Chapter 3: The Hunt

Part 1

Shallaeran stared down at the slivery waters, lost in her thoughts. Silence ghosted across the air. Serenity seemed to radiate from the tall trees of the glade. No angst was permitted in the Glade of Reflection.

The water of the large pool was still. No ripples marred its perfect, mirror like surface. The pool was enchanted by the most skilful spellweavers of the Loartha Kinband to remain undisturbed in even the harshest conditions, a liquid mirror. It showed whoever gazed into its depths their true thoughts, from deep within their minds.

Shallaeran stared down, and saw death.

The vampire haunted her mind. Its words stalked her thoughts. She closed her eyes. It was dead. She kept telling herself that, but still it remained, filling her mind with despair. It was dead. She had killed it.

A slight whisper of sound behind her drew her attention away from her thoughts and back to reality. She turned slowly, composing herself, schooling her features to blankness.

A tall Elf stood under the vine-wreathed arch that marked the entrance of the glade. Black hair hung to his waist in a fine wave, like liquid silk, pulled back from his soft features by a black band nestled amongst the spill of hair. A grey cloak trailed from his lithe shoulders, and light armour encased his torso in folds of supple cloth and segmented layers of enchanted wood. He arched one thin eyebrow.

"Are you still troubled by what happened, Shallaeran Nihsurae?"

She bowed her head respectfully. "I am, Domnue. I sought to find solace in the glade."

"And?" he asked, stepping closer.

"If anything, I am more troubled. My mind is a labyrinth, noble, and I know not how to escape."

The noble nodded solemnly. "I understand. It is difficult to witness your companions slain before your eyes, but you must learn to harden your heart against such despair. The world waits for no one, Shallaeran, and despair at such a time as this could have far-reaching consequences."

Shallaeran took a last glance back at the pool, and then walked to the archway. "I thank you, Domnue. You speak truth. Was this the purpose of your presence here, or did you seek me out for some other reason?"

Domnue walked slowly past her, making no sound as he moved. It was a trait learned early amongst the kindreds of the Nymraif, the Waywatchers. He paused at her shoulder. "You are summoned by Lord Helioran, within the hall."

She nodded in acquiescence. "Thank you for informing me, Domnue." She stepped past him, and into the forest. Though she heard the sense in the noble's words, that icy core of despair still clutched her heart. The vampire's alabaster face still lurked at the back of her mind, fangs dripping with the lifeblood of her companions, her friends.

She shook her head, banishing the images from her mind. She had to focus. She couldn't afford to give in to distraction and fear. Now she was away from the magically soothing aura of the pool, though, she felt her doubts return. She had seen the beast take an arrow in the side of its skull without pausing. Nothing should be able to survive that, much less kill two more Asrai. Nothing natural.

She reached the base of the immense tree that formed the hall. Stepping close to it, she traced the patterns carved into the bark with one finger. Whispers of the elvish tongue fell from her lips, words that she had learned as a child. The runes on the tree shone faintly with a golden light, and then Shallaeran felt the twisting dislocation that accompanied the magic. A moment of discomfort, and then she stood beneath the tree, within the hall.

She looked up, and offered her thanks to the tree for permitting her access. Turning her attention back to the hall, she walked softly into the main chamber. Asrai were gathered around the fire at the centre of the hall, some seated on curving roots emerging from the earthen floor, others standing.

Behind them sat Martach Helioran, arms resting on his throne of living wood. His black hair spilled down over his shoulders, and his eyes were weary as he studied the dancing flames. Flames that never died. Was Helioran seeing a time when there was no one to attend those flames? A time when the Asrai were gone? They were already a dwindling race, and disaster after disaster only served to hasten their descent into extinction.

She stepped between him and the fire, and cleared her throat quietly. He stared through her for a moment, lost in thought, and then his eyes snapped to her, alert once more.

"Shallaeran," he said. "You have come."

She nodded. "You summoned me, Lord Helioran?"

He closed his eyes, sighing softly. "We are in dark times, Shallaeran. The incident that you were involved in was no isolated event."

"There were more?" she gasped. There couldn't be more. That spoke of more than a raid. It spoke of an invasion, a war.

"All along the Grey Mountains," said Helioran. "The undead assail the forests, led by vampiric masters. Four thralls such as that which you killed have been brought to battle, and three have been killed."

