The next morning dawned cold, and the hunters had to shake the dew from their sleeping furs before rolling them up and affixing them to their saddles. Alden smothered the embers from the fire and everyone hauled themselves up onto their mounts.
The kinvalo chirped merrily in the early light as the band rode the last few hundred feet to the forest.
As soon as they left the tall grasses, Alden noticed something wrong. He called a halt a dozen paces from the forest’s edge and rode alongside Grath.
“Have you ever seen this before, Grath?”
The tentacles atop the Aibeck’s head slapped together as he shook it. His purple mouth formed a firm line, and his amber eyes hardened.
During Alden’s last visit during a hunt a month back, the forest had been lush and vibrant. Colorful birds had called to each other in a cacophony of noise. The paths between trees had been choked with brush and ivy, and the tall trees had been laden with plump, glistening leaves. The forest paths had smelled of wet earth, and a cool mist had settled on Alden’s skin as the Sacram band had hunted their quarry.
The forest Alden saw before him was withered and blackened. A dark haze sat over the forest, as if the light were being choked off by the tangle of clawing branches overhead. What leaves remained on the trees looked more like cancerous clumps. The black razor vines draped between the skeletal trees and clogging the forest paths were the same Scourge growths which had covered the corrupted petal snake. The only visible color came from occasional reddish-pink flowers poking through the snarls of black vines. A sickly sweet and putrid stench, like illness, flowed from the forest.
Alden listened for signs of life but heard only the harsh cawing of carrion birds echoing from somewhere deeper in the forest. To think, Alden recalled with a shudder, last night we slept on the threshold of this tainted place! The Scourge had crept toward them in the night and they hadn’t even known.
“Should we go around?” Alden asked his teacher.
Grath kept his wary eyes on the forest and spoke quietly. “You’re the leader, Alden. You make those decisions. But if we go around, it’s going to take us at least an extra week, maybe two. We will miss the opening ceremony and likely be disqualified.”
The other hunters crept forward. Jincra arrived just in time to catch the tail end of Grath’s muttered comment. “That is not a problem. We are going to Ceralahn City to find help. If we go through this corrupted forest, we may not arrive at all. If we go around we will definitely make it, we will just be unable to compete.”
Braden snorted. “We’d be forfeiting before we even started!”
Jincra raised an eyebrow. “Better to arrive late and fulfil our true mission than never arrive at all.”
Lalaine remained silent, but she edged her mount closer to Jincra.
Alden turned to the huntress. “What do you think, Lalaine?”
Lalaine’s sharp green eyes warily scanned the trees. “I am ready to face whatever you decide we must face, Alden.”
He followed her gaze. Ominous silence filled the woods. Nothing stirred in its shadows. Alden squeezed the reins tightly and turned his mount to face his companions. “We have a chance to gain power for Sacram village. If we can negotiate for help from a place of strength and gather new allies by taking the throne, we have a better chance of surviving the spreading Scourge. We go in. Keep your weapons loose in their sheaths.”
With that, Alden wheeled his mount around and rode into the trees.
One by one, his hunting band followed him into the Scourged forest.
The five hunters rode in tense silence. Dry leaves and discarded sticks crunched under their kinvalo mounts’ feet. The birds nervously ruffled their feathers but did not chirp.
Looming skeletal trees seemed to reach for the band from the corner of Alden’s eye. Every so often, the abrupt cawing of a raven would tear through the forest, and the hunters would jerk in their saddles.
Despite the abnormal darkness, the sick trees, and the putrid smell of disease, the hunters encountered nothing. That could have been cause for relief, but the nothing continued with concerning consistency. No deer crossed the hunters’ path, no rabbits scurried between the sickly trees, and no cheerful birds called out from the gloom. Not even a breeze moved among the trees. The air hung still and thick with the stench of decay. Oppressive weight pressed down upon the five of them for hours, and by the time Alden called a halt to camp for the night, each of the hunters was exhausted.
“I hesitate to even stop for the night,” Alden told Braden as they unsaddled the kinvalo and tethered the birds to trees around a small clearing. “I would have us press on if we weren’t so fatigued. We’ve got at least another full day of travel through the forest before we reach the other side, but this should be our only night in this foul place.”
Braden grunted an acknowledgement. The oppressive pall over the forest had dimmed even his mirthful spirit.
The hunters rolled logs and heavy branches into the clearing for seats and dug a shallow fire pit. The blackened wood from the forest gave off a weak flame and a twisting smoke that kept making Alden’s eyes water no matter how little of it brushed his face.
Lalaine sat on a thick log with her legs pressed tightly together, shivering in the cold. Braden pulled his heavy fur-lined traveling cloak from his saddlebags and laid it over his sister’s shoulders. The blonde huntress accepted the gift with a smile of thanks and wrapped the cloak tightly around herself. As with all signs of mirth, Lalaine’s smile died quickly as the group huddled around their weak fire.
