April 20. Shortly after midnight.
"Raven! Raven, awake!"
The voice of the Oracle came strongly and urgently to Raven's mind, piercing through her dark and clouded dreams like a brilliant shaft of light. "Awake, Raven! The hunters are upon you!"
The priestess awoke suddenly but made no movement and no sound. Quietly, she breathed in the scent of the room around her, her ears scanning for any sound of danger. She could smell the scents of the female acolytes who shared the room, the lingering incense of the dusk offering, Merai over on the far side of the room ... and something else. Something faint, markedly unusual, but also vaguely familiar -- and, she somehow knew, dangerous.
A memory clicked into place: weaponblack. She had seen the Long Scouts use it on their blades before heading afield, an oily, foul-smelling substance that clung to the metal and left it a uniform matte black. A sword or dagger coated with weaponblack was almost totally invisible in dim light, making it ideal for warriors making a surprise attack ... or, her mind noted darkly, for assassins.
As quietly as possible, Raven drew Elemacil from its sheath on her leg. Then, after a moment of preparation, she slid quickly from beneath the sheets and onto the floor, feet beneath her, blade at the ready. Stretching out with her aura sight, mind alert for any approaching attackers, she crept over to Merai, staying below the line of sight from the windows.
A quick examination confirmed what her aura sight had already told her: Merai was asleep and unharmed. Gently, she roused the younger priestess, putting one hand firmly over the cat-woman's mouth so that she would not make a sound when she awoke.
Merai's mind flickered with recognition as she came back to consciousness, and she looked up at Raven and nodded. The wolf-woman removed her hand from Merai's mouth and gestured to her to join her on the floor. Merai quickly complied, drawing her own small sword which she kept by her bedside.
Raven sent a shaft of thought deep into Merai's mind. *Foes,* she said, the crude method of communication only allowing for simple images and ideas. Merai chewed at her lip, fear rising for a moment within her, before she steeled her will and nodded again. Moving to crouch in the shadows on either side of the door, they waited in silence, listening intently. For a long time they heard nothing. Then, very faintly, they caught the sound of footsteps approaching in the hallway outside.
Raven looked at the door. It was locked, but not bolted -- the priest with the key, or a skilled thief with a set of lock-picks, could open the door without resorting to brute force. The windows were small, but they had neither glass nor grating. An assassin may not be able to slip in, but an arrow could do so with ease.
There came another sound: The faint, almost imperceptible sliding of metal against metal, coming from the lock on the door. After a few seconds of this, Raven looked up at Merai and nodded sharply, raising Elemacil into a ready position. Whoever was coming through that door, he didn't belong there.
Raven tightened her grip on the holy sword, trying to ignore the sweat that was beginning to form on her palms. Silently she reached out to Dokorath, connecting with his strength and power...
The lock clicked quietly open, an ominous sound in the silent night. Slowly, carefully, the knob on the door began to turn: one eighth of a revolution ... one quarter ... and then the door began to open, facing Merai.
An instant's glance with aura sight told Raven everything she needed to know about the dark figure that appeared through the doorway -- his soul reeked of evil and malicious intent. Moving with divinely-powered speed, she swung her blade directly at the man's neck, above the collar of his leather armor. Elemacil bit deeply, and he fell to the ground in a spray of blood.
But the assassin was not alone. A second man, who had been crouching back in the hallway, shouted out in a coarse-sounding language Raven did not understand. Instantly there came a whistling sound in the room behind her -- and she turned to see two arrows embedded in the floor. Each had a small sphere behind the head, which was glowing with an eerie green light... "Damn!" Raven shouted, darting out into the hallway. The second assassin turned and ran, not even looking back. At the moment, though, Raven had more important concerns. "Merai, get out!" she cried at the top of her lungs, hoping to rouse as many of the acolytes as she could at the same time. "Awake, awake! Run, now!"
Taking her own advice, Raven raced down the hallway, Merai close behind. A handful of the more alert acolytes followed two seconds later--
And then the building was rocked by a deafening explosion.
"Awake, awake!" Raven cried again, magically projecting her voice to echo through the whole temple. "Foes upon us! Lightbringers to arms! Awake!"
