The Winded Woods always carried an ominous sensation to the few that braved to walk its paths. It was home to the outcasts and stretched for miles in thick woodland. The creatures and strange beasts were not to blame for the chill that pricked the passerby, but rather the unseen that plucked at their psyche. Most would say the span of trees was haunted by angered spirits whose souls were trapped by fabled magic. Magic was already ominous to all the citizens residing within Estwynd, and so it fit their mind’s narrative well to blame that which they did not fully understand.
This gave the forest a place exiles could continue their lives in peace if they learn to survive. A large portion of the Winded Woods crept closely to Redden and presided within its outlying lands of Thol. It was a favored sentence for criminals to be exiled there, for it was known the creatures that lurked within were unforgiving. It was a fate worse than death, some would argue. But it was not so for the woman only known as Nameless.
She had built her home within the Winded Woods soon after her exile from Thol. The land was harsh, and it was no mere feat for her to build a shelter of sorts. Her modest little hut was fashioned from stone, wood, and mud and rested within a small clearing. The paths leading to her dwelling were lined over time by her own feet and set with traps to keep the unwanted at bay. The flora that clung to the earth threatened to become dense with green once again as Winter advanced into early Spring. The changing seasons were her only calendar, but she had long since abandoned counting the days.
Nameless carried a rabbit within her scarred hands, its lifeless body loose in the hanging that jostled with every step she took. The warmth of the coming day was far more welcome than Winter’s chill. Humidity clung to the terrain underneath the budding canopy of the forest as the morning fog disappeared to give way to the rising sun. It was now golden in the sky above as she walked back to her hut. But as she neared the clearing her eyes caught a glimmer refracted off of a metallic surface accompanied by the faint glow of a soul.
Her footsteps slowed and became light on the soft soil. Metal was a rare find, but rarer was the sight that befell Nameless as she approached her hut. All tension was removed as she gazed upon the sight of one of the Queen’s Aegis. He stood just outside the entrance, his gaze wandering about to study the surroundings. His back was to her initially, but she knew without a doubt who it was that awaited her return.
“Yvaine de Sauvetter,” she spoke nearly laden with amusement. This wasn’t the first time he had come to see her in exile, but it had been so long since. Nameless wondered when last she had any form of human interaction.
Yvaine turned about at the sound of her voice, his bright eyes fixing upon her own unsettling gaze. She was known to have the Sight of Souls; glowing eyes that could see the essence of both the living and the dead. He was accustomed to her appearance after all these years. Their past had been entwined once before her exile, but no matter the circumstance, their friendship prevailed. They were both relieved to see each other alive and well, and were Nameless a more tactile person she would have embraced the man, suit of armor and all.
“I’m afraid we will have to share this rabbit,” she said as she walked into the hut. Yvaine followed after with clacking steps, his head tilting to miss the edge of the entryway. “It is all I managed to catch this morning. What brings you to the Winds?”
Admittedly, she still carried a bitterness about her that clung to her calm demeanor. Her friend, Yvaine, that now stood within her hovel of a home in gleaming armor and clean hair, had left her to exile. She had grown more primitive in appearance in her time within the woods. Her long, dark hair was more haggard as she hastily tied it with old fabric. She was dirty, her once formal attire now in tatters about her thin frame and far more disheveled in appearance than what once Yvaine had remembered. Nameless could barely make out the traces of pity lined in his furrowed brow. His soul was too apparent for her to see past so easily this close, but regardless she chose to ignore it all together.
“I’m afraid it’s official business,” he said. The crown of his head touched her low hanging ceiling, so much so that he had to hunch just slightly to fit. It was just right for Nameless, however, and she comfortably continued about the small circular enclosure. She set the rabbit atop the stone slab near the fire pit and unsheathed her dagger from its holster at her side.
“Isn’t it always?” she said flatly. Her formality was apparent, carried with her since long before the Aegis ever met her. Yet he knew her well enough to know formalities towards him carried notes of defense. He had hurt her in some way.
“I would have come to you sooner as a friend,” he said to her as he placed wood within the fire pit. “I’ve been forbidden to do so. The queen decreed it treason nearly a year ago for anyone to seek you out.”
Nameless paused only briefly to contemplate his words without distraction. Her body in this moment was as rigid as stone like a sculpture suspended in animation. But her movements soon continued as she surmised his presence under such circumstances. It hurt her still, but whatever the official business was, it brought her much needed company. Her calloused fingers pushed away the strands of hair that fell from its tie before carefully skinning the rabbit’s fur.
“She granted this meeting,” Nameless stated as she thought out loud. Yvaine was too dedicated to the rules to break away from his oath to the queen. It was what hurt her the most in the end. Her exile meant his heart would not falter for the likes of their friendship. It felt like betrayal. It felt completely irrational.
