Chapter 24: Vengeance
The signal light Sheghal had lit sparked a succession of lamp fires that were ignited all along the road leading back to Insidiae. In the third watch of the night, the hordes of blood thirsty numans crept out of their dank crevices to punish those who sought peace and beauty. A knock rattled the tent post. Gorudon lifted the flap to receive the confirmation. The very innocents they were hunting were within reach. He handed the messenger three silver pieces before he nudged Griff, who violently rolled over with a dagger in his hand.
“It’s time. They’re just up the road.”
He answered with a slow, triumphant grin.
“It’s the Eve of Islar.”
“All the better.”
Griff and Gorudon were ready to ride in mere moments. A mass of numans congregated outside the make-shift inn where they lodged. Griff admonished them to do whatever sport seemed good to the travelers, but to spare their lives for the altar.
“Ifn’ we sees any moon wraiths, they’ll be wantin’ an off’rin,” someone advised from the crowd.
“They’ll get one,” Griff sneered. “Forward.”
Scores of numans joined them as they traveled the dark road to Bendt and Elah’s. The torch lamps along the way and the whoops and hollers of each new influx of riders lent an air of festivity to the anticipated ceremony of death.
As the mob of peacekeepers approached, Bendt pulled Elah aside and warned her that their guests had escaped, and Nell was missing from her room.
“That treacherous waif!” his wife fumed.
“We must pacify them lest they burn our house and barn and kill us all. It’s better for one to be sacrificed than for all of us to die at their hands.”
“What’re you suggestin’?”
“Give’em Ina for sport.”
A long silence filled the air between them as they pondered the possibility. They each knew that Ina would probably enjoy the experience, hungry as she was for attention in Nell’s shadow. Bendt secretly hoped it would buy time for Nell and her new friends to escape. Elah secretly envied Ina’s opportunity to be the object of desire for the throng that was gathering at their doorstep. Neither questioned whether Ina was strong enough to survive the experience.
The savage celebration came to an abrupt end upon their arrival, with the revelation that the Seekers had stolen off into the night, apparently well ahead of them. In the angry commotion that erupted, demands were made for some satisfaction. Elah’s hound retrieved Sheghal’s body and laid it at Griff’s unsympathetic feet. Regardless, his concern was not for any price this tawdry family had paid for playing host to the fugitives. He needed some diversion to satisfy his mob lest he lose control over them; the entire mission could be compromised on their lawn. Side stepping Elah, who had fallen down, silently grieving over her girl, Griff conferred with Bendt, who seemed unmoved by the death of his youngest daughter. Rather than lose his house, barn, and the rest of his family along with his own life, he suggested they take Ina for sport for the remainder of the night in exchange for their trouble in answering a false alarm signal light. Women have no real worth in Terra Dombren, and he figured Ina would probably enjoy the exercise. She was his least favorite daughter.
In truth, she did enjoy a sense of celebrity as they began to paw, grope, and fight over proximity to her. She basked in the glow of popularity and couldn’t remember ever feeling more alive than she did at this moment! She politely offered herself to Griff and Gorudon first, but they declined, content to be spectators. Griff generally preferred a less willing partner. After an hour or so of watching the girl’s vicious ravishment, they turned their attention to seeking clues that would help them track the ultimate prize they were hunting. As the morning fog began to seep across the fields, Ina grew weary and begged them to let up, to at least let her rest; but her pleas fell on deaf ears. She caught glimpses of the many gashes on her limbs where she had been clawed and bitten; bruises smeared with blood grew tender to their touch. She understood too late that she was nothing more than a piece of meat to them. Pleasure became pain. She became angry and tried to fight some of them off, but her struggling only heightened her attackers’ ecstasy and sense of power as they forced themselves on her with even more raucous amusement. The harder she fought, the weaker she felt. Their sheer strength in numbers overwhelmed her as she began to feel her life force trampled under the feet of this exasperating crowd.
Indeed, some were even more aroused by her corpse. However, when enough light transformed the darkness to a dull gray, the tracks were discovered on the back road, and Ina’s naked body was abandoned in front of the burning barn for the promise of fresh game.
The trail was easy enough to follow. The four horses they were tracking raced across a soft trail, leaving deep impressions in the ground. Griff’s excitement was palpable, and even Gorudon looked pleased with the easy path when they suddenly stopped short. The tree line was not more than a half mile ahead, but the path and all the ground, as far as the eye could see in either direction leading up into the trees, was now covered with a layer of tiny white flowers that sprawled out over every inch of ground. There was no evidence of a single flower being trampled. They could have turned at any point without leaving a trace. Griff stared, dumfounded. He dismounted for a closer look, while Gorudon raced ahead to the wooded area before them. Rushing through the putrid weeds that fumed offensively in Griff’s nose, he left no sign that his horse had traipsed over a single plant. Gorudon returned shortly with the news that the entire forest floor seemed to be overgrown with the white groundcover, with no sign of hoof prints that he could see anywhere. He could hear a creek somewhere in the woods, but he was certain that they would not be able to determine which direction the Seekers were going. Griff let out a startling roar of frustration.
Elah arrived soon after, riding bareback on a gangly looking horse.
“The trail’s gone cold,” Griff snapped at her.
“Then you’ll be needin’ me to revive it a bit,” she snarled back.
Dismounting from her horse, she pulled her pendant off her neck and held it out in front of her. She pointed it in every direction, chanting some unintelligible incantation until it began to glow like a burning ember. The flowers over the trail where the renegades had fled began to wilt, revealing their path. The pursuit continued.
“Are you prepared to pursue them all the way?” Griff inquired.
“It’s pers’nal ta me now,” Elah answered. “I’ll have my revenge.”
