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CHAPTER NINETEEN

Water reached the forest floor in a steady drip from the canopy of branches above. Dead leaves, early harbingers of winter, pooled the rain in brown cups, the overflow soaking the dark soil beneath. A mist flowed like a smoky river between the trees, climbing their trunks and then breaking like waves to curl back down into the current. Bedlam's voice sang like the raging storm, flashing through the whipping tendrils of bloodthorns that sought Quin's legs. The ground was soaked in the sticky black ichor of the thirsty plants, their vines writhing and curling in on themselves at his feet. Pale snakes with multifaceted eyes slithered away as the sheltering bloodthorns were cut down. Insects with reptilian tails and eyes buried themselves beneath the leaves. Panting and backing away from the high wall of brush and deadfall, Quinsareth eased Bedlam's roar to a dull, metallic growl. The carnivorous plants pulled their vines back into the folds of thick roots and fallen limbs, displaying prominently their bright red berries in an effort to lure the aasimar closer again. Quinsareth ignored the fruit and the sweet aroma it produced, taking the moment to scan his surroundings. The shadowalk was rarely accurate, even when he knew his destination well, but through the thick woods of the Qurth, he could see nothing of the tower he sought. Only a low hum that might have been a voice or a trick of the wind gave him any sense of direction. Careful to skirt the edges of the bloodthorn and razorvine patches, he wound an uneven and slow path toward the sound, keeping his grip on Bedlam tight and his senses alert for the dangers that surrounded him. The sound grew louder, becoming more high pitched as he neared, picking out the notes in an unfamiliar tune. He stopped and looked closer, peering through the trees with his special dark-seeing vision. He could make out the edges of a small clearing just past the trunk of a large tree with unusually pale bark. The strange song drew him closer. The tension in his muscles faded as the smell of wildflowers wafted toward him on the whistling wind. Shaking his head, trying to shove away the unnatural calm that settled over him, he crouched lower and knelt at the perimeter of the inviting grove. Three white oak trees dominated the clearing, their ivory branches gently swaying overhead. The scene was like a dream, so unusual and peaceful in such a dark and forbidding forest. The song was disorienting and Quin leaned forward, falling to his knees as he gazed on the beauty he found. Some part of him struggled to resist, maintaining his grip on the oddly quiet Bedlam, but he could not fathom why he might need a weapon in this place. His head swam and swayed with the branches, in tune with the lilting and otherworldly song. Words began to form in the music, as if the leaves were speaking, hissing in the wind and whispering in his ear. "So lost he is, Myrrium." "Yes, Oerryn, so far from home." "What do you think, Aellspath?" Quin fought to keep his eyes open, rolling them from left to right, seeking the source of the dry, whispering voices. The grove became a blur of white wood and bone-yellow leaves. A shape began to form in the center most tree. The surface of the trunk shifted and flowed like liquid to reveal misty white arms and an indistinct but beautiful face, framed by pale yellow locks of vines and leaves. The figure's milky skin was smooth and bare, unmistakably feminine as it crawled demurely toward him. Shimmering green eyes opened and closed like living flowers, capturing his will in a net of inescapable beauty and dark promise. Her full lips moved out of sync with her voice, which was deeper and more lustful than the others. "So beautiful he is. We must keep him, my sisters." The grove grew darker as the plants and bushes closed together, sealing the clearing from the forest. The voices sighed in contentment as they viewed their catch. Aellspath smiled coyly and bit her lower lip with sharpened teeth as she reached out for the aasimar's arm. Quin's breath was ragged and shallow, and he was only dimly aware of Bedlam's ponderous weight in his right hand. Aellspath hissed pleasurably as she scraped her clawed fingertips across Quin's shoulder guard and down to his gauntlet. Her fingers crept casually toward his wrist to gently remove the glowing blue-green sword from his clenched fist. As she gently pried at his fingers, an errant claw brushed Bedlam's hilt, eliciting a hissing reply from the arcane weapon. The dryads' enchanting song faltered as Aellspath gasped and recoiled from the sword. Quinsareth blinked, exhaling, as warmth flooded his paralyzed form. His vision was blurry but his will to live became razor sharp. He swung Bedlam wildly in front of him, cursing as the hazy form of the dryad ducked and scuttled backward on spindly, emaciated arms and legs. The dirt beneath him shook and he rolled forward instinctively, swinging Bedlam behind him at a clawlike root that snatched at his cloak. The blade hissed, mimicking the dryads' voices as it sliced through the pale wood, leaving a smooth stump that oozed a thick red sap. The voice called Myrrium howled in agony from the trees above and she crashed through the branches toward the near-blind aasimar. Quin rolled again, barely missing the screeching Myrrium as she landed. He continued to blink, rubbing his eyes with his free hand and gradually clearing more of his vision. Holding Bedlam before him, he studied his attackers, fiendish orphans of the Qurth Forest. The Fate Fall hovered in his mind, a ghostly sense of strategy collecting his thoughts. Myrrium's eyes burned a dark yellow, no longer hidden behind the guise of sweet blossoms as Aellspath had done. Her face and skin were grained and knotted like the wood of the trees she lived in, a pale ash-gray. Tiny white fangs protruded from black gums as she crawled closer, favoring her left shoulder where a small wound had opened, bleeding the same thick red sap the root had. Quin backed away slowly, waiting for the dryad to spring forward. He felt the roots of another oak behind him.