Alden was just about to ask Jincra if Scourged forests were mentioned anywhere in history, when Grath raised one hand. Tension radiated from the Aibeck’s entire body, and he sat poised as if listening intently. His purple right hand reached down and grasped the haft of his enormous greataxe.
The young hunters jumped to their feet and grabbed their weapons, which Alden had ordered to be kept close at hand.
Alden hefted his six-foot bone greatsword. The hardened leather of the hilt dug into his palm as he clenched his fingers. He strained to hear what Grath had heard, but the diseased forest held silent around them.
Lalaine clutched the shaft of her enormous glaive. The rosewood shaft measured five feet long with a three-foot curved blade sprouting from the end. The huntress’ breathing was even, and her sharp green eyes watched the direction opposite from where Grath and the rest of the hunters were looking.
Jincra hefted a circular bone shield four feet in diameter and edged with razor-sharp bone shards. In his other hand, he held a rosewood spear much shorter than Lalaine’s glaive, only five feet long, including a one-foot bone blade. Thorns crunched under Jincra’s feet as he shifted closer to Lalaine.
Braden held a crescent-shaped bone blade in each hand. Both rosewood sickle handles were connected with an extensive braided cord draped around Braden’s arms and tucked into his belt. The Trickster twirled his sickles as he watched the treetops around the clearing.
Sudden rustling drew the attention of the five hunters to an edge of the clearing near where Grath had been looking. Lalaine turned sideways and attempted to split her attention between the two points, so she was not fully prepared when the monster broke through the circle of trees on her side of the clearing.
A massive beast hurtled from the darkness. Hulking muscles rippled under the monster’s charcoal gray fur. The beast had a barrel chest, an elongated snout and ears, and bone blades sticking out all over its shaggy body. Four enormous paws tipped in vicious claws tore up the decaying earth as the creature charged the circle of hunters.
“Blade wolf!” Lalaine shouted. Her glaive slash glanced off the beast’s bone spikes. With a snarl, the monster hurled itself upon Jincra’s shield and bowled the young man over. The beast seized him around his middle and squeezed his armored torso in its mighty jaws.
Alden could see the blade wolf dripping with the same black Scourge fluid as the petal snake they’d fought back home. Black ooze poured from the monster’s eyes, nose, and mouth, and the beast’s body rippled with strange shadows which defied the campfire’s weak light. The creature’s breathing didn’t cause the ripples, because it wasn’t drawing breath.
The beast sank fangs as long as daggers into Jincra’s armored body and wrenched its shaggy head back and forth. Jincra’s scream carried worse than pain as the black goo sank into his wounds.
Lalaine’s cry filled the clearing as she hurled herself upon the beast. Gleaming red light poured from the tattoo on her cheek. The huntress slashed and stabbed at the huge wolf with her enormous rosewood glaive. Its three-foot blade was able to reach deep into the places between the beast’s bone spikes and carve the flesh beneath.
Thick, viscous ichor spewed from the wound like black oil and splattered on Lalaine’s skin. Her flesh sizzled and smoked, but the huntress showed no sign that she cared. She screamed again as she gored the creature ravaging Jincra.
The beast dropped Jincra and threw itself across the clearing. Its shaggy paws stumbled on the landing and the Scourged creature rolled in the loose, reeking earth. The blade wolf got up quickly and darted back into the forest, vanishing into the darkness.
Grath and Braden stood guard over their fallen Guardian. The two hunters stayed back-to-back so as to watch the whole clearing.
“There are at least two,” Grath said. “One created a distraction, the other attacked.”
Alden ran to Jincra and skidded to a stop beside him in the loose soil. The young Shaman grabbed hold of his cousin’s arm and opened his spirit to Jincra’s. The Scourge already burned in Jincra’s flesh and spirit to a degree which terrified Alden. The brutal wound had allowed the corruption to get in deep.
Shudders wracked Jincra’s body as the Guardian’s eyes rolled back in his head. White foam tinged with black ooze gushed from his mouth.
Lalaine dropped to her knees beside Jincra. Her enormous glaive thudded into the moist earth beside her as she took up his clenched left hand in both of her own. Tears poured from the huntress’ eyes. The creamy skin of her hands and face still smoked in places where the burning ichor had touched her.
“Jincra. Jincra, don’t give in!” Lalaine begged through her tears.
Alden’s spirit bonded with Jincra’s and the Shaman poured his own energy into his broken and Scourged cousin. Fierce blue light shone from Alden’s tattoo and tore at the surrounding darkness of the clearing.
Jincra’s broken bones clicked back into place, and his flesh closed, but his shuddering continued.
