The Blackfire Annals: Chasing Ghosts

By Osprey703 All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter Five: Chains and Churls

They rested that night, rising shortly after dawn gilded the skies. To Nari’s surprise, Carsten actually woke up and insisted on walking with them at the pace Luthe set. Despite the pain written on both the dwarf’s face and that of his sister, whose leg a particularly nasty wyvern had slashed, both of them kept going at close to their companions’ speed. Luthe noticed Nari taking quick looks over her shoulder, watching Carsten as he walked. While he winced in pain every so often, and frequently clutched his side, he stubbornly persisted. The young dark elf looked at Luthe, lowering her voice to just above a whisper.

“He is not moving as fast as he did,” she said.

Luthe stared ahead, his eyes drifting down to the weathered map in his hands once in a while. “Is that a problem?” Nari shrugged.

“It is if we get in another fight. He and your sister will both be more of a liability than an asset.” She looked down. “I should not have let that thing get behind me. Now we have two people hurt.”

“Hurt is relative,” Carsten replied, coming up behind them. “I’ve fought through worse.”

Nari turned and looked at him. “Worse? Define worse.”

He shrugged. “I broke my leg in a survival exercise my father dreamed up. I came back a bloody mess, but made it through. Six days on my own, twelve miles from home. Not fun, but I learned my lesson.”

“What is that?” She asked.

“Pain is a powerful motivator,” he replied. “After that particular incident, I made it into the Dornein Guard. They said someone who can walk six miles with a fractured lower leg could take just about anything. So a couple of cracked ribs is not an insurmountable obstacle. Sure,” he said, wincing, “it hurts like you would never believe, but I can walk.” He stopped, looking around. Ciara looked at him.

“What is the matter?” She asked. They were currently in a wide open plain, with nary a person, shrub, or creature to be seen. The world seemed to stretch before them in an endless white ocean, broken only by translucent sheets of ice. The dwarf shook his head.

“Nothing. Just…never mind.” He kept walking. Luthe stared at his sister.

“Do you see anything?” He whispered. She shook her head.

“No. But I feel like we are being watched.” He looked around again, trying to see what it was that was agitating her.

“I cannot see anything,” he said. “Are you sure it’s not your imagination?” As he said the words, he knew better. His sister’s instincts were rarely wrong. If she thought there was a threat, then there usually was.

She turned away. “No, I am not. But I do not think it is.” They kept walking for a long time, in silence except for their steady breathing and the crunch of the ice crystals under their feet. Their tracks stretched behind them as far as they could see, eventually fading into the pale blue-and-white mottled horizon, and they all could feel their lack of sleep weighing down on them. Carsten had gotten the most of any of them, but that was because he had simply passed out from exhaustion. However, because they were not far from what on Luthe’s map was marked as another village, he insisted that they keep going. The hunters did have to adjust their course to intersect the town; instead of heading due north, toward Luthe’s home, they took a northwestern course instead. Nari addressed this issue with Luthe when Carsten had fallen behind.

“I am not sure this is wise,” she said. “We could move into the tunnel network if we want to get there faster. We would not worry about attacks, and there is a waypoint near here.”

Luthe shook his head. “We do not know who the dwarf is, really, and we are bound not to let outsiders into the tunnels.”

“You know I could command you to,” she said, jokingly. He grinned back.

“And I could refuse. You have no power out here, Princess. You are not in the castle anymore...” Nari lunged for him, clapping a hand over his mouth.

“Shut up!” She hissed fiercely. “Not another word, you. Say that again…” he shook his head, and she released her grip.

“I will not say anything,” he said. “But don’t go throwing your authority in my face just because I disagree with you. Agreed?” She reluctantly gave him her hand.

“All right,” Nari said grudgingly. “No orders. I understand.” He nodded.

“You know,” he said, “you are probably right. If we made for the tunnels, we could spend the night inside. We would not have to worry about encounters with unwanted visitors. Hmmm…” he said, consulting his map. “The nearest entrance is a good day’s journey from here.”

