ONE: RODERICK SYLFAEN
The trees of the Elder Wood rushed by him in a verdant blur. Leaves and pine needles lashed at him like razor-barbed whips. Branches reached out to clutch him with gnarled limbs. Roderick Sylfaen ignored their onslaught and ran, focused only on tracking his quarry. He was at his best when it was just him and the forest. Free and powerful as the wind. Unstoppable.
This time, he would slay his mark.
This time, he would emerge triumphant from the Trial of the Hunt.
This time, my magick… he tried to reassure himself.
The thought went unfinished, as he found himself tumbling head over heels, the woods flickering in and out of focus, until he skidded to a stop in a patch of tangled undergrowth.
Though no one had witnessed his misstep, he flushed with embarrassment. The Trial of the Hunt was a chance for him to prove himself worthy of joining the Sylvanari, the wardens of the Elder Wood, and failure meant he was certain to face exile. Yet here he was, laid low by a formidable root. It wasn't an auspicious start to the trial, and the odds had been stacked against him from the outset.
Cursing his clumsiness, he dug his fingers into the loamy soil and pushed himself back up to his feet, hissing when a sharp pinprick of agony flared in the palm of his left hand.
"Spined nightshade. Just great," he muttered upon surveying the trampled patch of greenery he'd left in his wake.
The venomous weed wasn't native to the Elder Wood, but in recent years the forest had been overrun by it, and far worse. He'd suffered only a minor scrape. Still, it needed to be tended to immediately, before the toxin rendered him unconscious.
Roderick dashed behind the trunk of an old maple, flung his longbow over his shoulder, and crouched. He reached a hand into one of the pouches on his belt, removing a small bandage, then scooped a dollop of viscous lethalem grass salve from another pouch.
Considered by Elves to be a miracle herb, lethalem grass could heal cuts and absorb toxins. But when mixed into a poultice, it also smelled like rotting flesh. Roderick held his breath to avoid inhaling the stench, but the putrid tendrils assailed his defenses until he was coughing up his lungs in an attempt to expel the putrid odor.
He applied the poultice to his injured palm and dexterously wrapped it, his hand stinging like he'd doused it in flame. Soon, however, the burning sensation gave way to a tingling numbness. And numbness, in turn, subsided to an almost pleasant heat. After tying off the bandage, he tore the excess fabric with his teeth, stashing it in its proper pouch.
With his wound tended to, Roderick stood up and took his longbow in his left hand to test his grip, nearly dropping it the moment his hand formed a fist. He'd have to make do with his Elven short sword.
Lowering his hand to the hilt of his blade, he took a deep breath and stepped out from behind his cover to continue tracking the bloody trail his mark had left. As he did, a forearm seized him around the neck. And, before he could think to respond, the cold, steel point of a dagger bit into his skin, sending a chill down his spine.
"One shouldn't be so careless when wandering the woods alone. All manner of danger lurks amongst the trees," his assailant whispered, with lips so close to his ear the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. The voice was breathy, soft and feminine. He recognized it immediately.
As his attacker gloated over her successful ambush, Roderick seized her dagger-wielding wrist. He whirled around behind her in a single, fluid motion, paying no mind to the tip of her blade as it nicked his flesh, and pinned her arm to the small of her back so the point of her blade was pressed, ever so gently, against her spine.
"And you were supposed to stay in the village as your father commanded, Mirielle." He loosened his grip on her, and her body relaxed against his. Her touch was warm and comforting, and, for a moment, he forgot everything beyond the two of them. "These woods aren't safe. If something were to happen to you, I-"
She slipped from his slackened grasp, turning to face him and silencing him by touching a finger to his lips. "If the woods are as dangerous as you say, is it not better to have a skilled healer along with you?" she asked, eyeing his bandaged palm as a playful smile danced across her lips and her honey-brown eyes shimmered with teasing affection.