Her heart clenched. "Then there is a vampire roaming Athel Loren still?"

"Not anymore," said a harsh voice, and Shallaeran turned to see who had spoken.

A tall, female Elf with midnight-black hair falling to the back of her thighs stood by the fire. She was clad in rough garb, mottled browns and greys that seemed to flow together. A huge, double-handed blade was sheathed over her shoulder. She held the severed, withered head of a vampire in her hand.

"I found this beast south of the Tears of Isha. It was heading towards the Wildwood." She tossed the head into the fire.

Helioran leaned forwards. "Dominae. I had not thought to see you. Have you come to see your brother?"

Her lips twisted. "Domnue is my concern, Helioran. I am simply here to deliver the head of a foe. I know what you intend."

Helioran frowned. "And how did you come by this knowledge, Dominae?"

"The forest has many eyes and ears, Helioran. Nothing is secret from Athel Loren."

Shallaeran stepped forwards slightly. "Lord Helioran, what is this action that Dominae speaks of?"

Helioran looked at her. "This threat to Athel Loren cannot be allowed to grow. For this reason, I am sending a party out across the Mountains, in order to ascertain the nature and intent of our enemy."

She fought the despair rising in her. "And this is why you have summoned me?"

"Yes," he nodded. "You have first hand experience of the vampires. You shall accompany the force. Domnue will lead it."

Dominae nodded slowly. "Then that is where I go. I have business with my brother, and I will not allow a few vampires to disrupt it."

Helioran sighed. "I have no power over you any longer, and all her know it. I would not prevent you, but I would ask you not to harm the chances of the party with your personal business. Discretion will be required, especially once they are across the Mountains."

Dominae bowed her head. "As you wish, Helioran. It is good that you know that you have no authority over the Laith-Kourn." She walked slowly from the hall, slipping through the assembled Wood Elves like liquid shadow.

Shallaeran looked back at Helioran. "Lord-" she began.

He held up one hand. "No, Shallaeran. You have knowledge that is essential. However, your deed also deserves reward."

He reached down behind his throne, and drew out a bow. It was as tall as Shallaeran, recurved, and intricately carved. Golden thread wound its way around the deep brown wood of the bow, and the thread seemed to be spun silver. Bright, gem-studded steel formed a brace at the centre of the bow, two daggerlike guides protruding from the top and bottom of the moulded grip.

Helioran held it out towards her, a cloth-covered quiver in his other hand. "This is Elhorai's Talon. It is a powerful bow, enchanted by the greatest of the Loartha kinband's spellweavers. Take it, and strike down the enemies of Athel Loren."

Shallaeran nodded solemnly, accepting the bow and quiver. "I thank you, Lord Helioran. I shall try to do this weapon justice."

Helioran smiled. "You will, Shallaeran, I know. Now go, prepare. The party leaves at dawn."

Part 2

Lahmia, four thousand years ago…

Varakash dodged frantically, back-pedalling out of range of the massive Ushabti as it swung for him. He slipped around its huge glaive as it clanged down onto the floor, and stabbed his sword into the strangely flesh like stone of its knee.

The sword tip penetrated barely an inch, and then stuck fast, gripped by the ensorcelled stone as the Ushabti crouched. It ripped its weapon from the slabs, and stood, a silent obelisk of death. Varakash threw himself sideways, rolling to his feet behind it as it exploded into movement, slashing around towards him.

He ducked under the arcing glaive, and rolled, snatching his sword from the construct's knee. He came up from his roll in front of it, and hacked his sword into its knee again, chips of living stone falling to the floor under his attack. The Ushabti kicked out heavily, its massive foot catching Varakash full in the chest and throwing him backwards down the street.

Varakash hit the stone wall of the building behind him, and fell to the floor, the breastplate of his armour bent out of shape where the Ushabti had kicked him. Winded, he gasped for breath, picking himself up from the floor unsteadily. He had to have at least two broken ribs from that. Gods, but they were strong!

He looked up at the construct. It was down on one knee, glaring at him from the floor. Its injured leg had to have given way after the kick. Varakash grimaced at the Ushabti. It had been a challenging opponent.

He stepped close to it, remaining just out of range of its weapon. He spoke grimly, not even sure that it could hear him. "Your age is at an end. You have no place in Lahmia after this day."

