Trinius’ eyes flickered in between Wolf and Felana. Both were poised to strike should he draw a weapon or attempt to flee, of that he had no doubt.
“I…” he started, feeling how his hand moved slowly to the dagger, how his fingers grasped around the hilt. No doubt the keepers saw it too. There was a sudden glint in Felana’s eye.
“I’ll do it,” Trinius said quickly, releasing the dagger. Wolf and Felana relaxed as well, though Felana seemed disappointed rather than relieved. Trinius felt as if a massive weight had just fallen of his shoulders, only to be replaced by an even heavier one.
“Glad to hear it,” Wolf said. “Come with us.”
Trinius fell in behind them, but he quickly found Wolf and Felana moving to either side of him, no doubt to make sure he wouldn’t try to slip away. An awkward silence fell between them as they walked. Felana’s fists were still clenched, and though she shot the Everdawn dagger on his hip occassional glances, she was clearly occupied with her own thoughts. Trinius had the uncomfortable feeling Wolf was looking at him the entire time, though his eyes seemed to remain on the road. Whether it was to keep an eye on him or to gauge his chances of survival, he didn’t know. Trinius didn’t know whether they saw him as a companion or a prisoner, but he feared it was the latter.
“So, Trinius, are you any good in a fight? You dodged Felana’s attacks quite skilfully,” the big man finally asked.
“Oh, I tend to avoid getting into fights,” Trinius said, noticing how Felana and Wolf glanced at each other doubtfully. Contrary to Wolf, he didn’t bear a single scar on his entire body. The large man bore many on his torso, and a couple more on his arms. Trinius wondered what it must’ve taken to inflict so many injuries on such a man.
“So I’ve noticed,” Felana said irritably. “What he wants to know is if you’ve ever killed someone.”
Trinius hesitated for a moment.
“Yes… But they were all crooks,” he finally said, grimacing. “I’ve only ever killed in self defence.”
“How many?” Felana inquired.
“You people keep counts?” Trinius asked, raising his eyebrows, but Felana’s glare made clear she wanted a serious answer. “Less than then, more than five? I’m not sure, I try not to dwell on it too much,” Trinius said.
“You should,” Wolf said firmly.
“Those are big words coming from someone who hunts people for a living,” Trinius chuckled.
“Setani are not people. The corruption reduces them to mere beasts,” Felana said.
She didn’t seem open to discussion, so Trinius looked away from her and set his eyes back on the road. Mere beasts… Trinius had a hard time picturing this Alana, a living, breathing person, as nothing more than a mindless animal. Why should he believe anything these two had told him? There were plenty of cults who did reproachable things because they were convinced it was ‘right.’ Would he end up killing an innocent if he followed through with the Keepers’ wishes? Either way, he didn’t feel too good about this, and not simply because he was concerned for his own personal safety. Yes, he had killed before, but only out of necessity. Hunting someone on purpose was an entirely different matter. The mere notion itself made him feel a little sick.
They’d just passed a crossroads when the sound of running horses alerted them. Trinius looked over his shoulder just in time to see two riders come galloping around the bend onto the road they were on. The riders were a richly dressed couple, a rare sight on one of the post roads, and they seemed to be on the run from something.
“Make way!” the man shouted, leading his horse straight towards them. Wolf and Felana jumped to either side of the road, Wolf jerking Trinius along with him. Both riders gallopped past like the devil himself was behind them. Confused, Trinius picked himself up, watching them as they passed.
“Flee while you can!” the man shouted over his shoulder.
“What for? More careless riders?” Trinius shouted back angrily, dusting himself off. Then he heard a growling sound behind him. He turned just in time to see something jump up at him. He instinctively drew his combat knives and jammed them upwards into the belly and the chest of his assailant. Teeth slammed shut right in front of his neck, close enough for him to feel how sharp they were. The thing crashed down onto him and its sheer weight and momentum knocked him down onto the ground. The sheer weight of the creature knocked the air out of his lungs. A searing pain went through his elbows as they took most of the force of the fall. Despite having Trinius’ combat knives deeply imbedded into its body, the creature was still moving.
