“Grab that one as well.”
“Enough. Do as you're told and disappear. If they find out you were here, I'll rip your throat out myself. Understand?”
The tall male didn't respond. Bowing his head subserviently, he wrestled his mental complaints into silence. Already his strong hands were clasped around the wailing bundle, tucking it closer to his chest in comfort. After a few cooing sounds, mixed with a soft rocking motion, the child ceased its wails, gurgling happily towards its captor. In the darkness he couldn't see the color of the eyes of the baby, but he could feel them watching him. Uncomfortable, he tucked the tiny hands wrapped in his beard into another blanket on top of the first. While this child's fate was already decided, he at least wanted it to be warm along the way.
“Tell Hora to dispose of the other body in Kressin. No one will find it in the swamp and make sure the others have the last group. Take no chances.”
“As you command.”
“Good. Now get out.”
Lowell bowed again, disappearing through the half opened door. It closed behind him with a quiet snap leaving him alone in the darkness. The rest of the castle lay asleep unaware of what was happening. When he glanced at the babe he was surprised it had already fallen asleep in his arms so trustingly. Its little fists had pulled a corner of the blanket towards its mouth and drool leaked down its cheek. It was adorable and innocent. Sadly, it didn’t matter. It would be in his care for only a short time. After that, Eli would take over and he could forget. At least he'd try.
'May the seven God's have mercy upon my soul.'
Swiftly, the large man traveled the halls of the castle keeping his head bowed. Using hidden tunnels, long ago forgotten, it didn't take him long to find himself to find him a victim of the freezing winds blowing outside. Behind him, the soft swell in feminine sobbing interspersed with the shouting of men grew until it reached his ears. The baby had been discovered missing. By morning, everyone would know. A pang of guilt split through his chest, but Lowell ignored it. The soft jingling of gold in his pocket helped him with that.
"You knew what you were getting into," he muttered to himself, pausing long enough to adjust the blankets wrapped around the child in his arms. It was the middle of fall, but Lowell could tell winter wouldn't be far behind. The temperature had dropped drastically in the last three days. From the temperature alone, he knew this winter would be rough. Few would survive its chill.
During the adjustment, the child began to fidget uncomfortably as the cold seeped into the thin cloth biting its skin. Soft sounds of discomfort grew in volume. Lowell found himself shushing the child gently. Pulling the child closer to his chest, he readjusted his cloak. He unhooked it from his right shoulder and slid it further over his left until the child was protected beneath its furry barrier. Another soft rocking motion and the child ceased its movements, gurgling in comfort as it drifted back to sleep.
Certain the child would be comfortable for the rest of the journey, Lowell let loose a soft whistle that carried into the night. Quietly, he waited in the pre-evening glow. Along the wall, out of sight of the back gate, a singular horse trotted towards him obediently.
"Hello ole boy," Lowell greeted softly, reaching up to stroke his horse's nose affectionately. Black as night, the horse easily blended with the encroaching darkness. He'd been a gift to Lowell two years prior from an old friend he'd saved.
"Two more hours and you can rest, Siarz," Lowell murmured to his friend. One last pat on the nose and he moved to pull himself into the saddle.
Lowell froze mid motion. The voice was unfamiliar, but Lowell had been certain he, at least, had another hour before the guard returned to the third wall. A hesitant glance behind him revealed three guards approaching from the direction of the back gate. They were alone, but armed.
Muttering curses under his breath, Lowell dismounted. With his cloak still covering the sleeping babe, Lowell leaned around the front of his horse using the rest of the horse's bulk to hide his left side.
"Good evening sirs," Lowell greeted, nodding his head politely.
One of the guards had his sword drawn, hanging loosely at his side. Neither of his two comrades had drawn their weapon, but their hands hovered near the hilts.
"Who are you?" the guard with the sword questioned.
“A messenger from the Duke of Easthaven,” Lowell responded easily.
"What's your business here?"
"I was sent to deliver a letter, but I seem to have misplaced it," Lowell explained, wincing appropriately at his own absentmindedness. A warning bell went off in his mind.
“A letter to whom? Why are you out here alone?” the guard with the sword pressed.
Lowell frowned. "It doesn't matter because I've forgotten it. And I'm leaving," he answered shortly.
"Without an escort?" the guard asked.
'When did guards venture beyond the wall past dusk voluntarily?'
"Do you offer to be my escort?" Lowell asked aloud.
"No, but you should come with us."
"If you were wearing the right uniforms I would," Lowell remarked, stroking Siarz's neck. He watched for a reaction, receiving what he expected. Who he assumed was their leader, tightened his grip on his sword and the two behind him drew their's. None of them spoke.
"What about you? A messenger who didn't display his papers the moment he saw a guard? Forget those too?" the lead guard sneered.
Lowell shrugged. "If you were a guard, I would've showed you my papers, but I think we've already established what you aren't."
"It doesn't matter old man. You're not leaving here alive," the lead guard scowled.
Old? Lowell blinked. There was more at work here than he knew, but old?
"Old?" he voiced incredulously.
Without warning, the lead guard charged. Angrily, Lowell drew a long curved knife from his side, raising it in time to prevent injury to his horse.
