Tellest Short Story – Days of Shadow

Days of Shadow
A Tale by Michael DeAngelo


“Damn it all, lad.”

The words seemed to echo on the wind, though Mishka knew that there was none that day. The leaves on the trees leading out to the wide-open plains barely shook, and for a moment, the boy, not quite seventeen yet, mused that it seemed as though he was looking at a painting instead of passing beyond the forest.

“Mister Loreaux,” he said, a tone of pleading in his voice, “the horses haven’t had enough rest yet today. Happy horses—”

“Carry you further,” the merchant leader said from atop his own horse. “Yes, I know the so-called wisdom you’ve tried to impart on me. But I didn’t hire you for your brains, lad. I hired you so you could snap the reins when I told you so. The longer we spend in these woods, the better target we make for any bandits in the area.”

“Surely we’re not worried about bandits for a troupe as capable as ours though, are we?” Mishka asked.

Loreaux pulled on his horse’s reins then, stopping its march up the hill, and he looked behind them.

Indeed, their caravan was protected by some of the most righteous and stalwart mercenaries they had known. Loreaux himself even fancied himself among their members, even though it was his goods that they traveled from one side of the continent to the other.

Still, their wagons might have been too interesting a target for any greedy highwaymen to pass up.

The merchant leader glanced from wagon to wagon, and mercenary to mercenary, his gaze finally landing on the youngest member of their troupe, just one year younger than Mishka. Jerai looked younger still, her dual heritage ensuring she would always look younger than the years that she carried. It seemed silly, Loreaux thought, to see her sitting tall on her black horse, a pair of curved daggers at her hips. But he had taught her well and knew that she could wield them better than most.

His horse nickered when she drew near, and Loreaux clapped his much larger steed on his toned neck. “Easy, Admiral,” he said, a rare soft spot in his rougher speeches. “We have to come to terms with our children knowing the lessons we’ve imparted and trust them to make their own way.”

In fact, neither the horse nor the girl was the true offspring of Loreaux or Admiral. But in both cases, they had been adopted as though they were a part of the family all along.

As Jerai and Cutter, her horse, passed between Loreaux and the wagon, he noticed Mishka’s eyes following the girl up the hill.

“Easy there, lad,” the merchant captain grumbled. “You’ll be likely to see those peepers fall out of your head if I don’t knock them out myself.”

Though Loreaux’s words themselves had sounded a bit like a threat, the boy could tell by the tone of his voice that there was no ill will there. It was no secret that he and Jerai had feelings for one another, though of course warnings had come from everyone else in the troupe.

All it had produced were a few more attempts at clandestine meetings beneath the stars, or lingering delays outside of taverns and trading posts while everyone else headed inside.

Mishka squared his jaw and nodded purely out of the duty to do so. But as Loreaux knocked on the side of the wagon and sped off after his adopted daughter, the lad couldn’t help but let a cheeky grin show.

Admiral cantered until he drew up alongside Cutter, the two black horses looking like a pair of shadows reflecting off one another as they climbed the hill out of the forest. Jerai couldn’t have looked anything like Loreaux, the burly fellow towering over her even without the assistance of his mighty steed. There was also the matter of his hair, the sides shaved away to allow a flat run of it along his center, with what looked like a winter’s snow leaving permanent smatterings of white and grey there where his mane had once been as black as Admiral’s. Jerai’s hair was a vibrant spark of red that fell to the middle of her back, and as she crested over the hill, the sun seemed to dance there for a moment.

She nudged Cutter off the side of the path, and Loreaux saw why a moment later. Another member of their troupe, their scout, had stopped in the middle of the road, staring off into the vast plains before them.

Loreaux spun Admiral to the side, ensuring the rest of the caravan knew to hold for the moment.

“What is it, Garrick?” he asked then.

Garrick needed no horse, the man known for both his speed and his conditioning. He often raced far ahead of the rest of the group, and to see him halted upon the hill was a rare sight indeed.

But Loreaux did not need an answer from his scout. In following his gaze out into the plains, he spotted the strange phenomenon that was worthy of their attention.

A pillar of shadow seemed to descend from the sky, though there was no sign of clouds above it, nor anything below that seemed to be sending it airborne. It was a peculiarity that could not be discounted, and for a time, Loreaux felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle up at the sight of it.

“It’s been like that for as long as I’ve been here,” Garrick said. “Well, not exactly. I could swear it looked narrower a few minutes earlier.”

Loreaux gazed off into the distance, trying to see if he could determine what had willed the bizarre shadow into existence. As best he could tell, though, the rest of the plains looked uninhabited by anything worthy of attention. There were a few farmhouses in the distance that puffed chimney smoke into the air, but no signs of any danger.

But the shadow still came down fairly close to the road that the caravan would use on their journey.

“Let me investigate it a bit closer,” Garrick offered. “It’s probably nothing serious, but I’d feel more at ease proving that to myself.”

Loreaux hummed but found himself nodding. “Just make sure you save your legs,” he said. “Take an easy pace to get there in case you need to run back.”

Garrick didn’t wave or nod or acknowledge the merchant captain in any way except to skitter down the other side of the hill, jogging lightly toward the pillar of shadow in the distance. Loreaux grumbled to himself then, wondering if he should have transported his scout there atop Admiral.

As he turned to the rest of his troupe though, he knew they would need his guidance. He rose from the saddle and kicked his leg round, dropping from the stirrup a second later. Loreaux gave Admiral a light clap on his rump but didn’t tie him up or guide him in any other way. The horse knew to move along a bit, freeing up the road for the rest of the caravan.

Mishka snapped the reins then, urging his two-horse team on. The slight slope had them struggling for a moment to begin their momentum again, but in only a short while they were on their way.

With the path before them clear, Loreaux’s troupe hurried out of the forest.

“I’ll be glad to leave this place behind,” the merchant leader heard then.

The voice was pitched higher, and there was a nasal intonation there. Even without looking, Loreaux knew that it was his friend Bezel.

The gnome’s wagon passed by, cresting the hill with ease. While the horses drawing his cart were just as conditioned for the journey as the others, it was Bezel’s handiwork that assisted the ascent. A silver golem concocted from various pieces of armor that the gnome had found over the years, Onyx was unusual among even Loreaux’s uncommon troupe. Bezel’s skills as an artificer had left Onyx feeling not just like a mindless automaton, but as a part of a growing family.

It was a strange one, but a family, nonetheless.

“I swear, every time we come through here, I hear rustling in the trees,” Bezel said once he rose up from his spot in the bed of the wagon. Always rustling around in his stock of goods, the gnome chose to let his horses choose the course in following the rest of the vehicles. Onyx would usually steer the team one way or another with a tap on the side of the cart, which they had grown familiar with over time. “And each time it grows closer.”

“I know you think it’s bandits,” Loreaux said. “And to be sure, there are bandits in these woods. But last I heard, there’s been a bustling town built amidst the forest there, not too far from the river. They could have displaced the animals of the woods and sent them scurrying for a new home.”

Bezel scoffed and stroked his spiky beard. “It’s not bustling enough, or else we’d be selling our wares there, too.”

“Give it time,” the merchant captain said. “Before you know it, they’ll need some of Bezel’s Bizarre Sundries.”

The gnome grumbled and sank to his backside in his cart again. The goods were named by his friend, and though he didn’t quite like the sound of it, he had to admit that such a tag had served him well.

“Don’t pay him any heed,” a deeper feminine voice called out just below the crest of the hill.

Loreaux held his hand out then, unsure of how Varga would accept the gesture. A proud orc shaman, she was sometimes caught in the ways of her people. But she had long since left a tremendous part of her culture behind and had spent a considerable amount of time adjusting to life among Loreaux’s mercenaries. Loreaux often considered her his second in command and left governing the sellswords that were less familiar to them up to her.

Varga extended her hand in kind, agreeing to some assistance climbing the knoll. She parted her lips as though she were going to offer up some other comment to Bezel, but her gaze caught the pillar of shadow in the distance, and her eyes and her lips narrowed at that sight.

“What is that, Reaux?” the shaman asked then.

“I sent Garrick to have a look at it,” the merchant captain returned. “It doesn’t look as though it’s moved the entire time we’ve been amassing here on the hill. But I don’t need some foul wizard souring our journey to our next stop.” He stepped a little closer to the descending slope on the opposite side of the hill then, his eyes narrowing a bit as well.

Varga stepped up beside him then, and though she didn’t speak another word, Loreaux knew the question that was on her mind.

“I can’t be certain,” he mused, “but I think it’s growing.”

* * *

Whenever he felt even the slightest stress upon his lungs, he slowed his pace, or adjusted his gait. Garrick had earned his reputation as a tremendous scout by being expertly aware of the state of his body, whether that meant speeding through difficult terrain, being as quiet as a wraith, or preserving his energy for longer bouts of investigation.

It felt strange, he considered, to be so vigilant in a place with which he was so familiar.

Several farms separated most of that stretch of the plains. Long stretches of short stone walls intent on keeping out animal scavengers and predators created a point of cover for the scout. Some of the people in that part of their journey had become familiar to Garrick. Just across the road, the next farm was owned by an older couple who had expressed their gratitude several times over the years. Loreaux’s merchant caravan was an attractive target for brigands, but it was also a dangerous one, and their passage through the region had, to their mind, slowed the appearance of bandits in the area. Upon one such passage, the farmer’s wife, Anjou, had even hurried to the stone barrier on her side of the road, excited to hand over a loaf of sweetbread she had just baked that morning.

For a moment, even the memory of the aroma had taken Garrick over. He shook his head about it though, intent on keeping his mind fresh to the task. Even if he hadn’t drawn closer to the immense pillar of shadow, he knew that distractions had a chance to turn deadly in that area of their journey. The scout focused on taking in his surroundings, and identifying anything else that might have been unusual.

Garrick first listened for anything that was out of the ordinary. The sound of distant wildlife was still present—he heard the braying of donkeys, and the lowing of cows—and when he caught the singsong tunes of birds, he caught sight of them on the nearby thatched rooves of the farms.

That brought his attention to the chimney smoke puffing out of Anjou’s farmhouse. It wasn’t cold enough that day to have the hearth warming the house, but Garrick shrugged, thinking once again of the baked goods that Anjou was kind of enough to share in the past. It was also late enough in the day that she would likely have to stoke the cooking fire to keep it going.

Realizing that she must have been present in the house, without any danger at hand, Garrick proceeded along. Once he reached the corner of the property, he hopped over the short stone barricade, daring to walk along the road then instead.

As he drew closer to the towering pillar of shadow, he thought at first that it had grown larger than when he first spotted it from the hill outside the forest. But he shook his head, dismissing it as a matter of perspective. He had, after all, been much farther away from the strange phenomenon.

Up ahead, two roads converged, creating a small crossroads in each cardinal direction. But Garrick could not see that intersection, the shadow expanding from the center there, and growing dark enough that his gaze could not penetrate beyond a few feet within.

And he had always been of the mindset that you could never speculate what you couldn’t see.

“Everything not visible to you is an unseen danger,” he whispered under his breath.

Yet, as he swept back his leg, intent on returning to the caravan, he heard the flight songs of a flock of birds above him. They seemed indigenous to the region, not some concoction of the strange phenomenon apparent along their path. They circled the pillar, and it was then that Garrick noticed for certain that it was shaped like a perfect cylinder.

He found himself drawn forward. If the birds felt safe around it, he could take a cautious approach.