“Aye,” he said as he struck the flint to ignite the tinder. “It took a lot of convincing.”
He was hesitant to elaborate on his presence as evident in the pause that grew into silence. Nameless cast her eyes over to him searchingly, waiting for him to continue and explain what it was that brought him to her doorstep out in the middle of the Winded Woods. But a soft sigh escaped his lungs, his head shaking in the internal debate.
“What brings you here, Yvaine?” she prompted in a more commanding tone. Without a word, he pursed his lips and reached into the pouch along his belt producing a folded piece of parchment. He handed it out to her, and she eyed him curiously before plucking it from his fingertips. Unfolding the little note revealed a flower of familiar design drawn upon the fibers in blood that had dried to a reddish brown. It’s blossom was pointed on each petal in five evenly spaced forms. Nameless knew it well, and the very presence of it tied her stomach into knots. Her dirty fingers left traces of rabbit’s blood upon the corner as she quickly handed it back.
“Why do they wish to dredge up the past?” she asked calmly. Her hands returned to preparing her meal. “Am I not currently serving my sentence for her death?”
“This means something more than Glendae,” Yvaine stated as he folded the parchment back. “People have gone missing in Thol. Most never return but those that do are… They’re changed somehow. It’s like their minds were broken with their bodies. This was given to us by the wife of a victim shortly before her own disappearance. She said her husband had received one exactly like it before he was taken and wanted protection.”
“Did you see who took her?”
He solemnly shook his head in response. “We didn’t even know she had been taken until we checked on her that night. We looked everywhere, and when we could find no evidence after, the trail ran cold aside from this insignia. I recognized it as the one from Glendae’s mantle and petitioned the queen to allow a blood ritual to call upon her soul for questioning. She allowed it, but under the pretense that I use blood mages within the city. The only one that volunteered was not strong enough. He was pulled into the Forever. You are essentially a last resort, but I convinced the queen because you had proven to be powerful enough for this in the past.”
“I don’t want to face Glendae,” Nameless admitted. “Even if I am successful in calling her soul, she will take me back into the Afterlife with her as retribution.”
“I have faith in you,” Yvaine said, “and faith in your magic. You are too strong to let that happen.”
His encouragement warmed her, and she paused to cherish the feeling that once again Yvaine was back to being part of her life; that she wasn’t alone. The ritual was an incredibly risky endeavor, but she had performed it dozens of times with barely a hitch. Yvaine was there as protection for all of them, and it was through this they had bonded. He knew what she was capable of better than anyone. The prospects of going back to work, even if just for this final ritual, seemed far better than wasting away in the Winded Woods for the remainder of her life sentence.
Yvaine noted her silence as a debate within herself and elected to be a quiet observer for a time. It was often her process in decision making, but there was a part of him bursting to reveal the best incentive of them all. But if she refused, she would lose her chance, and it was all too easy to refuse meeting the woman she murdered.
“You will have to return to Redden,” Yvaine said after a time. “Glendae’s bones are being held in the vaults.”
“I am allowed back in Thol?” Nameless asked in surprise.
“Under the condition that you solve this case to a close,” he stated. “I’m under orders to never let you out of my sight either.”
“She doesn’t believe there to be a conflict of interest?” Nameless asked curiously. Yvaine did not bring forth an answer quickly, and instead hesitated with a solemn gaze cast to the fire. She skewered the rabbit and placed it above the fire pit to roast as she allowed the silence between them grow. They both never did mind silence, even in each other’s presence. Regardless, whatever plagued his mind, she felt she already had an inkling.
“I’ve proven my loyalty to my queen,” he said. It felt rehearsed. “She knows I will not betray her. And I know you will not stray. There’s a chance she could pardon your sentence if Glendae was tied to whatever is going on. It’s worth trying.”
Nameless was left to mull over her options as Yvaine’s argument came to a close. It was all rather enticing. It had likely been close to two years since the murder, though she could not be certain. The nights were more dangerous than the days in the Winded Woods, even in the shelter of a hut such as hers. But it was always the fog that was the worst. In mornings when the vapors clung densely to the brush she learned not to leave her hut. There were things in the grey that lurked in foreboding silhouettes, their feasting a constant haunting in her mind. They never looked in her hut, and she never looked out at them to know just how close they would get. To be rid of the ever present dangers would relieve her weary soul.
The smell of roasting meat filled the small space as the smoke billowed outward from the opening. Yvaine took to turning the stick that held the meat over the fire so that it would cook through. Nameless stood motionless, her glowing gaze distant with thoughts of what could be. She missed the city and missed her home. She had friends before it all, but it was only Yvaine that remained despite it all. Nameless murdered her teacher and friend, but no one cared to know why. No one but Yvaine.
