Gael Everglaine stood among the tall oaks and majestic cedars, basking in the cool breeze that wafted through the trees and tugged at his loose fur trimmed forest cloak. Boughs creaked and groaned in protest to the violent as the wind stole bright emerald leaves out of their clutches and danced them over the man standing before them. Even in his neutral-toned skin robes the cold grazed him and made Gael stare up at the canopy, where thick layers of green blocked out the sky beyond. A smile came across his countenance as Gael turned to face the worn deer trail before him and proceeded to follow it down the shallow hill. A babbling brook toward the base of the hill called out to him, inviting Gael to drink deep from the cool waters.
It was days like this that Gael loved more than anything; the days where he could roam the wilds and embrace that which the Primans had given the children who walked the world. All that one needed to sustain himself came from what had surrounded Gael; every home and weapon had once been a tree, every fortress the base of a mountain, every piece of jewelry a vein deep beneath the soil. He often wondered if that was the purpose of the wilds, if the Primans had created these vast gardens and lands solely for people to take what they needed. He sometimes wondered if there were others who shared such thoughts, even among his fellow druids.
“Find anything?” a gruff voice called out to Gael, breaking his musings.
He shot up and adjusted the awkward weight of the halberd strapped diagonally across his back, “Not yet, Ragnar. How about you?”
The orc named Ragnar Thrunderfiest leaned against a tree, running a calloused finger across the gut of his favored bow. “Same luck as you.” He replied and pushed off the tree, his worn leather jerkin creaking from the effort. Cracks and white scars broke the tanned hide surface, a testament to the deep olive-skinned orc’s years in the wilds and hazards he had survived. His ebony hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail, leaving the orc’s face free. There was a bright fire in his amber eyes, one that spoke of eagerness at the prospect of the hunt. “I can’t help but be a bit disappointed with our efforts today.”
Gael chuckled, “The day is still young.”
“I don’t know what time you’re running on,” Ragnar commented, “But if we don’t find something soon, we’ll need to head back empty-handed.”
The thought brought a frown to Gael’s lips, “Well let’s make sure we don’t have to.”
“Indeed.” Ragnar checked his bow one more time before extracting an arrow from his quiver, “Have you seen Hadrass?”
Gael craned his neck around, looking for any sign of their third member, “Not since this morning. He was already gone by the time you finished sharpening your axe. Do you think he caught the scent of something?”
“If he did he clearly didn’t want to share any with us.” Ragnar griped and shook his head, “Sometimes I wonder how you put up with him.”
“The same way I put up with you.” Gael answered with a disarming smile, “Now come on, perhaps we’ll find a deer on the trail here.”
Ragnar rolled his eyes and declared in a blatant sarcastic manner, “Oh yes! Follow the deer trail to find some deer! Why didn’t I think of that? Well, I can clearly see how all those years in that college prepared you for the outside world, eh?”
Gael took the good-natured ribbing in stride and walked along the path with his friend. An occasional tendril of stray bramble or the remnants of a fallen tree would deter their path, but there was always an alternative presented to them. A gentle breeze blew through the trees and teased the two as they traveled.
“I still don’t get it, though.” Ragnar admitted, “Why are you so obsessed with us netting a deer? We could make due with a pair of rabbits.”
“We could, if it was just for us.” Gael replied. “But we’ll be planning for other guests tonight.”
“Oh, Hadrass can get his own dinner.” Ragnar scoffed, “He doesn’t need us.”
Gael chuckled and stepped under a low-hanging bough, “Actually I mean for the ritual. Deer is the meat most favored by the Priman, and each one prefers a different cut.”
Ragnar frowned, “With all due respect to your religion mate, but if you’re thinking of giving the shank to one of them it had better be from your share.”
Amused by his friend’s reaction, Gael shook his head, “Still your worries, Ragnar. The Priman prefer other cuts from the ones we do. Each one has a significance to them, so that is what we shall offer, nothing more.”
“It had better be.” Ragnar grumbled as he followed Gael up a steep root-riddled incline, “They certainly aren’t doing anything to help make this any easier.”
“Is anything ever easy?” Gael asked when he reached the top and surveyed the wilderness around him. A brush of light brown against the blacks and greens gave him pause and he ducked down behind a tree, motioning for Ragnar to follow suit.