By now the entire temple was roused, and there came answering shouts from the male acolytes' chambers and the priest's quarters. Raven could hear the moans of the wounded and the sobbing of the female acolytes who had remained unscathed, but at the moment she resolutely turned her mind toward survival. Whoever was attacking the temple was almost certainly after Raven and Merai; if they escaped, their enemies would follow, and the Lightbringers of Bozojo would be left alone. Or so she hoped.
Brother Lemuel met them at the back entrance to the temple, accompanied by half a dozen strong-looking young acolytes, all carrying swords or long knives.
"Did you see any of them?" Raven asked sharply.
"No," Lemuel returned. His face looked haggard, weary, and terribly frightened. The poor old man just wasn't used to this sort of thing.
"We have to get out of here," Raven said. "You and you, help us load our horses. The rest of you watch our backs. On three."
The acolytes quickly formed up in front of the door in pairs, Raven and Merai behind the second pair. One of the men gripped the handle of the door, holding the latch open. "One. Two. Three!"
The door was thrown open, and the acolytes and priestesses raced across the open terrace and into the stable. Two acolytes were felled by arrows from the surrounding rooftops as they ran. Reaching the shelter of the stable, Raven turned and stretched out her hand toward one of the rooftops, where her aura sight showed a dark presence crouching in the shadows.
"Lotha raumallo dan i moreri, essenen Dvalino!" she cried.
A loud crack of thunder rent the cloudy skies above them, as a bolt of lightning flashed down and struck the shadowy figure on the roof. An instant later a second bolt struck another rooftop on the other side of the temple, sending chunks of masonry falling into the street. Neither archer even had the chance to cry out in pain.
"That will give us a few minutes, perhaps," Raven said, running to the back of the stable to check on the fresh mounts that had been prepared for them. Fortunately, it looked like the horses were strong, young, and healthy. She quickly went to work putting on her mount's riding gear.
Brother Lemuel, apparently deciding that it was safe for the moment, came running out of the temple with the satchels that held Raven and Merai's personal belongings. They swiftly changed into their scout's garb in an empty stall while the acolytes finished equipping the horses.
"Where is Brother Calvis?" Merai asked when she saw the priest. "Is he all right?"
"Aye, I think so," Lemuel said. "I saw him in the male acolytes' chambers a minute ago."
Merai relaxed visibly, even as she was in the process of putting on her leggings. "Thank the gods," she murmured. Raven gave her a questioning glance, but the feline woman either didn't notice or pretended not to.
"I don't understand it," Lemuel said, shaking his head. "How would anyone have known you were here?"
"There are others who can see beyond sight besides the Lightbringers," Raven pointed out. "In this case, though, I suspect that it happened when your acolytes went out for our provisions. One of them may have betrayed our presence to these attackers."
The old priest looked very frightened. "One of the acolytes? A traitor?"
"Such things happen," Raven said, remembering the betrayals her own homeland had fallen prey to the past December. " 'Tis also possible that he knew not what he did. Perhaps he thought he was reporting to some official from the Kelewair chapter, thinking that they would send us aid. It hardly matters now -- we shall leave at once and not trouble you again."
"This night has brought more trouble than I hoped to see in a lifetime," Lemuel said bitterly, as they came out of the stall and mounted their horses. "I do not blame you, Lothanasa, for you could not have foreseen it. All the same, I only hope that the success of your mission is worth the lives of the acolytes who died to further it."
Raven nodded solemnly, at last allowing her face to show the pain and grief she shared with the elder Lightbringer. "So do I," she said. "Cuialye lothan, Brother Lemuel."
"Cuialye lothan, Lothanasa."
Then Raven and Merai spurred their mounts out into the terrace and the street beyond, leading the pack horses behind them, leaving behind fire and death and vanishing into the darkness.
A few minutes of hard riding brought the priestesses to the eastern gate of the city. Not surprisingly, it was shut tight. Somewhat more surprisingly, the small after-hours passage through the gatehouse was open, the gatekeeper lying dead in a pool of his own blood.
"I don't understand this," Merai said, her voice somewhere between frightened and frustrated. "Why kill the gatekeeper? Why not just come in before the gate closes?"
"Evidently whoever had it in mind to kill us sent for reinforcements, but they failed to arrive before nightfall," Raven said. "The one working inside the city killed the gatekeeper to allow his fellows inside." She frowned. "Either that, or the surviving assassins have just fled the town, using the same exit as we."
"Either way, it does not bode well," Merai said.