He heard a battle cry, and the thing’s crushing weight was knocked off of him by Wolf. The force of his kick sent the beast rolling away, right into Felana’s waiting blade. She didn’t remove it from the beasts’ neck before she’d made sure it had stopped moving. Trinius didn’t get up immediately, instead taking his time to get a better look at the creature now that it was dead. It was like a wolf, but it was far too large to have been one. Its limbs and back were bulbous, like it had been swelling out of its original shape. A lot of the wolf’s fur was missing, leaving skin and even bones exposed. The fur that remained was caked with blood. Whatever had touched this creature to make it so was completely unnatural.
“Now you see the wonders of Setaneism at work,” Felana said, not bothering to hide her disgust.
Wolf offered a hand and helped Trinius up. “This is but a taste of what it can do.”
“Shoddy work, indeed,” Felana nodded, pushing the wolf with her foot so that it rolled over. “She must’ve realised we were getting close.”
“We have to hurry,” Felana said as she finished cleaning off her blade with a piece of cloth she carried for just that purpose.
“Agreed. There’s no telling how many creatures Alana’s already corrupted,” Wolf said, starting down the road hurriedly.
Trinius wiped both his daggers on the dead wolf’s tail before going after him. Thankfully he hadn’t gotten as much blood on his clothes as he’d feared. Trinius didn’t want to attract every wild animal in their vicinity, especially not if they’d gone through the same ‘process’ as the odd wolf they’d just faced. Then, as his heartbeat started falling back to a normal pace, something dawned on him.
“Wait, you’re saying Alana did this?” he asked Felana, who was making sure to keep close to him even as Wolf ran on ahead.
“Yes. It means we’re closing in on her. She’s no doubt trying to slow us down so she can reach the city,” Felana said.
“Cities are safe havens for Setani, because local authorities know nothing about their corruption. We can’t murder her in cold blood, or the guards will interfere.”
“Could she do the same thing she did to that wolf to the people of the city?”
“Yes. That, and worse. There are limits to what they can do however, and usually they only taint people’s minds as long as they’re in a city, to avoid drawing attention. That’s why we were trying to stop her before she could reach the city.”
She made it sound like an accusation, and Trinius was almost grateful the conversation didn’t need to continue. They heard a cry further on down the road and kept running. To Trinius’ horror they discovered the richly garbed couple from before, and their horses, as they were being devoured by a large bear that had been deformed in ways similar to the wolf. A row of pikes portruded from the beasts’ back and it seemed to grow even larger as it fed on the couple’s remains. Wolf wasted no time, drawing his large cleaver and the massive shield he carried on his back. The bear caught wind of the warrior storming towards it and screamed. The sound was shrill, unnatural.
“Go around!” Felana commanded as the bear started charging towards Wolf. She veered off to the right, but Trinius hesitated. Wolf used his massive strength and momentum to turn his shield into a weapon, bludgeoning the creature with his shield as the two crashed together. He then swung his cleaver, but even though he cut off a bulbous piece of flesh growing out of the bear’s side, it didn’t stop the bear from biting and clawing at him. Thankfully Wolf managed to keep his shield in between him and the beast, constantly using it to push and keep the creature off him.
Felana cried out as she came in from the side, plunging her sword through the bear’s side all the way down to the guard. Before he realized it Trinius was running around to the left to get around to the creature’s other flank, bow and arrow in hand. The beast shook violently despite the grave injury, forcing Felana to let go of her longsword. Even with the sword still stuck in its body, the bear lunged at Wolf again. By this time Trinius was in position however, and he fired an arrow at the beast, unsure if it would accomplish something.
