The Queen’s Deception – Chapter Five (Part Two)

* * *

The smile the Wraith found spread like cancer upon his chalk white features at the sound of crumbling stone and the defiant howl of the dragon. This particular detail was his greatest concern; neither he or Ashya had the immediate means to directly fight a dragon, even one in a hybrid form and win. He didn’t expect the Ziyn that wandered the ruins below and on the surface at night to be prepared to defeat Magarathran either, but it would be enough to slow him down. Long enough to dispatch Belas.

The Wraith was weakened however. The wound on his thigh scored by Ashya had since stopped bleeding but the damage had been done. He was a little slower on his feet and a lightheaded feeling continued to dog his steps. The blood loss from the wound had been a boon of its own in acting as a lure for the dragon, but now it had become a detriment. He would need to hold on just a little longer, before all his prey were lined up just as he needed them.

On that account, the Wraith was now following the Vyssian Elf Reaver, Sir Belas Gilyre, who made no effort to mask the path of his steps nor took any measures to quiet his archaic platemail armor. While Belas hewed through branches with wide swathes of his arming sword, the Wraith moved in his wake, always leaving a distance of about fifteen paces. All that was required was a window of opportunity to make his move on the knight now. The Wraith also noted, with some amusement the presence of his spear clutched in the knight’s left hand as he chopped and sliced away. Getting that back would prove to be useful as well.

That chance came when Belas became tangled in some particularly thick underbrush and had gotten his sword caught within it. While the knight was busy pulling, cursing and fighting to free his weapon, the Wraith struck with a shoulder-tackle into the back of Belas. As the pair tumbled down a slight embankment, Belas let out a surprised bellow and scrambled to get a foothold. The narrow vision of his full-faced helm only allowed him to see the gleam of the royal spear and the figure in tattered clothing and mismatched leather and chain armor dashing away.

“Fight me!” Belas shrieked while struggling to find his footing. By the time he got to his feet and claimed his sword, the ‘peasant’ he had been hunting had slipped through the thick foliage as if they were not there at all for him. There was no time to ponder this agility in his quarry, nor the continued roars and howls of duress coming from his dragon companion in the distance. Belas had to give chase.

Sprinting in heavy armor was never an enjoyable experience. Usually, peasants had the common courtesy to cower so Belas might cut them down with much less effort, but this one wanted to run. As if that would save him. “Come and fight fool! I will make your death glorious!”

But there was no answer and no time to wait for one. Belas stormed down the incline and followed the path of disturbed dirt that led back to the ruins. Belas slowed as he approached the clearing. The ‘peasant’ was standing around a thinned out section of trees, right before the ruins, waiting for him will all the audacity Belas would expect from a seasoned warrior, not some woodland wild man.

“You hesitate,” the Wraith said with that awful, cancerous smile of his. “Why? Do you not wish to fight, now that you see who your queen has set you upon?”

“So, you are the Wraith? Consider me underwhelmed with your lack of majesty,” Belas replied while pointing the tip of his arming sword at the taller halfbreed. “If it is the will of my queen, Arisyeema Ymiyr Kasyatirma-Soryn III that you die so b—“

While Belas and the Wraith were exchanging words, Ashya dropped from below onto the knight. Her landing had been true and managed to knock the knight to the ground but ended up stumbling backwards. Again made slow by the weight of his armor, Ashya was quicker to recover with a quick forward roll to her feet. The Wraith meanwhile hefted up the spear to plunge into the opening in Belas’ ram-horned helm.

The Kiris Miran Reaver was not as helpless as the pair supposed; a fact he made known with a sudden lunge forward to take the Wraith’s legs out from under him, while getting out of the way of the attempt to slide a basilard into the shoulder joint of his armor by Ashya. The grapple succeeded, but only long enough to take the Wraith from his feet with a harsh heave of air pushed from his lungs.

The trio scrambled around each other in a hurried tangle of flashing steel and shifting bodies, as each sought purchase of a foothold. Ashya, being the most nimble of the three, tumbled away from the two men as the Wraith snared Belas in a headlock and smashed his face into a tree. While the helm protected the lot of his face, the nose was left exposed and was crushed against the wood of the tree. An agonizing snarl came from the knight, whose eyes were now watering from the sharp pain.

