The dark clouds rolled over the valley like a thick blanket, threatening to unleash a downpour of rain. I had struck out from the dark castle in the early evening, having figured it was as good of a chance as any to head for the town while the sun was heavily obscured. The path was rocky, unkept and twisted like a serpent over the rough mountain terrain until it eventually reached the main road. I didn’t see anyone else traveling down the road as I stepped off the path, and I honestly didn’t blame them. A glance skyward and I could see the dark foreboding clouds that obscured the sun. I would have preferred to travel the road in the light of day, however, that was no longer an option due to my newfound aversion to sunlight.
With apprehension, I drew the hood up on the cloak I had found while exploring the castle. There were a few other things I had managed to scavenge as well, including a rusty blade and a traveler’s pack. Nothing dreadfully useful, but it was better than nothing. I hefted the pack on my shoulder and prayed that nothing untoward would happen while I visited the village to uncovered news or gossip about my companions or what may have happened in their fight against the Dark Lord.
The road descended steeply down a couple of switchbacks into the valley. Gradually the forest seemed to slowly encroach upon the road with the branches entwining overhead until it obscured what little light remained from the setting sun and gathering storm clouds. Overhead, the thunder crackled loudly.
I was briefly startled when a large dog or possibly a wolf sprinted out from under the thick brush that lined the road. I stepped back with my hand on my sword ready to defend myself. Instead of attacking, it glanced once in my direction before it turned to disappear into the trees on the other side of the road. I shook my head and continued onward.
When I neared the village, the threat of rain finally fell like a heavy curtain. The few villagers that were caught outside began to hurry quickly to escape the sudden downpour. Thunder boomed again as I drew my cloak closer around me and made my way towards the tavern while sidestepping the deep puddles of rainwater. Someone saw me approach and flung the door open.
“Come on in quick!”
“Thank you,” I muttered as I stepped through the entryway.
“Bit of bad weather to get caught out in,” said a portly man as he closed the door behind me.
“No need to apologize,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand as he turned to sit down with his friends. The tavern seemed to be quiet in the late evening, I could see a barmaid who was clearing a few tables, a couple of travelers speaking in low voices with the barkeeper, and a small crowd who looked to be locals that the portly man had rejoined. I took a seat at a quiet table and the barmaid paused her cleaning to approach.
“Anything to drink. traveler?”
“No,” I said with a shake of my head as I glanced over her. She had her hair pulled back out of her face with a smudge of dirt on her cheeks and her cleaning rag still in hand. “Just trying to get out of the rain and I don’t have any coin on me right now.”
She nodded solemnly, and put a glass down on the table in front of me, “It doesn’t matter first drink is on the house.”
I muttered a quick thanks as she returned with red wine and poured me a drink. Feeling parched and thirsty I picked up the glass and took a swig. Satisfied she went back to pick up plates off the nearby table. The liquid had sloshed uncomfortably down my throat, leaving me more thirsty than I was previously. Putting the cup down I caught the eye of the barkeeper as he was putting something behind the counter before returning to his conversation with the travelers, both of whom were giving me the weary eye. I ignored them in spite of the odd chill creeping down my back and returned to nursing my drink.
“So I heard the gypsy folk are leaving.”
There was a sound of a thud and I turned to see one of the portly man’s friends had struck the table with his fist.
“We don’t need their kind around here! Damn servants of the Dark Lord! Spies and thieves the whole lot of them!”
“Shush, Elric your too loud,” spoke the portly man, “besides they’ve not all left. I hear Madam Ezma’s group is still camped out by the falls.”
“No doubt stealing honest hardworking folk of their coin,” the man who spoke lifted his mug and took a long draught before slamming his drink down on the table, “telling people their so-called fortunes, selling lies and swindling them.”
I turned back to my drink, even though it was hard to swallow and did little to alleviate my thirst. When the barmaid past by my table again, I asked her if she had a moment to talk and share news.