“There is a problem with that,” Ciara said, coming up behind her brother. “We do not have a day.” Nari turned to look at the younger woman.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“There is a group behind us,” she said. “They’re coming up from the southwest. From the look of them, it looks like the Huntresses. And we are less than half a day’s hard march away.”

Carsten looked up at her. “It is my fault,” he said. Luthe shook his head.

“That you were born?” He asked. “They would have come here whether you were here with us or not and made our lives living death. That is provided you are why they are here at all. So you are with us. We would never hold that against you.”

“True,” Ciara admitted. “But they might. So, is anyone here prepared for a late morning jog?”

The hunters did not run all or even most of the way to the tunnel entrance. However, they were certainly moving faster than they had before. Still, it looked only as though they would make the tunnel entrance by sundown. That meant they would have very little time to get past the guards and into the network before the Huntresses closed the distance between them. With two miles to go before they could get belowground, they could all see the torches of the hunting party behind them and, although he said nothing, Luthe was certain he heard the baying of hounds. They were back in the hills now, picking their way through the winding path that led through the rocky passes. However, this development had slowed their travel to a crawl, and Luthe was painfully aware that the torchlight was steadily growing closer. They kept going, walking steadily on for about two hours into the evening. They had not stopped to eat or rest all day, and it was showing on their faces. Nari’s eyes were half closed, Ciara’s feet dragged on the ground, Carsten held his aching side as he walked, and Luthe had to shake his head every six minutes to keep himself awake.

“You know,” he said finally, after they had turned what seemed like the thousandth bend, “I doubt that we will make it.”

Nari shook her head and kept going. “You ought not say that. I think we can do this. Come on Luthe. At least try.” She gave him a helpful nudge, and he kept stolidly on.

“We are within about a half mile,” he said, looking up. “We may yet reach the tunnel.” But they would never make it to the tunnel. For it was at that instant that they were, all of them, seized bodily by unseen hands and pulled into a small cleft of rock by a group of cloaked figures. Ciara tried to call out, but a firm hand clapped over her mouth, stifling the noise. Carsten turned to fight his attacker, but a swift blow to the ribcage put him down on the ground, gasping in shock and pain. Nari slipped free and began to run, but her captor was on her in an instant, knocking her down and holding her fast. Luthe heard swift motion to his left, felt a solid blow to the side of his head, and he knew no more.

The dark elf awoke in a dim circle of firelight, hearing voices around him. Luthe tried to move, but found himself tied firmly by both hands and feet. He tested the knots and bit back a curse. They were tighter than his uncle’s pocketbook. He turned and saw Nari lying next to him, his back turned. Ciara was next to her, and Carsten was on the outside of the group. His sister was awake, but Nari was only semiconscious, and Carsten was out cold, a bloody gash on the right side of his face above his eye. Their captors had positioned themselves so that the prisoners could not see their faces, but if Luthe strained his ears, he could hear their voices. Their language was heavily accented, so their speech was hard to decipher. Further, they had atrocious grammar and pronunciation.

“Did she say why they are so important?” One was asking the others. “I dislike the idea of coming out here and slogging through all that snow and ice simply because she has some idle fancy.” One of the others shook his head.

“Careful,” he said. “You will be sorry if you say something like that in the wrong company. And no, apparently the unclean one seems to believe they’re important somehow.”

“What?” Another said. “Important, these ones? No. The girl might be, but the others?”

“She said she wants them where she can keep an eye on them,” the first answered. “I don’t know what they are good for or why. The other one wants them dead.”

“Let him,” a fourth growled. “If it sticks my finger in his eye, I would be more than happy to keep them alive.”

Luthe listened to this, fascinated. Apparently, these fellows had been sent to seize them, but why, and by whom? They seemed to mention a woman, or at least a female, frequently. That meant they were not the final authority on the hunters’ fate, and they would at least leave them alive for now. That was comforting, at least. One of the figures turned around and saw Luthe’s eyes were open.

“One of them is awake,” he said to the others. “We should probably move out once they all wake up.”

