Two Sands was not a large city, but it had the feel of one. The forest that the city was built within gave it the look and feel of being much larger than it actually was. The great trees of the Ravenwood forest that loomed amongst the buildings, even as they provided cover and shelter, made for slow progress when one was really in a hurry. A hurry such as the one the companions were in now.
These thoughts flashed through Preosha's mind as she struggled down the winding path of a road. The logical thinker inside of her shuddered every time she traveled down these paths. It was just entirely too wasteful to make streets that wound around like these did. A good straight path was the way to build, very organized, very orderly. These enormous trees were the problem as she saw it. They were simply another blatant waste of a good commodity. Passing by one inordinately large elm tree, Preosha could not help but calculate the size of catapult she could fashion from its enormous trunk. All one had to do was cut it down, trim off those excess branches and take one of her newly created cutting tools to shape the wood. Of course, there was a house built high in the branches of the majestic elm, but Preosha was sure the people who lived in it would be more than willing to relocate when presented with the grandeur of her idea. How could they not?
Preosha snapped out of her thoughts and chided herself for letting her mind wander like that. It must be the wound she had taken. The gash in her arm she had received back at The Sinner's Cove was now burning with an almost maddening intensity. She had not seen that Czak Myar soldier who had given it to her until it was too late. He had come in behind another trooper that she was fighting and had surprised her by bounding around him and striking her with his cursed steel just below where the sleeve of her chain mail vest ended. She had dispatched him, at least temporarily, with a quick backhanded strike from her staff that had left him bleeding on the ground. The serrated edge that she had installed on that end of her staff had left the side of his face open and bleeding.
Even as bad as it burned, the injury to her arm was an almost minor wound compared to her injured ribs. She winced just thinking about them again. She had been fighting, valiantly in her opinion, against a Czak Myar who had outweighed her by at least a hundred and fifty pounds. The big man's speed had surprised her as he had ducked under one of her swings and smashed her ribs with the pommel of his sword. The chain mail she wore that was so well suited to turning back slashes and cuts, was infinitely worse suited for defending her against bludgeoning attacks such as that. She had felt her ribs snap as he pinned her between his sword hilt and a support post in the inn, but the pain had not really set in for a moment or two. The adrenaline rush of combat had dulled her sense of the injury until well after she had used her lovely shooting needle apparatus to blind the black-mailed soldier. The soldier had released her, screaming, and stumbled out the door of the common room. That sneaky little wrist-mounted weapon was rapidly becoming one of her favorite inventions.
Preosha tripped over a root sticking out of the hard-packed dirt path, sending jolts of pain searing through her side. She stifled a yelp, pressed her hand to the broken ribs and continued on. She had let her mind wander again! If she did not keep it on the here and now and watch where she was going, she was going to end up getting herself killed. There was no telling how far behind them that ogre spawn, Emiriak, and the rest of the Czak Myar were. Had that ghastly little creature Thimellan been telling the truth about how long it would take for that time stopping spell of his to wear off, or had he been wanting to make the companions hurry just for the sake of being annoying? Preosha did not trust that little brightly colored devil. She really did not have a good deal of trust for anything magical, and Thimellan was nothing but magical and was therefore on the bottom of the list of people she would show her back to.
Gasping with each painful breath, she glanced up at the sign to an inn just ahead, The Fool's Folly. What an appropriate name to this little excursion. If they were already at The Fool's Folly, then they were almost to the Northwest edge of town. That meant that Quillion did not plan on taking a road out of town, as there were no roads from Two Sands leading to the Northwest. There was only more of Ravenwood, and forest land that grew progressively wilder the farther up the map it went. Preosha shuddered to herself. Even after all those years traveling with the companions, she had never conquered her fear of the wilds of nature. She was infinitely more comfortable in a secure keep, working on her inventions, than she was crawling through the bug infested, shelterless tentacles of nature.
