The horse below me nickered softly, stirring me from my slumber with a sigh. I cast my gaze about as I blinked blearily, my eyes struggling to adapt to the midday sun after the comforting dark of my closed eyelids and cushioning arm.
“Awake, are ya?”
The gruff voice drew my wandering eyes to the left, where they took in the sight of the stocky Radd seated upon an almost equally stocky horse. He was watching me with half amusement, half annoyance in his eyes.
“Ya fell asleep a good while back. Your horse almost damn near wandered off with you still on ‘em, so we tied ya to Tor’s saddle. Why do ya sleep so much, anyway?”
I glanced forward, and indeed, my reigns were bound to the back of the saddle that swayed atop the horse in front of me. In the saddle, hood once again drawn up, Tor kept his head facing forward and gave no indication that he was paying attention to myself or Radd. Though, considering he was riding at the head of our little column as trailguide-cum-scout, it was an understandable reaction. I returned my attention to the smaller man.
“I sleep for the same reason you would- I am exhausted.”
Radd raised an eyebrow, guiding his mount around a divot in the dirt path as he did so.
“Aye, but you sleep all the time. In camp, in a tree, in the saddle, everywhere! Hells, Eve said ya were even sleeping in that dungeon.”
I tilted slightly as Tor led the horses around a wide, muddy puddle, then righted myself before answering.
“The weight of the years is heavy on the mind, and heavier still on the eyelids. I cannot recall when I fell into this… malaise, but at some point I found myself awakening with entire lifetimes having passed me by. Not that I minded- It was a peaceful existence, at least for most of the time.”
I heard the sound of an another horse from my right, and I glanced over to find Jessa urging her mount forward to ride beside me as well. Seated in front of her was Eve, once again just a young girl, who was studiously ignoring me.
“I couldn’t help overhearing, so please, forgive my intrusion. But how then did you get involved with the Vords? If you were asleep, I mean.”
I chuckled humorlessly.
“They woke me up, of course. I don’t recall the exact circumstances, but I believe I was asleep in a cave to the… south. Yes, the far south. And the Orginal Duke, who wasn’t yet a Duke, was hunting for artefacts of power to increase his influence. Instead, he found me.”
Jessa looked at me askance for a moment, joined briefly by Eve before she returned her attention to the low hills and light forest rolling past.
“So they woke you up, and you just… agreed to work with them?”
I shrugged lightly as I leaned forward again and set my head against my steed’s neck, closing my eyes and welcoming the return to the dark.
“Not ‘them.’ I was very annoyed about being woken up, and so I vented some of that frustration. But afterwords, I had a long discussion with the original duke and we eventually came to an agreement, which ultimately leads us to our current circumstances.”
I heard Radd snort from a distance.
“Ya skipped more than a few details there, didn’t ya?”
I shrugged again.
“Almost certainly. But I don’t remember most of them, and I’m under no obligation to share what I do recall.”
I attempted to slip back into my world of dreams, much more pleasant now that I was being awakened by a novice torturer, when a high-pitched voice cut through the haze.
“You always say that- ‘no obligation.’ You said it when Etheel… back in that dungeon.”
I opened one eye and stared silently at Eve, who stared back, equally silent. It was a contest she was doomed to lose.
“Ya do say that pretty often, ya know. Makes you sound like a right bastard, too.”
I ignored Radd- The short man was starting to annoy me, and I had no intention of explaining myself more than I already had. It was understandable that the mortals would have questions for me, and I wasn’t so rude as dismiss them as a matter of course, but I drew the line at expending unnecessary effort for their sakes. It wasn’t as though satisfying their curiosity would change anything, after all.
A shout rang out behind us, causing me to straighten up and open both of my eyes. The sound of rapid hoofbeats came from behind us, and before long Leric and Daniel both drew up their mounts just behind us. Jessa looked back with a concerned look etched on her brow, still skillfully guiding her horse as she did so.
“Daniel? What is it? What’s wrong?”
The armored man grimaced and shook his head.
“Riders, approaching fast. I don’t know how many, but from the dust they’re raising, its more than we have.”
Jessa cursed softly, then urged her horse closer to mine.
