#7 – [Volume One] Chapter Seven: The Pursuit
The horse trotting beneath me nickered softly, stirring me from my slumber with a sigh. We had broken camp with the dawn, and after a quick breakfast of bread we had returned to the road, riding slower than our initial flight from the Vord mansion, which had allowed me to put my head down and indulge in my most time-honored pastime. Though now, as I cast my gaze about while blinking the bleariness of sleep from my eyes, I struggled to adapt to the midday sun after the comforting dark of my closed eyelids and cushioning arm. From what I could make out, we appeared to be to be traveling through the famed rolling hills of Rhode, which blanketed the eastern half of the kingdom and were dotted with farms and forests in equal measure. I snorted. These hills were far older than the petty kingdom which now claimed them, and I knew their history to be nowhere near as gentle as their current name.
“Awake, are ya?”
The gruff question drew my wandering eyes to the left, where they were treated to the sight of the stocky Radd seated upon an almost equally stocky pony. I had almost been surprised when I first saw his mount- I would have expected a mule. He was watching me with half amusement, half annoyance in his eyes, as though he could guess at my thoughts.
“Ya fell asleep a good while back, ya know. Hours, to be true. Your horse almost damn near wandered off with you still on ‘em, so we tied ya to Tor’s saddle.”
I glanced forward, and indeed, my reigns were bound to the back of the saddle that swayed atop the horse in front of me. In the saddle, hood once again drawn up, Tor kept his head facing forward and gave no indication that he was paying attention to myself or Radd. Though, considering he was riding at the head of our little column as trailguide-cum-scout, it was an understandable reaction. I returned my attention to the smaller man, who was now staring at me curiously.
“You’re a right bloody mystery, ya know that? Immortal, apparently a scholar with a library of one, a caster, an a chronic layabout. Why do ya sleep so much?”
I arched an eyebrow at the question, choosing to ignore the dwarf’s attempts to characterize me.
“I sleep for the same reason you presumably do- I am exhausted.”
It was Radd’s turn to raise an eyebrow, deftly guiding his mount around a divot in the dirt path we were following as he did so.
“Aye, but you sleep all the time. You slept in camp, in a tree, in the saddle, everywhere! Hells, Eve said ya were even sleeping in that dungeon.”
I tilted slightly as Tor led the horses around a wide, muddy puddle, then laboriously righted myself before answering. I had never been much of a rider, even when I was riding at the head of armies. I preferred to travel by foot, or when that proved impossible, by carriage, boat, or construct.
“The weight of the years is heavy on the mind, dwarf, and heavier still on the eyelids. After a long enough stretch of time, something changes. I cannot recall when I fell into this… malaise, but at some point I found myself awakening with entire lifetimes having passed me by.”
Not that I minded- It was a peaceful existence, at least for the majority of the time. Occasionally I would be stumbled upon by adventurers, or other wandering peoples, and I would need to find a new resting place. But I had enjoyed several centuries of rest and solitude before the first Duke of Vord stumbled upon me. I heard the sound of an another horse approaching from my right, and stirring I glanced over to find Jessa urging her mount forward to ride beside me as well. Seated in front of her was Eve, once again just a young girl, who was studiously ignoring me. After my revelation to the spirit last night, we had not spoken, and to begin with I was unsure as to whether or not Eve was even aware of what went on when the spirit was in control.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing, Evren. How did you get involved with the Vords? If you were asleep all the time, I mean.”
I chuckled humorlessly.
“They woke me up, of course. I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but I believe I was asleep in a cave to the… south. Yes, the far south. And the Orginal Duke, who wasn’t yet a Duke, was hunting for artefacts of power to increase his influence. Instead, he found me. He wasn’t the first to stumble upon me, of course, but he was certainly the most persistent in making my acquaintance.”
Jessa looked at me quizzically for a moment, and was joined briefly by Eve before she returned her attention to the low hills and light forest rolling past. I envied her disengagement from this conversation- I was already growing annoyed.
“So he woke you up, and you just… agreed to work with him?”
I shrugged lightly as I leaned forward again and set my head against my steed’s neck, closing my eyes and welcoming the return to the dark.
“Not precisely. I was very annoyed about being woken up, and I was already in a poor mood to begin with, so I vented some of that frustration. But afterwords, I had a long discussion with the original duke and we eventually came to an agreement, which ultimately leads us to our current circumstances.”
I heard Radd snort from a distance.
“Ya skipped more than a few details there, didn’t ya?”
I narrowed my eyes in irritation.
“Almost certainly. But I don’t remember most of them, and I’m under no obligation to share what I do recall.”
I attempted to slip back into my world of dreams, which had become much more pleasant now that I was no longer being awakened by a novice torturer at all hours of the day, when a high-pitched voice cut through the haze of my encroaching dreams.
“You always say that- ‘no obligation.’ You said it when Etheel… back in that dungeon.”
