*Please note this chapter and future chapters will be told from Nienna’s point of view unless otherwise noted
Cold raindrops spattered my cheeks, thankfully waking me from my nightmare just before the knife plunged into my chest like it always did. Shaking and gasping for breath, I felt for the large branch under me and sighed in relief when I discovered I was still safe in the tree. Wiping the moisture from my face and stray moss off my dark red leggings, I stretched and began untying my make-shift harness securing me to the tall tree I had slept in. In my experiences, I learned sleeping on the ground could prove fatal if you did not have someone watching your back. Not many things could ascend as tall a tree that I was in and those that could were usually harmless birds. I swung my legs over the thick, sturdy branch as I wound the rope around my arm and secured it on my belt next to a few round, wooden bottles hanging off my belt. The morning drizzle grew into a full rain as I finished packing up and it gave the otherwise musty air a clean and fresh scent. I took in a deep breath of it and making sure all was clear below, I pulled up the hood on my dark cloak, secured my pack on my back, and climbed down to the ground.
I had only managed to get a few hours sleep, but it was enough for now. I broke into as fast a stride as my short stature could muster. It would not be much longer before I reached the Fen. Sticking to the eastern hillside, I continued south and avoided contact with anything moving until the trees cleared away and gave way to the sea’s inlet working its way eastward into the land near Whisperwill Pass. The narrow pass though the hillside was small and dark but it was only one of two well traveled ways to get into the Fen. I moved slow, with one hand on a moist moss covered wall at all times and my other hand on the pommel of my axe. Aside from almost tripping over a fat sleeping grub on my way through, my short journey through the pass was uneventful.
Sparkfly Fen was named appropriately for the large quantities of sparkflies residing in the area due to the higher temperatures and humidity. They were generally harmless, but annoying when swarmed by a large group of them. They were attracted to still, tepid bodies of water and unfortunately, the Fen was littered with them. As I crossed under the tall, crumbling ruins near Porgotle Grounds, I swatted at the large, flying annoyances and my hand made contact with a few of their fist-sized cobalt bodies. Quickly, they scattered and I was left in peace until I encountered another group and the battle began all over again.
The sound of something snapping behind me caught my attention. Quickly, I slipped out of sight behind a tree and listened intently. I closed my eyes and focused. The gentle pattering of rain, the soft whisper of the wind, and the buzzing of the sparkflies filled my ears. Off in the distance, I heard a terrible distant cry and I tried not to panic. The dragon beast Tequatl often terrorized the southern Fen but rarely ever came up this far north. Zhaitan’s champion kept to the dark, murky waters and only stretched its decaying yet powerful wings to wreak havoc on the coastline. If perchance it did decide to venture further away from the waters, I could likely use it to my advantage. You could not get a distraction much larger than a dragon.
Reaching out further with my senses, I sought out evidence of another but all I could hear was my own rhythmic heartbeat. Maybe they were further away than I had guessed. I peered around the tree trunk and looked for movement. Not a single branch moved but there was someone out there. I could feel it in my gut. Out of a sense of paranoia and good judgment, I doubled back, keeping a light step and staying under cover of the foliage. Crouching behind a bush, I waited and watched, hoping that whomever was behind me would pass and I could be on my way.
“All I’m saying,” I heard a petite voice say. “Is I don’t get it. What’s the appeal?”
There was a deep, guttural growl in response. “They’re soft!”
A distant mix of laughter followed the short conversation. I recognized the voices and silently berated myself for not being more careful. Was I starting to lose my touch after all these years? Their voices grew louder and I could see them start to break through the brush in the distance. Briefly, I looked around, noting my location in relation to the oncomers and my destination. I was so close. Maybe if I remained where I was, I could just let them pass-
“You give a hard chase.”
I spun around, axe in hand, to find Quint towering over me and looking at me curiously from under the brim of his hat. Seeing that it was our Adviser, I lowered my weapon and tried to calm my racing heart.
“Apparently not hard enough,” I grumbled as I rose to my feet. I holstered my axe and pulled back my hood since the rain had lessened into a light mist. “How did you find me?”
A clever smile grew on his lips and reached his pale eyes. “You don’t make a habit of sticking to available bodies of water when trying not to leave a track.”
“I’m not fond of wet footwear,” I replied, raising an eyebrow. “Why are you here? I did not exactly extend an invitation.”
Quint motioned to the area behind me, the wet plumes in his hat shaking as he moved. “You can’t blame them. You left with no word and they grew worried. One of their Founders is dead. They don’t want another dead one.”
I looked over my shoulder to find the rest of the group coming our way. Watching them close in made me feel like a cornered raptor, panicked and ready to claw my way out. I needed to get away but I did not have much room to work with.