Ashya launched herself at Belas’ prone back and drove her Kaalcite blades into the small of his back. Metal screeched against metal as two pointed dents were made in the Hell-forged armor, but no puncture. A flailing backhand from a mailed fist hit Ashya squarely across the jaw and sent her reeling. The Tashrani gypsy had spun around once from the brutal blow and had found herself dazed for a moment. Long enough for Belas to recover and throw himself at her, with the point of his arming sword leading.

This commitment to slaughtering Ashya had bred another moment of opportunity for the Wraith. When Ashya parried off the sword strike from Belas, the Wraith took his spear in an inverse grip and plunged it into the weak point Ashya had made with her basilards. The heavy boromandite tip punctured the armor and impaled the Reaver through the small of back, into the stomach. While failing to punch the spear through the chest plate of the knight’s armor to achieve a total impalement, it was clear that Sir Belas Gilyre’s life had been shortened from centuries, to minutes.

The Wraith walked slowly around as Belas dribbled red life from his lips and scratched at the ground in an attempt to reclaim his arming sword. For Ashya, it was not unlike watching a plains lion circle a conquered Lasher cow, before feasting upon it. She swore an oath that if the Wraith did what he normally did to the dead, she’d burn this poor sod’s corpse herself to prevent him from adding desecrating it.

“Finish it,” Ashya said finally, as the Wraith picked up Belas’ arming sword. She turned away from him and his sadistic joy at another man’s death, sickened by the very sight of it. “Finish it and be done with it. There is a dragon we must deal with yet. You do not have time to gloat.”

“As you wish,” The Wraith said while driving the arming sword between Ashya’s shoulders with such force the weapon sundered through the meat of her innards and lanced through her stomach. He yanked the weapon free to allow her to fall to the ground.

Ashya lost her immediate sense of direction as she collapsed. All she could see was the haze of moonlight and the silhouette of the Wraith above her. He had at least did her the justice of pulling the sword out, rather than leaving it in her like some forgotten slab of meat on the butcher’s block. She wasn’t sure if it was an effect of her final moments or that having the purity of darkness upon her, that she could see the faint, sinister glow of his volcanic orange gaze. Were she not all ready dying, she would have sworn him to be every bit the wraith urban legend painted him as.

“You will go to your end cleanly,” The Wraith stated, noting fleeting life in Ashya’s gaze. “Butchering you for Arisyeema to see does not serve my purpose.”

“Purpose?” She managed while coughing up blood for the effort of speaking. Death was a certainly now; whatever spite she had towards her killer and the murderer of her comrades was lost in the overall lack of difference it made now. She would go to the Old Gods with a smile, not with a curse on her lips.

“Know that I am Nilharys, bastard outcast of the queen, Arisyeema,” he began. “My purpose is her death for the life she has given me. Each corpse is a message, a warning that the day approaches where I will stand upon the dais of her throne with a sword bloodied in her spent life.”

“She has all ready defeated you, Nilharys the Wraith,” Ashya replied with her last breath. “She holds you on a chain of revenge that you will never break. You will never be free of it.”

As the Tashrani woman passed from life into the veil of death, Nilharys slid Ashya’s eyes shut and propped her against a nearby tree. True to his word, he would leave her corpse unspoiled. Her final words only yielded a thin, rueful smile from the halfbreed; there was no part of him that wished to be free of this chain of revenge. To him, it was an anchor that kept her within blade’s reach.

Ashya was right on one matter however. Nilharys didn’t have time to gloat. He could hear the mighty dragon’s roar in the distance and the sound of crumbling stone. Magarathran must have gotten free somehow and dispatched the Ziyn that had been lurking nearby. In much the fashion of his moniker, Nilharys disappeared into the wood, sufficing to leave the butchery of this night as message enough that his mother’s days were numbered.