“Anything in particular?” she asked sitting down.
I shrugged my shoulders, “honestly I’m looking to hear about some old companions of mine who passed through here.”
The barmaid gave me a confused look, “We don’t get many new folks passing through here. Even with the fall of the Dark Lord.”
“So he was defeated,” I said with a nod, it was good to know he had been stopped. One less thing that I had to worry about, “Do you know by whom or how he was defeated?”
The barmaid gave a small shrug, “Not sure to be honest. There was a small group that did claim to have defeated him. They passed through here with the news, though many of the townfolk didn’t believe it at first,” she smiled and had a faraway look in her eye, “I believed them though. The day they came back from the Dark One’s castle was the same day the clouds had parted and the sun shined. I never knew the sun could shine so brightly like that.”
“Could you describe them?”
Happily, she leaned forward, “well one of them was tall and large with golden light hair. He had polished gleaming armor and a shining sword,” she blushed a bit, “he was so nice though and surprisingly shy.” It sounded like it could have been Allen, but I wasn’t sure.
“Was there a girl with them? She would have had a scepter of the Goddess.”
The girl nodded, “She did actually, how did you know?”
“If they are who I think they are, I had traveled with them for a bit before we became separated. Do you know what happened to them after they passed through here,” I pressed? She shook her head, and I leaned back in my seat, “Nothing?”
“They left from what I understand. Though rumors say they might return in a year or so.”
So they had moved on. I imagine Clarice might have held a vigil for my passing spirit. The rest would have gathered around a table and drank to my memory. For a moment, I wondered if they were the ones to have placed my body in the tomb, to begin with. It was a possibility to consider. However, I figured if anyone among my companions harbored a suspicion that the Dark Lord turned or corrupted me with dark magic, they should have burned my body as a precaution. It's what I would have done just to be safe. After all, I didn’t want them to return as the soulless undead seeking revenge on the living.
An abrupt thought intruded on my mind, was I soulless?
“Sorry,” the barmaid stood, interrupting my trail of thought “I didn’t mean to bring you bad news. I’m sure you’ll find them eventually. What was your name?”
“Gwenyth,” I replied before taking another swig of my drink, “and yours?”
“Thank you, Sylvia, for the drink and the company,” I forced a smile, “us girls have to look out for each other.”
She returned the smile and went back to cleaning. After she left, I glanced at the door and made to take another drink of my glass only to find it empty. My throat felt like it was burning and I wondered if the wine had an adverse effect on me. Was I only limited to drinking blood? I glanced back at the barmaid, I needed a desperate drink and she seemed trusting, perhaps I could?
No. I shut down the thought and buried my face in my hands. I shouldn’t reward kindness with treachery. I looked up when someone placed a couple of tankards on my table. A rough-looking man sat down opposite me.
“A drink to a weary traveler,” he offered sliding one of the tankards over to me.
“No thanks. I’m fine.”
He nodded, “I understand. I just couldn’t let a pretty girl like yourself go without a drink. Are you just traveling through or…?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
He nodded his head in response to my vague answer. Casually, he pulled out a pendant from under his coat. I took one look and averted my eyes from the searing heat that emanated from it.
“You like my trinket? The priest who sold it swore it contained the tooth of a Saint to the Goddess. Said it could turn away evil,” he chuckled and put it away. The heat disappeared the moment he had it tucked under his shirt. “Not sure why I bought it, to be honest. Probably not even worth the coin I paid for it.”
I nodded absentmindedly, as I glanced over where the pendent was now hidden.
“He probably just enchanted it so he could sell it for more money” I offered.
“Maybe” he shrugged “Maybe not.”
He stood taking his two drinks back with him. I watched him sit down at the bar with the other traveler and passed him the second drink with some coin.
Probably lost a bet. I frowned in annoyance before standing up from my table. I was starting to get desperately thirsty and I needed to get away from the tavern. It was still raining outside, prompting me to draw my hood up. By this point, night had fallen in its entirety cloaking the town in a vale of darkness intermitted by a flash of lighting.