Using a code that they had developed before setting out, Gael motioned that he had seen something. Ragnar nodded and brought the bow close to his chest before chancing a peak around the tree for a better look. He leaned back and signed that there was an animal in front of them. After another quick glance, Ragnar signed that there was a stand of bushes a meter in front of them.
The two friends moved in absolute silence, keeping low to the loamy soil as they advanced. When they reached the cover, Gael dared a peek over the shrubs and searched for the creature. A majestic doe moved beyond the tree she was standing behind. With a graceful turn of her golden brown head to check for predators, the unsuspecting doe dipped for a drink from a stream. Gael watched in reverent awe as the animal continued to go about the motions of life, oblivious to the two intruders who sought to bring that existence to an end. The whole idea filled him with sadness, but he swallowed the feeling back down. As regrettable as this was, this hunt was part of his religion, his creed and his duty.
Ragnar removed a second bow that he had packed for the journey and offered it to Gael. Tentative fingers grasped the smooth wood and brought it close to the druid’s chest as he centered his grip along the belly. After a few test tugs, Gael accepted an arrow that Ragnar passed to him. Their eyes met for a brief moment in that exchange, both sharing the same feeling of tense anticipation. After three long, deep breaths to steady their nerves, the pair leveled their bows, set the arrows and drew. The bow in Gael’s hand creaked with eagerness at the prospect of being used. His fingers held back the string, which tugged back and begged to be released from the excruciating tension. The world shook as he struggled to bring it level, pausing just as the arrow drew a path to the doe’s heart.
The doe perked her ears and reared up, and suddenly Gael felt a knot form in his heart. Had the doe seen them? Had the bow’s groans betrayed the intent of those hidden from her? For a second she stared right at the bush, and Gael almost let his arrow free. But then the doe shifted her gaze.
A black shape lunged into Gael’s vision, colliding with the doe in an explosion of violence that almost made the druid slip his grip on the drawstring. The doe made a single heart-wrenching cry of protest before the monster bit into her neck and cut the sound short. Guttural growls and the sickening sound of flesh and ligaments being stretched and torn followed for a moment before all was silent.
Gael’s heart raced with terror at the sight before him and he chanced only the quickest of glances to Ragnar before staring back at the beast that interrupted their hunt. The monster was a collection of rippling muscles and firm tendons dressed in a fine layer of matted black fur, save for the long strip of silver along its spine. Standing as tall as the doe had before stealing the creature’s life, the animal kept its back turned to the hunters, fixated on its latest victim.
Gael sighed and passed his bow and arrow back to Ragnar, “Hadrass.”
The direwolf craned his head around, great cobalt eyes gleaming with excitement at the sound of his name. He panted through a blood-soaked muzzle, which he wiped clean with a great forepaw. Upon seeing the expression of his two bipedal companions, Hadrass whined and tilted his head, pleading with those eyes that spoke of such intelligence.
Despite his shock and initial anger, Gael’s heart melted at the sight and he shook his head, chuckling. “What am I going to do with you? You were supposed to hunt on the western side.”
Hadrass whined and licked some stray flecks of blood.
Ragnar was unimpressed, “You see? I told you not to let him come with us! Your Khast-loving direwolf almost got an arrow in the flank for getting in my shot like that!”
“Well it’s a good thing you didn’t shoot, then.” Gael reasoned and approached the direwolf with an open palm. Hadrass sniffed and licked the fingers with pronounced affection, still wearing an expression that asked if Gael was pleased.
“I am.” Gael answered and scratched Hadrass behind his ears, “But you have to be more careful, my friend. We could have injured you.”
Hadrass whined and turned to face the side that would have been riddled with arrows had the two fired.
Gael smiled and petted his friend, “Just try to be more careful in the future, Hadrass. I don’t want to carry you and the deer back to camp, is that heard?”
Hadrass licked Gael’s face and glanced over at Ragnar.
The orc sighed and waved a finger at Hadrass, “Don’t you be thinking that you’re getting a scrap of sympathy from me! Ruining a perfectly good shot like that, have you no shame?!”
