Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Character Index (through Ch. 4)

Pral Stanj (“Prall” “STonj”) -- leader of the group, Pral is dark man with green eyes. His face is cross-hatched by a myriad of small scars from his experience in combat. He usually keeps his hair closely cut except for a topknot. Pral is of large stature, standing just over six feet tall and has a very muscular build. His preferred weaponry is a long blade and buckler for quick offense and defense. A quiet man, Pral possesses extraordinary knowledge of the future bordering on clairvoyance. He is ruthless in pursuit of his goals, but has a softer side buried deep within him.

Hosus of Trieth (“Ho-SUESS” “tree-ETH”) – daughter of Trieth and sister of Lian, Hosus has been a loner much of her life. She has spent the majority of her time in the woods and learned how to track and hunt during her adolescence. She is a petite woman, with shoulder-length dark hair the hue of the forest floor after a heavy rain. Her brown eyes match her hair. Her preferred weapons are daggers and she has perfected her form of physical magic that leaves her opponents dazed and disoriented. She is a curious soul, sometimes allowing her curiosity to distract her from the task at hand. She is also fiercely loyal to those she considers her own.

Bertran (“BUR-trin”) – an absolute giant of man, Bertran overshadows even Pral’s significant stature. Standing nearly seven feet tall, Bertran spent part of his youth apprenticed to a blacksmith, forging his muscles and weapons for battle. He left his master’s forge after his mother’s death and reunited with his younger brother, Nar. Together, they perform the protective and martial duties for their small town as well as help their neighbors when additional strength is called for. Because of his status as town protector, Bertran practices with his giant bastard sword against his younger brother daily. Despite an angry youth, Bertran calmed down and learned patience after his mother’s death. He loves his brother dearly and is protective of anyone smaller than himself. He grew up in the same village as Hosus.

Nar (“NAR”)– tiny in comparison to his older brother, Nar is of average height but thick with muscle. Built much like one would imagine a dwarf, Nar worked as a woodcutter for a local mill for several years, chopping trees and hauling logs. Reunited with his brother after their mother’s death, Nar was shocked by the change in his brother’s personality and respects him deeply. Content to share protective duties with his brother, Nar is often seen as the more taciturn of the two. He is a thoughtful person content to let others speak, but he is intelligent and well-studied in history and geography (two secret delights he studies whenever he can find new information). Because of his time as a woodcutter, Nar prefers axes to swords, but his axes could never be confused for simple wood axes. Incidentally, those particular war axes were forged by Bertran’s old master. Growing up, he was close friends with Hosus and was one of few who understood her.

Phanza (“PHAWN-zuh”) – from an early age, Phanza showed an aptitude for managing magical energies. He was entered into the Wizard’s Keep at the age of 8, several years before normal apprentice magicians. He quickly understood new methods and techniques shown to him by the elder Mages and was on par with many of them by his seventeenth birthday. Because of his young age, he was unable to partake of the Mage’s Ritual, the required test of will, magical aptitude, and strength, which would enter him into the Keep’s records as a full Mage. Until he could at the age of 25, Phanza studied under the First Wizard studying new and often dangerous methods of using raw magical energies to power mechanical contrivances. He participated in the Mage’s Ritual on his 25th birthday but experienced such terrors during the test that he nearly died. He is extremely intelligent but accustomed to following orders. Phanza was discovered by Pral while running errands by the First Wizard far from the Wizard’s Keep. His staff is crafted from a rare type of grass that grows as tall and as hard as some trees. It allows him to channel his icy will through it and set enemies ablaze with burning coldfire. He feels very comfortable with Hosus because of her own magical talents and understands the loner mentality.

Glyc (“GLICK”) – twin brother to Wenley, Glyc is the trouble maker of the two. Always willing to go one step farther, he was chastised much as a youth for his sometimes dangerous pranks. It was not until his brother almost drowned because of one of these pranks that Glyc learned a healthy sense of caution. Nonetheless, Glyc is still the first to leap before looking and gets him and his brother into trouble many times in their travels. His preferred weapon is a short bow, influenced by a childhood gift from his father who worked as fletcher. He is also quite skilled with two short blades that symbolize his brother and himself as a dangerous pair. Glyc’s is a sarcastic personality but rarely is he malicious in his teasing.

