Gray skies with drizzle accompanied the first half of their trek to Genrya. Athea knew it was not a coincidence but instead an omen of what they’d be encountering in the near future. Cold winds blew and worsened as they progressed.
“How do you know we are going the right way?” Tag crouched down and adjusted the knife strapped to his leather boot.
“I just know, Nari. Follow me and keep quiet. I don’t want them to hear you.” Mayhem snarled before Tag could reply. Tag jumped up and continued behind her.
The whistling from above cut through the howling winds. Tag tipped his head back to see Draco sailing directly above them. The tall dead trees circling Eldercrest provided an obstacle for the three on foot. There wasn’t much to take cover behind. Remains of life filled Genrya. Dead trees and other greenery were marred black. A sure sign that the Darkness had been feeding off the land for some time. Tag had a sense of relief that Draco could search the perimeter and relay information back. So far, there was nothing to report. This didn’t ease Athea’s concerns. She knew better. The false sense of security Draco provided Tag wouldn’t work for her. Stiffly she pressed forward ready for a fight.
Mayhem would often go ahead and direct them towards a better route, but it was still a tough terrain. Alternating bogs of quicksand and steaming black kept them on their toes. One false move would cut the foursome down to a threesome.
“No!” Athea’s voice broke the silence. Her large eyes widened.
Tag paused. “What is it?” He whispered.
“We’re out of time,” she cried, “they know we are here.”
“Who?” The words came out of his mouth at the exact moment he saw it. Tall, dark figures with black eyes. Maroon, red robes draped over their deformed bodies. They reeked of death.
Kneeling down on muck Athea dug her hand into the ground. “Skin to leaf. Earth and dirt. Vines surround.” The sizzle of electricity echoed in the barren wasteland. Streams of blue lines gushed across the darkening backdrop. An invisible barrier hid them momentarily.
“This will keep us concealed for a few minutes. We need a plan and now, Nari!”
“I need to know what I’m up against. What are those things?” Tag surveyed the remnants of the village he spotted three dark figures gliding through the village toward them. He also saw the faint outline of another Shadelock lingering towards the back of the village.
“Shadelocks. They are leeches that go around village to village after the Darkness moves through. They take what were once the living’s belongings. It doesn’t matter what it is. I’ve seen them pluck remains off of fresh corpses. They are dead. No life within them.” A shiver traveled up Athea’s spine causing her whole body to shudder.
“Can they be killed?”
“I’m not sure.” Athea cursed wishing she had asked her father more about these creatures. Mayhem nudged her side returning her back to the present. Briefly, their eyes met. Mayhem’s growing concern for Athea bristled his coat. His front haunches ready to pounce. She ran her fingers through his thick fur and continued debriefing Tag.
“My father told me the Darkness created them. They were conceived to scavenge and pillage the villages. Something the Darkness was incapable of doing. They bring the loot somewhere underground.” Athea tightened her grasp on the scimitars and glanced over at Tag.
They both glanced upward looking for Draco. They only saw darkened skies. “We can do this, Athea.” Tag readied himself with his spear in one hand and his boot knife in the other. His eyebrows furrowed leaving sharp lines painted across his face.
The Shadelocks were drawn to their direction. Even though they could not see them momentarily, they were able to smell the life within them. The alluring scent was a strong as a moth to a flame. They both knew a fight was imminent.
As quickly she cast the protective spell it fractured, creating a blue diversion. It was just enough to give Athea, Tag, and Mayhem the first strike. The three of them squared up with a Shadelock.
Mayhem made the first move launching himself off the ground mounting the Shadelock closest to him. He took hold of the Shadelocks neck in his mouth muffling his raging snarls. Athea cried out as she watched Mayhem’s body fly through the sky and thump loudly against the ground. He made no effort to rise.
Athea screamed running towards the Shadelock with her scimitars drawn. Visions of Mayhem’s body flashed over and over again giving her the strength and will to decimate her target. Leaping through the air, she found her target and landed. The Shadelock drew his own weapon, a silver sword with black onyx embellishments. He wielded his weapon striking Athea across the face. She whipped her head to the side trying to avoid impact. Quickly she rolled off of him and landed on her feet.
