“No, really now: What’s next? Where’s your leader? What will you do? How will you mortals overcome this obstacle that has been placed before you? Show me, won’t you?”
I spread my arms wide, leaving my blade stuck in the ground before me as I gestured towards the survivors still milling around on the other side of the red-stained chains. I received no response, and after a moment I shook my head slowly and lowered my arms with a sigh.
“Evren! Look out!”
The shout came from behind me, as did whatever it was that slammed into my back, blowing me forward off of my feet and into the chains. I grimaced as the front of my body was torn to shreds even as I felt my spine creak and deform, and several of my ribs fractured with the impact. I hung limply for a while, my body entangled and impaled on my own chains, even as behind me I heard the sound of rapid movement, shouting, and what sounded like rushing water.
With a crack, I felt my ribs reform and my back realign, and I rolled my shoulders slightly as I looked down from where I hung, only to see the remaining pursuers looking either back up at me with horror, or behind me with terror.
“What? Never seen an immortal before?”
With a shove and a grunt I wrenched myself off the bladed chains still stuck in my flesh, falling back to the blood-soaked earth with a thud. Rising, I brushed myself off, sparing a moment to bemoan my ruined clothes before turning to take in a sight I had, quite frankly, not expected to see. In front of me, Radd lay groaning on the ground, a sizable gash on his forehead and an impressive trench in the dirt marking where he had landed, apparently after being thrown with great force. Leric stood in front of the fallen Radd, blades and teeth both bared, as she stared down the foe that now separated the three of us from the rest of the party.
Perhaps ‘foe’ is a misleading term. Rather, what now stood before me could better be described as a flood, or a swarm. Amorphous, dark, with constantly opening a closing orifices that disappeared and reformed with unsettling irregularity. Larger than the greatest man, both by height and by width, the thing pulsed slowly where it stood for a moment, seemingly docile, yet made all the more disconcerting by its inaction. I blinked.
“Ah. A Shroud. This is a surprise.”
The shroud jerked into action at my words, a club-like appendage exploding from the main mass with incredible speed and force to slam into my chest, once again blasting me backwards into the chains. I grimaced again, but the shroud didn’t wait for me to free myself again, instead surging towards me while ignoring both Leric and Radd, sounding for all the world as though a stream was racing forward to wash me away.
An arrow suddenly sprouted from the other side of the shroud, as though planted there by magic, but the creature seemed to either not notice or not care as it rushed past the swiftly retreating Radd and Leric to engulf myself and the chains surrounding me. I groaned in pain as the shroud flowed around me, bocking off all vision and sound as its many insatiable mouths began to tear at my body. This wasn’t the first time I had faced a shroud, but I had certainly been more prepared the last time, and even then it had been a remarkably painful experience. The proof of that was the fact that I could remember that experience clearly, despite it having been well over four centuries since I had last fought a shroud.
I spent what felt like long minutes suspended there, surrounded by darkness and ravening maws, accompanied by nothing but pain and the sound of my own flesh being shredded. I imagined that if I had not already abandoned my insanity incalculable denturies ago, the experience would have rapidly driven me insane. Suddenly, I felt my immobile body get rocked by an impact, interrupting my brief isolation and musings while sending a flare of heat brushing up my arm. With something that sounded disturbingly like the scream of a child, the shroud pulled away from me and surged past the chains like rats through a grate, falling upon the horsemen that hadn’t yet died or fled with a savage hunger. I ignored the sounds of carnage and agony behind me for a moment however, instead focusing on recovering my senses and extricating myself yet again from my own trap.
As I dropped to the ground for a second time, I heard what sounded like Daniel shouting.
“Radd, Leric, Evren! Get over here, hurry!”
I made no move to act, but Leric already had, now halfway back to the rest of the party with Radd held by the arm, though he was obviously still unsteady. I shook my head, then began to move unhurriedly towards the group, calling for the book as I went.
With a pop, my now-ruined slacks and armor shimmered and reformed into a seamless and luxurious black robe that settled comfortably on my lean shoulders. Hearing a wordless cry, I looked up from inspecting my new garments just in time to watch three arrows tear through the air beside my cheek in rapid succession. Moments later I heard the arrows impact behind me with the sound of slamming into thick, sticky mud. I shook my head again- Conventional weapons would have no effect on the shroud.
Movement on the edge of my vision drew my attention, and I watched in bemusement as both Eve and Jessa put the finishing touches on their castings, crying out simultaneously in wildly different pitches as a stream of fire poured from the tip of Jessa’s ever-present staff, accompanied by a flight of sliver crescents from a short dagger clutched tightly by Eve. That would certainly get the shroud’s attention…
“…but not in the way they expect, I would imagine.”
The castings flew past me, the roar of the flames and the sound of the crescents cutting through the air quickly drowned out by another disturbingly youth-like cry. I grimaced as the shroud poured past me, rushing with preternatural speed towards the two female casters.
What that damned book defined as ‘deep’ I couldn’t say, but I did know that in order to buy the time we would need to escape the shroud, we would have to severely inconvenience its incredible speed and flexibility. So it was with some satisfaction that I watched the ground in front of the rushing shroud waver, then collapse inward as though some yawning maw beneath the earth had decided to inhale, taking with it both an incredible quantity of dirt, stones, and routs, and the shroud, which disappeared without even a burble of protest.
