“Eh? What the hell is this?” a rough voice spat. Haemon glanced up from the map he was perusing, seeing that one of his fellow bandits, Azael, was cursing over what some of the newer bandits had handed to him. “Did I ask you to bring me a lump of dirt or did I ask you to bring me something that was actually valuable?”
“Dirt?” one of the bolder rookies repeated, puffing his chest out in irritation. “This is gold, what are you calling dirt?”
“Idiot!” Azael struck out, catching the boy in the side of the head. The youth glowered up at him angrily, as if daring him to try it again. “Gold is gold, but your orders were to steal the pink crystal in the old man’s cabinet.”
“There wasn’t any pink crystal in the entire house,” one of the others protested. “We searched it while he was out twice and we couldn’t find anything like that, so we took his gold and brought it instead.”
“A load of good that does me! Did you morons really think that it would be lying in plain daylight? Didn’t Ezra go with you?”
There was an uncomfortable pause while the three shuffled their feet, glancing at each other. After a while in which Azael placed his hands on his hips and stared down at them dangerously, the first one mumbled, “She wouldn’t come with us. She said that she had her own loot to get and that if we wanted it so bad, we could deal with by ourselves...” Azael swore and then yelled at them to get out. The three, eager to be away from his temperamental attitude, quickly fled from the room.
“I’m not sure why you’re surprised by Ezra’s attitude,” Haemon spoke up casually as Azael collected the gold and dumped it on a scale, his face set in an irritated scowl. While there was no proper leadership, it was well-known that Haemon and Azael were the ones to go to when interested in a mission. Azael handled the data collection, finding prospective missions in their area and assigning them to those in their small band of bandits on the eastern side of this continent. Most of the large-scale missions that dealt with specific areas to be raided was handled by Haemon, who would usually take two other bandits and patrol mountain or forest paths frequented by the wealthy or royalty. Because they often traveled with a guard, it was important that the bandits were more adept in battle than mere stealing like many of the rookies tended to be.
“I’m not,” Azael replied in a brittle tone. After a moment in which he weighed and then sighed, tossing the sacks of gold to the side, he turned around to face the latter male. “It has nothing to do with it surprising me and everything to do with the amount of patience I have for this repeated annoyance. I’m not here to do field training and if those brats had been caught in that man’s house...Ezra knows better than to just throw them out there.”
“She’s a solo player,” Haemon said with a shrug, turning back to look at the map, dragging a hand through his wild, dark red, nearly auburn hair. It stuck every which way after he had pulled his hand through it. “It’s best to keep the rookies with Tia or Darrin instead.” Azael merely grunted, coming to stand across from him at the table. “Ryker, Cayden, and I are going to be heading out to this path tonight,” he said, tapping at the map.
Azael frowned, flattening his hands out on the table as he peered down at the map. His long, black braid swung over his shoulder, but he paid it no mind. “It’s been getting more dangerous trying to get anything from the paths lately,” he said, “especially in these eastern forests. The mountains are overrun with goblins so nobody dares take those paths and I’ve recently heard that there are some types of spirits that have been roused in the forest.”
“But it’s the only path anyone from the city can take that won’t ensure they’re killed,” Haemon pointed out, tapping the map a second time. “This is the main one and nobody wants to try and use the other ones for fear of getting lost. Either way, I’ve already planned it. We’ll be leaving shortly.”
“Well, try not to get killed then,” Azael said, straightening as Haemon swept the map up, folding it. “Let me know if there’s any actual spirits there, too.”
“I always keep you informed,” Haemon said with a smile. He knew that Azael was concerned for his safety given the state of unrest in Sorra lately. Goblins had begun to run rampant after several hundred years of being secluded within the mountains and whenever they ventured out of their mountain caves, the King’s knights were quick to put them in place and those that survived the encounter typically ran back into the caves. Something, however, had stirred nearly the entire goblin population to leave their secure place and the knights, Haemon noticed, were having a hard time controlling the creatures. It had even been rumoured that the goblins had reached as far north as the Tilusian mountain range that separated the elven realm from the rest of Sorra. Whether that was fact or not was unknown, as the elves made a point to limit their interaction with humans. Nonetheless, Haemon thought, regardless of where you are in Sorra, it’s not safe anymore. As if we need spirits on top of this goblin problem.
