The creatures were flat-faced with tusks that pointed upwards. The tusks had to be more for looks than for function, Oirion thought. These animals, if they could be called that, were huge and had arms as big as Ivan’s thighs. They were also armed and armored. Even Ivan seemed a bit humbled by them. Those found around camp were all shot through an eyeball.
Shannon had taken off bits of their armor and was working it clean. Riven was working with jewelry that he was pulling off of them. Though the gear was far too big for them, Ivan would gain a new sword. There were several smaller daggers that could be added to their limited stock, and they would all get cloaks. At least these pieces were better quality than the items they had acquired from the baron.
Riven took an armband off of one creature to study it and saw that they all wore the same armband. He realized that the bands were magic barriers that hid the creatures very well. The magic was geared to the scans of any sort of priest, as well as that of a wizard. There was even more to it, but of a magic that Riven did not recognize.
“You knew we were being followed?” Oirion asked Shannon.
Shannon tossed a chunk of something into the embers of the fire, a piece that he had pried off the inside of the armor he worked on.
“And you said nothing?”
“No. I do not think I did,” he said, as if thinking about it.
“Why not?” Oirion demanded. He was more himself now and very aware how good he had felt after that fight, not just physically, but toward Shannon as well. He felt both guilty and disturbed by it. Whatever it had been, it wasn’t normal and that bothered him and made him short-tempered.
Shannon didn’t look up at Oirion, but turned and tossed another piece of dark grime from the armor into the fire.
“Perhaps it should be asked as well – why did two clerics fail to know? You disappoint me in your lack of skill… again.” He added the last word almost to himself, but they heard him well enough.
Riven was not amused at that, and neither was Oirion. He started to respond when Ivan butted in.
“I have to agree with them, Shannon. You should have, at least, had us set up defensively. What if you had failed… and they had all rushed us at once?”
“They would have killed you all and I would have been on my way, unburdened by slow wit and lack of skill,” Shannon responded, looking up at the big man, his tone sharp and cold.
The camp was very quiet. Travis stood uncertain what to do, as the rest decided if they were going to fight about it or not. The boy moved and found Dave’s lap to hide in.
“I see you’re in a bad mood tonight,” Ivan said after a moment. “Oirion kill more of them than you did? Hurt your pride a bit, did he?”
Shannon looked at the big man. He had so many responses for that, but the truth was he did hurt from what Oirion had done, but it had nothing to do with pride. He calmed himself a fraction. It was best for the priest to pull away and choose to be angry and stubborn. Shannon didn’t want to have to talk about it, or admit that he was affected by it. The idea was just too terrifying.
“You have a death wish tonight, Ivan?” Shannon asked.
“You know what? None of us felt up to a fight and we all needed to sleep,” Dave said. “Shannon decided his skill against the number and he moved. He chose the best option for support and Oirion did so very well. Neither of them took injury and the big fellows are all dead. I don’t see what trying to tell Shannon that there was lack on his part will gain you. Perhaps a “Nice shots, Shannon” and a “Thanks, Oirion” are all that needs to be said, and we drop it and see if we can get some more sleep before morning. I don’t think we’ll want to stay here.”
No one argued, but the two priests and the big Ezeeren were not at all happy about it. Shannon kept to cleaning the armor and ignored them.
They all did sleep and Travis stayed with Dave that night. It was cold for them and they were up early, despite how sore they were. Tavia built up the fire and set a little pot to heating water. Shannon was gone, but he had left the cleaned armor and other scavenged bits in a pile where he had been sitting.
“What’s his problem?” Ivan asked the silent camp. “We all try and watch out for each other. Why is he so… opposed to being part of our group?”
“He did fight for us, he’s still here, and like it or not, we would’ve starved without him,” Dave said.
“That’s why I don’t understand,” Ivan said. “He does his part, but then he’s so cold and so arrogant that, sometimes… I just want to crush that perfect face.”
Oirion half smiled at that. “You and me, both, my friend,” he said.
Ivan shot Oirion a grin.
