On the Eaves of the Forest
Liman strode out of the gate, hardly paying attention to the people about him. His long stride forced them to move out of his way or be pushed out of his way. He wore travel stained clothing and a thick cloak that had seen better days. As he moved farther away from Everlund, and from the settlement that had grown up around the gate, he pulled the cloak from his shoulders and tossed it away, letting the wind take it where it would.
He turned off the road, moving into the deeper snow, pushing his way through it. He pulled off the tunic and dropped it to the ground. The shirt he wore under it was stained with blood, not his.
By the time he reached the copse of trees where Ippla and Siishi waited he was down to just the breaches. He climbed over a windbreak made of snow and slid into the shelter.
"She's gone, heading south, at least a sunrise ahead of us," he said.
"We're going to follow?" Ippla asked.
"Her companion has remained behind to care for one injured."
"We follow the companion then," Siishi said.
"Both. Ippla will leave and try to catch up to the elf. We stay here and wait to follow the companion."
"Where do we meet?"
"If you do not catch the elf, enter the High Forest, go to the Deeppond and wait for us there. If you find her use these," he said, tossing the smaller man a leather bag. "Leave a trail."
Ippla had caught the bag, and held it in his hand. "I won't need to leave a trail if I kill her," he said.
Liman nodded. "If you think you are able, then do so, but do not risk yourself unnecessarily. If we attack with strength the kill will be guaranteed."
Ippla nodded. "I will leave right away."
"Hurry. You can cross the bridge in the city. They close the gates when the sun sets. They fear the dark."
Ippla nodded as he reached for a bag of clothing and began pulling the scavenged items out.
Cirtimin walked slowly along the stone corridors, leaning heavily on his staff. His pace was slow, feet shuffling over dusty floors, kicking small pebbles, sending them skittering across the stone tiles. He muttered softly to himself, a litany of pains that plagued him. He was a young man, but he moved as one much older.
His dark red robe was covered in streaks of dust from when he brushed up against the walls; his dark brown hair was befouled with cobwebs. The iron-shod staff made quiet, ringing sounds as it came down on the floor, a counterpoint to the shuffling of his boots.
He stopped at the end of the corridor, breathing heavily, taking a moment to gather his strength. In front of him was a stone door, covered in Elvish runes, sealed with heavy bars of dark metal. He reached out and placed his hand against the door; with one finger he traced out one of the runes, then a second, then a third. As his finger lifted from the third rune he whispered, "Quel Kaima."
The metal bars slid back, a quiet whisper of metal across stone, and the door swung open.
Once more using the support of his staff he shuffled into the room, moving across the floor until he stood in the centre of a dimly glowing pattern, its light the room's only illumination. "You have summoned me Lady Asharass," he called out into the darkness.
"You are welcome here Cirtimin, I thank you for answering my summons so quickly." The voice was feminine and in it was an undercurrent of power. It came from just beyond the light.
He bowed his head. "I live to serve."
"I have a task for you. The Elven Paladin, Misara Anor'Esira, she is a threat." Asharass moved forward, her shadowy form on the edge of the faint light. There was a flash of red hair and pale skin.
"Hardly so to you Lady."
For a moment Asharass was quiet, and Cirtimin wondered, as he often did, if he had finally overstepped some unmarked boundary.
"You do not truly appreciate the danger that the elves represent. While they may not command the magic they once did, devices created from that time still remain, and their knowledge of the past is a power in of itself. I will not risk Misara Anor'Esira bringing news of my revival before I am ready."
"Of course Great Asharass," he said, considering what that new piece of information meant.
"Noriss' capture is a set back. Now they know that he was not working alone. We are fortunate in that the leaders of the Marches believe that he is an agent of the Zhentarim. I must strike at the elf, but I will not risk using one of my own. I have sent other agents after her, none that can be connected to me, but I wish to ensure that there are other options available." She had turned and circled him, as she moved into the light for a moment he could see the red of the silk dress she wore, her barefoot that did not quite touch the ground.
"Yes Lady Asharass."
"She is an Elf and a Paladin. I have no doubt that she has many enemies, and there are those who would see her dead just for what she is. Find them." She stepped away from the light, the shadow and darkness swallowing her up.
He nodded. "It shall be as you say Lady Asharass."
There was no answer from the darkness. She had nothing else to tell him.
As he exited the room the door closed and sealed behind him. His mind was on the task that he had been given, but he also thought about his rooms, with his comfortable chair in front of the fire, and one of his servants to rub the aches from his shoulders.
Misara was four days out from Everlund, nearly two hundred miles from the city. She had been pushing Iron hard to make the speed, and the horse did not seem to mind. She did not have much farther to go, at least not on horseback. She had already crossed the river Dessarin, and had turned off the main road, continuing along old paths, riding cross-country where no such paths existed.
Iron snorted, and shied slightly, tossing his head. She knew that the horse's senses were sharper than hers in some ways, and that the wind had just changed direction, blowing in from the west. She had lived too long to ignore such a sign, and it was not the first time it had happened during the day.