Haemon left their underground base that was settled beneath an incongruous stable and small cottage. Grady, the wizened old man that ran the stables for them, greeted him by raising his pitchfork slightly from cleaning out one of the stalls. “Thank the gods Ezra took that mount of hers,” he said conversationally as Haemon prepared his horse to leave. “That thing’s got a fiery temper just like her, I tell you, snorting and pawing at the ground constantly like it’s going to charge through the gate.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Haemon said to him, chuckling. “That beast only looks frightening. It can handle combat, but it doesn’t do well when something’s trying to attack it directly. It’ll flinch and take off in an instant. A little painful for your back and neck when it does that.”
“Either way, the thing acts like it’s possessed by a demon when it’s near me,” Grady grumbled moodily, hitting his pitchfork into the hay a few times.
“I’m sure it’ll warm up to you eventually, Grady,” Haemon said, guiding his mount away from the stable before swinging up into the saddle. “Don’t have too much fun, yeah?” He snapped the reins and the horse neighed, shooting into a trot. It took him a little over two hours to get to the forest and he led his horse near the edge of the forest where the pathway led into the forest, glancing behind him. There was nothing but darkness behind him, his lamp shedding a small bit of light. Sighing, he lifted the glass and blew out the lamp before clasping it to the side of his saddle safely. “Where are those idiots?”
Raising an eyebrow, Haemon turned his mount around to see two other men on horses slip out of the trees. “There you two are. I told you to wait out here for me.”
“Well, we didn’t want to be obvious,” Ryker said with a grin. Both of the men were near the same age as Haemon and while Cayden had boyishly good looks and softer features, Ryker’s features were more rugged and weatherworn from growing up in the southern deserts. They were both useful in ambushes due to their upbringing. Ryker had commonly found himself fighting the multitude of sand creatures in the desert, so battles were fairly standard for him. Cayden, in contrast, had grown up in the capitol city and, orphaned young, had taken to the streets as a thief. While his experience with fights appeared to be limited to cutthroats, he had enough experience fighting the king’s guard to be able to deal with the knights and mercenaries that traveled with the nobles. “And anyway, you’re late. Did you really expect us to stay out here?”
“Alright, I get your point,” Haemon said with a scowl. “Let’s go find a good vantage point to set up at.” As they eased their horses into the forest and down the path, Haemon flicked a look around. Now that his eyes had adjusted to the darkness, he was able to see better and as far as he could tell, there were no spirits lurking about in the forest as Azael had suggested to him. Indeed, it seemed fairly calm compared to what he was expecting. He could still hear the flutter of bats above them and forest animals running along the trees. There was no stench of goblins, so he suspected they would have no need to worry about that complication tonight.
“We scouted it out a bit while waiting for you,” Cayden said softly. Haemon glanced back at him. Even in the darkness, he could catch Cayden’s wavy, blonde hair head shifting to and fro as his horse moved. “It doesn’t look like anyone has been straying from the main path to the smaller paths much...likely too afraid to take a chance at a shortcut.”
“It would be too difficult to defend if they took one of those paths,” Haemon remarked. “Ah. Here we go. Cayden, go on in the trees across from us.” They gingerly made their way into the trees, as their horses huffed in displeasure at the cramped quarters.
“This forest is spooky,” Ryker said after some time and only one raid on a group. “It never used to feel this way, but lately...it just hasn’t felt right.”
“Nothing’s felt right,” Haemon told him mildly. “This whole damn continent is falling apart. Goblins, trolls, and the undead...what’s next?”
“Well, whatever it is, it’s not doing well for business, I’ll tell you that much. Damned light travelers...barely had any gold on them.”
“Only two mercenaries with them, too, not even with anything worth nicking.”
“Shh!” Cayden’s voice hissed out to them. “I can see lights. It looks like a good one is coming.”