The leader shook his head. “Now,” he countered. “We have time to make up. Apparently, she wants them for the solstice celebration. Get them up.” Luthe felt strong hands wrap themselves around him, and he was hoisted bodily over his captor’s head and onto his left shoulder. The position was far from comfortable, but at least it meant that they wouldn’t be expected to walk or, more importantly, punished for lagging behind. He heard Carsten yelp in pain as he was slung over someone’s shoulder, and then saw his face twist with agony as his ribs were compressed. One of the men put dirt on their fire, and then they began to run. The world around Luthe was black as night, obscuring everything to him. However, his inner gyroscope told him that they were not travelling to the surface. No, what was happening filled him with dread and fear. They were going underground.

How long they ran in the darkness Luthe did not know. It seemed like a black, heartless eternity, and the absence of light around him was chilling to the extreme. The dark elves, like dwarves, had long tunneled the earth, extracting its riches to feed both the engines of war and industry. Even so, the dark elves had not lost their taste for light, preferring their tunnels to be amply lit by torches or some other source of light. Dwarf tunnels might be darker, but even they were at least partially lit. These men, if men they were, had no need to light their way, as evidenced by the fact that they could run at astonishing speed without torches. Suddenly, it hit him with full force. They were running parallel to the dark elf tunnel network! It was about seventy feet off from them, but these tunnels were almost exact replicas of the dark elves’ work. However, he was not about to share that information with his friends, lest their captors should realize what he had discovered. From the sound of things, though, everyone was now awake and in pain from being bumped and jogged along for two straight hours. He heard Carsten mutter something in dwarfish about their kidnappers that would probably have been cause for a decades-long feud between royal families if used in diplomatic context. Apparently, broken ribs made this trip uncomfortable. Luthe’s own position was far from pleasant, but he was smarter than to hurl insults at them. Even though his head was bouncing on his captor’s lower shoulder and still ached from the blow he had received, the dark elf closed his eyes and managed to drift off to sleep.

He was awoken by the abrupt sensation of being dropped like a sack of meal onto the ground. As his eyes opened, he realized that they were out in the open again, this time in the remains of what looked like a ruined fortress. Its stones were frozen over, and the floor was covered with several inches of snow. More was falling from the sky, not like the blizzard they had gone through before, but now a light fall that almost seemed at odds with their current position. The men were, he noticed, wearing identical suits of black armor, each one emblazoned with the emblem of a coiled serpent in red. The leader, who stood a head taller than the others, gestured to the prisoners.

“Cut the other two loose. Give them enough provisions to get them to the nearest village, and then we go on our way.” Luthe stared at him.

“You cannot be serious,” he protested. “Leave us alone in the Outlands without any weapons? You are sentencing my sister and I to death!”

The leader’s emotionless dark eyes turned on him. “Be grateful that we chose to release you at all. We could have just killed you ourselves and been within our rights. Now…” he drew a knife from his belt and cut the ropes holding them. “They will give you food. You will start out to the south, and we will continue our journey shortly.”

Luthe nodded. “Where in the Outlands are we?” The leader smiled icily.

“You are not in the Outlands,” he replied simply. “There is a village several miles to the south. You should come upon it by tomorrow. That is, if you do not freeze tonight.” One of the others handed him a heavy sack. “Now go.” Ciara got up and took her brother’s arm.

“Come on,” she whispered. “We should go. We will tell Nari’s father about what happened here.” Luthe nodded.

“All right,” he said. “We’re going.” Carefully negotiating the slick rocks, Luthe climbed over the destroyed wall and into the snow drift on the other side. He helped his sister down and, with one last glance over his shoulder, he descended the side of the hill they were on, slipping more than one. Looking south, he saw that the snow was lifting. Sighing, and shouldering the sack, he and Ciara descended the slope. The leader of the men watched him go, his eyes filled with frosty satisfaction.

“They left,” one of the men said, unnecessarily stating the obvious.

