Skin of Glass

Blood on the Evermoors

Near the base of the tall hill was a pile of rubble. Amidst weatherworn rocks were the broken pieces of a pair of pillars and the capstone that had once crowned them. The early morning mist around the rubble began to grow denser in places, forming straight lines of diffuse grey. In a handful of heartbeats a gate had formed out of the mist, two tall pillars with a capstone resting atop them.

Within the gate a patch of blue formed, shot through with lines of silver. It grew, spreading out until it touched the sides of the mist supports. The silver lines widened, becoming bands that merged and completely obscured the blue. It was like a mirror, but the reflection it showed was of another place.

Misara stepped from the gate, leading Berry. On Berry sat Olpara, her eyes covered with a blindfold. Rose Thorn walked out next, Rowan riding upon his back, her eyes also covered. Iron came through last, trotting through the gate.

As soon as Iron was through the silver faded, and the mist that had formed the structure was blown away by a breeze.

"You can remove your blindfolds," Misara told them.

Olpara and Rowan untied the bands of cloth about their faces, and then looked around.

The Evermoors stretched out about them, open, windswept, covered in gently rolling hills. Spring had come to the region since they had last been there and the smell of mildew was thick about them. The area still held a chill of the cold nights, but it would warm up shortly.

"Mud, lots of mud," Misara said as she walked up to Iron.

"We'll have to watch out for the bogs," Olpara said. "There will be worse than usual with the spring thaw." She was still looking about. "You say that this is the centre of the moor?"

Misara nodded. "More or less. The source of the Laughing Flow is about twenty miles south of here."

Olpara turned Berry slightly and lifted her hand, pointing off to the east. "That tor, it is sometimes called the 'Rock Sword'."

"Can you take us to Everlund from here?"

"Yes, or Nesemé. Both are easy enough to reach from here."

"Everlund," Misara said as she swung up onto Iron's back. "We will find some maps of the area and ask the Historian to identify the place where we might find Asharass. We can also send messages to the rest of the Silver Marches from there."

"Lead on," Rowan said to Olpara. "To Everlund."

Asharass watched as the scrying pool rippled and jumped. She cursed softly the protection that the gods offered their champions, the difficulty it caused her. The image in the scrying pool steadied slightly before being lost.

The elf had come north, had used a portal to leap the distance between the Backlands and the Evermoors.

To have come so quickly, there was no doubt in Asharass' mind that the elf must have learned of her, perhaps her plans as well. If the projection she used had the ability she would have dashed the scrying bowl from its stand. She clenched her fists tight, grinding her teeth together.

At her silent summons a large figure in armour so black it seemed to drink up the light came to stand in front of her. The construct that Liman and his companions had named Oil and Steel man was one of Asharass' finest creations. It did not match the work that was her body, but few things would.

She did not speak, and neither did it. There was no need.

It turned and walked away, the darkness swallowing it up.

Asharass needed to see how the work progressed. She was so close to the completion of her work. She could not, would not let the elf interfere. She disappeared from her chamber.

Shisii could tell the elf and her companions were gone. Their scent, carried on the wind, faded away. She looked towards Liman and knew that he was aware of that as well. The other tiger had recovered from the wounds that the elf had inflicted on him, but he was still afraid.

Shisii did not know what to think of that. Liman was still a powerful warrior and leader, but his fear of the elf had taken something away from him. Now that elf was gone, whisked away most likely by magic, Shisii wondered what Liman might do.

She shifted forward on padded feet, thinking about moving closer to the place that the elf and her companions had entered. There were other elves there, however, likely the guardians of the place.

Shisii stopped, the fur on her back standing up, and she turned, growling low in her throat. Liman had sensed it as well and was looking into a patch of darkness under the trees.

Then the Oil and Steel man stepped forth. Shisii hissed at him, backing up slightly.

"You will come with me," he said in his deep, hollow voice.

Liman returned to his human form. "The elf..."

"Has left this place. I am aware. I will take you to where she is. Together we shall kill her."

"You will fight with us?" Liman asked, in his voice an equal measure of hope and fear.

"I shall. Now come and stand by me." The darkness began to gather around him.

Liman stepped forward so he was beside the Oil and Steel man. He looked at Shisii. "Come," he told her.

For a moment Shisii considered refusing, of running off to find her own way. Hesitantly she stepped forward, towards the Oil and Steel man, His darkness grew and deepened, enveloping her, taking her away.