Throbbing pain radiated from the new gash under her right ear. She tried to ignore the immense pressure on her temples by envisioning the Shadelock’s death. Without hesitation, she made another pass. He was too fast. She landed on her stomach taking in a mouthful of dirt. She bounced up as quickly as she went down. Fearful of what he could do to her.
She spotted Tag out of the corner of her eye. Quickly she glanced his way just in time to see the Shadelock’s fist collide with Tag’s jaw. Tag drew his hands up to his face to block the onslaught of punches coming his way. The Shadelock used that moment of opportunity to kick him in his abdomen which sent him flying through the air.
She gagged struggling for air while the Shadelock in front of her stepped closer. They squared off readying for another brawl. Athea’s nerves pulsed. Her heart thumped in her chest. The uncertainty of her next move clouded her mind.
Then, out of the shadows, he appeared. Draco stiffened pulling back his shoulders exposing his yellow, scaled underbelly. His yellowed eyes darkened, and smoke billowed from his nostrils. The Shadelocks didn’t anticipate his presence or abilities. Within moments the Shadelocks were scorched releasing a pungent smell that sickened her.
“Mayhem!” She screamed loudly. “Tag, where are you?”
Slowly, Tag rose to his knees. Their eyes met briefly. He nodded that he was okay. His bloodied face already began to swell. He swallowed hard moving to his feet. “Athea, Mayhem is over here. I hid him in the brush.” He gasped in pain.
Athea ran towards him crashing down onto her knees in front of Mayhem. “Are you okay?” She exhaled shakily. She removed the dead tree limbs that Tag covered him with.
Mayhem winced as he rose on all four legs. His gray fur thickly coated with blood made Athea cringe. “Can you walk, my friend?” He nodded and moved toward. His stride was slow. The pain was palpable between the three of them.
“Draco, where have you been?” Tag pleaded.
“I went ahead, Nari, to look for threats. I never saw these monsters.” Draco’s voice dropped, and it went unsaid that he was sorry he wasn’t back to them sooner.
Tag clutched his abdomen and let out a deep sigh. “Did you find anything?”
“Yes.” Draco divulged quietly. “I found the entrance to Eldercrest. It’s not far from here.”
Athea perked up. ”Was the entrance blocked? Has the Darkness made it in?”
“It does not appear that the Darkness has made it’s way in. The Boshi trees line the entrance, and I sense magic so I’m not sure how we will be getting through.” Draco replied.
“The elder trees are blocking the entrance.” He spat, “ They will never let us all through. We can’t expect them to.”
“Things have changed, Tag, there are no other options. And the orb directed us this way. Perhaps there’s a reason.” Athea narrowed her eyes on Tag. She wasn’t as harsh towards him. Battles show the true side of a being. She made special note of his protectiveness over Mayhem and tucked it away for safe-keeping.
Tag wrestled with the idea of approaching the Boshi trees. “If you think this is our only option, then I’ll go along with it. However, I do feel it’s a long shot.”
Athea moved toward Tag bending at the knee to inspect his side laceration. Changing the subject she quietly muttered, “You need to keep this covered, Nari.” Crouching down she pulled a small leather satchel from her boot. She dug her small hand into the pouch and pulled out a tiny jar. “Apply this three times a day and keep the wound clean.” She placed the jar in Tag’s hand. An instant spark flew between them. “We’re supposed to be here, together, Nari. The orb and our powers are telling us that much.” She strutted back toward Mayhem with a half smile.
She pulled gently on his ears and stroked his back. Mayhem closed his eyes and let out a knowing sigh. He knew the journey’s intensity would only increase. He basked in the limited affection he knew he’d be receiving.
“Follow me, then.” Draco exhaled wildly, “I want to get there before it gets too dark.” He pumped his wings on the ground two times before taking to the sky. The wind churned the debris on the ground creating a dust bowl. Tag, Athea, and Mayhem lowered their heads to shield their eyes. With much apprehension, the foursome moved toward Eldercrest.