The Nyseeah Forest was in northern portion of the continent of Shalzaar. The trio had passed through it when they docked just outside of Moonfall for repairs, but on the well-traveled road, there had been no sign of the legendary Wraith of the Wood. In considering the matter, Malcolm thought it was strange that for as vicious and horrible as the Wraith was supposed to be, that he didn’t hunt the road as well as the deep wood. Whenever he claimed victims, it had always been those who went in to get him. Never caravans and never common travelers. In talking to some of the Elves that worked at the guest house, it was also discovered that the Wraith never went after those who didn’t carry weapons. Always armed, always deep in the forest and always, the remains were brought back to Am-Raynia’s gates.
He had a code of engagement. Strange perhaps for the unthinking killer the queen painted the Wraith to be, but not impossible. Their quarry was a thinker and perhaps found thrill in the hunt. Somewhere between murder and survival, it could be the Wraith found sport in the game the queen played with his life and played his part. If this was a game being played, Malcolm, Quinton and Ashya were about to become the latest pawns expended in it. The thought didn’t bring any of them cheer, but did nothing to change the plan.
“Everybody remember their jobs?” Malcolm asked, as the trio made reasonable progress down the nameless road that cut through the center of Nyseeah Forest on horseback.
“Quite,”replied Quinton. “Ashya goes in and wanders about like she’s a lost kitten. I’ll be tailing her, all concealed ‘n such, while you’re coming around to flank.”
“I will do my very best impression of a helpless girl,” Ashya added to the overview with a bright smile offered up on her dark, unpainted lips. “I will only carry one dagger. It is all I need. Quinton will have my other weapons and you will rush in and save the day, yes?”
“Good. It’s a simple plan and impossible to screw up, even for Quinton.” The broad-shouldered Hillsman said with a jovial expression to the thinner man. “Ashya will keep his attention with that fancy fighting she does, we come in from either side and try and restrain him. If he doesn’t go down easy, just kill him. I haven’t a powerful desire to become a corpse today. “
“If you’d fancy a dirt nap, I’ll be happy to take your share and split it with the gypsy,” Quinton offered while reaching across the distance between their horses to halfheartedly push Malcolm.
“I’m fixing to take you off that horse and drag you behind mine.” Malcolm stated with a sidelong glance to his companion.
“This bickering the two of you do, it sounds like an old couple!” Ashya added to the banter, before dismounting from her horse. “You can kiss and make up later, we are near the Wraith’s territory.”
“Right. This piker has a territory?” Quinton asked while moving to dismount from his own horse. “Did he come out and put up a nice fence so we could all find it?”
“It is marked on the map we were given with our supplies,” Ashya explained. “Most of the groups that have gone after him disappeared in this area. He is like an animal, in this way. He has a territory and you do not have a brain.” Ashya swatted him with the map then and continued. “Now stop speaking and get my sharp things. I do not doubt I will need them.”
“You heard the lady, get moving.” Malcolm interrupted Quinton with a plant of a big hand over his mouth. “And no more talking. Here on, we don’t know what’s waiting for us and I don’t want it knowing we’re coming till its proper time.”
Malcolm wasn’t joking about not wanting to take a dirt nap. There had been enough heroes of repute that had died to the Wraith of the Wood that he had almost not taken the bounty. It had been desperation that had drove him to present the choice to his two trusted comrades. The six hundred platinum coins in reward would be more than enough to pay for the repairs to The Lazy Doxy, his ship, with enough to spare to get supplies and fresh crew. It wouldn’t hurt them to have a night or two of drunken nonsense either. They just had to live through this.
* * *
He had been watching them for the last few hours now. New prey brought before him to slaughter. Three had been sent this time. One used some sort of magic to conceal himself while the other moved alongside the third. It always brought him a sense of amusement when they sent these hunters to look for him, knowing how they would return. The Wraith had begun to wonder if these were prisoners of the crown being sent to their deaths, rather than actual hunters.
Eyes not unlike the orange of volcanic flame narrowed in silent calculation as he circled around to follow the three. Where the big, red-haired one lumbered like a cow through the dense foliage, the woman was nearly as silent as he was. The fool concealed with magic did nothing to mask his sound, nor the tracks he left and judging by his movement, he was confident in his cloaking sorcery. The Wraith smiled in such a way that was a mockery of a smile. There was no joy in the expression that stretched thin lips across his pallid features, but rather a fond sort of malice for the killing to come.
