Three long hoots of an owl preceded the opening of the hut’s leather flap. The last rays of a dying sun skittered across the darkening sky, casting long, strange shadows throughout the hut’s interior. The smoke still sauntered about the inside, but at the suddenness of freedom, immediately whooshed outside. As it twirled around the man standing in the entrance, he inhaled, welcoming the effects of the herbal concoction.
“The Master of the People greets you, strangers in the wood. We have arranged a meeting, if you are able.”
The group looked up from the platter between them, food in hand. Stoyan had managed to arrange himself on his cot so that he could sit up and eat, whereas the others had gathered around, discussing their predicament. Upon seeing the man in the entrance, Stoyan spoke.
“Who are you? And where are we?” The physical pain of his body was palpable in his voice.
“I am called Paejin and I am Master of the Herb.” His voice was rough, yet tender, unrefined and eloquent. There was harshness to his voice, a scratching throat-based emphasis, that made him seem uncivilized, but the words he spoke were of an educated individual. A heavy pronunciation of the deeper sounds of the Common language made him sound barbaric.
Dismissing the hesitation of the four, the man turned to the smoking basin and grabbed a handful of smoldering herbs. The disturbance sent up another plume of smoke as the flames nipped at the man’s hand. He calmly brushed the smoke into his face and inhaled. A deep, intoxicating breath later, he continued. “I found you in the woods to the southwest of here. You were not in the best of conditions; still aren’t by most standards. If it were not for my assistant, Dyrr, you would surely be dead.”
“And yet we live,” voiced Stoyan. He did not seem entirely grateful. “How is it that we survived such wounds? What kind of foul magick do you practice here?” His tone was spiteful.
“There is no magick, I can guarantee that, Paladin,” he responded, pointing to Alaiya. “She is the only mage around.” Alaiya’s face blushed at the sudden attention. “We survive off the land here, and I, through years of practice and refinement, have found ways to extract the potent restorative power of nature and apply it to the body.” He spoke of his accomplishments with ease, not seeking praise or awe, but simply stating fact. “Now, if you will please join us outside. There are things we would like to discuss.”
As the companions made their way outside they were greeted by the last strands of dying daylight. Gathered beneath the oncoming night was the entire community of nomads, dressed in leathers and pelts, their eyes trained on their every step. The large man named Paejin led them, and, though they noticed scowls and disapproving looks, no one spoke.
Paejin left them in front as he returned to his station near an elderly man with grey-streaked golden-brown hair. He whispered something to the man, who nodded before approaching. Again, the gathered crowd remained silent.
“We greet you, strangers in the wood. I am called Tereson, and I am Master of the People. You have met our Master of the Herb, Paejin. It was through luck and his skill that you are able stand here with us tonight.” Tereson’s voice, though hoarser, was similar in both tone and inflection to Paejin’s and it could be assumed the others gathered around would be as well. “As the day breaks to reveal the night, we, too, broke our vows to reveal ourselves to you.”
“Look, we’re happy you did that,” began Stoyan, who was growing anxious that he had been delayed yet again from finding Veth. “But we need to go. Our friend, he is in trouble, and time is of the essence…”
“Not my friend,” chimed de Geffriel, “I’ve never even met the guy.” A vein started to emerge on Stoyan’s temple as his face reddened.
“Same here,” though Elias, though he was wise enough to keep his mouth shut.
“And we need to go at once.” Stoyan’s voice rose over his companions, trying to drown out their words and thoughts.
Tereson looked hard at Stoyan, then back to Paejin, who simply nodded. He collected his thoughts for a few moments, finding how best to continue. During the lull, a break in the crowd formed as a woman strode forward. Her hair, a unique mix of strawberry red and maple brown, was pulled back in a braid, revealing an unfortunate scar cutting across the left side of her face. The scar traversed her left eye, which had been sealed shut, the likely result of losing it. Her right eye was a caramel brown with flecks of red scattered throughout. Her voice was firm and calm, but angry.
“Why do we keep them? They wish to leave; let them! We have survived this long without outsiders help!”
Tereson’s head fell into his shoulders, as though he had been dreading this specific moment. It was the moment of truth for him and his people and how he responded would shape the outcome of not only his tribe, but the companions as well. Turning to face his small nomadic community, he stood upright, supported by his staff, and addressed them, is voice ringing clearly in the oncoming night.
“Pulcha, you know better than most the pain of the outside world. But that was many years ago when we were lost in our ways. We were guided, unfortunately so, by the prospect of surviving the wars by turning to people when they, too, were in crisis. It was an unfortunate time for many of Delagraad.” He paused, the pain of his memories flooded back to him, before he collected himself to continue.
“Yes, they are outsiders, the very people we seek to avoid. The trust among us is low, but we cannot rely on ourselves for much longer. We need the world, and you can all sense what is coming. If we do not seize this opportunity, we are sure to perish. But know that though these few may be able to help us, it is not of us to demand such things. Let us be clear on that.” Tereson looked over to Paejin, but the Master of the Herb’s face was solemn.
“We will open ourselves to these people. We will tell them the truth, let them hear what we have learned, and, if they choose to aid us, then it shall be. If not, we carry on as we have and fend off the threat as we are able.” Heads nodded in approval of the Master of the People’s decision. Pulcha, wary of the strangers, retreated into the crowd as a few whispered to her. Her eye never left Stoyan.
Tereson faced the companions again, returning to his normal position of leaning on the staff in his hands. “So now, will you hear us out? Or will you run in circles looking for your friend? I believe our Fates are tied, but I will not force you to listen to our words.” As he spoke, Alaiya caught Paejin’s eye, and she blushed sheepishly.