The leader turned back to face him. “Yes, and with them goes the chance of outside interference.” He gestured to another of his subordinates, who took another pack off his back and began digging through it. He turned to face Nari and Carsten, who were still bound fast and leaning against one of the half-missing walls. “We will give you food and take about a ten-minute rest. Then, we will continue our journey again. You have been warned.” Nari looked up at him.

“Where are you taking us?” She asked. He waved his hand dismissively.

“My dear princess, that is no concern of yours,” he replied, before walking away. She sat for several moments, her mouth fallen open in shock. Carsten looked at her.

“What is wrong?” He asked. “What did he say?”

“Did you hear him?” She whispered. “He knows.”

“Knows what?” Carsten asked. Nari hung her head.

“I…I suppose I should have told you earlier. My name is not Nari; rather, people that really know me call me Arcaena.”

“Arcaena? Why…” Suddenly, it hit him. Arcaena, as in Arcaena Blackfire. Widely considered the second most beautiful woman alive after the elven queen, Ishana, and reputed master of the magical arts. Eldest daughter of Oriem Blackfire and heir apparent to the dark elf throne. “You jest, surely? You are not serious?” She nodded mutely. He leaned back against the wall, letting out a heavy sigh. “Oriem’s Arcaena?” She nodded again. “That is just perfect,” he moaned. “Now I am a captive heaven knows where, tied up, with two fractured ribs, over sixty miles from my family, slowly getting frostbite on all four appendages through my gloves and boots, and to top it off, a band of marauders has taken the daughter of the most powerful being in the Outlands hostage. None of these things bodes well for my chances.”

Arcaena stared straight ahead. “I should never have come with them. I wanted to see the world for myself. It was what he said he wanted, you know, for me to see how my people lived so that I could better understand and lead them. He did warn me not to go now, though,” she said miserably. “My father told me not to…”

Carsten nodded. “And you chose not to listen, as per the usual. You are a stubborn lass; I’ll say that at least. Well, best lie in your bed how you made it, girl.” She bristled at that.

“And what about you? You almost got us killed with your little deception! It was because of your Huntresses that we walked into this trap in the first place. And you shouldn’t have come either. Your father probably told you to run as far from home as you could, didn’t he?” He considered that pensively for a few moments as the men brought the duo food before eating themselves.

“True,” he replied. “And I worked hard to conceal the fact that I was there in the first place, which I assume you did, too. I could not have put that much more distance between me and my home even if I had wings. But I have no idea how the Huntresses found out where I had gone. Someone probably told them for money. We are no longer the wealthiest of folk. Speaking of, how would someone have found out that you were gone, where you were, and what name you were using? I thought you said you told your father and nobody else.”

“I know not how they did,” she admitted. “I told no one else besides him and Luthe. He knew me from before.”

Carsten stared ahead. “Then that means your father or Luthe said something to someone else. That is the only explanation. When will someone come looking for you?”

“Probably in about half a year,” she replied. “Plenty of time for us to die horrible deaths.” Carsten shook his head.

“Then we will do something else, because that’s too long to wait. Anything could happen between now and then. And we need to figure out how they know who you are…” his voice trailed off. The men had about finished their meal in seclusion from Carsten and Arcaena, and the dwarf reached up and put his finger to his lips to signal her silence.

