How much longer until Banátra?
A few days, he had been told. But how one can tell the days apart anymore is the real mystery.
Mischa was tired. He was tired of the darkness and the cold. He was tired of the constant walking and the pain in his ankles and knees. His toes were frozen—he was sure of it. But every time he stopped to rest, something would happen to keep him moving.
Whether it was the telltale shambling of a nearby horde of shufflers or the howls of starving winter wolves, there was always some set of circumstances that refused to allow him respite on his unending journey through the barren woods.
His only solace was the owl. It came and went as it pleased, but it was never gone for very long. It always returned to some perch above Mischa’s head, ruffling its feathers or hooting to announce its return. Mischa always welcomed it. He was not the sort who isolation befitted.
As if summoned by his very thoughts, the owl returned again, landing on a tree branch a few meters ahead. It shook snow off its wings before settling and closing its eyes. Whatever journey it had taken had tired it out. Mischa could relate.
He climbed the tree easily, cutting away the lower limbs as he passed them, and pulled himself onto a series of thick branches that intersected like a gnarled cradle. A few of the weaker twigs from the top spire had fallen into it and lay across the limbs like a small bridge, which sparked an idea in Mischa’s head that, in his humble opinion, was one of the best he had ever had.
Using his bedroll and some rope, Mischa was able to fashion a makeshift hammock that stretched across the circuitry of limbs. He tested it carefully, placing his heavy pack on it to see if it would hold, then his weapons, and finally added his boots before determining that it was, indeed, up to the challenge of his body weight.
He hung his necessities from the end of the overhanging branch that his owl had perched on, sliding the straps of his scabbard, shield, and pack up to its taloned feet. “Here. Watch over this for me."
The sleepy owl did not reply, or even acknowledge him at all. But that was all right with Mischa, as long as it stayed.
He slipped into the gently-swaying bedroll one foot at a time, breathing a sigh of relief as he took his weight off them for the first time in what must have been days. Then he lay his head back against a small pillow, the muscles in his back spasming with gratitude. Weightless between the branches, Mischa felt the burden of his quest finally dissipate like snowflakes in the sun.
He closed his eyes and pulled his blanket tight around himself, the motherly rocking of his hammock launching him from the port of wakefulness and onto the seas of slumber.
A scream echoed in the not-so-distance.
Mischa closed his eyes tighter. No. Hush. Sleep-time, now.
Another scream - a woman’s. And a shout from a man, followed by a roar that Mischa knew instantaneously.
He opened his eyes. Damn it!
The spark of disappointment in his belly quickly exploded into fury as Mischa ripped his gear from the branch above him, startling the poor owl into flight. He pulled on his worn boots, cursing as he laced them over his sore and swollen feet, fastened his scabbard about his waist, and forsook the shield, promising himself that he would return for it later.
He half-climbed, half-fell down the trunk of the tree, landing in a snowbank that assaulted his aching knees as if it he'd struck bedrock. He grit his teeth and hauled himself out of it, forcing his abused joints into a sprint between the carcasses of trees.
The woman screamed again, providing Mischa the benefit of sounding out her location. Inhaling his own hot breath rebounded to him by the fabric of his scarf was unpleasant; he pulled it down around his throat and drew a measure of the freezing air into his lungs, despite their protestations. He wasn't sure which was worse: breathing in the same stagnant air time and time again, or the cold burn as he choked down dollops of the damp, frigid atmosphere around him.
He sped on regardless, advancing toward the sounds of struggle and hoping the effort would not be in vain.
Then he skidded to a halt, aided by a puff of brittle underbrush, stopping just short of a shuffler’s shoulder.
The thing turned to gape at him, maggot-worn hands reaching for his face. Mischa threw his left arm in a defensive arc, colliding with the shuffler’s limbs and knocking it aside as he pushed forward toward the elven couple a few feet ahead.
The man was brandishing little more than a flaming stick and a dagger. His shirt was torn and sopping with blood at the collar, but Mischa couldn’t tell if it was from the nasty-looking head wound or from a bite concealed somewhere along his neck or shoulder.