After a brief discussion, Stoyan spoke. “We will hear you, we owe you that much. But please, we must be on our way as quickly as possible.”
Tereson nodded as relief washed over his face. “Very well. The southern woods, where Paejin found you, have been of much concern to us lately. Strange men have been moving freely about, something in which we find no comfort. We try to keep out of sight on our forages, but occasionally their patrols and our trails overlap. It began a few months ago, with yelling and cursing and threatening our lives, but never became more than that. Then, within the five to six weeks, they became violent and easily agitated, as though expecting something that would not come. They increased their patrols and their men grew in numbers. Our lives were in danger and the risk of our community being found increased. We could not allow such risk to exist.”
“We did not wish for violence, so we chose to learn why they were here. We followed their patrols, sneaking through the woods like common bandits. They were loud and careless and we could not be seen if we so chose it to be. However, no matter how long we trailed them, no matter the skill, we would lose them. They would vanish into the woods without a trace. It was Paejin who believed they might be using magick, something none of us are able to do.”
“Then, two weeks ago, a night scout was ambushed. The threat became real, and they began to tirelessly hunt us. Led by a woman whose skill in the woods matched our own, we diverted them away from our home here and took them further north. They pursued for a few days, but retired from the hunt. Since then, we have been trying to eliminate their patrols, but their numbers continued to strengthen. We were forced back, to wait and observe. And though not all agreed with this course, it was the safest for our people.”
Tereson turned to a cloaked individual in the crowd. “Bring the body.”
The figure left and returned quickly, dragging in tow a woman’s body on a make-shift stretcher. She was clad in black leathers, her dark brown hair half torn away, along with her face. She was missing part of her right leg below the knee, where the wound had begun to fester. Maggots were already worming their way through the flesh. Alaiya turned away in protest.
“This is a body of one of the patrols. We managed to kill her a few nights back as she pursued us. Luckily, we were successful. The others of her patrol fled the moment we attacked.”
Stoyan leaned down and examined the woman, turning over her leathers and examining her wounds. They were not made of forged steel and reminded him of breaks he often saw when he was training in Gimlora. The ravaged flesh of her face looked to be of bestial make as well. As he continued his inspection, he found what he had hoped to not find. Beneath the woman’s left wrist, tattooed on the underside of her forearm, was an extinguished candle – the mark of the Dark Light.
Stoyan eyes Tereson and the people behind him. Something about this did not sit right with the Paladin, and he aimed to find out what. “You have confronted these patrols then? And succeeded?”
Tereson nodded. “We have and, for a while, we did.”
“And did you lose any of your people?”
“We did not.” Tereson’s eyes narrowed as he answered.
“I find it strange then,” Stoyan began, eyeing the crowd, “that you would have met with such success. You do not look like fighters. We have fought these men and they do not flee at the first sign of attack. I know of their capabilities and their skills. No offense, but you do not seem like you would last long against them – skilled in the woods or not. What aren’t you telling us?”
Paejin stepped forward and whispered into Tereson’s ear. The elder shook his head in protest, but Paejin said something again and the man relented.
“There is one more thing, though I had wished to avoid it. It is our greatest secret and the pride of my people. What you see before you is not our true strength.”
As he spoke, the light of the moon trickled down into the clearing, settling on the grass. Something unsettling started to arise in Alaiya’s gut, as a feeling of unease she could not shake overwhelmed her. The image of the woman and the wolf she had seen back in the hideout earlier in the week crept to the forefront of her mind. “Are they the same? Are they Werewolves?” As if to answer the thoughts of the young Sorceress, Tereson raised his hand to his lips and gave a long, low whistle. The sound raced through the night and crashed against the trunks of the cedarglenns, resonating back with a haunting ferocity. Then an answer, deep and inhuman, beckoned from the shallows of the wood. No one moved for a moment as two golden-brown eyes appeared from the shadows. A massive direwolf with light brown fur speckled with strands of gold, slowly sulked out to Tereson’s side and nuzzled the elder’s hand affectionately.
“This is my companion, Karyn. We’ve been together, now, for many years. She is my protector and my strength. She has shielded me from the threats of the woods many times. And she is just one of many.” He reached around and rubbed the base of the wolf’s neck, burying his hand deep within its fur.
Tereson then turned to Paejin and nodded, the latter giving a low whistle of his own. A howl came in response as a silvery-white haired direwolf emerged. This wolf’s were stunning, purple in color with striations giving an appearance of a crystalline structure. It was not as affectionate with Paejin as the brown one had been with Tereson, but it stood attentively at his side, its eyes sharply focused on Elias.
“This is my assistant, whom I spoke to you of. Her name is Dyrr. She aids me on my scavenges for herbs, and there is no better assistant among our people.”
“You…you own wolves?” Elias was unable to contain his excitement as he nearly jumped out of his pants. “How long have you had them? Did you raise them from pups? Was it hard to domesticate them?” He took a quick step forward, but was immediately stopped by the silver-haired wolf, who growled menacingly.
“You would be careful to mind you actions and words, young Gnome.” Paejin spoke softly and his wolf understood his intention as it calmed down. “They are intelligent creatures, capable of reading the truth in our words more than we are. They sense our thoughts as well and our relationship with them has been very beneficial. However, they do not like to be mocked or treated as pets. Treat them as your equal and show them respect. Else, they will remind you.” Paejin was suddenly reminded of something as his eyes fell upon Alaiya. “One more thing – I would refrain from using magick in the presence of these creatures. They don’t take too kindly to it, for, though they don’t fear the magick itself, they do not trust the user.”
“This is who we are. People of the land, who embrace what she has given us. We live accordingly and as peacefully as we can. And now, we seek your aid. Will you assist us against this threat?”
