Lena’s fingers gripped the bark of a tree. Her entire body hidden behind the moss-covered trunk. Shame and fear mixed sourly in her throat. Stone giants closed in around the only family she’s ever known. Just moments earlier she spoke of fighting. Never had she been reminded so loudly of how small and insignificant she is. There was nothing she could do but watch. The only buffs she knew protected herself, she had not learned how to project her magic.
She glanced down at the small dagger hanging from her leather belt. Wielding weapons were not her strong suit. Her voice hit higher than any of the others, but how that helped her now, she wasn’t sure. The purple glowing beings continued to surround her people. Each step tightened the circle around them. Purple auroras grew in vibrant intensity the closer they got to one another. Cremint and Elssee clutched hands as shadows raised behind the golems. Tears filled Lena’s purple eyes. Korax drew his longsword for the first time Lena remembered seeing. He always told her their way wasn’t to fight. Bringing light into the world with stories and songs was their path. Korax stood firmly, his legs wide with bent knees.
Longing and emptiness filled the clearing, a putrid smell. Dark, shimmering silhouettes rose from the earth under their feet. Korax swung at the shadow approaching him, growing in width ready to take him whole. The blade passed through the force as the giant reached out and grabbed him by the waist. His giant hand clenched Korax’s waste. Screaming and thrashing followed by stillness. The golem dropped her uncle on the ground.
A sob built in Lena’s throat. She wouldn’t let it out. Instead, she cinched her hood around her head, hiding all the brightness of her appearance. Cremint and Elssee stood frozen not making an attempt to fight or flee. Their fear and sorrow paralyzed their will to fight. The shadows that disregarded Korax surrounded the hopeless couple. The darkness grew as the shadows silently stole Cremint and Elssee.
The clearing still with death and nothingness in place of Lena’s loved ones. The shadows retreated toward where they originated. Swaying black obscurity passing through the tall pines. Everyone besides Korax disappeared. His lifeless body strewn across the uneven earth. There were no remains, no evidence that the others were standing there.
They had heard tales of the darkness gaining strength, of taking the north, in their travels to the cloud castles of Dawren. No one imagined such rage fueled massacres. The Darkness has escalated this much has been revealed.
The glowing stone golems turned their heads. Vibrations quaked through the ground in response. A tall figure emerged from the trees. Once his leather feet touched Lena’s campgrounds, his feature gained clarity. The paleness of his skin shocking compared to his dark cloak and armor. The hair that clung to his face just as pale. His appearance didn’t appear to be gray and piqued from age. His colorless features and gaunt face gave the impression he exchanged something for his essence. The man clasped his hands across his chest. His eyes consumed by expanding pupils.
His deep voice mumbled, “Sequitur quod semita domum,” then raised his palms toward the stone monsters.
Purple light pulled from the rocks and passed into his hands. The man’s body glowed purple as the rocks tumbled to the ground. All but one. The glowing seized except for one stone giant. “Quaerere reliquiae.”
The golem nodded his large rock head, then stumbled into the trees.
Lena couldn’t believe her eyes, which she held ample and terrified. She didn’t know the language he spoke but had the unnerving sense that it searched for the others, for her.
A shadowed figure rose from the ground beside the man. The figure different from the other shadows. The one present took the form of a person though no details revealed who the being was. There was only darkness.
“You grow more powerful,” a methodic female voice spoke. A confident whisper rang in the open space.
“Thanks to you,” the man said.
“North is in ruins. Our journey south must be soon.”
“There are more survivors out there. I can feel their fear, their anger.”
“We often speak of patience Neilos.”
He said nothing, instead dug his hand into his cloak and pulled out a tiny black bottle. He slid the cork from its tight spot and chugged back its contents. Black veins webbed across his face.
“The path of more is often lost on greed my young lord. A war is upon us. Our shadows aren’t enough.”
“We leave in the morning,” Neilos stated, his voice sharp and jagged.
The shadowed figured glided across the ground. Dark, billowy arms reached above its head. A soft chant filled the quiet campsite.