“I seriously doubt that Shannon has a friend in the world and I don’t think he wants one,” Riven said, “but he does seem to have a great sense of duty and honor to him hidden under the arrogance, if that is actually what it is. I don’t think picking fights with him is a good idea. He may just leave and that wouldn’t be so good for any of us.”
They were quiet again when Shannon returned. He had collected an armload of things off the bodies of the dead left from the fight he and Oirion had won. He picked out several little belts and tossed them to Riven.
“Split it up. We will have to move.”
No one argued with that, but several of them wanted to.
The armor that Shannon had cleaned he gave to Kelly. She was injured from the fall and in pain, yet not saying anything. Shannon knew it. He had laid the armor with shielding spells to help. She ran her fingers over them with a soft touch. She looked up to nod her thanks, but Shannon had already moved on to putting the other trinkets he had picked up into his pack.
They began their daily march with Dave once again in the lead, headed to wherever it was he had found.
They crept through the mountains at the slow pace of those who were injured. Dave tried to keep a decent path going, but after several back-tracks, he traded the role to Riven. Hampered by his ankle, Riven had to move slowly, but he kept a steady progression with no need to backtrack again.
It was several more days of the same steep slopes, low cliffs, and shale rock slides before the rough hills changed into rolling green sweeps, carpeted with groves of aspen and birch. There was the smell of life and the air warmed noticeably.
It seemed that things had begun to go their way. Cindie was thrilled. She saw a shepherd out with a herd of something, not quite sheep, not quite goat. She cheered and moved to run forward. David grabbed her and covered her mouth. She jerked away.
“We have found new humans,” she objected. “I intend to have a bath and a good meal tonight.”
“He’s not human,” Riven said softly.
“Well, yes, he is. Look at him,” she said, rolling her eyes. She huffed and put her hands on her hips. Theo muttered something in Awens, nothing anyone heard.
“No, he’s not,” Dave said, grabbing her arm to keep her from walking out there again.
“Oh, and now the cabin boy knows all about this place?” The contempt and arrogance, typical of all nobles Dave had met, made her voice lift a little.
“He’s more than a cabin boy,” Kelly said. Cindie looked at the big woman and relented.
“You only say that because you think he’s cute and want to wrestle him down.” Cindie rolled her eyes, but Kelly wasn’t amused by her and looked tempted to hit the smaller woman.
Shannon pulled out the bow he carried and loaded the string, his eyes scanning the meadow before them. He hooked off the quiver and held it out to Riven.
“Bless those,” Shannon said softly, his eyes never leaving the clearing before them.
“Any blessing in particular?” Riven asked, not really sure what the man wanted or meant.
Shannon’s cheek twitched as he clenched his jaw in annoyance. “Be creative,” he said.
Riven considered it for a moment, then cast the highest level sanctifying blessing that he knew onto the batch of arrows. He handed the quiver back to Shannon. Shannon reached over without even looking, took one arrow and notched it. He drew back the bow and held it steady as stone.
“That bow will never reach even half the distance,” Oirion said, displaying obvious disgust at what he considered a juvenile attempt with the bow.
Shannon waited another moment and then released the arrow. He snatched another and fired again before the first arrow had even hit its mark. The first arrow came down, burying itself in the shepherds back, down to the fletching. Shannon fired a third arrow. The shepherd turned and got the second one in his side.
“Nice,” Riven breathed, impressed at the double heart-shot, then flinched as the third went into the eye of another that rose up from the ground. It wasn’t alone. There were three more that were rising up out of the grass, but Shannon anticipated each. He continued to fire and managed to get an arrow into all of them at a fatal mark. None of them were stopped. They moved toward the group at a steady pace.
“Ghouls,” Riven realized. His skin prickled with the approaching battle heat.
“Keep control of yourself, Master Dwarf,” Shannon said calmly. As he did, there was a strange flux of power that caused each arrow to flare with the holy power imbued in them by the blessing. They exploded and the flesh was blasted away in a flash of white light. The open wounds revealed the red and black swirl of smoke that was inside the bodies.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Dave said.