The arrow struck deeply into the bear’s side, but once again it didn’t seem deterred by the injury. Trinius swallowed, for he seemed to have attracted the attention of the mighty creature. Blood and saliva dripped down the beast’s mouth as it looked at him. Trinius knocked another arrow, but before he could fire Wolf had already used the moment’s distraction to throw his shield and perform a massive two-handed swing, thus taking the bear’s head. The tainted creature finally collapsed.
“I’m not sure how much more of this I can take,” Trinius said as Wolf and Felana regained their composure. If the wolf had been bad, the tainted bear was easily ten times worse. It was truly gruesome to behold, and killing it hadn’t made it any easier to look at. Now that it’d been killed the creature had stopped growing, but the bubos that covered its back had started to pop open. Trinius didn’t even consider trying to retrieve his arrow from the corpse, afraid of what might happen if he got some of the tainted blood on him.
“If you want this to stop, we have to kill Alana,” Felana bit.
“Hold on,” Trinius said. The woman that’d been killed by the bear had dropped a small book; a diary from the looks of it. Trinius took it, mostly because he was curious as to why such richly garbed people had chosen to take the more dangerous post roads. There was no time to read it now, so he tucked it into his pouch. This gained him a disapproving glance from Felana, but he was getting used to that by now.
“Can’t leave dead people’s stuff just lying around, can you?” she remarked.
“I doubt picking up this diary is going to cause me as much trouble as picking up the dagger did,” Trinius quipped.
They had only just started down the road again when a faint rustling on their left alerted them and caused them to stop and once again draw their weapons. However, to Trinius’ relief it wasn’t another tainted creature that emerged. From between the trees a young woman in a blue robe that flowed around her like a waterfall stepped. She had azure blue eyes that didn’t show even a hint of anxiety despite the scene in front of her. Her hair was jet black and long and her skin was pale, like she spent all her time under the cover of the trees, away from the sun.
“Is that her?” Trinius asked, wondering if someone this innocent-looking could really be a Setani.
“No, but I still don’t trust her,” Felana said.
The young woman ignored them as she strode towards the remains of the bear, kneeling down next to it and placing her hand over it. She did everything with such an air of calm that it made Trinius wonder whether she was truly of this world, for she walked the earth as if it were a dream. Trinius’ jaw dropped at what happened next. Blue light pulsed under her hand as the woman began to whisper incantations, and the bear slowly grew back to its normal form, the corruption fading from it. Within seconds, every trace of Setaneism was gone from the bear, yet, having been decapitated, it remained dead. Even so, Trinius felt grateful that no one would have to look upon its horribly deformed shape any more. The mysterious woman slowly rose, with her hand still hovering over the bear, shivering and closing her eyes as she breathed in. She took a few moments to regain her composure and then turned towards Trinius and the keepers, opening her eyes and looking at them closely before she spoke. Her voice was gentle and soothing, but it seemed to come from every direction, as if the trees and bushes rather than her mouth were producing the words.
“There was a strong image of the two of you imprinted in this bear’s mind,” she said to Felana and Wolf, looking as if she was piecing together everything she’d just witnessed.
“Did a woman pass by here very recently? She was likely alone, on foot and in a hurry,” Felana asked, apparently at least trusting the strange sorceress enough to ask her questions.
“A woman did pass by here. Her aura was… peculiar,” the woman said.
“What- who are you?” Trinius, who was intrigued by the magic the woman had just used to remove the corruption from the bear, asked. The Keepers had claimed their Everdawn weapons were the only thing that could stop Setaneism, but this woman seemed to be able to affect it to a certain degree as well.
“I am Mishaado Hyaena,” the woman said with a polite smile, paying no heed to Trinius’ slip of the tongue. “I look after these woods.”
“Look… After?” Trinius asked.
Mishaado started walking towards them.
“A city has its guards, the highways have their patrols… The woods have me,” she said. “I suspect you are hunting the one who did this, would you accept my help?”
“Not at all,” Wolf said, sharing a meaningful look with Felana. No doubt magic that could affect Setaneism the way it had done to the bear intrigued the Keepers as much as it did Trinius.