End

The Queen’s Deception – Chapter Five (Part One)

5

The oceanic moon of Ishaela made her first appearance in the newborn night sky, among distant stars and the thin ring that encircled the realm of Imarel. Known as the Ring of Falling, legends speak of a time when there was no ring, but a second moon, a fiery moon known as Vocoria. The ironic thought that this was a beautiful night to die to had popped unwittingly into Ashya’s mind as she remained crouched in the nook of the large tree branch. The crack of the branch had been the first of much movement coming due west of her position, but did little to deter the Tashrani gypsy from the possibility that their pursuers had finally caught up with them.

Ashya drew one of her basilards and took it in an inverse grip. Her plot was to wait till the Wraith of the Wood funneled Sir Belas here, then she would simply drop on him from above, slit his throat and be done with it. If she did everything just as she imagined, she would also have a body shield against the dragon prowling around in his hybrid form, or the Wrath, should he decide to continue their dance a little early. The voices she heard earlier were closer now and with the Wrath and these Ziyn he was telling tales about having yet to make their collective appearances, Ashya was growing more than a little concerned. She wasn’t sure she was quite high enough in her tree to avoid brushing the top of that dragon’s head should he wander her way!

“Their scents linger here, especially the female,” Magarathran informed his smaller companion as they pushed through tangled branches. “But there’s something else.”

“Something else?” Belas repeated. “These are woodlands, there are probably several hundred somethings lurking here and about. Can you tell what it is?”

“Unfamiliar to me,” Magarathran rumbled in response. “Oily and unclean.”

“Possibly Jackalares. They’re known to linger in the woods near ruins like this. They are a deceptive lupine race, that steals the form those they encounter by eating their hearts.” Belas offered, while motioning to move into the ruins.

“This isn’t the smell of a dog-thing, Elf.” the dragon hissed derisively. “This is a reptile.”

“Reptile? Here? I’ve nev—“ the sentence was never completed for the flash of boromandite spear that very nearly impaled Belas’ head to a tree, were it not for the dragon pushing him forcibly to the ground.

“That’s a royal spear…” Belas murmured as he stared at the very thing that nearly took his life, from his sprawled position on the ground. “What’s that doing here?”

Magarathran’s response came with a swiveling of his great head and a blast of freezing breath that tore through trees and branches like a gale force wind. After a second or so, many of these trees simply cracked and fell over, then shattered on the forest floor for the absolute cold they had been exposed to. Both the dragon and the Kiris Miran Reaver seemed confident that they would find something dead in the wake of that destruction, but there was nothing. Only the uncertain silence lingered for them to ponder upon.

Belas got to his feet and ripped the spear from the tree and glanced up at his draconic cohort. “This came from the direction of the woods. I will go flush the owner of this fine spear into the ruins here. The few crumbled bits of structure will do little to save them from your power, my friend.”

There was a nod of agreement from the dragon, but no words. It had occurred to Magarathran that to throw a spear, which did not have a particularly long range and still manage to escape the long swathe of destruction he just carved into the landscape meant either the thrower was injured in some way, or had prepared cover. This prompted Magarathran to lumber into the frozen wake his breath weapon made and look a bit more closely, while Belas played in the woods like a good Elf. The predatory nature of the dragon craved a good hunt, as opposed to standing around like an oafish brute, waiting for the enemy.

Flash-frozen branches cracked and crumbled under Magarathran’s considerable weight, as he walked along the path he had hewn with his breath weapon. While his eyesight was keen an his sense of hearing reasonably good, it was his sense of smell that was the most sharp. Dragons could smell prey from long distances and could triangulate the location of prey within a few yards if the wind was favorable. Magarathran was still smelling the oily, dirty stench of the unknown reptiles, but it was vague, elusive in the air. The scent that interested him was the one they had been following. The dragon knew the scent of this one’s blood and could not easily quell the primordial need to devour warm, fresh meat.

Following the scent with slow and careful step, Magarathran came upon a most curious sight. A hole in the ground, or perhaps more appropriately, a hole in the roof. Magarathran hadn’t realized the ruins here had subterranean levels as well. The scent was strong here; his prey had been here recently. While perfectly capable of seeing in the dark, the dragon hesitated to peer into the section of collapsed roof, though not for a lack of fear of what he might see. Given his considerable weight, the idea of falling through the roof of this weakened section wasn’t exactly appealing, but did explain how his prey escaped his breath weapon. Magarathran was both impressed and annoyed by the revelation.