“It’s a three day’s walk to the Clearing,” Nameless said. “But I can get us there in two if we are diligent.”
“The beasts have been acting more strangely than last I came here,” Yvaine said thoughtfully. “I was attacked by gryphons when I was nowhere close to their roost.”
“It’s the fog,” Nameless stated. “It wasn’t as prevalent when I was first exiled. But this past year it has become so frequent it is a weekly occurrence no matter the weather.”
“You will be rid of it soon enough,” he said in return. Nameless frowned and turned to clean off her dagger with a scrap of fabric and then looked down at her hands. They were marred and crippled by her own doing, but not out of self appointed penance. Deep scars etched through her palms like fissure and fault lines. It was a terrain built from her craft as a blood mage and the constant reopening of flesh for blood. Slicing her palms had taken its toll upon the mobility of her fingers to the point where her last digits could barely flex. The scars reached around to the backs of her forearms, though they were not in high concentration.
“You don’t look pleased in the slightest,” Yvaine observed. “I suppose I anticipated a completely different reaction. Please tell me you will return with me. I will do everything in my power to help you.”
“But this isn’t about me,” she interjected flatly. “This is about the missing people.”
They let the silence fall between them again. Yvaine had his head in the clouds again, and it was apparent he had been mulling over the prospect of her reestablishment into society for some time. But Nameless kept the real goal bitterly in mind throughout the conversation. As much as she wanted to come back home, the truth was that Nameless was a last resort. She couldn’t derive her willingness to offer aid based on her selfish desires, but it would likely fall short. They did not care for her if they knew who she was. This endeavor was not a method of redemption for the blood mage, but a means to get back those they actually care for and want within their society. If she failed she would become an easy point of blame and return to the Winded Woods to continue her exile further in shame.
Yvaine removed the meat from the fire and held the skewer out to Nameless in quiet offering. She took the stick in her scarred hands, glowing eyes fixing on the man across from her for a moment before turning away. She could barely see his expression, but even through the gossamer soul she could tell he was in conflict. He worried about her. Despite his worry, she still held bitterness for the year in which he disappeared from her company, and it made her reluctant to care for his concerns of her well being.
“We’ll leave as soon as I have my meal,” she said. “If we hurry, we can make it to a safe place before dark that will lead us closer to the trade road.”
“Is that still in use?” he asked curiously as he carefully sat himself on a stump of a stool. Its base was uneven in the dirt and threatened to teeter at any wrong movement. Nameless sat upon her bed of moss gathered upon the floor and bit into the rabbit meat.
“Yes,” she said. “Though not by many. There have been a few escorts for people who did not wish to take the airships. Why? Surely the valiant de Sauvetter isn’t afraid of a few miscreants.” Nameless offered a faint but playful grin before resuming her meal, and it prompted a light chuckle from Yvaine.
“Not at all,” he said. “But having to deal with miscreants as well as horrific creatures bent on your own demise at any given moment just raises the odds for a disaster, don’t you think?”
“Not everything in the Winds is horrific,” she responded with a small shrug of her shoulders. “I’ve taken to believing gryphons to being a symbol of good luck.”
“You believe in luck now?”
“I needed something to do with my time.” She gave another playful grin and offered the stick of meat to Yvaine. He leaned forward to rip off a piece, popping it into his mouth with a grin of his own.
“So why are they lucky, then?” he asked.
“The darker things don’t seem to like them,” Nameless explained. “I’ve seen their wings beat away the fog, too, and I’ve seen the fog avoid their nests when they are in numbers.”
“Rather unfortunate they don’t like us being near them anymore,” Yvaine muttered with a note of disdain.
“The fog will always come for us,” she said. “It is likely the gryphons see that as a threat.”
There came another thoughtful pause before Yvaine posed his next inquiry. “What is in the fog?” he asked almost hesitantly. Nameless bit into the meat to give herself time to collect the imagery into definition. Whatever was in there did not yet have a name, for it was only the inhabitants of the Winded Woods that truly knew.
“I’ve never looked for too long,” she admitted. “They are silhouettes shrouded by the dense vapors. I believe there are perhaps people, or things that look similar. They never move like us. And they look as black as the void. As black as the Forever...”
Her voice trailed off with a hint of a revelation. Yvaine took note and curiously observed the woman as she froze once again like a stone. He was not privy to the likes of the Forever, nor would he ever be. But practitioners of hemomancy were all too familiar with that which was known simply as the Forever. It was the void and essence of the afterlife, and while she did not dabble in the powers laden within it, there were rituals that required it to be tapped. Those rituals were risky, for the Forever was foreboding and uninviting. Many found death in the wake of such spells.