The Wraith hunted much of his prey with the spear he presently had balanced on the crook of his arm as he skulked behind his unwary victims. The first weapon he had killed with had been a spear, one he had made as a boy from wood and a sharpened rock. But with the ‘donations’ made by his victims, he happened upon better weapons, this boromandite metal-tipped spear, with a strong forgora wood shaft was one of those claimed from his kills. He found it punched through the armor his enemies wore nicely and sailed true when he threw it at those who attempted to flee. It was this weapon he chose to use on the sorcerously cloaked hunter that cracked branches and disturbed the ground with his confident steps.
Wraith steps matched those of his prey as he crept from tree to tree, careful to leave the shining metal of his spearhead lowered until the last possible moment, so it wouldn’t catch Ka’s light and give his position away prematurely. In his mind, this fool deserved to die, for walking with such brazen disregard through his hunting grounds. The Wraith was nearly insulted by this and the fact they merely sent three, after having butchered five the last time. Perhaps these poor souls were never told? He resolved with himself that perhaps these three should be left at the steps of the royal palace as to properly illustrate the true price of the bounty fools near and far sought.
He was three steps behind the sorcerously cloaked one. The fool was actually humming to himself as he moved through the woods. The woman was twenty paces ahead and the clumsy red-haired male was thirty to the right; with all the trees and the dense net of leafy branches, they would have difficulty getting to their friend in time, even if they do hear him die. Usually, he didn’t let that happen, but every once in a while, they got a cry out before he finished the deed. It was most unfortunate.
The spear was hefted up and brought down with a vicious thrust that pushed the keen boromandite point through the sorcerously cloaked man’s upper back and deep into his lungs. While there was a short gasp, it hadn’t been enough to alert the other two. The Wraith used the spear to carefully drag back the body that was quickly shimmering into view. The Wraith guessed him to be a Xosian magus, given the manner of dress and the favoring of a bald scalp. Good to get this one out of the way first. Spell-casters tended to be troublesome if you didn’t slit their throats immediately, or smash their skulls open with a blunt object before they could unleash magic.
There was precious little time now that he had killed the first of the three. A moment was taken to claim the belt housing a pair of basilards he was carrying and strap them onto his own narrow hips and to then drag the corpse into an outcropping of tall Billowing Nightbloom plants. The Wraith found the presence of the tall plants fortuitous in that their long, net-like petals excreted a paralyzing toxin that allowed the plant to catch insects and small flying mammals to slowly liquefy then ingest. The toxin worked remarkably well on people as well and with some of the sticky excretion on the tip of his bloodied spear, it would do well to slow down the remaining two bounty hunters. They had gotten some distance in the time it took to conceal the body and envenom the weapon, but that was the plan. Soon they would be looking for him. The fear of what they could not see would lead them to make more mistakes that he would capitalize upon.
* * *
Ashya was the one who noticed it first, or rather noticed the lack of something. Every few minutes she would glance back to check where Malcolm was and listen for the heavy footsteps of Quinton. However, she had gotten distracted with movement ahead that she had thought was the Wraith and had focused her attention ahead. Upon making the discovery that it had been nothing more than a fox in the brush chasing squirrels, she allowed herself to relax and settle back into her routine. Of course, when she turned to give the signal everything was clear, Ashya noticed that signs of Quinton’s movements on the ground could not be seen.
“Quinton?” She called out quietly, while lifting her eye patch. While traveling through the lands of Anthalas, Ashya acquired an enchanted false eye, that allowed her to see hidden things and the aura magic leaves on enchanted objects. It was made from tiny golden parts that moved like a normal eye did, with a jade iris. The small gears turned as the iris became larger as she sought her companion to no avail.
“He’s dead,” Malcolm murmured while looking around them slowly. “Hasn’t been with us for at least a few minutes. No sign of his tracks.” All they had to do was get through this. All they had to do is capture or kill one man and go back rich. Now things were about to get complicated.
“Dead? No he couldn’t be,” Ashya replied while continuing to look about for her favorite Mage with a Mouth as she called him on more than one occasion. “I cannot think we would not have heard him shout, or use his magic-calling.”
“Start believing,” Malcolm stated while drawing the two pistols on his belt. “Back to back with me. We’ll make our stand here.”
“He…he had my basilards,” Ashya rumbled with malcontent.
“Saw you kill a Half-Giant in a bar fight once with a skillet when I first met you in Bladefall,” Malcolm retorted while the pair positioned themselves back to back. “Was suitably impressed. You have one dagger. You could probably cut down a tree with it.”
“If only I could cut down all the trees, we could find this—“ Ashya’s words were cut off with the sudden spray of wet warmth across her face. She could hear Malcolm gurgling and out of the corner of her good eye, she could see what looked like one of the leaf-bladed spears the royal guard carried sticking out of his skull, as his body convulsed and fell to the forest floor. He hadn’t even gotten a shot off at his attacker.
