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|What can I say that hasn't already been said?||
Master Heudan awoke with a start as a loud crack shook his room. He dressed hurriedly in the violet light of magical afterglow pouring in through his window, wondering what could have happened. None of the suspicions he had already formed pleased him. He headed towards Verene's room.
Storthen stood in the yard by the barracks, practising with his sword. Save for him, the place was deserted. All the other soldiers had taken to the taverns once the sun had set, except for those left on guard. Storthen did not care much for their company. He had no animosity towards them, but drink and drunkards were a distraction from more important matters. He had a score to settle.
He had made few friends among the Queen's guard anyway. He shared too few of their habits, and not a single one of them was unaware of who he was by now. Who he had been, rather; the bandit warlord, terror of the West. None of it mattered to him. He wasn't here to make friends.
Storthen had spent the last two years in dungeon cell, punishment for his crimes. He had only been released relunctantly, on the basis that the Queen's justice should be applied fairly to all, even bandits from the wasteland. Unlike many others in the western wasteland, he had not been forced there as an outlaw; he had been born there. As much as the Royal Executor had been unwilling to admit it, all the blood he spilled was that of outlaws, criminals with a price on their head. Caravans had stopped trying to cross long before Storthen began his activities. They had been just as unwilling to allow him in the Queen's guard as they were to release him from his cell. He wasn't so sure it was a good idea himself, but he had nowhere else to go and no other trade he could practise.
He stepped, turned, brought his sword in a graceful sweep around him. That was the first thing he had changed, as soon as he had saved the coin for it. It wasn't as fine as his old sword, the one he had owned before his capture, but it was preferable to the short swords given to the soldiers. He grinned to himself as he swung the large sword low, both hands on the hilt. He had taught them a thing or two. He turned and thrust, holding his sword in the belly of an imaginary opponent before sheathing his sword. It was after he had proved his swordsmanship that they had relented, and let him in the Queen's guard. Their sword and shield technique, though easier learned, was no match for his skill with a double-gripped sword.
Even the dim light dusk offered the sky had fled now, leaving the yard in darkness. Storthen drew his sword again, and launched into another set of exercises. He wasn't tired yet, and there was little else to do. He knew he was good with his sword, certainly better than any of the other soldiers. Perhaps even better than Warrod, the old weaponmaster, although there was no way to know that for certain, for Warrod didn't fight. Storthen reflected on how poorly his last battle had gone for him, two years ago, and thought that perhaps the weaponmaster had the right of it.
He grimaced as he felt a trickle of blood from his ear run down his neck. This was not the time for philosophy; he should be focusing on his swordplay. If he practised enough, he would not need any of the weaponmaster's philosophy, for he would not lose next time.
Lithanna stood panting, her claws dripping fresh blood. She looked at the corpse in front of her, steaming in the chill of twilight. Even after all this time, the thought of eating the meat raw still revolted her. She had eaten her last apple yesterday, however, and she was awfully hungry. She cut into the flesh of the panther, and forced herself to eat.
Once she had eaten her fill, she went to the river to wash. She never strayed too far from water. With her hunger abated, there was nothing to distract her from the pain of her claws. She had begun to hunt more often now. She didn't like to eat the meat unless there was no other choice, but the thrill of the chase distracted her from the pain. She wasn't often able to kill the panthers; once they realised she was no easy meat, they often retreated into the trees, where Lithanna could not follow. Her claws were too unwieldy to allow climbing. She had been too quick for this one however; it had not managed to so much as scratch her.
As she lay down to sleep, she caught a dim purple flash from the corner of her eye, somewhere in the distance. As she looked, she thought she could see a faint glow in the sky still, where the flash had been. She put it out of mind. It was far away, and did not concern her. She curled up, and drifted into sleep.
The magic school was in chaos. Master Heudan had done his best to stop the rumours, but the signs of Verene's suicide were unmistakable. Almost everyone had seen the burst of magical energy last night, and if that wasn't proof enough, the slick crater under her window, formed from flagstones molten from what must have been an intense fireball, certainly was. Everyone knew what had happened. Verene had jumped from her balcony, and in the final seconds before she hit the ground, she had panicked.
It was dangerous for someone with magical ability to panic. The histories of the school of magic were full of examples of mages who had panicked at the wrong moment, and lost control of their magic. The result was always the same. Master Heudan had not thought to see it again so soon - it was extremely rare outside of battle. The signs, however, were unmistakable.