The woman had fallen in the snow behind him, a dirty, crying mess of wild red hair and a fur coat matted with filth. She made a series of gesticulations, igniting the foremost shuffler in an emerald conflagration. It dropped into the snow to put itself out as the man advanced, dagger at the ready.
“Careful!” Mischa shouted, and the man looked up to see another shuffler closing in. He retreated from his smoldering target, allowing the woman to ignite this one, as well, but Mischa could see she was fading fast, lost in a sea of hysterics. He didn’t much blame her.
He rushed forward, taking off the immolating shuffler’s head and bringing down the point of his blade into its skull. His charge gave the man the time he needed to pierce the other shuffler’s temple with his dagger, eliciting a spray of dark matter. Mischa turned over his shoulder to him.
“Stay with her!” he commanded, pulling his sword free of its mark. “Get her on her feet—hurry!”
The shuffler he had bypassed moments before was staggering toward him. Mischa swung at it too low and opened its chest into a fleshy doorway for fat little grubs to swarm through. They plopped onto the snow in droves and burrowed away. The shuffler hardly seemed to notice.
They hadn’t liked that fire, though.
Mischa backpedaled, putting less distance between himself and the couple. “My blade,” he said to the woman. “Can you enchant it?”
He heard her sniffle mucus into her throat. She gulped it down, sobbed, and a moment later, his sword erupted into a flash of jade. He let out a visible breath of awe, then slashed at the space between himself and the shuffler, leaving behind a glowing trail that lit up the night.
The shuffler recoiled, a spark of recognition in its eyes. Mischa panted and squeezed his sword’s grip in an effort to quell the shaking of his limbs.
“That’s right,” he muttered to the foul corpse before him. “You know what this is, don’t you?”
As if in response, the shuffler groaned and took a step away from him. To the woman, he said, “What is this?”
“Magic,” she hiccuped. He heard the sounds of the man helping her to her feet at last. “It’s only a little magic.”
“What kind?” Mischa pressed, swiping at the shuffler again, watching it lope to the side to avoid the flames. He found himself rather enjoying the primitive fear that danced across its slack features. He toyed with it, making it stumble and quiver. It was nearly falling over itself.
A little grin tugged at Mischa's lips. “Well?”
“Fire,” she answered. Mischa shook his head.
“But this isn’t normal fire, is it?” The shuffler made a little cry as it got too close to the licking flames, like a baby bird fallen from its nest onto the cold, hard ground. The sound of it warmed Mischa’s heart. “We’ve tried that. It doesn’t work half as well as this does.”
“No, it’s an old spell. My family called it verdant flames.” She paused again, then said, “I think it’s just a manifestation of primal energies. Even a child could conjure it...”
Mischa felt his face light up as brilliantly as his sword.
Before then, he had been terrified of the shufflers. They had seemed so invulnerable: Lop off an arm or a leg and they hardly slowed down; set them aflame and it did little more than make them smell worse.
But at that moment, seeing that expression of pain and horror spreading across their rotting faces, Mischa did not feel afraid. He felt powerful.
For the first time since the Infestation had begun, he felt as though he truly possessed a weapon against them.
He swung wide, driving the shuffler back so quickly that it lost its footing. It crashed onto the ground, sending up a shower of snowfall just as Mischa drove his weapon home and bisected its putrescent face. He hardly noticed the spray of ichor that had given him pause in the Shimmerwood some time ago. Instead, he lunged at the two more shufflers approaching from the east, his heart quickening with joy as they recoiled from his enchanted blade.
Just as he cut one down, he heard the woman cry:
“Please—my husband! Help!”
Mischa turned to look.
It was the man he saw upon the ground this time, lying on his back in a growing puddle of blood. Steady bursts of it jetted from his throat as he vomited onto the snow around him, staining it an arterial vermilion. His wife knelt beside him, pushing him onto his side where he spasmed, gurgling with each retch.
Mischa had seen this before.