Magarathran heard the shifting of stone underneath him and knew he had fallen into a trap designed with him in mind. The whole roof began to give way with holes forming everywhere, exposing the subterranean world of the Screaming Halls. Magarathran howled in outrage as he attempted to shoot skyward but found no footing to leap into the air.

His own weight set against him, the Xannti wyrm fell with heavy stone debris pelting and pummeling him. Jagged pieces of rock did little to scratch the thick scales of his powerful body, but the sheer weight of them, coupled with the harsh landing smashed his left wing to uselessness. There would be no flying out of here for at least a few hours, depending on how long it took or the damaged wing to regenerate. He’d have to find a way to set the broken bone, as to assure it regenerated together correctly as well. Magarathran let out a blistering roar of anger at his present plight that rattled the stone pillars that managed to survive the roof collapse and echoed through the vast dark that sprawled before him.

Belas would be on his own to deal with survivors. If the sound of shifting and slithering against the stone was any indication, he would have enough of his own problems to deal with.

The Queen’s Deception – Chapter Four

4

Sir Belas Gilyre was not fond of hunting people through the woods. He was a Knight-Captain of the Order of Bones, a scourge of his enemies on the battlefield and not some common sheriff to be sent on errands such as this. Yet, here he was with the less-than-pleasant Magarathran, the Sky-Fear hunting down a pair of people who were probably no better than average hunters. He glanced up at his shape-shifted draconic companion and shook his armored head with mild disgust.

“This is truly a waste of our time,” Belas offered. “A glorious offensive is merely hours away and we’re tracking down scurrying peasants in the woods.”

“Then why bother looking at all? We have two corpses. They were dead when we found them but who else would know?” Replied the towering Magarathran in a low, growling voice that sounded as though it was coming from the ground under the pair, rather than from his tooth-filled maw.

“The Queen has eyes and ears even where dragons cannot see them,” Belas replied with another shake of his head. “Of my people, she is considered one of the foremost in illusionary magic. She could be standing here, now and neither of us would know of it.”

“It’s doubtful she would waste the time, but if you feel so inclined to continue hunting this prey, the scent of their blood went northeast.” Magarathran replied with a rumbled disinterest. Like Belas, the dragon felt as though this was merely a peasant hunt and beneath his vast power. A veteran of many engagements with both the armies of Vyss and the neighboring human lands of Brookshire, Magarathran usually sent whelps to do this sort of work.

Belas removed his helm and pushed his fingers through the shoulder-length crown of white hair atop his head. The pale-skinned Elf Knight had, despite his concerns, actually considered abandoning the chase and heading back with news of a clear path. There was little harm in letting rabble go free and likely, when the whole Xannti army swept passed here in a few hours, they’d be caught in by soldiers, or by the planned razing of the wood itself. Yet, Queen Arisyeema had been so specific about this section of the woodlands being picked over as a crow picks the rotting meat off a bone. Sir Belas took his helmet and firmly placed it back on his head, with the internal conflict resolved.

“We press on. One of them is wounded by the blood we’ve found. They couldn’t have gotten far,” He concluded. “They’ll have to take shelter by nightfall in any event. These woods become a different place entirely when Ka sets below the sky.”

* * *

Ashya nestled her back against the tree she had climbed into and watched the sunset bleed red, pink and lavender across the clear heavens. There was a moment of sad fondness that crept into her heart as she thought of Malcolm and Quinton. There had been a knot of guilt in her stomach since siding with the Wraith, the murderer of her two friends. She had wanted to avenge them with unrelenting fury, but instead she was sitting in a tree, aiding the very halfbreed that took her friends from her. It made her feel less like a friend and more like an accomplice to the act.

Now that things have, for the moment anyway, slowed down, Ashya had some time to debate whether or not she wouldn’t be better off on her own. She could slip away in the dark and leave the Wraith to his doom with the reaver and the dragon not far behind them. It would be no less than he deserved and no one would blame her for running from such a situation. Many fled the Wraith of the Wood and nobody called those survivors cowards.