Though everything within its reach was covered in shadow, and turned grey under its veil, he could not see anything out of the ordinary. Even a tree that had been swallowed up by the darkness seemed to waver on in the soft wind that day, its green leaves sapped of color, but otherwise appearing normal.

He tapped into his other senses then, reminding himself that it was not only what one could see that told a story.

The rhythmic calls from above swayed him into a sense of tranquility.

But a single deep breath told a different story.

Not far from where he stood, he could detect an aroma that he could not at first place. It was familiar, but not something that he often experienced, he was sure.

As his mind raced to try and place the scent, the birds called out louder and more incessantly up above.

The two ideas coalesced in his mind then, and Garrick understood how they connected.

Those birds were scavengers, and the fragrance that he picked up on the wind was the smell of death and decay.

As soon as he reconciled the thought in his mind, he was stricken by a new sound, like a fist hitting the squishy flesh of an opponent in a fight. But Garrick also spotted something new at his feet and realized that one of the birds had fallen from the sky.

He crouched down but remained ready to spring back up if needed. Garrick’s gaze drew toward the bird. He knew it was dead, but already he spotted an oddity about its appearance. Reaching out, he turned it onto its back, and was troubled at once by the site of it.

Though he was certain that it had fallen from the sky, it looked as if it had been dead for days. Parts of its body had withered away, leaving a skeletal frame in its place, though the rest was still covered in lively feathers. Half of its head remained, sending an abyssal stare back in his direction.

As mesmerized as Garrick was by the strange sight, he lost focus on what had drawn him so near to the crossroads. While he reached for the bird, to discern what had caused such bizarre injuries to appear, the shadow reached forth as well, hungering for that which it had already tasted.

The most intense pain rippled through Garrick then, as the shadow passed over his skin, his hand hovering over the bird’s withered flesh. The scout recoiled and stumbled backward, cradling his hand then. He wondered if perhaps the bird had lived through its ordeal somehow and pecked at him in blind fear.

But Garrick knew the truth of it a moment later. He watched as his hand, which had only been gently kissed by the growing shadow for a mere moment, peeled away and wasted. Though he was normally keen to watch for anything peculiar, he could not believe what he saw as his own flesh necrotized, and he could see the bones of his fingers, the skin and muscle shriveled away.

He was deaf to the sound of hoofbeats then as well, all of his training as a scout torn away from him as he contended with the madness of what had just happened. The echo of Loreaux’s voice was distant to Garrick, and with the pillar of shadow continuing to grow before him, he didn’t notice as the merchant leader and his horse cast shadows of their own.

He felt a tug on his collar then, and before he knew it, Garrick was dragged back, away from the dark pillar. Enveloped in confusion, he lost his balance, and tumbled to the ground. By reflex alone, he cradled his decaying hand, and was stricken by the twin oddities of feeling immense agony and an absence of pain there. His head and back struck the dirt, shaking him from his thoughts enough to see as Loreaux circled back around and appeared before him.

“Get up, you fool!” the troupe leader demanded of him.

With his voice coming through with more clarity, Garrick responded like a good soldier. Despite the odd sensation coursing through his arm, he climbed to his feet, and reached out as Loreaux came back around.

After a mighty heave, the scout sat squarely atop Admiral, the horse seeming unbothered by the extra weight. Together, the trio galloped away from the growing black curtain, the shadow seeming to expand by inches every second.

“We need to warn the others,” Garrick spoke through fading breaths. “The farmers in the area—they won’t know the danger.”

Before the scout could determine whether the troupe leader would see the logic in his request, the pain, staved off by adrenaline until then, took a firm grasp on him. Wracked by agony, the scout was thrust into oblivion, where such suffering could not overwhelm him.


* * *

A subtle breeze moved through the makeshift camp, but it did little to stave off the sudden heat that Varga felt upon her skin. Perspiration marred the orc shaman’s brow, but she refused to relent, calling forth her magic from the depths of the aethereal plane. After all, the suffering she experienced was nothing like what her companion endured.

Garrick was awake once again, and despite all of his attempts at a brave face, he couldn’t ignore the waves of agony that washed over him. Without shock or adrenaline to grab hold of him, it was the dark magic of the shadow that he felt.

Varga was no fool, yet she persisted when she knew that there was nothing to be done. Her spellcraft was strong, but she could only briefly see it having any effect on her friend’s grievous injury.

Lying atop a table that they would have used to display their wares at one of their stops, the scout shuddered and trembled as he tried to work through the shadow’s bite.

“Take my hand,” Garrick suddenly said, almost looking surprised to have said it.

The shaman knew that he didn’t mean to ask for a squeeze to help him through the pain.

Through gnashed teeth, Garrick rolled to his side, struggling through tears of rage and anguish to find the merchant leader.

“Loreaux!” he called out. While he was waiting for his other friend to arrive, he collapsed to his back once more, and looked at the orc pleadingly. “Your magic can close the new wound we make, but my hand is already gone.”

As one of the strongest among them, Varga found herself nodding in agreement. She knew that her magic was not failing—that a normal wound could be mended—but there was more to the shadow than she could overcome. It was beyond her abilities, and asking Garrick to bear his pain was not something she could continue to do.

Loreaux arrived, and his brow furrowed at the sight of his scout’s hand, no better off than when he had first sustained the injury.

“The magic isn’t keeping,” Varga said. “Whatever it is, it lingers upon this brave soul, and we know that we cannot fight this battle forever.”

“I need you to sever my hand just above the wrist,” Garrick said, panting through gnashed teeth hard enough to send spittle flying from his lips.

To both the scout and the shaman’s surprise, Loreaux was quick to draw his sword from its scabbard. He whistled then, and another pair of their troupe drew close. Bezel, the little gnome artificer, hurried forth, but it was his golem, Onyx, that made their presence known.

“Have your friend hold Garrick down,” Loreaux said. “We’re solving one vile mutilation with another, and I need the lad steady.”

Varga realized that the merchant captain had prepared Bezel for what might have been inevitable, for he was quick to act. With a brief suggestion, Onyx grabbed hold of both of Garrick’s shoulders, using its immense weight to prevent any movement from the scout’s upper body. The blue flame behind the golem’s face crackled slightly, providing the only sound beyond Garrick’s anxious breathing.

Though her magic would be needed to mend the fresher wound once the amputation was complete, Varga moved around to the bottom of the table. She grabbed hold of the scout’s legs, placing as much of her weight there as she could.

While the shaman knew that her companion, the merchant and mercenary leader, could be cutthroat, she still watched on with a bit of hesitance to see Loreaux bring his sword against their friend’s wrist. He sliced a small indentation there, and took a few slow, practice swings to ensure he could deliver a single, powerful blow.

“Ready?” he asked then.

Varga tensed as she waited for the cut to come, and for Garrick to thrash in protest. No one truly wanted to give up on a part of themselves—and certainly not so quickly after an injury was sustained.

“One…” Loreaux said.

But he never intended on counting to three. With one fierce motion, their leader swung down, his sword announcing the completion of its journey with a loud thump against the table beneath Garrick’s arm. His skeletal hand tumbled away from him and fell to the ground.

“Let’s get that mended,” he said to Varga.

She didn’t realize it at first, but Loreaux lightly guided her into position then, putting a bit of pressure on her shoulders.

Garrick no longer struggled, as the fresh bout of pain that he experienced where necrosis hadn’t gripped him had sent him into oblivion once more. Loreaux tugged his sword free of the table, and a spurt of blood appeared from his new injury.

Varga found herself staring at her weak and weary companion, and almost neglected to work her healing magic on him. But as Loreaux took his leave, Bezel was quick to give space as well, and the gnome’s golem followed without a word exchanged.

The shaman, left alone with her bleeding ally, could afford no distractions, she knew.

At once, she channeled the divine once more, bringing forth healing magic that seemed to sew the skin together around Garrick’s wounded wrist. Had she not been on the trip with the company, she imagined Loreaux would have ventured for the more primitive method of burning the stump to cauterize the wound. Varga’s magic would leave Garrick feeling a little less substantial—he had lost a part of himself, after all—but the pain would be inconsequential.

Before long, the bone that had been severed cleanly smoothed into a rounder shape, and fat and muscle collected around it. The sort of healing that would have taken months without divine intervention had taken place.

Sweat dripped from Varga’s brow again, but instead of it being symbolic of her failure, it was a sign of her success. She had reached within herself, and used the well of her arcane resources to perform the sort of miracle that would have her venerated among her people.

A profound sigh had Varga wobbling a bit, and she took that as a sign that she should rest. She did not mean to venture far, though. She spun about, looking into the distance, and she slowly dropped to her backside, using the nearest leg of the table to lean against.

There in the distance, the great shadow that had caused her friend such grief and drawn all the power from her to combat it, continued to grow. What had once seemed like a narrow pillar had expanded into a veil of darkness that feasted on the light around it. From her vantage, and with her limited experience, Varga was not certain, but she believed its spread had quickened.

“We need to flee from this place,” she heard then, above her.

She looked up, watching Garrick extend his transformed arm off the table, and she knew that he reached for her with the phantom presence of a hand he no longer had. Varga reached to meet his gesture and squeezed further up his forearm.

The shaman heard him shuffle a bit to reposition himself, and then the subtle gasp at what she knew was the sight of his healed injury. There was a stunted silence then, as Garrick reconciled with his decision, and all that had come to pass since then.

Varga kept to where she was, looking at the shadow across the plains. Garrick slid off the table then, and took up position beside her, his shoulder brushing against hers.

Together, they sat in silence for a time, even with the encroaching danger ahead. The scout looked down at his arm in his lap and turned it over to look at the stump that was there instead of his hand. He swept it to the side a moment later, closer to the shaman.

Feeling another drop of moisture on her face then, Varga moved to wipe it away. Just after though, she reached down, caressing Garrick’s arm below the wound. He had made such gestures before, but they were clandestine, away from the eyes of others. And it had always been an invitation to share one another’s touch. But there were no more fingers there to intertwine with, though she watched as the muscles beneath the wound flexed and moved, as though he still meant to hold her.

She knew then that he no longer meant to hide his feelings for her in the shadows.

Varga gently lifted Garrick’s arm and planted a kiss upon his forearm.

She did not care to keep secrets anymore either.


* * *

“I’ve not come all this way to leave my goods on the side of the road, Loreaux!” one of the merchants growled then. “I won’t have it!”

The leader of the caravan furrowed his brow and folded his arms over his burly chest. He understood the concerns. Cardin’s wares were unique among those that the caravan transported. Ancient gemstones, relics of antiquity, and historic paintings and sculptures attracted the eyes of many people on their trips. Most of the time they went unsold—it was not often that someone from one of the small towns the company sold to could afford such a thing. But Loreaux knew that it was less likely about Cardin making any additional coin, and more for him to merely flaunt his possessions.

Loreaux knew that to part with such symbols of his wealth drove Cardin mad, and while he was sympathetic to the risks, he had seen what anguish the shadow could inflict on someone.

He had to be firm in his decision.

“As long as you’re using one of my wagons, and my horses, you’ll do whatever it is I say,” Loreaux insisted.

Cardin was a stringy thing—certainly not one of the mercenaries that Loreaux took along on his adventures—but in those moments, he seemed almost feral.

“Fine!” he snapped, a gob of spit flinging from his lips. “But I’ll not be leaving them here for the bandits to find. I plan on collecting these goods again.”

