife... or a few axes.”

  Caellix looked down at the sharp hatchet tucked into her belt. She nodded.

  “I suppose so,” she conceded. “If it were a real weapon. What good is a big stick in a real fight?”

  “If he was fighting Dogbreath,” put in Brant, who was watching a safe distance away with some other Hounds, “he could distract him by throwing it and yelling fetch.”

  “If only all our opponents would be so amendable,” replied Caellix.

  Serrel careful placed the rope on deck and picked up his staff. “I have to admit, I haven’t been in many real fights-”

  “Really?” said Caellix. “I am shocked.”

  “But I imagine five feet of solid wood is better than nothing,” Serrel finished.

  “Only if you know how to use it, Fresh Meat. And only if you have trouble figuring out which end you were meant to hold a sword by.” There were a few laughs. Caellix didn’t join them. She wasn’t being spiteful for the joy of it.

  “I know how to use my staff, Sergeant,” Serrel said irritably.

  “Good,” said Caellix. Without warning she lowered her spear and stabbed the point straight at him.

  Serrel didn’t always think the worse of people, but part of him saw that coming. The word of power Balvihs had been floating in his mind, and now with little effort, Serrel weaved the ether into a shield directly in front of himself.

  The spear tip hit the invisible barrier, and stopped dead. Caellix stared at him, and pushed the spear harder. It moved a fraction, then stopped again. After a moment, the air around it began to glow with a dim green light.

  “And how long do you think you can keep that up?” Caellix asked him.

  “Long enough,” replied Serrel.

  “I think you’ll run out of strength before my arm does,” Caellix said.

  Serrel glanced at her arm, which had more muscles that he had ever seen on a woman, and wondered if that were true. He’d never shielded himself for long periods against a physical attack like this. At Fort Amell, they had practised defensive weaving against spells, and the occasional rock thrown maliciously by Holland. N
o one had ever broken Serrel’s defence before, but then again, no one had ever tried to stab their way through his shield before now. Already he was starting to feel the strain, and the ether energy in his being trickling away.

  “So, Fresh Meat, what happens then?” Caellix asked.

  Serrel dropped the shield so fast, Caellix was momentarily caught off guard. Without the barrier holding it in place, the tip of the spear thrust forwards, and would have hit him had he not already been stepping to the side, and lifting his staff to parry it.

  As the shafts of their weapons impacted, he threw a wave of force at the sergeant, a relatively low powered one, since he didn’t actually want to hurt her, and piss her off more than she generally was. But Caellix was faster than he expected, and had already spun away. Serrel’s spell missed her entirely, and washed over another of the Hounds instead, knocking him comically to the deck.

  Caellix ignored the gales of laughter behind her, and stared daggers at Serrel.

  “Um...” said Serrel. “Sorry?”

  “I don’t care how good you think you are with magic, Fresh Meat,” Caellix said. “How well can you handle yourself in a real fight?”

  The spear came hurtling at him again. Serrel parried her attacks as best he could, using his staff and throwing up shields whenever he needed to. He was out of depth somewhat. Holland had
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