Storthen kept his eyes on Rigg as they stalked through the forest. Rigg was the best tracker in the Queen's guard, and it was no small honour to Storthen to be allowed to accompany him. They were tracking a man that had murdered a farmer and burned his home before escaping to the forests, and who presumably intended to flee to the shadowlands far to the east. They had been tracking him for a day now, straight through the forest. Rigg knew his profession well. He ran with an easy lope that covered ground with surprising speed, and yet never failed to miss a sign of their target's passing. Storthen was used to the pace and did not fall behind, but was constantly surprised at the smallest signs the grizzled tracker could pick at a moment's glance. When he thought they were making good enough speed Rigg would explain the signs to Storthen.
The captain of Storthen's squad had suggested Storthen for a tracker. He had the temperament, for tracking was a solitary business, and the captain had marked his lack of interaction with the rest of the squad. Storthen had agreed willingly. There was a man in particular he wished to track down himself, and he did not begrudge anything that took him closer to that goal.
Rigg held up his hand, and Storthen stopped. He put a finger to his lips to indicate silience, then pointed ahead of them. Storthen heard it then. A faint crashing in the distance; someone obviously moving through the undergrowth with haste. Rigg motioned to Storthen, and they both redoubled their speed. They moved far quieter than their quarry, especially since they did not have to break a trail, and moreover they had conserved their energy well. It was not long before Storthen caught sight of a man running ahead of them.
The man gave a yelp of terror when he looked behind him to see Rigg and Storthen bearing down on him. He knew he couldn't outrun them. He stopped and drew his sword. Rigg and Storthen circled to either side of him as he desperately tried to keep them from surrounding him. At a motion from Rigg, Storthen sprang to the attack. The murderer was not greatly skilled, and Storthen easily kept him busy as Rigg circled behind. The man cried out in pan as Rigg slashed with his sword, slicing the murderer's hamstrings. He fell, and Storthen brought his sword to the man's throat at the same moment he stepped on his sword. The murderer screamed in pain as Rigg tied his hands and feet, and finally gagged him. Storthen and Rigg then began the trek back home, dragging their prisoner behind them.
Master Heudan had spent all day searching Verene's room and the ground below her balcony, but no matter how he searched, he couldn't find anything. No ash, no blood, not even a scrap of her clothing. The rest of the school had gone back to normal, although the crater still attracted strange looks whenever students walked past. Master Heudan had gone on searching, however. He still couldn't believe it. Verene was so strong; she shouldn't have died like that.v
He had begun to hope, however. He didn't allow himself the luxury, as yet, but he should have found some remains of her by now. His failure to do so kindled his hope that she hadn't died, that something else had happened to her instead. The thought just struck him - if she had not died, she could still be in danger. Here he was, searching for the remains of her body, when he should be searching for Verene herself!
He couldn't do it on his own, however. He would have to call in a favour from an old friend.
Verene ran blindly through the forest, tears blurring her vision. She had lost the energy to even scream anymore, and simply ran. Running was the only hope she had. She could hear the beast behind her as it crashed through the trees, the vines that snagged Verene's feet no hindrance to the creature. It sounded horribly close; she wasn't sure if it really was breathing down her neck, or if she just imagined it. She didn't dare look behind her to see.
The trees became denser as Verene ran on. The creature's screams of rage grew more distant; Verene guessed the trees had grown too close together for it to get through easily. She dared to look behind her. There was nothing, only tree trunks. She choked out a relieved gasp.
She didn't know where the creature had come from. She didn't even know where she was. When the beast first burst through the underwgrowth, she had unleashed the full force of her power at the misshapen creature; or she had tried to. She had found herself drained, tired and hungry, and the trickle of magic she had managed had served only to slow the beast down. That was when she began running.
An ear-wrenching scream in the distance startled her, and she left her illusion of safety behind and kept running, even when the tortured sound had died out, until she was too tired to do more than stumble. Eventually she collapsed in a heap on the forest floor, exhausted.
Lithanna lay on the ground, exhausted. Blood covered her from head to toe; fortunately, most of it was not hers. She didn't have the strength to wash herself. She wasn't even sure it was safe to sleep. What if there were more creatures like the one she had just killed? She was too tired. She just breathed, staring at the sky through the treetops. The creature's body lay a short distance away. It was a huge, twisted thing, all claws and teeth.
She gradually relaxed, calmed down from the encounter. Her hands throbbed with pain from her claws. The foul blood of the creature stank. She wrinkled her nose, but still did not move. She had several cuts of her own, some of which were still bleeding. She wasn't sure exactly where they were.
She closed her eyes. She was so tired. She drifted into an exhausted, restless sleep.
|Before the Tide||Samis and the Pearl of Light|
|Loving Angels||The Path of Least Forgiveness|
|Mortal Magic part 4|