I stretched my dominance over the book to its max, asserting both my demand and the specifics for how to fulfill it. Normally I wouldn’t go to such efforts, as the book tended to push back more as my demands became more complex and demanding, but I just knew the spiteful thing would refill the hole from the bottom up, carrying the shroud back to the surface and pointlessly wasting my energy.
As soon as I issued my command, I turned away from the rapidly disappearing scar on the ground and began to walk towards where the horses and Tor still stood, bow grasped loosely in one hand and a confused tilt to his head. The rest of the party watched my walk with similar looks of confusion or concern, seemingly taken aback by the rapid turn of events and the now-silent battlefield. As usual, it was Jessa who took the initiative.
“What… What was that? And what did you do? And-”
I cut her line of questioning off by climbing laboriously into the saddle of my horse and wheeling around.
“That was a shroud. And I buried it, though I promise you, it will not stay that way.”
Almost as though to punctuate my words, the freshly disturbed earth where the shroud had been entombed shuddered slightly and cracked, bulging upwards towards the sky, and freedom. Radd, who still seemed to be regaining his wits, stared silently at the bulge for a moment, then spun on his heel and began stumbling for his horse.
“Right, time ta go, then.”
The rest of the party wordlessly assented, and within moments we were once again tearing down the road in our formation, though this time the casters led, followed by myself, who was in turn followed by Tor and then the mainliners of our merry little band.
“Will we hear it? When it gets free, I mean.”
I looked up to see Jessa staring back over her shoulder at me.
“Not likely. Shrouds are silent, except for the sounds they make while moving and when they are wounded or surprised. That one will be neither when it gets free.”
Though most of her face was hidden by her shoulder, I could still make out a good portion of Jessa’s frown.
“We hit that thing with three castings, two of those being flame, and you’re telling me it’s gonna climb out of that hole without a scratch on it?”
I shrugged as best I could while being jolted about by my mount.
“Shrouds are all but indestructible, even when faced with prior knowledge and extensive preparation. I’ve only succeeded in destroying one shroud over the entire course of my existence, and it was one of the costlier battles of my past. Normally when faced with one, I just avoid provoking it and slip away as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Speaking of which, where did this one even come from?”
It was Jessa’s turn to shrug.
“I don’t know. One minute there was the corpse of one of those riders that you finished, just lying there, then the next there’s this black blob bubbling up around it. The first thing it did was turn towards you, then when Radd shouted out a warning it smacked him, and then you.”
I filed away the fact that Radd was the first to try and warn me of danger, despite the seemingly distasteful light he held me in. I made a point of always repaying my debts, no matter how minor, and nothing I had seen or done over the course of my history had dissuaded me of that. Another bit of what Jessa had said caught my attention, however.
“You said it formed around one of the corpses?”
She nodded, and I spat in irritation.
“Then we’re in greater trouble than I first thought. If that were just a wandering, purposeless shroud, then we could have eventually lost it. But if it has a fresh nucleus and a clear goal, then I can’t imagine we’ll be able to out-pace it for long.”
Jessa’s eyes narrowed.
“How do you know so much about this thing?”
I ignored her question, however, as I was rapidly racking my brain for a solution to our situation. Unfortunately, I had little to draw upon in terms of my memories- It was often a struggle for me to even differentiate what I had actually experienced and what was just fragments of a dream. Instead, I rapidly tried to deconstruct the conundrum that was the shroud using the information I could still recall, alongside what I had just recently witnessed. While it wasn’t an exaggeration to claim that the shroud was all but indestructible, and from what I could recall inexhaustible, I knew for a fact I had destroyed at least one of the creatures in the past. The only question was how.
“If physical weapons don’t cut it, then a casting is the only other viable option. But piecemeal attacks don’t work, it adapts and recovers too quickly…”
My mumbling drew Jessa’s attention again, and she slowed her horse slightly to drop back beside me. Seated snugly against her, Eve glanced at me askance.
“What was that?”
I flicked my eyes to the side briefly, then returned to staring at the reigns clutched tightly in my hands.
“I was simply running through the possibilities. Purely physical weapons and obstructions simply wont do the job, but neither will some half-hearted casting. If I’m right in my recollection, to destroy a shroud one needs to destroy its nucleus.”
Jessa raised her staff slightly.
“Well, if that’s all, then we’ll just need to stall for time and rain down castings on the thing in the meantime.”
I was already shaking my head before she had finished speaking.
“It’s not so simple. Shrouds are a nightmare for non-casters certainly, but they aren’t much easier for casters to handle either. You see, shrouds are horrifically adaptable, meaning that if a casting is used on them too many times they tend to develop an inherent resistance and response to it. For example, I would expect you to be able to use a flame casting on that shroud perhaps once or twice more, before it becomes essentially immune to it. Which is unfortunate, since I believe a casting of flame to be our best bet in getting past the shroud’s defenses.”
Jessa’s face was growing paler with each word I spoke.
“What exactly, are you telling me?”
Before I could respond, a cry was carried up the line and echoed by Tor.
I grimaced again in anticipation of the struggle to come, my earlier lethargy and exhaustion all but forgotten.
“I’m saying, we’re going to need to somehow destroy that thing in one shot. And we’ve got three underpowered casters, and one chance, to do it.”
Against my chest, the book shuddered violently.