"Agreed. We had best make haste toward the forests to the north. There we may have a chance of evading pursuit."
"Assuming they aren't already waiting for us," Merai said.
Merai followed Raven silently, almost in a daze, as they left the road going down into the plains and turned northward towards the forest, a few hours' distance from the city. She still couldn't believe what had just happened. Granted, Nasoj's attack during Yule had been far more frightening in its potential consequences, but that was war. There was something deeply terrifying about someone actually trying to kill you, specifically, as an individual. Especially when whoever it was didn't particularly care if other people got in the way.
The young priestess blinked back tears. There had probably been a dozen other women and girls in that room with them, and most of them had been killed by that magic arrow -- simply because they had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Simply because Raven and Merai had decided to spend the night there. Shaking her head as if to ward off any further thoughts in that vein, Merai rode up alongside Raven.
"What do you intend to do?" she asked the wolf-woman.
Raven looked pensive. "We should travel as far into the forest as we may tonight," she said. "In the morning I will speak to one of the nymphs. They will certainly have noticed if a band of those murderers has passed through their land. If the assassins have gone before us, we shall turn off the path and find a different route through the trees. If they are following us, we shall look to the forest's inhabitants for help in dealing with them."
Merai raised an eyebrow. "Who lives in that forest that would be able to help us?" The Lothanasa smiled, casting a glance up at the dark cloudy sky overhead. "You might be surprised," she said.
They rode all that night, until the warm light of dawn began to find its way through the leaves and branches of the canopy overhead. The road here was narrow, only wide enough for single cart to pass along it, and the trees grew up around them and hid the sky from view. The path twisted and bent around hills and some of the older trees as it went, so there was no clear line of sight back along the way that they had come; that was good, because it hid them from any potential pursuers, and it was bad, because they could not see whether they were indeed being pursued.
Fortunately Raven had a solution to the latter problem. Shortly after dawn they left the path and turned east, wending their way through the dense thickets until they found themselves at the bottom of a small dale. A little stream ran down into the hollow and formed a shallow pool, and here they tied up the horses and allowed them to drink. Then Raven left Merai and disappeared into the trees to the south of the dale, saying she would return shortly. Merai lay her head on one of their bedrolls and fell into a light sleep. One of the small benefits of being a cat was that she could nap almost anywhere and still maintain a kind of instinctive alertness about her.
It was difficult to say how long Raven had been gone when she finally reappeared, but Merai was sure it could not have been more than a couple of hours. The elder priestess looked weary.
"It is worse than we might have hoped, but not as bad as we feared," she said. "The dryads say that four men on horseback rode into the forest about three hours behind us, dressed all in black. Fortunately, there are no others on the path ahead of us." "That is something, anyway," Merai conceded. "How far away are they now?" "Not far -- no more than an hour, I expect. They are moving as swiftly as they may while making sure they do not lose the trail. We should be better off to force a confrontation on our terms, I think, than to keep running." Merai nodded, clenching her jaw. "All right. What do we do?"
Forty-five minutes later a group of four riders dismounted, tied up their horses and left the forest road, plunging into the dense foliage on the eastern side. They moved slowly, cautiously, weapons at the ready, and the first figure stopped frequently and bent low to the ground, searching for clues to their prey's movements. The first two hunters bore swords, while the two in back carried shortbows with arrows ready on the bowstrings. The dark figures followed the marks of the two Keepers and their horses down into the dale, where they found more telling signs: their prey had lingered in this area. They would not be far now.
The trail of evidence left the dale and headed northeast, just as the hunters had expected. The priestesses had obviously left the forest road in hopes of being lost in the underbrush, but they had forgotten that bare, hard-packed earth hid a horse's passing far more easily than soft dirt and forest undergrowth. While a commoner might have lost the trail after only a few yards into the brush, to an experienced tracker the signs were blatantly clear. The head tracker smiled a little at the good fortune his prey's inexperience had brought them.
Turning to his fellow swordsman, the leader motioned for him to go back for the horses. They had found a clear trail that any of them could follow, and since they could be going a considerable distance off the road it made more sense to bring the horses along behind them than to leave them unattended. As the lone assassin turned back, the other three continued down the trail, moving as silently as ghosts.