The spiritual blight attempted to spread through their joining and enter Alden. The Shaman could feel the Scourge burning him like a fever, searing his nerve endings like embers on naked flesh. Alden screamed and his back arched in agony as Jincra’s body slowly knitted back together.
At last, the wounds on Jincra’s body finished healing, leaving only a ragged scar on his abdomen where the wolf had torn the flesh. Alden knew the muscles beneath were intact and Jincra would be able to fight, but not with so much corruption inside of him. The hunter leader pushed himself through his growing fatigue to deal with the burning filth inside his cousin.
The Scourge resisted. It had latched onto Jincra’s spirit and did not want to let go. Alden clenched his jaw, ground his teeth, and pushed harder against the evil filth. Slowly, slowly the corruption began to retreat in the face of Alden’s determination.
It’s halfway cleansed. Just hold on a little longer, Jincra!
The wounded blade wolf broke through the clearing’s perimeter. The Scourged predator launched itself at Grath, who sidestepped and swiped at the beast with his greataxe. The sharpened bone blade gashed the hide along the beast’s flank but bounced off a cluster of bone spikes before it could cut muscle.
On the other side of the clearing, a second blade wolf covered in black razor vines hurtled from the darkness and charged Braden.
The Trickster’s tattoo glowed a fierce purple in the darkness, and his green eyes gleamed with malicious mirth. Braden dodged at the last moment and hooked one of his sickles into the corner of the blade wolf’s mouth. He yanked the hide cord taught, and the beast whipped around against its will.
Braden stepped onto one of the creature’s blade spikes and leaped into the air. His thick hide boots thumped down on the beast’s back between its shoulders. Their soles sizzled against the Scourged fur as the monster spun in a leftward circle.
The taught hide rope in Braden’s hands continued to yank the beast in a circle to its left. Braden loosened up just enough for the wolf to stop its turn. He timed his throw and gambled that the wolf would turn the other way, which it did. Braden lashed out with his second sickle and buried the crescent blade in the other corner of the wolf’s mouth. He held the makeshift reins and rode the blade wolf like a mad kinvalo.
Braden laughed as he yanked on the reins. Gurgles and hisses issued from the wolf’s hooked mouth as it whipped back and forth. The monstrous beast bucked forcefully, but Braden had firm control of it. He steered the wolf toward the edge of the clearing and gave it free rein.
The blade wolf made a break for the darkness of the woods.
At the last moment, Braden yanked on the reins and steered the Blade Wolf face-first into a tree. Dead wood cracked, and splinters flew. The stunned wolf fell onto its side with a thump.
Braden leaped from the wolf and gave a flick with each hand. The two sickles dislodged themselves from the beast’s mouth and whipped back into Braden’s hands as he flew through the air. Soft earth scattered as Braden landed on one knee.
The other wolf was threatening to overpower Grath.
The older Aibeck kept the monster at bay by thrusting with his axe’s spiked tip, but the beast kept pressing the Slayer backward across the clearing.
Jincra tried to rise, but Alden stopped him with a hand on the chest. Black mist still flickered across Jincra’s eyes. The Guardian rolled to one side and vomited. Once he was done, he pushed Alden’s hand aside and staggered to his feet.
Resolve hardened Jincra’s face as he picked up his shield and spear. “This is not the time for restoration, Alden. We need to focus on concluding the battle.”
Lalaine rose to stand beside Jincra. Concern marred her beautiful features, but the huntress’ hand once more gripped her glaive’s rosewood shaft.
Alden’s mouth firmed into a hard line. The band leader nodded once and began issuing orders.
“Jincra and Braden, assist Grath. Lalaine, you and I are going after the stunned wolf.”
The hunters rushed to obey.
Jincra’s steps grew surer as he marched toward Grath. Green light flared from his tattoo, and he slammed down his hulking bone shield in front of Grath just as the blade wolf hurled its shoulder against the Aibeck. The beast rebounded with a thud. Several bone spikes snapped off the beast and flew through the air to impale the dead trees at the edge of the clearing.
Braden circled the staggered wolf and lashed out with his sickles. Their curved blades sliced the beast’s flanks and paws. With a gurgling hiss, the Scourged predator turned on the Trickster.
Grath stepped in and swung his greataxe. The blow severed the wolf’s two left legs. The howling wolf flopped onto its side but continued to snap at the circling hunters.
Across the clearing, Alden and Lalaine closed on the other blade wolf. The stunned beast shook its head and leered at the two hunters. Black ichor squirted from its yellow eyes as the creature charged.
Lalaine darted out of the way and swung her glaive. The blade lodged itself between several bone spikes, and the beast twisted. The weapon flew from Lalaine’s grasp as she tumbled to the ground. The wolf skidded in the loose soil, leaped into the air, and descended on the unarmed huntress.
