Ethnila pulled her cloak around here to ward off the night air, still heavy from the afternoon’s rain. She could still see the lights from the inn where they had rested last night. A washed out bridge had forced them to take a detour south along the river looking for someone to ferry them across.
Despite the chill, she felt comfortable. The earthy smell of rain-drenched fields reminded her of Daenna. It was quiet, too, aside from the distant river. No strangers talking, no cattle braying… no sign of people. Just like home.
“…gems are gone,” Loriana’s voice drifted over from the other side of the tent. “See these holes? There used to be an uncut amethyst and some glass and amber, representing the shards of Illun.”
Ethnila could hear Imaerla reply, but didn’t pay attention to what was said. Instead she looked up at the clear sky, full of stars twinkling in the dark. This too reminded her of home. It was rare to see a shardless night here, while in Daenna the silver band had never been seen.
She remembered her first night seeing it on a ship sailing for Arlath. Giant rocks just… floating in the sky. It had been terrifying. The thought of one of those things falling down and smashing the boat had robbed her of sleep that night.
Then she had traveled through the lands of Illun, where such rocks floated so close to the ground some were nestled in the treetops and loomed overhead to block out the sun.
Ethnila shivered again.
Marnius said they weren’t the same. He claimed the ones in Illun were created by some old mages, thankfully long gone. The shards in the sky, according to him, had been around since even before the fall of Monlaria.
Ethnila didn’t really care.
She just prefered to have the open sky overhead to several tons of rock waiting for its magic to fail so it could fall down and crush any unlucky bystanders. And the Illunites built houses on the things.
Ethnila got up, shook the wet grass off her cloak, and made her way back to the fire for some warmth. What little their pitiable supply of firewood could offer. The villagers had told them of a forest to the north, saying they could get more firewood there. With Daenna almost entirely covered in forest, having to bring along firewood still felt strange to Ethnila.
At least it gave her an excuse to step aside from the others to get some time alone.
Loriana was trying to attach a marble to the pommel of her sword, to replace something that had evidently been pried loose. The way the firelight reflected in the glass sphere made it appear hollow, filled with some swirling blue liquid. It was strangely hypnotic and Ethnila watched in silence as the girl worked. Though the marble was a touch small, Loriana finally managed to bend the setting to hold it and laid the sword aside.
She stood up, threw Ethnila a smile, then walked over to brush Sun. The way that beast was pampered by both Marnius and Loriana…
“Lady Ethnila!” Marnius waved her over. “Have you come to any new insights?”
Ethnila glanced over at the elf, carefully skinning a rabbit for dinner. If it were up to the witch-hunter, she’d just as soon have left the woman to recover at the inn alone. Free to return to her tribe while Loriana traveled with Marnius and herself to Brighthill.
Ethnila hadn’t even bothered to suggest it. Loriana would’ve had none of it, if she had.
The elf seemed to Ethinila like a devil seeking to corrupt the innocent; everything she said and did seemed harmless and still everything about her seemed wrong.
“I don’t trust her,” was all she said.
“Neither do I…” The hulking inquisitor sighed as he looked over at Loriana. “From what I know of the fey, I would not be surprised to learn they stole her memory in the first place.”
Ethnila gave a curt nod of agreement, then moved over to offer assistance with preparing the meal. Imaerla’s taste in spices was too mild for Ethnila’s preference, and too hot for the others’ liking. Especially Marnius, who much preferred tasteless gruel to even a sparsely spiced stew.
After the meal Marnius gathered up the tiny bowls in his big hands and went to wash them in the river. Ethnila took the opportunity to go gather more firewood to dry out in the warm fire pit. She didn’t get far from the camp before being forced to turn around because she forgot her axe. As she drew near, she could hear Loriana and Imaerla speaking in strained voices.
“Uragh spoke, Ima! He’s smarter than a cow. They all are!”
“Trolls are dumb, bloodthirsty, savage beasts! They wanted to eat you!”
“That doesn’t give you the right to drug them!”
“Should we have let them wander the forest to eat whomever they wanted instead?”
“No, but you can’t just go around forcing people like that.”
