Riklaun, Rayella and Edan had been wandering for much of the morning without as much of a clue as last night. Lightning, with his improved senses had taken point. He had gotten the trail of Jem early and followed it precicely. The Elves came to a fork in the road, and Lightning stopped there.
"I am confused. The trail splits here," Lightning said.
"What do you mean Lightning?" Rayella asked.
"Just that. Her trail heads to the northeast towards Longsaddle, and yet still travels southward to Triboar."
"This is odd." Riklaun spoke. "She cannot have gone to two different places." Riklaun looked around, searching for any clues. He reached into his bag and pulled out some gold dust. Chanting, he spoke words of magic. Riklaun tossed the dust in an arc along the path. "This road has not been travelled upon in ages. There are only one set of tracks here. Light footed, small--could be Jem's. They follow the path to Triboar."
"But Rik, Jem's trail leads more prominently to Longsaddle, not Triboar," Lightning protested.
"Yes, I know, Lightning. You can sense her," Rik agreed. "That is why you and Rayella are going to head to Longsaddle and meet up with Strongbow and Nalynn. Her scent takes you there, and I need you tofollow it. Edan and I will head to Triboar."
The Elves parted--Rayella and Lightning heading to Longsaddle, and Rik and Edan heading south to Triboar. Riklaun and Edan travelled on the path until noon. They stopped at a nearby grove and broke out lunch. Riklaun pulled out a bottle of his famous Morimatra, a potent Dark Elf wine.
"This will give us some strength, Edan." He poured two mugs and sat down on a rock.
"I have some of Jem's homemade bread here. It is quite delicious," Edan said. He offered Rik a piece. While they ate, Riklaun looked up at the sky. The clouds were slowly coming in, obscuring the sun. He watched as the clouds grew thicker at an incredible rate.
"Looks like a storm is brewing down in Red Larch, Rik." Edan said. "I think we had better start moving again."
"No argument there," Riklaun agreed. "We need to arrive in Triboar before that storm hits. Perhaps we will meet up with Randow and Dinalqua. They should be coming back from Red Larch by now. I hope they do not get caught in that storm." The two Elves gathered their packs and moved on, hoping to make Triboar before the storm.
"Von! Did you hear that?" she cried, alarmed.
"Aye, it came from behind us," he replied as the pair turned, straining to discern where the scream came from.
All seemed peaceful on the path to Longsaddle; the birds went about their business, displaying no awareness of the sound the two Elves had heard. "Where's Lyria?" Von asked, scowling that she no longer followed behind them.
"I could have sworn she was right behind us, Von. Perhaps we should double back--the road to Longsaddle is rife with evils," Nalynn said.
"It'll be faster if I go alone; she can't have fallen too far behind. Rest here, fair lady. You look tired. I'll return shortly." Leaving Nalynn on the path, Strongbow headed back in search of Lyrianda.
"Hmph, I look tired?" Nalynn dismounted and threw back her cloak, enjoying the warm sunlight and the scents of the forest. She drew a small flask from her pack and swallowed a bit of the fey she had brought for their journey. "Such a lovely land. I wonder if the rumors of death and destruction are true," she mused as she fingered a long blade of grass.
Her reverie was interrupted as the sky darkened. Looking up, she saw not a cloud in the sky. Still the sky was dark, but there were no stars. The air grew chill and the forest sounds stopped. Hearing her horse nicker nervously, Nalynn stood and tried to calm the animal. She heard a rustling in the brush. She drew her dagger, prepared for whatever it was. As she spun around, senses acute, adrenaline flowing, a drider crashed through the brush, blocking her path.
Nalynn's horse immediately bolted away from the scene. Both the drider and Elf ignored it.
"Nalynn," the drider hissed. "How fortunate that I should find thee alone. Where is your friend? Searching for that wench Lyrianda?"
"Ebonstarr?" Nalynn breathed the name, slowly recognizing the drider. "I might have known it was you. Always the dramatic entrance, eh?" She gripped her dagger firmly, prepared to lunge should the witch attack.
"Well, lady Elf," Ebonstarr sneered. "I could kill you with a thought. Right now. But that would spoil my fun. No, I have come with a gift for you. Something I think you'll find most intriguing."
"I want no gifts from you, murderess!" Nalynn said, struggling to keep her rage under control. "Come and fight me, Ebonstarr! I have a 'gift' or two I'd like to deliver to you, myself!"
The drider just laughed at the display before her. "Oh come now, Nalynn. You've suffered by my hand before and you will suffer again." She opened her mouth and regurgitated a small object. It dropped to the ground and rolled toward Nalynn's feet. "Enjoy it pretty lady." And then, she was gone.
Nalynn stood her ground, breathing deeply to calm her anger. As the sky once again lightened, she sheathed her dagger, certain that Ebonstarr had truly departed. She gazed at the orb which had fallen from the drider's mouth. It was shiny, like a pearl from Lord Nasher's seas. Grabbing a stick, she pushed it. It rolled a few inches, revealing a small latch on its underside. Before she could roll the orb back, it sprung open and dust flew out from the hollowed insides.
She quickly covered her mouth and nose so not to inhale the poison. Backing away from it, she eyed the dust warily as it blew away with the wind. "Gift, indeed. Even your jokes are as stale and disgusting as you, Ebonstarr," she muttered. Calming herself, she took up a position further upwind from the now-opened orb and waited for Strongbow to return. As she watched the path, she did not notice the small ant-like creature which carried a few particles of the witch dust and deposited them in the hem of her cloak. Such was the way of evil's creatures.