Stoyan gathered the others around him to discuss the options before them. Before long, he returned to Tereson. “It seems you were correct in your assessment that our goals are intertwined. The woman you have is part of a greater organization, one that we have been searching for for quite some time. Their leader is someone my blade seeks to greet. We will do what we can and promise no more. But the fact remains that we have no idea where we are or how to get back to where we were. By that time, things might be too late.”
Tereson glanced down at his companion who nuzzled approvingly at his hand. “That will be of no worry. Our friends are willing to escort you back. But, I must warn you. It will be by unconventional means.”
Another two whistles broke from the group of people followed by two more howls. Two hulking creatures emerged from the woods, both coated in jet black fur. They sauntered to the front of the group and acknowledged Karyn, Tereson’s companion. When they turned, their eyes, both as blue as an afternoon sky, sparkled in the moon’s embrace.
Tereson addressed Stoyan and de Geffriel now. “These shall do for the two of you,” he said, motioning to the direwolves. “They are brothers and both favored of Pulcha. This is Mulde,” he said, addressing the wolf on the right, “and this is Etheo. The smaller of your group shall ride Karyn and Dyrr. Between them, they should get you to where you were found within a few hours. Once you are returned they will leave to return to their rightful places.”
As the beasts walked toward the companions, a sensation of fear swept over the group. It was an intimidating sight, staring such natural ferocity in the eyes, hoping the creatures trusted as much as you needed them to. When they stopped and lay on the ground at the feet of the group though, a wind of bewilderment overtook them. The puzzling looks made the nomads laugh amongst themselves as Tereson’s voice rung out once more.
“My advice – hold on tight.”
The woods whipped by in the night with such ferocity, it was all the companions could do to hold on to their mounts. As night eased over the world, the sounds of nature came alive, but they all faded into a blur together was the wind amassed everything into one. Hunkered low on the back on the wolves, the companions avoided most of the snags and branches of the forest, though an occasional nicking did occur.
They had traveled for hours at a breakneck pace, covering an unknown amount of ground when the confusion of sound that was the night broke away for the shrill blaring of a horn. Instantaneously, shrieks and snarls joined in the rampage through the woods as the direwolves took to avoiding the monsters that had lain in ambush. Emerging from the darkness were creatures larger than the direwolves and Alaiya immediately recognized them from her studies.
“Worgs?” she thought, puzzled at the fact. “Are we that close to the mountains already?” Then, riding atop of one of the worgs backs, she spied something else.
“Goblins!” yelled Stoyan, as his direwolf broke to the left, avoiding a spear thrown from his rear.
Through the whipping of branches, de Geffriel saw what Stoyan was talking about. Sitting atop a harness strapped to the worg was a grey-skinned Goblin. Its helmet was pulled down over its face, beady red eyes shinning through tiny slits. It was wielding a poorly crafted longbow, with parts of the branch still with gnarls and leaves. She laughed aloud at the sight as she turned to face the mounted beast.
“This? This is what you come at me with,” she asked while chuckling to herself. “You know not who you’re dealing with.”
As quick as a snake striking its prey, de Geffriel pulled a dagger from her wrist guard and flung it at the Goblin. Throw with deadly accuracy, it struck beneath the faceguard of the creature, slipping into its neck with ease. It lurched, but held itself up, fumbling around for an arrow to notch.
“Here, let me help you with that.”
The Goblin fell from the worg, its legs slipping free of the harness of the mount. An arrow, protruding from the left eye slit in its faceguard, gave a farewell wave through the air as the Goblin descended into the darkness of the forest, crashing against the undergrowth until it broke on a tree.
Slinging her bow over her shoulder, de Geffriel turned triumphantly to the others. “Now, that’s a kill, eh, Mulde!” Mulde, the jet-black direwolf upon which she road, barked in agreement.
The gloating, however, proved detrimental. The worg, now riderless and unguided, leapt at the woman, and raked its razor-sharp claw across her upraised arm. Only de Geffriel’s penchant for survival kept her from falling off her direwolf. The worg now ran alongside her, snapping at the massive black direwolf. The direwolf, realizing the precariousness of its rider’s situation, managed to avoid the blows while providing a steady enough base for de Geffriel to reposition herself.
With the threat now clearly visible, the rest of the group joined the fray. Alaiya, riding atop the silver-haired direwolf called Dyrr, stayed in the rear to avoid combat. Holding onto Dyrr’s mane with one hand, she attempted to harness magick in the other. As soon as the magick was condensed she threw the spell forward, but not before Dyrr jerked her head downward and kicked off her hind legs, sending Alaiya into the air. Alaiya’s spell flew harmlessly into a tree as she struggled to orient herself, mid-flight. “Why,” she thought, “why did she toss me?”
“One more thing – I would refrain from using magick in the presence of these creatures. They don’t take too kindly to it, for, though they don’t fear the magick itself, they do not trust the user.”
If it was physically possible at that moment, Alaiya would have kicked herself in the butt. Realizing too late that she had forgotten, not one, but both of the rules – the other being to hold on tight – Alaiya knew she was in trouble with her mount if she somehow managed to survive. As she twisted, she noticed that Dyrr had separated herself further from the pack, slowing down enough to position herself directly beneath Alaiya.
“I’m only going to get one chance here,” she thought as her hands stretched out for Dyrr’s shaggy mane. Her hands closed into fists as soon as she felt the soft fur between her fingers and she managed to hold on and pull herself up. “Im so sorry about that. I forgot Paejin said you don’t trust magick. I swear I won’t do that again. I’m so sorry.”