A few hundred yards later they descended into another hollow, this one filled with thick leafy vines that covered the forest floor like a rich green carpet, ankle-deep. The Keepers' trail ran through this undergrowth, barely visible among the tough, hardy plants, until it terminated abruptly at the base of an enormous oak tree. The tree's branches were thick and gnarled, perfect for climbing, and the heavy leaf cover hid all but the lowermost layers from view. The leader smiled tightly again: The Keepers thought they could escape by climbing trees. Ingenious, but not insurmountable: they would have to come down again somewhere -- and from the look of it, there were only a handful of trees adjacent to the oak that could support the weight of the Keepers. He turned and motioned for his two archers to check around those trees for signs of descent. They nodded, turned, each took a step--
And then promptly fell flat on their faces in the tangled mass of vines beneath their feet. The leader shook his head, incredulous: considering their degree of experience and training, these men never should have lost their footing, no matter how tangled the foliage. He moved to inspect one of the nearby trees himself--
And discovered that he couldn't move his feet at all. Looking down at himself in amazement, the head tracker saw that the vines on the forest floor had actually grown up around his feet as he stood there, wrapping themselves tightly around his ankles. As he looked at his companions, he saw that they, too, were being entangled by the thick, strong vines -- and worse, now their arms were being trapped, as well. Worst of all, both had dropped their bows when they had fallen. They struggled to pull their arms and legs free, but the plants held on with a supernatural tenacity that defied even the hunters' terrific strength.
Brandishing his sword, the leader slashed out at his leafy green bonds. The vines were cut easily enough, but as soon as he took a step the plants at his feet wrapped themselves around him again. Moving much more than a foot or two at a time was impossible. Still, he realized, he _could_ get them out of this rather clever trap; the plants didn't seem to show any inclination to kill, and they couldn't reach anything much higher than midway up his shins. It would take him a while, but not so long that the trail would go cold. They had more than enough time to catch up after they dealt with this little puzzle the Lothanasa had left for them.
He had just taken another step when he heard the sound of rustling in the foliage above them, along the rim of the dale. He looked up--
And saw a dozen large grey wolves looking down on him from all sides.
Raven watched with dark amusement as the lead assassin cut himself loose and foolishly tried to run. The vines, forgotten in his fear of the wolves, reached out and tripped him, dragging him to the ground to join his fellows. With his arms, legs and sword firmly immobilized, the predators made short work of him and his comrades. Fortunately the wolves' instinctive tendency to kill by strangulation kept the agonized screaming relatively brief. Merai sat on a branch with her back turned to the grisly scene, hands held firmly over her ears.
The wolves picked at the bodies for a while, eating the choicest parts, as the plants Raven had enchanted with Artela's proxy spell completely ignored them. After a time, though, the summons Artela had placed on them faded, and they slunk back into the shadows as their natural fear of man once again took hold.
"Our thanks, Queen of the Wild," Raven murmured, as the last of the beasts disappeared into the underbrush.
Raven and Merai climbed down from the tree and crouched over the bloody corpses, examining them for clues to who might have been trying to kill them. The wolves had left the assassins' robes torn and bloody but relatively whole; the vines' magical grip had held them face-down through the slaughter, so the front half of each garment was intact and largely unsoiled.
Still, there was not much to see. The men all wore simple black robes, possessing neither cape nor cowl, and matching black tunics underneath. The only distinguishing mark on the clothes was a small emblem on the left breast and the cuff of each sleeve: a red shield with a white hand inscribed on it, palm facing outward. In the center of the palm was a large red eye, and lines radiated out from the eye above and below -- a common symbolic device used to show the eye's all-seeing nature.
"What on earth is that?" Merai murmured, upon getting a good look at the emblem.
"I'm not sure," Raven said, frowning. "I don't like the look of it, though. It's the mark of some guild or order, obviously, but I don't recognize the device." She did not say that it was unsettlingly familiar to an emblem she had seen a certain rat wearing around the Keep lately.
"Any ideas about why they want us dead?" Merai asked.
Raven shook her head. "After the Patriarch's death, there are more possibilities than I care to think of," she said grimly.
They searched the bodies thoroughly, but they found no messages, jewelry or other distinguishing characteristics. The men's facial features were so unremarkable that they looked as if they literally could have come from anywhere, save perhaps for the Eastern Regions. The flesh on their bodies that was still intact showed no sign of tattoos or scarring, and their weapons were utterly utilitarian in their design. It was as if every shred of personal uniqueness or identity had been stripped away so they could be absorbed totally into the identity of the emblem, whatever that might be.