I needed to get out of town before I tore into someone for blood. The question was where to go? I could head back to the castle, but I doubted I could avoid my thirst for long by running away. Starving myself was not going to work for the long term, and I felt a desire, a need to find something to prey upon.
With no other idea of where to go, I turned to make my way up the street back to the mountain road I had followed into the valley. There was a chance I could catch some wild animal and use it to curb my thirst. I had doubts it would work, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to try. Maybe there was something I could find in the Dark Lord’s castle that I have overlooked. It would be better to have this thirst under control before coming back. Hopefully, by then Sylvia might have remembered something that could point me in the right direction to find my companions, or I could find someone that might have an idea of where they might have gone.
Thunder crackled across the valley as I departed past the edge of the village. The thick coverage of trees only barely helped keep the rain off as it fell in buckets. Several paces down the road, I heard the sound of horses galloping up behind me from the village. I stepped off to the side and turned as a flash of lightning illuminated the dark forest.
For a moment I saw the horse and his rider barring down on me like a dark visage. He pulled up on the reins and the horse reared back. Another flash of light illuminated the rider, his face seemed like the snarling undead. In surprise, I stumbled back and fell splashing into the thick mud that made up the road around us.
The rider dismounted with a sword in hand and something clenched in his fist. Another flash of lighting revealed he was not alone as another horse and rider had stopped a few paces back barring the road.
A hot burning wind buffeted and seared me as the first rider approached. My head snapped over to him and I could see the icon of the Goddess dangling from his outstretched hand.
“Foul beast and vermin!” came the man’s shout, “in the name of Goddess of Light, I will avenge my family with your death!”
I rolled to the side as he swung to cut me down in the mud. He swung again and I managed to barely stumble to my feet.
“I intend no harm!”
He swung wildly and I backed away.
It didn’t seem like I was going to reason with him. The other rider had dismounted and drew his sword. Two against one was hardly a fair fight so I turned and started to run into the forest. I heard the sound of something cracking behind me and I was sent sprawling into the mud again.
“Don’t think you can run away missy.”
There was a sharp moment of pain as I stood. Looking down, I was surprised to see a crossbow bolt had pierced my side.
“Damn you,” I muttered through clenched teeth. I took a few haphazard steps away from my pursuers. The second rider raised his crossbolt and fired. This time the shot went wide. Finding myself back into a metaphorical corner, I drew my sword.
If I was going to die I was going to die fighting and taking these fools down with me. With a primal war cry of emotion and anger, I charged forward. The first rider met my attack with his sword to deflect the blow. I kicked hoping to knock him off balance only to reward him with an opening. His sword lashed out and I ignored the flash of pain as I attempted to press in my attack.
The other rider chose this moment bull rush me and sent me staggering into the mud. I rolled expecting another sword strike to finish me or to add to my injuries. Instead, I heard a low growl from the forest around me.
I was on my feet in time to see a pack of wolves appearing out of the forest. Lightning illuminated the scene to show that my attackers and I were surrounded.
“She summoned her foul beasts to kill us,” said one of the riders.
“Like nine hells I did,” I spat angrily. The wolves pressed in around the three of us. At the moment I thought they were about to attack they rushed past me and launched themselves at the two riders. One of the horses they had left screamed in fright and bolted. Which lead a couple of the wolves to gave chase after it into the dark. Not wanting to risk getting attacked, I grabbed the reins of the remaining horse. It frantically attempted to pull away from me like a frightened beast.
Desperately I tried to think nice thoughts at it, “Nice horse calm down! Please calm down. I’m not going to hurt you.”
I was startled when the horse stopped trying to rear away from me but was still skittishly pulling back away from the wolves. I took the chance to climb atop it not wanting to question its sudden change in behavior. At the slightest prompting it took off down the road and we left the former riders to the wolves, thunder, and rain.