Hadrass whined and approached Ragnar, all the while making his eyes even larger pools of still blue water. Ragnar resisted at first, but even he eventually relinquished, “Oh to Khast with you, you flea-ridden beast! How dare you make me succumb to your charm!”
Before Hadrass growled in triumph, Ragnar tried one final shot, “But this is the last time it’ll work on me! You’re just going to have to work whatever magic you have on some other dumb orc.”
“Unfortunately for you we don’t know any others.” Gael ribbed and bent over the doe, “Now come on and help me get this back to camp.”
Ragnar sighed as he produced a measure of twine and walked over to the corpse, “I say we have our great four-legged hunter bring his prize back.”
Gael shook his head as they bound the corpse up for easier transport, “He’d just drag it along, and we can’t let the doe get damaged any further.”
“Yes, I’m sure your gods would reject a deer for having post mortem scuffs on the hooves.” Ragnar mumbled under his breath.
The pair worked in silence as they finished binding the deer. When they were finished, Ragnar copped down a pair of slender young trees that became the body of an impromptu sled. With the task completed, Gael and Ragnar heaved their prize onto the sled and tied it down before setting off on their way, dragging the deer along for the journey.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Are you ready?”
Alondra Sophronia turned to face her challenger on the other side of the polished beige marble floor. A man who stood a full head over her wore a smirk born from pure confidence; his lean frame dressed in the same training leathers as she was. In his right hand was a fine longsword that glimmered in the azure light from the enchanted torches along the circular room.
Her hands ran across the smooth length of her quarterstaff and she smiled, “Better question is if you’re ready, Tierranho.”
Tierranho Cawley allowed himself a chuckle before he lunged forth with a wide diagonal cut. Alondra was too quick and brought the staff up to absorb the blow, using the captured momentum to spin the weapon up, leaving Tierranho vulnerable to a spinning kick to his midsection. The opponent cried out over the crack of the blow and went down on his knees for what Alondra thought was a quick, unsatisfying victory. Too late did she see that he rolled away and she brought her quarterstaff down to concuss Tierranho. His sword came up to deflect the blow and he swung a swift vicious arch at her legs, leaving a shallow bite in her boot as she leapt back. The instance of space gave Tierranho the time he needed to rise up and take on the offensive anew.
Alondra grunted as she parried the new onslaught with all her weight behind the staff, but where her hands had to be distanced to balance the weapon, Tierranho could direct the power of one or both hands at a single focal point. Every strike drove home a jarring pain that shook through Alondra’s bones and she searched for an opening, waiting for Tierranho’s aggression to wear himself down and leave her with that fraction of an opening she needed.
It came too late. Alondra stabbed forward and knocked the wind out of her gut, only to feel the crack of something heavy on the back of her helm before the floor rushed to meet her. When she rolled and looked up, Tierranho stood above her, grasping his stomach but still holding his sword, the blade pointing to her throat.
Alondra sighed and tossed off her leather helm with frustration, “Looks like you win again.”
Tierranho flashed a disarming smile as he sheathed the sword, “It’s not my fault. I keep telling you a sword is a better weapon than a staff.” He offered an arm to Alondra, which she accepted and used to get off the floor.
“And I keep telling you they’re poor conduits.” Alondra countered. “If this was a fight with magic, then I’d have bested you.”
“I don’t know about that.” Tierranho teased as they removed the onxy-adorned chokers marked with claw-like runes that were pressed against their necks. A wave of warmth washed over them both as the repressed magics in their bodies surged for release.
“Well I do.” Alondra pouted in jest as she followed him to the benches around the room. She picked up the silver pitcher sitting on the bench and an accompanying goblet and poured a glass of water. The cold, refreshing liquid went down in one gulp, sending a pleasing shiver through Alondra. “Thank you for the match, by the way.”
Tierranho smiled, his cobalt eyes twinkling with fire. He leaned forward to kiss her, “Not at all, my love. I enjoyed it.”
Alondra returned the kiss and sighed as she ruffled his short dirty blonde hair, “As did I. But next time, I’ll get you.”
Tierranho laughed and locked eyes with Alondra, staring deep into the icy blue. “I sincerely doubt it, but you’re welcome to try.”