Wenley (“WEN-lee”) – twin brother to Glyc, Wenley was born first, and so adopted the role of big brother. He is a reserving influence on his brother’s impetuousness but often got dragged into Glyc’s pranks nonetheless and was punished as well. He nearly drowned at a young age when Glyc thought it would be funny trip him off a local foot bridge into a lazy river, but he was rescued by a nearby bystander. He immediately forgave his brother after the incident and promised never to tell their father. Given the same present by their father, Wenley also prefers the short bow. He scoffed when his brother suggested they get matching sword pairs, but he covets them as a connection to his twin. Though reserved, Wenley will often join his brother in teasing their friends, providing a witty counterpoint to his twin’s sarcasm.

Slandra (“SLON-druh”) – nine foot tall snake-like beings, the Slandra inhabit the Ferondil Mountain Range in the north of the continent. They are a tribal civilization, known for their ornate pottery and superb metalworking abilities. They have a warrior class that is fearsome in battle, and their best armor works are reserved for this elite class. Recently they have been raiding outside of their ancestral mountain home, though no one seems to know why.

Trist Ritin (“Trist” “RITE-in”) – Trist is a scout in the King’s Army and was leading a scouting party for Ramadan Johnsa’s forces. He is a talented and intelligent man that moved his way up through the King’s army quickly after he was conscripted to defend against the Slandra incursions.

Herkiel (“HER-keel”) – Herkiel is the head of the Council of Seven that rules the city-nation of Terada. Though prone to bouts of unrestrained anger, Herkiel is an extremely intelligent and cunning man. He was orphaned as a babe and left unguarded to die in the wilds. However, he survived somehow, despite his young age, and lived in a state of nature until the age of ten when he was found and adopted by a traveling merchant. The merchant was quite wealthy and educated Herkiel in various languages, diplomacy, economics, and politics. This education, as well as the contacts established because of his adopted father’s lucrative business, allowed Herkiel to cultivate himself as a worthy leader of Terada. He is, however, contemptuous of the prospering nation (and all established states) he leads and seeks with a burning determination to see the world return to a state of nature.

Johnsa (“JON-suh”) – Johnsa is a Ramadan in a mercenary force of human fighters who gathered to combat the Slandra menace raiding out of the mountains into Teradan borders. She is an intelligent woman, savvy in the ways of combat and warfare. She grew up the daughter of an army mage who specialized in destructive battle spells. She learned at a young age about the horrors of war, the bloodiness of battle, and the consequences of every action. She grew up moving with her father’s army, and saw much of the wide world. When her father died of old age, Johnsa stayed with the army that had become her family until the age of twenty-six when she departed to join the mercenary force in Terada. Johnsa is also an innate magic user, though she was formerly unaware of her abilities, and she is unable to consciously control her unique form of magic. Johnsa is a smaller woman, standing only 5’4”. She has chestnut hair and her eye color changes between from stormy grey to a sea blue depending on her mood. When her magic is expressed, however, her eyes become blood red. Johnsa prefers the heavy-bladed scimitar that she took from a dead Slandra that was part of the group that killed her men. She is, however, quite skilled with most weapons, though she was never quite able to figure out staves.

Chapter Two

“I’ll bet you five gold pieces no one comes,” Glyc whispered from the left side of the trail."

You’re on, brother. I don’t trust our luck today,” Wenley replied.

Glyc grinned, and his brother could only make out the slight sheen of his eyes. They waited until they could no longer hear Bertran’s tromping ahead of them, and then waited another slow count of one hundred.

“Let’s go,” they said in unison.

Standing, they walked silently, two vigilant hunters straddling the path. They saw and heard no one other than each other for several minutes.

“Stop!” Wenley whispered, his voice harsh in the stillness.

A moment passed, and Glyc heard a stick snap behind them. The forest was otherwise silent, devoid of birdsong and the natural sounds of the woods. Glyc turned to his brother. Pointing upwards, he mimicked drawing his bow and aiming low. Wenley nodded and clambered up the nearest trunk while Glyc stayed low, crouching in a large bush. In silence, they waited.

They did not wait long before a small, ragged group of human soldiers came stalking through the woods. Six of them followed a smaller man who knelt to the ground, appearing to study the leaves on the forest floor. Glyc decided he wouldn’t kill him yet, and he hoped his brother had the same thought. The scout could be a useful source of information.

