Hosus moved away from the camp, working through the decomposing bodies and making sure none of their tracks were visible. With all of the scavengers and remains from the battle, it was unlikely anyone would be able to pick their trail out specifically. Still, Pral seemed to think discretion was necessary and Hosus was very careful in obscuring any trace of their passing.
She worked her way quickly through the glade and the thin, surrounding forest. When she reached the plains, she inhaled deeply. A soft breeze brought fresh air to her nostrils, free of the stench of the death and decay behind her. She drank in the pristine air and watched as the wind blew across the golden fescue of the plains.
The sun was not yet high but gave the rippling grass a beautiful glow. It was as if the oceans had become solid enough to tread upon, and as Hosus slowly made her way through the golden waves, she felt almost ethereal. The breeze, even the land itself, moved around her as if she wasn’t there at all.
Hosus paused, letting her body go loose, head tilted slightly upward to catch the sun, and allowed herself to slip into the illusion of not existing. In her stillness, she saw the life of the plainlands. A hawk wheeled far and above in search of a meal. A fox poked its head up over a rise to the south, seemed to look through Hosus, before giving a bark and disappearing again.
Taking another deep breath, Hosus felt a contented smile spread across her face. It was a perfect morning and she felt the stress from her near-miss earlier spilling out of her. This was the only worthwhile magic, Hosus thought. The magic of a moment, to appreciate the simple beauties of the world. She stood a minute longer, feeling the exhaustion of their journey, even the throbbing bump on her head, fade into the land around her.
She head the hawk scream and watched as it folded its wings as it plummeted toward the earth. A small plume of dust erupted into the air and Hosus could hear, even over that great distance, the small squeak of the hapless rodent that had become the hawk’s breakfast. Through that dust, Hosus could make out the shimmering silhouette of a man striding quickly in her direction. She squinted through the haze, trying to pick up any distinguishing features about the approaching individual, but he was still too far off.
Instinct and Pral’s precaution warned her to be careful, and she crouched low in the tall grass. Hosus began moving back to the relative concealment of the tree line, careful not to leave a trail after she’d just finished concealing it. Glancing out over the plains, Hosus could see the person disappear behind a hill. She put on a small burst of speed that put her among the thing tree trunks.
Once a few steps inside the trees, Hosus turned back to look once more for the figure. He topped a rise and paused, turned toward the copse Hosus was concealed in. Even from that distance, she felt like he could see her, and was in fact looking right at her. The feeling left her discomfited, and once more Hosus turned back to rendezvous with the others. She would need to tell Pral to be on the lookout, just in case they were being followed. Across the plain, the figure smiled.
Hosus reached the clearing and was nearly overwhelmed by the stench of decay. Forcing down bile and missing the clean air outside on the plain, she saw Phanza kneeling next to Johnsa, talking to himself. Bertran and Nar had returned with some lengths of a particularly itchy-looking vine. The twins had all of the gear stowed and ready to go. Hosus did not immediately see Pral, but she heard grunting from behind some trees she assumed was him.
Nodding to Phanza, Hosus followed the grunts and found Pral chest deep in a freshly-dug hole. She cocked and eyebrow at him. Pral inclined his head toward the giant, bloated corpse of the Slandra that had nearly killer her the night before.
Hosus nodded. “Covered the trail. Saw a man out on the plain headed in this direction.”
At this, Pral’s head snapped up. “Could you see any details? How far was he? Did he see you?”
Hosus shook her head at his first question. “I would estimate he was the better part of a day’s travel away. And I believe he saw me. At least I got the feeling he did.” Pral’s eyes went hard at this news and he climbed out of the hole. The hard dirt clung to his sweaty body, blending in to his dark skin as he unceremoniously kicked the Slandra body into the hole. Menace oozed off him, and Hosus was suddenly suspicious.
“What do you know that I don’t?”
Pral glanced at her, his green eyes burning. “Nothing. I know nothing more than you do, Hosus.” His green eyes bored into hers.
Hosus held the gaze another moment before shrugging. She didn’t believe him but she could deal with the issue later. “Time to move out?” she asked.
Pral nodded. “Ask Phanza to come over here. We don’t have time to fill this in by hand.”
Hosus paused. “Is that wise? We don’t know enough about Johnsa yet to really be using magic around her, do we?”
“We’ll have to risk it.” He turned away and donned his shirt. Hosus waited another moment, watching him, before turning back to the clearing.
Stepping out from the trees, Hosus saw Phanza handing a now conscious Johnsa some water. Hosus greeted them both as she approached.
“Phanza. Johnsa, good to see you conscious again. How’s your head feel?”
Johnsa looked confused. “Fine. Why do you ask?”
Phanza quickly glanced at Hosus. “You complained of a headache earlier.”
