Every instinct in Ashya’s body wanted to throw the Wraith off of her and plunge one of the weapons still in her hands into his exposed torso, but her own sense of honor squelched her urges down for now. It would have been just as easy for him to have disengaged and let the Xannti’s frost breath kill her, but he didn’t. That strange code of combat he had that both fascinated and troubled her. The Wraith was not some brutal killer who did so simply because he enjoyed murder; it was more complicated than that. While he clearly relished bringing death to others, there was also a need for a challenge and a need for struggle. Without those things killing was not worthwhile. It would be a complexity she would ponder over a drink with what remained of the Lazy Doxy’s crew once the man above her was dead.
“The Queen spoke of Dragons advancing to the south,” she whispered as the Wraith slithered off of her and remained low behind a particularly thick cluster of trees he had chosen for cover. Thanks to the dense foliage it would be impossible to spot them from the skies so the Dragon would have to land if it meant to claim his kill.
“They have been for months,” The Wraith replied while quietly gathering branches and twigs that had been sheered free from the blast of freezing wind breath. “I have seen them with the Kiris Miran. Of course the Whore Queen would know of it.”
The Kiris Miran were known throughout the continent of Shalzaar as a guild of necromancers, reavers and dark priests that have gained particular favor with Queen Arisyeema, though not with King Nevrezh. At one time, no Elf of Vyss would even think about cavorting with the Lords of Chaos or their demon underlings to gain mastery over the dead, but these were changing times in the kingdom. They served the Queen’s will without question and had earned titles and positions of power at the Twilight Court. They served as advisers, chamberlains and chancellors and their cult was a weed in a once culturally pure society.
The discussion of this troubling matter was cut short, with the great wind that kicked frozen debris asunder and bent the branches of trees with its impressive force. A great winged shadow fell upon the clearing, followed by a heavy, dull thud of weight. Ashya and the Wraith watched on as the Xannti Dragon raised his great snout and tasted the air. His deep indigo scales gleamed the sunlight and the darker membrane of his wings seemed almost translucent as he raised them to the setting sun. This was the first time Ashya had actually seen a dragon, though there were plenty enough tales of their fire-breathing cousins, the Xinntu wandering around Tal`Rah, her home continent in the shapes of mortals. The one before her was truly astounding to behold, despite the fact he just tried to kill her!
“There are remains to the west of us and some to the immediate north,” said a figure Ashya and the Wraith did not initially see. He was donning plate armor the color of blood, indicating it to be Infernium, a metal fused with the corrupting touch of the Hells. In an age where flintlocks and blunderbusses were beginning to replace sword and spellcraft, the use of such heavy field plate armor was all but extinct, save for these suits crafted from unusually durable metals and enchanted with such potent sorcery that they could resist gunfire. Ashya could not see his face thanks to the horned helm he wore, but she guessed him a Shadow Elf for his lithe build and shorter stature.
“There are others.” The dragon rumbled forth in a low, hissing response. Speaking in the common trade tongue in this form was difficult for the great reptiles, but it could be done with careful practice. “The scent lingers, but if they are still here, they have moved upwind.”
“Then shape-shift and let us continue the search. We cannot suffer any witnesses,” the red-armored warrior replied. “We begin our advance south in a few hours, when Ishaela rises.”
“Hm.” The Wraith of the Wood murmured with a strangely amused tone in his voice. “Kiris Miran. That is one of their Reavers, Sir Belas Gilyre. Killing him will be difficult, especially with the dragon here. We must divide them and murder each together.”
Ashya did not say anything immediately, for the pulsing arcane light that followed. Where the great dragon had once stood, now lurked a creature that looked like a cross between a mortal thing and a Dragon; he walked on two legs, had a tail and arms, with a massive snout full of sharp teeth. All said this hybrid form was ten feet tall and looked just as frightful as the ponderously large wyrm that had been there a moment ago, except now the trees would be far less of an advantage.
“Why do we not just leave this place? Go our separate ways?” Ashya suggested as quietly as she could manage. She still planned on killing the Wraith but that could be done any time, any place. The thought of fighting alongside of him was nearly as nauseating as the taste of Malcolm’s blood in her mouth from when it splattered across her face.
“We will survive longer together,” The Wraith reasoned. “You could flee but if you were caught, you would likely be caught by the Reaver and the dragon and you could not best both at once. You would die without your revenge.”
“What about you? What is your reasoning?” The Tashrani woman hissed in response to the sardonic tone the Wraith had adopted. “Do you think your chances of besting me are so great that you should preserve me for your own killing joy?”
“I wish to know why the Whore Queen’s pets are associating with Xannti Dragons,” The Wraith whispered while silently motioning to her to move to the east. “Beyond that, my reasons are my own. There is much more at stake than a sell-sword whose allegiance can be bought should be troubled with.”