“Is that the best you had?” Shannon asked Riven, obviously not happy about the lack of effect.
“You could’ve told me they were ghouls; it might have helped. I would have put banishment on them as well.”
Shannon looked over at the dwarf with a hint of irritation on his face.
“You’re a cleric, Riven, not a village monk.” He drew his sword.
“Why did we attack?” Dave asked. “They didn’t even know we were here.”
“Yes, they did,” Tavia said, seeing others from the rear slowly walking toward them from behind. While some had stayed with the herd, far more of them had circled around to the rear, clearly planning to catch them from all sides.
Cindie squealed and grabbed onto Ivan. He swelled and drew his sword.
“We can chop them down,” he said with a lot of bravado.
“Uh… Ivan,” Dave said. “That one has no head. I don’t think we can chop them apart.”
“What do we do then?” Theo asked, nervously rubbing at his palm.
“Run?” Dave asked Shannon.
Shannon looked at the boy who clung to his mother, his eyes wide as he stared at the ghouls that had appeared from behind them. They were half destroyed by time and past battles. They were getting closer all too quickly.
“They will only follow us,” Riven said. “Oirion, have you any training in White Fire?”
“Not much,” Oirion said, “but enough.”
“Dave, help them,” Shannon said, grabbing Travis in one arm. “The rest of you, with me.” He stepped into a run with the boy clinging to him. Riven pointed after Shannon, stopping Ivan from staying and fighting with them.
“Your weapons will do no good. Go and protect the women.”
Ivan started to object, but when he saw how far ahead Shannon was getting and Cindie falling behind, he ran out after them to help the woman.
Oirion looked at Dave.
Dave met his look. He swore under his breath at Shannon and drew his sword. He raised power just as Shannon had showed him in the trance lessons he had received as a young boy. He never forgot those lessons.
White Fire, like sun on an edge, ran down his sword with a skill and potency that a bishop might envy. He turned and ran at the ghouls who were following after Shannon and those with him.
The two priests did exactly the same, and the three of them hit the ghouls from behind.
Dave’s sword chopped into the head of one he ran down. The white fire on the sword cut through the red and black mist, causing obvious pain to the creature. The demon inside the body turned to face him faster than the possessed body could follow, twisting it like a wet rag.
Dave wasted no time, slicing the demon across the head again with the return swing of his sword. The demon screamed and tried to swipe at him. Dave swung the sword around, hacking the arm off. He circled around again, slashing into the chest of the dead man and the screaming demon inside. The mist scattered and the body dropped.
Turning, Dave barely got his sword up in time to block an attack. An armed ghoul had come up from behind them. The ghoul’s sword snapped at the contact and White Fire flashed out and burned the demon. It fell back screaming, the body on fire.
The cheap weapons that the Baron had given them didn’t hold up long, and Riven was reduced to throwing white fireballs at them. After a few moments, the ghouls began to raise shields that blocked his attacks. He was forced to retreat.
“Ok… run!” Riven said as calmly as he could.
Riven took the lead and they ran through the forested hills as fast as they could, ducking the limbs and jumping fallen branches. They cut back to the south and headed up the nearest slope. With better agility than the ghouls, they were more likely to outrun them on the difficult terrain.
Slipping and falling down the shale of the steep far side, they began to slide toward a cliff lip that wasn’t seen until after they hit the loose stone. Riven shouted and flung out power cords, attempting to slow his descent. With a roll, Riven got a hook of power into the mountain and slid to a stop. Dave cast a very similar spell, one that he had used more than once to catch himself and others from washing overboard. Oirion managed to stop himself without power, clawing at the loose rocks as he slid down the slope. He came to a stop at the brink of the precipice, lying on his back. His feet were dangerously close to the edge with his arms out in an attempt to keep himself from going over into unknown depths. All he could do is lay there and pant as bits of stone trickled out from underneath him and disappeared over the edge.
“I really hate this place,” he muttered in Valreen.
Dave chuckled a little. “Here.” He reached his hand down toward the priest. Oirion looked up at the man who lay almost a body length above him, his hand reaching down. He had to decide what he felt about Dave’s use of magic. With the cliff just inches away, any shift of weight was all it would take to send him over the edge. He had to consider it fast.
