Taral wasn’t sure where the others were; this wasn’t his forest, at least not the part he knew. He knew they were near, caught glimpses and heard them, but he hadn’t the same awareness he was used to when hunting in a group.
And he was decidedly not used to hunting large packs of trolls.
All around him, hounding him like the savage beasts they were. Taral had always been opposed to keeping them around; ‘you can’t rely on fickle faeries to keep them docile’… How right he was, for all the good that did him now.
A howl nearby alerted him to the trolls catching up to one of his comrades; Aeryn, probably. He slowed, thinking to rush to her aid, only to see her come crashing through a bush, sprinting fast and tossing him the boar haunch as she passed.
Taral caught it and bolted off to the side, making sure to step on a few twigs along the way.
Dangerous beasts, and possessed of some cunning, but in their current frenzy easily led by their stomachs. They had been using this tactic to great effect so far, drawing a handful of trolls off from the main pack, leading them into an ambush or all the way to the human dwellings where Jaeworl and the big man dealt with them.
But this time there were more of them.
A lot more, Taral noted as he heard the brutes howling and crashing through the woods behind him. He hoped he would reach the human place soon.
They were catching up.
“If thou find death here, what should I do with thine body?”
Aziz looked up from the twitching corpse of the last troll to find the old man staring at him with curiosity and anticipation.
“Ye wanted me to bury ye with one of yer seeds, aye?” It wasn’t really a question so much as an attempt to stall. Aziz had been chasing death for so long, he’d never stopped to consider what’d happen to his body afterwards. It wasn’t really his problem. “Where I’m from, we don’t really do that sort of memorial thing. ‘Manders have great ceremonies where they throw their dead in the volcano, and the Sollim entomb theirs in statues of glass, waiting for the day of reckoning or something. The rest of us… the slaves and freeborn…” He paused, looking up at the sun behind an overcast sky. “We don’t care. When ye are dead, ye are gone. Yer spirit’s feeding the sun and yer body don’t matter.”
“Perhaps not, but I still wish to know what thou wish I do with thine remains.” Jaeworl showed no intention of dropping the subject. “Bury? Burn? Make a mandragora?”
Aziz couldn’t help but crack a smile. “Aye, that last one’ll do. Make me a vine puppet and send me off to kill trolls. What makes ye so sure I’ll be the one to die, though?”
“I have been preparing for this battle for a long time…” Jaeworl’s smile turned enigmatic, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “No matter what happens, this will not be the place of my- What was it thou said they called them? Ghostleaves?”
Aziz didn’t get the chance to reply before another batch of trolls came rushing out of the woods.
Jaeworl was hard pressed by the trolls, surely, but he still had plenty of magic at his disposal. The earth around him opened to swallow a troll, burying it halfway up the chest and holding it fast. Their plan had been to kill a small group of trolls drawn in by Taral, then fall back so the next group would have time to fight over the feast before the next battle.
Giving the pair time to rest, and providing a chance for the trolls to do some of their work for them.
It had worked great the first few times, and they had downed over a score of trolls that way. Then it seemed the entire horde had come bearing down on them. They were stuck in the glade around the well, trolls on every side.
Jaeworl called forth the roots and limbs of a tree to ensnare another troll. He wanted to look away, to put the gruesome sight out of his mind as the plant tore the poor thing apart from within and without, but Jaeworl could not. If he did the magic would end, leaving the unfortunate troll in agony until it either died or regenerated.
Still, to feel the wood piercing its flesh as surely as though the branches were his claws…
Jaeworl shuddered, breaking the connection the moment his victim was dead. It was not the sensation that revolted him; it was the knowledge that part of him relished it. An eager cry of rage and hunger thankfully forced his attention elsewhere, to a pack of trolls rushing toward him from around a nearby dwelling.
Jaeworl sent a wave of magic into the earth, turning the packed dirt into loose soil and interrupting the charge.
Slowing it, but nowhere near halting it.
But he had bought himself time, time to reach out to the vast supply of magic he had been preparing ever since he had first realized the trolls would turn on them. He raised an arm, sending his will upward to the heavens where roiled a mystic tempest.
Though it happened in a single heartbeat, to Jaeworl it felt like an eternity. Lightning crackled at his outstretched fingertips, racing to meet its counterpart from above; a troll launched itself at him, its fanged maw wide open as it prepared to tear throat to shreds; his other hand swinging down to bring his staff in to block.
This was going to hurt.
Fear drove his decision; desperation to survive in the face of a wild beast twice the size of a man and less than an arm’s reach away. The lightning coursed through his body and exploded out from his staff and into the troll, blasting it backwards and sending it sprawling into the loose soil.
There its body sank even as the lightning leapt from its lifeless form to all nearby.
Jaeworl grimaced, his whole body numb from the spell yet simultaneously screaming in pain.
Never a good idea to do that.
He sat in a treetop, legs dangling off the branch as He looked up to watch the trolls swarming about the little village below. It was a pandemonium of destruction, a cacophonous bedlam, a chaotic and noisy rampage with neither style nor grace.
In short, it was boring.
Just a bunch of trolls ripping everything they could find apart, looking for fresh meat to sate their bloodlust. Their intriguingly unnatural bloodlust. Was it the result of the faery influence? A sort of crescendo breaking loose at the ballad’s end? Or was it the influence of the Silence? He had felt its presence ever since that tone deaf goblin had brought Him here.
Whatever drove their frenzy, they moved like always. Without flair, without melody; to a monotonous primal rhythm.
He sighed, wondering how long it would last. One of them had to have the prize, so it was just a question of waiting for their numbers to dwindle and then go looking for it. He pulled His straw hat down over his eyes, adjusted His vest and leaned back against the trunk to wait.
The flash still dazzled Him.
Disoriented from the sheer power of the bolt, the boom that followed rolled Him clear off the limb and only His hooked legs kept Him from falling. Dangling there with His curled locks dancing above His head, His hat lost to the overcast sky, He scanned the settlement for the source.
For all the bass rumbling in the clouds, that strike was not natural.
The whole storm was magical, conjured forth before even Hi little ditty in the forest. It did not make sense for it to relate to this battle, or so He had thought. But this was not that kind of storm…
“No, no, no,” He said to His valet, shaking his head. “We wondered what warlock would summon such a tricky tempest.”
He pointed at the village square, where two figures stood with their backs against the well and felled foes around them. One, in particular, had lightning dancing around him, arcing from troll to corpse to troll like a fading beat.
“Jae-lagh, wizened witch of the wood…” His gaze shifted to the other figure, who moved with precision as he held back the trolls. Side-step, lunge, withdraw, shield bash, backhand, lunge. Each step matching the cadence of the last, each note in tune with the next.
“Such melodious a melee!” He began climbing down the tree, almost slipping more than once in His haste to reach the ground. Never before had He seen anyone fight with such panache, such rhythm. This man, this giant towering a head or more over even the trolls, was no simple brawler. A dancer, making beautiful music out of battle!
He could feel the tingle of excitement as He and His band made for the village, humming along the way.