“I did? I don’t even remember waking up earlier,” Johnsa responded, concern creeping into her voice.
“You were tired. Nothing to fear,” Hosus reassured her. “Do you mind if I steal Phanza for a few moments?”
Johnsa nodded. Phanza stood and walked with Hosus a few steps away. “Pral needs you behind those trees. He wants you to fill and cover a hole…by magic.”
Phanza raised his eyebrows. “Is that really wise?”
Hosus shrugged. “I said the same thing. Pral said we have to risk it. We’re moving out as soon as you’re done.”
With a sigh, Phanza nodded before heading off into the trees, following Hosus’ pointed direction. Hosus turned back to Johnsa.
“We’re getting ready to leave. Feeling up to it?”
Johnsa stood slowly. Hosus waited, watching for any sign of the pain that had wracked the other woman earlier but saw nothing. Johnsa looked to be feeling just fine.
“Feeling all right?” Hosus asked again.
“Yes. Great, actually,” Johnsa responded, somewhat surprised. “After that battle I should be sore all over. I can’t even find a scratch.”
Hosus didn’t react to this news, but she stowed it away. She knew she had to pass it on to Pral and Phanza. She put on a smile.
“Lucky you. Maybe you want to take my pack today then,” Hosus finished with a laugh.
Johnsa returned the smile. “I could do that. I don’t have anything of my own to carry anymore.” Her smile faded as the impact of what she had said sunk in.
Hosus could only watch on sadly as Johnsa looked forlornly around the glade, eyes pausing on each human body littered among the scaly Slandra ones. Tears welled up in the other woman’s eyes that she hastily brushed away. The tears were replaced by a hardness that Hosus recognized. It was the look of a survivor, the look of one who should be dead by the will of whatever god took pity was still alive to avenge those who were not.
Johnsa began moving among the bodies, kneeling next to some, touching others despite wounds, bloating, and decay. Hosus remained where she was, understanding the need for a final farewell to the dead. She nearly went to Johnsa when the Ramadan fell to her knees beside one body and started shuddering, but a quick glance at the insignia on his shoulder told Hosus the man was Johnsa’s second-in-command.
Johnsa’s shuddering stopped after a few moments and she stood again. She started to turn back but something caught her eye, as she bent and retrieved something from the ground, brushing it off on her pant leg. When she finally turned back toward Hosus, she looked relieved and some of the hardness hard left her eyes.
“Find something?” Hosus asked. Johnsa was walking back but her attention was fully fixed on the object in her hands.
“Hmm?” Johnsa looked up, distracted.
Hosus pointed at the object in her hand.
“Oh. This? Nothing. Just something that could be useful.” Before Hosus could ask what it was, Johnsa had tucked it into her boot.
Hosus shrugged and beckoned to follow her over the packs.
“Pral and Phanza should be finished soon. Then we’ll be off.”
“North. We are headed out of Teradan lands.”
“By the gods, why? That far north it’s only wilderness and past that the Dead Lands.
There are barely even any cities in the north.”
Hosus raised her eyebrows. “You know much about that region it seems. Born there?”
Johnsa shook her head. “My father was a…a merchant. He had contacts everywhere and I went everywhere he did. We spent some time in the north, even ventured a ways into the Dead Lands because my father was curious. By the gods it was cold, though.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Why are you going north? I’m sure Terada could use you in beating back the Slandra. You would all be most welcome.”
Hosus shrugged. “We have business that cannot wait, unfortunately.”
Johnsa was curious and intrigued by this group. What kind of business would these people have in the North? Even the army her father fought in only traveled that far north to fight off the packs of ice wolves that had ravaged local herds.
She thought about the lie she had told Hosus concerning her father. He had been a battle mage in a mercenary army she had affectionately referred to as the Band. It was with the army that she had traveled so extensively and where she had learned how to fight and survive. None of which was information she shared with most people, especially strangers such as these who might be mercenaries themselves. Johnsa did not want to be co-opted into a system that traded blood for money. She’d left the Band for just that reason.
Hosus was giving her an odd look, but before Johnsa could comment on it she felt a pull. Something very near was having an overwhelming pull on her, both mind and body. She turned and through the trees, Johnsa could see a beautiful glow arising from the ground like a faint mist. She felt herself moving toward it, felt herself craving that mist more than anything else in her life. A small part of her mind focused on this craving, focused on the wrongness of it. It served as an anchor for her consciousness, and Johnsa fought a losing battle to regain control of her own body.
Suddenly the craving ended and Johnsa could only make out a muted glow where the mist had been. The release on her body left her mind reeling, and she had to clutch her head against the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her.
“Johnsa? Johnsa! Are you okay?”
The dizziness passed quickly and Johnsa was able to turn toward Hosus, who was a few feet away looking very concerned.
