“What was that?!” Glyc and Wenley asked in unison.
The group had been walking along the border of the wood heading west into the setting sun and away from the battle of the day before, or so they hoped, when they had heard an ear-rending scream from a grove further out on the plain. The group had stopped and was looking out across the grasslands. A sudden and almost viscous silence had descended after that scream, and everyone felt discomfited. Even the stoic Pral showed some nerves by loosening his sword in its sheath.
“Be wary,” Pral said, his hand on the pommel of his sword. He was answered by the soft rasp of bared steel as Bertran revealed his weapon. Pral looked over at him and shook his head. Bertran shrugged and replaced the great sword, but his fingers constantly twitched as if seeking the grooved hilt.
“Shall I investigate?” Hosus asked.
Pral shook his head again. “Something that makes that kind of sound should not be confronted, even by you, Hosus. We’ll try to bypass it in the woods and see if we can put some distance between it and us before full dark.”
Hosus nodded. What could that have been? Maybe it was an animal, but…that pain. It was all too human. Who could have done that? These thoughts intrigued her, and she spared a quick glance for Pral as he began moving deeper into the protective confines of the forest. He was absorbed in finding a fast path away from the shriek and wouldn’t notice if she disappeared quickly. At the moment he had all of his attention on the trail, Hosus slipped, unnoticed by her companions, out onto the plain.
Moving quickly away from the group, she veered toward the grove, maneuvering behind a few hills to block her from view of the forest. She needed to find out what had caused such anguish. She couldn’t have explained why she needed to, only that she did. She let out a mirthless chuckle, reflecting on the real possibility that her curiosity would be the death of her. Slowly approaching where she thought the source must be, she was greeted by the sickly sweet smell of death and decay. She peered through the screen of trees at a small clearing filled with bodies. As she moved closer, she saw both the bodies of Slandra and of men.
Were these the men from the battle a few days ago? Why did the Slandra follow them? Looking out at all of the bloody corpses, Hosus noticed it had only led to their deaths. She was astounded to see that a great many more of the bodies belonged to the Slandra than the humans. They must’ve put up one hell of a fight to take out that many snakes.
Creeping forward into the clearing, Hosus stepped lightly around the dead. She finally came within the borders of the human camp, which she could only tell by the torn cloth of the tents and some overturned cook pots. Peering around one of the mangled tents, Hosus saw a single crouched figure. She could not tell if it was a man or woman, but she was relieved to see it was human. The person’s red hair stood on end, but that was all Hosus could see. Circling around, Hosus managed to get a better look at the mysterious figure. It was indeed a woman, and a badly injured one at that. Her hair was not the only thing dyed red. All of her clothing looked as if it was crusted with dried blood. Even her face, the parts not covered in dirt, looked like it was caked in blood. But it wasn’t her hair, or her blood-stained appearance that held Hosus’ eyes. The woman’s eyes were red too, not only the whites but the irises as well. Only her pupils looked natural, and Hosus shivered in spite of herself.
A final flash of sunlight illuminated the woman, and it seemed as if those red eyes sucked in the light until they glowed. Darkness fell quickly, and as the sun dropped, so did the woman. Hosus did not stand yet, even though she was hidden by the dark. She didn’t move at all. Those eyes…those red eyes were burned into her mind. What by the gods does it mean? She can’t be human!
Waiting several unearthly moments in the dark, Hosus crept forward through the bodies and bloodied grass until she lay no more than an arm’s reach away from the now supine figure. Even in the soft moonlight, the woman gave off a reddish aura, and Hosus shivered again. She did not understand who or what lay before her, but it was something powerful. Listening carefully, Hosus heard the soft, even breathing of one in exhausted slumber.
Leaving her here would surely mean her death with all the scavengers around. What do I do? Hosus did not enjoy her uncertainty. In her hunting and stalking, she rarely felt it, even when she dealt the death blow to her quarry. Random thoughts fluttered around her mind as she mulled over this dilemma. What to do, what to do…Pral certainly wouldn’t be happy if I just showed up with this exotic woman. Hosus made up her mind. I won’t leave her to die! she thought vehemently.