“Do you think it is connected to the Forever, then?” Yvaine asked. He had made the connection based on his own knowledge. It was something known to taint the hearts of mankind in more ways than one. He had encountered its effects in his time as an Aegis.
“It is possible,” she replied. “I never want to find out. We need to be careful out there. More careful than before. I’ve never been within the fog and I don’t want to be.”
“I don’t want to find out either,” he said with a nod, and leaned over to rip off another piece of meat. Nameless laughed and held out the skewer to him as he mimicked the old habit. Nostalgia struck her deeply as the simple act brought back a flood of good memories they had shared. They spent time together outside of their jobs once their friendship formed. He became like family to the point where they shared holidays with each other. He displayed his comfort in her presence by eating from her plate without warning. Nameless never minded.
“Once we get you out of these woods, I will fight so that you do not have to return to its horrors,” Yvaine promised. Her smile faded. She appreciated the gesture but it felt like he was setting himself up for failure. There was no guarantee the queen would pardon Nameless for her crime. After all, she was completely guilty of Glendae’s death.
It was justified, she told herself all too often. But in exile and solitude she began to wonder the validity of her own mind’s account. If it were truly justified, would she be in the Winded Woods? She feared facing Glendae once again. To pull a soul back from the afterlife was grueling, risky, and painful for both parties involved. Nameless never imagined she would have to endure the woman again. The Blood Laws forbade it. But the queen overruled, and now she was set to risk her life in the hopes that she could maybe unravel the mystery surrounding the strange disappearances.
What a bitter, cynical woman she had become. The events shaped her greatly to the point where she was not sure how she was before exile. Or perhaps it was more the murder had taken the essence of her former self. She wanted out of the woods and away from the turmoil and guilt and regret. But she knew leaving the woods would not save her from that which she desired to run from. It was worth a chance to some degree.
They did not linger for too long. Nameless quietly bid her hut adieu. While she would not miss it, the structure marked an achievement in her life. She built that home on her own and lasted through the Seasons. It was her only comfort, and perhaps some lonely forgotten soul would be able to find solace within the sturdy walls as well. Her parting thought was wondering if she would have to fight off someone to get it back upon her return.
Yvaine had packed light and traveled on foot to reach her. Two nights and nearly three days it took, all while adorned in his protective suit of armor and nothing but his sword. But a man of his experience did not fear enough for cowardice. He walked next to Nameless with one hand on the pommel of his sword and his eyes constantly scanning through the trees. The Winded Woods were a thick forest where clusters of trees would be difficult to see past.
Spring still made the haunting woods look far more inviting as budding wildflowers managed a splash of color where they were able to grow. The deer had come out of their hiding as warmth returned to the earth, though rushed far and away as soon as they heard the clattering of Yvaine’s armor. During the day, there was no need for secrecy or silence, and most of the more commonly sighted creatures kept to themselves. Yvaine kept himself aware not only of his surroundings, but of Nameless’s vicinity as she quietly followed after him. Having so little to carry, she slipped through the forest on light feet, her boots so heavily worn they threatened to come apart with each step.
Birds chirped high within the greening canopies, and occasionally the unmistakable beak clip of a gryphon could be heard in the distance. The Winded Woods carried through foothills near Thol causing their trek to undulate within the path. Eventually, Nameless took point, her voice calmly calling for Yvaine to change his course with her. He complied without question.
The path turned more narrow from less foot traffic, and her clothing would catch within the thorn bushes that curled in closely. Nameless felt her heart beating in anticipation of seeing the break in the tree line once again. Her thoughts dwindled and obsessed upon the notion as she daydreamed about scenarios that would likely never happen. But then a realization halted all wondering.
“I have no place to stay,” she thought out loud.“Glendae’s estate is still in your name,” Yvaine said. “No one works there, though, so it has gone uncared for in some time. But it is legally yours.”“I thought it would have been sold,” she said in return. “Or perhaps my name stricken from the deed.”
“It was something I looked into before coming to get you,” he admitted. “The house, the grounds, all of it. It was all left alone after the investigation. No one seemed to care after your trial.”
They fell silent once again. The trial and punishment was a harsh sting more for what it had done to their friendship. She had received a controversial punishment where most believed she should have been executed like every other murderer.
As the treeline broke onto an overgrown narrow path, so too did Nameless’s anxiety. It was a path she always seemed to lose until she could find it, and one she discovered long ago that led to an abandoned den. They continued through a more direct path than before feeling more at ease in their travel. The warmth of the Spring sun marked the afternoon, and they were making good heading for their destination. Nameless was eager to leave the woods and hoped their night would not be filled with the horrors that were swiftly becoming the norm.
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