"Who attacks a man's horse?" Lowell growled, tensing his muscles and shoving the guard backwards.
Unprepared for Lowell's strength, the lead guard stumbled backwards. In his place, both of his comrades rushed forward quietly.
Moving in front of Siarz, Lowell met one of them head on. Siarz took care of the other before he reached Lowell. The large horse turned and lashed out with his back leg. It connected with the man's chest mid-charge. A sickening crunch followed and the guard flew back several feet, rolling across the grass until his head slammed into the base of the stone wall. He didn't move.
Lowell deflected his attackers sword to the right, bringing his left leg around and connecting it with the inside of the guards right knee. Something popped and he fell with a soft yelp. Twisting his sword, Lowell swung his blade upwards, feeling it meet slight resistance. A surge of strength urged it through the skin. Scarlet trailed down the pale canvas in the evening glow and the body crumpled in on itself. The head rolled off into the night.
Not allowing Lowell to catch a breath, the lead guard attacked, sword swinging. Lowell ducked and dodged out of the way, taking careful steps backwards. Grim, he kept his eyes on the long blade that could end his life with one swipe.
"Stay still and fight," the guard growled.
Lowell didn't answer. He kept his left side farthest from the blade, careful to protect the child. It didn't make sense as to why, the child was going to die within the hour, but instinct drove him to keep the child safe. Keeping his right arm relaxed, he waited.
When the guard made another crazed swing at Lowell's head, Lowell ducked sweeping the feet out from underneath the guard.
The guard fell, attempting to roll backward, but abruptly Lowell's knife was pressed to his throat. Glancing up, the guard's eyes widened when he found Lowell crouched behind him.
How had he been that fast?
"H-How-" the guard stammered, but cut himself off when Lowell's eyes glowed a golden hue in answer.
He didn't finish. Lowell slowly drew his blade across the pale, exposed skin.
"I know," Lowell murmured.
In the darkness, black liquid bubbled forth at the corners of the guard's soundless lips and Lowell watched him die. Gently, he shushed him, watching the light fade from his shocked gaze.
"It isn't your fault you were at the wrong place at the wrong time," Lowell muttered, closing the guard's eyes and patting him on the cheek sympathetically. He didn't want to kill them, but they'd left him no choice. As for why they were there in the first place, was a different story and one he planned to pursue at a later date.
Wiping his blade on the grass, Lowell sheathed the weapon and stood. Through it all, the child had remained sleeping. Lifting his cloak to check on the baby, he startled when he found a pair of bright violet eyes staring into his own hazel ones. He couldn't tell how long the child had been awake, but it was smiling up at him with the blanket clutched tightly within its tiny fists.
"Go back to sleep little one, it will be over soon," Lowell murmured.
A soft gurgle could be heard from the baby, but it didn't make any move to fall asleep again. Frowning, Lowell tried to rock the child to sleep, but it continued to watch him. Those eyes sent chills down spine. Deciding to ignore the child, he pulled the cloak back over the baby expecting to hear soft sounds of protest. He heard nothing. Again he peered beneath the cloak wondering if it fell asleep, but those same eyes watched him quietly. Replacing the cloak, he still heard nothing.
"It doesn't matter. Within the hour, the child won't be your problem anymore," Lowell muttered to himself, gracefully alighting into the saddle on Siarz's back. Nudging the horse into a light canter, he kept his eyes and ears peeled for 'friends' of the three fake guardsmen he'd met at the wall.
The farther north he traveled, the greater his tension and paranoia built. He expected to hear someone call out for him to halt or turn around. There was nothing. Occasionally, he checked on the child, but every time, he found those violet eyes watching him. He started to wonder if the child knew more about what was going on than it should've.
'You're being paranoid. It's a baby, hours out of its mother's womb. It knows nothing.'
The thought relaxed him and once he breached the forest, he felt the remainder of his tension slip away. He shook himself of his paranoid thoughts refocusing on his mission. The stress of his escape and his guilt were what was nagging at him, but once the child was out of his hands, it would go away. It always went away afterwards.
Lowell slowed Siarz to an easy walk. If anyone had seen him, guard or not, they wouldn't venture into the forest. Their fear of the Adroehn would keep them at bay. Lowell didn't believe in the Adroehn, but a part of him was wary. He'd heard the stories and he's learned there usually is a piece of truth within a lie.
"Almost there Siarz," Lowell remarked, keeping his voice low for an unknown reason. He parted the mane near the base of Siarz's neck to touch the top piece of a chain encircling his friend's neck. At his touch, one of the charms dangling near Siarz's chest began to glow illuminating the dirt path they were on.
The forest was quiet. During the daylight hours, it was usually filled with the chatter of the locals. However, at night, they were smart enough to return to the safety of their homes. What was it like to have a home?
Lowell may have grown up in this area, but his entire life after that had been spent traveling from one place to another. What was it like to come home to a woman and children? Was it something every man wanted? Or something that was simply done? He couldn't see the lure of family life. He enjoyed his whores and time spent drinking at a tavern. With a wife, he presumed he wouldn't be able to do any of that. And children? Squalling creatures of unending need and hunger. When he thought of children he thought of more mouths to feed and rules. It was to much. Perhaps he could deal with the other mouths to feed, but he couldn't handle the rules.