They obligingly fell silent, leaning forward a bit so that they could see through the trees. They were surprised to find a rather large entourage of knights surrounding three carriages. Based upon the crest upon the carriages, they suspected it was a high-ranking noble traveling. Haemon and Ryker exchanged smirks before pulling their makeshift turbans to conceal their face and gripping their short swords in their hands, waiting for the opportune moment to pass. Once one of the carriages had passed them, there was the sound of a bow releasing and one of the knights went crumpling to the ground from Cayden’s arrow. Just as the knights whirled around to inspect the man, Haemon and Ryker kicked their horses out from the trees, their swords flying.
In ordinary circumstances, they wouldn’t have tried this type of ambush. But they were bandits and they were desperate.
The knights didn’t expect the attack and they were able to take a good portion out before they truly began to put up a fight. There was a sudden roar behind him and Haemon sprang away from the knight. There was a scream from the knight as he was engulfed in black flames before collapsing to the ground, his skin sunken in and gray. Black magic, Haemon thought, whirling around. “Shit. Take out the sorcerer!” he yelled above the chaos. The hooded figure raised his staff and hand, but before he was able to cast another spell towards Haemon, a body collided into him, bringing him to the ground. Following the corpse of a knight came Cayden jumping off the top of a carriage, daggers in hand. Just as the sorcerer was raising himself up, Cayden’s hands moved in quick, successive movements, stabbing the sorcerer in his abdomen.
There was another roar and he could hear the startled yells of knights on the other side of the carriage and with a glance, Haemon saw that there was a rush of fire. “Ryker!” Haemon called, dodging a knight’s sword and then digging his own blade in a weak spot between his armor and helm. The knight fell to the ground, choking on his own blood. “What the fuck is going on over there?”
“There’s another sorcerer in one of the carriages,” Cayden said, running up to Haemon, taking out one of the other knights. “Look, the horses are gone but the carriages are still moving forward.”
“The knights will at least have something on them, but there’s no way we’ll be able to get near the carriages.”
Haemon quickly debated with himself whether or not to make an attempt at robbing the carriages. This was an unusual amount of defense, even for a high-ranked noble. Before he was given a chance to even consider it, however, a sudden chill swept over the pathway and the carriages lagged behind, as if being held back by something. Haemon stiffened, hearing soft whispers in the woods. He could hear Ryker fighting with one of the last knights on the other side of the path, but he wasn’t concerned with that. “What is this?” he murmured, stiffening and glancing around the darkened path. “More black magic?”
Just as he said so, they heard the sound of a carriage door opening and there was a bright glow from a jewel on a gnarled staff. Haemon raised his hand against the light, catching a glimpse of the sorcerer’s face. It was old and weathered, yet the eyes were bright and flashing in fury. “By all the gods,” he cried in a startlingly strong voice, “go back to the underworld where you belong, creatures!” There was a sudden flash and both Haemon and Cayden were knocked to the ground. The bright flash illuminated the path, showing the outline of grotesque figures. The carriages immediately began moving forward as soon as the sorcerer had cast his spell. He continued to hang outside the door, blasting from his staff. While it protected the carriages, the three bandits were still vulnerable. Their horses had dashed out of the forest as soon as the first sorcerer had cast his magic.
“What the fuck – ” Haemon began, feeling as if multiple, thin hands were holding him down. He struggled against the hold and then looked up to see a grotesque face. Its inhuman mouth opened wide, the eyes two black pits in the thin, rotting face. He froze and released a terrified scream, raising his hands up to cover his face and the creature breathed on him and he dropped into unconsciousness.
“...damn things! Stay back!” Haemon stirred, hearing the voice snarl. When he blinked his eyes open, he made to raise himself but gasped in pain and reached down. His stomach churned with nausea, realizing he could feel bone on his thigh. He became aware there was a globe floating above him and he looked up to see a robed figure standing above him. The hood was back, however, and he stared at the intense expression on the woman’s face. She raised her hands and swept them around. “Away, I said!” She splayed her fingers out, arching her hands and the land around them glowed and the creatures around them exploded upward from their feet, crumpling to the ground. “Damnable things,” she grumbled, turning around. She adjusted the scarf that was wrapped around her head covering her ears, and raised her eyebrows, noticing Haemon staring at her. “You’re awake?” She knelt down and he made to move away from her, but winced, falling back on his back, yelling aloud. “I just got them off you a moment ago,” she told him, putting a firm hand on his shoulder to keep him in place. “I haven’t had a chance to heal you.” With her other hand she tapped her chin. “I can’t fully heal it, but enough to where the bone’s not showing. I can’t do anything for the pain either, unfortunately.”