Glyc withdrew four arrows from his quiver, jabbed three into the ground and nocked the fourth. He carefully sighted down the shaft at a man in the back of the group.

The group was thirty feet away when the first man fell to the ground, an arrow protruding from his chest. Glyc noticed his brother had chosen the man at the back as well so the group would turn at his death throes. Glyc immediately felled another man with an arrow to his back.

Glyc nodded to himself as he noticed their scout had reacted to the man’s death, but was peering ahead, searching calmly for the enemy. Glyc fitted his second arrow, loosing it at the man left of the scout.

The group quickly dwindled under the twins’ surprise barrage until only two remained. One was the scout. The other was a lucky soldier who had managed to avoid a fatal blow from Glyc’s arrow. Instead, he now had a shaft extending through his shoulder instead of his spine.


Trist held his position on the ground. His last soldier was hiding behind a tree, his face contorted in pain. The ambush had decimated his scouting party, and he could see from the skill of the archers he was only alive because they hadn’t wanted him dead.

“Listen to me,” he whispered to his fellow survivor. “Get out of here. Run back to camp and tell the commander to bring a battalion this way. I will draw their fire.”

The soldier nodded. Trist sprinted off to his right, yelling and shouting. The soldier gave him ten paces before he started his own sprint. Trist looked back once in time to see his comrade sprout another feathered shaft from his back.

“Blood and ashes!” Trist cursed loudly. He immediately halted his shouts and dropped back to the ground. “I am in serious trouble,” he thought to himself.

Trist considered his options. There were no more than two archers, but there might be more fighters in hiding. He had seen the tracks of four others, including one giant. They probably knew where he was, and could or would kill him if he ran. That left him only one option.

“I surrender,” he shouted dejectedly.

“Glad to hear it.”

Trist flinched at the voice coming from only a few feet away. He stood up slowly, palms out. He didn’t want to be shot because they thought he might attack.

“Smart man,” came another voice, this one behind him, “Now come with us.”

Trist looked back at his other captor. Then forward again. His eyes grew wide when he saw the same man standing behind him as before him. He felt the blood drain from his face.

“Are you…g-g-ghosts?” Trist could barely force out the whisper. While a brave man, he was also quite superstitious.

The two men burst into laughter. Their guffaws shocked Trist even more. It was some moments before anyone could speak.

“Ghosts, he says,” one of the men finally gasped. This statement caused a new eruption of laughter. When they finally got their laughter under control, they explained Trist’s mistake.

“That’s the first I’ve ever heard of ghosts. No, we’re not ghosts, nor undead. We’re living flesh and bone just like you. We just happen to be twins.”

“Oh.” The simple explanation made Trist feel very silly but he felt immediately better, and the easy bearing of the two men made him less nervous about their intentions. He began to lower his hands and immediately had two arrows pointed at his torso.

“We might not be ghosts, but we’ll still kill you if you give us trouble.” All gaiety had vanished from their voices.

Trist raised his hands again and nodded his understanding. The man behind him pulled his arms behind him and bound his wrists together.

The smiles returned, and with a nod forward, Trist and his captors began their march. They rejoined the path quickly and Trist’s quick eyes soon picked up the other footprints. The trail was no more than an hour old and at the rate his captors were pushing him, they would likely catch up before nightfall.

They walked for several more hours and the trail grew ever fresher. The twins behind him did not speak, but they were kind and gave him water whenever he asked.

Night descended quickly, almost as if someone had snuffed out the sun. The trio halted momentarily to allow their eyes to adjust. Trist’s eyes adjusted quickly and were able to pick out the trail after only a minute. He saw a nod pass between his captors as he began walking the path again without provocation. Strangely, he did not feel nervous despite his captivity.

They walked for several more minutes before stopping suddenly. Trist walked a few more steps before looking back quizzically, but the twins only smiled and pointed forward. He looked ahead again, but before he could completely turn his head he felt cold steel against his throat. He froze immediately, and let his body go loose.

“Smart man,” whispered a distinctively feminine voice. Trist realized that was the second time he had heard that this day and hoped he would fare as well as he had initially.

Trist looked down at the knife holder. A slender woman looked up at him, and her cold eyes bored into his. He gulped involuntary.