Arising from her small hideaway among the corpses, Hosus moved quickly now that her hesitation had been overcome. She stepped over the few bodies in front of her and moved into the clear circle surrounding the woman. The lithe hunter moved up and scooped up the sleeping form, struggling slightly with the dead weight in her arms. Turning back the way she came, she started to hurry back to the others when a soft hissing filled her ears.
“Hey guys! Guys! Where’s Hosus?”
Pral looked back at Nar, who had taken up the rear guard. “She’s gone, some time back. She took off toward the source of that scream as soon as we turned deeper into the woods.” Though Hosus thought she had probably escaped unnoticed, Pral had been aware of her every step that had taken her out of eyesight, and finally out of earshot as well.
“Why would she do that? You told her not to check it out. Fool woman, when she gets back…” Bertran fell off into muttering soft curses, but his worry was etched on his features.
“Are we going after her?” asked the twins.
“We go on. If she is in trouble, she’ll have to figure out how to get herself out. She’s good at that.”
“What if she can’t? What if this time, when she needs us most, we forsake her?” Phanza said, almost in a whisper.
Pral looked back at the sorcerer, a murderous glint in his eyes. He did not appreciate being second guessed. “Alright then. We’ll vote on it. Those of you who think we should go hunt down our hunter, raise your hand.” Every hand but Pral’s shot up. An angry growl escaped from Pral, he who showed no emotion in battle.
“Follow me, and keep up. This won’t be a leisurely walk.”
Turning off the trail he had forged, Pral started at a jog through the underbrush, heading straight back to the plain. The other members eyed each other dubiously, but with mischievous grins on their faces, then ran to catch up with their leader.
Running almost full speed through a forest, even a thinning one, was no easy task, especially when encumbered by weapons and armor. After the initial jog, Pral had taken to alternating between sprints and runs. As he said, it was no leisure walk, and soon the group began to only run on the sprints and jog on the runs. Though they escaped the restricting confines of the forest relatively quickly at their pace, it left them winded for the longer portion.
Pral allowed them to rest for a moment when they reached the grasslands, but after a quick gulp from their water bags he drove them relentlessly on again. When they finally reached the knoll covered in death, they were exhausted. While the rest panted with their hands on their knees, Pral looked at them with something bordering on disdain. He was breathing normally and was only mildly sweating.
Before anyone could even slow their racing hearts, a soft hissing had every weapon pulled from sheathes and quivers in an instant. Pral held his hand down, ordering everyone to stay put and be silent, and he went forward noiselessly into the clearing ahead.
Expecting a silent return, everyone was startled when the clear ring of steel clashing against steel sounded back to them. Ignoring Pral’s command, they charged forward into the clearing to see Pral and a single gigantic Slandra wielding an enormous mace facing off, the bodies of two women lying slightly behind Pral’s defensive stance. Phanza took a looked closer and discovered that one of the bodies was Hosus. A sudden fear sprang up within him and he quickly muttered a curse that staggered the Slandra and allowed Pral to quickly decapitate it.
“Is she all right?” Phanza asked quickly, hurrying over to kneel next to the fallen hunter.
“She is alive, but it seems her impetuousness will leave her with a nasty bump and a terrible headache, which you will not heal for her,” Pral responded in a monotone.
Phanza nodded, moving forward to cradle Hosus in his arms. Bertran stood over him, peering anxiously down at his dear friend, but Nar had moved to the other body beside Hosus.
“This one is also alive, though barely. Her pulse is weak and her breathing shallow, but I see no injury. Phanza, will you examine her after you wake up Hosus?”
Phanza looked over at the other woman, nodding absently.
“Walleth utum,” he whispered, and Hosus’ eyes fluttered open, “welcome back.”
Hosus looked up into the sorcerer’s eyes, and a small smile formed on her lips before a grimace of the pain in her head transformed it. “Remind me not to do that again,” she said, a bit breathily.