It was their second day on the Evermoors. They hoped to reach Everlund before the sun set and the city closed its gates. Olpara led them along the trails, hidden and otherwise, of the Evermoors. She knew which to avoid, the ones that would lead to traps set by the fell creatures that lived there.

They were making excellent time.

It was a warm day, the wind blowing from the south, bringing clouds with it. Misara wondered if it would rain.

"Why do you think Asharass is stirring now?" Rowan asked. "I mean, she's been sealed away and apparently quiet for, well, thousands and thousands of years. Why now?"

They had been speaking of Asharass for some time, however before their conversation had concerned the nature of a god's blood and how Asharass might have been opposing them.

Misara looked about, the area around them flat and open. Satisfied there were no immediate threats she directed Iron forward so she could ride beside Rowan. "I don't really know. It may be that with the Retreat the guardians, if any, left. During the Time of Troubles the wards may have been weakened, allowing Asharass to reach out with her will. The opening of the Silver Marches has allowed people to explore where they may not have before. It might be some unfortunate prospector broke in while looking for a vein of gold."

"How many other dangers like Asharass lay buried in the Silver Marches?"

It was not a question that Rowan expected an answer to, so Misara did not try to. Not that she really knew. The best answer she might offer was 'too many'.

"What do we do once we have stopped Asharass?" Olpara asked.

"There is not very much we can do, but make sure that her prison is properly guarded."

"There must be a way to destroy that body," Rowan said. "Maybe it is like the Historian suggested, the elves who crafted it were unwilling to destroy their work."

"Maybe," Misara said, but she did not believe that to be the case.

Rowan and Olpara continued to discuss how Asharass might be dealt with. Misara offered the occasional comment when required, but was not really paying much attention to the conversation. It was not that she thought it unimportant, but her thoughts were on what Asharass might do to stop them.

She was certain that the dragon had been behind many of the attacks against her and the others. Kesk, the demons, the weretigers, were all candidates.

Did that mean Asharass was vulnerable? Were her plans still far from complete? Did Asharass know that she had learned about her and was on her way to stop her?

"Something is ahead of us," Rowan said.

Misara blinked, letting her eyes loosing their far off look. There were three forms, moving towards them, along the same path. One of them was large and dark; there was an indistinct haze about that person, as if it brought its own shadows with it. Flanking it were two others, a man and an elven woman.

"Anyone you know?" Rowan asked Olpara.

Olpara shaded her eyes with her hand and stared out at the approaching people. "I don't think so," she said after a moment.

"Might be giant or troll hunters," Rowan said, but she loosened her sword in its sheath.

"Be ready and spread out a little," Misara said as she directed Iron away from the others.

As she got closer she could see the one in the middle wore black armour. He was tall, perhaps nearly seven feet, broad across the shoulders, a sword worn at his side. The man and the woman that flanked the armoured figure wore no armour. In fact, it looked as if they wore very little. She placed her hand on the hilt of her blade. Looking over towards the halfling she saw that Olpara had her hand in the pouch where she kept her spell components.

They were all ready.

"None of them are evil," Misara heard Rowan say to Olpara.

Misara felt a stab of loss and jealously at Rowan's words.

The approaching group halted some distance from them. "Hail travellers, well met," the nearly naked man called out.

Misara and the others brought their horses to a halt. "Well met," Rowan called back. "A lonely place for a walk."

"Not for what we hunt."

Misara watched the armoured man and the woman. It was hard to tell anything about the one, for his armour hid any clue body language might provide, but the elf seemed ill at ease.

"What is it you hunt?"

"Giants. Have you seen any?"

Misara did not think they looked like giant hunters. The armour of the one was far too clean to have been days on the Evermoors, hunting giants. Her armour had become mud splattered from just riding.

"We may have seen giant sign some distance behind us," Rowan told him. "We have not actually seen any of the brutes though."

"Thank you," he said, and started forward. His two companions walked with him. "We'll see if we can find what we need."

Misara backed away from the trail, giving them room so that they could pass. Rowan and Olpara were doing the same. They would not pass by however, Misara was certain of that. There would be battle and death soon.

They were close, almost between her and Rowan, and Misara could see them clearly. The man wore only a loincloth, and carried a leather satchel. The woman had only a small pack. Both of them wore rings, bracelets or bracers, and necklaces. There was something familiar about them.

The armoured man stopped.

His two companions changed, becoming tigers that Misara recognised. As they changed both of the huge tigers screamed. Iron tensed beneath her, ready for a fight. The scent of large predators did not frighten her horse. Nor did it seem to bother Rose Thorn. Berry, however, tried to bolt, and Olpara nearly fell from his back as she fought to bring her horse under control.