Yet, to her that is exactly what she would be.

More disturbing was how intrigued by the Wraith Ashya was. These ongoing examples of strange code of ethics and surprising fighting tactics for somebody who was supposed to be merely a wild halfbreed killing people in the forest made her wonder who the Wraith was and why he was being hunted so vigorously. It is known that the Elves of Vyss forbid their people from siring children with humans. The penalty for this is a relatively quick, but horrific death, by way of being thrown into a pit full of ever-hungry ravager worms. The parents on the other hand, received a few weeks of torture, before a public execution.

These families of the halfbreed children were never hunted that vigorously if they did manage to get away. Once out of Vyss, they were left alone, but so few actually managed to get away. It was a brutal and foolish way in Ashya’s eyes. Her own people had many mixed-breed children with the Asyndi of the Shar`Vaire clan; an ancient and many say wicked race of once divine beings that served the Old Gods, before being cast down for dissension and betrayal. They were accepted by both the Asyndi and the Tashrani peoples with open arms. She felt pity for the Wraith then, as she imagined the sort of life he must have had to get to this point, to become the person he is now. Killing him almost seemed like a mother’s mercy than a warrior’s duty.

Ashya was broken from her reverie by the sharp crack of a branch. From her position in the tree, she had both ample cover from the skies and fairly good cover from the ground below. The particular tree she had chosen had many branches with thick, green leaves so it allowed for her to blend in with relative effectiveness, providing she did not move overmuch. To the south of her position, she could see the movement of something big moving past her with cracking branches and murmured conversation she couldn’t quite understand for the distance of it. If she could hear and see this, so could the Wraith, but she couldn’t see him.

The other problem was Ka had nearby been swallowed by the night. If what the Wraith said about the Ziyn that reputedly lurked here when darkness fell, then the option to abandon the Wraith to his doom was rapidly becoming no longer an option. Ashya had resolved to fight despite her misgivings for it, but now this tree had become little better than a prison for the potential lethality of the ruins below.

All she had to do is not die. Isn’t that what Malcolm had said?

The Queen’s Deception – Chapter Three

3

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.

The Queen’s Deception – Chapter Two

2

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.”

The Queen’s Deception – Chapter One

“The Queen’s Deception”

by T.A. Saunders

1

 Death came silently to the mercenary. The blade pushed into the back and had sliced cleanly through both padded leather armor and muscle to find its target in the left lung. The wound itself was not the death of the unfortunate would-be bounty hunter, but rather the pale hand that had reached around his head from behind and snapped his neck. Had his helmet not been a full-faced one, he might have seen the hand out of the corner of his eye. The body was dragged into the surrounding density of woodland with no more fanfare than any other of the wild things in the Nyseeah Forest ever brought to killing their prey.

This was a common fate for those who took the bounty the Kingdom of Vyss posted for their most wanted felon. Murderer, traitor and outlaw, the Wraith of the Wood was rumored to be mixed breed abomination, driven insane by his very nature. What had started as a small bounty for a killer of guardsmen of the crown became an urban legend that was used to frighten children to obey their mothers when bedtime was near. Heroes from across the vast realm of Imarel, of both honorable and sinister repute sought the growing pile of platinum coins to kill or capture the Wraith of the Wood, only to join the pile of bodies he always left at the gate.

Those that perished never died gently. Often found butchered in indescribable ways, with organs missing or limbs twisted in unnatural positions, the more that sought the fiend that lurked in the forest, the worse the butchery was. It was as if the Wraith was writing his warning on the ledger of these broken bodies and giving it to illiterate fools who missed the words under the gleam of treasure. Sometimes it was one person, sometimes an entire hunting party. The Wraith did not discriminate between men and women, content to slaughter them with equal fury.

Advisers had begged Queen Arisyeema to lift the bounty she had called five years ago so the eventual appearance of another horrifically mutilated corpse would not be found by children playing near the gates of the city, but she would not hear of it. Even King Nevrezh could not dissuade his queen; it was not an uncommon sight at the Twilight Court to see them quietly arguing with smiling faces and hissed words over the matter that she would not allow to rest. Nevrezh often wondered if his queen had a personal knowledge of this Wraith of the Wood, though he never spoke such suspicions aloud. The king was patient when it came to his wife’s penchant for plotting and had chosen to watch and learn, rather than to shout and demand his will that this hunt be done.