Approximately twenty painful, stumbling lengths later saw her and the rest of the companions standing in a glade just within sight of the most outlying building in Two Sands. The crew had gathered here to rest a few moments, unable to travel further. Preosha looked around the group, scanning each of the companions. All of them were exhausted, with everyone but Dealyon sitting on the ground with their heads back and eyes closed, taking advantage of a moment to rest and regain a bit of strength. Aramari was also up and moving around. The priestess was tending to the wounded Melina and Ell, doing whatever healing things that the priestess usually did. Even the usually strong and energetic Malaryn was breathing like a winded horse, his face looking a bit ashen. Poor Sturk, the barkeep, was sitting there with his head bowed, cradling the bar wench's head in his lap, sobbing softly. Preosha was irritated that she could not remember the bar wench's name.
Preosha was not sure she, herself, would be able to continue. The sharp burning sensation in her arm was beginning to grow almost unbearable, much more so than her broken ribs. She wondered why such a minor wound would choose now to start acting up. She had received much worse wounds from slipping while winding up a clock spring. She reached across with her uninjured arm to pull aside the tattered cloth around the wound so she could inspect it. Peeling back the blood caked and quite rancid smelling shreds of tunic revealed a completely different gash than she had seen earlier. The skin around the cut was bubbling up as if it were on a hot skillet, and the wound itself was turning an very disturbing shade of black.
Preosha was wondering to herself if that was a normal color for a wound to be when the world began to swirl around her. She saw a flash of dark in front of her face and thought she heard Dealyon's voice mumble something. That was nice of him to come check on her. She wondered if he had seen where she left her staff. She could not find it. The pain in her arm was spreading to her chest just as the blackness closed around her.
Dealyon stood motionless in the dry grass, his cloak swirling around him in the light breeze. He used his natural druidic senses to reach out to the forest around him. He could hear the labored breathing of the companions like thunder in his ears, so close was their proximity. Fortunately, he had learned long ago the trick for focusing past distractions such as that. He could feel the trees around him, locked in their own version of labored breathing as they fought to pull moisture from the air and the ground. He could feel the struggle of the grass and the bushes as they fought to spread their roots to collect the life giving moisture. He could sense the animals that knew of their human presence intruding in the forest and chose to stay away. He could feel their inquisitive nature arise when they became aware of his consciousness watching them. They, like the trees, were feeling the opressiveness of the heat and lack of moisture that was strangling the landscape around them.
If circumstances were different, Dealyon would stay here and tend to this forest. This forest that would slowly but surely waste away if rain did not come soon. He was not here to tend to the environment, however, he was looking for something more specific. He pushed his senses farther, stretching his awareness into the city itself. His brow furrowed and his eyes glazed over as he was bombarded by the sensations he received from inside Two Sands. It was never easy to decipher the images he received from the trees and wildlife in a city, even a city as attuned to nature as Two Sands was. He fought to sort through the feelings and images ranging from the trees forming the protective canopy above the city down to the rats who scurried through the dark cracks in the forest floor.
Slowly the sensations he was looking for coalesced into one picture in his mind. The Czak Myar. The black soldiers were just outside of The Sinner's Cove it appeared, milling around and searching the surrounding grounds. Looking for the companions' tracks, no doubt. If the little trick Dealyon used when they left the inn worked as it should, it would be quite a while before the soldiers ever found so much as a broken blade of grass showing signs of the companions' passage. He permitted himself a small smile. It was one of those talents that constantly confounded those who were not druid. The black soldiers were now apparently questioning the people around the inn, trying to get details of the companions' escape. Dealyon worried about that. One aspect of obscuring their trail he could not cover was people witnessing their passage.
He was just starting to shift his consciousness back out of the city to get a feeling for the area ahead of the companions when he felt a surge of psychic pain coming from Preosha. His awareness snapped back into his body and he turned in time to see her sway where she was seated on the ground. He moved towards her, calling for Aramari, just as she fell over onto her side. He kneeled by Preosha's side carefully arranging her limbs so that she was on her back with her arms to her sides. He placed his hands on her forehead and stomach and began to whisper the keys of power to a prayer of knowledge, attempting to find the source of her malady.