Alaiya could not explain why she had chosen to speak to Dyrr right then, let alone apologize, but she did. She was unsure if Dyrr understood, but knew it could not hurt to stay on her mount’s good side. Then, realizing her manners, she quickly added, “And thank you for saving me.”
Two more Goblin riders crashed from the trees on both sides of the group as the riderless worg continued to fight in its master’s absence. Stoyan and Etheo maneuvered to the flank of the rampaging worg to intercept the beast. Joining steel and claw, they tore a chunk out of its back leg, sending it ricocheting off a nearby cedarglenn. The worg, unfazed, caught back up with the group and was met with an arrow in its pectoral. Agitated by the nuisance, it thrust its head down, snapping the shaft as blood trickled down the wooden protrusion and matted its fur. The worg’s eyes were bloodshot now as its predator instincts took over, sending it into a viscous rage. Closing the distance to de Geffriel with ferocity, it dodged Stoyan’s sword stroke and swiped at Mulde with its claws. Mulde returned the attack with a kick to the worg’s jaw as de Geffriel pulled out her rapier and struck the beast, but the worg continued its assault. Then, without warning, Mulde broke sharply to the left, leaving de Geffriel flailing and the worg momentarily confused. The crack of the beast’s skull into a trunk of a full grow cedarglenn pierced the night with such power that the whistling of the wind ceased to allow the sickening crunch to be savored in its red-tinged glory.
“Whoo!” screamed de Geffriel as the lifeless body of the beast crashed through the woods. “That’s two!” She spun on the back of Mulde with a calm grace, deflected the sword of another rider with her rapier. “You three won’t get any where if you don’t kill something!” She laughed as she and the direwolf bounded through the undergrowth, engaged in another fight.
Elias, while the battle waged on around him, inched closer to Karyn’s ear, and, like Alaiya, felt inclined to speak to his mount. “Hey there, Karyn, was it? My friends, well, they might need my help. And I know we were told not to use magick, but I’m not really a mage. I’m an Artificer – we’re nothing alike. I can’t even use magick.” As he talked, an arrow flew by his head. He turned to see the second of the worgs gaining ground on him, its rider standing in a harness, bow at the ready.
“I would really prefer not to be completely helpless here, so, if you don’t mind…” A feeling washed over Elias, telling him to cease his jabbering. Karyn lowered her head as she ran, the bottom of her jaw streaming along the roofs of ferns and shrubs as they parted for her powerful legs. Her ears flicked backwards and sat down against her skull, making her as streamlined as possible, increasing her speed and potentially shielding her.
“Got it,” astonished Elias, taken by surprise how easy it was to ascertain the direwolf’s thoughts. “Thanks, girl.” He patted her on the side of the neck, but now felt nothing in response. Briefly puzzled by his own conflicting emotions, he quickly tossed the thoughts aside and rummaged through his pouches for his rod.
Nearing the worg and rider already in combat with Stoyan and de Geffriel, Elias’s crystal rod began to glow with a dull blue light. A shockwave of cold ensued, rushing toward the Goblin, causing it to shiver involuntarily on its worg. Elias could see the direwolves with Stoyan and de Geffriel start to move toward him, but Karyn gave a sharp bark and they help their ground.
The worg beneath the rider, unnerved by the presence of magick, lashed out at Stoyan, catching the Paladin in the shoulder. Knocked off balance from the blow, it was Etheo who save him, snaring the Paladin in his massive jaw before he fell helplessly to the ground. As his arm hung limply from his shoulder bleeding, Stoyan could only imagine what kind of amusement de Geffriel was finding in his situation now. No sooner had that thought crossed his mind than an outpouring of laughter answered.
With Stoyan posing no threat, the Goblin attempted to leap from the worg onto Etheo’s back. A dagger struck its chest in midflight, propelling it back slightly, causing it to fall short of the direwolf. It crashed to the ground and rolled through the woods, soon disappearing into the blanket of night and forest. From his awkward position, Stoyan could make out the triumphant cheer of de Geffriel, “Three!”
Annoyed at the gloating and embarrassed by his position, Stoyan sheathed his sword and grabbed hold of Etheo’s bristly fur. As he took hold, he felt the direwolf’s jaw loosen, allowing a freer range of movement. He pulled himself up onto the back on Etheo’s while small branches and shrubbery beat against him. Stoyan marveled at how smooth the climb was considering the pace at which they were traveling. As he mounted the direwolf, Alaiya’s screams could be heard from behind him. He turned to see the third Goblin firing arrows at the Sorceress and her mount, Dyrr. Green specks of arrow fletches could be seen dotting the silver-haired direwolf as Alaiya clung hopelessly to her fur.
“Shit,” thought Stoyan, as he drew his sword again, “she can’t use magick with the wolves. Paejin said it’d spook them or something. Damned useless –.” His thoughts were cut short as he defended against another worg attack, knocking the beast back with the butt of his sword. “See if you can close the distance to us, Alaiya,” he yelled, but the words died in the whipping wind.
Alaiya had not been paying attention to the others, too focused was she on avoiding the arrows of the Goblin. However, she kept beseeching Dyrr, wholeheartedly, for forgiveness. There was an aura, an overwhelming sensation Alaiya felt, that told her Dyrr was distrustful of her magick. It was not a telepathic voice, or even something that she could tangibly grasp, be them words or actions. It was more surreal than that, like a hyper-instinctive gut reaction, that connected the mount and rider. It was this connection that resonated deep with the direwolf, belaying the sincerity of Alaiya’s pleas, a sincerity that resonated with the direwolf like a pup to its mother. With no prompting, Dyrr pinned down her ears and lowered her head, much in the same manner Karyn had done with Elias. The move took Alaiya by surprise, and she hesitated, unsure if she was given permission or the direwolf just did not wish to hear any more.