I opened one eye and stared silently at Eve, who stared back, equally silent, attempting to match me in a contest of stares. It was a contest she was doomed to lose.
“Ya do say that pretty often, ya know. Makes you sound like a right bastard, too.”
I ignored Radd- The short man was starting to genuinely anger me with his flippancy, and I had no intention of explaining myself more than I already had. It was understandable that the mortals would have questions for me, children were curious by nature after all. And I wasn’t so rude as dismiss them as a matter of course, but I did draw the line at expending unnecessary effort for their sakes. It wasn’t as though satisfying their curiosity would change anything of importance, after all.
A shout rang out behind us, causing me to slowly straighten up and open both of my eyes. The sound of rapid hoofbeats rang out from behind us, and before long Leric and Daniel both drew up their mounts just a few paces to our rear. Jessa looked back with a concerned look etched on her brow, still skillfully guiding her horse as she did so. Eve mimicked her, twisting where she sat, but I doubted that she could see much, considering Jessa squarely blocked her line of sight.
“Daniel, what is it? What’s wrong?”
The armored man, his face set in a grim mask, was already shaking his head even before the question was finished.
“Riders, approaching fast. I don’t know how many, but from the dust they’re raising, there are more of them than there are of us.”
Jessa cursed softly, then urged her horse closer to mine, reaching down to seize Eve under the armpits as she did so.
“Eve, ride with Evren. Everyone else, form up around them, and stay close- We’re going to try and outpace them.”
I imagine my expression was as equally dismayed as the girl’s was, but Jessa’s insistence allowed no time for anything more than a grumbled dissent as she helped Eve climb into the saddle before me. As she was helping Eve get settled, Jessa grabbed my shoulder and stared into my eyes, locking her clear blue with my muddled green.
“Keep her safe, please. If not for me, then for the sake of your goal.”
I blinked in response. What a curious request, to preserve a life so that I might end my own. But mortals were always strange, I suppose. I doubt I was much better when I was younger, to tell the truth. Regardless, I suppose she was right- Eve was my ticket north, and into the situation surrounding the supposed god-slaying blade. I couldn’t risk her death somehow derailing my search. With such thoughts momentarily banishing the haze from my mind, I reached around the girl’s small frame to free the reigns of my own mount, a spirited roan, and flicked them once to speed up our pace. Around me, the party began to pick up speed as well, until we were racing down the dirt road in a full gallop. Around us, the hills began to sprout more and more trees, and on the horizon I spotted a dark mass of trees growing ever closer. I dared not check behind me, however, as it was already taking the entirety of my weakened strength and mediocre talent to remain in the fiercely jostling saddle.
A muffled shout from behind me, coupled with a short curse from Jessa, told me that our pursuers had come into sight, and that this wasn’t just a case of a random group of riders making haste for some unknown reason. It hadn’t been much of a hope, in all fairness, but I had been pleasantly surprised in the past, even if rarely. I spared a moment of focus to call out a question to the party at large.
A tense silence met my question, and then I heard Leric groan out a response from behind me.
Not the answer I was looking for. Grimacing, I hesitated for a brief second, then thrust the reigns into Eve’s surprised grasp and twisted in the saddle, tightly gripping the saddle-horn to keep the bounce of my horse’s stride from throwing me free. Looking back, I could see a cloud of dust rising, and before it rode a large cluster of mounted and armored figures. The quick glance I stole before returning my attention to my horse revealed over twenty pursuers, with the leading riders ensconced in the heavy armor and colors of the ducal house of Vord- Knights, then, and ones who were riding with a literal vengeance. I snorted, then turned slightly to shout at Jessa.
“Why don’t you just crush them? It isn’t as though there are any more behind us than there were in the dungeon!”
She was shaking her head almost before I had finished my question.
“That casting requires too much time, and I’d have to be standing still and touching the earth to work it anyway! They’d run us down before I could get it off, and since we’re in such an open space-”
She threw and arm wide, indicating the rolling hills surrounding us.
“- The worst it would do is knock them over, and maybe break a few bones!”
Eyes narrowed in irritation, I flicked the reigns, doing my best to avoid having my jaw dislocated by the bobbing head of the child sitting in front of me.
“Well, surely you have some casting available. Fire or somesuch?”
Guiding her horse around a small pine sprouting near the road, Jessa took a moment to respond.
“They’d need to be closer! Any fire casting I could work will disperse at this distance!”
And by the time they were close enough to be effectively targeted, our pursuers would be able to spread out and surround us, rendering any casting that much less effective. Frowning, I considered using the book, but I was reluctant to rely on the stupid thing unless the situation absolutely called for it.
“Why don’t we simply continue to flee? Surely there’s no need ta invite conflict when we can just run!”
Radd’s bellow from my other side drew my attention, and I almost found myself agreeing with the dwarf despite myself. But after a moment of contemplation, I realized that such a resolution simply wasn’t feasible. Tor shouted as much from in front, his gravelly voice louder than normal but still calm and measured.