“They are not people. Besides… No, nevermind.”
“Not even Uragh? Wait – you didn’t, did you? You didn’t force them?”
“I… No, we did not. They… fey magic diminished their hunger, but that is all.”
“You lied to us? To Marnius? To me?!”
“I knew not how to explain… The trolls… they are brute beasts. We tried to tame them, but…”
“But their bloodlust isn’t so easily sated as their hunger?”
“It is more than that…”
“So that’s one… How many others have there been?”
“What? How many…?”
“How many lies, Imaerla? What else have you lied to me about?”
“No, that is not…”
In the silence that fell, Ethnila felt a creeping sense of hope. Hope that Loriana would come to her senses and leave this fey trickster behind without assistance from Marnius and herself.
“I lied to the giantkin, not you.”
“Are we even going to Raven’s Nest? Or is that a lie, too?”
“Loriana! You cannot seriously think I would-”
“Was Aziz even real?! Maybe he was just one of your minions disguised by fey trickery!”
“Enough!” Imaerla’s voice held an authority very unlike the quiet, withdrawn woman Ethnila had seen her as. “I promise we will seek out this ‘Kyrion’ when we get to this nest of ravens. If that is not good enough for you, then maybe you should leave me and go with Marnius instead.”
Ethnila lingered, axe in hand. She could hear them moving about on the other side of the tent, but the conversation seemed to have ended.
“Where are you going?”
“She forgot her sword. I am bringing it to her.”
It was transparent enough, but it did mean she needed to get to the forest first. Ethnila ducked around what had generously been called a hill and sprinted hard to put some distance between them. Once she felt sure she had a reasonable lead, she slowed to a walk.
Imaerla caught up with her as she stood cutting branches off a tree near the forest’s edge. Ethnila strapped her sword to her waist, eyeing Imaerla for any sign of the argument. The woman’s features seemed cut from stone, dispassionate yet finely chiseled, as she stood silently staring into the darkness of the wood.
“Do you care?”
“No,” Ethnila shrugged and motioned at the newly cut branch. “I’ll cut, you carry?”
The elf looked at the branch, then shocked her head and held her hand out to Ethnila. “I cut, you carry.”
They worked in silence for a time before she spoke up again. “You do not trust me. You think Loriana should go with you and leave me to go back to my tribe. Both of you.”
“Because,” Ethnila paused, uncertain how to continue. Because she lied; because she was fey; and because something was off about her. “You’re a mage. The Church does not approve of mages, and in Daenna… mages always end up corrupted by Iruqhal. Mages are not to be trusted.”
“That is all?” She sneered, leaving the axe buried in a half-cut branch. “I call upon the spirits of the earth and sky, so I seek to do Loriana harm?”
“Earth and sky…?” Ethnila gripped the hilt of her sword. “I thought you an animist, the fey equivalent of a greenskin shaman. But no… it is much worse. You are a weather witch! No wonder you made such a quick recovery… Stealing the health of the land to heal yourself. You’ve sold your soul to the Ancients. You’re no mere fey trickster-” She drew her sword, eyes locked on the elf. “You’re a heretic!”
Ethnila could feel magic gathering around the elf before she even finished speaking.
“What now, witch-hunter?” Imaerla was backing away, trying to put the tree between them. “Shall you strike me down and blame it on bandits?”
Marnius returned to the camp with bowls balanced in one hand and a big fish in the other. It had leapt right into the pot while he was scrubbing it. Despite the darkness with the campfire reduced to embers, he could tell the camp was rather empty.
Peering through the night he spotted someone curled up next to Sun’s faintly shimmering form, a dark silhouette against a ghostly shape of gold atop the small hill behind the camp.
“Lady Loriana!” he called, tossing the bowls onto the packs and holding out the fish. “I caught breakfast!” He beamed her a wide smile, realizing only when she replied that something was wrong.
“That’s great, Marn.”
“What is wrong, my friend?” He crouched down beside her. It was impossible to make out anything on a moonless, shardless night like this. He closed his eyes and sent his focus deep within himself, reaching out to the blazing light of his faith and beckoning a small mote to follow him back to the camp.