Knowing she needed to aid her friends, Alaiya took the risk as magick once more formed in the palm of her hand. The colors swirled, illuminating her face in a dazzling display of reds, greens, yellows, blues, and purples. As she concentrated her power, she felt Dyrr’s apprehension to the magick, but the direwolf simply continued to run. An arrow flew by her head, followed by one that grazed her leg, causing Alaiya to wince in pain. Turning to her left, see saw the massive worg and its Goblin rider keeping pace, and resolved that she would not go down without a fight. Unleashing her power, the spell raced across the forest in a flash, striking the Goblin in the left shoulder. It howled in pain as it dropped its bow and steered the worg into close combat. Touches of moonlight gleamed off of the jagged blade it now wielded in its right hand as it closed the distance, the powerful legs of the worg easily reaching the direwolf.
Meanwhile, de Geffriel and Stoyan were busy fending off the ferocious attacks from the worg. This creature, unlike the one before, lacked the blind fury, but made more calculated attacks against both rider and mount. It would race alongside, waiting for openings in the forest floor, before lashing out with a bite or a swipe of its claws. Twice, already, it had been successful on de Geffriel and Mulde, a patch of fur missing on the latter’s haunch were a deep wound had formed. Stoyan had tried to flank the worg, attempting to keep it pinned between the two fighters, but the beast continually moved in and out of space, insisting on guerilla warfare tactics. With Elias’s healing essentially nullified from the back of the mount, it seemed destined for a battle of attrition; momentum began to swing in the worg’s favor.
Until Elias did the noblest, bravest, and stupidest thing Stoyan had ever witnessed – he charged the worg. Needing to be in closer quarters to be effective, Elias knew he needed to be near the battle, both to heal and assist. As he charged, his rod held menacingly in his upraised hand, yellow light began to illuminate around Stoyan as bolts of light arched around his body. Etheo snarled a bit at the uncomfortable magick on his back that caused his fur to stand on end and gravitate toward Stoyan. The Paladin tried to reassure the direwolf with a pat on its neck, but the electrical charge only made more fur stand on end, agitating Etheo. With a dismissive snort, Etheo became resigned to his fate and leapt, ramming into the flank of the worg. The blow forced the worg to take a small, sideways leap to keep from falling, pinning it between Mulde and Etheo, with Elias and Karyn holding point on its rear. Unable to escape, Stoyan brought down his sword on the beast’s skull, blood immediately pouring out of the wound. The worg shuddered for a moment before kicking out with its hind legs and catching Karyn in the snout. Then, as Elias and Karyn fell back a step, the worg tried to make an escape. As it broke for the opening, de Geffriel struck with her rapier, catching the tender underside of the worg’s shoulder. The blow bought Stoyan enough time to lay another strike on the beast’s head, and this time the skull shattered open. The worg crumpled instantly, crashing to the ground in a heap as blood splattered the trees and flora. Karyn skillfully maneuvered around the corpse, avoiding being taken under by the massive worg’s body.
Stoyan wasted little time in directing Etheo to the battling Alaiya, though there was a substantial amount of ground to cover. Through the terrain of the forest and the craftiness of the Goblin rider, the Sorceress had been pulled away from the others. As he rode, blasts of light exploded in the night as Alaiya’s spells streaked through the woods. Some hit the cedarglenns, while others disappeared into the night’s landscape. Occasionally one would strike the Goblin or the worg, creating an eerie illumination in the darkness of the woods. Stoyan’s could not see much, relying more on Etheo’s sense of smell and direction as they navigated the sprawling wooden landscape. The sounds of battle were Stoyan’s only clues as to how the fight was going, and each time he heard Alaiya’s voice scream out in pain, he grew more frustrated that he was not there to help.
With another flash, the fighting stopped, a blanket of perfect silence falling over the woods like a gentle spring rain. As the silence registered with Stoyan, he felt as though time stood still. The woods still whipped by, an endless blur right now, but it failed to matter. He stayed, focused on the direction of the last dwindling sounds of battle, staring into the darkness from which he hoped for one thing and one thing only – the emergence of Alaiya. For what seemed like an eternity, Stoyan strained his eyes, until a speck of silver broke through the darkness. As the speck enlarge, Stoyan began to make out the familiar shape of the direwolf and his heart, which had been stuck waiting in anticipation, finally felt relief.
“Nice to have you back with us, Alaiya,” he offered, comforting words spilling forth unannounced. “Impressed that you managed to take down both the rider and the worg. You’ve gotten more skilled at fighting, without a doubt.”
Alaiya’s reply was nothing but silence as the silver-furred beast moved closer to the pack, a distinct limp on its front left leg. Etheo moved behind and around Dyrr, bringing Stoyan into view of the direwolf’s flank. Feathered shafts jutted out of the mount like porcupine quills, providing a sharp contrast to the flat, flowing fur surrounding them. As Stoyan scanned the body, calling out for Alaiya, Etheo moved in closer. As the wind bore down on them, the flutter of a robe caught the Paladin’s eye as it drifted up and back down amidst the fur. Moving in closer, Stoyan found Alaiya, white-knuckled and terrified, latched painfully tight onto the back of Dyrr. Blood trickled down from her arm, leg, and torso, darkening the silver fur of the direwolf, creating permanent shadows upon the mount.
Relief once again washed over Stoyan as he sheathed his blade and settled comfortably back onto Etheo. For a moment, the pain and frustration that Stoyan had been feeling over the last few weeks faded away as he realized what could have been. Briefly, he allowed himself to be consoled – “At least we’re alive.”