Rowan turned her attention towards Olpara, away from the enemy.

The two tigers leapt towards Olpara and Rowan.

The armoured man moved towards Misara, his sword sliding from its sheath like an arrow from a bow. His movements were fluid and fast. Misara drew her sword halfway from its sheath and used the exposed blade to block his blow. She let the force drive her back, used it to launch into a flip that brought her to her feet a few paces from Iron and the armoured man.

Iron spun about, leaping into the air, lashing out with his rear hooves.

The armoured figure shifted to the side, lifting his sword, blocking Iron's attack. Sparks flew as the steel horseshoes clashed with the blade, and the armoured figure was pushed back, but only slightly.

Iron was thrown off balance, and landed badly. She watched as Iron stumbled away, favouring his right, rear leg.

Only a few heartbeats had passed.

The armoured man shifted his stance slightly and then came at her.

She met him, catching his sword driving it up. He was strong and easily countered her move, bashing her sword aside and punching her in the stomach. Misara managed to roll with the blow, but it still made her feel as if she were going to be sick.

She shifted backwards rapidly, careful of her footing in the wet and muddy ground. Quickly she looked towards where Rowan and Olpara fought. The tigers were leaping about them, trying to drive the horses into a frenzy. Rose Thorn was having none of it but Berry was out of control.

Misara returned her complete attention to her fight, bringing up her sword to block a series of swift attacks from the armoured man. She examined him as she fought. There were no openings in his armour, no gaps through which she might get her sword. No breathing slits marred his helmet, and the eyeholes were not really holes, but simply dark depressions.

He was not living being, she realised, parrying his attack and kicking him hard in the knee, to no effect. He, it, was a construct of some kind: Fast and strong with a fighting style that was simply brilliant. Speed, strength and an economy of motion; she was not sure how she was going to beat him.

She caught his next blow low on her sword, moving in close to him. She forced his blade up, using leverage to her advantage. Once it was high she snapped her sword around, driving it at the point where his helmet joined the neck of his armour. He snapped his left arm up, catching her blade with the back of his wrist and knocking it away.

As she used her momentum to continue by him, to a safer position, she noted that her blow had left the armour apparently unmarred.

She caught sight of Rowan. She had dismounted and was fighting on foot, Rose Thorn leaping about, kicking and biting at the tigers. Olpara was trying to get off Berry. Even as she tried to dismount the red weretiger leapt at her.

Misara called out a warning, even though she knew she had voiced it too late. She might have tried to do something, had her armoured opponent not spun on her, forcing her to devote her complete attention to him.

"Olpara!" she heard Rowan scream, and knew that the halfling had fallen under the tiger's teeth and claws.

Misara brought her blade up, parallel to the ground, blocking the construct's downward swing, pushing the blade up. As they strained against one another's strength, Misara looked into the silver of her blade, seeing a limited reflection of what was behind her.

The red weretiger was bounding towards her; the white weretiger leapt away from something that Misara could not see and then turned and followed after the other. Had Rowan fallen, or had she rushed to Olpara's side? No matter. For a moment all three of her opponents had focused on her. They would take her down and then turn on any survivors.

They were good.

"Guide me," she said, a soft prayer in elvish. She waited, watching as the weretiger came closer and closer. She saw it leap.

She brought her sword around, the end of the hilt tracing out a half circle before the pommel slammed into the other sword, driving it away from her. She spun and took her left hand from the hilt of her sword. She grabbed the right wrist of the construct, holding it in a grip that she would only let death break.

Spinning about, yanking at the construct's arm, she came to stand back to back with him. Had he not been so tall she would have slammed her elbow into his head. Instead she focused on keeping her feet well placed, grounding her strength, forcing the construct to her will, as if he were a puppet. More of a puppet.

The construct's sword was held in front of it, controlled, for that moment, not by it, but Misara. The weretiger, committed to its leap, flew straight at that sword.

She could see the terror in the eyes of the weretiger.

The construct tried to break free, tried to lower its sword tip, but she had the advantage at that moment. Her feet were better placed, her balance that little bit better, he was unable to effectively use his strength.

The weretiger's chest hit the tip of the blade. The force of its leap drove it forward, spitting it. Its scream would echo across the moors. Misara watched, waited until she was certain that sword was deep within the weretiger's breast, then she released her hold on the construct and shifted away from him.