He circled around then, finding one of the farmers that they had coerced to leave their homes while the shadow grew.

Loreaux threw up his hands but knew better than to allow such frivolities to cloud his judgment. He had seen the terror that the shadow could inflict and knew better than to allow his caravan to be slowed by extra weight. Though many of the others who traveled with the company agreed with Cardin that leaving their wares on the side of the road was likely to relate to a loss, the rest trusted Loreaux’s judgment.

There were other things to worry about, the mercenary captain knew. He gathered up a few of his other veteran travelers and merchants and called them forth to his wagon. Mishka leaned in close, and for the first time, Loreaux wasn’t sure whether it was because of his adopted daughter’s close proximity, or the gravity of what had transpired. Everyone in the company had heard about what happened to Garrick’s hand and knew that Loreaux held a deep conviction that they needed to move far from the strange phenomenon unfolding on the plains.

“Listen up now,” Loreaux said to his companions. “The road back through the forest is one we’ve traveled before. It winds a bit, but if you keep to it, you should be able to outpace whatever it is that’s descended upon this part of the kingdom. I need the lot of you to put as much distance as you can between you and the forest as quickly as possible.”

“Why does it sound like you’re not coming with us?” Jerai asked.

“I’ll meet you on the other side,” her adopted father replied then, confirming her fears, even through an attempt to placate them. “I spoke with Farmer MacMillan,” he explained then. “He told me that it wasn’t a single settlement that was being built in the forest, but two of them—one on each side of the road. They’re trying to make it a safer place to travel, even in spite of the bandits. But someone has to warn the builders and the villagers who have already settled in that the shadow comes their way. These trees? They’ll make anyone blind to its approach. They’ll never see it coming.”

“Then why does it have to be you?” Jerai pressed.

“Because I’ll have a fast horse beneath me, and I’ll force the folks to listen.”

Jerai arched an eyebrow, as sure a sign she was willing to argue her point as ever. “Cutter is just as fast as Admiral. Maybe quicker!”

As her words reached Loreaux, he merely stared back at her. Her features softened then, as she realized that was not the most pressing of concerns. The merchant captain had a certain gravitas, certainly.

But, more importantly, he was not a half elf.

Jerai bowed her head, for Loreaux did not often remind her of such things. He could see in her reaction that she understood he meant no ill will, but that much was at stake. Still, she could not hold back the tears that welled up there.

Loreaux nearly went after her, but the image of Garrick’s necrotic hand flashed in his mind, and he knew that he could not leave the settlers to a frightening fate beneath the shadow.

“I’m going to head to the northern settlement first, as that ought to be the closer of the two,” the merchant captain explained. “If you see any of the builders on the road back to the east, you let them know to gather up their people and follow you in that direction. If I find the village empty later, I’ll know you swept them up, and I’ll know not to linger.”

As he gave the instructions to travel far from the forest, he noticed that the irksome vendor he had chided earlier had other plans. Carrying an armful of trinkets and treasures, Cardin headed west—toward the shadow.

“What are you doing?” Loreaux asked, his tone dripping with incredulity.

“My things are worth more than all of your wagons,” Cardin snapped. “I’ll not be leaving them here to be plucked up by thieves.”

A growl shook Loreaux’s hefty frame, and he turned to lean on the wagon closest to him. “Mishka, get that fool’s things over to whatever farmhouse has been lent to him. But do you see that towering oak, just outside the stone barricade? If the shadow overtakes that, you drag him away from there by his feet if you have to.”

The lad nodded, though Loreaux could see in his eyes that he was terrified by the thought of being any closer to the shadow. Yet he wouldn’t defy the merchant captain, and he moved his wagon forward, toward the pile of Cardin’s goods.

As the youngest driver called out, Loreaux placed his focus on the rest of his company then. Mishka wasn’t the only one who wore their anxiety on their faces. Everyone was scared of the growing shadow and waited for further instructions.

“Keep your gaze to the skies,” Loreaux said. “If the shadow follows you past the woods, unhitch the horses and leave the wagons. You’ll find ways to replenish your coin later, but you’ll never get that chance if you’re a pile of bones in the darkness.”

* * *

Mishka’s arms ached from moving Cardin’s many treasures onto and back off of the wagon. The lad’s muscles bulged, and he had the strength of youth to aid him, which left him wondering how the scrawny merchant seemed to have energy in reserve yet. Grumbles and groans rang out from the farmhouse as Cardin found spots for his belongings.

A considerable amount of treasures and historical artifacts still remained in a pile on the ground outside the building. The merchant refused any help from his companion, claiming that Mishka was likely to mishandle one of the priceless items.

It was all the better, Mishka thought. He kept his gaze fixed on the shadow, waiting for the moment it expanded until it would overtake the oak tree. While it hadn’t quite reached there, he watched as each stone in the barricades along the road were swept up by it. And he could better see the way it spread from north to south and realized that what had once been a narrow pillar kept growing without any sign of dissipation. The same level of darkness was present in the veil, and it still rose past where his vision could see into the sky.

“What if it never stops growing?” he muttered. “What if this is truly the end of it all?”

He shook his head then, knowing that to give in to hopelessness would affect him in ways that he did not wish. Instead, he alternated his glances from the pile of goods that Cardin worked on, and the nearing shadow.

“This will not do!” Cardin grumbled from inside the house. “These are the Tears of the Unbroken. They cannot just sit on the floor.”

“Mister Cardin,” Mishka called out. But his words went unacknowledged.

Clatters and clangs rang out as the merchant worked his way through the farmer’s belongings, and Mishka could hear the sound of furniture dragging along the floor then.

All the while, the shadow loomed closer.

Cardin appeared outside of the house again, his skin flushed red, with perspiration dripping from his wispy hair. He paid no heed to the young wagoner, instead keeping his focus on his still formidable pile of treasures. Rather than plucking the nearest item from the top, he sorted through them, trying to find his pick of the collection.

Mishka arched his eyebrow then, wondering just what required such keen attention. He imagined the merchant using the farmhouse as a sort of museum for his treasures, setting them up on tables and shelves with the utmost respect.

But while he paid heed to them, Cardin seemed ignorant of the growing shadow.

Watching it with much more careful eyes, Mishka spotted it when it drew past the oak tree that Loreaux had warned him about.

“Mister Cardin,” the lad pressed more urgently. “It’s time to go.”

Though it seemed as if the merchant had been deaf to the younger member of the company before, he snapped to attention at once then. His eyes were wide and wild though, and he looked as though he was ready to jump up on the wagon and smack the boy for even thinking of issuing a command his way.

“You’re not Loreaux, boy,” Cardin snapped. “I’ll leave when I please, and not a moment sooner.”

The way the merchant looked at him sent a shiver up Mishka’s spine, and that worried feeling only subsided when the man disappeared within the farmhouse once more.

That feeling of relief gave way to shock when he heard a thud against his carriage. He shot upright, and almost jumped up from his seat. But when he turned, he felt safe once more.

Garrick was there, wincing as he looked at the stump where his hand once was. Mishka realized, then, that Garrick had meant to rap against the wagon with a closed fist. Yet, unable to make one, he used what was left of his wrist instead.

“You linger here too long,” Garrick said when he was able to pull himself from his thoughts. “You’ve seen what this blasted darkness can do.”

“But Mister Cardin…” Mishka said, his words seeming to carry off toward the farmhouse. “He won’t listen to me.”

A growl shook the scout then. He stomped away from the wagon then, closer to the pile of the merchant’s goods.

“Your time is up, Cardin!” Garrick shouted. “Get out of there or we’re leaving without you.”

The greedy fellow hurried to the door then, but not in deference. No, he wore a scowl that shook Mishka to his core, but it dissipated at once when he saw that it was Garrick he had planned on berating.

While there was some level of sympathy there, however, it did not remain there for long.

“You cannot hope to understand what antiquities we have here. They require the utmost care and respect.”

“And so do your fellow merchants,” Garrick snapped. “The longer you remain here, the longer they wait for you in the face of that great evil.” He pointed toward the shadow, drawing his eyes there with almost fearful reverence.

“Go, then!” Cardin argued. “I will catch up with the lot of you, and then I’ll return here later.”

“You won’t,” Garrick replied. His tone had softened, and Mishka knew that he had admitted defeat. “This place will be your tomb, Cardin. You’ll get what you want and become a part of the past.”

The merchant waved his hand, ignoring the scout’s final warning.

Mishka swallowed away the building tension in his throat. “The shadow is growing faster.”

Garrick nodded. “I know. We’re done here.”

“But… Mister Cardin?”

“He’s made his choice, lad. What are the two of us to do? I’m in no condition to take him by force, and you’ve not yet learned how to fight. As scraggily as he is, can we say we would be able to bring him back before the shadow reached us?”

With one hand, he climbed up to the wagon, taking a seat beside Mishka. “Let’s move along, lad. We need to make sure the rest of the company leaves this place far behind.”

Mishka pulled on the reins then, urging the horses back the way they came. Without the burdens they had brought to the farmhouse, there was little struggle as they made their way toward the hill alongside the forest.

As they passed the reach of the farm, where the wheat fields gave way to wildflowers, they heard a yelp far behind them. Mishka didn’t dare to look behind him, but his companion peered over his shoulder.

“Garrick!” Cardin cried.

The scout turned back to look east, his shoulders slumping at the sounds of panic behind him. He heard a window break in the farmhouse, but he knew that the merchant would never escape the shadow.

“This isn’t some leisurely trip,” he said then, sending a firm gaze Mishka’s way. “Get those horses moving. Or we’ll all end up like Cardin.”

* * *


As soon as Garrick and Mishka had returned to the company—without Cardin in tow—Bezel knew what had happened. A sigh shook his tiny frame. While the old purveyor of antiquities had been a challenge to get along with, the gnome thought that he had perhaps been the most akin to him. They both dealt with treasures and relics, of a sort, though Bezel looked forward instead of to the ancient past. The pair also shared the distinction of being the two oldest members of the company.

Bezel knew that in time he would lose Cardin as a sort of acquaintance. He thought that age would drive Cardin to seek retirement and start some sort of museum for all of his belongings. Bezel still had decades of time with Loreaux and the others if they would have him. The gnomes of Tellest did live far longer than most of the other races they traveled with, after all.

But when the other two returned, and Cardin was not with them, suddenly Bezel felt as though his age had caught up with him. The oldest amongst his companions, then, reality began to set in.

“The shadow is moving faster now,” Garrick called out once they settled in among the group. “Get rid of anything you can to help and lighten the load. The way this forest road winds and turns, we’ll need to keep up our pace however we can.”

Some of the other merchants wondered aloud why the final member of their troupe was not yet with them.

“Cardin could not separate himself from his things, and the shadow swallowed him up,” Garrick said, eliciting gasps from the crowd. “It’s the same fate that shall befall us if we do not move now. Set your goods aside. We move at once.”

Bezel noted a coldness to Garrick’s tone but knew that he was shaken by the loss of the group. It had been quite some time since anyone had left, by any means, let alone by an unexpected death or injury. And of the company, the scout was the only one who knew the sinister bite of the shadow.

The gnome sighed again, and turned about in his wagon, looking at the things he had thought yet to keep. He had argued with himself that certain items were too light, or too integral to his business to risk losing. But he knew that he had let a small bit of greed take hold in him, and he refused to let the lesson of losing Cardin be for nothing.