The massive cedarglenns began to part ways as the forest began to gradually thin once more. The direwolves now eased their feverish pace and came to a stop familiar to the companions. Mulde came to a stop above a torn and tattered patch of earth, full of traces of a battle. Lowering itself to its belly, the direwolf’s eyes followed de Geffriel as she leapt from its back and examined the area. Stoyan joined the woman as she examined the surroundings of their ill-fated battle with Lan’s forces.
“Looks like this is the place,” said the Paladin, his own eyes fixated on the forest. “Pretty good sense of direction, those wolves. Better than you could do!” He let out a deep guffaw as he slapped de Geffriel on the back, clearly pleased with his assessment of the Rangers navigational skills. “Perhaps you could learn a thing or three.”
Without a second thought, de Geffriel punched Stoyan in the armorless opening beneath his arm, a spot whose placement she knew well. The massive man winced hard with the sudden onset of pain. “And perhaps you would do well to learn how to hold your own in a fight. I killed half the forces – what’d you do?” Mulde barked in agreement, which caused Etheo to emit a low growl.
Rubbing his ribcage to ease the sudden throbbing pain, to no avail, Stoyan conceded. Elias and Alaiya had joined them now as they began searching for clues to where Lan’s men had come from. Scouring the landscape, they found tracks and a path where it looked like the men had come from. Before the group could follow through though, they noticed that the direwolves had already left.
“Guess Tereson was serious when he said they would only take us here and then leave. Like ghosts though – didn’t even hear them go.” Stoyan’s assessment was met with a reluctant agreement, the eeriness of the direwolves sudden departure a surprise to them all.
“Too bad,” spoke de Geffriel as she traced the battle again, moving from one set of footprints to the next. “I kinda liked Mulde. Had a sense for fighting and knew how to take care of a true lady. Not unlike some others I know.” She caught Stoyan’s eye and teased him with a sultry look. “But, maybe I’m wrong?”
She strutted over to Stoyan and brushed his face with the back of her fingers, starting dangerously close to his mouth and tracing a line to his ear. “The beast was a bit hairy for me. You’re more my type.” Stoyan’s face flushed bright red at the bluntness of the woman.
A sudden, perhaps forced, coughing fit overtook Elias, breaking the tense and awkward moment. “Perhaps we should begin following the trail? You know, before we get ambushed, or,” he paused as a sly grin appeared on his face, “get caught with our pants down, so to say.” He chortled at his own humor, which only made Stoyan blush more.
“Fine, as you say, but we should keep someone here. Keep each other in sight. I’ll head out with…,” he closed his eyes, resigned to his words and decision, full well knowing what would follow, “…de Geffriel.”
Elias smiled and turned away. “Ambushed. Pants down. Be careful.”
Just then a low, quick howl erupted from the woods to the east, causing the companions to jump involuntarily. Stoyan put his hand on his hilt as some nearby rustling alerted him that they were not alone. Without warning, Dyrr came crashing out of the brush, her silvery-white fur coated in twigs, leaves, and mud. Her snout was caked in dirt, small clumps still clinging to the moist tip. In her mouth was an assortment of leaves, roots, and fungi, most of which were covered in a thin layer of saliva. As Dyrr walked forward, the companions eased their muscles. Stopping before Alaiya, the young Sorceress froze, unsure of the intention, though she felt no malice from the great beast. Dyrr, in a moment of simplicity, opened her maw and let the contents of her mouth fall to the feet of the Human. Then, with lightning quick reflexes, she nuzzled Alaiya toward the stash before turning back into the woods and disappearing.
Alaiya stared, dumbfounded, in the direction Dyrr had fled. When she finally managed to move, she simply bent down and grabbed a cluster of fungus, turning them over in her hands. “Paejin said Dyrr helped him on his scavenges for herb. Maybe that was what she was doing. Can help us?” She spoke to no one in particular, more so addressing her instincts. She had never seen the fungi she held, or any of the roots or leaves. “But I am no healer. This is not as simple as magick.” Alaiya looked back up into the woods where Dyrr had disappeared into. Then, confidently, she took a bite out of the mushroom in her hands.
The taste was bitter and the stalk hard and fibrous. The cap was soft and dissolved instantaneously. Alaiya chewed furiously and swallowed, despite the urge to cough it up. Forcing it down took the equivalent amount of will power as unraveling the delicate strands of magick during her training in Astyr, though it left a far more vile taste in her mouth. Soon, however, she felt her muscles relax and the pain of the night’s ride ease away. Her body’s minor aches dissipated and she felt rejuvenated. Amazed, she looked to the others, astonishment in her eyes. She held up the mixture to the others, offering them a dose to bitter comfort. Each took a small sample in stride, having seen Alaiya’s contorted face while she was eating.
“Well, that left a lot to be desired. Like a nice nutmeg ale, or some spiced carrots, or a good winterspun pie.” Elias rummaged through his pouches and removed a flask. Taking a quick swig, he tucked the flask back inside his coat and sighed with relief. “Nutmeg ale. Ahhhh!”
Stoyan turned away from the others. “On second thought, I should go ahead alone. de Geffriel, you stay here and watch out for other patrols. Be ready just in case.” de Geffriel gave a small pout but heeded Stoyan’s wishes as the Paladin made his way down the small foot trail leading west.
