I will not go into the woods today,
Nor will I play in the sun.
For if I am to step outside,
I'll be found by the walking ones.
- Children's rhyme
The woods were dark and oppressive, and the air was chill. Cray stepped lightly, peering into the deepest patches of darkness and willing his night eyes to come to him.
He sensed that the Fees were following a ways behind. That was well and good; their eyes and ears were keen, and Setka's familiar would raise the alarm as soon as it caught wind of danger.
The trees grew taller around him, and the air became a black lake, silent and cold. Cray could hear every whisper made by his clothes as he crept forward, every soft clank of his breastplate and gauntlets. He willed himself to go slow and silent; the prey he was hunting would be doing the same.
When Setka had asked him about the caravan, Cray had called it some new perversion with which he was unfamiliar. It was the way of fiends to move and shift, to grow and mutate like faces in the clouds. They took a thousand thousand forms, and one man could never hope to know them all.
But Cray had seen his share of fiends, and he knew their kind; knew them as intimately as only one driven by ultimate hatred could come to do. And there were certain fiends that never changed - the footsoldiers, the solid backbone of the devil's unspeakable legion. Cray had come to know them all by name, and as he walked, he formed a single word with his mouth: "pacer."
He kissed three fingers, and prayed to the goddesses for mercy. Not for his own sake,
but for the sake of the poor soul who had cried out in the night.
* * *
Barlow crashed through the underbrush, pushing low-hanging branches aside with his spear. His cheeks were red with exertion, and his breath misted in the cold air. He could hear the shouts of his squadron behind him, and their torches cast grasping fingers of shadow on the ground in front of him.
He paid them no heed. His mind had room for one thought, and one thought only.
Yared, cheerful as Barlow was dour, of the same age but who behaved five years the younger. Yared, whom Barlow had sworn, on the body of their dead mother, to protect.
Another scream exploded in the distance. Barlow thought it came from directly in front, but a moment later it began to bounce between the trees, and he lost all sense of it. He turned his head to chase the noise, but it only scattered his mind further. His boot caught against his own ankle, and he nearly fell face-first into the ground.
"Fuck!" he shouted bitterly, jabbing the butt of his spear into the ground to keep himself steady. By the time he staggered upright, Trahern had caught him up. The captain put a hand on his shoulder and tightened it to a vice when Barlow tried to shake it off.
He found himself turned around, looking into the captain's angular face.
"Damn you, Barlow," Trahern said viciously, "but we'll go together. Stick close to us, and if the gods will it we will leave the forest alive."
Barlow saw the other men draw up behind Trahern, nodded silently, and allowed the squadron to take proper form around him. A torch was handed to him and he accepted it; he, Trahern and two other men, Davis to the left and Bolly to the right, formed the vanguard of their force.
The hidden keep's patrol went forth.
* * *
The forest fell eerily silent following the scream that had nearly cost Barlow a twisted ankle. The men of the patrol picked their way forward cautiously, thrusting their torches ahead of them, straining their ears and eyes to catch any sign of Yared. Bodies shivered and noses ran; men lost their footing and slipped on blankets of wet leaves. Oaths were hissed between chattering teeth.
YOU ARE READING
The world is suffocated by a mysterious plague. Foul creatures known as fiends patrol the wilderness. The great empire that once crowned the earth lies in ruin. In the small town of Tranton, three outcasts set out on a quest to preserve one last gli...