Making a face, Lowell glanced down at the part of the cloak that blocked his view of the child beneath. About a mile back he'd stopped checking on it. Every time he did, he found those eyes watching him. It had stopped smiling at him, but it hadn't made a sound and it hadn't moved. It was just there, watching. He knew it was alive, it blinked... sometimes.
The night hadn't warmed, but Lowell barely felt the encroaching chill. His thoughts were preoccupied with the baby and what the morning would bring. Once the children were taken care of, the group was to disband and go their separate ways. For all intents and purposes they were to disappear as only they knew how. Nothing was to lead back to them or to the one they worked for.
"With this much gold, do you think I could retire?" Lowell asked the horse curiously. He didn't get a response, but he wasn't expecting one.
"Hm, you're right. I can't. You have expensive habits," Lowell said, answering his own question.
Under his breath, he began to hum a bawdy he'd learned in the tavern he'd stayed at two nights ago. It was about a man who was convinced he was in love with a woman who had a twin, but he could never tell the two apart unless he examined the treasure beneath their skirts. And it was a treasure he was always excited to see no matter who the woman was.
A piercing whistle cut through the night, interrupting his humming. Falling silent, Lowell stopped Siarz listening for the next two whistles to follow. When they did, he relaxed and nudged Siarz back into a slow walk. Ahead of him, he could hear the wicker of other horses and the soft murmurings of men. Nudging Siarz through the last layer of foliage, he breathed easy recognizing the two men waiting in the clearing.
As Lowell approached, two other horses broke through the treeline at the opposite side and slowed. Lowell nodded to their riders.
"Pierce, Connor," Lowell greeted. He opened his mouth to ask how they fared, but by the looks of the quiet bundles in their arms, it was obvious it'd gone well.
"Anyone see you?" Lowell asked instead.
"No one bothered to watch the little things after they was born. Easy pickin's," Pierce shrugged. "No one saw us go in or out."
Lowell nodded. Similar to his horse, the other four horses were surrounded by a similar glow. One by one, each of the men touched their charms until Lowell's was the only one glowing. Guiding Siarz to take up a position next to the two waiting, he shared a glance with each of them. Both had squirming bundles in their arms.
“Eli, Kosan,” Lowell murmured in greeting.
“Took you long enough Lowell, weren't you supposed to be the first man back?” Kosan asked, smiling. "Get side tracked by your lady love?"
Lowell scowled. "You know I don't have a lady love."
"Not by choice," Kosan snorted.
Kosan was a burly guy with rippling muscles from head to toe. Growing up, he'd always been the biggest kid on the streets, but one the girls admired. Those same factors transferred into adulthood. On foot, he towered over the group by a foot and his arms were as thick as Lowell's neck. His child was squirming in his awkward grasp, but thankfully, hadn't started wailing yet.
“Did your thing give you trouble? This one won’t settle down no matter what I do. I tried bouncing it and rocking it, but nothing. I don't think it likes me,” he grumbled.
Lowell chuckled. “It takes a gentle person to control a baby, Kosan.”
The other men chuckled quietly. Everyone knew the large man was anything but gentle. Kosan scowled.
"I can be gentle," he muttered, but even to himself he sounded doubtful.
Lowell snorted. The last time Kosan had tried to be gentle with one of their prisoner's; he'd crushed their skull. He'd claimed it was an accident, but Lowell had his doubts. Sometimes the man didn’t know his own strength, but Lowell also believed he didn’t care to keep it in check.
“Pierce, remember when Kosan yanked a man from his horse and almost ripped his body from his leg because it got caught in the stirrup and the horse was trying to bolt?” Connor asked quietly, a smile playing on his lips.
Pierce nodded seriously, but the same smile was mirrored on his expression. “Didn’t that day end with him face down in the gutter because he drank too much with the same man he yanked from the horse? And didn’t that man steal his money?” he asked.
"Did it end that way?" Connor asked, furrowing his brows in the same serious manner as both turned to look at Kosan.
The larger man grunted. "I don't remember that," he muttered.
"You wouldn't though would you? You were too drunk to even stand," Pierce commented.
"How much liquor do you think it would take to bring a man his size to his knees?"
"Don't you mean his face?"
The two men set to snickering when Eli interrupted.
“Enough you two or Kosan will accidentally crush your skulls in,” Eli threatened, alighting from his horse easily despite the two children already in his arms.
"Watch out," Pierce whispered.
"He'll crush us all... like watermelons," Connor responded.
"If he could catch us," Pierce remarked.
"I've heard bigger men are slower."
"I'll show you slow," Kosan growled, swinging a leg over his horse, but before he could dismount the baby in his arms started wailing.
"Now look what you did," Connor pointed out. "You woke it."
"Someone take this thing away from me, I need to hit something," Kosan scowled, giving Connor a pointed glare.
Connor smiled. "You couldn't catch a-"
"I said enough!" Eli ordered, raising his voice.