For some reason Trinius already felt much better about their odds now that Mishaado was with them, even though he knew next to nothing about her. Even Felana studied Mishaado with great interest and what seemed like admiration.
“I doubt you’ll be able to catch her before she reaches the city,” Mishaado said solemnly. “She’s corrupted a large stag, like she did the bear, and was riding it towards the city.”
“There’s no way we can gain on her then. Damnit!” Felana said, kicking the ground in anger.
“How do you know these things?” Trinius asked.
Mishaado stretched out her right arm, and a bird that had been singing nearby fluttered down and landed on her palm.
“I have my ways,” she smiled, her eyes twinkling as the bird fluttered off again. “In fact, I’ve heard everything you’ve been saying to each other since you met each other... Trinius, Felana, Wolf,” she said, saying their names as if to prove her point. “I realised something was wrong when this Alana started corrupting animals. When I understood what you’d been saying, I realized I had to intervene. I wasn’t confident enough to confront her on my own, however.”
“That was probably wise,” Felana remarked.
“So she’s out of our reach. There’s no use in exerting ourselves then,” Wolf sighed, continuing down the road. “Mishaado, if I may ask, what kind of magic is it that you’re using? I have a lot of experience with Setaneism, but I’ve never seen magic that can affect it the way yours does.”
“I was born with it. I have no name for it,” Mishaado said plainly. “I’ve lived in harmony with this forest for as long as I can remember, and I know very little outside of it.”
“How long have you been living like this?” Trinius asked.
“I can’t say,” Mishaado said, apparently genuinely confused. “That’s strange, isn’t it?”
Trinius didn’t think it polite to confirm it, but he was indeed mystified by Mishaado’s nature. She was clearly no ordinary human. The trouble was, she didn’t seem too sure about what she was herself. Felana however, didn’t share Trinius’ reservations about speaking her mind.
“It’s beyond strange, and more importantly, it’s difficult to believe,” she said.
“Felana,” Wolf warned his companion. No doubt he had questions about her nature as well, but they could wait until they’d dealt with the situation at hand.
Mishaado didn’t answer that. She seemed preocuppied and focused on the woods around her rather than her newfound companions. The mysterious woman spoke softly in that strange language Trinius couldn’t understand a word of, and the trees seemed to rustle in response to her every word. Considering how peaceful she seemed, Trinius wondered if she ever got angry.
The rest of the trek proceeded far more slowly, and without incident. Mishaado was chanting softly to the woods, Felana was brooding and Wolf was most likely thinking of a plan to catch Alana now that she’d managed to reach the city. Trinius used the opportunity to open up the diary he’d acquired. There was no name written anywhere on or inside the diary, which was uncommon, but a smart precaution should the diary fall in the wrong hands. The dead woman had had a fine handwriting, but Trinius quickly saw that most of her diary was naught but a collection of reports of various social events and political maneuvering, so he skipped to the final few pages. Her handwriting was notably less elegant from this point onward. The accounts were very brief and there were often gaps of a few days, like she’d never had much time to write.
‘There’s trouble. Lord Caerus keeps growing stronger. Most of our neighbours have given up their lands to him. Few have resisted his claims. Those who did he crushed. Soon he’ll come for us. We cannot stay here, but we won’t give up our lands either. Tomorrow we’ll flee east. It’s the only solution. He’s become too powerful. That upstart Caerus has no rightful claim to our land, and we won’t let him kill us or force us to sign one. Once his candle dies out we’ll return here and take back what’s ours.’
Interesting, Trinius thought. The account went on with descriptions of the journey and the land they’d passed through. He’d never seen too much of the westernmost regions of the continent, and was somewhat disappointed when he reached the last page of the all too short account.
‘Traveling by post road is a menace, but we have no choice: we had to leave behind our fortune. I can’t go on like this for much longer, but there’s no time to rest. Caerus’ men are likely right behind us. The city of Denneg is only a few days away. We have to push on. We must. Keran should still be part of Denneg’s city guard. If we manage to reach it, he’ll keep us safe.’