A tap on his shoulder brought him out of the spell and he made room for Aramari to kneel next to him. The white robed cleric had a more intimate knowledge of the human anatomy than did Dealyon and her healing powers were much stronger as well. Dealyon was well aware of these facts and therefore let her take the lead in examining Preosha. She was, after all, the favored priestess of Meyasha, the Goddess of Healing. Meyasha was the Goddess of Vengeance as well, but Dealyon did not feel that was the aspect of her nature that would be needed here.
"The primary source of danger appears to be coming from her right arm," he told the priestess. "There are a few broken ribs as well, but those are not life threatening. Unfortunately, I am unsure as to the nature of the problem with her arm."
Aramari's face screwed up in concentration as she whispered, "There's something there that is blocking her body's attempt to heal itself. It is corroding the tissue around it."
Dealyon watched her close her eyes and reposition her hands over the injured arm. She told him in an almost inaudible whisper, "It's a sliver of some kind of metal. It must be from one of the Czak Myar swords. It's radiating small waves of power that are disrupting her body's functioning. I can't heal her with that thing stuck in her body."
Dealyon reached out and gently pulled Aramari's hands away. "It needs to be purged from her, and we both know that I have more strength in that area than do you," he said in his low voice.
Aramari nodded and moved back slightly, allowing Dealyon room to work.
Dealyon placed his hands in their earlier positions on Preosha's head and stomach. He began to whisper the keys of power to the purging prayer. He could feel the surge of energy course through his body as he established his connection to the power of his God. He slowly fed that energy into Preosha, using it to force her body and spirit to recognize the source of the disruption of their normal functions and purge it from her system. He could sense, rather than see, the metal shard being forced from her arm and heard it fall softly to the grass beside her. He next directed her body to force the infection out of the wound, including any fatigue poisons that lingered in her system. As a result, she would be much more energetic than the rest of the companions when she awoke.
Dealyon opened his eyes and removed his hands from Preosha. He looked at Aramari, seeing the concern on her face for their fallen comrade. "Do not worry. The shard has been purged from her system, as has the infection surrounding it. You now have clean wounds to heal. It should make your task much less difficult."
Aramari nodded and took her place over Preosha's body. Dealyon stood and looked back towards the companions. Quillion was looking at him expectantly. The Half-elf was worrying, as usual, about the welfare of the troop. Dealyon fixed him with a stare and said, "She will be fine. A little rest and a good deal of water will have her feeling better than before very quickly. Are there any others who were wounded by one of the Czak Myar blades?"
Quillion just blinked his eyes, giving Dealyon a quizzical look and nodded towards the injured bar maid. "Deenia here is the only other one that was cut by their steel," he said in a tired voice.
Dealyon moved to stand near the bar maid, looking down upon her and the small barkeep who sat over her. Quillion moved up to stand beside him, and both of them watched the sad spectacle. Gradually Sturk became aware of the two of them watching him and he looked up, blinking tears from his eyes. Dealyon told him in a low voice, "You will have to release her for a few minutes while I tend to her."
Sturk glared at him suspiciously for a moment, but then slowly nodded and backed away, setting Deenia's head gently to the soft grass. Dealyon knelt beside her body and whispered the power keys to a knowledge prayer. As the power flowed through him, he examined Deenia's wounds with his expanded senses and listened to Quillion speaking with Sturk in low tones.
"She's going to be fine Sturk. You know that don't you?" The Half-elf's voice had a soothing tone to it.
Sturk answered in a choked voice, "I thin' so. Nuthin' canna happen ta her, ye know. I dinna know what I would do, iff'n she was lost t'me."
"I know how you feel, but she'll be fine." There was a long pause before Quillion continued. "You realize that you cannot go with us, Sturk. You two might be able survive this journey, but you would slow us down and we cannot afford to be caught. The Czak Myar will have no interest in you once you are away from us and you can get back to your life."