The three men fell silent.
"Give it to me Kosan," Eli commanded, taking the child from Kosan into the crook of one of his arms while the other two he held rested in the opposing elbow. A gentle rocking motion settled Kosan's baby before it had a chance to wake the other's.
Quietly, he continued to hush the three bundles until he was certain they were asleep. It was easier if they were sleeping. He learned that the first night. Was it ironic that the man intent on killing them was someone who could calm them?
"To me Pierce," Eli said, indicating for the man to collect the remaining babies and follow after him. With his own three, he took off into the forest, heading west.
From the start, Eli had been the one who took care of the killing. Out of all of them, he was able to see the job for what it was, a job. He didn't hesitate when he knew what needed to be done, but he also didn't blame the others when they'd initially hesitated. Anyone would in this situation and instead of forcing them to cross a line they weren't willing to, he did it for them.
Pulling back his cloak, Lowell stared down into the violet eyes again watching the baby writhe. The cool air pressed in on its skin and its tiny nose wrinkled in discomfort. Idly, Lowell pulled a piece of its blanket up to protect it further.
Why had he done that? he thought. Its life would last for maybe another minute or two, but... Lowell frowned. He couldn't care for this thing. It was why he called it a thing or an it. The whole thing was easier to deal with if this thing was nothing more than a thing to be dealt with. However, when Pierce came to collect the child, Lowell was surprised how hard it was for him to give up the child.
“Come on Lowell,” Pierce coaxed gently. Patiently, he waited for Lowell to make the same choice they'd been making for a week now.
It took him a moment, but Lowell removed the child from the protection of his cloak and handed it over to Pierce. It was still awake and watching. Its eyes focused on Lowell momentarily before flickering to stare up into Pierce's face. Pierce blinked down at the child, somewhat surprised. It was the only one awake.
"I know," Lowell responded.
"It doesn't matter."
"No, it doesn't."
Pierce didn't have children, but handling the babies came easy to him. He'd mentioned once before he was thinking about starting a family of his own. Lowell thought he'd be good at it. There was a wife waiting for him already, why not a son or daughter?
Lowell remained silent, watching his friend disappear into the forest after Eli. He knew it had to be done as well as everyone else. If it wasn’t, their lives would be at stake and unlike Eli or Kosan or Lowell, Connor had a family and Pierce had someone special to care for. What did it matter they were sacrificing seventeen babies along the way? They'd sacrificed so many other lives. True none had been younger than twenty until now, but it was either them or the babes.
"How's your wife Connor?" Lowell asked, forcing his attention elsewhere.
It didn't take long for Pierce to find Eli. The echo of a blade in use was a clear indication where the man had gone. Eli had stepped off of the forest trail, finding a small patch of grass where he'd laid his three children on the ground. Ducking under a branch, Pierce watched Eli remove his sword from the middle of the third bundle. Lightly, the man touched his boot to the bundled blanket and pushed it and the two others through a break in the trees. After a few seconds, three separate splashes sounded. It took Pierce a moment to realize they were standing near the edge of a cliff and the soft roar he'd been hearing, was the Tessin river below.
"How'd you find this place?" Pierce asked softly.
Eli grunted. "I found it while scouting earlier. I kind of wish I'd found it sooner. It would've saved us time with the graves."
"I don't mind digging them," Pierce remarked.
"I know, but this will save us time."
"And if they're found?"
"It doesn't matter. We'll be gone by then and they'll be dinner for something else. Come on, lay the other three down. The faster we are here, the sooner we're on the road East."
Pierce nodded, crouching close to the ground to lay the three bundles in the grass. He didn't mention the real reason why he didn't mind digging the graves. They were innocent with their only mistake being born. Pierce had at least thought they deserved a grave to put their young souls to rest. If he told Eli that, he'd never live it down.
Moving out of the way, he watched Eli approach the last group and pause.
"What's wrong?" Pierce asked.
"Those eyes," he muttered.
Pierce moved next to his friend to stare down into the same violet eyes that gave him pause five minutes earlier.
"Could that one-"
"Does it matter?" Pierce asked, cutting him off.
"We could sell it. They'll never know."
Pierce shook his head grimly. "No. They'd know."
Eli nodded. "Yeah... Just kill it and get paid."
Pierce nodded. "Kill it and get paid," he repeated softly, watching the baby watch them.
For the first five babies, Pierce had cried. He'd personally taken the time to bury each one of them; rivulets trailing into his cleanly cropped beard. The only thing he kept thinking about was the moment the parents found their child missing. He couldn't fathom the amount of pain they'd go through. There weren't any ankle biters running around yet with his name attached, but he hoped one day there would be. And for him to imagine one of them going missing... He felt he could understand the pain the parents would go through, but as he'd buried each child, he didn't feel regret.
Pierce watched Eli focus on the first child. Lifting his sword, he brought it down striking true. The sleeping child never made a sound. Nudging it out of the way with his bloodied boot, he shifted his focus to the last two babies and startled. Two sets of eyes watched him and both were the same shade of violet.
"I thought you said none of them had siblings..." Eli growled to Pierce, keeping his focus on the two babies watching him.