And so a new day rose and with it, more hunters to seek the Wraith of the Wood’s head. The King, who had business in the neighboring Grand Duchy of Brookshire did not attend the arrival of this band of three that came to seek the bounty. On this day, the queen herself saw to it and was glad in her own silent, smiling way that he was not in attendance.

Arisyeema had the appearance of a pretty porcelain statuette upon her shaped-wood throne. She wore pale pink gown with a flattering neckline and a string of pearls to match the platinum, pearl and diamond tiara upon her brow. Courtiers danced to music played with wooden instruments and drank deeply of dark wine cultivated from the tart Marsilla fruit. The whole arrangement looked like something that might have been a part of a child’s music box the way the Elves of Vyss danced together around their queen. She was the center of their world and they orbited her with their movements and watched with their eyes but most importantly, listened for truth to supplement the rumors of recent days.

“This is a most delicate matter,” Queen Arisyeema began as she sat upon the throne shaped from a living, spidery-branched Forgora tree, wrapped with vines and made soft on feather down cushions. “So many of the kingdom’s heroes have been vanquished by this Wraith of the Wood, that the legend of him is becoming greater than the actual man. This cannot be allowed to pass.”

“He is a mortal thing then?” Asked the first of the three heroes before the queen. He was a broad-shouldered sort, with shaggy red hair and a thick beard to match his thick torso. A Brookshire Hillsman by the look of him , with three flintlocks in his belt and a falchion sword strapped to his hip.“We were made to believe this was a creature of darkness and not a mere murderer.”

“To capture a mere murderer would not require heroes or hunting parties,” Arisyeema replied with a smile upon her soft pink lips that, however demure also seemed almost pleased to answer the question for the horrific truth of it. “He is not merely a murderer. He is the embodiment of murder. He takes joy in murder like we take joy in a finely prepared feast or a well-written poem.”

“Not much for reading poetry ashamed to say, Your Majesty,” Said the second of the three heroes who stood before the queen. He was a reedy thin man with pale skin and dark eyes. His head was cleanly shaved save for a thin goatee on his chin that gave him an unseemly look to match his dark and loose-fitting clothing. Arisyeema guessed him a Xosian man from the moon, Ishaela. “But I know what don’t sound right and this has a stink of something we’re not being told of rightly. What stops you from sending in your army and sweeping the wood for this madman?”

“I concur,” Said the third hero, a woman who had been standing between the two men and had remained silent through the discourse until now. Her inky black hair was sheered short like a man’s and her left eye was covered by a leather eye patch, leaving her with a single bright green eye. The jagged scar running down her left cheek spoke of the cause to the loss of the covered eye, but added to the intensity to which the gypsy woman carried herself with. Like the first hero, she donned padded leather armor, but carried a pair of basilards that were sheathed at her hips. Her olive skin gave her away as a Tashrani gypsy from across the Sea of Whispers. “If this Wraith of the Wood is such a menace, why not flush him out with the royal army and take him by by numbers?”

Arisyeema folded her hands upon her lap before she offered her response. While most would not think much of it, those who have attended court understood that the very subtle gesture was a mark of mild irritation from their queen. It was enough to slow the rotation of dancers and to make the music a tad softer. Two of the three heroes barely seemed to notice this very subtle change in their environment, but the Tashrani woman did and even went so far as to glance over her shoulder at the quieting splendor, before turning back to face the queen and her response.

“You are new to Vyss and our troubles,” The queen said with a smile to be too pleasant to be a reflection of joy. “We are rare to admit foreigners into our lands and for that I do apologize. It is a tradition amongst our people that we keep our history, our culture and our way of life as pure as possible. Unfortunately, this makes you ill-informed of our troubles to the north, where the Xannti Dragons stir and seek to make dispute with borders that have been known for centuries. We have had to advance our armies to address this growing conflict and can not spare them to deal with this matter.”

