Paul felt like his legs were made of lead as he drifted through the forest as if not fully in control of his body. The images of the werewolf attack still ran through his head, flashes of memory playing on repeat. Shadows, matted fur, teeth and claws, magical light, silver swords, and blood. More blood than he had ever seen in real life. Real life. That thought struck him temporarily out of his stupor, What is real life? It definitely can’t be this. This can’t be a dream, but it’s not reality either. What’s really happening to me?
He was suddenly aware that the group he was traveling with had picked up the pace again, and they were all now trotting briskly through the dark trees. A ways ahead of him, Verity led the jog through the moonlit night, holding some sort of magical sphere ahead of her to light their way. How long had they been on their trek now, and what exactly were they following? Paul tried to catch up to Verity’s pace, but between the armor he wore and his less than ideal physical prowess, he knew he was barely keeping from being left behind as it was. Just as he felt his legs start to give and buckle beneath him, the troupe came to a halt. One of the people leading the charge, a lean man wearing a forest green robe who carried a longbow, had signaled their attention to something Paul could not see. Paul, unable to carry himself any further, let his legs give way, and he planted himself unceremoniously on the muddy forest floor.
The momentary reprieve from the insanity of everything didn’t last long, as Verity made her way back through the group to where Paul sat. She knelt in front of him, her robed knee sinking into the mud. She gently but firmly inspected him, twisting his head, lifting his arms, and checking him for wounds from the werewolf ambush. Paul could not have resisted her probing even if he had wanted to, he was now beyond physical exhaustion.
“You do not appear injured, Paul. My protective enchantments seem to have held. This is understandably very difficult for you, so I am going to give you a tincture that will restore your spirit for a time, although I’m afraid you will feel twice as tired after it has worn off. But we must move forward.” she calmed as she moved her hands to the pack slung around her shoulders.
Verity produced a thumb-sized vial of a dark, sticky-looking substance, and before Paul could protest, she had tipped it to his mouth. The liquid inside slid smoothly down his throat before he knew what had happened. As she calmly stood back to her feet, he opened his mouth to yell at her for the violation of his person, but in a wave, the weariness and exhaustion rolled off of him.
He blinked, nearly at a loss for words, but words did finally come, “Take me back. Now. I did not consent to whatever the hell you did to bring me here, but I demand you take me back.”
Paul stood and squared his shoulders to her, locking eye contact with the girl. For the first time, he realized she was actually taller than him. No one in the adventuring party moved as they stared each other down. Verity’s face was calm and collected, and she seemed to be waiting for Paul to say more. He determined he wouldn’t be the first to speak, and he crossed his arms, attempting to convey a confidence he was completely lacking at the moment.
The seconds ticked like minutes, and Verity opened her mouth at last and matter of factly stated, “The only way out for you is through. This trial you must face, and then you may go where you please.”
Paul’s face went slack at the words that seemed to seal his fate. Without waiting for his reply, Verity turned away and approached the man in the cowl who had called for the halt to begin with. He could not hear the words exchanged between them, but after a few moments, she turned to the group and announced, “Our sister Reonh may now be one of the turned. If we do not rescue her in time, she will no longer be of the Light. The dwelling of Bertrand Throatripper, one of the Shadow Kind’s most faithful, lies ahead. Be prepared, and be vigilant. Paul, by my side. I will not see you snuffed out on your first hunt.”
Weapons were hoisted into the air with hearty cheers, and the pack of monster hunters resumed their journey. Paul saw clearly that his choices were to stay in a werewolf-infested forest or follow the people he now considered his kidnappers into further danger. Reluctantly, he followed. Filled with new energy, he caught up to Verity with ease. Lariat, the only other person there that he knew by name so far, came up beside him and nudged him.
“You have a right to feel that way,” he confided, referencing his brief showdown with Verity.
Paul scoffed. Seeing Verity’s sidelong glance, he spoke quieter, “Oh, you think? You’ve all only taken me from my home to who knows where and placed me smack in the middle of life-threatening peril.”
Lariat placed a feathery hand on Paul’s shoulder and leaned in, “She doesn’t always explain what she does, but she’s always got a reason. And in my experience, it’s always been a good one. But for what it’s worth, I’ll do my best to keep you safe as well. Just try to lean into the hunt. You’ve better odds of making it home if you aren’t swinging blind and soiling your breeches.”
The avian warrior seemed to smile with his large beak, a truly bizarre sight, and he patted Paul on the back confidently. Paul wasn’t sure that gave him and real comfort, but part of him knew the parrot man was right. He would stand a better chance of surviving if he stuck with them and tried to keep from panicking again.
As Lariat took a position in the formation walking carefully through the forest, the dense trees abruptly gave way to open pastures. Ahead of them a few hundred yards, lit spectacularly by the moon, a small fort with high stone walls stood alone in the middle of the flat land. A few figures paced in loping steps on the tops of the walls, not quite human, but not fully inhuman either. Paul reasoned that this had to be the fortress of the one Verity had named “Throatripper.” Gripping his sheathed sword with a simple determination to make it home again, he followed Verity as she led them towards the dark walls.