"None of them had siblings or were a set of twins. Why?"
"Come here," Eli muttered.
Eli's back had blocked Pierces view of the last two children, but when he moved around the other man, his breath caught in his throat. The two sets of eyes transitioned from Eli to Pierce. It was unsettling. Pierce frowned.
"Kill them both and close their eyes. I don't like how they're watching," Pierce muttered, shuddering nervously.
"Watching? That's what you're worried about? Both of them have the same bloody eyes! That's what I'm worried about," Eli whispered fiercely. His eyes shifted to search the surrounding trees, expecting something else to be watching them.
"Who cares Eli? It's a coincidence. Just kill them and end it," Pierce responded firmly.
"The Adroehn..." Eli murmured. His eyes were still searching the trees, but his grip on his sword tightened.
"They don't exist. Get it over with," Pierce ordered.
One of the babies turned its gaze towards Pierce and again he felt a nervous chill travel down his spine. He knew he should watch, but he couldn't. Turning away, he listened for any sound to indicate Eli had finished the job. When none came, Pierce turned back around, irritated Eli couldn't finish the job. He didn't have any trouble with the others, why these two?
Eli's back was to him and his arms were lifted with the hilt of the sword gripped within his hands. He didn't move.
The older man didn't answer.
Pierce circled around Eli confused. When he got a good look at his face, he stared open mouthed. Black tendrils seeped across his sclera, altering the whites of his eyes to darkness. By the time his eyes had faded to darkness, the tendrils leaked over his eyelids onto his skin. Eli's mouth opened, soundlessly pleading for help, while his face took on a red hue. It took Pierce a moment to realize the man couldn't breathe.
"Eli! Can you hear me?"
Partly afraid to touch his friend, Pierce didn't shove his friend until he saw the black tendrils had stopped halfway down his cheeks. With a hand on his elbow, he tried to lower his arms, but nothing happened. Eli's face faded to a deeper shade of red and his mouth froze in his silent cry, choking sounds emitting from his throat.
Grim, Pierce took a step backwards and charged Eli, knocking him to the ground. Quickly, he rolled away afraid of the tendrils touching him.
When Eli's body hit the ground, time for his body began again. His limbs were released of their paralyzed imprisonment and gulps of air were sucked into his lungs. The sword his hands had clung to for a lifeline fell from his fingers and instead, his nails dug into the dirt amazed he could move and breathe again.
“What the hell Eli?” Pierce asked, shoving himself to his feet. Irritated and nervous, he brushed the dirt from his sleeves and trousers.
"I.... couldn't...." Eli gasped, but shook his head pointing back towards the children.
Pierce followed the direction he pointed, searching the surrounding trees for a sorcerer. Had they been found out?
Stepping in front of Eli, he drew his sword cautiously. The two babies seemed unaware of any danger, squirming in their blankets. They'd stopped watching Pierce or Eli and had turned to examine one another curiously. Beyond them, Pierce saw nothing in the trees. It was quiet... unusually quiet.
Pierce frowned. A breeze whistled through his short hair, but the leaves of the surrounding foliage didn't move. His eyes tracked another trail around the small patch of grass they were standing in and still nothing. Nothing cried with anger or vengeance and the murmurings of a sorcerer remained absent.
“Eli, are you-”
“I’m fine. Just kill them,” Eli rasped.
Pierce frowned. "We should get out of here."
"You idiot. Kill them," Eli growled. "Finish the job."
"The forest will take them," Pierce argued.
"And what if it doesn't? Our blades and truths will be read. They'll know," Eli hissed, pushing himself to his knees.
"And if we don't make it out of the forest we won't have a chance to be read."
"I'd rather take my chances with that than with them," Eli muttered.
"Fine, then you kill them."
"You're the one standing with your sword out idiot. I need a minute," Eli growled.
Pierce paused staring at the babies. They were squirming in their blankets and making sounds that only babies could. Could he do it? He hadn't moved when he felt a sharp kick to the back of his ankle.
"Get on with it you pansy," Eli growled. "If you don't, they'll take Elena."
Pierce glared at him, but he knew he was right. If he didn't, his wife would be the price paid. With a new found conviction, Pierce took the last two steps forward and swung his sword. He planned on taking care of this in one swing. It didn't matter how messy it would be, just that it was done.
Closing his eyes, he felt his sword slice through air and stop. He pressed onward with his muscles, but something held his sword. Surprised, Pierce opened his eyes finding nothing blocking his path. Again, his muscles flexed, and he pressed down. Nothing. He tried to release the sword, but his hands were frozen around the hilt.
Frustrated, he yanked backwards, but his sword refused to budge from the invisible tether that held it. Pierce tried to let go, but even that appeared to be an impossible feat. Fear pressed in on his heart when his gaze collided with one of the babies. It's eyes were changing.
Startling brilliance lit up its irises forcing the colors to alter. One moment they were violet, the next blue or hazel. Abruptly, the baby gurgled happily and twisted in its blankets towards its companion, breaking eye contact with Pierce.
Were these children marked?
