Lan was troubled. It was not a matter of the Holmites and scouts or stragglers–no, he was quite certain there would be no more of them, though they provided a convenient enough excuse for egress. He was troubled, yes, but he had no need to show it to his companions. What depths of despair might overcome them should they witness the great Lan al’Ver fretting like a house-husband? Better to save them such unnecessary crises of conscience.
Their mental fortitude notwithstanding, Lan was troubled because the whole scene had been…troubling. Preternaturally troubling. The sort of troubling that had one counting and sorting their troubles like inventory, attempting to spot the error in the arithmetic, to trace back the entry missing from the ledger. Or perhaps to cross out one made in error.
It wasn’t Bilgames. No, the old boy had long since retired, given up his crusade against whatever beastie he’d pulled that silly cult together for. He’d been sitting on the shelf awhile now, and it was about time his sins caught up with him. It wasn’t the Holmites either. Mud rats could scurry as they please in the dark and dry–it was no concern to a riverman. If Lan was being frank, Holme itself had worn out its welcome. The Riverlands had little tolerance for dogma these days, and the Sculptor wouldn’t have the mettle to survive in spite of it. The place would be torched within the decade, he predicted, but an eddy in the stream when all was done.
Lan arrested his thoughts as he reached the forest’s eastern edge. Why the exposition, he wondered. His intuitions were winding. Following them precisely was often difficult, but troubles, troubles: Something told him the stakes were higher now.
Back to the grave. The whole thing had felt familiar. Like family. Like Brother and Sister. Like home. Like old comforts and old threats, which was odd, because the forest was no home to Lan al’Ver. An exotic locale, certainly, a fleeting call to far-flung adventure. But it ought to have felt more…foreign. And why did the Holmite–the rude one, the one with the gall to raise an axe to a legend like him–keep butting into his thoughts? The man would live–he had time left–and besides, the scoundrel had nothing to do with Lan’s family one way or the other.
“I was wonderin’ if I’d have the pleasure t’meet you here, Captain al’Ver.”
Lan stopped cold. He was not frightened. He was not even very surprised–the forest was dark, and a body eluding his notice was the most plausible thing in the world. But no one ever did, and he was somewhat surprised, and that was cause for consideration.
He turned to the source of the voice to see a flint spark bloom into torchlight. The torch’s carrier was a woman, leaning at ease against an ash tree, clad like the Holmites in patchwork plates and leather. Instead of a white cloak, a red cowl hung loose about her shoulders, and a rusted spear and greatshield balanced against the tree beside her
“I suppose I shall grant you that pleasure,” Lan said. “Though I think it only fair I know who accepts that gift.” The woman’s smile was barely visible in the firelight as she pushed away from the tree and approached.
“But of course,” she replied, extending a hand. “I’m called Atra ‘round these parts. And you, I’ve admired for some time.” Lan shook her hand, for it was only polite, though he had to admit he found the lady peculiar.
For one, he could not for the life of him tell her age, and he was normally quite good with those sorts of things. He could tell quite easily, for instance, that Bleeding Wolf had sixty-eight years in spite of his youthful frame, or that young Miss Orphelia was sixteen, no matter how forcefully she projected the notion of an innocent eight-year old upon her victims. His intuition told him nothing of Atra, however, and he was left with only the confusing visual cues on her skin: fit, unwrinkled, unlined, but covered in an array of scars that suggested either extensive torture or an…improbable amount of time on battlefields. Then, of course, there was the matter of recognition:
“Are you, indeed?” he remarked. “And here I’d thought myself quite familiar with these parts.” Atra laughed uncomfortably.
“Ah, you’ve caught me–I’m a new arrival. Just a week ago, in from the ‘Stones. I told no lies, though. ‘Tis indeed m’name, and ‘tis what my employers in Holme know t’call me. Enough, though. I’m sure you grow bored of this starstruck girl’s prattle.”
“Never, my dear,” Lan replied. She was clever, he admitted. She knew that flattery would get her everywhere.
“Even so,” she continued. “I take it we’re here on the same business, then? And I take it you found my men wanting?”
“Desperately, I’m afraid.” Atra sighed and spat on the ground beside her.
“Bloody useless. Should have known.” She put a hand on her hip and glanced up at the sky beyond the canopy, then back to Lan. “Any survivors?”
“Two,” Lan replied. “I expect they’ll be conscious before long. Would you like me to bring you to them?” She shook her head.