He quickly dispatched the last shuffler and sheathed his sword, rushing back toward the couple. The woman’s hands were glowing a soft, golden-white. It didn’t seem to be helping.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered, hoarse from screaming. “He’s beyond my power... How? How could he have gotten so bad? How could I not have noticed?”
Mischa crouched behind her. He put his hand on her shoulder, dreading what he would have to say. He stalled. “What’s your name?”
“Sebina,” the woman choked out, her gaze never leaving her husband’s racking body. Her hands were still glowing. “Sebina Tel’Anor.”
“And your husband?”
“Owan.” She began to rub his back. It did not soothe him. “Velandriel.”
“Sebina,” Mischa repeated, measuring his words, “your husband’s illness spreads like wildfire. Between this moment and the time that he contracted it, there was nothing you could have done to prevent it.”
Sebina turned to him, the brilliance of her green eyes clouded by her tears. “Speak plainly,” she begged. “What must I do...?”
Mischa gazed at her, his heart breaking as he watched hers do the same. Though he hardly knew her, he had seen such a look fall upon the faces of many elves over the past few months, each one of them knowing before a word was spoken what fate had befallen their loved one, or sometimes, even themselves.
Still, hearing the truth spoken aloud seemed to bring them a strange relief, like allowing an overwhelmed dam to finally burst. He gripped Sebina's slight shoulder more firmly through his glove.
“Your husband was infected some time ago. It is hollowing him out, making him its vessel. Soon, he will die. And then some time after that, he will rise as one of them.” He shifted his eyes, indicating one of the fallen shufflers. “There is no aid you can give him. There is no cure. I’m so sorry.”
Sebina’s jaw quivered. She set it tightly, looking away from Mischa and down to her husband once more. Her hands glowed brighter. “If I can just...”
“I’m sorry,” Mischa repeated, though it did him no good. Sebina continued trying to heal Owan, feeding her will into him, her grief bolstering her power, though not enough to halt the liquefaction of his organs.
Peering over her shoulder, Mischa could see that Owan's head wound seemed to be mending, the flesh pulling together by way of fibrous strands of connective tissues regrowing before his eyes. His snorts and grunts of pain between heaves made Mischa wonder if Sebina's efforts were only adding to his misery.
He slid his hand down her arm to her wrist. She was shaking nearly as hard as Owan was.
“Sebina,” Mischa said softly.
She only seemed to redouble her concentration. Her hands clenched into claws. Her tears spilled over onto her cheeks, onto her husband’s shirt.
“I’m trying!” she sobbed. “I’m trying so hard, Owan! Why is nothing happening‽”
“Sebina,” Mischa repeated, squeezing her wrist. A tingle of her healing energy skirted the tips of his fingers. It felt strange, like his stomach might get up and try to crawl away. But it didn’t hurt. “Stop.”
Her breathing hitched. Then her spell flickered into darkness, and even Owan’s body lost its luster as the remnants of Sebina’s magic faded away.
She fell back against Mischa’s chest, nearly bowling him over, and he secured her with his arms in the only gesture of comfort that he could offer.
In front of them, Owan began seizing. Sebina covered her face.
“Oh, no. Oh, no...”
Mischa stood up, leaving Sebina rocking herself in the snow as he drew his sword once more. There were no green flames to grace its blade this time. Its majesty was gone. So was Mischa’s.
He approached Owan’s head, standing over him as he lay trembling on the ground. He brought the hilt of his sword up.
“Wait!” Sebina cried, reaching for him. “Stop!”
“It has to be,” Mischa insisted. “You don’t want him to walk, do you?”
Sebina looked at her husband, at his convulsing, contorted body, and shook her head. But as Mischa raised his sword again, she interjected, “Let me. Please. Let me do it.”
Mischa hesitated. She looked frail. Exhausted. Could she even lift the sword?
Sebina stood, drawing the thick, fur coat around her willowy form, and wobbled over to Mischa’s position just over Owan’s head. He handed her the sword by the hilt. It was her husband. Her decision to make. He mourned that fact exactly as much as he understood it.
