“I believe that we would have an easier time following the trail in the daylight rather than the dark. I suggest we begin at first light,” Nes said. He eyed the setting sun with distaste.
Fudin shook his head. “The trail is fresh yet, my brother, and easy to follow. To wait until morning would make tracking difficult, especially in this terrain.”
Bree nodded. “The culprit may get away by then. We can’t allow that.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Santon agreed while tiredly rubbing his chin.
“So. How do we proceed?” Fudin asked the assembled group. “I have decent night-vision. But, do the rest of you need a light source?”
“Do we want to make it easier to track, or be more stealthy in our movements?” Santon asked. “Obviously any light we use will be a pretty big beacon to any who wish us harm out here. But, perhaps with both Fudin and Dashki leading the way we’ll be fine without the light.”
“That’s a drunken preacher, if I’ve ever heard one.” Bree said with a frown.
The others looked at her in confusion.
“A recipe for disaster,” she explained, but they seemed no less confused. “A dangerous brew.” Her frown deepened. They obviously didn’t talk to many followers of the Drunken Lord. “I don’t like the idea of traipsing through the wilds, unable to see.”
Her comrades nodded, understanding dawning in their eyes, though Nes looked scandalized by her use of language. His collar was buttoned higher than a cloistered virgin’s!
“No, torches.” Dashki said as he stepped up behind them. He wore a scimitar and dagger sheathed at his side, as well as a surly look upon his face. Bree hadn’t heard him approach. “Take them but do not light them,” he continued. “They would only ruin what little night vision the rest of you have. The moon rides high in the sky this night. You will manage.”
Fudin nodded. “I agree.”
“Very well,” Nes conceded. “Retrieve anything you may need for the journey. We set out shortly.”
Bree walked across the camp to her tent. Trevvis sat beside it, waiting for her.
“Word is we’re resting this eve.” he said.
“You’re resting. Almah wants a few of us to hunt down whatever lit the wagon on fire.”
Trevvis raised an eyebrow. “Whatever?”
“We found strange tracks. It looks like some kind of small humanoid might have been the culprit.”
“And so you’re setting off to find it? Now?”
“If it did kill Eloais, we can’t let it get away unpunished.”
“You are right, Star Flower.” Trevvis said with a nod and a sad looking smile. He paused for a few moments, watching Bree pick up her scimitar and buckle it onto her waist.
“Here,” Trevvis stood and held up her buckler.
Bree stretched out her left arm and Trevvis strapped the small shield onto it for her.
“You never came back.”
Bree frowned. “I was busy.”
“And I was waiting.”
“I’m sure you occupied yourself just fine.”
“I would have rather been with you,” Trevvis grumbled.
“There are others you would rather spend your time with,” Bree responded with bitterness. His earlier longing gazes towards Brotis and Yesper had affected her more than she wished to admit.
“If there were, don’t you think I would be with them?” he barked.
Bree’s face turned red with anger. “Maybe you should be!”
“Maybe I will!”
Bree glared into his brown, angry eyes. He held her gaze intently and stood only a few inches from her. Every muscle in his body was tense. He looked as if he was going to strike her.
Bree contemplated backing up but decided against it. She was not afraid of him.
He lunged forward, grabbed Bree by the shoulders and pulling her closer to him.
“Let go of – “
Bree’s protests were cut off as Trevvis pressed his lips to hers, smothering her outburst with a kiss. Bree felt her anger melt away. The tension left her muscles in an instant and was replaced by a sort of nervous, fluttering feeling. She had never been kissed before.
She turned her head down and pulled away a few inches. “Trevvis, I – “
“Quiet, Star Flower.” He tilted her chin up to his kissed her roughly.
Bree’s stomach clenched, filling her with apprehension and fear. It was as if he had opened a door into her that she had never known existed, and left it wide open. Before him, she was vulnerable. Her lips trembled slightly as the last rays of the sun plunged below the horizon.
His lips met hers with restrained fury. This time, she gave in, surrendering herself to his kiss. She pulled him closer, accepting him.
They were angry. Passionate.
Hungry for each other.