Dealyon spared a moment after completing his examination of Deenia to look at Sturk. The small man's haunted eyes were glued to Deenia's prone form as he shook his head in mute refusal. Dealyon was willing to wager that he had never even looked away from her during the entire conversation. Dealyon turned his attention back to Deenia and began the healing prayer to knit her wound back together.
Out of the corner of his eye Dealyon saw Quillion go over to Sturk and put his arm around the barkeep's shoulders. It looked like the Half-elf was going to take a new tactic with Sturk. "You need to get her to safety after you leave us. She needs your protection now Sturk. Melina told me you killed one of the Czak Myar and that's something not many people can say. You're going to have to be the one to protect her in case they decide to show back up again."
Sturk, without removing his eyes from Deenia, reached tentatively over to clasp Quillion's hand. "All right. I kin do it. She'll ne'er want fer anythin' again iff'n I have anythin' ta say about it."
Dealyon finished his healing and removed his hands from Deenia. He stood up smoothly, looking at Sturk. "She is fine, barkeep. The wound was not deep and there were no traces of the infecting metal from the Czak Myar blade. You should get her out of here as soon as possible before they arrive."
Sturk nodded his head and unexpectedly stepped forward and embraced Dealyon. Dealyon's eyes grew wide in shock and he saw the look of amusement on Quillion's face at his predicament. The druid murmured a few words to placate the overwrought man and gently, but firmly, disengaged his hands. Sturk looked at Melina's sleeping body on the ground next to Malaryn and said to Quillion, "Tell 'er I said 'Thank ye'. Deenia woulda died w'out 'er help."
Quillion smiled and said, "I will, Sturk. Fare you well and good luck."
Sturk gave a crooked grin to Quillion and Dealyon and reached down to pick up Deenia's limp form. Dealyon was certain that Sturk's frail body could never carry her, but he was quickly proven wrong. Sturk gave a grunt as he lifted her up into his arms, but his steps were steady and strong as he carried her back into town, looking with wide eyes about the buildings for signs of trouble. Dealyon knew that Sturk would carry her all the way to Gypsyroam if he had to. Such was the power of love.
Dealyon turned back to Aramari, who was rising up from Preosha's sleeping body. Aramari wavered for a moment and nearly fell over, only just catching herself on a nearby tree. Quillion was there in a heartbeat, assisting her to stand. She looked at Dealyon with tired, bloodshot eyes and said, "She'll be fine. She'll have strength to go for a while, but all of us will need rest soon, or we won't survive to continue the journey."
Dealyon nodded gravely back to her. Quillion looked at the silent druid and asked, "Can you obscure our trail from the Czak Myar?"
From the folds of his hood, Dealyon replied, "I can. However, we must move much farther into the forest for the ruse to have any effect. In any instance, I do not think it will throw them off for more than a day."
Quillion nodded and removed his arm from Aramari, who insisted she could walk on her own. The Half-elf walked over and gave Malaryn a gentle shove, "Wake up, big guy. We've still got some traveling to do yet."
By the groans and grumbling coming from the companions, Dealyon knew that this next leg of the journey would not be easy. Once more he thanked his God for granting him the ability to shift his awareness away from his own aches and weariness. The road ahead would not be easy, but he could deal with it much easier than the others. He picked up his staff and, after a moment's deliberation, walked deeper into Ravenwood, motioning for the others to follow.
The street in front of The Sinner's Cove was currently deserted. It had been filled with people less than an hour ago, but now the population of Two Sands wisely shied away from the black mailed soldiers that milled around its length. Emiriak had ordered the interrogation of the first eight people his eyes had run across upon leaving the damned inn. He was certain that these peasants knew exactly which direction that blasted Half-elf and his friends were headed. After a bit of minor torture, which was all he had time for, and some major intimidation, they had revealed that the group had been heading to the Northwest. Emiriak did not know Two Sands well, but he was fairly certain from maps he had seen that there were no major roads heading Northwest out of the city. That left only the dense forest of Ravenwood. Damn!
