A long moment passed as Kadan watched, his focus resting on the closest sentry, an armed and armored corpse which contained the living death, standing fifty paces distant. The soldier was large, but there was no indication of what race he had been in life. Kadan’s fear began to falter and was slowly replaced by a different emotion, that of rage. How he hated them and wanted to see them all destroyed and burned at his feet. The urge to run from cover and throw himself into battle against them, futile though it would be, began to well within him. His fingers began to itch for the releasing of an arrow and for the unsheathing of his blades. He stared into the darkness that was beneath the undead soldier’s helm, imagining the half rotted face that must be there, the vacant eyes of death. His muscles tightened and he felt the urge to bound forward into that one, to cut the limbs from that living corpse and crush the possession out of its skull.
A noise shattered Kadan’s uncontrolled thoughts and he realized Drayden was clasping him by the shoulder. “Kadan, be mindful of their dark vision.” The voice sounded strange to his ears, and for a moment he was confused as if he had just been awakened from a dream and was not yet fully conscious, but the effect quickly left him and he turned to see Sero watching him, a slight but knowing smile touching his lips.
“For a moment I thought they could see us. I saw them starring right at us!” Kadan said with an edge of panic in his voice.
“If they had seen us, we would be dead.” Drayden said and looked back toward the road, releasing his grip on Kadan’s shoulder.
“They are watching us.” Sero said suddenly. “Three of them are staring at us now.”
Drayden narrowed his eyes and looked closely at the nearest sentries. One had his head turned toward them and Drayden could feel his gaze. He met the gaze but the sentry remained still, unmoved by the knowledge of their presence while behind him a force enumerable continued their march equally apathetic.
Drayden wondered at that and for a moment all three were mesmerized by the sight of the enemy passing in front of them. “Get your wits. A scythe commander must be close by!” Drayden said, guessing the cause of their continued stupefaction. “Let’s move back to the forest before one of them decides to send some of those rottens over here!” These words seemed to bring Sero and Kadan out of their daze with a start, and the three men moved low and slow towards the edge of the wood, watching as the sentries disappeared into the darkness behind them.
As they reached the edge of the woods, sounds of chaos broke out behind them on the road. Guttural shouts and the snorting and stomping of the massive draft animals filled the air, along with the noise of soldiers moving into position. The commotion was then followed by a woman’s scream. This last froze them in their tracks and they turned swiftly around but could see nothing beyond the embankment of earth they had just come from. Drayden and Sero nocked arrows and readied themselves to see Arisen moving in the darkness. There was silence, and then an explosion of light filled the night sky and shook the ground around them. For an instant they could see two cloaked figures standing at the origin of the blast near the center of the road. At their feet nearly a half scythe Arisen lay prone, leveled by the power of the blast.
They were all momentarily blind and stunned. “Run!” said Sero, and the three bolted into the edge of the wood.
“Return and rally the pack.” Drayden said to Kadan. “Sero and I will lead them toward the river. Tell the men we make for the Felnath. Go!” Drayden said this last with a shove to Kadan’s back. Kadan took several steps forward then turned to find Drayden and Sero already lost to the darkness. He turned back to the woods and started to run north towards the rest of the pack with all the speed he had.
Drayden and Sero ran west, skirting the edge of the forest for a short distance before spotting a breakaway company of Arisen close behind them leaving the road and advancing toward the forest.
The two Vorgos melded into an outcropping of pines and watched as the company of Arisen moved passed where they were hidden, waiting until the last undead in the group had entered the edge of the wood. “They have lost us already.” said Sero. “We should head off the pack then move in together to attack from the rear.”
“No,” replied Drayden, “It’s not us they are after. That explosion on the road was …someone else was there on the far side of the road! They must have headed into the Ghostwood. Look!” He pointed to a double set of barely visible tracks left behind in a patch of soft sand exposed beneath the roots of a wind felled pine. One set was unusually small, like those of a child, and the other set was that of a narrow boot, not like the wide, heavy boots worn by the Arisen.
Sero studied the tracks for a moment, confusion contorting his face. There are no other Vorgos patrols around and we left the pack behind on the mountain. And that light!” said Sero.
“I don’t know. No Vorgos would leave tracks like that, and one set is to small. Clumsy.” said Drayden. “Whoever it is they have entered our lands and if they were careless enough to leave behind those tracks we should have no problem finding them, but first we should remind those rottens why they should come all or else they should stick to the road.”
“What if they have a scythe commander with them? Or even a Goust!” said Sero nervously. “That would explain that light.”
“Let’s pray they don’t. It looks like it is only a search party, maybe twenty strong. Nothing we can’t handle if the pack finds us.” said Drayden.