“Thank you, Captain, but there’ll be no need. Just send ‘em east, and that’ll suffice. You can let ‘em know I’ve got camp set up just beyond the treeline if it please you.”
“It can be arranged,” Lan said, welcoming the easy solution. He was still distracted, though. There was something about the woman that he ought to have been able to place, but he couldn’t quite focus on it. “My professional apologies that you should return empty-handed, but I am quite unable to offer assistance on that count.” Atra laughed again, this time at ease.
“You’re every bit the gentleman the stories built you up to be! But no, you’re right. The pieces’ve fallen, and it’ll be my lot t’get those two back home once they’ve made it t’me.” She walked back to her weapons, picked up the spear and slung the shield over her shoulder. “I bid you good evening, Captain,” she called back. “Perhaps we’ll meet again on more pleasant terms!”
“I shall await the hour!” Lan replied to her departing silhouette before he too turned away. That solved the Holmite problem, he supposed. Best to head back with the good news. Though the darkness and tangled undergrowth may have proven an impediment to a lesser man, Lan cared little for the frivolity of logistical struggle, and by force of his disdain, he arrived at the Hunter’s informal grave some minutes later.
It appeared he had not kept his companions waiting overlong. Ty had lit a torch and was fussing over a bundle of what appeared to be the Hunter’s armor as Orphelia, her demeanor evidently much improved, offered a bound and freshly conscious Holmite a severed finger, calling the gift a “lozenge”. Bleeding Wolf, meanwhile, seemed the opposite of his normal, capable self. The man was slumped at the base of a tree, oblivious to Orphelia’s nonsense, clearly preoccupied with some existential concern or another. Lan shook his head, disgusted. Was no one going to take advantage of this teaching moment?
“Miss Orphelia!” he called out. “Don’t you know it is impolite to hoard snacks between you and your friends?” Orphelia looked up at him, an unmistakable twinkle of disturbed mischief in her eye.
“Oh, Mister Lan! Would you like one too?”
“Captain, my dear,” Lan corrected, plucking the severed appendage from her hand. “And do tell: Did this lozenge come from one of these cadavers, or have you been keeping yourself a stash?” Orphelia’s face fell, and the mercenary, suddenly recognizing the object for what it was, began to sob violently, struggling against the ropes holding her to the tree.
“But…” Oprhelia muttered. “But you’re not supposed to–”
“Don’t think you can pull the sack over my eyes so easily, young lady!”
“What in the bloody, bottom-feeding hell is wrong with you?” Ty interrupted. “Both of you!”
“A bold question from one who allowed such behavior to proceed with impunity,” Lan replied, dismissive. Ty exhaled angrily, turning his glare on Orphelia, but otherwise swallowed his response.
“Did you find anything, then?” he asked instead.
“Indeed, I did,” Lan said. I spoke with these ruffians’ leader. She awaits their return at a campsite to the east. Best let them run along.” Ty nodded, approaching the tree and pulling Orphelia–perhaps more forcefully than necessary–away from the prisoners. The girl blew a raspberry at his back but otherwise acceded. Some minutes passed as they gathered their effects. Ty helped the mercenary to lift her still-injured comrade, but before they all could depart, Bleeding Wolf gave out a low whistle.
“That,” he growled, pointing to the Hunter’s corpse, “concerns me.” Lan pursed his lips and approached.
Concerning indeed. From the floor of the clearing, still sprouting rapidly, a web of green, luminescent tendrils was beginning to envelop the body. They had the vague shape of vines, though Lan suspected they were not plants. Not truly. Not completely.
“Looks like something’s got an interest in the dead stuff,” Bleeding Wolf added with a glance back at the three Holmite corpses they had dragged to the edge of the clearing. They were being swallowed similarly, and Lan had to admit the beastman had a point. The two surviving Holmites did not wait for the situation to develop. They took off into the undergrowth, hobbling as fast as their injuries allowed. Lan, however, paused to consider the strange growth, and his companions, out of respect or simple confusion, followed his lead.
He drew his rapier and gingerly cut one of the tendrils, lifting it with the flat of his blade. He plucked it off and held it between two fingers. It was…inert. But strangely, it still held life, far more than such a small strand ought. He did not like what he felt of that life. It was cold and vast and hungry. And familiar, like the gravesite and the lark that watched over it. Familiar, though no longer familial. He tossed the strand to Bleeding Wolf, who caught it deftly if not readily.
“We should be along,” he said, doing his best to make light of the deep unease that had overtaken him. “I do not think it is safe here.”