Chapter Five: The Real Action Begins
"Nice working with you, Zhoom," I said, shaking the Ranger's hand as we hauled in another escaped (but now caught) criminal who was to await Sec Duat's wrath. The Ranger was a half Sand Elf, whom I had first encountered and befriended in the Falconreach Inn many years ago. (It's a long story.)
After pocketing my share of gold, I decided to return to Falconreach. It was really rather hot in the Sandsea.
"Ha," scoffed Zhoom (in his usual dry, aloof manner) when I told him. "That's why we Sand Elves are so awesome, don't you think?" I gave him a playful smack to back of the head, and he groaned despairingly. "Do you always have to mess up my hair? Now how can I meet that pretty dancer of Sec Duat's tonight – Whoops." He shut his mouth hastily and turned red. "I said nothing whatsoever!"
I laughed. "Of course, and I won't breathe so much as a word to anyone. Now goodbye!"
"Leaving already, Mariel? Why not help me with another bounty – er, mission?"
"Sorry, no, but I really have to get back to the inn. Say, you could bring your lady friend there! No risk of being caught by Sec Duat, eh?"
"Whoops." It was my turn to look embarrassed.
It was a long walk back to Falconreach, and I was half-regretting not borrowing one of Zhoom's proffered camels. Oh, well. It would really be quite a sight anyway, riding down the streets like that. And besides, it might give everyone else the wrong idea - Zhoom and I were just friends.
Thoughts I don't remember now were swirling through my brain as I began the trek back to Falconreach. I didn't really pay attention to where I was going, other than the fact that I was on the right path. I just walked on, daydreaming to myself.
"HELP! HELP!" The shrieks shook me out of my reverie, and I quickly snapped to action. The sounds of distress were emanating from a patch of forest to my right; a sign near me pointed in that direction:
The name did not have a positive connotation. This was just one stroke of luck after another. But there was no time to lose – there were people to defend and possibly monsters to defeat. Pulling my staff from where it was strapped to my back, I ran as quickly as I could towards the forest, the air around me seeming to grow darker and darker as I raced between the trees.
In a matter of minutes, I came to a clearing. What I saw there made me (I am ashamed to say) freeze on the spot.
I spotted a small hut in the center of the clearing, but it was barely visible over the heads of thousands of what could only be described as zombies. The stench of rotting flesh filled my nose, and I tried not to vomit.
"Help! HELP!" This time, I realized it was a small boy's voice, so shrill it could have been mistaken for a girl's.
Here goes nothing, I thought as my legs began moving of their own accord, taking me towards the monsters and the hut. Since I was still training, I had no experience with monsters (to my disadvantage), but someone in need was someone in need. There was no time to lose.
I would save the boy, or die fighting. That much was clear.
Otherwise, what use would training as a mage be for anyway?
Luckily, I didn't have to worry much about aim, something I was terrible at. The size of the zombie crowd converging around the hut didn't give me much to aim at.
"Leave him alone!" I shouted, and some of the monsters turned to me.
"Take that!" I shouted, sending random spells zinging their way. Personally, I loved the plant spells, but they didn't seem to be of much use here. Because of the darkness, though, light blinded the monsters. So I stuck with that.
I began to wonder if I should have run headlong into the crowd rather than shoot from a distance, but the zombie things were already all around me. I would go down fighting, then. Only if the stink didn't kill me first, though. I fought through the mounds of monsters that were building up around my feet, trying to catch a breath of fresh air.
Finally, I came in sight of the hut.
A little boy of maybe seven or eight stood outside, at the doorway. Surprisingly, he wasn't hiding inside, but fighting, with a long sharpened black branch from a nearby tree. I heard small frightened voices inside, and I realized he must have been defending his siblings. But he looked like he was tiring, and fast. Shoving my way through the ranks of monsters, I shoved the boy inside.
"What are you doing?" I yelled. "It's too dangerous! I'll hold them off, and you take your siblings and RUN!"
"No!" he shouted. "I'll help!" So stubborn. Like I used to be, when I was younger.
The little boy looked up at me, his eyes filling with tears ... and with something else. Amazement.
He had green eyes. Emerald-green eyes. Like...
But there was no time for reflection. I pushed the little boy inside and shut the door, shielding it with my own body. Then I turned to the monsters.
"How dare you endanger innocent people," I growled, even though all I got was some nasty grunts in return. "You will all pay for this."
I began shooting light spells every which way, with renewed vigor as I heard the agonized cries of monsters falling to them. But there was only so much energy I had left. At length, I began to tire, and the monsters, sensing this, pressed ever closer around me, so that I had to use more defensive spells than before.
Just my luck, that I hadn't brought any mana or health potions with me.
Then I would really go down fighting.
"But not before you pay!" I shouted to the zombie things.
"Yes, they will. They're undead. They usually do, you know." An extremely familiar male voice sounded next to me.
I looked up and screamed. "ARTIX!"
"Yes?" he said, grinning mischievously. "I never knew I had that sort of effect on beautiful young ladies."
"If you could just stop scaring me to death every time I see you..." I gritted out. "And... if you could just stop talking for long enough to help me.."
"Oh yes," he said. "That calls for ... my Holy Strike!" He rushed among the undead (what polite names people had for monsters here!) and made short work of them. In less than five minutes I was left standing in a battlefield completely devoid of nasty undead. I could breathe again. I sank to the floor, utterly exhausted.
Artix, meanwhile, didn't even look strained in the least, even as he cleared the field of undead. How had he done that?
"They're all gone!" The small boy's voice rang out behind me. "You can all come out now." He and the other little kids came out, and stared, amazed, at the battlefield littered with corpses of undead (what a paradox!).
I looked at all the children and noticed they were completely different from each other. I'd thought they were the green-eyed boy's siblings, but they were not. There was one little girl with sandy hair and blue eyes, another with black hair and gray eyes, and so on. There were seven of them in total. But I noticed the green-eyed boy most.
He looked so familiar.
"Who are you?" I asked him.
"Me?" he asked. "I call myself Aden. And thank you for saving me. We all owe you our lives."
"And I am Mariel." I paused, just looking at him as he looked at me, with a sort of growing realization. At last he spoke.
Then I remembered. Something long gone, so many years ago, that it had been all but forgotten. But now I remembered. With a clarity - and a horror - that threatened to overwhelm me completely.