He whistled a low tone, and turned the opposite way, looking instead to his most prized possession, and to a companion he knew he could not live without. Onyx seemed to whirr to life upon hearing the sound, and the blue flames that flickered behind his eyes grew brighter.

“I need you to sweep all these to the ground,” Bezel told the golem. “Be careful with whatever might be fragile but be hasty otherwise.”

Onyx moved at his creator’s behest, stepping alongside the carriage, and using his tremendous reach to begin moving everything toward the back of the wagon bed. Once he arrived there, he plucked a few things away that might break if handled haphazardly. Though the golem was the tallest being that traveled with the troupe, he could be gentle as well, and he was careful to place the items he had gathered on the ground beside the road.

Bezel chuckled at the way Onyx adjusted his poise when it came to the rest. As he opened the wagon gate, he swept the rest off the bed in a heap, a clattering echoing in the woods as everything fell to the ground.

“See if you can’t move them to the side as well,” Bezel commanded. “After that, we can be on our way.”

Whether it was because the gnome was able to part with things he valued or not, it seemed other members of the troupe had taken Garrick’s earlier command to heart. It was rare for those in the company to avoid the rationale that Loreaux handed down, but Bezel hummed at the respect that the scout had earned from the others. He wondered if the new injury had somehow lit a fire within Garrick.

The sounds of wagons lightening their load were subsequently replaced by that of rolling wheels. There was a little less strain on the vehicles, but with the road as uneven as it was, there was bound to be some protest from the wood and metal of the carriages.

While Garrick walked along one side of the caravan, Loreaux’s adopted daughter kept to the other, ensuring that no one was struggling along the way. Jerai and Cutter were close enough to brush up against the wagons often, as she knew better than to bring her horse off the road. She only slowed when she reached the last wagon in the procession, as Mishka and his horses had found themselves in the rear of the caravan.

Bezel chuckled at how little they chose to hide their feelings for each other then. Without Loreaux present, it was as if they had nothing to protect. But the gnome thought then that, with Mishka having gone with Cardin to the farmhouse, and returning without him, perhaps he was a little more aware of a sense of finality if the shadow caught up with them.

Looking over his shoulder, Bezel tried to peer through the expanse of trees behind him. He thought he saw a bit more darkness between the canopy, but he couldn’t be sure. A glance up showed nothing but clear blue, and that did at least provide him with a sense of peace.

He felt a shudder on the wagon then and noticed as Onyx squeezed against the vehicle beside a particularly dense group of trees that almost seemed to fight to get control of the road once more.

With a smile on his face, Bezel leaned over and clapped his golem on his arm.

His optimism would not last. Ahead, he heard a crash, and then a shout. So early in their journey to salvation, a problem like that was vexing indeed. But not knowing—aware that a deadly veil of darkness closed in on them, and winding through the forest—left Bezel fighting off a wave of panic.

The gnome grumbled, and rose from his seat on the wagon, hopping down onto the most level part of the dirt road he could find. He whistled and waved, urging Onyx on. Whatever dangers might have been present, they felt somewhat muted when the golem walked by his side.

When Bezel arrived at the new front of the procession, he realized just how dire the situation had become. The carriage had taken a bump in the road the worst way possible, and one of the wheels had shattered. To make matters worse, the axle had shorn from the bottom of the wagon, leaving the vehicle tipped halfway to the side, none of the wheels truly stable on the ground any longer.

And it blocked every vehicle behind it.

Garrick rushed by, first tending to the woman who had leapt from the cart when it tipped. She was a newer member of the troupe, a middle-aged woman who whittled scrimshaw into pipes or figures of ships. Bezel sucked in air through his teeth at the thought of her fall. Her hands were likely to have taken the brunt of it, and her craft would have to take a break to account for the healing.

“Are you okay?” the scout asked.

The woman seemed more embarrassed than anything, and she hurried to brush her clothes clean of any of the dirt she acquired on her dress.

“Just wasn’t expecting to take a tumble today,” she said. Her gaze landed on the damaged wagon then, and her jaw quivered. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure what happened.”

“These things have a knack for occurring when we least need them to,” Garrick mused. “But we’ll not have the time to make repairs on your wagon today.” He paused then, and looked down the line of other wagons, until he spotted the shaman that traveled with them. “Varga!” he called out. “I’m sending Florence your way.” He gently nudged the woman in that direction then, offering up some kind words that Bezel couldn’t hear.

He called out to the rest of the caravan though instead, urging people toward the front of the line to help him move the damaged wagon.

“That won’t be necessary,” Bezel shouted in as commanding a voice as he could. His little nasal intonation carried out in the forest though, and everyone who was about to leap from their wagons realized what he intended.

Bezel gave a little nod toward Onyx, the golem walking up beside him. He spoke in gnomish to the automaton, and at once, the towering being approached the broken wagon.

Garrick was quick to move then, realizing that it was not to be some subtle shift that moved the carriage off the road. He reached the pair of horses that led the cart, and cut their leads away, ensuring they wouldn’t be attached to the wagon when Onyx moved it.

Once Bezel was sure everyone would be safe, he gave another command in gnomish, and Onyx set to work.

The golem lifted the broken wagon, pushing it forth. With another protest of wood and steel, the vehicle tipped on its side, coming to rest against a pair of trees adjacent to the road.

A cheer rose up from the rest of the procession then, and Bezel smiled when he saw the caravan resume its easterly journey. Garrick gave him an appreciative nod as well, and that had the gnome’s smile flashing all the brighter.

He urged Onyx back to him, and together, the two hurried back to their wagon, eager to draw as far from the shadow as they could.

* * *

Riding fast and alone, Loreaux was of the mind that he must have missed the path that would have led to one of the two villages being built within the forest. With that much of a delay, he wondered if perhaps he had been misinformed by Farmer MacMillan. It could have been that the southern settlement was the closer of the two, and the old man had just been wrong about that.

Loreaux tried to remember the path that they had taken west through the forest earlier and couldn’t recall seeing either of the two roads. He reminded himself that the new settlements wouldn’t have had time to beat a path into the woods, and that the way forth would be subtle indeed.

As he was thinking just that, he spotted several stumps along the northern side of the road, and a sizable gap in the forest floor between them. The trees had been cut away by hand, and as he looked farther into the opening, he could see that parts of the ground had even looked as though it had been tilled. No doubt, he thought, the builders and settlers had torn some of the trees out at the stump and settled the ground again to make for an even passageway to the new establishment.

Loreaux ventured in that direction, taking care to encourage Admiral on slowly. Though there was a deliberate passage toward the new village, it would take some time before the road was trodden enough to be settled of any bumps or foliage.

Admiral, on the other hand, could sense the rider’s urgency beneath his caution. The mighty horse pressed on at a spirited pace, and before long, both could see the new buildings that had been constructed in one of the forest’s clearings.

Leaning forward and patting his horse on the side, Loreaux felt a sense of relief wash over him. He would be able to return to his company soon enough, and ensure they made their way through the forest to safety.

As he and Admiral reached the clearing, he realized how quiet it was in that part of the forest. He heard the occasional bird song, and chattering between squirrels or other small critters, but there were no conversations between laborers or villagers. And as they drew closer, he was surprised to see that no one was out and about.

Perhaps they had already been given word of the shadow from someone with some other vantage, he mused.

But he would not let their fate be left to chance.

Slipping out of the stirrups, Loreaux landed upon the ground not far from the nearest house. Its construction was nearly complete, but the mercenary captain noted that there was some attention still needed to comfortably call it a home.

Notably, it didn’t have a door.

Admiral nickered and stomped, but Loreaux’s concern for the people of the region had him ignorant to those noises. He stepped into the unfinished house, looking to see if there was some sign of the residents.

He already had a chill run down his spine when he heard Admiral whinny outside. Looking out of the carved window, he spotted a trio of people heading his way. But he knew just from that cursory glance that they weren’t builders, or peaceful folk looking to settle down in a tranquil forest.

No, the miscreants marching toward him were the very reason that his mercenary company existed in the first place.

He clicked his tongue and tilted his head, urging Admiral away. The horse protested for a moment, but as the bandits drew closer, it obeyed Loreaux’s commands.

The mercenary leader swept his hand toward his hip, ready for a brawl. Though the man in front of the trio looked a measure stronger than the rest, he was certain he could outmaneuver and overpower any of them.

He only heard the subtle footsteps upon the wooden floorboards behind him for a second before a sharp pain resonated in the back of his head.

Then, all went black.

* * *

Cutter rose up in protest, and Jerai’s teeth nearly clacked together on both her rise and her fall. The farther she drew from the company, the more it seemed the horse complained. But she knew that finding the path toward the southern settlement would mean they could outpace the shadow safely.

Though the road was clear, it winded this way and that, and she could never get a good vantage of the way ahead. Jerai looked over her shoulder and realized that she couldn’t see the rest of her company either. And she couldn’t see the sky, to gauge how close the shadow had drawn.

“Hello there,” she heard then.

Jerai nearly threw herself from the saddle, and she might have, except that Cutter remained absolutely still. When she turned ahead, she spotted a man rounding a corner, and she noticed that the southerly path she had been searching for was right there behind him.

The fellow had the look of a laborer. He wore a cap on his head to catch any perspiration that might have fallen, and his tunic had the stains of many days of hard work behind him. An axe hung from his hand, and it looked as though it was an extension of his body.

Though he carried himself with some level of strength, his body was rigid at the sight of the young lady. For a moment, Jerai wondered if her lineage played a part, but she knew that her ears were hidden beneath her hair. She remembered, then, what other dangers lurked in the forest, then.

“I’m not a bandit,” she declared.

The fellow’s shoulders relaxed then, and he nodded enthusiastically. “Of course not. You just can’t ever be too careful here. It’s not exactly safe to go it alone in these woods, yet here we are, taking chances.”

“Well, I’m not so foolish as to take that risk,” Jerai said. She realized the insult upon her lips almost as soon as she said it, and her eyes widened at hearing it. “That is, I—What I mean is—”

The stranger chuckled at the sound of her embarrassment, and he waved his hand, indicating that no offense was taken. As she stuttered into silence, he tilted his head, listening for what he could detect beyond the closer trees. He could hear the wheels of the wagons in the distance, and he arched his eyebrow then.

“You’re the merchants that headed toward the farm,” he stated. “But that was earlier today. Why are you headed back this way already?”

Jerai thought at first to just unload her worries upon the man but knew that such things would be considered madness. She blew out a sigh, collecting herself, and thinking better of her actions.

“I think it is better if we wait for the rest of my caravan. They’ll be able to help me describe what is happening, and you won’t think I’m crazy.”

The man looked at her with curiosity—and a hint of concern, it seemed—but he nodded in understanding. “Are you able to tell me a bit more so that I’m not left in suspense? Crazy or not, if your companions are coming this way, they’ll be able to explain away any doubts I might have.” He spoke those last bits with a bit more of a jubilant attitude, trying to ease any tensions either of them was feeling.

Cutter snorted then, and Jerai knew that the rest of their procession would soon arrive. She squared her jaw, and looked to the west, but still couldn’t see the sky well enough to prove her point. Yet, she knew that there was no sense hiding the danger that was on its way. Even if the others were needed to help her convince the man, any bit of preemptive explanation might help him save the rest of his people.

“There is a great shadow that grows beyond the forest,” Jerai said, trying to evoke the most powerful solemnity she could. “When it touches you, it eats away at your flesh, and we were not able to heal it. It harms all manner of creature, too, not just people.”