Phanza smiled down at her, and then gave her into Bertran’s protective arms. Shifting over to the other still form, he closed his eyes and placed his hand upon her forehead, gripping her temples lightly with his fingers. “Utumari collasci imentro,” he said in a rising crescendo. He felt a small surge of energy pulse through his fingertips, leaving him slightly woozy. He expected the spell to return to him after it had time to work its way through the body, but after several moments, nothing happened. The spell did not return. Puzzled, Phanza opened his eyes and looked down at his patient. He looked straight into two gleaming red orbs that seem to pulse in the woman’s eye sockets, not with her heartbeat, but with his.
Phanza almost dropped her then. But his soft touch upon her forehead alone was strong enough to hold her. He did not understand why, but he could not release her. Through his fingertips, he could feel both of their heartbeats slowly matching in rhythm. When her beat mirrored his, he felt a sudden pull on his fingers…except he felt the pull force through his skin and race through his body to the core of his energy. The feeling latched on and ripped the majority of his energy right out of his body.
“Phanza? Phanza! Wake up man!”
“Wha…wha…what happened?” Phanza asked groggily. He realized belatedly that he was on his back in the grass, and no longer holding the woman.
“You just looked down at the woman, and then went stiff. Next thing we know, you’re unconscious right next to her,” Nar volunteered.
The event came back to Phanza quickly. He focused inward, examining his innate power. He was astonished to find only a miniscule amount of energy remaining. He sat up shakily, looking over at the woman next to him. Though she remained still, her eyes burned a brilliant crimson, a pulsing beacon in the deepening darkness.
“You okay?” Nar asked, worry tingeing his usual cheerful voice.
“I’m fine. I’m not quite sure what happened, but I’m all right.”
Suddenly, the area plunged into darkness. Nar let out a yelp, and even the imperturbable Pral released a soft curse, raising his sword again. Everyone waited a few moments to allow their eyes to adjust, searching with eyes and ears for some remaining enemy, and only then did Phanza notice that darkness had descended because the woman’s eyes had closed. Phanza pointed this out to the group, then bent over to peer at her intently. Her breathing was deep and even, and it seemed that she was once again sleeping. He was not about probe her to find out and risk losing his remaining energy, but he touched Nar on the arm and pointed at the woman.
“I cannot touch her again. See if she sleeps, but do not disturb her.”
Nar nodded, then crawled silently over. He nudged her gently on the shoulder, and was satisfied when she did not react.
“Good enough for me,” he whispered back to Phanza.
“Nar, stand back from her. No one is to come within three paces of her tonight, not until she wakes up and we can question her,” Pral commanded.
Everyone nodded, and Bertran bent to build a small fire.
“Um, are we really going to stay here? In the middle of all these dead people?” Glyc asked. Wenley nodded vehemently in agreement. “I mean, if she knocked out Phanza when she was asleep I can understand not wanting to touch her, but staying anywhere surrounded by the dead makes me…anxious.”
“And nauseous,” Wenley added.
Pral gave the twins a withering look. “No one touches her. And since Hosus is not likely to leave her, we stay. You can go your own way if you like.” He continued to glare at the twins as they hastily argued that staying together was probably the best idea.
Bertran had stopped when the twins began speaking, but now continued to stoke a small fire. Normally, Pral would have forbidden this, but though he showed nothing, even he was slightly disturbed by the evening’s events and allowed the comforting light. Everyone huddled around the small blaze, taking heart from the small light that winked in the darkness. Hosus leaned wearily against Bertran’s shoulder, her right arm wrapped in an improvised bandage, her eyes half-shut. Phanza was feeling the consumption of his energy, and was having a difficult time remaining conscious, so he had wrapped himself in his cloak and laid down to peer into the flames.
Sleep overcame him. His unconscious mind drifted in a world of emptiness and blinding red light. It was a restless and uncomfortable night for the young mage.
Dim light filtered through her eyelids, and Johnsa squinted even though her eyes were still closed. She stifled a groan when she became awake enough to register the pounding ache forming right between her eye brows. Keeping her eyes firmly clenched, she sat up, feeling around for her sword.
“Ah, she wakes,” came a voice only a few feet from her.
Despite the terrible pain behind her eyes, Johnsa’s eyes snapped open. She quickly took in the still form of a younger man, and arrayed carefully around the ashes of a small fire sat or stood six other people. She had to look again when two of them looked exactly the same, but it was the large man with a long sword slowly exiting its scabbard that made her scrabble back. Feeling her back smack against a tree, sending a fresh wave of pain through her skull, Johnsa slowly stood, prepared to run.