“I’ll be fine. You have to let me go,” I ordered. “Please, before they get here.”
“What about them? Don’t they deserve a chance at justice too?” He asked. “How do you think they’ll feel?”
I shook my head. “No, Rhys was my friend. I have to do this.”
“He was their friend too. And mine.” The look of sympathy that I saw from on his visage gave me hope that maybe he would have a change of heart and let me go but the look faded as I heard my name being called by the others. “How can you expect to include them in this hunt and then not expect them to follow when you leave them behind?”
Shaking my head, I let out a frustrated sigh. “You shouldn’t have come,” I warned him. “None of you should have come.”
There was a quick shift in the look in his eye and immediately I realized I had slipped again.
Gods. Keep it together.
“Nienna!” De Koninck called. The Norn flashed a worried smile as she tromped through high-growing foliage to get to me. “Thank Bear we found you. Why’d you leave without us?”
I put my hands on my hips and squared my shoulders, exuding my place of authority. “I decided it would be best that I do this on my own but I guess the message was not received.”
“Oh it was received,” Tuborg replied. The small dark thorns on his verdant cheeks moved slightly as he smiled. “But not well taken I’m afraid.”
“We ain’t gonna let you have all the fun, Red,” Artis smirked as he kicked at a low growing broad leaf plant. “What bug got up your backside and made you leave without us?”
With a swift reach of his strong, furred arm, Clarkus grasped Artis’ coat collar and bared his sharp teeth as he brought his large, horned head close to Artis’ face. His long ears trembled slightly as he huffed. “Watch who you’re talking to underling.” He let the hunter go with a forceful shove and uttered a throaty growl.
“Okay, okay,” the hunter chuckled nervously and ran his fingers through his wet tangled hair as he stepped away from Clarkus. “Ya made your point.”
“That’s enough Clarkus,” Tuborg warned. “He’s still finding his way.”
The large char huffed and took a step back from Artis, but still kept a narrowed, pale green eye on him.
Before I knew it, I was surrounded by all of them with their words of concern and questions but I had no answers for them. I knew they were only trying to help but they had no idea what was really going on at the core of all this and I wanted to keep it that way. It was safer for everyone, at least that’s what I kept telling myself. But as I looked at all of their faces and realizing the hard truth of the situation, I wondered how much longer I could really keep them in the dark?
“Where are these skritt livered killers anyway?” Clarkus growled, pounding his clawed fist into his other paw.
“Yeah!” Alena exclaimed, thrusting her wooden staff in the air. “Let’s give ’em a taste of furry justice!”
“HEY!” Clarkus scolded as he looked back up at his shoulder where the petite Asura sat.
“Was that too much?” She asked, her crystalline eyes widening. Gently, she gave Clarkus a pat on his shoulder. “Sorry big guy.”
The large Charr merely offered a throaty growl but then he reached up and patted Alena’s foot in a show of acceptance of her apology.
“Look, I left on my own for a reason,” I said firmly. “This is my fight and I never should have involved any of you. I’m sorry. You should all go home.”
De Koninck cocked her head to the side and raised her dark eyebrows. She leaned down and regarded me with her hazel eyes full of worry. Her dark, faded Norn marking across her eyes wrinkled as she furrowed her brow. “You know you don’t have to do this alone. You don’t have to do any of this alone. We’re here for you. We’re all in this together.”
I wanted to tell her how wrong she was. I wanted to tell them all how dangerous this would be for them and how none of them really knew what they were getting into. Looking around, I gauged my options. If I could manage to double back somehow, maybe I could give them the slip and find myself back on my path. But how could I get away? My index finger grazed one of the wooden bottles and suddenly I had a quickly formulated plan.
“You are wrong,” I replied as I tried to keep my whole body from shaking. Why was this so hard? I narrowed my eyes and sought for my resolve. If I did not leave, they could pay for my mistakes. Gods, they were already starting to pay for them.
The lines on De Koninck’s forehead grew deeper and her lips fell into a worried frown. “What’s wrong, Nienna? What is it?” She quietly begged.
“I am sorry,” I uttered as I pulled on the bottle and swiftly threw it to the ground.
A heavy, white cloud erupted from the shattered bottle, obscuring their view and allowing me to make my escape. Reaching for my belt, I threw another bottle to the ground to give me more cover. I left the sounds of coughing and surprised cries behind me and ran south for a good distance before swerving east to toss my cloak aside I then headed south again and turned west to make my way into the shallow pools of the salt floods. I hoped my planted cloak would keep them heading south and away from my path. I never paused and never looked behind me as I kept to the patches of water in the Saltflood Mire and the moss covered tangled trunks and roots of the bog trees, until I saw the familiar hanging foliage with dark purple blooms.