Just as she worried, he seemed a bit incredulous about the claim. He arched an eyebrow, and lifted his axe, draping it over his shoulder.

“You don’t need to believe me…yet,” she said. “But when the rest of my caravan gets here, we’ll need you to find out a way to the tell the rest of your fellow settlers and workers. They’ll need to believe you. When we last saw it, it was growing at a quicker pace than before. If you wait too long, you might not be able to find your way out of the woods.”

“That is a tall tale, as you said,” he agreed. “But I can tell you’re speaking with conviction. Perhaps I should go back now and—”

A horse whinnied beyond the trees, and a few moments later, Jerai felt a bit of relief to see Garrick riding ahead of the wagons. If anyone could convince the laborer, she knew, it would be him.

“You found someone,” the scout said as his horse’s hoofbeats slowed closer to the southern path. “Who do we have here?”

Jerai nodded toward the fellow. “He’s a laborer from the southern settlement. I, uh… I’m sorry, sir, but I did not ask you your name.”

He took off his hat then, showing a mop of greasy brown hair that seemed to be getting a little thinner around the crown of his head, though he didn’t look terribly old. “I’m Liam,” he said. “I apologize in kind. I forgot to ask yours as well.”

“I’m Jerai and this is Garrick,” the girl said. She looked at the scout then, and then to his arm.”

It didn’t take the injured member of her caravan long to realize that the laborer might have needed a little further convincing. “I assume she’s told you of the shadow. I can corroborate her story. It bites like no beast I’ve ever encountered, and leaves nothing but withered flesh behind.” He presented his recently amputated arm, and displayed the bloody, pus-covered bandage atop it. “I only spent a moment reaching into the darkness, and this was the result.”

Liam’s eyes grew wide, and he swallowed a ball of tension that built in his throat.

“I’ll tell the rest of my people,” he said, nodding emphatically in thanks.

“If you can’t hurry your way back to the road, you might want to work your way through the trees,” Jerai said. “Just make sure you put the shadow behind you. Give yourself enough time and space to see it coming.”

The laborer nodded and turned about.

But Garrick had a better idea then. “Hold then. Just getting back to your people could take you a while. We have an extra horse that’s no longer pulling a carriage. I’ll travel with you and bring the horse back alongside me.”

Liam waved off the offer. “That’s very kind of you, but it isn’t necessary.”

“Nonsense,” Garrick said then. “It is our duty to help the people of this land. We should make use of my knowledge, especially considering the cost.”

Swallowing away his worries, Liam nodded once more. “I thank you, good sir.”

Before Garrick could turn his horse back toward the caravan, Jerai urged Cutter in front of him. “If we’re choosing to lend a hand, it might as well be more than just a single horse. Why not get a wagon there to help everyone back to the road as quick as possible?”

“An entire settlement of people could overburden the horses,” Garrick thought aloud. “But maybe there’s some way we don’t need to rely entirely on the horses anyway…”

* * *

A high-pitched ringing in his ear had Loreaux wanting to spin back toward oblivion again. When he came to, for a moment, he only saw darkness around him, and he wondered if the shadow had reached him while he was in the throes of the abyss.

But as his vision returned to him, and he adjusted to the small prison he found himself in, he realized that a different danger had taken hold of him. And as the darkness of the place seemed to subside, he realized that he was not alone. On the other side of a set of metal bars, a figure lurked, barely a silhouette against the lightless room.

“Here is how this is going to work,” a deep voice spoke from the other side. “You’re going to tell me who cares enough about you to pay for your sorry hide. If you don’t have anyone, well, I’ll tan it, and use it to block the sun in my windows.”

Loreaux said nothing for a time. He merely studied the fellow across the way, as best he could in the darkness. Based on the man’s figure, he was certain it was the larger bandit he saw coming his way before someone had thumped him from behind. He figured that burly build was probably what earned the fellow the spot he wanted at the top of the bandit hierarchy.

“Hopefully I make for good shades then, because I travel this land alone,” the mercenary captain said.

“That is a shame,” the bandit leader said. “I would have liked to have solved this without any bloodshed.”

As he rose up and stepped into the meager light shining in through the window, the sound of boots thudding into the ground outside could be heard. One of the other highwaymen—one of the scrawnier lackeys Loreaux had seen earlier—leaned in through the window, catching his breath with his head hanging low enough that it almost draped across the wooden aperture.

“If it was urgent enough for you to run all this way, it’s urgent enough for you to spit out whatever is caught on your lips,” the head bandit snapped.

“Of course, boss,” the fellow said. “We’ve just heard from the southern camp. Morgan was using her crow’s eyes, and she spotted that trading caravan coming back this way.”

“Already?” the bandit leader asked.

“The whole lot of them, from what the message said.”

As the larger fellow mused about its meaning, he grumbled to himself, and folded his arms across his chest. “Find a way to get a message back to them. I don’t want anyone doing anything until I get there.”

The mousy bandit nodded in understanding, and quickly excused himself.

Left alone with only the leader, Loreaux did his best to retain a stoic façade.

“Well, it’s a good thing you don’t know anyone in the forest,” the head bandit said then. “I was afraid you’d be disappointed when I had to tell you we don’t need everyone from that caravan—just a few will do as hostages. The rest can go in the ground.”

The mercenary captain remained motionless, doing his best to depict a person who would not care for anyone else in the forest or the greater region. But when the bandit leader slipped from the building, all of Loreaux’s posturing disintegrated. His shoulders slumped, and he fought off a rush of anxiety. And though the bandits had left him with some worries, it was the greater danger that quickly forced its way into his mind.

How long had he been knocked out? If he did somehow manage to get free of his cage, would he still have any chance to outpace the shadow?

From his vantage, he couldn’t see enough of the sky to determine whether it had kept growing, but he knew better than to assume the best of the situation.

Loreaux grasped one of the bars in both hands then, giving it a hefty tug. Though he had assumed that their installation wasn’t the work—or at least the intention—of the laborers who worked on the settlement, they sat firm. His cage would not be so easily destroyed.

Still, there were not many other options.

With the bar remaining in his hand, Loreaux pulled back. He exerted all of his might, even allowing his bodyweight to help with the task. While he thought that he could feel a bit of failing resistance from the bar, he knew that his current endeavor was folly.

A quiet grumble rose up from him, but he already had another idea at hand. He took off his tunic, twisting it around until it resembled a small length of braided rope. He looped that around the bar he had struggled with and used it for extra leverage.

For a few moments, he exerted all the energy he had, and even believed that he might have been bending the bar. Though Loreaux rarely admitted defeat, his wobbling legs had him spilling to the floor then. He could feel the sweat pouring from his brow, and knew that his skin was flushed red. Despite his situation, he chuckled to himself, wondering if he would be able to light up the darkness of his cell if his face grew any redder.

As exhausted as he was from his endeavor, Loreaux began to recline, ready to sink bank into oblivion. But when he lay on his back in the cell, and he looked up, he watched as a familiar snout pushed through the window aperture on the wall behind him.

Admiral gave a little snort, and that little noise had the mercenary captain steeped with energy once more. He hopped to his feet, his heart fluttering at the sight of his horse, safe from the bandits.

“You’ve no idea what a relief it is to see you, old friend,” Loreaux said. He put his head against the mighty steed’s nose, and Admiral nuzzled against him.

Once the brief catharsis wore off, the mercenary captain realized that Admiral’s appearance wasn’t just a fleeting rush of emotion. He was also the key to his escape.

Loreaux reached through the bars of the window and grabbed hold of the horse’s bridle. From there, he slowly fished the reins through.

“I’m going to need your help to break out of this pen,” the man whispered to his equine friend. “I’m going to tie my overshirt across the bar, and through your reins, and I need you to help me break this bar. You understand?” He chuckled at the sound of Admiral’s nickering, but he remained too focused on the task at hand to give it much thought beyond that.

When he had tied things off, he clicked his tongue to Admiral, and urged him backward. The horse snorted and began to step away, and even with his small amount of effort, Loreaux could hear the iron begin to protest.

Loreaux began to move forward to help, but he thought better of it. The last thing he needed was to be thumped by the bar if it was dislodged.

As soon as that thought had left his head, the bar bent far enough where it came loose from the floor and ceiling. A loud bang resounded as it struck the wall, and Admiral trotted off, spooked by the sound. The reins and the hoop that Loreaux had made of his shirt went off through the window as well.

The horse wasn’t the only one alerted by the strange sound from the cell though. Outside the settlement’s jail, the remaining bandits stirred, calling out to one another with confusion about what had caused such a ruckus.

It was only then that Loreaux realized that his plan for escape required a bit more than the first step. Though Admiral was nearby, he wasn’t certain that he could reach him through the highwaymen. Without any weapons, he was at a marked disadvantage.

But as the sound of footsteps drew near, Loreaux understood that he was no longer defenseless. He leaned against the wall and bent low, scooping up the slightly bent iron bar. As he rose up again, he slapped it against his hand, verifying its intent as a club. The mercenary captain nodded, convincing himself that he could overcome any odds that were meant to come his way.

He slipped through the bars just as the first bandit entered the building.

That bandit looked confused, as though the prisoner had simply manifested on the other side of the bars. To his eyes, he couldn’t see that one of the bars had been pulled from its spot.

He surely felt it a moment later. Loreaux swung it out from behind his back, the metal pole landing against the fellow’s shoulder hard enough to elicit a howl from him. It also sent him reeling, knocking against the doorframe. But he was so taken by the pain in his left arm that he didn’t realize their escaped captive was already moving again. Before he could turn to try and spring from the doorway, Loreaux had already clubbed him in the back of the head. The man toppled over, landing in a heap on the floor of the building.

Loreaux knew better than to wait for another brigand to block the doorway. If their numbers swelled, he would never find his escape. He climbed over the fallen bandit and hurried outside. In the clearing surrounding the settlement, he was overtaken by the bright light of midafternoon, the sunlight shining from the west. But one simple glance in that direction showed that the black curtain of the menacing shadow was on its way. For a solitary moment, he thought to warn his enemies against the ominous phenomenon, but he knew that they had likely slain whatever people had originally intended to make the settlement their homes.

And they were after his company—his family.

Instead, he focused on a path to freedom. He first looked for the bandit leader but did not see him present in the clearing. Knowing that he must have already left to contact the rest of his ilk in the forest, Loreaux looked to the other foes who sought to put him back in the cage—or worse. A trio of highwaymen made their approach, each brandishing smaller weapons: a pair of daggers here, a flanged mace there, and a small hand axe. Not giving them the proper respect could mean the end of Loreaux’s attempts to reach the ones he cared about.

The axe-wielder came in first, lifting his weapon up high as though he was going to bring it down to split a log. Loreaux wondered if that fellow had ever seen combat before.

It mattered not. He would take an easy victory if it meant swiftly evening the battlefield. With a lunge, Loreaux drove the end of the iron bar into the fellow’s exposed abdomen, striking him just beneath the breastbone. That expelled all of the air from the bandit’s lungs. Hunched over as he was, he was an easy target for a sweep from the mercenary captain’s improvised staff. Before the fellow even landed on his back, Loreaux struck him again, across his chest, a sickening thud sounding as his ribs cracked. He couldn’t even cry out in pain, his breath gone and not likely to return.

The former prisoner’s skills earned him the caution of his next pair of foes. They waited just at the periphery of his weapon’s reach, and when he tested it, they hopped away. But they also refused to make an advance, and Loreaux wondered why they hoped to force a stalemate.