“Who are you?” she demanded roughly, her voice hoarse after the previous night’s massacre. Her hands gripped the trunk behind her, steadying her against the almost overpowering dizziness.
“We are friends,” came the reply from the small woman sitting in the middle of the group by the sleeping figure. The woman looked pointedly at the man with the sword, to which he merely shrugged and began drawing his blade along a whetting stone. She gave him another look he ignored completely before she returned her attention to Johnsa.
“My name is Hosus. I found you last night surrounded by dead slandra, and tried to bring you out. I was attacked myself by a slandra and my friends here saved me.”
The scene of the night of the attack came crashing back into the forefront of her mind. She remembered the engulfing tide of Slandra that had crashed against herself and her men again and again, coming ever on no matter how many fell. She remembered seeing her men being brought down one by one around her until she stood alone in a sea of slithering serpents. She could see her dead comrade whose blade she wrested from his cold grip, see her weapons slicing through enemies like butter, her vision going red in her bloodlust…and then, nothing.
“I must thank you for rescuing me. But how did you kill so many of the snakeheads?” Johnsa said slowly. She had been completely surrounded when she had blacked out. Outside intervention was the only explanation for her survival, but she was still suspicious.
The man with the blade then looked right at Johnsa, his eyes seemingly piercing to her very soul.
“We killed none of the slandra,” he said quietly.
Johnsa felt a rush of confusion. If they hadn’t finished off the Slandra, who had? She looked at the one calling herself Hosus. Johnsa felt her eyes narrow, her suspicion overcoming her confusion.
“If you didn’t kill them, then who did?”
“You are the only survivor of your band. There are no human footsteps leading into that glade after the Slandra arrived, nor are there any departing. The only logical conclusion is…”
“That you killed them all,” came a soft voice, finishing Hosus’ statement.
Johnsa turned to regard this new speaker with fear and confusion overwhelming her. He was the young man next to Hosus, now sitting up, but his slate eyes held a weary experience that belied his youth. He returned her frightened gaze calmly, and she took some small comfort from that.
“How is that possible? I was impossibly outnumbered. I was completely surrounded and then I blacked out. It couldn’t have been me,” she ended, nearly shouted, her breath coming in painful gasps. To the group, she looked like a cornered animal, frightened beyond measure and probably dangerous.
“Be still,” he said gently, “all will be well.” He waved his hand in a small gesture of healing, and to everyone’s eyes but Johnsa’s, her eyes flashed brilliantly for a moment.
Johnsa felt a little better for some reason, and she managed to get her breathing under control. Her sniffling nose, however, refused to be mastered. When the man saw her in control of herself, he continued.
“Before we go any further, I do believe introductions are in order. My name is Phanza.”
“Johnsa,” came her surprised answer
“Well met Johnsa,” Phanza replied, bowing his head slightly. “This is Hosus. The man sharpening his sword is Pral, the twins are Glyc and Wenley. The slumbering giant’s name is Bertran, and next to him is his younger brother Nar.”
Johnsa nodded to each named, though she received a guarded look from Nar, and surprisingly, gleaming smiles from Glyc and Wenley. She quickly returned her attention to Phanza expectantly.
“Tell me, what color are your eyes?” he asked suddenly.
Johnsa was confused by this rather random question. She took on a cautious look. “Blue,” she responded hesitantly, “why?”
Her suspicions were furthered heightened when the other members of Phanza’s group looked at her and then at each other furtively. Phanza was the only one who did not look away.
“Can you tell us why your eyes are now red?”
“What are you talking about?”
Phanza pointed to a sword that had somehow avoided being completely covered in blood. Her eyes everywhere at once, Johnsa knelt to pick it up. Looking down into the reflective surface above the guard, she saw fiery hair, a blood-covered face, and two red eyes looking back at her.
This revelation completely overwhelmed Johnsa’s fragile hold on herself. She scampered back until her back was against the tree again, lifted the sword in front of her, a feral expression painted onto her features. “Who are you? What have you done to me?” she screamed at the group.