Taking a knife from her belt, Raven cut the emblem from the left breast of one of the robes, securing it in a pocket of her jerkin. Assuming they survived their present troubles, she would make a few discreet inquiries about it after they returned home.
"What should we do about the other hunter?" Merai asked, as they made their way back to the nearby hollow where they had concealed the horses.
"Let him go," Raven answered. "We couldn't catch him now if we tried, and we have other business that is more pressing. Somehow, I sense that these will not be the last hunters to pursue us. Henceforth we must move stealthily where we can, and quickly when we cannot use stealth."
Merai frowned. "Until what end? The Oracle said we were to face a great darkness. I cannot believe that she would have meant simply a band of assassins. How long can we keep up this game before we are caught? And will that be enough time to find what we came for?"
Raven shook her head. " 'Tis too early to answer most of your questions, though I wish I had the answers myself. Barring an army being sent against us, we might evade these hunting parties for a week or more -- if we and our horses can keep up the pace required. If we do not find what we came for before then ... well, there is another solution to our problem, though I wonder if the disease is not better than the cure. But come -- all that lies far ahead of us. Let us find our way back to the road and use what remains of the day to put this place well behind us."
They rode in silence for hours, the danger hanging over their heads stifling all idle conversation. Merai kept on guard with all her senses, both natural and otherwise, but she saw no sign of further pursuit. Raven seemed troubled and deep in thought. The forest seemed to go on forever, the winding path stretching into the distance until it disappeared as it went around a hill or into a dale. There was no sense of malice from the woods around them, but Merai could feel a powerful aura of watchfulness. This was an old forest, with many dryads living in its trees, and their invisible eyes followed the priestesses as they rode.
Afternoon gave way to evening, and once again they sought the shelter of the trees as they made camp for the night. After receiving permission from the local dryads, Raven lit a small fire in a bare expanse of ground near a small stream. There was a chill dampness in the spring night air, and the Lightbringers huddled close to the flames for warmth as they ate their supper.
"So," Raven said after a time. "Tell me about Brother Calvis."
Merai stirred and looked up at her, ears twitching. "Pardon?"
"Brother Calvis. You asked after him last night before we left."
"Oh, aye. So I did."
Merai looked up again at the elder priestess. In the dim firelight she could just see a smile flickering at the corners of Raven's mouth. "What?"
"Why are you avoiding the question?"
The cat-woman pulled her legs up close to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. "I'm not," she said, a little defensively. "He is an acolyte I met at the temple, 'tis all."
"I see," Raven said, her eyes sparkling. The words meant more than they said. Merai turned to look at the fire. Half a minute later, she glanced back at Raven out of the corner of her eye. The older woman was still looking at her . "What?" she asked, irritated.
That smile again. "Are you sure that is the whole story, Merai?" the Lothanasa asked, quiet amusement in her voice.
Merai shot her another sidelong glance. "You'll laugh," she muttered.
Raven grinned. "If that's true, it must be a good story," she said. "But if it makes you feel better, I shall not laugh." Her eyes sparkled again. "Not right away, at any rate."
The younger priestess made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh. For a moment she said nothing. Then she took a deep breath and said, "Brother Calvis ... accidentally walked in on me while I was bathing."
The wolf-woman's ear flickered. "Ah."
"He is ... about my age, I suppose," Merai went on. "Very nervous." She chuckled. "Poor thing, he nearly died of embarrassment. I had him hand me a towel and then spoke to him as I got dressed."
"I see," Raven said again. There was something else in her voice this time...
"I was behind the screen!" Merai protested, her cheeks flushing as she realized what the other priestess was thinking.
Raven held up her hands, palms outward. "I didn't accuse you of anything to the contrary," she said innocently. Her aura was still radiating amusement.
"Hmph." Sulkily Merai turned back to the fire.
Another moment's silence. The wood on the fire crackled and popped quietly. "There's something else, isn't there?" Raven's voice was serious.
Merai nodded. At length she spoke. "Before I left, he ... he said that I was beautiful." She looked up at Raven. "That I was the most beautiful person he'd ever seen." She wiped a tear from her eye and smiled slightly. "I've never met anyone before who thought I was beautiful."