Twisting in place, Pierce opened his mouth to call for Eli, but his voice was forced to silence. Paralysis seeped into his shoulders, going beyond his arms. His legs became rooted to the ground and his torso stilled. Anxiously, his head wriggled back and forth trying to forth movement or feeling into any of his extremities. An odd warmth developed in the pit of his stomach reaching outwards towards his legs and his arms. His skin began to tingle and a strange bubbling began to grow beneath the surface of his skin. The warmth grew hotter and Pierce couldn't stop it. Pressure within his veins increased. It felt as if the more he struggled, the hotter he felt. Arching his head back against the pressure, an anguished scream escaped his lips as his vocal chords found life.
From within, the warmth grew to an unbearable heat until Pierce's body couldn't take it any longer. Stunned, Eli watched as the man before him imploded into a cloud of gray dust; his sword clattering to the ground forgotten.
“Pierce?!?” Eli cried hoarsely, questioning whether or not he'd seen what he'd just seen. There was nothing left of his fellow comrade beyond the pile of dust resting in the grass.
"PIERCE!" Eli cried again, louder, sure that this had to be some kind of joke. Shakily, he stood, taking a step closer to the dust.
Neither of the children seemed to have noticed anything, quietly wiggling around in their blankets. Eli stared at the sword, the last memento of his friend, indecisive as to pick it up or leave it alone. Somewhere behind him, he recognized the pitter patter of multiple feet running, but didn't turn around to greet Connor, Lowell, or Kosan.
"Eli? What's going on?" Connor asked.
Behind him, Lowell and Kosan had their swords drawn in caution. They'd heard Pierce's scream and Eli yell, fearing the worst.
“Where’s Pierce?” Lowell asked.
All three men watched Eli. He didn't respond, but pointed at the sword and the dust at his feet. Lowell was the first to understand. Quietly, he gagged, breaking rank in order to restrain his disgust. It didn't take long before Connor and Kosan caught on, each man making a face.
"What happened?" Kosan asked.
Eli shook his head swallowing past the lump in his throat. “The Adroehn. I tried and he tried and then... then he wasn’t there anymore,” he whispered.
“What do you mean the Adroehn?” Connor asked.
"The children are marked," Eli murmured, having turned his gaze to the squirming bundles.
“Impossible. None of them had magic or shape shifting blood in their veins. Their genealogies were human. I checked,” Kosan grumbled nervously, turning his back to the group to survey the edges of the clearing.
"The charms should've protected you," Connor chimed in softly.
"Well, they didn't," Eli hissed, turning a dark glare upon his comrade.
“Start from the beginning Elijah,” Lowell commanded, redirecting Eli's attention before he did something he'd regret.
Eli's glare shifted from Connor to Lowell and softened. Taking a deep breath, the fight fled his gaze. Instead, confusion, fear, and grief replaced it. He'd been closer to Pierce than the others. Pierce understood him. True, Eli had always been the one to kill the babies, but that didn't mean he didn't care. Staring at the dust, it took him a moment to begin.
“The first four kills were easy. I tried to kill the fifth and froze. I couldn’t control my actions. Whatever it was, held me paralyzed. It sucked the breath from my body and took away my sight. I thought I was going to die," Eli choked out softly. "But Pierce tackled me to the ground, breaking the spell. He wanted to leave, but I told him we couldn't. Our blades would be read and they'd know. I told him to do it. I-I told him...." Eli murmured.
Pausing, Eli took a moment to recollect himself. None of the other men hurried him along, patiently waiting. They grew anxious, but they knew better than to hurry anyone along when they were in shock. When Eli began again, his wavering tone had disappeared.
"Pierce tried to kill them and froze as I did. I didn't... I couldn't...." Eli frowned, stumbling over his words momentarily. Guilt threatened to drown him, but he roughly shoved it aside. "He screamed and then he was gone. He... imploded. I've never seen anything like it. Hell, what are we going to tell Elena?” Eli asked, dragging a hand through his short blonde hair. What was he going to tell her? That he was too cowardly to save her husband as he'd saved him?
It took a moment for the news to settle in with the three men. Connor raised an eyebrow suspiciously towards Lowell and Kosan made a face. It was clear neither of them believed Eli, although, the dust at their feet may have been evidence enough. And if Eli was telling the truth? The tension in the clearing grew.
"We should leave," Connor murmured. "If he's telling the truth, we need to leave."
“And what about them?” Lowell asked, nodding towards the infants.
Eli shook his head. "Like hell am I going near those two children again. I don't know what it is that's protecting them, but they're marked. I don't care what any of you say. They're marked."
"They can't be," Kosan answered, puzzled. "The parents were human."
"Clearly, you didn't do your job correctly," Eli sneered. "There's something about them you missed."
Kosan scowled. "I didn't miss anything," he growled threateningly.
"Well, then explain why the Adroehn want to claim human babies now? That doesn't make sense you giant troll," Eli raged.
"Enough Eli! Kosan back down," Lowell commanded, stepping between the two men. "And if they are marked and we don't kill them, will you face their wrath Eli?" Lowell asked, turning his attention on the slim male.
"It's death on both sides. I'll take my chances with them. I can at least see them," Eli muttered.