“These fugitives must be taken alive to the altar at Dem,” Griff informed her.
“That’ll be jes fine by me, after I gets enough blood for my potions and that pendant off o’ her neck.” Then after a minute, she asked, “Does Archer have an appointment at that altar?”
“No,” Griff sneered. “His appointment is with the tip of my sword.”
Their progress through the grove was slow. They came upon the run-aways’ camp site at the edge of the woods, but the dust storm created an impenetrable wall of flying sand. They would have to camp there, taking cover in the woods and wait out the storm before they could chase them across the barren plain. As the day grew to a close, Gorudon pulled Griff away from the petulant swarm of numans.
“We need a plan if any moon wraiths show up.”
“Already thought of that,” Griff smiled. “Elah’s dead weight. We’ll give’em her and keep her little pendant. It might come in handy,” he said, slapping his friend on his back.
Gorudon nodded in agreement. Just then a voice behind them asked, “You boys thought o’ what we’re gonna do ifn’ any moon wraiths show up?”
“Why, Miss Elah, we was just discussing that, and I think we’ve got just the right offering for them if they come,” Griff said with a smile. “No worries,” he said to her as he turned her about, escorting her back to the camp fire with his arm around her shoulder. He wore a sick, cruel grin on his face.
In the final watch of the night, the dull glow of a barely discernible light rose behind the clouds. With it came the snarling sound of the behemoths known as moon wraiths, who came out only when the light was bright enough in the night sky to be visible through the thick obscurity of clouds during the month of Islar. They appeared to be part man, part beast, and part ghost. They wore long, shabby beards on their faces and wrapped strips of cloth over the top of their heads. They had two long fangs protruding out of their upper and lower row of teeth; their hands were like giant crab claws. They set out when the light in the night sky was its brightest to seek an offering of a fresh head. Venturing out of doors on such a night in the month of Islar was folly. They could hear the blood coursing through any beating heart for miles; hence, numans opined that they could smell fear. They claimed this weak light of the night as their own, demanding tribute of any caught underneath it.
Griff was quick to offer them Elah. But she countered with the revelation that if he thought to use the pendant he had snatched off her neck, she had cast a spell over it that rendered it useless in any hand except her own live grip.
“So cuttin’ off my hand along with my head won’t help you!”
“Witch!” Griff spat at her.
Elah answered with a shrill, cackling laugh.
“Fine,” Griff ceded. Grabbing up the numan with the misfortune of being closest at hand, “Take this one,” he bellowed.
The moon wraiths celebrated with a savage call, rapidly wagging their tongues, drowning out the pleas for mercy from their victim. They removed him from the crowd; standing at the edge of the large group of spectators, they lined up behind him with two wraiths holding him steady. The leader looked up toward the light. After spewing great venomous words, he slowly reached up to the neck of his victim, savoring the look of fear and panic on his face; then he sliced off his head with one quick clip of his claw. The head was raised up on a pole and carted away with great celebration as the rest of the corpse fell to the ground.
“Carry his body off into the woods,” Griff ordered the two standing closest to him when the wraiths had gone their way. Then he laid himself back down next to the fire to resume his nap. Elah walked over and stood at his feet, glaring down at him. After standing there a few minutes without being acknowledged, she kicked his foot. Slowly, he raised his hat above his eyes so that he could look at her dispassionately, but still he said nothing.
“Ifn’ you ever try anythin’ like that agin, I’ll set a spell to make the ground swaller you up,” she jeered at him.
“And when I dig myself out, I’ll hunt you down and set you on fire,” he countered. “Get some sleep you old hag, and get over it.” He lowered his hat back over his eyes dismissively.
Elah stood over him for another minute or two, trying to decide what to do. Finally, she simply kicked his foot again before sullenly walking to the other side of the fire where she lay down to take a rest, still clutching her pendant tightly in her hands and mumbling some dark sayings to it in a raspy whisper.
When the gray hues of daylight broke through the grove, the impenetrable wall of dust still swirled vehemently over the plain. Hours ticked by as the mob grew more and more restless. Quarrels in the ranks became heated and deadly. Finally, Griff snarled an inquiry at Elah, questioning whether her little pendant couldn’t do something about this dust up.
“I’ve been jes waitin’ fer ya ta ask me nicely,” she sarcastically retorted. And rising to her feet, she walked to the edge of the grove. She held her pendant out in front of her and began to sway and chant dark sayings. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head. At first, the wind howled back louder, nearly knocking her off her feet, but she persisted. The battle of wills raged for hours, neither willing to yield to the other. Intensity grew on both sides. Finally, Elah managed an inroad. The wind did not cease entirely, but a narrow corridor opened up through the feral cloud of dust and sand.
“Follow close or be blasted to bits,” she said over her shoulder, pushing forward into the storm.
Griff and Gorudon were the first to follow her, while those caught off guard by the sudden opening were left scrambling to pack their gear and scurry after them. Many were wasted in the rear of the ranks for their inability to enter the corridor before it collapsed around them in a billowing and blustering eddy that blasted the flesh right off their bones. The howling wind drowned out the screams of men tortured by a cursed nature rising up against them.
Progress was slow, but their path was certain to Elah, who could feel the lingering presence of Ava’s pendant that once swept over this plain ahead of her. A night and a day, they traveled, slowly pressing onward through the storm with each deliberate step. Those that lingered too slowly behind were swallowed up by the storm. They reached the remains of the fallen fowl, and their confidence grew that they would soon have the rebels in their grasp.
They continued to grope along until Elah collided with a hard, flat surface. A wall? She felt her way to a corner and turned, following the wall with her hands, for she could see only an arm’s length ahead of her and above her of the unknown structure. Then she found it. The door.