He remembered when he first arrived in the village, and in that moment, it was as if the stinging at the back of his head surged again. He looked over his shoulder just in time to see a hidden foe coming his way. That fellow wielded a cudgel, and Loreaux was sure it was the same one that had knocked him unconscious earlier.

A swing from the bent cell bar had the sneaky bandit ducking away, and in that instant, Loreaux knew that he was more than just a devious rogue. He had some finesse to his movements, which had likely earned him the respect of his peers.

And he had the confidence of someone who outnumbered his foe.

Loreaux meant to take that advantage away at once.

Sweeping his weapon in a wide arc, he also lunged forth, sending the cudgel-wielder scurrying backward a bit. But the mercenary’s attack also intended to leave an opening that the other pair wouldn’t be able to ignore.

Sure enough, it worked, provoking an approach from the bandit with the daggers.

Loreaux was swift in his response, turning around and swinging in another wide arc. Just as he suspected, the rat-faced brigand hopped away again.

Landing on unsteady feet, however, he wasn’t prepared for the mercenary captain’s risky maneuver. As soon as Loreaux finished one rotation of the metal staff, he kept it going again. Though he knew he would never reach the fellow on another swing, he knew that he could hit him with a projectile.

The bar hit the bandit across the knees, eliciting a shrill cry as he crumpled to the ground. Loreaux was there in a moment, gathering up the fallen daggers. He sent them flying at the remaining opponents.

While the cudgel-wielder kept to his finesse, and dodged with a deft turn of his hip, the other inexperienced brigand caught the dagger in the soft spot between his shoulder and his clavicle. That sharp bite had his arm going limp, and it was all he could do to keep the mace clutched in his weakening fingers. He couldn’t hope to bring it up against the rushing mercenary. Loreaux drove his shoulder into the bandit’s chest, spilling him to the ground.

Though he knew his tactics were risky, Loreaux still felt shocked by the pain he felt in his calf. His leg wobbled out from under him, and he fell to his knee, turning just in time to see the cudgel-wielder stepping away. He flipped his weapon over, grinning as he displayed the hidden blade on the underside of the club.

Sending a ragged breath through his lips, Loreaux nodded at the fellow, who had somehow slinked behind him in silence yet again. He wasn’t ready to give up the fight just yet though, and after passing a glance at the contemptible sneak, he turned back to his latest fallen foe. He tugged the mace from his hand, and tore the dagger from his chest, eliciting another cry.

Loreaux stood, despite his pain, gnashing his teeth together as he gazed at his final opponent. Weary and winded, but not giving in, the mercenary captain brought his two stolen weapons together. He didn’t click them together once, but scraped and smacked them against one another, over and over, creating a cacophony that had the cudgel-wielder arching his eyebrow in confusion. It truly did seem as though, hopeless as he might have been, the mercenary captain had lost his mind.

But just as the truth had washed over the escaped captive before, the sneaky bandit realized that there was a reason for the prisoner’s behavior. He turned just in time to see the massive steed charging toward him, the hoofbeats lost beneath the sound of Loreaux’s erratic song.

Admiral trampled the fellow, first knocking him down with a sturdy bash of his head. Though his hooves didn’t land upon the man, the sturdy horse’s legs still caught him in a tangle—he might has well have been bashed a few times by the flanged mace in his hand.

The powerful steed kept running until he was right beside Loreaux. The mercenary captain, no longer facing any opposition, nearly toppled again as the adrenaline left his body. Admiral was there though, and he kept his friend upright.

For a moment, Loreaux thought to remain behind, and find the gear that the bandits had taken from him. But a glance to the west showed him that the shadow continued to grow nearer, and possibly faster than before.

“Come on, then,” he groaned to his horse. “We have to help the others.”

Loreaux climbed into the stirrups, doing his best to ignore the pain in his injured leg as he swung it up and over Admiral’s back. Though he knew it was going to be an uncomfortable ride, he urged the steed on, toward the road leading out of the clearing.

* * *

Bezel looked over his shoulder, ensuring the precious cargo he carried was still in good condition. The path to the southern settlement was riddled with roots and stones, and he was just as worried for Onyx as he was for the wheels of the cart. The golem lay in the carriage, its flame diminished. For people, it would be the equivalent of sleeping—though the magic-forged creature did not require such a thing. No, it was meant mostly as a way of placating any fear that his appearance might stoke in the villagers and laborers they would find.

Onyx lay under a canvas blanket—one that was normally meant to protect wares from the elements. But Bezel, Garrick, Jerai and Mishka knew that there was value in bringing him, even if he slumbered during the trip there.

Along with them, the carpenter, Liam, hurried along the southern path. They hurried as fast as they could, a task made easier since they only traveled with the pair of wagons. The rest of the caravan had continued east upon the forest’s main road, Varga guiding them toward safety.

Bezel watched as Garrick rode on a bit ahead, and he realized that he had spotted the settlement even before Liam had. Smoke rose up from a campfire at the center of the clearing, but as the quartet from the caravan and their traveling companion made their way there, they were surprised to see no one around.

“Where is everyone, Liam?” Jerai asked.

The laborer looked around nervously, trying to get a sense of his surroundings, as though it was the first time that he had seen the village.

Bezel watched as Garrick made eye contact with Jerai, and the young half-elf lowered her hand toward her hip in as subtle a manner as she could. Bezel had seen it all before. It was why Garrick was so respected amongst the mercenaries. He had taught the girl well, for despite her age, her intentions would have been lost to anyone who had not been a part of battles with bandits and monsters on the road.

The gnome looked over his shoulder, trying to determine if Mishka had caught the implication. But the young lad didn’t seem to be aware of any problems at hand.

“How many people did you say were living in this settlement?” Garrick asked, drawing closer to the laborer. He reached over, and grabbed the reins, keeping the horse close by.

“Ten,” Liam said. But he was quick to shake his head, and he scrunched his eyes shut for a brief moment before correcting himself. “Nine. Nine others.”

“Where are they?” Garrick wondered aloud.

“Maybe they spotted the shadow coming this way?” Jerai guessed.

As they turned toward the west, they could only see a distant discoloration as the shadow grew closer. The trees around the clearing stood much taller than many of the others, and Bezel wondered how badly that warped their perception of the shadow’s position.

As diminutive as he was, he knew he would have a hard time conjecturing indeed.

“All right everyone, dismount,” Garrick said. “We’ll have to verify everyone has cleared out of these buildings, and then we’ll hurry back to the caravan. We’ve no time to waste. Jerai, you take Mishka and Bezel with you, and check the buildings around that side of the clearing. Liam, we will look in these three houses.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?” Jerai asked then. “Your hand…”

“I’ll be safe,” the scout asserted. “I may be five fingers fewer, but my eyes are still fresh. Just be quick about it. If Liam’s friends are all gone, we’ll be quick to leave as well.”

As Bezel drew his team of horses to a stop, Mishka was quick to follow suit. He had trailed far enough back where he didn’t quite know what the delay was about, but the gnome was certain he would be able to explain the scenario to him. That was especially true when Jerai hopped down from her saddle, her hand still dancing close to her hip, where one of her curved daggers waited to be drawn. She brought her head up to her Cutter’s snout, whispering something to the young horse. He ran off to the corner of the clearing, moving as far east as the trees would allow.

“What’s the matter?” Mishka asked, still oblivious to the plan. But as Bezel took care to climb down from the wagon, he too stepped to the ground. “Where are Garrick and the villager going?”

“He may not be a villager,” Jerai said under her breath. “Something is not right about this place, and either something happened to the people who were making this settlement, or we’ve walked into a trap.”

“Or both,” Bezel suggested.

Jerai nodded. “Keep Onyx at the ready, but don’t let him be seen just yet.”

The gnome understood the task she had for him, and he also knew to fall in line behind her as she walked toward the southwestern end of the village.

It remained quiet as they went, and for a moment, Bezel thought that perhaps there really was a good reason for the absence of all who Liam had expected. The gnome’s brief flash of optimism wavered though, and he knew better than to give in to such hopes.

The trio moved to the doorways of each of the buildings in the corner of the settlement, calling out to anyone who might have been in the area. Time and again though, they were only met with silence. As Jerai drew closer to the largest building in the southwestern section of the village—a building that looked like it might serve as a municipal center of sorts—a chill went up Bezel’s spine.

“Something doesn’t feel right about this,” he muttered. If the others heard him, they didn’t let him know of their thoughts. Though he followed his companions, he passed a glance over his shoulder, looking once more to the wagon he left behind.

Jerai stopped at the doorway, as she had the other buildings, and called inside. Expecting quiet once more, she had shifted on her heel.

But her brow furrowed when she heard noise from within. A muffled cry had her drawing her dagger and looking at the other members of her company. Mishka fumbled for his own weapon, but finally pulled out the short sword that he had not yet brought to bear against an opponent, outside of sparring sessions with Garrick.

Bezel, meanwhile, kept his hand in the pockets of his undersized overcoat. With no obvious weapon to speak of, he would have to keep his wits about him.

The trio entered the building, and even then, with the western sun high enough in the sky to cast rays of light into the clearing, darkness seemed to swell. The call of a crow circling the area above lent to the eerie feeling that grasped Bezel, and he watched as Jerai hunched low at the sound of the bird as well.

While the building opened into a larger room—one that looked as though it was meant for either a council to meet, or for members of the community to come speak their piece—it was the doorway into another darker section of the building that seemed to draw the mercenaries in.

Bezel heard once more when a muffled cry resounded. Jerai hurried her pace, but kept to the same level of caution, checking the corners of the rooms that she entered, and the halls they passed through. Before long, they reached the last room of the building, and it was one that had descended a bit into the ground. The sub-basement had a trio of windows at the centers of the walls across from and adjoining the entryway. But beyond that, not much light came into the place.

Even then, the mercenaries could see the silhouette of someone sitting across the way.

Jerai clicked her tongue, knowing that she had been foolish for not preparing a torch.

Bezel had no such compunctions. The gnome reached into his coat, finding a pocket close to his breastbone. A moment later, a fluttering creature appeared in the palm of his hand. With a little tap, the artificer brought the critter to life and to light, a subtle glow appearing from the clockwork insect’s abdomen, a tube of glass that allowed the perfectly shaped stone inside to radiate outward.

Jerai and Mishka looked at their friend at first, taken by the sight of the dragonfly automaton. There wasn’t much to it, Bezel conceded, but when he lifted his hand and spread his fingers, the clockwork bug took to the air, flipping before it struck the ceiling. Casting down its light, the trio could better see the person who was in the room with them.

Looking sinister and dirty, the bandit’s wicked smile could be seen even as he spoke with his hand closed over his mouth. But as he drew it away, the trio could see an uneven grin, blackened teeth leaving the fellow looking a bit like a monster.

“Cute little trick you have there,” he said, pointing up at the mechanical bug on the ceiling. “Of course, I have tricks of my own.” He slipped a finger into the loosest bit of his cracked leather glove, and pulled out a gold coin that caught the light’s reflection.

Tension built in Bezel’s tiny body. Magic was strange and unpredictable, and he knew that the coin could do anything—but it could also have been a mere distraction.

Another came to the group’s aid then, for the three mercenaries could hear Garrick shout outside.

“Get out of there, Jerai!” the scout cried. “The dark veil has reached the clearing!”