If he had not missed his guess, and he never did, that fellow in the group that was wearing the dark brown cloak was a druid. That meant that the stinking Half-elf and his followers would have little to no trouble moving through the forest. Unless, of course, the woods were as dangerous as the stories he had heard indicated. No matter, for the half breed had escaped him twice now, and that was not going to go unpunished, no matter how many friends he had fighting with him.
Emiriak was not a stupid man, he knew he would have to send for reinforcements from Hellsport to properly set a trap. Until they arrived, however, he would have to make sure that he did not lose the trail. There was no real worry about that, as the Czak Myar scouts could track anyone, anywhere. This disjointed group of fighters would be no different.
Emiriak placed his helm on his head and slammed down the visor in a fury. It was his favorite helm, composed of the same black-lacquered steel that his scale mail was made of. It was gilded in silver and stylized in the shape of a Rivanwraith's head. The painted eyes of the air serpent was where his view slits resided and he could use the disconcerting effect it had on people to emphasize his already dominating presence. His gauntleted hands flexed as if crushing a man's windpipe and then reached into his pouch to find his compass. He took a bearing on the Northwest landmarks. He had lost his sense of direction in here among these infernal trees. When this job was finished he would have to return to this miserable city and raze these trees to the ground to make himself a castle. The prospect improved his mood immeasurably.
His hand brushed across the pommel of his scimitar and his mind drifted for a second, thinking of the powerful weapon he carried. V'cir, the ancient and great sword of the elder kings of Mirdas Morgal, given to him personally by Exalted Lord Sortinst. Its non-reflective black blade gave him the power of the ancient Necromancers from the Black Ages. He had not mastered all of its abilities yet, but he knew it was just a matter of time before did. As soon as he commanded its full might, he could become the most powerful person on Mer. Perhaps even more powerful than Lord Sortinst.
He looked around for his second in command, Petyon. He saw the man interrogating the latest citizen of Two Sands they had captured. Despite his anger, Emiriak had to smile behind his visor. Petyon had a way with interrogations and could have his own mother swearing she was an ogre-trained Yerracht in a matter of hours. Emiriak strode majestically to the tree where Petyon was questioning the commoner. The peasant, a man of middle years, was attached to the massive trunk with needles through the tendons of his hands and feet. He must have been a father, as there were children standing about. They wailed every time the man screamed in agony. Oh yes, Petyon definitely had a way with this sort of thing.
"Petyon!" Emiriak could hear his booming voice echo through the helm.
His second jumped a bit and turned, exasperated, to his commander. "Please, my lord. You really should not startle someone who is at such a delicate juncture as this."
"I don't care about some stinking peasant's torture. We've already gotten all we're going to from this lot anyway. I want to begin the hunt as soon as possible," Emiriak growled.
"My lord, I think giving up on this would be a bit premature. I think this one, in particular, is hiding something from me."
"Don't argue with me Petyon! I want to be on their trail in five minutes."
"Yes, my Lord," Petyon replied with a sigh.
Petyon removed his precious needles from the man's body, his gestures a bit hurried by Emiriak's watchful eyes. After he was satisfied Petyon was not going to resume his little game, Emiriak strode over to a small clearing in the brush, his cape billowing out behind him. He was going to make full use of the time it took for his men to mobilize. He found an area where the brush surrounding the clearing formed a natural wall along three sides. It was perfect for what he intended.
He sat down on his knees with his feet tucked underneath him and removed a small gray orb from his pouch. He looked at it for a moment, mentally preparing himself for its use. It was not that he was afraid of using it, it was just that any conversation with Lord Sortinst was always taxing on a person. He held the orb cupped in his upturned hands and recited the words that would activate its power.