They darted deeper into the wood while behind them on the road the Arisen army had resumed the march east as if nothing had happened in the short moments before. They easily followed the path left by the Arisen. Trees and limbs slashed with scythe swords and plants smashed under heavy boots marked the way clearly, and their sharp eyes were quick to find evidence of the Arisen’s quarry as well.
They took to a hidden path that traversed the foothills in a northwest direction, this lending speed to their travel and crossing the Arisen’s haphazard path several times. Soon they heard the sound of breaking limbs and the slash of swords. Several of the Arisen had broken off from the main company and were spread out, each one hacking at the underbrush. Drayden and Sero paused only long enough to take in their surroundings. In the next instant Drayden had his blades in his hands and was upon the first one. With two strokes he cut the undead warrior's head from his body and it toppled to the ground, never having seen his attacker. Sero’s bow sang and two arrows pierced two other Arisen who fell to the ground while clawing at the broken shafts which burned the deathly pale flesh of their targets black. Drayden was quickly upon them beheading the writhing corpses. A few more Arisen appeared and joined those remaining and together they charged forward at the two Vorgos. Sero flew two arrows, catching one of the Arisen in the face through an opening in his helm, the second deflected harmlessly off a quickly raised shield. Sero’s blades appeared in his hands and he dove away just in time to avoid the hulking mass of two of the soldiers, who stumbled and fell after the black clad visage they had lunged for transformed into empty space. Sero was on his feet again and was upon them in an instant cutting the head from the shoulders of the one with the arrow buried in its face. The other, still on the ground swung out his sword and caught Sero at the wrists with the back of the blade, knocking Sero’s blades clear of his hands. Sero rolled to the side while stripping the decapitated one’s sword from its hand and stood just as the Arisen pushed itself up off the ground. Sero brought the scythe sword down with a single ghastly blow to the back of the undead soldier’s neck, leaving its head attached by only a few sinews of decaying flesh.
Drayden met the charge of a second pair and left a blade protruding from the throat of one before being slammed sideways into the trunk of a young aspen which snapped from the force. He leapt up just as the scythe sword of the second stabbed the ground where he had landed and he swung his blade horizontally but met only the armor of the Arisen’s forearm. The undead soldier shifted to one side and brought his shield around knocking Drayden into the path of the other Arisen’s stabbing blade, Drayden’s own blade still protruding from his neck. Drayden took a half step to the side and the point of the soldier’s scythe sword missed but its edge grazed his leather armor at the ribs, and as the thrust took the Arisen a step past him, Drayden reached out and gripped the hilt of his protruding blade and pulled it around in a half circle, halfway tearing the soldier’s head from his neck, which fell to one side of the body before the body collapsed to the ground limply.
“More will come this way. We have to get ahead of them.” Drayden said.
“I nearly lost my hands just now.” said Sero, sheathing his short swords and rubbing his wrists. “A turn of a blade and I would have lost them. Sometimes it’s better to have luck on your side than skill!”
Drayden touched his ribs where the scythe sword had grazed him and felt the wetness of blood. “Better to have both.” Drayden said.
A crash of steel and splintering wood brought a larger group of Arisen into view ahead. Drayden and Sero had arrows nocked in an instant and the twang of their bows brought two to their knees. The rest charged after them, plowing through the dense underbrush with their shields raised. “Move!” Drayden said and they fled deeper into the forest, readying arrows as they ran.
They made their way back to the hidden path, choosing speed over following their quarries tracks directly, knowing that unless the cloaked figures were indeed some lost patrol of Vorgos, they would likely follow the game trails that led eventually to the Felnath on the narrow routes that cut through the woods to the river. They ran swiftly, unhindered by the night, hearing the movement of Arisen all around them. A dark shadow crossed before them on the path ahead and Drayden came to a stop. “Something crossed the path. Head to the left.” Drayden said and they cut off the hidden path and moved through the close growing trees until they came to a different hidden path. They followed this and it led them north toward the mountain and came to an end at the base of a cliff. This they followed around to the west until it ended at a scree field which flowed down the side of a short ridge and ended in a broken tangle of uprooted tree trunks.
“There!” said Drayden, spotting the opening to a path at the other side of the scree between two pines. He took one step forward and Sero caught him by the arm.
“Look.” Sero said. Something moved near the opening but was gone as quickly as it had come. “There is something sinister at work here. There is no way whatever crossed our path back there should they have made it to the other side of the scree already.”
“Maybe it was another pack after all.” said Drayden.
Drayden slung his bow and drew his blades from the sheaths at the small of his back. They sprang across the talus, deftly navigating across the tops of the razor like rocks. They reached the other side and Drayden peered into darkness. Hands reached out and grabbed him by the shoulders and he drew back his blades to strike. “Drayden!” said a voice and Drayden recognized Kadan’s face.