As Trevvis enveloped her with his arms the world seemed to fade away, leaving behind only the two of them. She ran her hands through his thick, greasy hair and pressed him closer to her.
He was all that mattered.
They were all that mattered.
Behind them a voice spoke angrily.
“It’s time to go, woman.”
Bree frowned as Trevvis pulled away from her. “Remind me to kill you later, Nes.” Nes frowned. “If you’re done? We’re leaving.”
Trevvis looked into Bree’s mismatched eyes. “Make sure you come back, Star Flower.”
Bree nodded as she pulled away from him. “I will.” She reached down, grabbed the last of her gear and turned towards the outskirts of camp.
“You said that last time.”
“And I mean it this time.”
Trevvis looked skeptical.
“By the light of the Starstone,” Bree promised, “I’ll come back.”
It was the most solemn vow she could give. The Starstone was a magical stone within a chapel in the city at the center of the world that granted one godhood. If you could reach it, of course. The trials guarding it were both dangerous, and ever changing. The test of the Starstone was different for everyone, but deadly for all. Only a few had ascended through it and her god, Cayden Cailean, was one of them. To his followers it was a holy object.
Trevvis’ eyes widened, and then he nodded. He understood it’s importance.
Bree turned and walked out of the camp.
It was cold without him.
Dashki was right. By the time they set out it was night, but the full moon and stars in the clear sky made it relatively bright. Fudin crouched low to the earth, seeming to stare at the tracks and the darkness. Bree frowned. She didn’t see a thing.
Fudin grinned in accomplishment just as Dashki managed to kneel down beside him with the assistance of his stick to examine the tracks himself.
“This way.” Fudin said as he headed off into the night.
Behind him, Dashki cursed foully, hauled himself back to his feet and hobbled after Fudin.
Bree sighed and cast one final, longing glance behind her, at the camp.
She would be back.
The rocky uplands were rather spooky away from the warmth and activity of the campsite. The quiet stillness of the night was broken here and there by sudden scuttling sounds and cries, but it always turned out be innocent things: clattering rocks, wind in the underbrush, a bird’s call. Shapes loomed out of the shadowy darkness. Craggy rocks, a dead tree. Once or twice Bree even thought she saw a man, but both times it turned out to be a lone cactus.
The trail that Fudin followed led deeper into the hills, winding through valleys and small canyons between peaks and hillocks. The ruggedness of the land increased as they went. Rocks seemed to place themselves just to trip feet, and spiny cactus growths caught at their sleeves and robes.
The shadows amongst the hills were longer and darker and while Fudin and Dashki seemed to be able to follow their trail with ease, soon everyone else was stumbling about, treading on sharp rocks, brushing against cactus growths and almost tumbling into crevices.
The going was slow, to say the least.
Maybe going without light was a poor idea…
“Tipped tankard!” Bree cursed loudly as he stubbed her foot into another rock. Her sudden stop caused Nes to bump into her, knocking her to the rough, sharp ground. Nes toppled on top of her in an ungraceful heap.
Bree pushed him off of her with a heave, sending him tumbling into a nearby pile of dried out animal spoor. He screamed in protest.
“Can you tell if we are close, Fudin?” Bree growled from the ground near the back of the line.
“I cannot imagine that a creature as tiny as these tracks suggest could have dragged a recalcitrant goat much further than this…”
Nes struggled to his feet and brushed the offal from his robes. “Disgusting.”
“I’ve had enough,” Santon groaned. “Where’s my torch?”
Dashki sighed and hurried ahead a few paces. “If you need light then stand back, I do not wish to ruin my night vision.”
Bree frowned. Dashki hadn’t seemed bothered by his limp in the least.
Fudin nodded, agreeing with Dashki, as Nes continued.
Nes nodded. “Allow me.” He began moving his hands in a series of strange positions. “Firium al Washim!” Nes shouted after a few more seconds, causing a small ball of roaring flame to spring to being in his palm.