“You think I’m going to let a fucking sorcerer try to heal me?” he growled through gritted teeth. She considered him thoughtfully.
“I am not a sorcerer,” she said at last, “just someone passing through. Now stay still.”
In spite of his attitude, he stopped trying to move and watched her with a cynical eye as she raised her hands above his thigh. White mist seemed to pour from her hands and down onto his thigh. It was warm where the wound was and went numb briefly while she healed him. While she worked, Haemon quickly took in her appearance for a second time. Her features were unusual and nothing he had seen before. Her face was pale, narrow, and angular and her eyes were almond-shaped and dark, almost black. The white-blonde hair was swept back in a leather thong, but it was so long that it spilled into the dirt on the forest floor. Granted, Haemon hadn’t been everywhere in Sorra, but she didn’t look quite human, but he was unsure of what race she would be.
She lowered her hands onto his thigh, just outside of the wound, and leaned forward, peering down intently. Her brow puckered a bit and then she straightened, turning to meet Haemon’s gaze. “That’s all I can do for you. How does it feel?”
“Like hell, thanks,” he replied in an irritable tone.
“It will take some time to heal,” she said, apparently unbothered by his rudeness. She leaned forward and slipped her hand behind his back, pulling his arm around her shoulders, helping him sit up. “Try not to put too much weight on that leg.” He bit back his sarcastic retort as she eased him onto his feet. The shining globe followed them as they moved out of the small clearing that they had been in. “I would not suggest coming into this forest at night anymore. Even here, you can see the changes within Nature.”
“Nature?” he repeated blankly. “The hell you talking about?”
“There are many things that have been happening in Sorra,” she said mildly, “and my only explanation for this sudden turn towards these foul creations is that Nature has become imbalanced. Nature protects, guards, and nourishes the land. Yet suddenly this forest is overrun with the undead, goblins are attacking villages, and there have been recent, unexplained disappearances from people’s houses that I don’t believe is due to goblins.”
“An imbalance, huh?” The woman glanced at him, but didn’t say anything. “Don’t you think you should have been out of the forest, then?”
“It is the only way to travel right now. Trying to avoid the forest by moving around it loses too much time.” He saw her eyes dart around and realized she was nervous. “These undead, though...they must be feeding. They are stronger than the ones I have faced elsewhere.”
“You didn’t seem to have a problem.”
Her smile was tight as she answered, “Looks can be deceiving.”
The conversation halted there, as they traveled slowly through the forest. Haemon was sweating from the pain and shaking a bit. The wound was agonizing, especially to walk, but he wanted out of this place as soon as possible and his companion’s tense body told him that she was just as eager to be out of the forest as he was. It was unnaturally quiet, unlike when he had entered it earlier. There were no animal sounds near them and it put him on edge. After some time, however, he heard footsteps in the distance and they paused, listening. “Gods be damned,” he murmured, “is it more of them?”
“No...,” she said slowly, “I think it is human.” She raised her hand and the globe winked out, leaving them in darkness. He stood beside her, feeling completely defenseless and useless, having to depend on a woman of all things to protect him. He knew, based on her earlier words, that she was not feeling too confident of her abilities to defend them a second time. He did not know too much about magic, but he suspected that it had to have drained some of her energy. After the light had gone out, the footsteps paused, as if hesitating.
“Haemon?” a voice whispered doubtfully.
A rush of relief washed through him. “Ryker, I’m here,” he called out. The globe appeared again as there was a crash of footsteps and then the two men came through the trees. Their faces were pale and frightened.
“We thought you were dead,” Ryker said in an unsteady voice. His eyes turned to Haemon’s thigh, where he was sure it still looked like a mess. “Those things...we were able to fight them off...but they disappeared with you. We tried to follow them, but lost their trail...”
“Who’s this?” Cayden spoke up brusquely.
“Er, I don’t really know,” Haemon admitted, glancing at the woman who was still supporting his weight.
