Warm tears unexpectedly wet my cheeks as I tried to bite back the bittersweet memories of my dear friend Rhys. I wiped them away and then took in deep breathes in order to calm myself. Since I had found his body, I had been trying so hard to keep back the storm of emotions swirling in me in order to get through this whole mess. However, being here in the midst of this creation he was so proud of poked holes in the walls I had built up. If I could not contain my emotional hurricane, the risk of this shell falling apart grew more likely. Gods, it already felt like the façade was crumbling piece by piece every day since finding him.
A gentle warmth had been building up behind me as the flames from the large cavern grew. I had nearly reached the opening when I felt myself stop. Even though I wanted to walk out of the dark cave and into the midday light, I could not make myself put one foot in front of the other. Was it the pain of losing someone dear to me weighing me down? Was it the fear of facing my travel mates after battling the creature I had summoned only to find we had lost someone? My heart skipped a beat and then sped into a steady, racing rhythm. My breath grew quick and uneven and my hands began to shake. Leaning against the rough wall, I tried to keep myself propped up. I smelled fire. What was burning? Oh yes, I set the fire in the cavern to burn everything. Breathe Nienna, breathe.
Smoke invaded my nostrils as I focused on my deep breathing. In then out. In then out. I tracked my breath mentally as it entered and left my body and after a short time, I could feel my vitals leveling off. Pushing myself away from the wall, I forced one unsteady foot in front of the other. I was determined to emerge from this cave as I should with a strong presence and a steady mind.
I was merely a few feet from the entrance when a tall figure blocked the way as well as some of the light streaming into the cave. I stopped short, unsure who blocked my path. The bright light from behind the figure shadowed their face and the light that managed to stream in around them bombarded my eyes. I gripped my axe, ready to draw it as a moment’s notice.
“We took her down and everyone is accounted for,” they said.
Hearing the familiar tenor voice, I relaxed slightly and stepped out of the cave next to a haggardly looking Quint. The Adviser looked quite a state in contrast to his usual well kept manner. He had a ragged tear on his coat sleeve just under the elbow and his salt and pepper hair hung down in his eyes as opposed to its usual combed back state. There were dirt and grass stains on his trousers as well as his boots. He wore his bow holstered on his back and a worried look in his steely eyes. He breathed the air in deeply and raised an eyebrow before looking down at me.
“Something’s burning,” he noted.
“A surprise left by the one I was chasing,” I lied. “It is burning very high right now. Best to let it die down.”
The Adviser nodded. “Find anything?”
“No,” I replied, wiping beads of sweat forming on my brow. “But my source noted that if nothing was found here, to move on to a second location.”
“Your unrevealed source,” Quint murmured. I thought I saw a knowing smile forming on his lips but any trace disappeared before I could really know. “You should come back to the group.” A sense of urgency was growing in his tone and his.
“Is everyone alright?,” I asked, worry lacing every word.
His hesitation in answering fueled my anxiety so I pushed past him and quickly worked my way around the rocks to get back to my travel mates. I did not pay attention to my footing and I nearly slipped on a moist patch of moss and fell but my white-knuckled grip saved me. My breath caught in my throat as I caught myself and I finished my return cautiously.
Once my boots hit level ground, I broke into a sprint to where I had left them to battle the Toxic Alliance’s champion spider. Quint’s hesitation had me assuming the worse.
As I neared the site, I saw the large arachnid’s body laying lifeless with all its legs sprawled out under it in multiple directions. One of the front legs rest at an odd angle about half way down. A deep green goo oozed out of the broken limb as well as from an elongated wound on the spider’s thorax.
“Nienna,” De Koninck said weakly as I knelt by her side. The Norn had taken on a pale greenish hue to her skin. Her breathing was slightly ragged but still coming strong.
“What-,” I started to say.
“I’m fine,” De Koninck insisted from where she sat on the ground. Mason had worked his head under her arm and was letting out a series of high pitch whines. The Norn clutched her side firmly and between her fingers I could see something dark seeping through.
“No you aren’t,” Seren said firmly. The young guardian knelt near De Koninck, her hands together in front of her. Praying to the divine goddess Dwayna no doubt. Her slumped posture and battered armor indicated that she too was battle worn. Her chestnut hair hung down in thick sections around her face and I could see a few trickles of blood dripping down the side of her face from her forehead.
“Well, better at least,” De Koninck said, managing a weak smile.
“I think I’m ready,” Seren said. “I’ve rested enough.”
De Koninck casually waved Seren off. “I’ll be fine. Bear’s strength will see me through.”
“But Dwayna’s light will heal that poison,” Seren insisted. She parted her hands slightly and a soft blue light in the space between.
“Listen to Seren,” I insisted, laying a hand on De Koninck’s shoulder. “Let her take care of that toxin and we will get you bandaged up.”
Against fervent protest, I gently pried De Koninck’s fingers back from the wound to find that it was deep but not fatal. Probably from a swipe of one of the spider’s legs. The green toxic goo mingled with her red blood and slowly seeped from the wound and soaked the surrounding white and grey material of her traveling attire. Seren rose stiffly, slowly knelt beside De Koninck, and placed her hands on her wound. As she attended to the Norn’s injury, Seren flashed me an icy look which was illuminated by the soft blue light emanating from her hands. Her face looked almost sinister in the ghostly illumination and an uneasy feeling came over me.
Slowly rising, I stepped back and let Seren work, trying to gauge her expression as I did. De Koninck would be fine. Once most of the toxin was removed and she had regained some strength, the Norn would be on her feet and fighting with the very might of Bear. Before I stepped back too far, I took in a deep breath and stepped my foot down firmly upon the ground to call upon the necrotic arts as a precaution. A dark circle sprung up from the ground and surrounded the area around me with pulsating green and dark surges of energies. A rune illuminated in the ground under my boots, snakes of dark energy wormed their way from the rune out to the edges of the circular well of power. It would boost the healing process and help reverse the toxin so Seren would not have to use up all of her energy.
I felt a presence behind me and turned to find Quint joining us. He gave a loud whistle and a moment later, Michi emerged from some nearby brush. With a snap of her jaws, she swallowed what was left of a young rabbit. The red drake let out a hiss and circled around Quint before settling down into a saunter at his side. As the Adviser walked by me, I smelled a strong scent of smoke, stronger than I would have expected from someone standing at the cave’s entrance. Perhaps the scent was off my own clothes and merely wafted up as he walked by.
“Where is the hunter?” I asked as I looked around us. “Did he run off after all?”
“Nope,” I heard a voice behind me reply. “Just takin’ care of some personal business if ya catch my meaning.”
I did my best to refrain from rolling my eyes as I turned around. Artis strolled up, tugging at his leather belt to make sure it was secure. His warthog followed at the hunter’s heels, sniffing and snorting at the ground as he plodded. There were dirt and grass stains all along the edges of his coat as if he had taken a fall at some point in the battle and his long light brown hair was all in a tangle with a few strands of grass.
“Thought I’d run off after you left us with that beast?” Artis asked with an edge to his tone “I did only think about it, if that makes you feel any better.”
“Not really,” I replied coolly.
The hunter straightened the collar of his coat and cleared his throat. “Well I didn’t,” he said firmly. “On account of our deal.”
A terse smirk tugged on my lips. I was in no mood for Artis’ jokes and wit. The battle had been more rough for them than I had anticipated. Every single scratch, bruise, and dose of toxin had been my fault and what did I have to show for it?
A broken trap and a missing piece.