The Ushabti stared mutely up at him, rage burning in its eyes. Its bestial face twisted in a snarl, and it took a swing at him. Varakash stood still, letting the glaive slice through the air in front of him, and then stepped forwards and in one swift movement rammed his sword up to the hilt between the construct's eyes. It collapsed almost instantly, flakes of stone crumbling to the floor.

Varakash looked down at it sadly as he pulled the sword from its disintegrating head. The Mortuary priests had been a part of Lahmia for centuries. It still seemed impossible to him that they could have rebelled on such a scale. And yet they had. The carnage being wreaked by the rampaging temple warriors spoke for itself.

Varakash broke into a run down the street, heading for the rest of the Ushabti. Some twenty of the constructs and a horde of priests had charged through the streets towards the Palace. They must hope to kill the Queen, though Varakash as he ran. They would never manage it. Neferatem would be guarded by the best of the Queen's Guard, including Lord Abhorash himself, along with her other advisors. Ushoran and Vashanesh were nearly as accomplished in the martial disciplines as Abhorash himself, and the rumours placed W'soran as the most powerful mage in the city.

Together with the Queen's Guard, they would destroy the priests before they passed the gates.

Varakash rounded a corner and found himself facing a massive battle. The Ushabti and priests had engaged a force of nearly a hundred Guards, and the clamour of steel against steel, blades cutting into flesh, and the roar of enraged combatants filled the air.

The colossal black shapes of the Ushabti towered above the melee, cutting down Guards with heavy strokes from their huge weapons. Around them clustered the priests, black robed forms clutching at knives and staffs, darting in to strike before dodging back behind the Ushabti. The Queen's Guard fought professionally, striking at the Ushabti with long spears while sword-armed warriors fought off the priests.

At the center of the battle, Varakash caught sight of a gore-streaked form, darting to and fro, a massive sword arcing up and down, each stroke ending a life. He saw the figure spin and hack wildly at the arm of an Ushabti. The construct's forearm shattered under the blow, its glaive falling from crumbling fingers, and the figure hacked the Ushabti's head from its shoulders with a heavy slash.

Varakash caught sight of the figure's face as it turned to find another opponent. Merovar. He should have known.

Varakash charged into the melee, sword held high, the sun reflecting from his polished armour. He was a flash of devastating light as he fell upon the priests at the edge of the battle, his sword slashing frenziedly as he ran, delivering a single, mortal wound to each he passed.

He left a trail of death in his wake, dead or dying priests clutching at horrible wounds and screaming in agony. He strove forwards, headed for the center of the battle, where the remaining Ushabti were clustered. The constructs were forcing a path through the Guards, fifteen Ushabti crushing all who came before them.

Varakash was upon them like a thunderbolt, diving forwards and slashing his sword across the hamstrings of the closest Ushabti with all his strength. The steel sliced through the living stone and the construct fell to its knees. Varakash was past it, headed for the next, as it was swarmed by spear-wielding Guards.

A great cry went up from the Guards as they saw him, a hundred voices raised in a ragged cheer; "The White Warrior is here!"

Varakash did not acknowledge the cry, and dodged sideways, barely avoiding a looping strike from a heavy bronze staff. He whipped his sword sideways across the midriff of the priest, and kicked the man backwards. Varakash sidestepped fluidly as an Ushabti's glaive arced downwards towards him, and the weapon struck the slabs with a dull clang.

Varakash snarled and attacked, striking high at the construct's head. His sword was batted aside by a huge arm, and Varakash barely managed to dodge a powerful backhand aimed for his face. He began another blow, but was yanked to the floor as something caught the ornate wing of his shoulder guard.

He looked around, dazed, and found another Ushabti standing above him, glaive held ready to deliver the deathblow. It must have hit his shoulder after his frantic dodge. He rolled desperately, and the glaive crashed to the ground next to him. A Guard leaped in and thrust with a spear, driving the Ushabti back and giving Varakash the time to stand.

He nodded his thanks to the Guard, and launched into a frenzied attack. His sword slashed in all directions, striking chips from the construct's stone body. He concentrated on the creature's arms and legs, seeking to disable it. He ducked a swing for his head, and stabbed his sword into the Ushabti's leg, just above the knee.

He felt the sword bite deep into the construct, and then the Ushabti buckled. Varakash barely got his sword out before it was snapped in two by the construct's bending leg. He spun on his heel and lashed out, carving the Ushabti's head in two.

