His fellow Dead Hunters had made short work of the place, he saw. Many of the slavers hadn’t even had time to draw their weapons before arrow and sword cut them down. The Lady was sure to be displeased.
He rummaged through the rubble, trying to find a clue. There were none. The consecration spell had scoured the ground clean of their tracks. Merely an inconvenience. He would find them eventually.
Stepping away from the hallowed ground, he returned to the woods. The creature under his power moaned and gibbered at his approach. Gobbets of flesh stuck in what few teeth it had and blood dripped from its mouth – the remainder of its meal.
It had been a living thing once, something akin to a man. Now it was decaying flesh and shambling death. Seeking out the living in a never-ending desire to consume the life-force it no longer possessed. Bound to him, it would seek out whatever – or whoever – he commanded it to. He would find the girl. He could count on it.
Erinael awoke later to find herself in a cave. She felt disoriented at first, but then remembered the Dead Hunters having come to her rescue. Hearing a voice, she turned her head to see the Dead Hunter woman communing with a fire. She knelt with her back to Erinael, speaking in low tones. And then she laughed.
“That stubborn half-breed? The mongrel has the most luck of anyone.” She spoke with a level of affection that Erinael had never come to associate with Dead Hunters. “See you soon.” the woman said before the fire promptly vanished.
She rose then, coming over to check on Erinael. “Good, you’re awake.” she said quietly.
Erinael sat up slowly, feeling a bit light-headed. The Dead Hunter knelt next to her, offering her a drink of water.
“You slept through much of the day.” she began. “It seemed that you may have needed it, so we let you be.”
“How did you find me?” Erinael asked between sips.
“We’ve been looking for you for a few days. When we finally got a sign of you, it was only a matter of time.”
“So you found Idriss, then?” Erinael asked.
“Yes, but there is something that you should know…” the woman began.
Erinael felt that the woman was being delicate. “Take me to him.” she insisted.
Morena, as Erinael soon learned, would not allow her to go anywhere until Erinael had satisfactory eaten. Even then, she insisted upon checking over Erinael’s wounds, asking time and time again if she had been harmed in any other way. At first, Erinael had been grateful for her concern, but was quickly becoming annoyed with her pestering.
“No! You all stopped him before he could do anything else!” Angry tears rolled down her cheeks.
Morena allowed her to regain her composure before leading Erinael deeper into the cave. “When we found him, we had to care for him first. Only after which did we come for you.”
Erinael nodded in understanding. “You couldn’t take the risk.” she said quietly.
Morena then allowed Erinael to continue on alone, the soft glow of candles drawing her forward. She couldn’t help but think that this would make a fitting tomb. A Dead Hunter sat nearby, but stood and stepped back to give her some privacy.
Her heart pounded in her throat as she drew up next to him. He was so still and lifeless. Like the stone they had laid him on. Tears spilled down her cheeks and she lowered her face to his chest.
It was her fault. She had gotten him killed. He had only been trying to keep her safe.
“I’m so sorry.” she whispered.
It was then that she realized that his chest rose and fell. Slow, gradual, almost imperceptible. Erinael darted backwards, fearing the worst. That his corpse may not have been properly consecrated in time. The Dead Hunter remained off to the side, wary eyes missing nothing. The slightest twitch of a smile on his lips.
“He lives?” Erinael demanded, turning to the Dead Hunter.
He dropped to his knees and bowed his head still lower. “Yes, M’Lady, he still lives.” He said, turning contrite. “My apologies that you were not told.”
Erinael carefully approached Idriss again, fingers going to the pulse at his throat. Just as his breathing, it was slow and almost unnoticeable. His skin also still held warmth.
“How could this be?” she whispered. She was happy that he was alive, but found the fact to be perplexing.
“The arrows missed his heart by inches. One punctured a lung. The second caused some internal bleeding.” She heard the man straighten up as he spoke. “Dead Hunter magic can prolong a life, but we are not Menders.”