Ashya gritted her teeth and pulled the spear from her dying comrade. His twitching and gurgling almost forced her to tears, but she steeled them back, murmured a prayer to the Sun-Father, Kaal and plunged the weapon into his heart, so he might no longer suffer. A proper burial for him and for Quinton would have to wait; Ashya had the looming issue of surviving first.
“Come then Wraith, let us finish this!” Ashya shouted defiantly, as she brought the spear up to bear. She had thought of thousands of taunts, oaths and insults she could have spat out, but she chose none of them. Whoever, whatever this Wraith of the Wood was, such things were likely meaningless to him. The joy of blood, the thrill of murder and the satisfaction of one’s dying were all that mattered to him. The queen had warned them and like fools they marched into this predator’s territory, thinking themselves prepared.
The silence that followed her challenge was both a sliver of hope and a silent terror for Ashya. If she could see her enemy, she would have a fighting chance against him. Having fought as an arena duelist for nearly half her life, Ashya knew how to take life in any number of violent and gruesome ways. In the arena, there was no skulking, hunting and playing cat and mouse. There were merely combatants, skill and a lust for glory. Right now, Ashya would be satisfied with a death that came form a killer she could see.
A rustle in the foliage came from her immediate right, causing the Tashrani duelist to whirl around with the spear pointed in the direction of the sound. It had been purposeful, willful act to attract her attention to not only the sight of the Wraith of the Wood himself, but the curiosity that was dangling from an outstretched hand. There, freckled in what Ashya could only assume was Quinton’s blood, were her twin basilards and the belt she wore them on, held before her as if to taunt her. Then both her arcane and natural eyes focused on the figure that held them before her.
The Wraith of the Wood was not what she had expected. Ashya had pictured him some sort of supernatural creature, a demon or perhaps a spirit of the damned. But he was neither of these things. No taller than an average human, he had chalk white skin and long, tangled black hair that hung in his face as if he were some feral thing abandoned in the wild. He was lean, powerfully-built and donned mismatched armor, likely salvaged from those he had slain. Ashya had heard the folklore that he was a half-breed, mixed human and Vyssian elf and as much was evident by his slightly tapered ears the peeked out through his unkempt hair, but it was his eyes that truly made her think he was more a monster either human or elf. They were these two burning points of volcanic flame that bored into her very core and struck her with the sort of caution she experienced only with the most dangerous of opponents in the arena.
“Take them.” The Wraith said, “I wish your death to be interesting.”
He was taunting her. He had slain her two friends with very little effort and now this bastard was taunting her! “I should throw this spear into your throat!” Ashya howled in defiance while hefting up the spear into a throwing position.
She had every intention of carrying out that oath but she had tensed. He could have slain her just as easily as Quinton and Malcolm, but he didn’t. Even if he was taunting her, it didn’t matter. Ashya lived by a certain code that she would not compromise on despite the grief welling up within her. He wished her at her best and he would get her very best and so would her friends. They deserved the Wraith’s death as compensation for their lost lives and she would bring it to them. Ashya lowered the spear, but did not drop it.
The Wraith said nothing to her words, but he was smiling. It was thin and stretched across his bleached white features and mocked the meaning of what such a facial expression should mean. Where most would find simply joy in a smile, the Wraith’s smile was a malicious, hateful thing that begged to be fed murder and despair. When Ashya lowered the leaf-bladed spear, he lowered her weapon belt, then tossed it, with her basilards in the thankless, leafy void between them. When her weapons hit the ground, Ashya mirrored the gesture by tossing the spear next to her own weapons.
This was a familiar place for Ashya. Not unlike many duels in the arena in Bladefall and other cities that allowed bloodsports, weapons were often placed at the center for the combatants to rush in to fight over. It was a way to bring a swift and exciting beginning to those fights the roaring crowds loved and she assumed, this was the sort of lust for death Queen Arisyeema had eluded to when she likened the Wraith to the embodiment of murder. He wanted a violent challenge. That thought made Ashya smile as well as she lowered her eye patch over her arcane eye and began moving forward to begin the contest that only they would witness.
Wordlessly, the Wraith moved forward when Ashya did and when they crossed, they claimed their weapons of choice, without duplicity or advantageous maneuver from either combatant. He had even continued a few paces past, while she buckled her basilards onto her hips and drew the matched blades with a soft hiss of the fine kaalcite that had been crafted from. A rare metal favored by the Kaal`Kor Dwarves, kaalcite was reddish in color but was both light and strong; a good match against the heavier boromandite used on the spear the Wraith was using.