The bright star hung in the air between them, casting its light upon Loriana’s weary face. Her eyes were red and her cheeks streaked with drying tears.
“What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“Ima… she left. She took Nila’s sword and just walked away. Took her dress, everything.”
“Surely she would not simply leave?”
Marnius had little doubt she would do precisely that, but better to let Loriana convince herself of that first.
“We argued. She’s been lying. About the trolls. About why she wants to go to Malqish. About… who knows… everything?”
The inquisitor let out a sigh, placing a hand on the girl’s shoulder in what he hoped would be a comforting gesture. As he sat there, trying to figure out what to say next he could feel it. It was distant, almost drowned out by his own humble light, but there was no doubt about it. Magic.
“I bet Nila will be happy. She never liked her.”
“Yes… Wait, no-” Marnius had lost track of the conversation, too focused on the magic. He looked to the side, peering into the darkness in search of where the source might be. Why was there magic? “I’m sure she’ll be sorry to lose-”
A sudden flash on the horizon, like lightning but much smaller, answered his question. And had Loriana suddenly sprinting away.
“Loriana! Wait!” It was too late. Marnius grabbed his morningstar from the pile of Sun’s saddlebags and took off after the girl. Sun snorted in confusion as the commotion woke him.
Marnius’ long legs soon had him overtaking Loriana as she stumbled forward in the dark. Realizing they would never find the others like this, he grabbed her and pulled her to a stop beside him. “We need light.”
This time, he pushed his magic into the weapon – a weapon crafted specifically to hold magical power, if only for brief periods, allowing him to weave more powerful spells. The star that alighted from its glowing head blazed like the dawn, chasing the night away all around them and casting light upon Imaerla as she came rushing toward them with terror etched on her features. Behind, Ethnila was rushing after her with claymore in one hand and an axe in the other.
Where Imaerla’s face had shown fear, Ethnila’s showed only grim determination.
The witch-hunter stumbled, wincing as she did, but pressed on even as Marnius’ light flared up to cast its light further and brighter.
Imaerla gave a cry of surprise and threw her arm up to shield her eyes, then tripped and fell onto the wet grass.
In the distance beyond the two, a group of ruffians likewise cover their faces.
Ethnila skidded to a halt, planting her feet and pivoting around to hurl the axe at the closest brigand. The haft of a quarrel stuck out of her shoulder.
Loriana rushed toward Imaerla, reaching out to help her stand.
Without waiting to see where the axe flew, Ethnila gripped her sword with both hands and charged.
Though the axe flew wide, it came close enough that the crossbowman at the rear ducked and held up his weapon as a shield.
“Death unto the infidels!” Marnius sent another wave of magic out as he stalked foward, this time blessing his fellow faithful with strength of arm and divine protection. He was not much of a fighter, but between his stature and the blazing eyes of golden light he now shared with Ethnila and Loriana – and the crossbowman – he had a weapon that did not need much skill.
The thunderous rumble of heavy footfalls rapidly approaching told him of another whose eyes were glowing brightly moments before a glowing blur streaked past him and rushed into thug, throwing the poor man to the ground like a ragdoll and barely slowing as it trampled him and continued on to slam into the next one in line.
Ethnila stood over the lifeless remains of another, scowling at the last pair as she pulled her sword free from the man’s chest.
The pair wisely dropped their weapons and bolted into the darkness of the forest.
“Ima! I- Are you okay?” Marnius glanced at the elven woman, but as far as he could tell she had suffered no major wounds. She looked a mess and by her limp as she started moving back, leaning on Loriana, she had hurt her leg or the wound in her side had reopened.
“I thought the villagers said there weren’t any bandits around here.” Having wiped her sword clean, Ethnila threw aside the bloody rag and sheathed the blade.
“They did. But they also said the bridge had been washed out for weeks.”
Ethnila grunted as Marnius extracted the quarrel. While it had pierced flesh, it was a shallow wound courtesy of the woman’s thick uniform. The cut along her arm was worse… Marnius hoped they could keep it from getting infected, else he would not be able to save her.