Erinael smiled ruefully. “Neither am I.” she said quietly.
He surprised her when he rested a hand on her shoulder. “She may not have magic, but the healing skills of the Princess of the Mountains are known to all of the Dead Hunter clans.” he said reassuringly. “You are the best that he could hope for.”
Morena took charge of watching over Idriss as Erinael and Tanis went to gather herbs. Erinael had come to appreciate his company over the woman’s. She concerned herself too much with Erinael’s well-being for comfort.
Tanis picked up on that fact rather quickly. “Do not concern yourself with Morena’s behavior. She is young, but she means well.” He said after they had left the caves and walked down the slope into the trees below.
“She overly concerns herself with mine.” Erinael said tartly, turning her head toward a shrill bird call.
Tanis responded to the call in kind, and Erinael saw another Dead Hunter come into view from a tree limb ahead of and above them. “Morena has the Sight.” He explained. “She can see what is and what may be. Something merely blocks her vision, is all.”
Erinael arched an eyebrow, but said nothing. Spying a plant that could be useful, she knelt down to get a closer look.
Tanis allowed her to go about her business, staying just a few feet away. One hand rested on the hilt of his sword, his eyes constantly scanning about them. Every so long there would be movement in the trees or bushes in the distance, the other Dead Hunters in their party shifting position in the woods.
“Is there a chance that the slavers could find us?” Erinael asked, feeling a bit fearful.
Tanis shrugged absently. “Dead and gone.” he said. “Better than they deserve, actually.”
Erinael was appalled. “You killed them when you didn’t have to?” she breathed.
He regarded her thoughtfully for a moment. “Our duty is to put an end to death, torture, and enslavement. If it best serves the Light to kill mortal men in the performance of that sacred duty, then so be it.”
“So the ends justify the means?” Erinael demanded.
“As long as it concerns the well-being of the Princess of the Mountain, then yes.”
“Then your judgment is clouded. No wonder Morena cannot See.” Erinael snapped.
Hearing the heated exchange, several of the Dead Hunters approached them. They looked to Tanis, taking their lead from him. The man promptly dropped to his knees and the others followed suit.
“We serve the Light.” Tanis said gravely. “And so we serve the Princess of the Mountain.”
It confused Erinael greatly, and she immediately went back to the cave. Tanis had followed after her, taking it upon himself to act as her personal bodyguard. She retreated to Idriss’ chamber of the cave, demanding that Morena were to leave and that no one was to disturb her.
There was no change in Idriss’ condition, for better or for worse. Erinael gently dabbed his face with a damp cloth, trying to calm herself. In the passage behind her, she could hear a discussion in hushed tones – Tanis and Morena. She scowled. Why did everything she did matter to them so much?
“I wish to be left alone.” Erinael said quietly, keeping her tone calm. Severe emotional outbursts could upset Idriss.
“My apologies.” Morena said, coming to kneel next to Erinael. “For disturbing you, and for Tanis.”
“How so?” Erinael asked, doubt in her voice. “How could he possibly be excused?”
“Tanis and his men have been stationed to the East for many years.”Morena said softly. “They have seen much of Death through that time. They are loath to allow it to have a foothold here in the West.”
“Then my existence must make it hard for them.” Erinael’s tone was sharp as she wrung out the cloth. “What with my connection to the barrier seals.” When Morena’s eyes widened, Erinael continued. “I have been told many times that my destiny is to break those runes. To allow Darkness and Death to ravage this world.”
Morena’s eyes cast about wildly as she took that to thought. “This is why…” she murmured. “Is this what Andraes told you?”
“No.” Erinael breathed. “He would never say such a thing.”
“Then what were you told? All of it.” Morena demanded. Her dark eyes were lit with an inner fire.
“I don’t have to tell you anything.” Erinael hissed.
Morena was about to say something, then stopped. Growling under her breath, she got up and stalked away. Erinael didn’t even watch her go, turning back to Idriss.