Several hundred pounds of weretiger crashed over the construct, driving him back. Misara dropped into a crouch and spun about, leg extended, and swept the construct's legs. It and weretiger fell to the ground in a tangle of fur and steel.

Springing to her feet Misara twirled about, slicing the white weretiger across its side, cutting deep into it even as it leapt at her. She watched the weretiger land and stumble, rolling across the ground, leaving blood in its wake.

Misara turned and ran to where the other weretiger and the construct lay tangled up. She lunged, plunging the tip of her sword into the back of the weretiger's neck, pushing to through until the point scraped across the armour of the construct.

As she yanked her sword free of the dead weretiger the construct stood, tossing the body aside. As the weretiger fell to the ground it shifted for the last time, becoming a man.

Gripping her sword in both hands Misara launched a series of fast attacks at the construct. It was still off balance from its fall, and she had no intention of letting it regain its earlier form.

She drove it back as if she were trying to break its defence, however that was not her true intention. She just wanted it to continue moving back, into the bog behind it.

She watched as it stepped away from her, its left foot sinking into the sucking bog. It fought to keep its balance, fought to keep its defence up. It managed to do both, but neither as well as it needed.

Misara knocked its sword to the side with a strong blow. She checked her swing, brought her sword up and around her body to build up momentum, and then drove her blade down at the black breastplate. The sword hit with a sound like a hammer on an anvil, and she felt the force of the blow in her wrist, elbows, shoulders and even her hips.

For a moment it seemed the armour would hold, as if it would turn her blade aside as it had earlier.

Then a tiny crack appeared beneath her sword.

She drove the blade harder, wanting to break through that armour.

Suddenly a bright, white light exploded from within the armour, sending her flying back several body lengths. The construct was forced deeper into the bog by the force.

Misara hit the ground, managed to break her fall, losing her sword as she rolled to her feet. As she came up on her feet, pulling her dagger from her belt, she prepared for a follow up attack. None came.

The construct stood in the bog, up to its waist. Its hands were pushed against its chest, as if it were trying to stem the flow of light from the crack. As she watched blackness grew around it, seeming to fight with the light that leaked from it, and then the construct was gone.

Misara looked about, waiting to see if it would reappear.

Nothing happened.

She grabbed her sword and wiped the blood from it before sheathing it. She walked quickly over to where Rowan was holing Olpara.

"Will she be alright?" Misara asked. She stood over Rowan and could see the bloody mess that Olpara's chest had become. The halfling's eyes were closed and there was blood on her lips.

Rowan had her hands, stained red by the blood, over that wound. "I've stopped the bleeding," she said. "She'll be fine, with a little time."

Misara reached into her belt pouch and removed a scroll. She placed it beside Rowan. "That should help."

"Thank you," Rowan said.

Misara turned and looked towards Olpara's horse. It lay on its side, deep claw marks in its neck. Rose Thorn stood near by, apparently unharmed. It snorted, and Misara supposed he was mourning a fallen comrade.

Iron stood near by, holding his right, rear leg off the ground. She moved to her horse and knelt down so to examine the wound in his leg. The sword had cut deep into the steel shoe, and had damaged the hoof beneath. There was also a deep cut along his fetlock.

"You're too mean and ugly to let this stop you," she told Iron as she said a prayer and healed the wound. She was going to have to remove the shoe, she thought, as Iron put his hoof back on the ground, testing his leg as he put more weight on it.

She got up, reaching for the saddlebags, when she heard a soft cry. She turned and looked back to where she had fought the construct and the weretigers. Lying in the grass was the white weretiger, back in her elven form, her hands trying to stem the blood flowing from her wound.

Misara drew her sword and went to stand over the injured woman. The weretiger looked up as she approached, and it seemed as if she tried to stand, but her legs would not support her.

She was not evil, but she had been involved in evil things. Misara had killed many helpless enemies as they lay before her. It had always been necessary. She found herself in that position once more.

Misara knelt down beside her, reaching into her belt pouch as she did so. "Take this," Misara said, drawing a steel vial from the pouch.

Slowly the weretiger took one hand from the wound in her side and reached out with a bloody hand to take the vial that Misara held.

Misara kept a hold on it and met the confused gaze of the wounded woman. "If I ever here tales of a white tiger harming any good person you can be certain that I will find you again." She released the vial allowing the woman to take it. She did not break eye contact with the weretiger until she nodded.

"I'm glad that we understand each other." Misara stood, turned, and walked back to where Iron waited.

She did not know why she was letting the weretiger live. It might be that she was an elf, or because in some ways she reminded Misara of Lindra.

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