It was not hard going, and he constantly made sure to keep the others in sight. As he crept forward through the woods, he noticed some shadows moving ahead of him. He halted, looking back to make sure he could still see the others. “Still there,” he thought, “good. Now let’s see what these assholes are up too.” He slid along the ground at a snail’s pace, being careful enough to move anything that might inform the figures to his location with his sword. Continuing to close the gap, he noticed three figures, all about the same size, their backs to him. Making one last check behind, he noticed that de Geffriel had taken too challenging Elias in a game of dice. Stoyan rolled his eyes at their simplicity and returned his focus on the people before him. He shifted around the trunk of a cedarglenn and hide behind a thick screen of foliage. The figures were resting in a small clearing, completely unawares to his presence. “Wow. I must be getting good at this stealth thing.”
One of the figures stood, taller than originally thought, and began to move away. This provided Stoyan with a unique opportunity to strike with more favorable odds. Waiting in a crouching position, the figure passed and Stoyan leapt forth, sword brandished, a strike aimed directly for the head.
A shrill scream filled the forest as de Geffriel was attacked from behind. Elias and Alaiya, startled by the intensity and suddenness of the scream, could only look on in horror as de Geffriel’s face was mere inches away from Stoyan’s longsword.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing Stoyan?!” de Geffriel’s voice was livid, venom and poison hanging on every word. “Why in any god’s name would you pull a prank like that?”
But Stoyan could not respond, his eyes wide with fear and confusion. His mouth stood agape as a stammered apology wheezed passed his lips. Standing up and storming over to him, de Geffriel punched Stoyan squarely in the jaw, snapping the Paladin to his senses.
Rubbing his face, Stoyan looked around, perplexed. “How did you guys get way up here? You were just behind me.”
“Us?! We never moved, you retard!” de Geffriel’s fury was rising fast. “How about you and your crap-shit sense of direction? You can’t even walk in a straight line! And why are you waving your sword all around, playing hero? I thought you were scouting?! Who scouts with fucking deathblows?”
“But, but I did head in a straight line. In fact I kept you three in sight the whole time. Right up until I ambushed the fig– you.” The man’s shoulders slumped forward. “What is going on here?”
As the two fighters continued to argue, confusion set in on Stoyan’s face, a drastic contrast to the anger on de Geffriel’s. The harsh words and multitude of curses were the only sounds that echoed in the stillness of the night, which caused the moment to trudge along for an eternity for Alaiya and the Gnome. The tense calmness of the woods enhanced the setting, but the infighting gave Alaiya an idea. She gently pulled Elias to her and quietly whispered into his ear.
“Didn’t the Paladins who had been searching say the trails just always kind of ended? That they lost track of them every time?”
Elias nodded in response, a curious look gleaming in his eyes.
“I wonder if there’s more to what’s going on here. Wait here.”
With that, the Sorceress took off to the west, constantly looking over her shoulder back toward Elias and the others. As she ran, Alaiya focused on the natural world around her, searching for the strands of magick in the air. She felt the presence of the magick, but had learned early in her studies that magick exists everywhere in the world; mages just happen to have the innate ability to harness the power within themselves. At roughly a hundred paces, she turned around and faced the others as she began walking backwards. She kept her eyes fixated on the group as she took small, light steps, making sure to keep her balance. As the sounds of de Geffriel’s words faded, new sounds emerged from behind her; a recognizably deep, smoky voice of a woman. Keep her eyes fixated on the diminishing group she walked away from, the voice grew both clearer and louder. Finally, as the group was beginning to fade from her sight, she stopped, took a few steps forward to reestablish her line of sight, and turned around.
Before here was the group, not more than twenty long paces away. She turned back again to find the group once more, but saw only the outlines of the forest. Content with her findings she returned to Elias.
“Well?” he asked, agitated at not being let in on her little secret plan. “What’d you find out?”
She leaned in close as to not alert the others as she escorted the Artificer away. “We’re surrounded by magick. Powerful magick too. It’s like a trap or something. Tell me, what did you see as I walked away?”
Elias shrugged. “Dunno. Nothing special. You took off, turned around, and walked backwards, until you disappeared behind some overgrowth. Next thing I know, you’re standing behind me. You and that Stoyan feller have some bad sense of direction.”
Alaiya shook her head in protest. “That might be true, but not in this case. I kept you in my line of sight the whole time, up until I turned around behind you. Whatever spell is here can put us in some sort of endless loop.” For the first time in a while, Alaiya was genuinely excited about her Gift and the powers it could potentially possess. “It’s fascinating.” And then, like an involuntary chill spasm, an image of Cyrxx floated into her mind and her heart grew heavy.
“So, what can we do?” asked Elias. “This is why the Paladin patrols couldn’t find them, but how are we supposed to get by? Not to be a wet cat, but it’s not like either of us is particularly skilled in the ways of complex enchantments.”
“One of the basic elements of spells is that they are tied together with strands of elemental magick. The more complex the spell, the finer the threads are and the tighter the weave. If we search hard enough, we might be able to find the weave and see if it’s possible to unravel the spell from its foundation. Now, you have some familiarity with magick, so help me search.”
“You can do that?” exclaimed the Gnome as his eyes widened to the size of small melons. He gazed down at his fingers as they moved with anticipation. “How cool!”
Alaiya closed her eyes as Elias mimicked her. She searched for the greatest pull of magical energy around and walked blindly to it, her hands outstretched before her as if to brace against a wall. Elias followed, though he kept one eye open, and nearly fell over her when she came to a sudden halt.
“Here. The boundary of the spell is here.” She opened her eyes and searched the air before her, looking for an invisible thread of magick. Elias concentrated on the area before him, too, and soon a slew of colored strands manifested before him. Reds, yellows, greens, blues, and purples darted from all directions, weaving intricate patterns suspended in the air.
“What are we searching for?” he asked through an awe-struck voice.
