Carius and his soldiers rode hard and made good time in only a few days. They skirted the inside edge of Einarr lands to make better time. Carius doubted the Einarr could stop his knights and rangers and that fact tempted him to take a more direct route through the territory, but he needed discretion.
Years of conflict and instability allowed much of the local forest to regrow, a boon for this endeavor. Each day, more and more of the roads vanished under the grass that pressed at every crack and hole. By the fourth day the road disappeared entirely until the beat of hooves on buried stone was all to suggest they ever existed.
Two heads topped two pikes set up where the road ended. They stared out at any who would approach, mouths gaping like fish ashore. Beneath both sat neat piles of vicious metal traps blackened with old blood. The soldiers stopped at the threshold and turned their gazes back to Carius who, himself, wished not to proceed.
It of The Wilds, that onerous and oldest of gods kept with little patience for those who would disturb. Guardians protected Its lands, the most active of all the divine aspects. Carius suspected as much, and he brought an offering.
At his command, all knelt as he released two captured doves. The small band prayed, a simple request that they be allowed through without harm, and a promise to be respectful of Its lands. Only a fool would do otherwise.
“We move now,” Carius called. “If any of you harm the wilds, I will personally beat you to death, and I’m sure I’ll have help.”
Carius put a hand on the pommel of his sword. “It’ll just be a few more days until we’re clear. King Lerian will reward us handsomely. Don’t be fools and this danger will be a trivial price.”
Another shout from the soldiers.
“We travel fast and do not stray from the road. We need not reach the Kol river, they will meet us before, in a place we’ve agreed.”
. . . . . .
Simple deduction. People kept going missing, mostly traders, while the Einarr were in talks with the mercantile states. At the same time, Athia received a hefty sum of full Clarien pieces for a bounty in Lerian. One thing could explain both those issues, Lerian soldiers playing bandit.
It could have gone very wrong for Athia if she underestimated the enemy forces, but she didn’t. They couldn’t keep themselves secretive in large numbers, and they didn’t need more than a handful to put an end to local trading. She imagined at least two or three other groups in the area, if not more. Not that she planned on fighting them all.
When her borrowed cart pulled back up to the village, she hopped up to stand on the seat.
“Your hero has returned!”
People came out to greet her, hesitant but curious.
She reached back into the cart and lifted the Lerian leader with one arm. He squirmed, gagged and bound tight in ropes.
“It’s not lurkers, but bandits.” She grabbed a bundle of weapons and supplies, taken from the Lerian camp.
“The others have been sent running, broken, and half naked! But I bring this one as proof.”
She dropped the man back into the cart, then hopped down.
“If you’d be so kind as to bring him back to Clarient, so I might move on, it would be greatly appreciated.”
Camann approached her with a smile. “It would be a lie to say I’m not impressed.”
He held out a hand and Athia met it as he asked, “Where will you go next?” His hand tightened as everyone moved inside.
“I’ve got something curious on my mind,” she said. “I’ll head wherever that takes me.”
“You have our eternal gratitude.”
Something tripped Athia’s instincts.
She let go but Camann didn’t.
Athia pushed into him as a cudgel grazed the back of her head. She spun, yanking her arm as her free hand caught its spike. A figure in a white mask and bright, short, cape advanced on her. Another came from the front, identical in attire and shape.
“Do not resist or you will be beaten,” an androgynous voice said. “Athia Fensa, you are wanted under suspicion of robbery and known assault of the Torchbearers.”
Athia’s eyes bore into Camann who kept the grip. His legs interlocked into hers as she dodged another strike. She grunted as second came. With a furious twist she ripped Camann off his feet and into the way of the cudgel. It caught him across the shoulder blades.
The older man groaned and lost his hold.
Athia wretched free as the other spike reached her hand. One flew toward the communal housing while the other extended to intercept a strike. The attack went through her with no effect. An illusion.
It caused her a split second of hesitation, enough time to miss another strike aimed at her leg. Pain flared as it thwacked her knee, but her spike caught and pulled her toward the home. She just needed to build speed.
Her foe appeared before her. Illusion and moveskip, like her mom and aunt used to do.
She whipped her free spike out and slung it. Her foe parried, so Athia ignored the other figure at her side.
Until it struck her while the other one still held tangible contact with her spike.
Athia released her barbs from the side of the home and tumbled aside. She turned it into a forward roll and sprang to her feet without losing momentum. Her fingers caught dirt and she slung it out as another foe appeared in front of her.
It went through the figure. She spun, feet sliding without friction, and caught a strike aimed at her head. Two more appeared at her sides. Athia couldn’t parry both, and she didn’t know which was fake. Or if both were real.
So, she dumped her momentum.
It hurt, like a sudden crashing stop. She ended just shy of their attacks and whipped one of her spikes around. It slammed into one of the trio before her, cracking something in their arm.
They all vanished, reappearing around her, this time four. None of them bore the wounded arm.
Athia took slow breaths, her spikes spinning on their cords. She hurt, blood leaked from her eyes, but she could handle it.
“Real nice of you,” she said. “After I helped you out.”
“The law is the law.”
Athia crouched low in a defensive posture. “You didn’t care about the law when your people upended it.”
The four around her vanished and she jumped. Four synchronized strikes hit nothing while her spike caught the top of the home. It yanked her up and she kicked off the wall into a swing around it. Momentum rocketed her in an arc over the cart, toward the woods.
One of her spikes flew out and caught her bag where it waited on the cart. As it retracted to her she shouted. “Even knowing, I still would have helped, morons!” To herself she added, “I just wouldn’t have come back while you were all awake.”
Another of her spikes caught a tree and pulled, keeping her aloft. Moveskip didn’t work for sustained verticality while she’d steady build speed. An easy escape, especially since moveskips were murderous on the knees if done in quick succession. The very best had a high tolerance, but even they had a limit.
She flew over the woods, putting herself up high where the tree line was thinnest. Fall’s dearth of foliage made it easier to navigate. Yet, the beating she took and the strain of keeping her momentum going would wear her down in time. She just needed to get clear enough to pull out her sail and board. Every muscle worked, pulling and gripping and steadying and fighting forward. Minutes turned to two hours of retreat.
The forest ended ahead, opening into the dead salt fields. Athia catapulted herself up and pulled out her board and sail. The wind caught, slowing her into a speedy glide.
She touched down and, in the same moment, one of the figures appeared in front of her. Their knees wobbled, as if they might shatter at any moment.
Athia jumped and whipped her board around, bringing the end into her foe’s ribs.
“Veil of the Einarr sees you,” they said in a low voice, despite the pain. Their cudgel caught Athia on the side of the knee. “Don’t stop running.”
They vanished and Athia’s knee buckled when she landed. It made her tumble, hitting the hard ground and sliding to a stop. She laid where she stopped, on her back and staring up at the sky.
“That smarts,” she said. “But I’ll take it over Clarient’s dungeon.”
She eased up to her feet and put wind to her sail once more. It hurt, but she needed to get away before more caught her.
“Doubles,” she said to herself as she rode, knees bent. “Moveskip, illusions. If they’re managed right, I’ll never know which angle of attack is real. I can’t make any damage stick because the double just ends and a new one forms, and they can come from all directions.”
Dirt rumbled under her board and her throat itched. Her water and food got left behind.
“That is not a fight I want to take unprepared.”
But she did want to take it.