“Eve, ride with Evren. Everyone else, form up around them, and stay close- We’re going to try and outpace them.”
I imagine my expression was as equally dismayed as the girl’s was, but Jessa’s insistence allowed no time for anything more than a grumbled dissent as she helped Eve climb into the saddle before me. As she was helping Eve, Jessa grabbed my shoulder and stared into my eyes.
“Keep her safe, please. If not for me, than for the sake of your goal.”
I blinked in response. What a curious request, to preserve a life so that I might end my own. But mortals were always strange, I suppose. I doubt I was much better when I was young, to tell the truth.
I watched passively as the remainder of the party quickly formed up around us, Tor and Radd taking the lead with Jessa and Leric holding up the sides, leaving Daniel to guard the rear. Once everyone was in position, Tor urged his steed up to a canter, and then a full gallop, spurring my own horse to follow suit. The others soon joined us in our flight.
And so it was that we found ourselves racing down a dirt path in a forest younger than I, fleeing what could reasonably be called justice. Or perhaps not, if the sensibilities of this world had changed without my noticing. Regardless, it was all quite taxing, and I felt myself beginning to drift off in the saddle once again as the world rocked about me and the air was filled with the rhythmic sounds of hooves hitting the hard-packed earth.
I blinked, and the next thing I was aware of was that self-same earth slamming into me as I tumbled off my mount, the impact bouncing me into the air and sending me rolling, snapping my collar bone and several ribs in the process. I let out a soft groan of annoyance as my body tumbled into a shallow rut beside the path, barely even coming to a rest before I felt my many recently-acquired scrapes and cuts seal back up, and my bones meld together as though they were soft clay.
I lay quietly for a long moment, considering the possible benefits of simply allowing the encroaching forest to cover me, before the sound of hoofbeats and a shout drew my head up above the lip of the ditch.
“Evren! What happened!?”
I quirked an eyebrow as Jessa bore down on me, pulling her horse around at the last moment to come to a jittery stop beside my ditch.
“What, exactly, are you doing?”
She glared down at me, anger an confusion warring on her face.
“What the hell do you mean!? I’m here for you! Anyway, we have no time-”
A distant rumble interrupted her, growing louder with every passing moment. I sighed and stood, dusting myself off as I did so.
“Indeed, we do not. Which is why you should have left me- Now, your entire party is in danger.”
This was a truly vexing situation. If Jessa had just continued to ride alongside the others, there would have been no issues. I could have easily evaded pursuit, escaped captivity, or survived torture on my own. But now, because of Jessa’s naivety, I could see the rest of the group wheeling their mounts about further down the road to rejoin us, while from the other direction the thunder of our pursuers’ mounts grew louder. I shook my head.
“Really, how foolish you children can be.”
I stepped out of the ditch, walking past Jessa and her steed to stand in the middle of the path, facing the direction of the approaching thunder. Behind me, I heard the remainder of the party ride up and bring their own mounts to a halt, followed by the sounds of a heated debate. I ignored them, instead examining our surroundings, noting every detail as though I might need to write down a description of the scene one day. The dirt path was hard and wide, worn by more than its fair share of travelers, and while the forest around us was young yet, there were many thick trees and gnarled roots to be found. I took a deep breath, drinking in the scent of pine needles and spilt sap- Scents that had once been my merry companions while I wandered the vast expanses of the northern coast.
I was struck by a wave of remembrance, a swell of memories long buried breaking through the cauterized crust of my mind. I remembered the crunch of snow under my boots and the comforting warmth and weight of the bearskin I wore slung across my shoulders, too large by far for me alone, but just perfect for her to join me, and our-
The sound of childish laughter echoed through the barren halls of my mind and I snarled, tearing myself back to the present with a scream.
The pop that followed my command was accompanied by the rattle of metal on metal, and the creak of wood warping. As I watched, the earth around me shuddered and stirred as the many tree roots seemed to shimmer and fade, reforming with the dull metallic sheen of thick metal chains.
With another pop, the numerous chains now littering the ground jerked into action. I was speckled with flying dirt as previously buried roots-turned-chains tore themselves free of their earthen embrace and began wrapping around trees, stretching to cover the path with a spider’s web of metal links.
