Devryn - "Painted in Sorcery"
My surroundings grew still, a stark contrast to the chaos created by the unearthly creature. I could hear distant shouting from other camps between my heavy breaths. My head swam from the residual adrenaline. A starved body will suffer after rushed exertion and I hated myself for being in this weakened state. I was taught to be better.
Tae-gron laid on his back clutching his chest, blood soaking through his tattered shirt. Mavrik stood over him looking back at me, his once congenial face now buried beneath a serious calm.
Mavrik sheathed his sword and gave me a nod. "You're decent with a blade, I see. Where did you learn it? Ardal?"
My bladework was a mix, but I have always been driven to mimic the Erris style of the elvish people. It was one of the more respected art forms in the northern territories of the Ardalian Empire. It had a quick and efficient feel that I appreciated and excelled at learning. Their militant training left an everlasting mark.
"My father taught me," which was true enough. "Being Perussian sometimes means fighting for survival on a daily basis and he was a practical man." In a small way, tonight was no different. I traveled with a number of Perussian caravans across the lands as a child, exposing me to the dangers of a transient lifestyle. I have also heard enough old legends and fireside stories to know that creatures like this only come from nightmares, not from the wilds.
Mavrick ran his hand through his thick curls, looking down at Tae-gron, "Yeah, seems so. The roads are not too kind to the unpracticed." Pulling off his silk sash, he offered it to Tae-gron to press on his wound. Tae-gron’s naturally dark Madraderian skin tone appeared washed out and peaked. “Hold it down tight, Mad’. I’ll get the healer.” Mavrik hurried away towards the main circle of tents.
I sat down, exhaustion setting in, waiting for the night to return to normalcy. . . if it could. The cool air was finally welcome as it soothed my nerves.
“You lived?” a wisp of words came from Tae-gron. Not sure if that was to mean he was grateful.
“Uh, so did you.”
“Damn beast. What in Mannab was it? Not from our gods,” the strength in his voice fading.
“No, think not.”
An older Tressian woman, hair pulled back into braids and wearing tradition riding leathers, walked into our camp and squatted next to Tae-gron. She pulled his hand and the drenched sash away to look at the wound. He moaned as his eyes rolled back into his head, passing out.
“My boy, you are not well.” She looked at me from across the fire and gave a pleasant smile.
The healer cleaned off a patch of earth, pulling away any grass. She grabbed a handful of loose dirt and scattered it across the nasty gash. She then placed her hands over his chest and a deep hum grew in her throat. My nose filled with the scent of fresh-turned earth as her tone intensified. I had seen earthen magic before but not this close. The elves hunted down human elemental-weavers they found to be a threat, sending the survivors into hiding after the 'Times of Shadow’ many years ago. Things were slow to change back to the old ways with the vigilant elven presence in the region. I should know.
Her hands started to glow in a soft yellow light, the dirt shifted around and moved in a synchronistic pattern. As the energy faded, Tae-gron burst into a fit of coughs and then laid still.
“Do not worry for your friend, he will be fine after some sleep. I have others to attend to.” She patted him on the shoulder and then winked at me as she stepped away. This company was filled with some odd people.
Tae-gron rested through the night. He was listless, but it appeared to be a fit sleep. I checked his forehead a couple times and no fever had set in. My night was spent mistrusting any noise or movement in the gloom between the sporadic naps. We had no more visitors, company men or otherwise. I could tell though there were eyes on us from the hidden sentries stationed around our perimeter.
The next morning, we were given a warm tuber stew, spiced with pepper seeds. Tae-gron was groggy but had no problem swallowing down the whole bowl in a few gulps. He brushed off the caked dirt, exposing a pink scar where the wound had been. His lack of smiles or words told me he was back to being his normal, cheery self.
The day was spent on the move, crossing the rugged steppe. The beating sun gave some warmth where the cold wind bit through my grubby shirt, fighting to take it away. The company had only a brief respite mid-day, but our pace was more than manageable, unlike the previous day's forced march.
That early evening, the dusky sky was striped with a horde of smoky campfires, gray fingers climbing into the horizon, with the line between the land and sky glowing a pale orange across our path.
Drab colored scouts greeted the company column first, directing us to the entry point that led into a large encampment. Once beyond the barricaded limit, a sun-faded sea of brightly colored tents and standards filled the open terrain before us. The company went one direction as Tae-gron and I were instructed to check in at the messenger tents.
* * * *
“Report.” We stood before a grizzled Tressian, a shock of white hair crowned his head and he wore the colors of Prince Mesra. He sat at a small, wooden table on a makeshift stool, an iron-ringed ledger opened before him.
I looked at Tae-gron, making sure he had no inclination to say anything, then back to our lovely greeter. “Sir, we are messengers for San Urba, tasked with delivering a private message to a manorlord in Trevista on order of Sendon Ki-fult of San Urba. I am Sembani and this is Tae-gron.”
“To whom, boy?” He leered at Tae-gron and spat a wad of chew on the ground, tongue probing for stray leaves.
I could feel a ball of awkward tension building next to me, “To Sendon Emmatri.” The Emmatri were a major house in Trevista, and an easy out when being questioned about manor dealings as they are a large organization. Too many people to keep track of.
The cranky bastard scribbled into his ledger. “You will lodge there for the night,” pointing to a nearby tent. “In the morning, you will join our morning assignment call. If we have nothing for you, you may return to your lord’s duties.” He waved his hand in dismissal.