“No good! They’ve already got our trail, and they’re within sight. They’ll be able to follow us as long as we’re in Rhode, and I don’t want us to wind up surrounded and on foot! We’ve either got to lose them, or deal with them.”
Radd growled in irritation and spat to the side, then yelped a curse and pressed himself flat against the neck of his pony as a low-hanging branch brushed through the air his head had once occupied. Looking about, I realized we had ridden into the edges of a gradually-thickening forest, one of the many that coated the Rhodish countryside. It was Jessa’s turn to curse as she tugged on her reigns, slowing her horse slightly as the dirt road we had been following grew narrower and rougher, and quickly the rest of the party slowed down as well. Soon, we were moving at a pace little better than a canter, and I could feel the tension of the party growing around me.
“Relax. They won’t be able to ride and quicker than we can, and they’ll probably ride slower, if anything. Heavy armor and warhorses don’t make for easy maneuvering in a forest.”
Tor nodded at my words, and I felt Eve loosen her shoulders slightly. Our pellmell ride had forced both of us to lean forward and press together, though now that the pace had slowed I wasted no time in straightening my back and pulling away from the child. For her part, Eve seemed more interested in keeping a wary eye on the forest around us, her head darting back and forth with finch-like quickness. Micheal’s voice echoed in my head, unbidden.
‘My men happened to come across these two orphans in the woods while on patrol…’
I suppose being hunted through woodlands would likely bring up some unpleasant emotions for the girl, especially this shortly after the death of her brother. Or had it already been long enough for her to grow numbed to the loss? I suppose I could no longer even pretend to remember or understand mortal grief.
Daniel’s cry shook me from my thoughts.
“They’ve entered the woods!”
Silently calculating the time since we had entered the forest’s fringe, I imagined that our pursuers were the the better part of three thousand lance-lengths behind us. If they were matching us in pace so long as we were in the forest, then they wouldn’t be able to gain on us, but that didn’t address the fact that our mounts were going to need time to feed and rest.
“It’s become a battle of attrition, then, has it?”
Glancing to the side, I took in Radd’s grim face. It seemed that he had come to the same conclusion as I had. I nodded silently.
Of course, I could win such a contest handily on my own, but I was saddled with the handicap of needing to at least keep Eve alive and relatively healthy. And protecting the child would admittedly be easier if I had more bodies to assign to the task, which meant it was in my interest that the remainder of the party survived as well. Grimacing, I rolled my eyes. Traveling was far easier when one didn’t need to concern themselves with mortal issues.
The bark of Tor’s gruff voice pulled my attention forward and down the path we were following. In the distance, outlined by the afternoon light streaming through the branches of the forest canopy, a single hooded figure stood in the center of the path. At first I thought it to be a traveler, but I quickly realized that there was no luggage on their back, and not even a dagger at their waist. In this forest, the figure stood silently, a discrepancy that defied understanding.
“Get out of the way!”
Jessa’s cry rang out clearly, but the figure didn’t even flinch, even as the our horses quickly bore down on it. Instead, it merely raised one of its arms in our direction, the limb hidden by the long sleeve of the robe cloaking the figure. I was struck by a sense of deja vu at the sight of the pose, though I wasn’t immediately sure why.
I felt a shudder run along my back, as though a long, cold finger of malice had brushed up my spine. At the same moment, I felt the book shudder against my chest, then go still as the grave as memories welled up behind my eyes.
Hulking shadows, gaping maws of ravenous hunger, the screams of the dying and the damned, all echoing across millennia filled my head, and in an instant I realized where I had last seen the pose that the hooded figure now struck before me.
Even as I breathed out the word I knew it wasn’t, and the sound of parchment tearing, unnaturally loud, filled the forest as the hooded figure ripped its arm downward. For the briefest of moments, half a torn sheet of parchment hung in the air before the figure, as though pinned against an invisible wall. Even though I couldn’t see its surface clearly from this distance, I knew the parchment would have crimson lettering on it, and an etched digram now split perfectly down the center. Then the parchment crumbled away, like ash on the wind.
The forest seemed to go quiet, the pounding of hooves and the snorting of horses fading away to nothingness. Through the silence, a single noise echoed without a source: The scream of a child, echoing again and again with increasingly unnatural timbre. The hooded figure bent double, then began to contort and twist in ways increasingly unnatural, until it had abandoned all semblance of humanity and had begun to take on the appearance of a broken puppeteer’s doll. Beneath the broken figure the ground was quickly stained black by the dark, viscous liquid now running from the figures twisted limbs. For a long moment, everything remained like that- The twisted figure standing in an impossible pose, the forest unnaturally quiet, the party around me halted in silent horror. Then the figure fell, and the black stain on the ground surged up to consume the falling figure. Into the silence, I spoke a single grim word.