“That’s sad, to die so close to your goal…” Trinius murmured.
“What?” Felana asked.
“Oh, nothing. That couple was apparently on the run from someone who was after their lands. They were hoping to find shelter in Denneg,” Trinius said, showing her the diary.
“Hmm,” Felana said, showing little interest. Clearly she was too focused on the task ahead of her, or maybe she felt guilty she hadn’t managed to stop Alana before she claimed more lives. Trinius chose to give her the benefit of the doubt. With nothing else to read, he decided to try and talk to Felana about something other than whether or not he should die for a change.
“How come you and… Your friend got divided in the first place?” Trinius, who had forgotten the dead Keepers’ name, asked.
“Keepers can feel each others’ presence, and alert one another if they need help. We’d split up trying to find Alana. Hegan was going to try and secure the road to the city, because that seemed like the most obvious way for her to go, while we scoured the woods. We had agreed to signal one another and wait for help if we found her, but we didn’t anticipate she’d have a group of mercenaries helping her,” Felana sighed.
“You can ‘feel’ each others’ presence?” Trinius asked, wondering how much more strange magic he was going to be introduced to today. “So how does that work?” he asked when Felana didn’t answer him.
“It’s… A feeling, I can’t describe it,” she said, somewhat annoyed. “We simply know, like there’s a compass inside of us that points us towards our companions if we’re trying to find them. When a friend is in danger your heartbeat rises and your senses are on edge, almost as if you were being attacked in his stead. I clearly felt that when Hegan was attacked. When I could no longer feel him I tried to tell myself he was simply hiding his own presence so we wouldn’t endanger ourselves trying to come for him. I guess I should’ve known better.”
Felana grew very quiet again, her eyes set on the road, and Trinius thought it best to wait a while before speaking to her again. As he put the diary away he noticed something. Mishaado’s soft chanting had stopped. Perhaps it was because they were almost out of the woods? The strange sorceress smiled at them confidently.
“I’ve warned the creatures in the woods around Denneg to stay away from this Alana, so no more of them should become corrupted. I’ve imprinted her aura into their minds. The birds will keep their eyes on her if she leaves the city, which she must have reached, because she isn’t anywhere to be found in the woods.”
Felana gave er a look of disbelief, and Wolf frowned as well, but he said:
“I thank you, Mishaado, for your help, though I’ve never met anyone with your abilities.”
“Nor I,” Mishaado smiled solemnly. Then she made a startled jump.
There, waiting on the edge of the woods, was the stag Alana had been using as a mount. It’d been corrupted, like the wolf and the bear before it. The animal seemed like it’d been driven close to the point of collapse, and it was foaming with every breath, but it still turned its antlers towards them, preparing to charge. The corruption had turned the antlers into crooked, razorsharp spikes that would certainly impale anyone who found themselves on the receiving end of a charge. Felana and Wolf drew their swords as Trinius knocked an arrow, but Mishaado moved forward and raised an arm, motioning for them to wait, and they did.
She slowly approached the stag, raising a hand towards it. Trinius lowered his bow. If the stag chose to charge, there was nothing they could do to protect the unarmed woman, and he’d be in danger of hitting her if he tried to shoot the stag. Trinius held his breath as Mishaado placed her hand on the stag’s forehead, once again murmuring in her strange tongue. Once more a light spread from her hand, and the corruption slowly faded from the stag, the beast shrinking and its antlers returning to its normal shape and size. The creature looked about when it had returned to normal as if it’d just awakened from a dream, then fled into the woods once it saw Trinius and the Keepers.
Trinius first breathed a sigh of relief, but then gasped when all of a sudden Mishaado collapsed. Felana reached her first, pulling her up to her knees and checking her eyes as she had done to Trinius. Since Felana didn’t slit her throat, Trinius guessed Mishaado hadn’t been corrupted either. Wolf grabbed one of her arms and pulled her up.