“A healthy dose of fear under tight control. Fast eyes. An obvious soldier mentality. Except for the fact that he is the last living member of his party. That shows intelligence,” she said, almost to herself.

Trist blinked. How had she known? He had heard no words exchanged nor seen hand signals flashed. His fear jumped. These were no ordinary brigands.

Glyc and Wenley smiled at each other. Hosus was a master when it came to making people uncomfortable. She glanced at them, then back up at the prisoner. Her blade never wavered next to his throat. The steel glowed dully.

“Come on. The camp is just ahead,” Hosus stated flatly.

“Is dinner ready?” Wenley asked cheerily. His stomach echoed the question.

“Pral is cooking.”

Wenley’s face dropped. “Damn.”

Everyone laughed except the prisoner. Hosus’s blade was still pressed against his throat and he hadn’t twitched.

“Stop scaring the man, Hosus, and let him move,” Glyc reprimanded.

Hosus blushed slightly, though it was near impossible to see in the dark, and sheathed her dagger. Wenley thought he heard a muttered apology escape her mouth. He smiled at the thought.

“Are you going to stand there like idiots or come eat?” someone yelled from up ahead.

“We’re coming,” Glyc and Wenley said in unison. Hosus smiled at the shared response.

Hosus nodded her head towards the camp and three wanderers and their prisoner entered a small hollow. They were greeted by the welcomes of comrades and the smell of scorched venison.

“Beware the venison,” Glyc whispered to the soldier. “If you eat it quickly, you won’t have to taste it.”

Once everyone was in the light of the cooking fire, the talk ended and all eyes turned toward the prisoner. The bound man turned towards Bertran.

“I am Trist Ritin, a scout and courier in the King’s army.” He bowed.

Bertran smiled at the group over the prostrated man’s head, amused by his assumed role.

“I am Bertran, a humble swordsman of these lands and slightly less important in this group than you give me credit for.”

Trist’s head snapped up, his eyes following Bertran’s outstretched finger to another swordsman, veiled in a heavy cloak of dark green. Their eyes met, and Trist felt nearly overwhelmed by the controlled power behind that gaze.

“My name is Pral Stanj. You are well met, Trist Ritin, though not in the most pleasant of circumstances.”

Trist nodded and bowed again. Pral inclined his head in greeting.

“Glyc. Wenley. A report, please, while we eat,” Pral commanded politely.

“Of course,” Wenley stated.

“Right away,” Glyc added.

“But first…”

“Some broth…”

“Perhaps some bread…”

“And we’ll begin,” they finished together.

Everyone but Pral laughed, but he smiled slightly and nodded his acquiescence. Even Trist could not stop himself from grinning at the twins.

After a hasty meal, Glyc and Wenley launched into their tale. They began with a quick recap of the terrain and tactics of their ambush, followed by a very detailed description of the force Trist had been leading. Pral nodded along, occasionally interjecting with a question for his own clarification.

The story ended with the discussion of Trist’s capture and his subsequent “enlistment” in their group. At this point, Trist became the focus of attention.

“Allow me to make introductions,” said Pral with a small sympathetic smile.

“I am, and you already know Bertran and the twins Glyc and Wenley. The man with the axes is Nar, and with the staff is Phanza. I believe you have met Hosus,” he finished with a small look at the woman.

Trist nodded at each in turn, and gave a small bow to Hosus, causing the twins to smile mischievously. Hosus gave them a dirty look before retreating back into stony silence.

“Seeing as you’re our prisoner,” Trist looked over at Bertran, who had begun speaking, “you might as well be comfortable. We can’t really let you go now can we?” he asked of no one in particular.

Trist was confused for a second, but he did not feel nervous. These people, who had thus far done him no harm, would not kill him outright…would they?

He didn’t see Hosus move until she was nearly behind him. But when he tried to follow her movements, his body went suddenly rigid. He peered around wildly, and thought he saw a saddened look cross Phanza’s face before he felt the light touch of cold steel at the base of his skull. Panic filled his body, but no matter how much he tried to free himself of his invisible bonds, his limbs would not respond.

He felt Hosus bend close behind him.

“I’m sorry. May you live forever on the green shores of Iliath.” With these final words, Hosus slid her blade precisely through the back of Trist’s neck. His body remained upright, held by Phanza’s spell. A short word caused the former tracker to sprawl forward on the forest carpet.

