Happy Friday, Dear Reader! I do hope this week finds you well. I'm back with another chapter of Quest of No Return help distract you (I hope) from this crazy time in our world.
Just a forewarning, this draft is rough. I will update it at a later time, but to keep the story moving, I need to move on to the next chapter for now. Does that make sense? I think it does, but, then again, it's 3 am as I put this post together. Yeah..
So without anymore nonsensical babble, I give you Chapter 11....
A horn blared, and the first group of hunters were released into the forest. The second group took their places on the lawn to wait for the second horn. Aria waited at the table with the others.
Did you manage to learn anything else today? Aria asked Taura and Ziliena.
Yes, Taura replied. They believed her family was killed by our father's brother.
"What?" Aria asked aloud. His brother? What brother?
Yes. This was all years before you were born. She says they hunted him.
Ziliena added, We don't know if they found him. Yet. We didn't get that far.
"Now I'm sorry I asked," Aria said. She drank several gulps of water. "I'll have to put it out of my mind for now."
"Yes, please do," Taura encouraged her.
The second horn sounded, and the second group of hunters ran into the forest.
Aria stood up, and said, "Well, I suppose I'll go join my group now. Wish me success." Taura jumped up from her seat and threw her arms around Aria's neck. "Watch the knives."
Taura stepped back, "Oh, sorry! I didn't get you did I?"
"No. I didn't want you to cut yourself."
"Shhh. I'll be fine." Aria hugged her sister and Ziliena both gently, and scratched Hunter behind the ears. "I need to go."
The Shadoaresses heard the High Shadoar's roar echoing from deep within the temple. They knew something was wrong. They knew she would summon them soon.
Two by two, they filed out of their chambers, meeting their fellow Shaoaresses, filing out from other chambers, on the stairs.
Two by two, they descended to the meeting chamber.
Two by two, they entered the chamber, and fell to their knees, heads bowed.
When she stormed into the room, they greeted her in unison, "Mistress, we offer ourselves in the service of Malough."
She paced back and forth before them in her rage for several moments before she spoke. "Iselos is making sport of killing our kind again. Their hunt is taking place as we channel our strength to our Lord." She stopped, facing them. "I have had a vision." She paused to let her subjects gasp. "Among them is an outsider, who will kill a great number, but will ultimately lose to another. He will become a great threat to our kind, and to our Master, if he survives the hunt."
She turned to the six Shadoaresses in charge of the selectees training. "The trials will begin at nightfall tomorrow. Are your recruits ready?"
"Yes, mistress," they replied.
"In Malough's name, at least eight of them need to pass, or this will all have been time wasted."
"May we meet our fate should we fail our Master," they swore.
"See to it they pass," the Shadoar warned, "we need to increase our numbers, and thereby strengthen our power to channel to our Master. Failure is not acceptable."
Aria looked ahead, scanning the treeline planning her route. Beyond the perimeter torches, a mist was creeping in the woods. The chill it brought with it settled in the air, and she was glad she decided to wear her coat after all.
She checked her boots, and tightened the laces, then patted herself down to ensure her equipment was all in place. She was ready.
Her blood rushing through her ears almost drowned out the horn; it sounded far away. Aria broke away in a sprint for the trees. She reached them first.
She kept running until the brush became too thick, then froze. Going out too far, she risked not making it back in time. Staying back would narrow her chances of making a kill.
Light on her feet, she moved silently, listening. She heard a Terressan owl above her, calling "Whooo?"
A twig snapped off to her left. She drew her bow. Another snap, then nothing.
A Malorian fox was in pursuit of a Terressan rabbit. Aria could hear the poor creature's frantic thoughts as it lay momentarily hidden. If you can hear me, lure it this way, she said. Just run straight ahead, as fast as you can.
The rabbit did as she was told. The fox followed and Aria put her arrow through its heart as it was about to close in on its prey.
You'd better stay underground tonight. And tomorrow night. She told the rabbit.
The rabbit managed a quick,Thank you, before vanishing the way she came.
With the rope, Aria bound her trophy's feet together, and swung it over her shoulder. Then she and paused to listen.