"Kosan?" Lowell asked, redirecting his attention.
Kosan shrugged. "Let them live. I'm not sure what happened to Pierce, but it's a sign."
"I'll take care of them," Connor interjected. "If none of you will, I will. The Adroehn can stuff it." Connor advanced towards the children. If he couldn't see it, it wasn't real. While he didn't have an explanation for what Eli described, he didn't think it was the Adroehn. They didn't exist and whatever got to Pierce got to him because he was weak. If Pierce had been stronger, he would've survived.
Advancing two more steps towards the children, Connor glanced up towards a break in the trees and stopped. Eli, who'd been watching him, shook his head nervously, convinced the invisible force had returned.
"It's back. It's got Connor now," Eli muttered, backing up until he was pressed against a tree.
"Shut it you idiot. It's not your invisible force," Connor growled. "Look over there," he said, nodding his head towards the trees.
Eli, Lowell, and Kosan followed Connor’s gaze. They tensed when they, too, noticed the violet eyes watching them from across the clearing. Quietly, the beast emerged from between the trees eyeing the four men curiously. It was the size of a bear, but had the body of a hyena with fur that never stayed the same color. Continuously, the fur altered from one color to the next taking on hues usually found solely in a rainbow.
Its snout was longer than a normal hyenas with ears that resembled a wolfs. When it opened its mouth, a forked tongue snaked out from between its two different sets of teeth to taste the air. Without a nose, it relied on its tongue to breathe and to taste. Six legs carried it forward into the clearing dragging a lazy barbed tail behind it. The magic of the charms that was supposed to protect the four men did nothing to dissuade the creature from advancing.
Long slanted slits, encircling its violet gaze, blinked while it continued to stare. These humans had been coming to this forest for the past few nights spilling blood upon the grassy blades of nature's children. Did they understand the sacrament they broke each time their blades released another young soul within this forest? The trees cried for the loss of the newborns, but they weren't what warranted concern. Not now.
The four men lifted their swords to defend their lives. If babies could defend themselves, would these men think differently of what they'd been doing? Shifting its violet gaze from one man to the next, the creature read what they didn't even know they had within their fear filled eyes. Compared to itself they were young; young and foolish.
"You defile this land with your actions."
The creature did not open its mouth, but its words boomed through the small clearing. Eli cowered against the tree at his back, his sword shaking in his hand. His grandmother had warned him about the Adroehn, but he'd thought they were tales of fiction created to frighten children to bed when they were restless. If only his grandmother could be with him now. He'd apologize ten times over. Thoughts of the many children he slaughtered fled him as his sole concern focused on his own survival. He couldn't give a rats ass about his friends at this point. He wanted to live; he needed to.
Kosan and Connor scowled, raising their blades higher. Courage flared from their strong frames, but the creature didn't need to examine them to know which of the four was the weak link. It already had its first victim in mind.
"What do you want?" Lowell asked, proud his voice didn't waver in its delivery.
The creature's gaze shifted from Kosan and Connor to Lowell. It was quiet for a moment.
"It won't matter in a few minutes."
The voice emitted like a quiet hiss. With surprising speed, the beast leaped over Lowell targeting Eli. Connor followed the creature with his eyes, swinging his sword around at the last moment; grazing it along the barbed tail. Blood did not spurt from the discolored fur, but a long white line trailed across the creatures tail gaining its attention. Growling, it whipped around taking a swipe at Connor before fleeing back into the trees. Connor flew across the clearing, slamming into a tree trunk. Everything stilled for a moment until Lowell began calling out orders.
“Kosan, check on Connor. Eli to me. We're going to form a circle around the babies,” Lowell ordered.
“Forget them. Our job was to kill them and get it over with. Let the beast finish the job,” Eli exclaimed, remaining where he was with his back pressed against the tree trunk.
"Eli, we don't have time for this. Get over here!" Lowell growled, standing over the children in an attempt to protect them. He held his sword in front of him, steady and constant, while his feet shifted one way and then the other. His eyes remained trained on the tree line, trying to predict the next move for the beast.
"To hell with that Lowell. We wanted them dead. This thing will take care of that. We... we shouldn't have to die in the process," Eli cried, coming to a decision. These men were his friends and while they were important, he had his own life to think about. Lowering his sword, he bolted into the trees.
"ELI!!" Lowell roared, but from the crackling of leaves and twigs in the distance, Lowell could guess Eli wasn't stopping.
"Here," Kosan answered, pressing his back alongside Lowell's.
Kosan shook his head.
"I didn't think so," Lowell muttered.
"What are we going to do?"
"Defend ourselves and the children," Lowell stated firmly.
"But Eli is right Lowell. We came here to kill them. Why not let the beast take them?"
Lowell gritted his teeth. "No one deserves a slow death, especially not them. I'll not have them eaten while there's still breath in my body. If you don't agree, go with Eli."
Kosan snorted, shaking his head. "You were always determined," he muttered.
"I presume your staying then?" Lowell asked.
"I guess I am," Kosan answered, amazed he'd agreed with Lowell.
"And if we survive?"
"We have no choice."