With her flawless bronze skin, her long waves of dark, chestnut hair, her slender frame, and her delicate features, Mirielle looked every bit like her fellow Elves. But, stunning as she was, she didn't comport herself with their usual haughty aloofness. Hers was a peerless beauty. A beauty that inspired songs, poems, and legends. A beauty that transcended race, and could be admired by anyone who possessed eyes.
Roderick found it hard, at times, not to stare. And harder, still, not to wonder why she was so taken with him. He was only half-Elven, and favored his human heritage with his broad shoulders and rugged, muscular build.
As a child, he'd been discovered wandering the Elder Wood, lost and alone. Rammael, Aeryndael's elder and Mirielle's father, had taken him in and raised him almost as his own — almost, but not quite. Rammael had even trained him in combat with both sword and bow. And under the elder's tutelage, he'd become an adept tracker and herbalist.
For a half-breed, at any rate.
Even with his finely honed skills, his harsh human features and apparent lack of magickal talent — a peculiarity, even among half-Elves — had given most in Aeryndael enough cause to loathe him. But, for reasons he didn't understand, Mirielle had always been the first to jump to his defense, especially if it meant going against her father's wishes.
Her kindness was a debt he could only repay with love and devotion.
Even if tradition forbade her from being more than a friend.
Even if it meant he could never refuse her when she came up with an idea to get him in trouble.
"Very well. Come along then," he said, conceding defeat with a grin. "But stay close, and know when everything goes wrong, I will not be shouldering any of the blame."
"What does my father have us hunting, anyway?" Mirielle asked casually, as though they were discussing the weather. "He never did tell me."
"He didn't tell you because he knew he'd never keep you in the village... not that he succeeded anyway," Roderick said, mumbling the last bit more to himself while crouching low. Brushing a few stray strands of black hair from his face, he examined tracks and an incomprehensible trail of felled trees and broken branches left behind by an enormous eight-legged creature. Then, stealing a glance at Mirielle, he added, "And the others and I are hunting an arachnion. This is our Trial, after all."
Fear washed over Mirielle's face, mirroring the terror he'd been suppressing since his fellow initiates had told him, with an almost vindictive delight, about their quarry. Watching the color drain from Mirielle's face, he did his best to remain strong and brave for both their sakes, even as his roiling gut shot hot bile up into his throat.
Arachnions were vicious, unnatural abominations, reminders of the arrogance of the wizards who had thought themselves wiser and more powerful than Sylvan, the Goddess of nature. The grotesques were armed with the pincers and venomous barbed tails of scorpions, but also graced with the protective carapace of an arachnid, and the ability to spin webs. Arachnions were impossibly huge, too, with the largest growing to ten feet in length and five feet in height. They were daunting foes for even the most courageous and luckiest of warriors. And, skilled as he was with a blade, Roderick's morning had thus far suggested fortune wasn't on his side.
Pushing all doubt from his mind, he followed the trail he'd been scouting from the outskirts of Aeryndael, deftly and silently stepping over roots and ruined trees in a half squat. Soon, he came upon another set of tracks that, from their shape, belonged to an unnaturally large wolf. And, beyond these footprints, he discovered the mangled corpse of a deer, its innards spilled upon the forest floor and head attached only by thin, fleshy sinews. He'd been following a similarly bloody trail for the better part of a mile, and each of the dead animals he'd stumbled upon thus far had been left uneaten. It seemed, he mused to himself with silent horror, as if the dead animals were being laid out like a trail of breadcrumbs for him to follow. But from what he knew of arachnions, they favored brute force over cunning.
Convincing himself he was imagining the danger, he dipped his fingers into the deer's ravaged innards. The gore was still warm. The poor animal had been killed recently, and, in all likelihood, its killer wasn't far off. Roderick focused intently, examining the woods for any other clues regarding the beast's location.
"You know, you worry too much Roderick," Mirielle said, picking up on his mood and placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Your magick will awaken. You will overcome this Trial. You belong in Aeryndael, at my side."
"One of us must worry, Mirielle. We'll need caution, not just magick, to make it through this hunt," he replied, scanning the woods for signs of movement. At first, all was almost unnaturally still. Then, in the distance, there was a flicker of stark white amongst the trees, moving toward a clearing up ahead. Roderick tried to follow the animal, but soon lost sight of it amongst the forest's understory.