“Why did we have to do that?” Glyc immediately growled. “He was smart. We could have recruited him.”

Hosus shook her head, but it was Pral who answered. “He was a loyal soldier at heart, and that would not have changed no matter how long you tried Glyc. Furthermore, we told him who we are. Our mission is secret, and our identities, at least some of us, are not widely unknown. If it were discovered that such a group as ours was traveling together, it would raise dangerous questions. We have a job to do, and nothing can stand in our way.”

Glyc and his brother started muttering between themselves, occasionally casting nasty glances at Pral, who stonily ignored them. The deed was done; there was no turning back.

No one else voiced their opinions, but most of them believed the scout had not needed to die. One of the reasons they followed Pral, though, in spite of his ruthlessness, was his uncanny foreknowledge. Perhaps this was one such occasion.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Chapter One

The circle of Slandra closed slowly around the group of warriors. Their hissing voices passed meaningless yet chilling words to the fighters, describing the hideous deaths they would suffer.

“This should be interesting,” said Bertran, the largest of the group. His great sword was resting lightly on his giant, metal plated shoulders.

“You always had a knack for understatements,” chortled his little brother, Nar, as he tested the balance of his axes, twirling them through his fingers.

The five other members of the group laughed in agreement. They included Pral the swordsman, the twin archers Glyc and Wenley, Phanza the sorcerer, and the female sneak Hosus. Each had his or her weapon ready and sharpened to kill Slandra.

“Be quiet all, while I prepare myself,” Phanza scolded them. The warriors retreated into their expecting silence, mentally preparing themselves for the battle to come.

“What exactly are you planning?” Hosus’s quiet voice cut through the hissing that pervaded the air. Though her voice was calm, the slender blades she held bobbed up and down as she prepared her own form of magic.

“The only spell I know that may see us through this day.”

The twins shifted uneasily, knowing Phanza always had multiple spells for any situation. Phanza’s muttering soon joined the Slandra hissing, and the glade around them descended into shadow.

Several moments passed, filled by Phanza’s mutterings and the rustle of clothes against weapons and armor. The Slandra were only a dozen paces away from the group.
“Circle up,” called Pral, “Glyc, Wenley, get some shafts ready. As soon as Phanza finishes his incantation, choose your targets and loose. Three shafts each, then out swords.”

The twins strung their short bows and jammed three arrows into the soft earth at their feet. They could fire three volleys with their bows before the Slandra moved as many feet.

The circling beasts approached within half a dozen paces of the warriors. Phanza’s mutterings grew louder, from a whisper to almost a shout. The completion of the spell came suddenly, and an unexpected chill fell upon each of the Slandra. Their movements slowed considerably, but the fire in their eyes surged brightly.
“Now!” yelled Pral and Bertran simultaneously.

Glyc and Wenley downed two Slandra before Bertran could lift his sword. Two more fell to Nar’s quick axes, and Bertran decapitated a third. A bright flash erupted from Hosus’s crossed blades, knocking down five in a line.

The Slandra let out a blood-curdling scream and charged. Their movements, slowed by Phanza’s spell, were still fast enough to force the fighters to combat back to back.

The battle was fierce. Bertran’s great sword skewered two, and the twins were forced to hack off additional serpents while Bertran freed his weapon. Phanza and Hosus battled side by side, his staff setting enemies aflame and her blades dropping them where they stood. Nar and Pral completed the circle, hacking and slashing.

Bertran’s sword got caught again, jammed in the plate mail of a larger Slandra, and he got yanked out of the circle. The human warriors’ intensity increased tenfold in their efforts to get to Bertran, and he finally resurfaced to resume his place.

Suffering from cuts in a dozen places, Bertran grabbed two of the curved scimitars from corpses, and his anger destroyed five in seconds. Nar’s left arm got slashed, and his axe fell to the ground. Pral dropped to a knee after being stabbed in the foot.

The fighting lasted only a few minutes. Every Slandra was dead or dying, but the seven warriors had all sustained several wounds.

“Gather round,” ordered Phanza, leaning heavily on his staff.

The twins had to support Bertran, and Hosus and Pral were helping each other. Nar was clutching his bleeding arm, but they quickly surrounded Phanza.