The soft light emanating from Nes’ spell certainly made finding solid footing in this treacherous terrain easier. Dashki, however, was proved right once again. The shadows beyond the radius of light appeared blacker and more full of menace, whilst Fudin and Dashki, who both remained outside of the flame’s glow, were little more than inky, dark blots against the night.
Bree couldn’t see a thing outside of the flames light. She shrugged. At least she could see her feet.
They followed the dark figures of Fudin and Dashki deeper into the hills for another hundred yards or so.
Bree shuddered as a sudden, inexplicable feeling of tension overcame her. Her comrades stopped in their tracks. Bree eyed the bushes and cacti around her. Seconds passed. Then a minute. She saw no signs of danger or movement, but couldn’t shake her foreboding. She felt as if something terrible was about to happen.
An eerie cry, like that of a child in distress, shattered the silence. Bree took off at a run toward the sound.
Fudin stood before a thick wall of tall cacti. “It’s coming from within!”
Dashki prodded the cacti with his walking stick. “It it too dangerous. With a pugwampi so near even these cacti could be the end of us.”
“You sober coward!” Bree shrieked. Dangerous or not, she couldn’t do nothing! She drew her thin sword and swung it before her, slicing off an arm of the cactus before her.
“Too slow!” Santon shouted. He barreled headlong into the cacti. His cries and curses as he pushed his way through made Bree’s muscles twitch in agitation.
She swung again at the cactus in front of her, hacking off another of its limbs.
Fudin crouched low to the ground and crept forward through the cactus bushes.
Nes stepped forward regally. He folded his sleeves up revealing his thin hands. He began to move his hands in a series of strange positions again, before stepping forward and tripping on his own robes. He tumbled to the ground in an undignified heap, robes up over his head and legs splayed beneath him.
Bree swung again at the cactus, finally making a little headway forward.
A scream tore through the night, followed by a manic yipping sound. Santon let out a cry of pain, followed by Fudin.
“Foul brew!” This was taking too long! “May your luck find me, my lord,” she prayed as she raised her buckler before her face, took a deep breath and pushed her way into the wall of cacti. Long spines pierced her flesh. They cut through the gaps in her armor and clothing with unnatural accuracy.
“Froth and foam!” she shouted, cursing her luck as she pushed her way forward.
A few moments later she burst out into a twenty foot clearing, looking like a seamstress’ pincushion. Blood streamed down her arms from a myriad of cuts and scrapes. The cactus spines had pierced her skin like a blade.
Across the clearing a goat was tied to a post near a steep ledge. It screamed in terror. Issuing forth from a rock beside him was an insane giggling. Santon lay upon the ground with his arm somehow tangled in his belt, perhaps a result of trying to draw the bastard sword upon his back.
Fudin, as covered in spines as Bree herself, despite his apparent caution, opened his mouth and let out a great roar. He stepped forward, causing his linen pants to droop down, tripping him. As he fell a jagged line of crackling lightning poured from his open mouth, striking the cacti on the other side of the clearing.
Bree jumped, caught of guard by the strange display. “Sweet barleybrew!” She exclaimed. She stepped forward, tripped on her own bootlace and fell to the ground.
Santon stood with a great roar and tore his belt and shirt off, revealing his incredibly muscular chest and abdomen. His scabbard fell to the ground at his side. He bent down, cautiously pulled the blade from it’s sheath and grinned.
Bree followed suit, slowly getting to her feet as the goat tugged frantically at it’s bonds.
Santon raised his sword high above his head. Sweat beaded upon his brow and hands as he plunged his blade down behind the rock. The blade slipped from his grasp and a hideously ugly little creature no more than a foot tall burst out from behind the rock with a laugh. It looked at Santon with milky, white eyes and brandished a jagged, oversized dagger before it with murderous intent. The thing looked as if the ugliest lapdog in the world had thrown on a ragged piece of cloth and somehow managed to walk on two legs.
The ugly little beast leapt forward and plunged its dirty blade deep into Santon’s flesh. He screamed and kicked out at the creature, sending himself hurtling to the ground with the motion. The creature yipped and growled in glee.
“Hey!” Bree yelled at it as she stepped forward. She moved her sword before her menacingly, but slowly, hoping to keep her grip on it.