He stepped aside, allowing Sebina to take his place. Owan was making terrible noises now, a discordant symphony of digestive upheaval and wails of anguish. Mischa scanned the trees around them, silently bidding Sebina to hurry. If the shufflers hadn’t been attracted by their little light show, then they certainly would be by Owan’s braying—and soon.
Still, and possibly to his own peril, he could not bring himself to rush her.
“Owan,” Sebina whispered, her voice nearly drowned out by his suffering. “You protected me. You took the burden of my duties in the catacombs. You took my many other burdens long before then. And you carried it all so well for so many years, just adding the weight of all that you took from me to the load you already bore. And all without my gratitude...”
She gasped as Owan turned onto his back, veins bulging, bloodshot eyes rolling to stare up at her. Mischa again reached out and placed his hand on her shoulder.
“He can’t hear you now,” he reassured her. “He’s too far gone already.”
Sebina nodded. From the way her shoulders sagged, Mischa kenw she had run out of ways to cope with this hideous interpretation of who her husband once was.
“I should have thanked you,” she said a little louder. Bloody bubbles frothed pink at the corners of Owan's mouth. She raised the sword high, the hilt well above her head. “Thank you.”
With all the might she possessed, Sebina brought the sword down hard into Owan, piercing his chest. Mischa had hoped she would have struck true, but she was inexperienced—she missed his heart by several inches. He roared. She screamed and brought the sword down twice more, frantically seeking the only vital organ that remained, and on the second attempt, his fluttering rhythm finally ceased.
Sebina dropped the sword, stepped back, and sunk into the snow, with an inhuman groan. Mischa retrieved the weapon and glanced at her. When she buried her face in her palms, he quickly and quietly nudged Owan’s head over with his foot and drove the point of his sword into his brain. He then let Owan's head roll back into place, covering the wound from Sebina’s notice before approaching her again.
“I’m sorry, I can’t give you any more time. We have to go.”
“And I’ve stayed too long already,” Sebina muttered absently. He wondered what she meant.
She looked up at him, her face reddened by both the stinging cold and the thousand tears she had shed. Then she looked at Owan’s corpse. “I have to burn him.”
“I know,” Mischa said.
She gestured numbly, and Mischa felt a sudden warmth at his back as Owan’s body erupted in flames. He did not turn to look, only offered Sebina his hand to help her to her feet. She accepted it and stood, though she never took her eyes off of the fire Mischa saw reflected on her pale skin.
“I’m Mischa Longstride,” he said, unsure of what else he ought to say. “I’m on my way to Banátra. I have a message for the Holy City. There’s a relayman there who will take that message to Westshore.” He assumed that was where she and her husband had been heading. When she did not confirm this, he continued, “They have ships that are sailing to Alséas. They are taking refugees, as long as they can pay...”
Sebina said nothing. She was no longer even shivering against the cold, but standing statuesque, her slate-gray face bathed in the glow of her husband’s corpse.
Mischa pulled his scarf up against the smell of burning flesh wafting from over his shoulder. He was again reminded that more shufflers would be arriving soon, attracted to the light like moths ignorant of what damage a flame could do.
“They have a sun there,” he added, hoping his words would stir some reaction from her. It did.
She shifted her gaze to his face. “Would you take me with you? Please?”
Her despondency was heartbreaking. Mischa nodded, giving little thought to the new responsibilities their agreement would incur.
Wordlessly, Sebina walked over to her husband and added her silvery coat to his pyre. "Thank you," she said again, her words drifting like embers on the cold, dark wind.
Later, both she and Mischa would lie in Mischa's hammock. They would share a blanket and cling to one another for warmth, heads tucked down low to escape the frostbite laying claim to the tips of their ears. Sebina would spend over an hour sobbing into him, and he would spend the same amount of time—plus a few minutes more—letting her despair invade him with a ferocity he had never known. Eventually, she would sleep.
And then Mischa Longstride, at long last, would sleep as well, unmolested by shufflers or wolves in his hammock above the snow.