Loreaux’s daughter seemed to think better of wasting her time with the bandit. But he hadn’t lured them to the basement of the building for nothing. As she turned around, and her eyes grew wide, Bezel turned as well. There, in the doorway, a hulking brute of a fellow stood, clad in mismatched armor that must have been pilfered from a dozen victims or more. Spotting the warrior’s ashy olive skin, and protruding jowl, Bezel knew at once that the bandits had attracted a half-ogre to their ranks.

“They’re all yours, Zog,” the stringy fellow behind the group said. As they dared to glance back at the bandit, he waved his hand. “Bye for now,” he said with a wink.

He took the coin he had displayed to them earlier and slapped it against the wall behind him. At once, a golden glow came over the woodwork around the window. To the mercenaries’ surprise, the fellow climbed up through the wall as if it was merely a ghostly apparition.

Just as soon as he had passed through it though, the glow subsided, and the gold coin that had been affixed to the wall disintegrated into the air in a puff of dust.

Though the way through was not without its exits, Bezel knew that climbing through the narrow window would not be easy…

…especially with a raging half-ogre on their backs.

Zog roared, gobs of stringy spit illuminated by the clockwork dragonfly’s thorax. He stomped in, and swung a mighty spiked club, the weapon taller and broader than the little gnome by far. As it crashed into the stonework near the floor, dust and dirt fell from the walls.

“He’s going to bring this whole building down on us,” Mishka nervously said.

“It wouldn’t be much of a problem for him,” Jerai said.

Another unintelligible sound came from the half-ogre’s tusked lips, and that time he strode forward close enough to smash the three to a pulp. While Jerai silently flitted out of reach, Mishka cried as he flung himself away, willing to let his sword drop from his hand as the club struck it.

Bezel fumbled in his coat then, finding two objects among his belongings, and pulling them out at once. One, a small metallic orb, seemed to hum and pulse. The other was a much thinner piece of metal, just about as long as the gnome’s hand.

“Hey!” he cried as loud as his nasal tone would let him. For a brief moment, he held the half-ogre’s attention.

But that was all he needed.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” Bezel said in a singsong manner as he moved the items about in the air. “You two, get to the back wall—now!”

He heaved the orb forward, landing it just between the half-ogre’s feet. As it struck the ground, a bright light briefly stole away everyone’s vision, but as the brief flash subsided, the trio could see ribbons of electrical current surging through the half-ogre’s body.

“Trapped lightning!” Bezel declared, excited to have used his magical item upon such a worthy opponent. While Zog shuddered and writhed in pain, the gnome turned to his companions, and nodded toward the window. “Go on now. We don’t have much time.”

The trio felt a thud then and turned to see the half-ogre land upon a bent knee on the ground. The electric projectile had run its course, and the only light that remained within the room was provided by the mechanical bug on the ceiling.

But even in the fainter light, the trio could see as Zog climbed back to his feet, using the spiked club as leverage.

“Get out of here now,” Bezel commanded. As soon as the words left his lips, he placed the other fetched item beneath his white mustache. A hearty blow sent a high-pitched tone through the building, and if the hulking foe heard it, he made no acknowledgement.

Even Bezel needed to duck then as a tremendous swing of the club went past. “Go, go!” he bade as he scrambled to his feet and skittered to the opposite side of the room.

If it hadn’t been for the many pieces of armor upon Zog’s body, he might have been able to move a bit quicker. But every lurch, every swing was apparent in his movements. Bezel wouldn’t find enough time to rush toward the window, but he could at least outpace the brutal attacks of his half-ogre foe.

As Mishka helped Jerai up to the window ledge, another of Zog’s swings slammed into the woodwork on the wall facing the rest of the clearing. The window there collapsed outward, sending splinters flying.

It also caught Bezel’s attention. The gnome smiled at the sight of the outside world, and that caught the half-ogre’s attention. Zog followed the artificer’s gaze toward the window just in time to see a pair of silvery legs leap off the ground.

Another crash came from above them then, and the light of day pierced through the crumbling roof of the building. While Jerai scrambled to safety outside the building, Mishka and Bezel cried as they dodged debris falling from above them.

But when the dust settled, they saw that Zog was not the only hulking combatant left in the wreckage of the room.

Onyx, Bezel’s silver golem, looked back at the artificer, as if to ask for permission to protect its master. Bezel merely nodded, happy for the assistance.

At once, the flames rising from Onyx’s crown pulsed and roared. The golem turned around and struck the half-ogre with enough force that Zog teetered backward.

When he was on flat feet once more, Zog swung his club again, and that time, it resounded with a hollow thung when it connected against Onyx’s side.

Bezel’s eyes went wide at that sound, and he froze, wondering how his creation would survive such strikes.

But Onyx seemed not to feel any worry about such things. Though he swung out with a weaker punch from his battered side, he followed it up with a pair of jabs with his other hand. The combination had Zog dropping his club as he thumped into the wall at the entrance to the room.

Without the two combatants blocking his vision, Bezel could see another phenomenon worth his worry. Even from his spot within the basement, he could see the veil of shadow beginning to push its way into the clearing. The gnome turned to the window behind him and pointed his finger at Mishka.

“You need to get up there, lad!” he ordered. “The shadow is moving faster, and we cannot linger anymore!”

As he spoke, Jerai reached her arm in through the gap. Mishka looked up and gasped at the sudden sight, but he knew better than to delay. He grasped Jerai’s hand and fought to climb up the battered wall of the house.

* * *

Jerai grabbed hold of Mishka’s hand, and she pulled back with all her might. Though she had a smaller frame than the lad, she was persistent and determined, and months of training left her toned and strong.

Mishka had a line of sweat at his brow, and Jerai saw it most prominently when his eyebrows raised, and he looked beyond her.

The half-elf made the decision to relinquish her hold on the boy she loved, and she rolled to her back. The sneak who had passed beyond the wall with the golden coin was there, lunging forth with a short sword. Despite her position, Jerai was able to pull one of the daggers from her hip, and she brought it to bear just in time to parry the attack.

It wasn’t quick enough for her to keep hold of it, however. Her dagger pushed out of her hand, landing in the grass behind her.

Still, that gave her enough time to roll further, and she climbed to her feet, already plucking the other weapon she had from its sheath.

“Let’s see if you have any other tricks,” Jerai said.

Her opponent hesitated longer than she thought he would, and she kept her focus on him, realizing that his eyes did not meet hers, but drifted up toward the edge of her face. She didn’t have to run her hands along her jawline to know that her hair had moved aside, revealing her ears—and her lineage. Jerai knew that her foe questioned doing battle with her then. Was she truly as young as she looked? Or was the elf before him ages old, with a fair and youthful appearance.

Jerai stood taller then, attempting to show the poise of her elven ancestry. Garrick had taught her how to fight, but she flipped her blade over in her hand, giving her stance a more exotic appearance.

As the sound of combat rang out in the building she had just escaped, she kept her focus on her foe, even as he stole a glance in the direction of the noise. She darted forward with a burst of speed that she normally wouldn’t risk, and the bandit yelped and jumped to his side.

Jerai circled the fellow, keeping him from maintaining a comfortable position. As she moved about, she was using the movement to venture imperceptible glances at other things in the clearing.

She spotted Garrick first, noting that the mercenary party’s scout was embroiled in combat of his own beside a pile of mossy boulders and rocks in the center of the clearing. Even though he had one less hand to bring to a fight, he held his own, battling back a pair of bandits who were far less trained than he was. Strangely, a crow seemed to swoop down on him every few moments as well, though he was prepared every time, sidestepping away whenever he could.

Jerai’s vision shifted then, and she spotted the curtain of black shadow that kept coming their way. It was upon the clearing then, and she knew that they would never be able to race back along the north trail. They would have to run through the trees, hoping for surefooted travel.

But they needed to win out against the bandits first.

She continued her arc, facing the municipal building once more. Jerai could still hear the cacophony of combat within, with the two hulking creatures smashing against one another and the woodwork and stone there.

Bezel remained inside.

Mishka did not.

Jerai nodded, giving him the indication that he could make his move. The bandit couldn’t move quick enough to dodge the shallow stab that pierced his gut, just above his right hip. Mishka stepped away then, surprised by what he had done. But by then, the bandit could already feel weakness along the side of his body. He turned to look at the lad, noting the bloodied dagger in his hand—one of a pair, he realized.

Distracted by one opponent, the bandit had forgotten about the other. He didn’t even have time to think once he felt the cold steel of Jerai’s other dagger along his throat.

With a quick sweep, the half-elf brought her weapon across the man’s neck, spilling crimson down the front of his tunic.

She left Mishka there, and instead sprinted around the side of the building, seeing the carnage that Zog and Onyx inflicted upon the construction. A tremendous hole was there, and dust rose up from the debris inside.

“Bezel!” Jerai cried out. “The shadow is nearly here!”

While she looked at the wreckage before her, she heard a guttural groan behind her. She trusted that it was Garrick taking advantage of her warning and inflicting a mortal blow on yet another distracted bandit.

Her patience was rewarded, for she watched as her gnomish friend flew up and out of the wreckage. Though Bezel was shocked by his sudden flight, he shouted out upon his descent. Jerai was there beneath him, helping ensure he would not be harmed upon landing.

The artificer didn’t seem concerned with the potential of an injury. He had heard the warning Jerai had sent his way, and he watched as the shadow swept in around the far edge of the building.

“Onyx!” the gnome cried out as he shuffled away from the half-elf.

Jerai found herself moving forward with her companion then, wary that the building could collapse and topple at any moment.

Her heart nearly leapt from her chest when the monstrous half-ogre leapt out of the uneven hole in the building, struggling to climb onto the ground outside. Blood and spittle landed on the ground as he seethed, and his eyes were wide with madness.

But before he could hoist himself up, Bezel’s golem landed upon the creature. Onyx was dented and twisted, a flicker of what he once was. But he held onto the half-ogre with all its might, and brought out its leg, pressing it against the wall, refusing to allow his fearsome foe an escape.

“Onyx!” Bezel cried again. “The shadow!”

Jerai reached out and pulled the gnome aside. Though Bezel whimpered and fought for a moment, the half-elf held fast, ensuring he didn’t endanger himself.

Though Onyx was fashioned together with metal and magic, he looked on at the friends—the family he made. There was a quiet moment then, where he seemed at peace.

As Zog made one more attempt to climb out of the building, Onyx lifted his battered arm, and slammed it against the half-ogre. Grunts and groans rang out, but it wouldn’t be enough to truly do anything but distract the monstrous bandit.

That was all Onyx needed.

The shadow swept forth, across the damaged room of the building. When it reached Zog’s side, the half-ogre knew pain—true pain—for the first time.

A frightened and agonized cry pierced the air, and he tried to scamper as best he could, but Onyx held tight. The golem wrestled him back, doing everything he could to save his friends.

The shadow would do the rest.

Jerai and Bezel watched on, frozen where they stood, as the darkness enveloped Zog and Onyx. The half-ogre withered before them, decaying as though days passed instead of seconds.

And they also watched as the blue flame atop Onyx’s head extinguished, and the light in his eyes faded.

Bezel screamed, but in his emotional state, he was easier to tug away from the building and the growing shadow. Jerai pulled him farther back, until she had circled around the side of the structure once more, and she nearly tripped upon the bandit she had earlier dispatched.

Mishka still stood there, blood in his hands, wondering what he had done.

“You only softened him up for me,” Jerai shouted at him, trying to free his mind from guilt and regret. The words sounded dull and distant, even to her. She had to admit that she was overwhelmed in those moments.