I sighed, my brief moment of rage and sorrow once again overwhelmed by the apathy of the ages, and turned away from the promise of pain now awaiting the unaware riders that I could hear, now all but upon the party and I. I walked back towards the group, all now watching me in stunned silence, speaking levelly as I did so.
“I would advise you all to make ready for battle. My little trick will kill some, wound others, and stall the rest, but they will get past eventually.”
Jessa blinked mutely at me for a long moment, then swung out of her saddle in one fluid motion, barking orders as she did so.
“Tor, get to the back- Take the horses! Radd and Leric, take the front. Daniel, stay mounted and watch the flanks! Eve, stay by me, and be ready to throw up a shield if you have to.”
She paused after hopping off her horse and glanced towards me, a question plain in her eyes. I answered it as I shrugged out of my vest and began undoing my shirt.
“I will move separately- You are unfamiliar with my abilities, and as such will not know how best to engage them in battle.”
Jessa nodded once thenn turned and focused her attention on the path, and I felt power beginning to collect around her and Eve as both began preparing their castings. A quick glance backwards revealed all but one of the horses corralled by Tor between a tight copse of trees, and the hooded man himself stringing his bow. Nearby, Daniel remained mounted, ready to respond to any threats from the flank, while Radd and Leric both swung their weapons to loosen up and settled into easy stances to wait. I nodded once- they were nothing I hadn’t seen before, but nonetheless the party was experienced and efficient. Good traits for the road, no matter how short the journey would end up being for these mortals.
I pulled my shirt free and allowed it to fall atop my similarly discarded vest, shaking my arms which were now bare of everything but my gloves, which I retained for grip, and limbering up my shoulders. I barked an order at the book, which I had tossed beside my vest.
With a pop, I heard something whistle from above me and quickly stepped aside as a razor-sharp branch-turned-longsword plummeted to pierce the ground where I had been standing. I scowled at the book, snorted at its shuddered response, then reached out and grasped the blade in both hands. My body was still too weak to fight at my true peak physical capabilities, but the fact that I didn’t need to worry about mortal wounds, or indeed wounds of any kind, offered me the sort of advantage in combat that master swordsmen could only grind their teeth in jealousy about.
I swung my new sword a few times to become familiar with the weight and balance, then drove the tip back into the earth and rested my weight on the handle with a yawn. There was nothing left to do but wait.
The wait proved short, however, as the thunderous noise approaching us revealed itself in the form of a crowd of riders tearing around a bend in the path back the way we had come. At the speed they were going, they would be upon us in moments, and with their numbers and momentum they would be hard-pressed to stop before they encountered my blockade.
I allowed myself a grim smile as the first shouts of fear were carried to my ears by the wind, but it quickly faded as the shouts were drowned out by the screams of wounded men and beasts.
The riders struck my trap with such force that, even if I had not sharpened the edges of the chain links, flesh likely would have been torn from bone by the impact alone. With the edges, flesh was shredded from bone, and bone sliced from body with almost equal ease. I watched impassively as crimson splatters arced through the air, painting the ground in riotous colors even as men were minced by the weight of their fellow riders crashing into them. The lucky ones died immediately upon impact, or shortly after. The unfortunate ones survived, thrown free from the saddle, mangled beyond recognition and tortured beyond thought. The truly unfortunate escaped with their minds intact enough to beg for aid or mercy, crawling towards myself and the party with gore-stained hands outstretched.
Leric and Radd both hesitated as they watched those few unfortunate souls, but I did not. I strode forward, dispatching the mortals with as much mercy as I had to offer, a twinge of envy accompanying each thrust and slash of my blade. I never did understand the concept of letting a foe that had bared his teeth at you live, not even when I walked as mortal man. It seemed some tendencies survive even eternity.
After a while, the screams started to die down, and with one last slash of my sword I dispatched the final suffering pursuer on my side of the chains. Shaking the worst of the gore from my blade, I looked up to stare at the now-halved group of riders, who looked back at me with a mixture of rage, confusion, and fear. I tilted my head.
“So, tell me- What is next?”