She sensed the same familiar presence she felt earlier in the day.
She still couldn't place it.
Who, or what ever it was, its thoughts were shielded from her. She reached out to Dar instead, Are you here?
Yes. He swooped down and landed on a branch just overhead. There is another hunter close behind you, but he seems to be moving to the east now. Still, be careful.
You as well, my friend. I'm headed for the ravine up ahead.
I'll fly over, see if anyone else is there.
No, I'll be able to hear them. Stay on this other one for me. I can't hear him for some reason.
I'll report back soon.
Hunter, Taura and Ziliena waited at the gathering, along with a few dozen other spectators. For a while, there were several raucous groups, drinking too much foark, singing ballads of the old wars and the Twelve who were curious.
As the hours wore on, a few more went home for the night. One by one, the rest nodded off to sleep at their tables, or on the ground under them. Hunter, Taura and Ziliena took turns dozing off here and there as well.
Suddenly, Hunter jumped to his feet. He heard Aria calling his name.
Moving silently through the woods, Aria found the ravine she scouted out earlier. Carefully, she started to climb down the vines trailing over the edge. The fog dampened everything it touched, and the vines were slicker the further she went, until she finally slipped and slid the rest of the way down.
Hitting the ground with a thud, Aria froze, listening. All that noise is sure to attract the wrong kind of attention, she thought to herself.
A squirrel darted away from the nearest tree; she threw a knife to end it.
She waited a moment before going to retrieve it. She didn't hear any movement, so she moved for it.
From above, something heavy fell on her head and shoulders, and started coiling around her face. A thick, black muscular serpent. A koranath. Her first instinct was to try to throw it off.
She was already too late. It was massive, and was already sliding down ber shoulders, trying to pin her arms. She struggled to keep them loose.
Hunter, I need you now, she thought, in desperation.
Despite all the distance she'd put between them, he heard her. Summon Aerodar!
Stunned that she could hear him, and still struggling, a few more seconds passed before she remembered he was right. She had an ally closer. Dar! I could use a dive! She hoped he could hear her.
It had her mouth covered, and was trying to block her nose. She managed to reach the knives at her waist as she heard the sweetest of sounds, Aerodar's ear piercing screech.
Dar struck at her shoulder, she heard his talons rip at its flesh. The koranath loosened its hold just enough for her to flip the blades upward, and drive them through its coils.
The falcon came back for a second pass as the creature fell to the ground in writhing pieces. Aria quickly spotted the head, still hissing and ready to strike. She put her knife through its skull. Thank you, Dar. You're a life saver.
You had it anyway. But, you're welcome.
Thank you, too, Hunter. I didn't know you would hear me. It was a reflex.
Good new trick to have. Now focus.
She collected the pieces of the snake in a sack, then threw the squirrel in on top. I wonder if this will be enough for tonight.
From the sky, it looks like you're well ahead of the pack.
E'sareona! I hope so.
A few empty handed hunters began to wander in just before the first hint of light. They helped themselves to whatever food and foark there was to find, and started to rouse the others from their slumber.
The first horn sounded - echoed by a relay of horns into the forest. Taura and Ziliena were both fully awake, and eagerly peered toward the treeline. "I don't see any sign of her yet," Taura commented.
"She has plenty of time," Ziliena replied.
Taura looked down at Hunter. "You stayed right here all night, didn't you?"
He crossed his paws and lay his chin on them.
"Why don't you go take care of, you know," Taura jerked her thumb toward the stables. He looked that way, then back at her. "I'll fetch you some water and breakfast. Then she'll be back before we know it."
The dog stood, wagging his tail, and nuzzled her knee before racing off for a tree or bush. Whichever came first.
When will Aria return? Does she run into more trouble on the way back? Will she find out who, or what, the strange presence is? Writing Chapter 12 is underway, and it will conclude the first round of the hunt. If you want to start from the beginning, you can find all of the chapters here.
Until then, thank you again for visiting my little corner of the web. I wish you good health, and a beautiful day, night or sometime in the between.
Please, for the love of who, or whatever, you love, wear a damn mask. If you already are, thank you for trying to keep my family safe, as mine does for yours.