Strongbow begrudgingly left Nalynn in the small glade. It had never set well with him to split up a party, nor to leave a lady alone, no matter how competent she might be. He always felt a certain... responsibility to protect them. For now, however, he put his worries aside and concentrated on the task at hand: finding Lyrianda. She had been right behind them. Cat smiled, he had sensed her presence miles back, but had not given away the fact that he knew that she was there. Better not to undermine her confidence in her abilities. In reality, there were few that would have detected her--with normal senses. Strongbow kept low to the ground, leading his horse, searching for any sign of Lyria's passing, now and then finding a trace, and not leading in any certain direction. This began to worry him; getting lost in these woods could spell disaster for anyone. He stopped for a moment to try something. He had not used his telepathic ability for a while. He knew the Elf maiden's thought patterns, and so decided to try and get a fix on her location by contacting her mind.
Horror, disgust, and a violent sense of nausea reached his mind in an instant! He had to break the contact momentarily to prevent from getting sick himself, so vivid was the vision. She was standing by a tree, open mouthed, seemingly screaming, but no sound was escaping her lips.
He said gently to her, "I am coming to find you arwenamin. Turn away from that mess Lyria. Please find a place a short distance from there and calm yourself. I'll be there in a little while." She seemed to sense his words, as if she understood the message, but could still not form coherent thoughts. Satisfied at this, Strongbow broke the contact and rode quickly in the direction of her location. About half an hour later, Cat came to the tree where the two horribly mutilated corpses lay strewn about. Lyrianda was not there: a good sign. A second wave of nausea began to sweep over him at the sight, so he turned away and began to look for Lyrianda. He found her a short distance away, sitting with her back to a tree, her head in her hands, sobbing. Not wanting to frighten her unnecessarily, he called to her mind, "Lyria, I am here." Her head came up instantly.
"Strongbow?" she inquired in a weak voice.
"Aye," his reply soft, almost a whisper. Cat crossed to where she sat and dropped to one knee in front of her, gripping her shoulders reassuringly. In a soothing voice he spoke. "That was not a sight for anyone to see. I am sorry you had to stumble across it in this fashion. Try to put it from your mind, Lyria. There is nothing we can do for them now. It's best just to forget it and get away from this place."
"It.. it is so terrible... who... what... could have done such a thing?"
"I know not. Yours, and the victims, whoever they may have been, were the only tracks I could find in the glade." Strongbow frowned at this thought, then continued, "We need to get back to Nalynn, my dear. Can you travel?"
She took a deep breath, "Aye, I think so."
He reached into his pack and pulled out a flask, and pouring a small amount of a golden swirling liquid into a glass, he handed it to Lyrianda. "Here drink this. It will help. Trust me."
She accepted the glass gratefully and downed the wine in one swallow, her eyes widened as the elixer took effect, "What is that? I have never tasted its like before."
"A gift from a departed friend, and good in an emergency such as this." Cat looked deep into her eyes, "I need you to be strong Lyria, we have a long way to go still, and whoever or whatever did this may still be lurking about. Come, let's get out of here." He helped her stand and get her gear together. They found her horse only a few yards away, nibbling on some foliage.
The two Elves disappeared into the forest, unaware of the deep chuckling that began following their departure.
Deciding her horse was by now far away, Nalynn sat on a fallen log and mused over her encounter with Ebonstarr. Why did Ebonstarr take the form of a drider? Why had the witch returned now? What was she up to? Were all these rumored deaths part of some new evil plan she had devised?
She thought back to the night Tarion had died. It had been chaos, and the guest room he'd occupied was forever marked with his blood. A grim testimony to this unending struggle against Lloth and her minions. She fought back tears as she recalled Tizer's private grief, wishing she'd taken the time to know Tarion better. But it was too late now. It still rankled her that Riklaun had refused her entry to the room, to see for herself the havoc which was now unfolding in the realm.
Reaching into her cloak of many pockets, she pulled out the piece of dark cloth she'd found hanging from a shrub near the entry to the quarters. She studied the fabric, her experienced fingers absorbing impressions of its origin. The fibers were linen, but not from anywhere near the fields surrounding Tel'Mithrim. And despite the fine craftsmanship in weaving and spinning, it had a coarse, uncomfortable feel to it -- certainly not something an Elf would consider wearing, even as an outer garment.
She wondered what Rik would think if he knew she'd lifted this telltale clue from the scene before his Bladesingers had completed their investigation into the events of that night. Even Strongbow had no idea she possessed it. A dark smile graced her face but for a moment, then was gone.
She heard their voices long before they appeared on the path where Strongbow had left her. It seemed as though a lifetime had passed while she awaited their return. As they rode into the clearing, Nalynn smiled when she saw he had found Lyrie. She rushed up and hugged them both.
"Oh, Von, thank Correllon you found her!" she cried. Lyrianda returned her hug weakly. "Lyrie! What's happened to you? Are you hurt?"
"'Tis nothing, Nal," Lyrianda replied. "It's just that... there... was so much.... blood." Tears welled in the Elf's eyes as the scene of horror emerged in her mind. "It was the most terrible thing I've ever seen. I did not recognize them. Not sure who they were. But they were dead! Who is doing these terrible deeds? Who sullies our beautiful realms so?"
Nalynn glanced at Strongbow as she comforted their comrade. "Well, I have news as well. While you were gone, Ebonstarr made an appearance." she said. "Even delivered a little--er-- gift." She gestured toward the vile ball and vestiges of dust which lay around it. "Don't get too close! I don't know what that witch is up to, but it can't be any good."
Strongbow nodded. "Aye, gifts from the likes of her will bring their recipient nothing but ill. Of that I'm certain. But, time's passing us by. We must reach Longsaddle. So, if you ladies are up to it, I suggest we leave now. Nalynn, you should ride with Lyrianda since you lost your horse."
Lyrianda and Nalynn nodded and gathered their things. They headed off, Strongbow leading the way.
Continue to Chapter 5