“I’m fine. Just dizzy for a moment. I must be thirsty I guess.”
Hosus did not look entirely convinced, but her attention shifted at the approach of Pral and Phanza, emerging from the trees very near to where Johnsa had seen the mist.
“We heard your shout. What’s going on?” Phanza asked, moving towards Johnsa. Johnsa caught Hosus shake her head slightly, and Pral changed direction to stand next to Hosus.
“Nothing’s wrong. I was just dizzy,” Johnsa responded.
“All right now?” Pral asked. Johnsa nodded. “Good. We’re ready to go here. Everyone grab their packs.”
Johnsa watched as the group quickly hefted the packs and waited for Pral to take lead. Now was the time, she decided.
“Pral,” Johnsa asked quietly, “I was hoping I could borrow some supplies and a pack. I need to return to Terada and inform my superiors of what has happened here.”
Pral shook his head. “We can’t afford to be generous, I regret. Our supplies are limited already. You will have to travel with us until we find a settlement or town where you can purchase your own equipment.”
Johnsa muttered a curse. She needed to return to Terada and inform the Council of Seven that the Slandra menace was very different from what they had anticipated. But to do that, she needed supplies and those in her former camp were beyond rescue at this point. As grateful as she was to these people for all of their help, Johnsa had no real reason to trust them and absolutely no reason to join them. I have duties to fulfill, she thought vehemently. Finally, she sighed and nodded her head in acquiescence.
“I thank you for all of your help. With luck, I will to be able to repay you for the supplies I’ll need.” Pral had already turned, assured of her decision even before she spoke, and was leading the group away. Johnsa glared at his back, frustrated that her decision was so transparent. She was tempted to go off on her own anyway, but the plains she would travel through were hardly bountiful.
Hosus was watching her and gave Johnsa an understanding look accompanied by a shrug as if to say, “what can you do?” Johnsa sighed again and rubbed her eyes. She had only know these people for a day and already they were giving her a headache. Without a pack of her own, Johnsa filed in with the others.
Pral took point, leading the group back through the trees and toward the real forest. The twins fell in behind him, then Phanza, and Johnsa found herself in tucked into the middle of the group. Nar and Bertran followed her and Hosus brought up the rear, a running diatribe about covering Bertran’s tracks streaming forward to the rest of the group. The few times Johnsa glanced back, Bertran was smiling but the big man was walking gingerly. Johnsa couldn’t stop herself from grinning when she noticed his steps were only leaving deeper imprints, despite his best efforts.
They moved quickly, leaving the copse behind and traveling over the plains back into the forest. Once they reached the actual forest, their pace slowed. It was an old forest, and the giant trees had spread their roots thick and far, making for hazardous walking conditions.
The group walked for several hours, picking their way carefully past the trees. Johnsa was completely lost, only able to catch glimpses of sunlight through the thick canopy. Pral, however, chose his path confidently, never slowing except to allow the line to catch up to him.
Johnsa watched him carefully, studying how he moved. He almost seemed to glide over the rough terrain, his feet almost but never quite touching the ground. His right knees is weaker than his left, she thought to herself. She stumbled over a thick root as the thought disoriented her. How did she know that? She rubbed her eyes as a sudden pain blossomed behind them and she had to pause.
She felt Nar and Bertran slide past her, though she did not see the uneasy looks on their faces. A light touch on her shoulder made her turn. Hosus was looking at her with that same guarded look as earlier.
“Headache,” Johnsa muttered, forcing herself to continue walking. “Probably just thirsty still.”
Hosus unhooked her water skin from her pack and handed it over. Johnsa accepted it, drinking deeply and swirling some in her mouth, holding the warm water on her tongue for a moment. Surprisingly, her headache eased somewhat.
“Better now, thanks,” Johnsa said, handing the water skin back to Hosus.
Turning once more to the path, Johnsa Hurried to retake her position in the line. She edged past Bertran and Nar with a smile and filed back in behind Phanza. Deciding not to study Pral more, Johnsa turned her attention to the forest around her.
The thick canopy prevented much from growing on the forest floor, but through the trees Johnsa could see small clearings of sunlight, probably where storms had felled some of the giant trees. Everywhere else, gigantic mushrooms sprouted, out of the ground, off of the trees, sometimes even off of other mushrooms. To Johnsa they appeared to be miniature staircases climbing the towering trunks. Some of those on the ground even had shadows or discolorations that looked like tiny doorways. The thought amused her until her attention was drawn away by a movement behind a fallen tree overgrown completely with the odd house-like mushrooms.
Johnsa peered into the deep shadows, searching for the source of the motion while her body unconsciously mimicked Pral’s gliding method of avoiding the entangling roots. Her crimson eyes probed the gathered darkness, attempting to pierce the obscurity, when suddenly golden eyes met her gaze.