He looked around in the lull. The remaining Ushabti had pushed through the combat, and were barely a hundred meters from the palace gates. All would be lost unless they were stopped. Not even Abhorash could halt ten Ushabti at once.

Varakash began to run, catching sight of Merovar to his left. The two pushed their way through the melee, rushing towards the Ushabti. They had to get there before the gates were breached. Merovar's black hair whipped in his wake as the warrior hacked his way through the melee, the antithesis of Varakash's cool, methodical strikes.

A group of priests appeared before Varakash, swarming him with stabbing blades. As he brought his sword around in a desperate block, he saw a pair of priests tackle Merovar to the ground. And then Varakash hissed loudly as a dagger slammed into his breastplate, in the same spot that the Ushabti had kicked. The impact grated his broken ribs together, and the sudden, scraping pain in his chest almost made him drop his sword.

Before he could recover, he was pushed to the ground by the priests, daggers scraping off his vambraces and shoulder guards. He hit the bloodstained stones hard, and gasped as the air was driven from his lungs.

Gritting his teeth, he punched his fist upwards as hard as he could, feeling rather than hearing the crunching impact of his armoured gauntlet against a priest's unprotected face. He lashed out again, backhanding another in the side of his head, and pistoned his knee into the groin of a third.

He fought to one knee, and levered his sword around. Now he had his weapon ready, the priests were more wary, hesitating over attacking him. He took the matter out of their hands, and leapt forwards, the sword point slicing neatly through the throat of the center priest before continuing on to bite deep into the shoulder of the man beside him.

Varakash wrenched his blade free as the man screamed in agony, clutching at his shoulder, and twisted it down to parry a stab from his left. His attacker fought to retract his knife, but he was not fast enough, and Varakash's blade hit him with enough force to nearly decapitate him on the spot.

He tumbled sideways to the ground, and Varakash bolted past the remaining priests. They were mere distractions, to allow the Ushabti to do as much damage as possible. The constructs were the real threat here.

The palace doors – huge, iron-bound wood ten times the height of a man, and wide enough for a mounted column to pass through with room to spare – crashed open, slamming off the white stone walls of the gatehouse, and a shining figure walked slowly out. Elaborately-worked steel plates armoured his powerful form, and he had eschewed a helm, letting his thick, long black hair hang down his back. His features were aristocratic, aloof, and his eyes burned with barely-contained rage.

Abhorash fell upon the advancing Ushabti with inhuman speed, his massive blade flashing out in a blur, severing stone limbs and shattering torsos. A cold smile twisted his features as he fought, dodging around the constructs' attacks effortlessly before his sword whipped out once more and a massive stone head fell to the floor with a dull thud.

Varakash raced towards the combat, pushing past Guards and priests alike. Even Abhorash, for all his deadly skill, could not defeat the twelve remaining Ushabti alone.

Abhorash dodged around a heavy overhead blow, and trapped the glaive beneath his armoured boot. His sword smashed through the Ushabti's wrists, and then he thundered his fist into its face. The blow fell with a strength Varakash would not have thought possible, and Abhorash's fist drove through the construct's face, exploding from the back of its head in a shower of stone. He tore his hand free and spun in a blur, slashing one-handed with his sword to slice the legs from another Ushabti.

And then a pair of massive glaives struck simultaneously for his back. He sensed them somehow, and twisted around one, his sword flickering out of its own volition and spearing the jackal-headed Ushabti through the chest, but the other glaive hacked down into his back. The huge weapon punched through his armour, and the black metal of the blade carved through flesh and bone alike, emerging from the front of his chest in a welter of blood and gore. It drove him to the floor, impaled on the weapon.

Varakash screamed in rage as he finally reached the Ushabti, moments too late. His sword whipped around, powered by all his anger, and slashed through the construct's hamstrings, dropping it to its knees. Its hands still gripped the glaive, and Abhorash let out a stricken groan as the weapon twisted within him. Varakash dodged an attack by another Ushabti, and stabbed Abhorash's killer in the eye.

The construct crumbled as it died, and it finally released its weapon. Varakash dashed towards Abhorash, but was cut off by a pair of Ushabti. Their massive weapons arced towards him, and he threw himself to the floor frantically, feeling the wind from their passage on his neck. He landed in a roll, and slashed backwards blindly. He felt his sword bite into something, and then he was on his feet, turning to face the Ushabti.