“If I move, Dave, I will go over,” he said softly.
Dave hesitated a moment, then offered a rope of power. It could grab Oirion and pull him up to save his life, but Dave made it clear that Oirion would have to reach for it. It was Oirion’s choice.
Oirion held, unmoving, until shale started to fall down on them, indicating that the first of the ghouls had begun to follow them down the slope.
“Come on, Oirion,” Dave said. “Now is not the time for this. Just take it.”
Oirion reached, but it was too late to do anything but just barely touch Dave’s rope of power as the avalanche of rocks began falling on them. Then, the whole sheet of shale broke loose and cascaded over the edge, with them on top of it. Riven swore colorfully in Dwarven as the whole hillside gave way.
The fall would have killed normal men, but they all used magic to take the brunt of the shock away, landing on another slope and rolling and tumbling down again. It was the rain of rock on them that was the most painful part. They tumbled backwards and rolled head over heels, slipping and falling down the slope.
At the bottom of the slope, Dave was jarred to a sudden stop as his head cracked against a rather large tree. He watched for a breathless moment as, above them, the ghouls fell and began to slide down, oblivious to the injuries that their stolen bodies sustained. Riven grabbed Dave’s arm and jerked him up. They scrambled free of the avalanche and headed down the hill. Riven was bleeding from a deep gash on his cheek, just above his beard. Dave was cut as well; blood was running down his face, but now was not the time to worry about it.
They reached a small gorge. It had to be jumped.
“Do they ever stop?” Dave panted, as he leaned on his knees to catch his breath, trying to wipe the blood out of his eye.
“No,” Riven and Oirion both said, almost in unison. Oirion looked at the dwarf briefly, drew a deep breath, then ran and jumped over the gorge. He grabbed for a hold as the bank he had landed on gave way, dropping rocks and dirt down into the deep rushing water at least fifty feet below him. Swinging his weight around, he got past the loose bank and onto the solid ground. Catching his breath, he rolled up and looked back at the other two men.
Riven swore under his breath, in Dwarven again, as he looked across to the caved in ledge; all Dave caught was something about a fire. The dwarf looked back to the ghouls who appeared out of the trees behind them.
“Here.” Dave grabbed him by the back of the shirt and the belt, as sailors commonly did to help each other leap ship to ship, or ship to shore. Riven nodded, counted to three under his breath and with all his strength and the help of Dave, he jumped for the nearest section of bank. Oirion grabbed his hand and swung him clear, even as the light touch of his feet made another section of the undercut ground give way with a loud crash.
It left the gorge too wide to be jumped. Dave looked both ways and could see no other place to jump; he wasn’t going to make it.
“Upstream or down?” he asked.
“No.” Oirion held out his hand as far as he dared with his feet braced as far out as the solid ground would allow. “Between the two of us…” he said, and then offered a rope of power. It was different than the one Dave made and not at all like Riven’s. Dave took it and thought how like Shannon’s it felt… smooth and cool, thin yet strong. He gripped it in his hand and cast his own back to Oirion.
“On three,” Oirion said, as he took hold of Dave’s rope and braced his legs. Riven grabbed the back of Oirion’s belts, and on three, they all pulled hard. Dave ran and jumped. Oirion and Riven threw themselves back with all their weight to add to it. With Dave’s pull, Oirion stumbled forward a step, dangerously close to the edge, but he stumbled into Dave, who came flying across the gorge, slamming into him. Grabbing each other, they steadied themselves as the ghouls poured out of the trees.
Several went over the edge of the gorge and three tried to jump the span but failed, plunging into the abyss below.
Out of breath, Dave, Oirion, and Riven stepped back with relief.
“Let’s find the others,” Riven chuckled a little as he brushed off his tunic. He was rather glad that, this time, they got to just walk away and it wasn’t their job to destroy each ghoul and hunt their master. Their job right now was simply to survive. Normally, he would be setting up camp right here.