The creature raised his empty hand before him then clenched it tightly into a fist.
Bree’s shield let out a great cracking sound and shattered. It fell around her in pieces.
“What the – ” Bree began, looking at her shield arm curiously as the creature lunged at her. She stepped to the side, stumbled on a loose rock and fell to the ground. The creature jumped into the air, dagger before it like a spear, plummeting down towards Bree’s head.
She struggled to raise her arms but they had become caught beneath her. What a dirty glass she had gotten herself into! She closed her eyes as the vicious creature and his dagger neared. If this is what her death looked like, she most certainly didn’t want to see it. How ridiculous!
A roar sounded above her as a wave of searing heat passed by, inches from her face. A tormented howl of pain made her ears pop.
She opened her eyes.
Nes stood above her, completely naked, with a ruby-tipped, wooden stick carved in a series of complex, swirling designs held proudly in his hand. It glowed brilliantly.
She blushed and turned her head to the side.
The screaming pugwampi was jumping up and down, sheathed in brilliant red flames. His fur let off a horrid stench as it burnt off of his body.
Santon picked up the creature’s rusted little dagger and plunged it into its back.
It let out a gurgled cry and slunk to the ground in a heap.
Nes stepped over her to the little beast and waved his hands once to the side. The magical flames snuffed themselves out leaving the clearing in total darkness.
“Firium al Washim!” Nes shouted, causing a small ball of flame to appear in his hands once again. He walked imperiously past Bree, despite his nudity, to the cactus thicket where his elaborate silk robes hung tangled and torn amidst their spines.
Santon offered Bree an open hand. She took it, and he helped pull her to her feet.
“Don’t let Nes ruin it for you.” He tilted his head towards their skinny, frail looking comrade. “We don’t all look like that.” He winked.
Bree smiled and let the tension seep out of her.
Santon, still holding her hand glanced down as his bare chest. “I could show you more later, if you like.”
Bree furrowed her brow in disgust. Cayden’s codpiece, Santon was shameless!
Santon let out a deep, joyous laugh before reaching out to Bree’s forehead. She flinched, but didn’t withdraw. Delicately, he pulled a cactus spine from her forehead and dropped it to the ground. “I imagine Trevvis has that well in hand.”
“I don’t need your help.”
Santon simply smiled and turned to collect his gear.
Bree raised a hand to her head. “Sweet barleybrew!” At least a dozen other spines jutted from her brow alone! She reached for one and pricked her finger. Perhaps she could use some help… She glanced around the clearing.
Fudin and his still naked brother stood behind her, prying Nes’ robes from the thicket. Dashki stood to her left, filthy, but free of spines. He crouched on the ground, without the aid of his cane, and picked up the burnt corpse of the pugwampi. He pulled a cord from one of his pockets and looped it around the creature’s neck like a miniature noose then tied its other end onto the top of his staff. He stood with ease and locked eyes with Bree. He leered at her with a hungry, almost predatory gaze. She shuddered and he licked his lips.
Santon stood before the goat – Rombard presumably – and patted it gently.
Bree raised another hand to her forehead. She pricked her finger again, but managed to pull a single spine from her head. She huffed once, swallowed her pride and walked up to Santon with determination.
He smiled at her approach.
She opened her mouth to apologize, but he shook his head, grabbed her hand, and placed it upon the goat. It shook with fear. “Soothe him.” Santon said before reaching up without another word to begin pulling the spines from her skin.
She patted the goat gently. “There, there.”
Rombard shivered at her touch.
Santon removed another spine with practiced ease.
Bree smiled. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad.
“I have something else for you to stroke.” he said.
Bree froze. Perhaps not.
Santon let out a deep laugh at her response. “Relax, Bree. You know, for a follower of the Drunken God you’re quite uptight.”
“You don’t need a whole bar to have a party,” he continued with a wink. “Two can party just as well. Better even.”
“You’re ridiculous.” Bree muttered as she continued to pat the goat.
Santon laughed. “You’ll see.”
Bree thoughts drifted to Trevvis. She flushed.
Perhaps she would.