“Someone with that ugly of a mug should be more careful who he grabs in the dark.” Sero said, closely behind Drayden. Drayden’s eyes moved downward and Kadan’s followed. The points of Drayden’s blades were stayed a fingernail’s width from Kadan’s guts. Kadan’s face went pale and he quickly stepped back. The rest of the Vorgos stepped out of the shadows behind Kadan.
“I see you found the pack.” Drayden said. “A company of Arisen broke off from the army now marching on the road. There are at least ten not far behind us.”
“We know,” Travos said, “There is another group of ‘em just a little further west. When Kadan found us we followed a path directly here. We were about to follow ‘em when you showed up. Must have been right in front of ya.”
“Let’s take care of the group behind us first.” Drayden said. “Move up where we can take advantage of this scree.”
The pack moved a short distance up the mountain side, keeping the talus to the right and stayed hidden within the trees. Soon a group of Arisen emerged from the other side of the scree field where Drayden and Sero had moments before appeared. The Vorgos watched as they slowly started to pick their way across the treacherous avalanche of rock, waiting until the moment the undead soldiers had traversed half way across the talus before moving out from the trees and firing several volleys of arrows down upon them. Many of the arrows were deflected by the thick armor and shields of the Arisen, who were more heavily armored than the parties of Raiders who usually ventured into Banor Aden. The Vorgos soon ceased firing arrows and picked up and hurled the talus at their feet with great effect, smashing and crippling the soldiers, knocking several off their feet and sending them tumbling down the field to be broken and impaled on the rocks at the bottom. The rest were immobilized and easily dispatched where they had fallen.
“What are their kinds?” asked Travos.
“Looks like Reavers mostly. A couple Slayers. Very old ones probably.” Drayden said. He bent to wipe the gore off his blades on the befouled tabard of a slain undead. “On the road we saw a blast of light. Maybe a few Gaust with them? Me and Sero already slew a few back there but we didn’t stop to take a look.”
“Casters! So that’s what that flash of light was. We saw it from the ridge, bright as lightning. But why did they leave the road and go into the woods?”
“They are after someone, or something. We found tracks back near the road heading north. Likely as not they will follow one of the old game trails out that way and it will lead them straight to the river.” said Drayden.
“Whoever it is, let’s get ‘em before the rottens do. They can leave a damn vile mess of things and they’ll carry ‘em off before we can figure out who it was.” Said Travos. “But if they pass out of Helyen and go into the Ghostwood and the rottens follow ‘em in there then for sure they’ll have a scythe commander with ‘em. It would take their master’s sword at their back to drive ‘em in there. They fear the Adona more than the enchantments of the Kynar or anything else we can do to ‘em.” Said Travos.
“Then let’s aim to change that.” said Sero. “Kadan, you best be especially careful if we go in there. She likes young initiates best.”
Kadan’s eyes went wide with fear.
“Break into your rize,” Drayden said, “Sero you take the left flank and Travos you take the right. Stay uphill where you can.”
At Drayden’s command the company split into the three-five man units which made up the packs component units, with Sero and Travos each serving as the captains of their units and Drayden leading the third. Drayden traded out his rize’s runner, a man named Kale, for Kadan who was Travos’ runner. The rizes separated and took positions relative to one another, keeping a hundred yards distance between them. The men of each rize were likewise spread out, side-by-side maintaining several yards between each man.
Drayden held a moment to give Kadan a few words of instruction on which position to keep in the line.
“When we move, you move along side us, but keep your eyes on the forest ahead as much as you can.” Drayden said. “Try to maintain your position relative the man next to you in the formation.
“Why are we spread out like this?” the initiate whispered.
“You can move with barely a noticeable track left behind you, right?” Kadan agreed. “But bend a stalk, a leaf, or a branch fifteen times and a blind man can discern your path. It’s easier to hide your movements from the Arisen behind you when fourteen others aren’t stepping in your same tracks.” Drayden said.
“Why not just use the hidden paths?” asked Kadan.
“A path won’t help us track quarry, unless they happen to cross a path. They are hidden from the eyes of the Enemy, so they will never follow one intentionally, and if they happen upon a path, they wouldn’t see it for what it is and it would soon be lost to them. The Hidden Paths let us move about Banor Aden when we know where we want to go. But in battle we know not what path the Enemy will choose or where it will lead. So we hunt.”
Kadan nodded, though not fully grasping the depth of experience that was contained in Drayden’s words. His knowledge of stalking and tracking was informed only by his experiences hunting deer in the Clan Lands and playing games of hide and seek in the forest as a child. He had never had to think of the movement of anyone but himself, and never before had he felt himself the hunter and the deer.