That night was beyond one of the most blissful moments in my life. The dinner meal was a quick affair, a thickened mutton stew. Simple, but effective. After not eating for days, a few bites made my belly swollen and my eyelids heavy. But before passing out, there was one more thing I needed to do. I took a stroll through the large encampment. Being dressed as a messenger, I passed by groups of soldiers preparing for duty or cleaning the day's work off their bodies and armor without a glance or challenge, easily dismissed.
At one edge, I found a small escarpment that dropped into a twisted stretch of land. The dim moonlight made the scene appear as if a ghostly skeleton of stone and brush strewn across the land. Jutting sections of piled blocks and decaying walls broke up the rolling flow with clawed branches reaching into the night sky. Making my way around the camp's edge, I familiarized myself with the full layout.
At one point, finding my opportunity, I was able to nab a clean change of underclothes and sneak time in a cold, abandoned bath.
The oddest moment was spotting Seth hidden among soldiers of another Tres company, wearing their livery colors. He gave me a side-glance and continued his conversation with a couple of hearty looking fellows.
* * * *
“Line up!” the messenger sergeant screamed. He looked and sounded no different than last night, uninterestingly annoyed. He proceeded to run through assignments off a sheet of paper, until a young boy scrambled up, out of breath. The boy furiously whispered to the sergeant, explaining something in detail.
The Sergeant’s brow dropped in consternation. His knotted finger ran down the page, then he looked up to the small crowd of messengers, scanning the waiting faces. His lips quivered with unspoken words, going face-to-face, working to find the right one.
“Sembani. Sembani! Step forward.”
Should have known the good times were to be short-lived.
I glanced around. Damn, the only one. Should have picked a common name.
I strode to the front, to stand before him and the boy. My mind raced. Doesn’t matter the task, I will be free soon enough.
“Follow the lad. Special assignment.”
The eager boy led me through the tent maze, to the leadership tents. We stopped before two sentries standing in front of a red and black tent. The posted standard was a rearing mountain goat, a thick-maned, black arroz, on a crimson field. I knew this to be the Vegu Henat Arroz Company, loyal to Prince Mesra. One soldier pulled open the flap to allow entry.
The interior was fit for a Prince, which was not expected in this setting. Thick carpets covered the sandy ground, veils with tiny bells strung to the hems partitioned the space into little rooms, and two coal burners warmed the air. A Tressian soldier dressed in finely-tooled regalia stood by a large table, map pinned down with rocks covering its surface. His fingers remained splayed on the map as his eyes met mine. I could hear the boy sprint off behind me after his job was completed.
“Messenger, you are needed by Prince Mesra. You will be running an urgent message to Inna Bojarta.”
Behind a thin, cream-colored veil, two tall and slender female Eidoniae watched the exchange. Their details remained blurred by the threaded vines and leaves in the sheer fabric, but their unmistakable elven haughtiness could not be subdued by the thin wall.
Not knowing what else to say, “Understood.”
“Well, I think not.” He gave a wave of a gauntleted hand. “This will be handled in a… an unconventional manner.” A soft mumble fell upon my ears, coming from one of the hidden figures.
Time seemed to stop and my skin crawled. My muscles tensed up, leaving me hard as a wooden post. I tried moving my hand or relaxing. . . nothing.
“Guards!” the high-ranking soldier bellowed as he cleared off the table. The two sentries from outside came in and grabbed either side of me. They hauled me over to the table and laid my rigid form across the top.
The chime of petite bells sounded and a pair of identical faces looked down on me from the head of the table. The two female Eidoniae stood well over six feet, their graceful movement and delicate features filled my vision. The slight, angular jaws and cheekbones aligned under their hazel eyes were a sight to behold. Every time I’ve seen one, I know why odes were written to define their unearthly elven comeliness. But truth be told, this was nothing more than a façade, a thin veneer swiftly lost once understanding their calculating and selfish nature.
“You… are so pretty…,” one said as she ran the back of her hand across my forehead. The words softened by her elven tongue. I tried to move with all my might, but nothing budged. As I struggled, I realized my only choice was to calm down. My breath was getting out of control and my lungs felt like they would explode from the building panic.
The soldier walked to the entrance, “Tambrii, make it quick. Evedrii, you’re with me,” and left with one of the elves and the two guards in tow.
“We play, you and me.” Tambrii shrugged off her heavy shawl, letting it fall to the floor. Underneath was a silken gown of shimmering gold with thin straps hanging off her delicate shoulders. Her arms and chest were covered in various arcanic tattoos. My father would say she was 'painted in sorcery'. I have seen the like on other arcanic-wielders in the elven empire but not so many on one person. She was dangerous as only the Ardalian Emperor was known to house such powerful magic users.
Tambrii mumbled indistinguishable words, a flowing song carried in a simple verse. She spun her index finger over my chest and moving down, making circles and other odd motions, as if to stir the air. Her left hand joined in as she closed her eyes. A deep breath and I could feel the air hum around me, tiny sparks crackled between her hand and my belly.
A globe of light materialized over my stomach, swirling with a golden energy. Tambrii placed her right hand over it and began to press down, pushing the energy into my abdomen. Then all went still, time slowed.
Her eyes sprung open and her mouth parted to scream, but only a croak escaped. The golden energy at my belly spilled out across her skin, lighting up the tattoos. The light grew and then there was a searing pain all over my body. White light projected in the pattern of the strange tattoo on my body, blinding me. A metallic taste filled my mouth. I prayed for death for the first time in my life as the pain was beyond comprehension.
I sat up. Tambrii’s body lay on the floor, now a dried, gray husk. Her gold dress the only token of her splendor.
Without understanding how, I could hear a cry of outrage come from afar. It was her twin sister and she knew something dreadful happened.