Screaming with fury, Lalaine yanked a long bone knife from her belt and braced to meet her foe.
Alden dove atop her. He reversed his grip on his weapon’s hilt, drove the tip of his curved greatsword down into the soil, braced the sword’s spine against his shoulder, and formed an angled blade arch over his prone friend.
The wolf landed chest-first on the greatsword’s razor edge, slicing the shaggy pelt wide open. Hot black ichor splashed over both hunters, and they screamed as the corruption burned their skin.
Lalaine stabbed away into the wounded chest of the beast with her long knife. Eyes wide and teeth bared, the huntress screamed as she plunged her knife into the monster again and again. Black ichor splashed her face, and she spit black ooze from her mouth as she attacked.
With a wet thump and a yelp, the wounded beast was hurled across the clearing.
Jincra stood with his tattoo glowing and his shield still braced from the shield bash. His hazel eyes oozed black tears, but he reached down and took Lalaine’s hand. The Scourged young man dragged the huntress to her feet and placed her behind him.
Lalaine snatched up her glaive, and the three hunters closed on the wolf.
The blade wolf shuddered as it tried to stand. One leg was bent at multiple odd angles. Snapped bone spikes on one side of its body had been driven into its Scourged flesh. The wolf spewed black ooze as it snarled at the hunters. It lunged at Jincra and scrabbled against his upraised shield.
Lalaine’s tattoo burned red as she launched herself into the air and landed on the beast’s back. Wind whistled over sharpened bone as the huntress whirled her glaive and landed five perfect slashes, tearing apart the muscles of the beast’s back and shoulders.
The blade wolf slumped to one side as its limbs gave out.
Lalaine leaped off the predator to land with a nimble roll.
Alden stepped in and swung his greatsword down on the wolf’s thick neck. With a crunch, the heavy blade chopped through flesh and bone and decapitated the shaggy beast.
Back across the clearing, Braden faced the blade wolf with missing legs. He hooked several of the bone spurs around its face and drew the beast’s head sharply to one side.
Grath’s bone axe bit cleanly through the wolf’s neck, and the beast’s head rolled into the dirt.
With a cry, Jincra collapsed to his knees. His shield fell from his arm and thumped into the soft earth.
Lalaine dropped her glaive and collapsed to her knees beside Jincra. Her Scourge-burned fingers clutched at Jincra’s shoulder to keep him upright, but the huntress trembled with the effort.
Exhaustion clutched at Alden, but the young leader staggered to his two battered friends. His bent knees thumped into the soft earth as he knelt beside Lalaine and Jincra and laid a hand on each of their shoulders. The three youths knelt in a triangle, holding one another upright.
Sapphire radiance poured through the clearing as Alden’s tattoo lit up.
Alden let his spirit drift outward to his two friends, and he felt their spirits receive him. Darkness bubbled inside of Lalaine’s wounds and festered in Jincra’s spirit. Alden fought to drive away the Scourge through the link they shared.
Black ichor oozed from Jincra’s tear ducts as he sobbed in pain. He coughed, and black filth mixed with red blood splattered on Alden’s shirt.
Lalaine answered Jincra’s pain with her own wrenching sobs. She clutched at him as the Scourge was driven from her flesh. Her burns healed, but the huntress’ pain didn’t diminish. She continued to sob and hold Jincra.
Jincra’s getting worse. Exhaustion weighed on the core of Alden’s being. Ragged gasps jerked his slim chest. At last he finished cleansing Lalaine, but he could barely stay upright. The Shaman let go of the huntress’ shoulder and fell toward his cousin. Jincra caught him, and the two young men clasped one another tight. Alden felt Jincra’s hacking coughs against his own chest.
Darkness bubbled in Jincra’s spirit. In Alden’s exhausted and feverish mind, he heard the Scourge laughing at him.
You will not have him! Alden vowed. The Shaman hurled every last ounce of his strength and rage and love against the Scourge. The other hunters shielded their eyes against his tattoo’s sapphire radiance.
The evil infection receded with a hiss. Step by step, inch by inch, Alden drove the staining filth from his cousin’s spirit and body.
At last, the work is done, Alden exulted on the ragged edge of consciousness. Jincra is safe from the Scourge, but I used every ounce of my spirit to accomplish it. I’m utterly spent.
Spasms shook Jincra’s body, and he shoved Alden aside. The young Shaman fell face-down into the dirt, too exhausted to rise. Jincra vomited buckets of black ichor into the loose, reeking earth, but this time there was no blood.
Lalaine rolled Alden onto his back and dragged his head into her lap. Alden was barely conscious, and his eyelids fluttered. He looked up into the huntress’ green eyes through his fluttering lids as he felt her tears drip onto his face.
“Thank you,” Lalaine whispered, so that only Alden could hear.
Alden’s mind slipped into a deep black void.
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