The couple shared a second kiss, longer and deeper this time. Alondra smiled, “Next time.”
“Until then.” Tierranho rubbed the sweat from his brow, “Will you be coming to dinner?”
Alondra shook her head, “I’m sorry, but I need to finish that scrying tonight or Mother will have me hauling manure with the apprentices.”
Tierranho gawfed, “That I would love to see! The great Alondra Sophronia made to do chores again!”
She flashed a challenging smirk at him, “Not if I could help it.” She kissed him one last time, “Maybe tomorrow?”
“Most definitely.” Tierranho sealed the promise with a kiss. “Enjoy the work.”
“Not a chance.” Alondra chuckled and walked out of the training room.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Dazzer Twint, Commanding Engineer of the Fifth Engineer Corps to the Barrador Condederacy, frowned at the state of the battlements, “Looks like we’ve got a real challenge on our hands, boys.”
The other five goblins of Dazzer’s team eyed the wreckage in front of them with the sort of critical professionalism that comes from years of hard-won experience. Three whole cannon batteries called this part of the mountain range their home, and all three were in serious states of decay.
“The cannons in Battery Three are a total loss.” Dazzer’s assistant droned on as he looked over the reports from the scouts, “They’ll need to be replaced. Battery Two is even worse; there must have been a mudslide or something to that effect because the whole Khast-loving thing is caved in. It’ll have to be demolished before we could even consider working on it, if there’s anything salvageable that is.”
Dazzer nodded, taking a deep puff of the pipe in his mouth, “And what of Battery One?”
The assistant flipped around, “Well, that was the last one to be occupied, and it shows. Frat said he saw some bear droppings in there, so I guess we’ll need to be wary of anything coming back home if you catch my drift. As for the guns, one is salvageable and the other two could be stripped for components for the first.”
Disgust welled in Dazzer’s mouth and he spat it out, “That leaves us one good gun out of nine.”
The assistant shrugged, “Considering how long this post has been unoccupied, I think that’s better than we could have hoped for.”
“Ah, my friend.” Dazzer shook his head as he started towards the batteries, “That’s why you’re only my faithful assistant. You’ve got to aim high if you want to hit anything!”
“High aims always overshoot.”
“And have a chance to hit the officers in the back!” Dazzer asserted. “But pessimists, they’ll hit the ground two hundred meters short every time. Every. Time.”
The assistant looked at Dazzer and nodded, “Yes, sir. I just don’t see why we have to waste time and resources on this abandoned site.”
“Because this is the route the scouts said those gnolls took when they raided last week.” Dazzer explained, trying to remain calm, “And of course, some short-sighted mushroom-counter back in Barrell saw these positions a generation back and thought they offered no real defense! I ask you; what’s the point of putting up three entire batteries if you’re just going to deem their whole purpose as imaginary?!”
“I don’t know, sir.” The assistant droned, hoping the lecture would end there. “But it looks like we need them now.”
“You’re damned right we do!” Dazzer exclaimed as they reached the first battery and took a look inside. Sure enough, bones and refuse littered the floor, most coming from the spoils of whatever animals made their homes here. The grey leather of Dazzer’s ornate filigree-trimmed hauberk creaked as he bent down to get a closer look at the dank interior, “Darker than an infernyne’s soul in there.”
“Do you want us to start with this one?” The assistant asked.
The elder goblin’s black eyes lit up with brilliance, “That, my friend is the first smart thing you’ve said all day! Can’t say I’ve heard a better one since my pa suggested we have fried grubs for breakfast when I was a whelp!”
The assistant cocked an eyebrow, “Fried grubs, sir?”
Dazzer huffed, “I was a chubby lad back then. Now no more talking! Get Frat and the others to work clearing this out.”
“Yes, sir.” The assistant bowed and ran over to the goblins who waited by their wagons stuffed with components. Each one carried a pickaxe and a musket strapped to their backs.
Dazzer scanned the rocky face of the mountain as it rolled down into the lush green tree-infested valley below. He shuddered at the sight of so much foliage, for what they may hold within, waiting for a chance to strike again.
“Not this time, you flea-bitten bastards.” Dazzer promised, patting the pistol at his side.
Not this time.