The men dismantled their campsite with astonishing speed, removing all traces that they had been there in the space of sixteen and a half minutes. They had no sooner doused the fire than there was a shrieking sound above the wind, followed by the repeated flap-flap-flapping of several sets of large wings. The men were looking up expectantly, completely unconcerned by these sounds. Carsten, however, could not help the chill that ran up his spine. He tried to situate himself so that he could see what the creatures were that descended so rapidly on the fortress’ ruined battlements. However, tied hands and feet made moving difficult at the very least, if not impossible altogether. But the beasts were suddenly no longer hidden from his eyes; they landed right in the middle of the courtyard, their wings folded behind them. They were not dragons as he had anticipated. No, these where much more frightening creatures: gryphons, six of them. Gryphons had four main types, and these fit none of those molds neatly; there were the hippogriffs, which were part horse instead of part lion; there were the pureblood gryphons, which had lustrous golden coats and regal brown feathers; there were the peregriffs, which had falcons’ instead of eagles’ heads; and last there were black gryphons, commonly called panthogriffs. His had been one of these, with a shiny black-and-silver coats and strong, panther-like legs. Unlike their cousins, the panthogriffs had more catlike tendencies than the others, often preferring to stalk prey on foot instead of in the air. However, these creatures were unlike any other species he had ever seen before. Their fur and feathers were both shades of white, light grey and pale blue, and their wings were far broader than those of other gryphons. Further, instead of a single set of wings, they had two pair, with a smaller one behind the main span. And aside from that, their heads were more streamlined than other gryphons’ were, and their eyes were narrower. Lastly, they were slits, alight with a look of malevolent intelligence, and Carsten could clearly see traces of red in them. Everything about them exuded cold and deadly menace. One of the beasts looked at him, and the eyes went razor-thin. Carsten suppressed the gut feeling of fear that welled up in him. There was more than predatory lust in those eyes. He could practically hear its brain working as it approached, processing the most efficient way to tear him apart. Suddenly, it stopped short, shrieking in protest as the figure on its back reined it in.

“Stop, Frostbite. Leave him alone.” At its master’s command, the beast shook its head and sat back on its haunches. The leader of the group of men on the ground stepped up, approaching the rider.

“Is everything ready?” The rider glared down at him with disdain.

“We expected you two days ago,” the rider replied haughtily. “You kept us waiting, and then we had to find you out here. Not exactly easy, you know.” The dismounted warrior waved his hand dismissively.

“The Huntresses were following us. We had no choice but to improvise. Moving underground cost us those two days. We took them at the appointed time. Twelve days ago.” Carsten looked at Arcaena, mouthing Twelve days? That was news, and no mistake. While Luthe had only been awake for part of the last two days, Carsten had been conscious for six of them. But that three others had gone by was a momentous revelation. That meant they were farther away from home than they had thought, which would make even attempting escape possibly suicidal and definitely dangerous. Arcaena gestured with her head. The leader was talking again.

“…was not easy,” he was saying. “The tunnel network is not yet finished by any stretch of the imagination. We had to put up with miles of winding blackness and obstacles simply because some goblin decided he was done working for the day.”

“Spare me,” growled one of the other riders. “Your Huntresses are still out there. They are about six miles away. It is a good distance but that is not far enough. Come on; get them up and out of here.” Two of the dismounted men went over to Carsten, picking him up and tossing him unceremoniously over the back of one of the gryphons. The beast snarled at him, but made no moves beyond that. While Carsten was far from comfortable, he was at least in no danger of falling off of it. He heard Arcaena grunt and knew she had been tossed onto the animal to his left. That was some comfort, at least; Carsten knew he was not alone. He heard the other men slide into saddles, and then heard the man next to him bark a command in some unknown language to his companions. He heard the whoosh of air beneath wings and felt the world drop away as the gryphons took to the skies, trying desperately not to vomit. While he had had a gryphon for a pet, he had never ridden it, and always was afraid of heights. They made him dizzy and nauseated, not unlike the sensation coursing through him now. He shut his eyes tightly, grimacing at the bile he felt rising in his throat. The ground was hundreds of feet below them, and Carsten could hear the wind whistling in his ears and feel the snow pelting him in the face. For hours they rode, the world silent except for the crack of the reins on the beast’s back and the howling storm. Carsten drifted in and out of consciousness in this time. While it initially seemed impossible for him to sleep, he had quickly succumbed to fatigue and dropped off into fitful sleep.

His first sensation upon waking up was being thrown hard against the ground. He felt one of his ribs re-crack, and he grunted in pain. Arcaena was pitched beside him, and the men dismounted the animals. Looking around, Carsten saw that the world around them had lightened from when he had gone to sleep. That meant another day had gone by, and many more miles passed between them and home. The leader of the group walked over to them, unceremoniously tossing a lump of hard bread to each of them.

“Eat,” he commanded. “We will not stop for long. You have twenty minutes.”

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