A short phrase left the sorcerer’s lips, and a dome of soft light covered the group. Small cuts healed instantly, and more severe wounds were cleansed and healed to a certain extent. The light dissipated, and Hosus quickly bandaged everything Phanza had not healed completely.

Phanza looked drained after the high use of his energy, his face appearing pale and shrunken. He slowly lowered himself to the ground. Though still young, his magic demanded a high price his body was pressed at times to produce.

“How is everyone?” he asked quietly.

“Bertran has a nasty slash across his back, but it’s not deep enough for any serious damage. Nar and the twins are fine, and Pral’s only real injury is a dent in his buckler,” Hosus replied.

Phanza nodded, peering at Bertran’s wound quickly. He could heal it now, but he would need his energy if another Slandra scouting party found them.

Pral helped Phanza to his feet, growling, “Get them up. We need to move.”
He nodded again, then moved to the others.

“Come, we must depart,” he said gently to Nar.

Together, they helped Bertran to his feet. Slowly, the big man gained his balance, and he hobbled off towards Pral with Nar following slightly behind, his face twisted in worry. Hosus and the twins were right behind them.

Phanza gazed once now upon the dead circle of serpent warriors. The Slandra were a fierce race, and had long lived in the mountain caves to the south. Lately, however, Slandra warrior parties had been raiding the forests around their mountain homes. Their sudden activity was a mystery to the sorcerer. In his bones though, Phanza felt an instinctual fear of what it could mean.

“Phanza?” The quiet voice at his side broke into his reverie.

“I’m coming, Hosus.”

Turning away from the Slandra corpses, Phanza and Hosus followed after the others. Behind them, the bloodstained glade quickly filled with the sounds of carrion eaters and scavengers.

Walking as quickly as possible with their injured companions, Phanza and Hosus took point and led the group down a barely visible deer trail. For two straight hours, the only sound intruding on the enclosed path was the crackling of dried leaves under the group’s boots.

The trail led to the edge of the forest, opening onto a broad grassland that stretched from horizon to horizon. Before stepping out into the open plain, Hosus ordered the others to halt. Dropping to her belly, she slithered into the grass to quickly scout the area.

“I hate it when she scouts alone,” grumbled Bertran. He was fiercely protective of the lithe thief, for they and Nar had grown up in the same village and considered each other family.

Pral just looked at him, but Nar grinned at his older brother.

“She’ll be okay. She always is,” Nar reassured him.

Bertran nodded, but continued to mutter to himself. Everyone else was silent, alone with their thoughts. It was nearly a half hour before Hosus returned.

After drinking some water, she began her report. “There are two raiding parties of Slandra, about ten miles to the south. The north is empty of all but natural animal life, and to the west I saw a large gathering of warriors.”

“Human or Slandra?” Pral asked quickly.

“Human. I counted near seven hundred, which would easily allow them to wipe out those Slandra raiders.”

“I wonder if that is all they plan,” Phanza stated quietly.

Hosus looked at him, but shook her head. She had not thought it wise to slip into the camp and discover their plans. Everyone nodded in agreement, then all eyes turned toward Pral. He would determine their next course of action. Several quiet moments passed before he revealed his plan.

“Obviously, we will not go south. None of us want to battle the Slandra again so soon. To the west, we could join the men. But we do not know if they are friend or foe, and I would rather not take that chance. To the north, there is a river, if I remember correctly, that can take us all the way to the coast, if needs be.”

“I think the choice…” said Glyc.

“…is obvious,” finished Wenley.

Pral nodded, looking at the others. Each consented in turn.

“We go north then,” stated Pral simply.

The group stood, lifted their gear onto their backs, and stepped onto the plain. They faced north, keeping to the edge of the forest, and shielded their eyes from the setting sun in the west. They walked until darkness made everything the same shade of deep blue, then set up camp. They ate a cold dinner, for a fire would have been seen for miles around.

They dropped off to sleep soon thereafter. Bertran assumed the first watch of the night. Nar took his place shortly before midnight, and Pral took the final watch before morning. He always assumed this duty, for it was that time of the night when most people were least watchful.

The night passed uneventfully, and Pral woke everyone up at first light. After quickly collecting their gear, they continued walking north, slowly angling themselves onto the plain. They ate a cold breakfast of travel bread in silence.

Around noon, they discovered a hidden stream. They halted to fill their water skins and allow Hosus to scout ahead. They waited ten minutes before resuming travel, and Hosus caught them after only a few steps.