“Are you alright?” Trinius asked, quickly rushing over to her side.
“Uff… It’s like it was trying to get inside me as I was removing it… If that makes sense,” Mishaado said, reaching up to her face.
“Believe me, that’s probably closer to the truth than you realise…” Wolf said.
“Can you walk?” Felana asked.
“Yes… I think so,” Mishaado said, and soon, they were on the move again. Felana did keep supporting Mishaado, since it didn’t look like she’d recovered entirely. She seemed grateful for the help, wrapping one arm around Felana’s back to support herself.
“The man they killed… Was he your friend?” she asked as they were walking out of the woods.
“He was more than a friend,” Felana said, the pain in her voice clear as day.
“My condolences. I will beseech the animals of the wood not to fall upon his remains,” Mishaado promised.
“I… I’d be grateful,” Felana said, keeping her doubts about Mishaado’s powers to herself for now.
“You know, you’re pretty well-spoken for someone who lives out in the woods,” Trinius told Mishaado.
Despite her apparent mental exhaustion, she managed a smile.
“Oh, I’m always polite. It is dangerous enough to be mistaken for an evil witch when you live as I do without the need for scowling and snarling at people.”
As soon as they’d passed out of the forest they could see the walls of Denneg in the distance. Large fields that produced food for the city lay to either side of the road, and men and women alike were working the fields hard, watched closely by their overseers. The overseers shot their little group some distrustful glances, which Trinius found ridiculous. Other than some pitchforks and a few bails of hay, the peasants had nothing to steal. Trinius could see the busy imperial highway to the south. No doubt if they’d come over that road the overseers would’ve greeted all of them with a smile.
“We’ve almost reached the city, we need a plan,” Felana said quietly, keeping her eyes on the peasants around her as if she feared any of them could have fallen under Alana’s spell.
“Can’t you simply call in more Keepers? You can ‘feel’ each other, right?” Trinius asked.
“No, no others are near,” Felana said. “We can spot each others’ presence and call for help, but even the strongest among us can only feel one another over a range of a couple of kilometers at best.”
“I don’t suppose warning the guards will be an option,” Trinius said, wishing they could do what seemed like the sensible thing. The Keepers didn’t even answer him, and once again he was reminded this game was played by a different set of rules than he was accustomed to.
“So… There’s no one who can help us?” he asked.
“Yes and no. We have at least one spy in every major city, but they are always junior members who haven’t yet gone through the joining ritual,” Wolf explained.
“And this joining ritual is what gives you your powers?” Trinius asked, wondering if any of the peasants working nearby could hear them, and what they would think if they could. They’d probably think we’re insane, he mused.
“It’s too risky to induct people who live so far away from our headquarters or share different loyalties in our orders’ secrets. In the past, some of our spies have turned to Setaneism themselves. Still, we have to assume our spy has had his eyes on Alana since she’s entered the city. Finding him should be our first step to finding up what she’s been doing… and where she is going,” Wolf said.
“Getting inside the city may not be so easy, I bet she’s already set up the guards against us,” Felana said.
“Agreed,” Wolf said, and Trinius had the uncanny feeling they were both looking at him.
“Trinius, you’ll have to go on ahead. Try to find out if the guards are on the lookout for us. Alana will have likely printed our image into their minds, but she doesn’t know about you. If they’re waiting for us, just continue on in and try to find our spy. His name’s Brandon, and he operates from the Three Swords inn. Since you’re carrying an Everdawn weapon, he’ll likely find you before you find him. Just drop our names and be honest with him and you should be able to gain his trust. On the off chance that the guards are not waiting for us, just loiter around the gate for a bit and we’ll join you soon.”
Trinius was surprised the Keepers would trust him with such a task. Part of him liked it, but he also doubted if he could handle all that responsibility.
“If you run, we’ll find you, don’t doubt it,” Felana promised. “And don’t think you’ll be safe inside the city if you try to double cross us. One way or another, we’ll find our way in.”