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The Pass: Part 3

The river below has dwindled to barely more than a stream winding through the ravine below the trail. At midday, I at last approach the crest of the pass. The builders of the trail had been forced to cut the path into a salient mass of rock that there was no other way around. It is soft sandstone, which seems odd in these mountains, but I am no miner to know the rocks. The stone above overhangs the path below, leaving a narrow lane just wide enough for a laden pack mule, with short sections where the path has been widened so pack mules going in different directions can get off the trail to let each other go by. There is a sharp bend around a small outcrop where the path had been cut deeper into the rock with a projecting spur sticking out into the gorge beyond the trail.

As I enter the cut, I pause to stare at the stone spur, seeing a massive knob of bone as large as if my whole body was curled up in a ball embedded in it, surely just the tip of a far more massive bone buried in the mountainside. I turn around, realizing that the inside edge of the curve is defined by the shaft of another vast, indestructible bone that disappears into the rock above and below. The bones are nearly black with age, streaked with subtle graining in brown and gray. I had heard tales that the bones of the primordial dragons could be seen in places, but had never dreamed to see them myself. I feel a power here, something I’m sure I have never felt before, or have I? Perhaps I heard tell of it in legends and imagined the feeling but forgot the tales. Whatever I might have felt or imagined, it is nothing like this. My body thrums with the feeling of something deep but half-forgotten, like nostalgia so powerful it makes my guts ache. I feel an overwhelming sense of some connection to the distant past that the many peoples of the world have lost long ago. The feeling catches my breath in my throat, and I wonder that this place is not a shrine where travelers pilgrimage to bask in such power. Or perhaps it is just my imagination after all, fired by the wonder of seeing something so incredible as a primordial dragon bone.

Then I realize that I have felt this before, or something much like it. I remember the splinter of brown-black substance that I took to be petrified wood, hanging on a platinum chain. The thing that I was tasked with stealing, that someone is hunting me for stealing. I felt something much like this power run through my body when I grasped it. Could that have been dragon-bone? Is that why I feel the connection to these bones now? What have I become mixed up in? No matter, whatever is happening, I have not choice but to continue. I shake myself and continue around the bend in the trail.

Further ahead, I can see that a short section of the path has tunneled through a more massive outcrop that projects even further into the gorge. Perhaps dragon bones there couldn’t be avoided so easily, so the builders had been forced to tunnel. As I approach the opening of the tunnel, something inside moves in the darkness, and I can see a shadow against the far opening stand on four legs and stretch.

The relatively dark, sheltered area has become a daytime lair for some creature. A dark, low-slung shape with a spiny silhouette. My throat and stomach grow tight. I back away but it is too late to avoid alerting it. Besides, it must have known I was coming. It had stopped stalking me and waited instead for me to come to it. I curse myself for not anticipating the danger of the tunnel. I’m lucky though. If the creature had waited to rise, it would have taken me in the darkness, and I would have had the benefit of neither sun nor wards for protection.

The creature slowly emerges from the tunnel. It is a mountain lion, and a large one. But something dark and spiny has wrapped itself around the big cat’s neck. I’ve heard stories of darkling parasites and symbiotes, but who knows how much of those stories is true. This would appear to be one of the parasites though. The stories say that both the darkling and its host have to be killed, else one will regenerate the wounded flesh of the other. Both symbiotes and parasites are said to have been powerful servants of the demons’ god. I can already feel the thing’s power pressing in on my vision, muffling my hearing. If it had been night without the benefit of wards, or in the sheltered darkness of the tunnel, and the thing’s power had been fully expressed, I'm sure my initiatory abilities would have been totally overwhelmed, and I’d no doubt already be helplessly blind and deaf before its aura.

The poncho I wear is ill-fitting and cumbersome. I strip it off and hastily push it into the satchel. I could remove the satchel as well to lighten my load, but if anything happens to it, I'm as good as dead in these mountains. I keep the satchel hanging over my shoulder. Wrapping the edge of my armored cloak around the spear, I grasp both with my left hand and pull the butt of the spear close to my side with my right. I lower my stance and brace myself mentally for battle, focusing my will, starting to work up my fear and anger, preparing my body to fight. Preparing to kill if possible. Preparing my flesh to be rent if necessary. Ready to do whatever it takes to survive. I’ve fought darklings before, and have never come away without new scars. And those were mere pets compared to this creature.

I size it up. If it looks like a cat, it probably charges or leaps. It might bowl me over before I have a chance to do more than poke at it, but hopefully I can hold it at bay with my spear. I would like to be able to circle away from the thing's rush but the narrow path makes that impossible. At least the narrow trail makes it harder for the cat to bypass my spear too. I have always relied on quickness and cunning to make up for my slight build. Now I'll have to fight for my life, meeting this danger head-on.

It is still daylight, but direct sunlight is blocked by the mountains. The thing will be weakened by the light if it comes for me, but I’m sure that won't be enough to save me. I have to do something to give myself an advantage. I back down the path hurriedly. If I can make it back to the bend, I might have a chance. If the thing gets past my spear, I can retreat around the bend. Then at least the creature won’t be able to charge or leap around the bend. Here I will make my stand. Again I feel the tingle of forgotten power, like deja vu ringing in my bones, making it hard to concentrate. But there is nowhere else on this path where I have a chance.

I stand where I can see the creature approach, holding the spear in front of me, with the stone spur to my back. I take a few steps forward. Maybe I can draw it into leaping at me and impaling itself. It seems like too much to hope for that it will just lose its balance and fall over the side into the canyon below, no matter how savagely I might wish it. As the monstrous thing gets closer, I can see that the cat is huge for a mountain lion, its back coming up to my navel. It probably weighs at least twice what I do. The darkling parasite is wrapped around its neck and part of its head, with pulsing tentacles latched into the big cats’ flesh. A mass of long slender spines arches above and to the sides, protecting the beast's shoulders. The spines seem to slightly writhe in a rhythmic motion in time with the pumping of the tentacles. I can see the mountain lion’s bloodshot golden eyes peering out under the edge of the darkling’s shiny brown-black body, and a single yellow-and-red eye in the thickest part of the corrupted mass, near the back of the mountain lion’s head.

As it approaches, my vision begins to darken and I have more and more difficulty focusing my eyes on the thing. The sounds of the wind and of my feet scuffing in the gravel as I move become muted. Peeking at it under the goggles I wear to protect my sensitive eyes in the daylight just adds glare to the darkening - it isn’t physical darkness but my senses being shut down by the aura. I suppose that a stealthy hunter like a mountain lion makes a perfect host for such a creature. I imagine how terrifying it would be to face this thing in the darkness if I didn’t know where it was coming from. Maybe this narrow trail is as much an advantage as a detriment.

I call on my initiatory training, raising power to resist its aura, but it isn’t enough and I can still barely see the thing. There is no way I can judge attacks to block with my armored cloak, so instead, I will have to attack with everything I have and hope to survive. Even in the darkest places I've always had the benefit of some tiny light or at least warmth to see. The prospect of being forced to fight in darkness when it gets too close to me is terrifying.

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