Her breathing was labored, as if she had just been sprinting, and the look in her eyes spelled trouble.

“What is it?” Phanza asked, dread creeping into his voice.

“It seems we are to fight,” Hosus replied. “We are caught between that human army from yesterday and no small number of Slandra ahead.

“Where did they come from?” questioned Pral.

Hosus only shrugged in response.

“Can we get around?” the twins asked. Despite their extraordinary talents at killing, they detested violence.

“If we move quickly, we may be able to reach the forest. Whether that is safe I cannot say.”

“We go,” Pral stated firmly.

The group quickly turned east, preparing for a long run to the trees. Before they could take fifteen paces, however, Hosus motioned everyone to the ground. They immediately dropped to the grass in a small hollow.

Long moments passed in tense silence, but soon the stomp of hundreds of boots could be heard close by. Phanza peered over the top of the hillock and looked across at several hundred armored humans marching past. He quickly counted the number of soldiers in a row and the number of rows that passed in seconds.

He counted approximately nine hundred soldiers passing their small hideout. He whispered this number to Pral, who nodded grimly.

“Apparently, they received reinforcements during the night. A battle is soon to come. We must be away before it does,” Pral whispered back.

Pral then turned to Hosus and, using hand signs, told her to follow the rearguard of the human force for ten minutes, then follow them into the trees.

Hosus nodded, and slipped quietly into the high grass to await the rearguard. Phanza muttered a quick protective spell over her before she departed, one that would deflect small blades. She would have to protect herself from anything larger than a dirk.

As soon as the rearguard had passed their niche, which was another five minutes, the twins led everyone at a hunched sprint across the grassland. They stopped every few minutes to let everyone catch their breath and stretch their quivering muscles.

The group ran three miles before the grass turned green and the ground became uneven with the roots of the old giants of the forest. It was another quarter of a mile before they were among the trunks that provided them safety.

Bertran collapsed on the ground in exhaustion, gasping for breath. The others gripped trees to hold themselves up, for their quivering legs could barely hold them. Even the invulnerable Pral was breathing heavily.

Several minutes passed in which the only sound to disturb the silent forest was everyone sucking in air. Sounds of battle clashed in the distance, and soon a giant cloud of dust and vultures marked its location.

More minutes passed, and Hosus had not yet appeared. Bertran started mumbling to himself about going after her. Phanza inwardly agreed that it would be prudent to start searching for her, but he knew Pral would never authorize such an action.

A cool breeze rustled the leaves around them, and the warriors never heard the stealthy footsteps of the approaching soldiers. Suddenly, Hosus came crashing through a bush. Her startling appearance immediately caused blades to be drawn and arrows nocked before they saw who it was.

“We must leave!” gasped Hosus.

Pral wasted no time asking questions. He did not even bother to disguise their presence in the forest before everyone was once again jogging through the trees. Bertran handed his sword to Pral and scooped Hosus onto his back.

Before she could complain, Bertran grumbled protectively, “Do not scold me, nor complain. You are lighter than my sword and you can hardly walk.”

Hosus gave him a tight-lipped scowl, but finally nodded. Bertran smiled slightly to himself when he felt Hosus grip him tighter.

At a light jog, the group ran in two columns, three in each. Pral and Bertran led, and Hosus recited her sights from Bertran’s back.

“I followed the rearguard for ten minutes, like you said,” she began. “Before I could get away though, they were ambushed by Slandra. There were only a couple of the snakes but they had the advantage. Anyway, I was stuck between them and the human fighters, so I joined the humans.”

“Obviously,” chuckled Bertran.

“The Slandra caught them in a vise,” continued Hosus. “Though their force was smaller, they had the advantage of surprise and a two-pronged attack. Many of the humans were killed before they could unsheathe their weapons. The battle was over quickly, and the humans retreated even without a counterattack. I managed to outrun them to these woods, but they are close.”

Pral looked back at the twins and made a chopping motion, ordering them to dispatch any followers. Being the two smallest, they would be least likely to be discovered. Hosus would have been the first choice, but her current exhaustion prevented that.

Glyc and Wenley halted and stepped off the trail, melting into the foliage. They would follow when they could no longer hear their companions. The group quickly pulled away from the lurking archers.