The urge to stab him in the face with the dagger in her hand grew exponentially with the slight to her honor. While Ashya couldn’t argue that she was a sell-sword, she felt she had shown that she conducted herself with a greater sense of purpose than a common thug. “Words of wisdom from a thoughtless murderer.” She retorted as the pair skulked between tall trees and crisscrossing branches.
The Wraith did not reply to her ire-fueled comment, because he did not care. People thought what they wanted about him. They made up myths and they told tall tales of brushes they had with the infamous killer. He was a monster in every sense of the word, but the invention of imagination and assumption did more to paint his intentions more than any tangle of corpses he left ever did. The Wraith simply continued doing things in a manner that would eventually lead him to his goal, regardless of the consequence. Right now, his goal was maneuvering them into a position where they could kill Sir Belas before his draconic counterpart could become a factor.
* * *
The Wraith of the Wood knew the Nyseeah Forest exceedingly well, Ashya discovered, though truthfully she was not surprised by this. He had been hunting all manner of man, woman, soldier and bounty hunter within this never-ending maze of trees, branches and wild creatures since she could recall. Gypsy merchants who had traveled to the ‘Old Country’ to sell their wares to the Hillsmen of Brookshire brought back tales of the Wraith and his ghostly murders.
What surprised Ashya was how tactical the Wraith was. He not only knew how to move silently through the tangle of fallen branches and scattered rocks on the forest floor, but there were times he left footprints intentionally for their pursuers to find. He also purposefully let the wound Ashya had scored at his side to bleed a bit, to leave them more evidence to follow. The question on her mind was where exactly was he leading them? For all she knew, this could be an ambush for the dragon, the Kiris Miran Reaver and her. Still, he also had the opportunity to kill her in cold blood two other times but did not. Ashya had to have faith that the man leading her through parts of the forest she never knew even existed was at least honorable enough to keep his word about how and when they would settle their own score.
The sunlight pouring into the clearing the Wraith led them to nearly blinded Ashya for the intensity of it, after having the darkening shade of a blanket of leaves and branches high above them. With partial flagstone structures jutting from the ground and a mossy marble floor bleached by centuries of exposure to the elements, she had guessed these to be the ruins of a manor or a hall of some sort. Tactically, the skeletal remains of the structure would provide some cover from the dragon’s breath weapon if he went airborne but if he remained in the hybrid form, it would do very little to protect them, save perhaps to avoid a singular blast. All and all, things didn’t look promising to Ashya.
“Do you plan on dropping rocks on them, Wraith?” Ashya asked with no effort made to hide her sarcasm.
“No,” the Wraith replied with no visible reaction to her verbal venom. “I plan on letting the Ziyn do our work for us.”
The questioning expression Ashya gave him prompted further explanation from the Wraith. “The Ziyn are what remains of a race of lizard people from the far south, across the sea called the Zissah, that once flourished though most of Shalzaar before the Elves descended from the moon, Ishaela.”
“These Zissah were enslaved and experimented upon by Shar`Vaire Asyndi Magus and fused with the torsos of great serpents. While driven mad by the process, they retained enough sanity to understand what had happened to them and slew their ‘creator’ in his sleep. They now wander the ground below these ruins during the day and hunt the forest at dusk.”
“Shar`Vaire Asyndi,” Ashya repeated quietly as she studied the bleak remains of the structure as they sprawled out before her. The sun was dipping lower in the sky, which cast long and disturbing shadows. “They are known to the Gypsies of Tashran. We call them friend, though we know they whisper to demons. Sometimes they take our women as concubines but they are treated well always. They sire many children with us and when the women are too old to serve them in this way, they return with riches and magic-craft to aid the families.”
“The Shar`Vaire you call friend have committed genocide on a scale that makes me almost envious,” the Wraith replied with a low, mocking chortle. “Enough history. Find a nearby tree and climb it. You do not want to be on the ground when the Ziyn of the Screaming Halls begin their nightly hunt.”
“And you? Where will you be?” Ashya asked with a visible narrowing of her visible green eye. While she had trusted him to lead her to this point, Ashya wasn’t entirely sure this wasn’t an ambush for her as well, yet either.
“I will be on the ground, lurking with the other monsters,” the Wraith responded with that awful smile of his spreading like a cancerous tumor across his stark white features. “I will drive the Reaver to you and you will ambush him.”
Without waiting for her confirmation or question about his commands, the Wraith turned and moved into the ruins. It was here that Ashya noticed the slightly tapered ear sticking out from the tangled mane of black hair that crowned his head, yet for the look of his powerful body, one would think him human rather than a wiry elf. The rumors about him being a halfbreed were true then. This also shed some light as to why the Wraith was hunted by the Queen, as the children of humans and Vyssian Elves are slain and the parents banished. These were thoughts Ashya would ponder over while waiting for the sun to set and the death to begin.