The orb swirled with streaks of black and red, mimicking in their dance, the ebbs and flows of the voice that resounded from it. "What is it, Emiriak?"
The deep resounding and slightly gravely voice issuing from the orb sent a chill of dread through Emiriak as well as it elated him with the power it conveyed.
"Exalted Lord Sortinst, I bring you news of our mission to stop Vormeastion's return. I found the Half-elf I had been tracking here in a common room in Two Sands. The Czak Myar and I attacked him immediately and unexpectedly. We found him in the company of some friends of his that fought with him against us. Some of them were magic users and all of them were seasoned combatants. They were pitifully overmatched by my own might, however, and my men had them beaten and surrounded in short order. We were preparing to finish them off when I felt a momentary tingle course through my body. The next instant they were gone. Simply gone, as if they had teleported away. I am certain that none of the magic users were chanting a spell at the time, so I believe they must have had outside help."
There was a pause in the swirling colors, before the voice responded, "I agree with you Emiriak. It sounds as if you were interfered with by a party that was supposed to be contained by my spies. Tell me, Emiriak, did you find a gem, a large diamond comprised of strange colors anywhere around where they disappeared?"
"No Exalted Lord, I found no such gem."
"No matter. If he wants to play this game then he will pay the consequences. What is the status of the search?"
"I have questioned the locals thoroughly and they have pointed me in the direction they say the Half-elf's band departed for. I expect my scouts to pick up their trail any minute now. I believe they are heading into Ravenwood to throw off pursuit, much good it will do them. From there they could easily strike out for either Haven, Hogun Wrath or Sea's Shine Port. I suspect Hogun Wrath would be their destination, since that is the only way they won't have to cross the Tym River. Just the same I would like to have some reinforcements ready in Haven and Sea's Shine in case they arrive there before us."
"You will have your reinforcements and more, Emiriak. My own scouts report back that Haven will be ready to fall under my might soon. This little group of fighters will find the goings hard in a city occupied by the armies of Mirdas Morgal. I will send a Rivanwraith to you to as well. I do not want this band of fools loose when I am so close to the time for my final strike."
"Understood, Exalted Lord. I will have them in short order."
"See that you do."
The color faded away from the orb and it returned to its original gray hue. Emiriak shook his head to clear it and stood back up to his full height. He still had that slight buzzing around his skull that he always did when speaking to Lord Sortinst this way. He wondered what strange manner of spell that the leader of Mirdas Morgal was casting upon him every time they spoke. Well, there was nothing he could do about it, so it was irrelevant either way. He tucked the orb away inside its pouch and started out of the thicket when he was stopped short by one of his scouts running up to him.
Irritated by the interruption to his thoughts, Emiriak barked gruffly, "What do you want soldier?"
The scout, being unprepared to face Emiriak's wrath, swallowed once and said, "There have been no signs of tracks from any of the group, my lord. It's as if they were never here."
Emiriak was less than pleased to hear this news, and he vented his displeasure at the scout, practically shouting, "What?!? That's impossible! The people around the front of the inn remember seeing them walk out of here and they were hauling injured! They had to leave some kind of tracks!"
"I agree, my lord, but there are no traces," the scout breathed.
"It must be one of their magic users then, covering up their trail. It looks as if this is going to be challenging after all." Emiriak grabbed the scout by his helmet and pulled him close to his own. "Go back and tell Petyon to move the troops to the Northwest corner of the city. I will be along shortly." He released the scout roughly.
Catching his footing just shy of falling over backwards, the scout gave the Czak Myar salute, pressing his gauntleted fist over his heart. "At once, my lord."
Emiriak had already forgotten the departing scout as he pondered the situation. The magic users of the group are going to prove very troublesome. There must be a way to kill this foul lot without any more outside interference. That was the key, finding out what it was that had saved them in that common room, for whatever it was, it might come to their aid again. Bah! This time, interference or no, that blasted Half-elf would not escape him again!
© 1998   C.A. Lutke