Lowell nodded. They wouldn't have a choice. Not after this. He opened his mouth to respond, but at the same time a scream broke through the stillness. Lowell closed his eyes recognizing the voice as Eli's. As abruptly as it began, it stopped and silence reigned over the clearing once more.
Back to back, Lowell watched one side of the small clearing while Kosan kept his eyes trained on the other side. They didn't have to wait long for the beast to reappear. Slowly, it broke through the foliage coming to rest a few feet from Lowell and sat. Kosan turned around, aiming his sword at the large creature determined to make his last stand here if it came to that.
"Put your silly weapon away human. It wouldn't do you any good if you had need of it."
This time the voice was softer. It was barely louder than a whisper, grazing across Lowell's skin in a touch similar to that a strict parents. Kosan remained adamant in maintaining his defensive stance.
"You killed two of our comrades," he scowled.
"They deserved death for their crimes committed."
"Then you're here to kill us too."
Kosan blinked, startled. That hadn't been the response he'd been expecting. "No?"
"Then why'd you return?" Lowell questioned, interjecting into the conversation.
"To give you something."
"What? Why? Why aren't you going to kill us?" Lowell persisted.
Kosan nudged his friend nervously. "Don't press the issue," he muttered.
The creature chuckled. "Your hearts are not theirs and theirs are not yours."
"Are you Adroehn?" Lowell continued.
"Of a sort."
"What does that mean?"
The creature ignored Lowell's questions already moving on to the reason why it returned.
"My gift to you... Run far and run fast humans. Do as you plan, it will put you ahead. After this night you'll be of the hunted and of the marked. They'll come for you. They'll come for them. Care for one another well humans. Salvation is on the horizon. I'll be watching."
Lowell's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "A-Are they marked?"
"All of you are."
The creature didn't wait for Lowell or Kosan to ask another question. Bowing its head, it disintegrated into a cloud of smoke, carried away with the wind. Kosan was the first one to react, relaxing his stance, but he was unsure if he should sheath his sword or not.
"Well.... that was unexpected..." he muttered.
"You're telling me," Lowell responded gruffly, running a hand through his dark hair.
"Do you think it's gone?"
"Has to be, right?"
"Maybe. Or maybe it's messing with us and it's going to come back and kill us."
"Or maybe it's not. You heard what it said. Our hearts are not theirs and theirs are not ours."
Kosan snorted. "Yeah, that tells us so much."
Lowell shrugged. "Do we listen to it?"
"Do we have a choice?"
"There's always a choice."
Kosan paused, considering. "If we don't listen, it could return to kill us."
"And if we do listen we'll be of the hunted and marked."
"The second choice sounds more fun," Kosan remarked.
Lowell snorted. "True." Sheathing his sword, he glanced at the babies, who remained unharmed throughout the entire ordeal. Were one of them his? "Did you want to do it? At any point, did you want to?"
The taller man followed Lowell's lead and sheathed his sword. His amber gaze locked on the infants.
"Really?" Lowell asked surprised, turning to glance at Kosan.
Kosan scowled. "Don't sound so surprised. I may be barbaric at times, but I too, have my limits. A man is easier to kill whether he be attacking, defensive, or asleep. He's lived a life and has probably had multiple chances to change it. Whatever lead him to end his life on the tip of my blade was his fault. An infant... an infant is innocent of all crimes. Those we killed were barely able to live before we cut their time short. There's a difference."
"Then why take the job with the rest of us?"
"If I didn't, you're telling me they'd have let me live?"
Lowell was silent. It was a good point and the question echoed one of his own earlier sentiments.
"I didn't know that about you."
"Who's fault is that?" Kosan grunted. "Why'd you take the job?"
"I had to," Lowell answered softly, but didn't bother to elaborate. Walking towards the infants, he scooped one of the squirming bundles into his arms. A pair of light green eyes blinked up at him. Lowell frowned. Glancing at the other one, a pair of soft baby blues watched him. Something in his heart cracked. Neither of the infants had been his.
"It doesn't matter," Lowell muttered, unhooking his cloak similar to how he'd had it earlier and tucked the infant into the warmth.
Kosan scooped up the other child, who instantly began to squirm.
"Lowell..." the man whined uncomfortably.
Lowell chuckled. "Tuck its head into your elbow and drop your shoulder. Don't suffocate it. Grip its bottom gently. And for the seven gods sake, relax. They sense your nervousness around them."
"Good, because they make me nervous," Kosan grumbled doing as Lowell suggested. The squirming bundle began to settle, but it wasn't comfortable until it had latched onto a piece of Kosan's clothing and began suckling on it. Kosan made a face, but he did have to admit... it was cute.
"Pull your cloak around it to keep it warm," Lowell explained. "It will also keep them hidden."
Kosan nodded. "We'll do as planned?"
"If the creature said it should be done, it will be done."
"Taking advice from a mystical creature... fantastic."
Kosan snorted. "Where will we go?"
"I don't know, but I'd rather be one of the hunted than one of the damned."
"True. It's more fun."
"There's something wrong with you."
Kosan shrugged. "Either way you're stuck with me. Lead the way captain. We've some running to do."