“Weakness. The point where we can unravel the spe– here!” Alaiya grabbed hold of one of the thicker purple strands before them. It appeared slightly slacked and frayed, with bits of magical fibers jutting off the main strand. A smile brushed Alaiya’s lips as she began unraveling the tiny frays.
“Go get the others,” she boasted. “We have our way in.”
The moon was rising steadily in the night sky, engulfing the stars around it in the brilliance of its full-bodied light. The massive cedarglenns thickened and thinned in such a perplexing way that, if not for the moon, the companions would have thought they were traveling in circles. In the sparse amounts of moonlight that did manage to filter down onto the forest floor, only a few specimens of incandescent mushrooms held onto the soft glow, providing a natural trail for them to follow. All things considered, it seems the land around them was eager to aid the companion’s cause.
They pressed on, nearing, as Alaiya felt, the apex of the evening. It had been a few hours since they had created a rift in the magical barrier and broken through Lan’s hidden domain. Yet, despite trekking deeper into enemy territory, they had not encountered, seen, or even heard, a single person since they’re arrival. Stoyan, the self-appointed figure-head of relieving tense situations, spoke to everyone’s lingering doubts.
“Either there’s a massive trap ahead, or this is the dumbest hideout I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh, that’s reassuring,” scoffed Elias, though he was quick to lower his voice just in case.
“Well, well, well. Looks like somethin’s crawled outta the ol’ woods, lookin’ fer a meal.”
Elias and the others turned to their left at the voice echoing from the woods. A man emerged slowly from the shadows into a sparse sprinkling of moonlight. He wore a dark brown leather jerkin and greaves in addition to black boots, armguards, and a cloak. He carried a blunted wooden club in his hands. The club itself was monstrous with broken shards of metal protruding from its flesh. Splattering of dried blood adorned its surface.
“Boss said she expected some company, but didn’a think it’d happen. Need to prove ourselves, too. Let’s have us some fun, eh guys?”
Behind the man, and surrounding the group emerged more people, all clad in similar garb. Some wielded clubs while a few tossed shortswords between their hands. Two even carried shields, denoting either or rank or their lack of confidence in their sword play. All in all, twenty people, all initiates of the Dark Light now stood between Stoyan and finding Veth.
As Stoyan unsheathed his longsword, the symbol of Tempus caught the moonlight and shimmered accordingly. It appeared the gods favored the Paladin in this battle. In a move that portrayed his deity’s own indulgence for battle, Stoyan’s face took on an air of happiness and relief.
“This will be an adequate warm-up.”
“Where is she,” Stoyan demanded, his voice escalating to a fevered pitch. “Where is Lan?!”
The man he held looked up to him with clouded eyes. Blood streamed down his face from a gash in his temple. He was bleeding profusely from the stump where his right arm had been. On the verge of death, his final moments were graced with a terrible chuckle and a satisfying grin.
“It is…too late. We succeeded…in our…diversion. It must be…completed…by now.”
The man spit blood up as Stoyan threw his to the ground. “Useless!” Turning to the others, Stoyan’s rage shone. “C’mon, we’ve got to move. They must be near.”
“But, uh, yeah. Stoyan, maybe we can rest for just a second and tend to our wounds?” Elias had a hitch in his step from where a blade had caught his leg. As he walked, he looked over at Alaiya, his eyes showing concern. “And she needs to recover her magick. Just a few moments is all. What d’ya say? Five minutes?”
“We don’t have five minutes, let alone a few moments, Elias! Lan is near and she has Veth! We’ve already wasted too much time!” Sheathing his sword, he proposed an ultimatum. “If you’re too weak to press on, then stay here and die. But I’ve made my choice – I’m saving Veth and taking Lan down.”
A soft, gurgled chuckle escaped the lips of the dying Dark Light initiate at Stoyan’s feet. Anger swelled like a rising tsunami within Stoyan at that moment, reaching its apex as he brought the heel of his boot down on the man’s face with such tremendous force that it crushed the skull.
“I’m leaving. Do as your pathetic hearts wish.”
There was a rustle from behind Elias, movements made by a timid young woman finding strength deep within herself. As Alaiya walked past Elias, their eyes met. She placed her hand on his shoulder and offered a polite, reassuring smile before turning to face Stoyan’s back. Then she departed, following the Paladin deeper into the woods. Off to the left, Elias could make out the shadowy figure of de Geffriel as she zipped between the cedarglenns, keeping in line with Stoyan. Suddenly, against his better judgment, Elias was all alone.
“Blasted Humans. Likely to get us all killed.” Shaking his head in disappointment, he hurried after them. “Nothing like trying the impossibly foolish. Oh well, at least it’ll be fun.”
The emptiness and the silence of the woods held no comfort for the companions as the treaded cautiously through the cedarglenns. The night seemed to descend into further darkness as they traveled. Coupled with the genitive pace and the anticipation of the unknown, each person grew more tense and high-strung with every step. Even the woods edged closer, as if they too feared what the full-mooned night might bring.
Wishing to maintain the element of surprise and catch Lan off guard, de Geffriel took the point with unabashed interest. Ahead of her she spotted the silver glint of moonlight trickling down through the woods as she scampered up a small hill. Deftly finding exposed roots and gnarled burls, she made her way up the earthy hillside with the grace of an alley cat. As she burst over the crest eager overtook her, and she was caught exposed in the openness of the flattened hilltop. No sooner had she retreated to the safety of the tree line that she saw the surreal masterpiece adorning the hilltop – a charcoal black obsidian monument, covered in runic engravings that swirled with silver hues beneath the caress of the moon. Her breath caught in her throat as she waved a hand absent-mindedly behind her, quieting the approach of the others.
Then she heard the voices.