The queen made a reasonable statement and one that did not seem to trouble the three heroes overly much. Nations had their conflicts and an old kingdom, such as Vyss would likely have more than a few disputes over land and resources. There was quiet amongst the three as they exchanged glances before the red-bearded Hillsman spoke for the trio. “We’ll take to the hunt of the Wraith of the Wood, but we would like fresh horses and supplies for the journey into the forest.”

“It is the very least I could do for you three brave souls,” Arisyeema said gracious tone. A motion made with a slender hand donning a ring with a large and strangely luminescent blue gem brought forth one of her handmaidens. A slip of a girl perhaps no more than twenty years old, only barely coming into her slowing of age. “Send word to the servants that these three are to be given fresh horses and given all manner of supplies they seek.”

All three heroes bowed to the queen, only rising after she gave her leave to do so with a gesture of her right, ring-bearing hand. The departure for the trio came on purposeful boot steps, for having a mutual discomfort for the barely concealed disgust and whispered mockery of the watching courtiers. Their kind was a filth to them that they barely tolerated within their borders at the best of times. When there was blood to be spilled, it was well enough to have the short-lived humans expend themselves instead of an Elf of Vyss, who might live thousands of years.

Still, their coin spent as well as anybody’s so it made little difference what these soft, decadent elves thought of them. So long as they were paid for their trouble everybody would be happy in the end. Except of course the Wraith of the Wood, who was now the primary focus of the trio’s conversation, as they escaped the tall entryway of the palace, onto the marble-paved roads of the vast and ancient city of Am-Raynia.

“I know why t’was we took the job Malcolm,” The wiry Xosian of the trio said to the burly, red-bearded Hillsman. “But did you see how they all had a smug look on their faces? You’d think we were being fed to a lion and not ridding them of an unseemly problem of theirs.”

“Saw it.” Malcolm replied while motioning the group to head to the guest house they were being put up in for the night. “And given the body count this Wraith of the Wood has amassed, it’s not wrong to think that we are being fed to a lion. Doesn’t change there’s a job to do.”

“I do not disagree with Quinton that there is more to this than what we are being told,” the one-eyed Tashrani woman chimed in with a sidelong glance to the bald Xosian man. Her scarred countenance grew thoughtful for a moment as they crossed past a looming Hirsalas tree. Sacred to the Elves of Vyss she was mindful to not step on its roots or even risk brushing against one of its low-hanging branches. “It would not be unreasonable to think, given how little value these elves put on human life that a blood sport might have developed around this bounty, yes?”

“Ashya,” Malcolm began while observing the same care around the sacred tree. “It doesn’t matter if it’s blood sport or a bounty, it pays. We do the job. I don’t much care if this Wraith of the Wood is a demon or a common cut-throat, we’ve got a boat sitting in the docks near Moonfall that won’t be sailing till we repair the damage we took from that pirate cutter of the western waters. Don’t complicate matters.”

“I would never dream of doing such a thing, Mal.” Ashya replied in an entirely too cheery manner as they came to the door of the guest house. Quinton knocked sharply, despite the fact there was a door man standing right there in some attempt to annoy the poor fellow. “I will do the job and not bother telling you that the elf that had the fancy yellow buff coat? He bet thirty gold coins that you would be the first to die.”

“What?!” Malcolm roared while the trio wandered into the guest house. “When we come back with this Wraith of the Wood’s head, I’m going to find that stupid dandy and slap him in the face with the fiend’s own tongue!”

“Won’t comment on how you giving another man tongue doesn’t sit well with me, given we’re sharing close quarters this evening.” Quinton added while tipping an imaginary hat to the Elvish maiden awaiting them within.

The merry banter continued, much to the duress of the far more proper Elvish hosts all the way up to the trio’s room and into the night. Discussion of a plot to capture this Wraith of the Wood was mingled with drink and laughter. While they were joyous in sound and boisterous with vows of victory, each held a silent dread for the impending task the rising sun would bring. Given the extraordinary body count tallied up thanks to others that have gone after the Wraith of the Wood, their plan had to be perfect. One small error on anyone’s part would likely mean death for the lot of them.

References: World of Imarel, Map of Shalzaar