Lena tightened her hand around the leather strap of her satchel. The need to flee rose up her spine as she eyed possible exits.
Three trees over, Toki and Berki hid behind a massive root. Their little eyes watched intently as the shadows took most of the travelers. They held their breath as a man wielded the purple-hued magic of the cipher lands with practiced precision. When the obscuration grew arms and began chanting Berki slumped into a ball, scared and missing the dampness underground. His fat fingers clutched the nubs of his knees. He rocked back and forth wishing he could hum. Berki often used little melodies to calm his ever presentence nerves. Toki, on the other hand, stretched her miniature her body as far as she could bear in hopes of catching every detail. Her eyes wide with wonder. That man’s thoughts could keep her busy for hours. Endlessly learning what exactly he could command. She imagined flipping through all his fears. The thirst for more tickled her throat.
Berki caught sight of his sister’s lustful gaze. He shook his head then yanked on her mug-skin coat. This caught Toki by surprise causing her to lose her footing and slide down the root. She landed in a rain gully. All but her face and neck caked with mud. Berki panicked after her. Plopping on his backside, he slid down the bulbous root after her. The deep voice grew louder. Methodic chanting replaced the sound of breeze. A deeper voice mumbled something undesirable—more foreign tongue rattling away nightmares.
This was a tremendous ordeal from them, but anyone bigger than a hairling didn’t care to notice. Occasionally they were sniffed out by wolves or rangshing. Luckily locketts were hard to catch.
Berky shrugged an apology before grabbing Toki’s hands.
She shrugged his help off and stood up on her own. Being told to not wonder so much incensed her. How could they not want to? She brushed off her front. A sweet smell tickled her nose. She scanned her surroundings for the source. They weren’t alone. This wasn’t an evil or toxic scent but still it was always good to know what company one is in.
An altered sense pulled at Toki. Something was right near them. Not the somethings she had been watching. A familiar tingle in her told her she knew the scent. She had a puzzle to solve and felt it right down to her moss covered toes.
Berki tapped her shoulder in an attempt to communicate to her without speaking. The chances were good the others wouldn’t hear them, but he didn’t feel like taking a risk while cipher magic was afoot. His effort a miss. Toki shuffled away from him with searching eyes. She temporarily disregarded the cloaked man with dark magic. The smell grew thicker. A sweet mix of hopen petals and lioren nectar teased her closer to it. Poor Berki left once again trailing behind his sister. Toki worked her nose obsessed with finding the source.
An extra fat tree trunk caught her sight just as the ground started to tremble. Not the quake of the stone monsters, but a throb as if the ground was in pain. Berki gasped. Toki shot her eyes at her brother and away from the curiously shaped tree. His eyes drawn in horror watched the soil under their feet. Toki joined her brother in watching the roots turn black. The voice grew louder. The toxic smelling roots expanded at they crept over life. The blackness bubbled around the soil thick as ink. Viens sprouted off the existing root system. Fog drew in from the trees to their left. Green, vibrant growth consumed and masked behind the spreading corruption.
Without any other ideas, Toki grabbed Berki’s hand and dashed. She led them to the strange tree. They stopped for a moment near a rock. The cursed roots continued to spread across the ground. Berki’s mouth hung open with his eyes. This was much more than he could handle. Berki yanked on her collar motioning his head toward the left. Toki swatted his hand away as one does to biters.
Toki’s eyes bulged with excitement. With first glance, it looked like the bark was moving. The diseased roots ascended the tree Toki was drawn to. A cloaked figure stepped away from the enormous trunk. Pink-hued hands broke loose from the cloak’s shelter. Clumps of sticky black ooze stuck to their fingertips. She stammered away from the tree. The heel of boot caught itself on a rock. She fell back. Her bag thrown from her shoulder. Her hood around her shoulders. Toki saw the beautiful girl claiming to stay and fight. Sadness burned her little belly. A thousand questions cycled through her head so fast she couldn’t read each one. The voice grew louder in the center of the forsaken campground. Without any more thought, Toki grabbed her brother and ran into the fallen sack, moments before the girl grabbed it and took that second to run as far and as fast as she could.