“Introductions aside,” she said, “we need to get out of this forest. It is too quiet. If you could carry him, I would appreciate it. We may be able to leave faster.” Cayden seemed ready to argue that point, but Ryker hastily agreed, moving forward to carry Haemon on his back. The position was still not quite comfortable for his wound, but it was better than before. “Go ahead, I will follow from behind.”
Cayden led the way to the path while Ryker followed, the globe hovering over them, giving them light for their footing. It was went much quicker than if Haemon had been walking. Thankfully the three bandits were familiar with the forest enough to know their way through it and to recognize the markers they had left throughout the forest. Cayden was clearly as eager to get out of the forest as the others, because he led them down the path rather quickly. Haemon realized, belatedly, that all the knights they had slaughtered had suspiciously disappeared. His stomach dropped with unease and he glanced behind him. His alarm increased when he saw the woman’s dark eyes filled with worry. She blinked when he looked at her and then looked away. If not for having seen that look in her eyes, he wouldn’t have suspected anything was amiss.
That must be what she meant by feeding, he thought.
“Just a bit farther,” Cayden said to them and abruptly, the globe flickered and then disappeared. “Hey! What the hell are you doing, woman?”
“It was not me,” she said in a tone laced with unease. “Quick – group together.” They huddled closely together, each of them breathing a bit hard. The air around them seemed colder than before.
“Damn it,” Cayden swore. “These fucking things again!”
“They were following us,” the woman told them grimly. Haemon heard her move in the dark and then there was a blast of light that struck up from the ground around them. There was a swarm of undead around them, completely surrounding them and they shrunk back from the light, releasing howls that cut through the night air. In the light, Haemon could see the faces of his companions, each of them afraid and unsure. The woman looked from the surrounding undead to them. “You run,” she said to Ryker, “and we will fight them off to clear a way through.” Ryker nodded shakily.
She reached inside her robes and he realized there was a sword sheathed beneath her robes. She drew it and after a nod from Cayden, the two dashed forward, slashing at the creatures. Ryker was quick to follow, keeping close between the two. Once they had managed to cut through those blocking the path to the forest, the group ran from them. They could hear the undead pursuing them, shrieking and trying to grasp at them. Haemon clenched his teeth tight as he was jostled around, his leg screaming out in pain. The wound only reminded him of the pain that these things could inflict upon them, though, and it was not at all a comforting thought. “There’s the exit!” she cried to them. “Hurry!” As soon as they broke out of the trees, they all looked back, but there was nothing following them. The woman flung a hand out and the meadow bristled, as if a strong wind had pushed through it. The entrance to the forest looked empty and innocent, as if there was nothing threatening within the trees.
“It seems they are unable to leave the forest,” she spoke up after catching her breath. Ryker had set Haemon down, who lied on the long grass, perspiring from the pain of his injury and his heart thundering from the fear of the chase. She sheathed her sword and after smoothing her robes out, she walked over to Haemon, kneeling down and touching his thigh. The bleeding that had started from aggravating the wound stopped. She released a smallsigh and looked around. “It looks like your horses are here,” she said as the animals plodded towards the group uncertainly, one of them tossing their head in aggravation. “You need to get him somewhere safe, he needs rest and that wound needs to be dressed. I do not have any supplies with me for that.”
“Right,” Ryker nodded and stood up. “You should guide his horse with yours, Cayden, and he’ll ride with me.” Cayden gave a nod of assent and both he and Ryker assisted Haemon on to the horse before Ryker got up behind him. Cayden took the reins of Haemon’s horse and swung onto his own before grasping both of the reins.
“Wait,” Haemon said as the two made to leave. He turned to look at the woman who was standing, watching the forest entrance thoughtfully. When he spoke, she returned her gaze to them. “I’m not accustomed to people saving my life, but I appreciate it anyway.”
She smiled. “You can return the favor if we ever meet again. Hurry now.”
Haemon knew that the other males were anxious to leave, so he nodded and raised a hand to Cayden, indicating for them to leave. Even after they took off, he glanced back, frowning, unable to help but wonder what could cause a woman to travel alone in such a dangerous area.