Something was stalking her, moving closer, the scent of it alerted Iron. She kept her relaxed appearance as she rode, but the truth was she was watching everything around her. And yet when the hunter appeared it almost took her by surprise.
It came bounding towards her, a flash of orange and black, leaping from the ground, intent on her.
She rolled off the side of Iron, who bolted forward, the tiger, for that was what it was, passing through the space she would have been. As she began to draw her blade the big cat landed, spun about, and charged her. Blade not fully free of the sheath, she was forced to roll out of its way, its sharp claws ripping her cloak as it passed.
It turned in a tight circle, incredibly flexible, its jaws snapping at her. She was barely able to keep ahead of it, and it was forcing her onto the defensive. She did not like fighting animals. They were creatures of pure instinct, their fighting style, at least for her, unpredictable.
It snapped at her again, driving her back, almost costing Misara her balance. She did not like the way that the fight was progressing, that the animal was deciding the course. When the tiger lunged at her again she did not fall back, but instead punched forward.
Five hundred pounds of tiger exploded towards her, its teeth closing on her extended hand, the force of the bite dimpling the mithral plate of her gauntlet, cutting the softer leather and chain and skin beneath. Her magically enhanced strength slammed into the tigers head, sending it flying back before it could do any serious damage to her.
She straightened and drew her blade, setting herself to meet its next charge. The tiger shook its huge head, blood running from its mouth where several teeth had been broken. She watched as it shifted, skin, bone and muscle rippling as it stood up on its hind legs, its front paws becoming hand-like.
Misara was not really surprised by that; she had expected something of the sort when she was attacked by a tiger so far north. It growled at her, a deep rumbling noise as it cautiously approached her.
Blood from her right hand, it would make the hilt of her sword slippery; she would have to be careful. The weretiger shifted its weight from one foot to the other, not committing to an attack. It was in the middle of shifting to its right when it aborted the movement and instead charged her. It came at her left, forcing her to shift about to bring her sword between them.
The blade connected with the weretiger's blow, stopping its arm, but the sharp edge hardly cut the beast at all. Misara did not dwell on that, knowing the resiliency of lycanthropes, and swung her sword around to meet his other arm, knocking it aside so his claws grated off her armour harmlessly.
They faced either other again over a few steps of ground, neither really hurt, both having a better idea of the capabilities of the other. Misara took the initiative and charged it, both hands on her sword's hilt; she swung it around, building up momentum, and slashed at her opponent's midsection.
The weretiger moved forward, into her attack, to steal force from the blow, but she reached forward, grasping her sword a hand span above the hilt, in effect shortening the weapon, and hit the weretiger with a solid blow that drove it back. Resilient or not, she knew that she had hurt it.
It moved back quickly, while doing so it shifted into tiger form. The wounds it had taken closed as it did. She reached behind herself, drawing a dagger from her weapon belt. She turned it in her hand, hiding the silver blade behind her arm, the plain, black hilt projecting past her fingers.
The weretiger charged forward, leaping into the air. She twisted to the side, used her sword to knock its paws away from her, used the weretiger's own momentum to spin herself around and drive the dagger deep into its side.
It screamed and twisted in the air. The dagger was pulled from her fingers by the violent actions, and the weretiger hit the ground some distance away from her, thrashing about, likely driving the dagger deeper into itself.
Misara moved forward, ready to finish the creature. The weretiger pushed itself back to its feet, backing away from her, blood running freely down its side. It stumbled and almost fell. She moved closer.
Fear in its eyes, the tiger turned and ran. Its flight was slower than its attack, but the long legged lope easily outpaced her. She whistled loudly which brought Iron running towards her. She reached out and pulled her bow and quiver from the horse's back. A few seconds later, bow strung, she sent an arrow speeding after the weretiger. It howled in pain as the arrow found its mark, stumbled, fell, then got up again, moving slower than before. Its scream was a cry of hurt and anguish that echoed off the nearby trees.
Another arrow was ready to fly, but for a moment she hesitated, its pained cry still in her ears. The creature was no longer a threat to her; she would not be harmed if she showed mercy. And yet, wounded as it was, the weretiger was even more dangerous. And if it attacked her, whom else might it attack?
The second arrow sped to join the first, followed by a third. When next the weretiger fell it did not get up.
She unstrung her bow, put it and the quiver back on Iron, and then swung herself onto the horse. Iron walked slowly across the rough ground and came to stand above the blood soaked ground and a dead man.
Misara slipped off Iron's back and knelt down beside him. On his arm was a tattoo of a bloody claw, the mark of the Beastlord. She reached out and closed his eyes, whispering softly, "May you find some peace in death that you did not in life." After a moment she stood and climbed back onto Iron, eager to be on her way. As she rode off she pulled off her damaged gauntlet and looked at the torn skin beneath. It took but a moment to heal it and the wound closed, leaving no scar behind.