Raven smiled tenderly. "Oh, Merai," she said softly. "Anyone who knows you can see that you are beautiful."
Gently, she drew the younger woman into a motherly embrace. "You've always been beautiful," she said.
Two days later the priestesses emerged from the forest, entering the barony of Lanton. A steadfastly Patildor country, it was also the home of Baron Grenier, Lurene's father and the sworn enemy of Metamor. For two nerve-wracking days Raven and Merai dodged the baron's patrols, often having to travel for miles off the road to avoid being spotted. Being a Lightbringer in this land was cause for immediate enmity, and being a Keeper on top of that was likely grounds for a summary execution. While Raven and Merai could probably fight off any patrol that tried to detain them, the last thing they needed was another group of warriors hunting them down.
Strangely, though, the two Keepers saw no sign of their earlier pursuers during the days in Lanton's territory. Even in the rare hours when they rode over open land with no cover before or behind them, there was not even a cloud of dust or the faintest glimmer of an aura to indicate they were still being followed. The few dryads in the area had likewise seen and heard nothing of the black-garbed assassins.
"It would seem that our adversaries are no more welcome in Lanton than we are," Raven observed.
"Small surprise there," Merai replied sourly. "With the way he acts, 'tis a miracle that Grenier has not turned all the rest of the world against him. I wonder if he hates everybody."
"Everyone but those who line his coffers, I imagine," Raven said with a wry grin.
Gladly leaving behind Grenier's lands, the priestesses continued their journey eastward. Since they had left the safety of the trees for the open grasslands, they traveled by night and hid themselves as best they could during the day. They lit no fires and slept on the most hard-packed earth they could find, doing their best to leave no useful trace of their passing. Sometimes while they rested dark birds would fly in lazy circles far overhead, but Raven could not tell whether they were spies or simply animals out hunting. Three nights after leaving Lanton they neared the first of the rivers that flowed through that region. There were four such tributaries that came down out of the northern mountains, eventually merging to become the Marchbourne many miles to the south. Two of these rivers merged upstream of the point at which the road met them, so Raven and Merai had only three fords to cross.
"Be careful fording the river," Raven advised. "The snowmelt comes off the mountains in the spring and lends it speed and depth. I shall go first, and take one of the pack horses with me. Keep a firm grip on the reins!"
The horses were understandably worried about trying to ford the river in the dark. More as a concession to necessity than anything else, Raven lit a small globe of light and set it floating two feet above her steed's head. Somewhat reassured, the horse moved forward into the water. Raven made sure the light moved with them. Once she was safely on the other side with both horses, Raven sent the light back across to Merai.
The river was distressingly fast and deep, even at the ford, but it was not particularly wide. Guiding her mount forward slowly and carefully, keeping a steady grip on the reins of the other pack horse, Merai eventually brought both of them across without harm. As soon as they were safely on the far side, Raven extinguished the light.
"Come, we must move quickly," she urged. Her aura once again seemed unsettled.
It was not long before her fears were justified. Less than two hours after crossing the first ford, Merai caught sight of distant torches, coming up from the southwest behind them.
"Sister Raven," she called softly, a feeling of dread settling in her stomach.
"I see them," Raven called back. "Hurry, the second ford is not far ahead."
The second river was stronger and wider than the first, since it held the waters of two tributaries that had already merged a few miles upstream, and its fording seemed to take distressingly long. It was difficult to judge distances in the darkness, but Merai could sense that the torches had come much closer in the time they spent crossing the ford.
"They're catching up," she whispered. "Lord Kammoloth, protect us!"
By the time they reached the third ford, which was much closer than the second had been, Merai could make out the individual torches flickering in the darkness. There were at least a dozen of them. *Too many to fight,* she thought.
Raven, abandoning all pretense of secrecy, lit a large, brilliant light over the river and sent her horses plunging in with barely a moment's hesitation. They crossed this last ford more quickly, and though the horses seemed very nervous about it they all made it safely to the far bank.
"Now, run!" Raven cried.
They ran, pushing the horses as hard as they dared. Raven used a stamina spell provided by Dokorath to give the beasts a second wind, and they raced on ahead of their pursuers. They regained a good deal of distance as their enemies crossed the ford, and the torches did not gain on them any further during that night.
Daylight crept in with a whisper, the skies overcast and dreary, the air cold and wet. Looking back, Merai could not see their hunters in the growing light -- the torches had been extinguished, and the ground was too damp for a cloud of dust to be churned up in their wake.