Myrrium hummed as she crawled. The sweet tones of her song tried to calm his nerves, urging him to lay down his weapon and be as among friends. Shaking his head, fending off the dryad's spell to charm him, he lashed out, hacking at the trunk of the oak behind him. Myrrium winced as that oak began to bleed, halting her spell as Oerryn screamed in pain and appeared above Quinsareth. He heard claws scratching against wood and glanced upward, catching only a brief glimpse of long black hair made of vines shading the orange light of fiendish eyes. He leaped sideways to avoid Myrrium's sudden charge.

Both dryads stalked him, gnashing their teeth and tearing small ruts in the ground where their long claws touched. They continued their song, though its notes were harsher now, more insistent. Bedlam matched the sound discordantly, which helped Quin resist its call. He backed away and the dryads herded him toward the middle tree. Though he considered turning the tables and attacking, he could not locate their absent sister. Aellspath had disappeared in the confusion.

Closer and closer he edged toward Aellspath's tree. The dryads' wounds bled freely, as did the tree and the root protruding from the ground.

He was familiar with the fey creatures and their connection to the oaks in which they lived, though he'd never faced the creatures in battle. He raised Bedlam again, threatening the nearest oak. The sisters tensed, looking for Aellspath to come to her own defense. Quin raised an eyebrow at their reaction, flashing them his feral smile and preparing to strike. Aellspath swam through the wood, flying through the bark and barreling into Quin's side. She shrieked words of magic as they fell to the ground in a tangle of limbs. Both were instantly blinded as her spell created a globe of impenetrable darkness around them. Myrrium and Oerryn flinched backward to the edge of the darkness, listening to the struggles of the two within, waiting to witness the victor's emergence. Myrrium giggled nervously at Aellspath's frenzied screams of rage. Oerryn simply hid behind her thick hair, gnawing at the woody strands and wringing her gnarled hands feverishly. In the dark, Quin fought to maintain his hold on Bedlam while attempting to fend off the claws and teeth of the enraged dryad. The darkness was calming to him, helping him to focus as an older instinct took over, the power of a birthright long denied. His knuckles brushed against a fist-sized stone as they rolled and he grasped at it, digging it from the moist dirt of the grove. The dryad's claws raked his upper arm as he diverted his attention.

Ignoring the pain, he did not call upon cold shadows to assist him but instead summoned the warmth of light. His hand grew hot as celestial blood rushed to answer the call, filling the rock with the bright and banishing light of day. Aellspath recoiled, hissing, as she was blinded by the sudden light. Her darkness melted swiftly away amid the beams that streamed through Quin's fingers. Quinsareth took advantage of her confusion and planted a boot in her stomach, pinning her to the ground before she could scuttle away to her protective tree. He deftly brought Bedlam's tip to rest on her throat, eliciting a moan of pain from the fiendish dryad. Though forged in magic long ago by a mad wizard, Bedlam had been blessed by the hand of a god who'd taken pity upon the wizard. No mark or symbol identified the divine benefactor, but the holy touch was unmistakable, steaming as it burned against the dryad's neck. Myrrium and Oerryn froze, squinting in the light. Oerryn moaned softly, the sound of her magic worming into Quin's mind and causing him to press Bedlam harder into Aellspath's neck. Frantically, the defeated dryad screamed to cease her sister's dangerous meddling.

"Be silent, you fool!" The moaning stopped and Quin breathed easier, staring into the dryad's green orbs. "Good girl," Quin said, adjusting his stance to deal with the stand-off more comfortably. "If you kill me, they will kill you, sweetblood!" Aellspath hissed. "Possibly, but their victory cries will ring hollow in your dead ears," he jested back. Aellspath considered this, apparently not as confident in her sisters as she boasted. "What do you want?" "The Tower of Jhareat," he answered. "Where is it?" "You seek the red sorceress and her priests?

Certainly no sweetblood is a minion of that one? Tell her we kept our bargain. No one would suspect an aasimar to serve such an evil!" "I serve only myself. This red sorceress will greet me with as much warmth as you three have." Aellspath pointed an overlong finger in the direction of the ruined tower. "That way, sweetblood, and good riddance to you and the witch." Then she added, after a moment's thought, "Beware the priests that ring the tower and their pets in the field of stone." Quinsareth relaxed Bedlam's pressure on her throat but kept the blade close, curious about the dryad's volunteered advice. "Helpful now, are we?" "We share an enemy in the blood-witch, aasimar, that is all. This forest is ours to rule, not hers!"

Quinsareth was quiet for a moment, turning the gleaming stone end over end in his palm as he thought. Looking over his shoulder in the direction the dryad had indicated, he saw nothing but thick tangles of trees, bloodthorns, and razorvines. He considered the obstacles he'd face once he reached the ruins. He turned back to Aellspath, who writhed beneath Bedlam's touch. He withdrew Bedlam from the dryad's throat, keeping it a hand's breadth away but sparing her the pain of its blessed blade. "Perhaps we might help one another," he offered mysteriously. The game piece he imagined tumbled through his thoughts, bearing the symbol of the Bargain. The dryad, relieved by the absence of the sword, narrowed her emerald eyes and met his white gaze. "What do you propose, sweetblood?"



***** | Bloodwalk | *****