“Throatripper leads the legions of werewolves that serve the Shadow King. If Reonh has not already been turned, she will be in his stronghold.” Verity announced as the hunters advanced steadily across the plain to a small, lonely little cropping of trees, “As you can see, there is no way to come upon the fortress of Conrioch with any measure of stealth. The only vulnerable point lies above the fort.”
Verity pointed to a high cliff jutting out behind the walled city, at least two hundred feet from the walls themselves. But the reason this weak point was unguarded quickly became apparent. The cliff itself towered perilously high in the air. Far too high to leap from there to the walls. Paul felt his face lose color as he took in the full scope of those jagged cliffs. He had no love for heights.
To Paul’s relief, Verity quickly explained that the plan was to have Lariat and a few of the magic-users — which she called “Wielders” — mount a bombardment from the cliffs as a distraction. Lariat, apparently, had functional wings inside of those loose sleeves, not simple feathery arms; and the Wielders could use magic to scale the cliff in no time. While they lobbed attacks at the rear walls of Conrioch from the cliff, the rest of the Hunters would enter the main gates. Verity assured them, mostly Paul, he was sure, that she would be able to mask their visual approach. But they would have to depend on the clifftop distraction to keep keen snouts from smelling them.
Concluding her battle plan, the rest of the group nodded and began checking their equipment for readiness. Verity gave Paul a quiet but penetrating look. He knew what she intended with that stare. “Will you commit, or will you try to run?” Paul tipped his chin in a short but firm nod. It’s too late to go back now. One way or another she’s right. I have to go through to get out.
Nearby, Lariat undid his sword belt and took off his cloak, revealing a muscular torso brimming with grey and white feathers. He shook out his arms in an upward stretch, and when he brought them back down, his winged arms spread broadly in the moonlight. A proud plumage of tailfeathers struck out from behind Lariat as well, and with a short sprint, he hoisted himself into the air. Paul was in awe for a moment. He had never dreamed of seeing something so magnificent and bizarre with his own two eyes. For all of the horror and terror he had experienced in the last couple of hours, the sight of this impossible birdman taking flight briefly took him out of it all.
Lariat lifted high enough to go unnoticed by the fortress guards and after a few moments, Paul saw his distant grey figure gliding to the top of the cliff. After a few silent seconds, a lyrical call that was part whistle part birdsong drifted across the open plain. All clear. Two women and a man, all wearing different colors of ornate robes, whispered the same incantation and sprinted off in the direction of the forest edge where they would begin their climb. They moved with supernatural swiftness and were soon out of sight in the distant line of trees. Verity cast her own spell, and a sudden wind seemed to push through Paul’s very being. He saw around him that everyone else appeared to be briefly pushed by the same magical wind.
“Let us be off,” the enchantress called out, her own auburn braids momentarily tossed over her shoulders by the gust that emanated from her hands.
The whole company of adventurers followed as Verity led them out of their tiny copse of trees. Paul kept close on her heels, not wanting to get separated if the plan went south. After a few dozen paces, another musical all-clear call broke the silence of the night.
Closer and closer to the looming grey walls their small procession drew steadily. Paul counted out that there were exactly thirteen of them on the ground, himself and Verity included, and then the four on the bluff. Seventeen in all against an entire fortress. A small fortress, admittedly, but Paul could not help doing the math and seeing the stark difference in numbers. His imagination took over soon, playing out gruesome death after gruesome death. His eyes darted from the growing barrier ahead to the back of Verity’s head. Desperately he wished he could voice his fears to her, but he felt that by this point, she would just as likely ignore his protests as answer them with cryptic gibberish.
The sorceress must have heard his panicked breathing because she surprised Paul by softly speaking, “You think we march to certain death. What you must remember is that I would not have brought you here if I did not think I could deliver you safely. But if it soothes your mind at all, just know that if our plan is going to fail, it will do so before we reach the walls. If we succeed in reaching the city walls, we will likely reach our adversary with little resistance.”
The words did little to comfort him, but they did distract him from his panic at least. Paul kept forgetting how young Verity was, or at least looked. She spoke like a character out of a classic work of fantasy. Her words were more at home coming from an aged wizard than a young girl who appeared no older than him. Who was this girl, and what did she want with him? He puzzled over what her purpose could be to place a struggling college student into the middle of this nonsense world that felt ripped from the pages of countless works of fiction.
Abruptly, Paul’s musings were cut off as Verity brought the column to a halt still a hundred or so feet from the main gates of Conrioch. None of the eerie sentries atop the wall sounded an alert at their approach. But Paul knew that if the four on the cliff-top didn’t begin their bombardment soon, the fiends inside the fortress would sniff them out. He attempted to control his increasing heart rate and the panic it signaled by breathing deeply and slowly, feeling the moments pass heavily.
Then the sounds of explosions and thunder rocked the grassland. Wordlessly, Verity charged the gates, not pausing to signal the group. The monster hunters around him needed no more signal than that and charged after her. Paul was nearly knocked over before his own feet found their bearing, and he joined the dash towards the tall, wooden gates. One way or another, the most exhilarating and terrifying night of his life was about to come to an end. He repeated Verity’s fatalistic words to himself like a mantra, The only way out is through.
Like the story so far? Continue reading here:
Live Action, Chapter Three
Throatripper. A werewolf tyrant and a deeper truth about Paul’s place in the story are revealed.