"They are still not far off," Raven said. "And still they follow. Even with Dokorath's magic, our steeds cannot keep this pace much longer."
"How can we escape?" Merai asked, nearly at the point of despair. "Where can we go that they will not follow?"
Raven gestured forward. "There."
Merai looked up -- and there, out of the morning mists, a forest abruptly stood in their way.
It was like no forest that she had ever seen. Rising up suddenly in a thick line of trees, it was bordered by a strip of flat grassland several furlongs in width -- as if the other trees of the region shrank away from it out of loathing, or fear. The trees of the forest were massive, towering, and ominous, many of them twisted and covered with bark the color of soot. The undergrowth was only sporadic, with clusters of brush intermixed with carpets of herbal, low-growing plants; but the canopy was extremely thick, with vines growing everywhere and an eerie, moss-like substance that hung from the trees' branches like Yuletide garland. Precious little light escaped through the canopy to the forest floor - - which probably had a great deal to do with the lack of undergrowth -- and the morning mist seemed to hang especially thick among the trees, as if they were wrapping themselves in it like a shroud.
The horses stopped of their own volition as the road forked off to the north and south. They shuffled uneasily in the forest's shadow, looking around with wild eyes. The priestesses stood listening for a long moment -- but apart from the occasional snuffles and sighs of the horses, no sound could be heard. This surprised Merai the most; as a child who had grown up not far from forests and had spent a fair amount of time in them, she had learned how to recognize the bird calls, the buzzing of insects, and the other distinctive noises that characterized the woodlands. In contrast, this forest was utterly silent -- no birds, no cicadas, not even a cricket's chirp could be heard.
And there was something else, too -- something apart from the natural strangeness of the place. Something that hung over Merai like a cloud...
"There's something not right here," she said, softly. For a moment, the danger behind them was all but forgotten.
Raven turned and cocked an ear at her, but said nothing.
"... I feel cold," Merai whispered, a feeling of dread falling over her as she opened her mind to perceive the aura more fully. "Death..."
The Lothanasa let the last word hang in the air for a moment. "You know of this place," she said quietly.
Merai nodded. It was all too clear now what stood before them. "Elderwood," she murmured.
Raven closed her eyes and nodded once in acknowledgement. "There is a path that runs between the forest and the mountains," she said. "It should minimize the danger, but Elderwood has been growing in recent years and I do not know how much of the path is still serviceable. We may have to spend a substantial length of time within the forest itself."
Shaking off the deadly aura of the place, Merai threw an appraising look at the forest. "There's little undergrowth, so traveling through the forest shouldn't slow us down much. Have we enough provisions to make it through to the other side?"
"I do not know," the Lightbringer confessed, shaking her head. "We have enough food, certainly; but heretofore we have relied on rivers and springs to extend our water supply, and I do not think that we can trust whatever streams run through this evil place."
"Does the forest truly poison the water?" Merai asked, surprised.
"Not in the sense that you mean," Raven said. "'Enchants' would be nearer the mark. I doubt a little drink here and there would do much harm, but the magic of the Nexus is unpredictable. It is better to avoid all contact with the spells that lay on this land."
"And yet we must go through it." Merai looked dubiously at the menacing trees. "Is there no other way?" she asked.
"If we stay on the open lands, our pursuers will catch us and kill us," the high priestess told her. "If they are what I think they are, they will not follow us into Elderwood. The mundane forests hold terror enough for their minds, especially after what we have done to their comrades. They will not risk pursuit into a land that so clearly reeks of malice." She sighed. "Besides, the Oracle commanded us to follow the path of the mountains. We must have faith in the rightness of Lord Samekkh's instructions. He would not lead us astray."
There was a moment of silence. Merai looked back at the road over which they'd come. Far off in the distance, she thought she could hear the sound of hoofbeats.
"And what if you're wrong?" she asked quietly. "What if Lord Samekkh is still angry about that incident with Rickkter, and he has crafted all this simply to drive us into punishment?"
Raven swallowed visibly. "... If it has come to that," she said hoarsely, "then there is a great deal more that has gone wrong in the world than is within my power to fix."
With that, she turned her horse northwards, heading for the path that ran between Elderwood and the mountains. Wordlessly, Merai followed.