The shadow had reached them. They had rushed ahead, knowing they needed to escape the danger, but it had still reached them. Jerai knew that the chances of them outpacing the veil of darkness was unrealistic.

But still, she had to try.

“Garrick!” she cried.

The scout swatted away at the crow once more, and for a brief moment, it looked as though the bird would fly right into the shadow. It moved away though, back toward the trees. Jerai’s trained eyes watched it land in the branches just above a dark-haired woman who brooded beneath a heavy cloak. Jerai thought to sprint in that direction, but she knew that wasting her time in battle would mean the end of her—and possibly the end of Mishka and Bezel too, both lost within variations of despair.

But Garrick was cool and collected. He parried a blow from the lone remaining bandit before him, and he moved in, jabbing him with the stump of his arm. While the scout winced from the pain it caused him, his foe gasped for the air that pushed out of his lungs. Garrick cared not for his discomfort, for he knew he would not be uncomfortable for long. He dropped his sword then, grabbing the bandit by the back of his shirt. And then, with one fierce heave, he tossed him toward the approaching veil.

The screams from Zog could not have been attributed to anything in particular. The half-ogre had been hidden by the debris of the battered municipal building.

But the wounded bandit was overcome by the necrotic energy, and he wasted away like something in a terrible crypt, his eyes seeming to disintegrate as his muscles atrophied and his flesh wrinkled and shrunk. His skin peeled and cracked and flaked away, and before long, only bone remained, not even blood present to speak of the horrors he endured.

Jerai watched as the woman with the crow took her leave, racing into the woods.

The half-elf blew out a sigh of relief, knowing that the villainous bandits had been bested.

The shadow still drew too close. She looked to the corner of the clearing, where Cutter had been sent off to. The young horse trotted around uncomfortably, made nervous by all that occurred. He was joined by the other horses from the mercenary company, each of them growing frightened by the ensuing battle.

Jerai was certain that the wagons would not be able to go north through the uneven path again. They would never make it to the main road. But neither could they go through the trees to the east as they were. She thought of shaking both of her nearby companions from their stupor, to have them cut the horses from their bridles.

There was one last problem, she realized, as Garrick hurried over.

Someone else had arrived, atop a horse of their own. The horse charged up the rocky outcropping behind Garrick, but it stopped there. However, its rider did not.

One last bandit had arrived, and he leapt from the saddle of his horse, taking to the air. His momentum allowed him to cut the distance, and he soared across, landing upon Garrick.

Caught unaware for a change, the scout couldn’t defend himself from a series of blows. The bandit did not bear a weapon, but his fists might has well have felt like steel as they slammed into Garrick’s sides, and against the back of his head.

Jerai cried out and threw her dagger across the battlefield. The lead bandit—the last bandit—swung his body aside to dodge that deadly blade. But that short pause was enough to allow Garrick to roll to his side. When the tall and broad bandit resumed his barrage of punches, Garrick was at least able to bring his arms up to defend himself.

Jerai, without a weapon, turned to Mishka, and plucked her other dagger from his hand. “Get to the wagons,” she finally said. “Free the horses and get them moving east through the trees.”

Mishka remained frozen for just a moment. But the conviction in the half-elf’s voice pulled him from his trance. He nodded and pulled Bezel along.

Jerai charged forth, ready to engage the final foe.

But she never had the chance.

Just as the bandit had come charging into the clearing, so too did one final member of their troupe. And just as the bandit had done before him, Loreaux leapt from his horse’s saddle, landing atop a surprised foe’s back.

The mercenary captain cried out in pain as he came down upon his injured leg. It didn’t keep him from performing his task, though. Like a man gone wild, Loreaux bit the fellow’s neck, gnashing his teeth into him. And with his stolen dagger in hand, Loreaux jabbed it into the bandit leader’s leather armor again and again. He kept at it, until he no longer felt a struggle from the foe beneath him.

Loreaux sat up, covered in blood, and looked to his side.

The shadow was nearly upon them.

“Go,” he bade. “I’ll only slow you down.”

Garrick stood and wiped his bloodied lips and nose then. With ragged breaths coming up from his throat, he took a step forward.

“If we’re too slow to get you out of here, we’re too slow to escape ourselves.” The scout, winded and weary, reached his friend, and propped a shoulder under Loreaux’s arm.

Jerai was there a moment later, hurrying to help draw her father away from the deadly black veil.

The half-elf heard Garrick’s voice like an echo in her mind. There was no way that they would outpace the shadow. Even if they had done the unthinkable, and left Loreaux behind, it seemed to grow faster with every moment.

It would take their lives—but at least they would be together.

The trio of mercenaries felt an immense weight upon them then, and they lost hold of Loreaux. The bandit leader clung onto his legs, bringing him to the ground.

Jerai and Garrick moved quickly, grabbing hold of their companion’s arms.

The shadow drew close, and they dared not try to waste time prying the bandit off of Loreaux. Too weary to do anything but hold on, the bandit leader groaned and snarled, half-looking as though he was already dead.

But he still had the strength to howl as the shadow passed over his leather boots, stealing his life force away as it swept forward. The howl gave way to a shocked gasp, for never could he imagine a pain like he endured.

The burden felt lighter. He had not yet relinquished his hold on Loreaux, but his body had atrophied and disintegrated. While his bones remained, the skin, and fat, and muscles—even the fluids that moved throughout his body—fragmented away and disappeared into the aether. Jerai and Garrick pulled more forcefully, dragging Loreaux faster.

Finally, the bandit lost hold, the pain wracking his body too great to allow him to do anything but writhe in agony. He offered no further resistance as the shadow enveloped him, reducing him to bones.

“Run,” Loreaux said. “There’s still a chance…”

His words seemed weak then too, and Jerai ventured a quick glance behind her to see if the dark veil had reached them. It was still behind them, and they managed to put a few more feet between them. But she knew that they would never be able to keep dragging him through the woods.

“Mishka!” Jerai cried. “Loreaux needs Admiral!”

“No. No,” the mercenary captain rasped. “Just getting me on the saddle will take up too much time. Just get out of here.”

“Shut up, Loreaux!” Garrick said through bloodied and cracked lips of his own. With a fierce growl, he pulled his mentor all the harder.

They could see as the young lad rushed over with the mighty black steed. Admiral was eager to help his friend.

Garrick fell forward then, too weary to keep up with the burden. He rolled to his back, skittering away from the black curtain.

Left as the only one who could pull her father to safety, tears began to stream down Jerai’s cheeks. She fell too, unable to come to terms with the miserable ending that was to befall them. She could hear Cutter’s hoofbeats then too, the younger horse not wanting to leave her behind either.

Jerai could only hope that Bezel would make it to safety.

And then, she heard something far more unsettling than anything she could have expected.

Garrick started laughing.

When Jerai rolled to her back, she was surprised to see that the shadow had stopped. Mere feet away from them, she was certain that it had stopped growing. It lingered there, pulsing with dark energy, as if to speak to them and let them know that it had chosen to spare them—but that it could change course at any moment.

Jerai did not dare to laugh in the face of the phenomenon.

But she did feel a swell of relief as the shadow began to fade.

Golden sunlight poured into the clearing, as though nothing strange had occurred that day. A clear blue sky faced them from above, without even a fluffy white cloud in sight.

Loreaux dared to turn around as well then, and exhausted as he was, he groaned and fell to his back, simply taking a moment to breathe.

His daughter looked around, seeing the carnage they had endured, all in the purpose of helping those they believed they could save. But bodies remained strewn in the grass, and a building lay in tatters at the edge of the clearing.

She heard soft footsteps approaching them, and she turned to see a concerned gnome there before her.

“Is it over?” Bezel wondered.

* * *

Loreaux sat atop the hill, once more looking upon the farmhouses that they had aimed to pass earlier that day. Darkness began to encroach upon his camp from behind them then, the night coming to the east. He had to admit to himself, there was a considerable worry that sat in his stomach to see the color black beginning to ascend the sky.

He felt a different sting then, as Varga pressed a rag to the back of his head. The orc shaman had already treated his leg, and though he wasn’t going to be sprinting half as fast as Garrick would anytime soon, he still knew that he was going to be all right.

Loreaux tapped his friend on her shoulder once she had finished dressing his wound, showing his appreciation for all that she had done for him, and the rest of the company. He smiled as she turned her attention to Garrick then, wrapping him in a fierce embrace.

Though they were better at keeping their secrets than the two youngest members of the troupe, Loreaux had always known that the two had feelings for one another. It took a catastrophic phenomenon to convince them not to care what others thought. Once Varga heard how close Garrick came to being swept up in the shadow, she realized that she could not hide anymore.

As Loreaux made his way back through the caravan, he understood that they weren’t the only ones braving a public showing of feelings. He glanced at Jerai and Mishka, the two sitting atop the latter’s cart, holding hands as they looked at the stars. Loreaux could feel just a twinge of fatherly protection coming over him, but he willed his behavior away, instead continuing along.

At his request, the farmers of the region remained with them. In the distance, Garrick had placed a campfire that he had hoped would burn long into the morning, and they planned on using that to distinguish if the shadow would come back for them during the dark hours of night. They would do all they could to move quickly in that case.

There was still no telling what had caused the shadow, or what had pulled it away from the world once more. That something so sinister could appear from nothing had Loreaux a bit more on edge than he cared to admit, but he was hopeful that it was something that he would forget about in time.

He arrived at the rear of the caravan, where the smallest of their company quietly struck a mallet to metal. Bezel gazed at the disembodied remains of his golem, using the faint light from his recovered dragonfly to beat the dents out of Onyx’s chassis. The mechanical dragonfly had a broken thorax, but the light inside still worked, even if it burned a little dimmer. The gnome knew that Onyx would never be whole again, even if Bezel could hammer out all the imperfections. The flame that had burned within the golem was gone, and even if a new one could be created, it would not be the same.

Still, Bezel could preserve the memory of his friend the best he could.

Loreaux limped around the cart, giving it a light tap of his fingers. His diminutive companion didn’t even realize that he was there, and the mercenary captain thought better of pulling him from his work. The gnome needed time to grieve, but in time, he would come to be thankful for the gift that Onyx gave him, and the rest of their friends.

Instead, Loreaux began the long walk back to the hill, but that time, he kept to the trees beside the path, wanting just a few moments to himself. He breathed deep and sharp, aware of how close he came to losing everything that day. The people he traveled with felt a bit lighter in their hearts, but the mercenary captain felt a bit weaker, and wearier for all they had endured.

For a moment, he wanted to give in to despair, for truly, how could he trust—how could he have faith in—a world that set forth such madness and evil upon the land for so random an event as what they had experienced.

As he reached the edge of the forest though, and he watched the fading light ahead of him, his gaze was drawn elsewhere. Admiral and Cutter cantered across the field, playing with one another as though there was nothing left to fear.

For perhaps the first time since their ordeal, Loreaux felt the smile on his face was not weighed down by worry or regret or dread. He leaned back, feeling a sturdy tree behind him. He allowed himself to fall to his backside, feeling all the stress of the day melt away as he let his shoulders relax.

Loreaux looked to the sky, seeing the stars begin to twinkle in the heavens high above.

He could only hope that there were brighter days ahead.

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Michael DeAngelo

Michael is the creator of the Tellest brand of fantasy novels and stories. He is actively seeking to expand the world of Tellest to be accessible to everyone.