In this one matter, Ashya knew she could trust the Wraith. His was a lust for murder, but murder with a challenge. Like any predator, the prey that didn’t fight was not a challenge and without challenge, the killing would be joyless. No, the Wraith wanted a fight, because fighting is his means of expressing himself, expressing his anger at being hunted himself, by one who will not come and hunt him herself. In a different time or place, Ashya might have sympathized.
There were no words when it began. Only simultaneous movement between two combatants that required only the dialog ringing steel made in which to speak. Ashya was expecting a savage offensive from the Wraith and had taken a defensive positioning with her twin basilards crossed before her. In this way, she could block the spear regardless whether the spear went high or low. Their first tangle surprised the Tashrani gypsy, as the first lunge never came, but rather found herself rapidly retreating from an attempt to use the weapon’s superior length to knock her legs out from underneath her. He hadn’t just claimed a spear from one of his kills, he knew how to use the weapon as well. It was an underestimation Ashya wouldn’t make again as she repositioned herself.
The Wraith’s next attack came immediately after the sweep with an attempt to spin the spear around and catch her on her patch-wearing left eye. Years of fighting had Ashya prepared for this, which she communicated with a sudden drop to her knees and a double-thrust forward that saw her right basilard score a grazing wound along the side of the Wraith. Blood as red as any mortal thing inked the weapon, giving proof that the Wraith was no supernatural creature that could not be vanquished.
Scoring first blood cost her however; before she could spring to her feet again, Ashya was struck across the right side of her face with the shaft of the spear. She was hit hard enough that her right eye began to water, partially blinding her. Were it not for the light of the sun, Ka and its glinting off the spearhead, she might not have ever seen the ferocious drive downward. A fast roll to the right had her out of the path of the deadly thrust and back to her feet.
The Wraith wasted no time in advancing on her with the spear by jabbing it at her as she attempted to roll clear of it. Ashya had little room in which to maneuver though thanks to the crowding of trees and had to commit to slowing enough so she could get to her feet. A sharp shift of her weight brought her feet up and planted firmly in the Wraith’s chest, effectively booting him into a nearby tree. A small smile of satisfaction found her when she heard the crack of a particularly large branch, no doubt against his back and the push of wind from his lungs thereafter.
Using the pause in combat to right herself with a forward roll and a hop up, Ashya quicky found herself set upon again by the Wraith who used the length of the spear to push both of her basilards up and flat against her chest, then returning the favor of booting him into a tree, by slamming her into one of her own, with enough force that she very nearly dropped her weapons. The Wraith’s powerful form was pushed up against her own, with the shaft of the spear pinning both of her weapons against her. Literally nose to nose with Ashya, he smiled in that unsettling manner he had, that made mockery of the joy a smile was meant to express, instead turning it into display of unending malice. She couldn’t get her basilards free and she couldn’t move. All he had to do to finish her was slide the shaft up and give her the grisly death of suffocation. Ashya had seen how others have returned after fights with the Wraith; she would not allow herself to suffer that fate if she could help it.
Since he was watching her face for fear, The Wraith did not see her left hand slip free of one of her pinned basilards and into her belt where she had stashed the single dagger meant to lure him into attacking her first. Ashya held his gaze in defiance as he looked for the signs of fear in her battered face. She lifted her chin up a fraction, as if to challenge him to finish her off if he was so inclined and as he slid the weapon up to do what they both knew he would, Ashya yanked the dagger free and plunged it into the outside of the Wraith’s left thigh. The spike of pain was enough to elicit a howl of anger from the Wraith and enough of a distraction for Ashya to push herself free at the cost of one of her basilards. As the weapon clattered to the ground, the bloodied dagger was taken in an inverse grip and her remaining basilard held across her as to intercept any incoming spear thrusts.
What Ashya did not understand was the sudden appearance of frost glittering on the blade of the basilard in her hand as well as the one on the ground. The green grass was also suddenly awash in white, as were the branches of trees and the armored figure of the Wraith now charging at her. Did he know magic? Had he called down elemental forces to throw the engagement into his favor? It was a question she found a strange answer to, when he ducked under her swing and slammed his shoulder into her midsection. Ashya had expected the skewering point of the spear in her belly but grew in further confusion they both hit the forest floor in a shower of frost-kissed leaves, more or less unharmed. All she could see is white where they were standing, with trees made so cold, that they simply shattered like glass with the force of the chilling blast.
“Xannti Dragon,” the Wraith whispered into Ashya’s ear while covering her mouth with his large, chalk white hand. “If you wish to live long enough to finish our fight, I suggest you stay silent.”