"It would appear you and the other initiates aren't the only ones hunting arachnions," Mirielle said. "That wolf has been following you since shortly after the trial began. It's like it's watching you. Almost as if it's curious."
"As if one shadow wasn't enough," Roderick teased.
Before Mirielle could offer a witty retort, he hurried toward the clearing. Given how the trial had started, he half-expected both the wolf and the arachnion to pounce on him from the trees when he stepped out into the opening. Instead, he found the glade empty, aside from five of his fellow trial-goers who had seemingly followed other trails to this same point.
"Figures the half-breed would need help to pass the trial," one of the initiates said, his mouth curled into a sneer.
"Funny, coming from the fool who needed the aid of four friends to follow a trail that could be seen from the moon," Mirielle replied, stepping forward to challenge him.
Roderick was about to urge both of them to be silent, when a violent tremor tore through the ground behind him. Looking more closely at the trees dotting the farthest edges of the glade, he noticed most of the easily traversable paths had been blocked off by thick webs.
His intuition had been right all along. The arachnion had been luring him and the others. Like an amateur, he'd done it the courtesy of falling right into its trap, and, worse, he'd endangered Mirielle with his carelessness.
Acting on instinct, Roderick pushed Mirielle aside and turned while drawing his short sword. Though just barely, he managed to raise his blade to parry a strike, aimed straight at his heart, from the creature's barbed tail. The blow was nearly enough to send him tumbling to the ground, but he swiftly regained his balance and looked behind him to ensure Mirielle was unhurt.
His concern for Mirielle proved a costly mistake. A sweeping attack from the arachnion's pincer crashed against his ribs with a nauseating crack and sent him sprawling across the clearing. Disarmed and disoriented, he scrambled to a seated position in time to see the beast charging at him, gritting his teeth through the pain of the effort.
Desperate, his heart racing, he raised an arm and extended it in front of himself. He focused with all his might, trying to draw the magick from the world around him as he'd been taught. For a fleeting moment, he could feel an indescribable warmth eager to burst from his fingertips. But as he spoke the words he'd practiced a million times since childhood, he felt the magick dissipate, as if it had never existed.
Roderick stared at the hideous creature as it towered above him, its cries triumphant and boastful, and steeled himself to face death. But before the beast could deliver the death blow, two arrows flew past his head, missing him by mere inches, and embedded themselves in two of the arachnion's eight eyes.
They weren't magick. But, as a diversion, they were every bit as effective.
With the creature stunned and wailing in agony, Roderick took up his fallen sword and rose to his feet. He rushed headlong at the beast, taking care to avoid its flailing pincers and the soaring arrows of his allies, and drove his blade into its face. Burying it up to the hilt, he twisted it as he withdrew, causing a river of green blood to flow forth from the gaping wound. The arachnion lurched and let out a hiss before its legs wobbled and gave out beneath it, and it tumbled to the ground with a meaty thud. Heaving a final, rasping breath, it fell completely still.
Wiping his blade clean, Roderick turned to greet his savior. He was unsurprised to find Reziel, Mirielle's older brother and the overseer of the trial, standing with the other Sylvanari initiates, a scowl of disapproval on his face.
"You and your fellow initiates disgrace the Sylvanari, Roderick. Even a blind, drunken Dwarf could have sensed he was being led into a trap," he said, the hint of a smile creeping into the corners of his mouth.
"You are mistaken, brother. I was offering myself up as bait and had the creature exactly where I wanted it," Roderick huffed, earning a hearty laugh from the Elf.
The levity was interrupted by a fell cry, causing a nearby flock of birds to burst from the nearby trees in a panicked flight. The ground trembled again as a second arachnion burst into the glade, thrashing about in a terrible rage. Caught unawares, one of the five initiates was trampled by the beast, and a second was crushed between the arachnion's pincer and the trunk of a sturdy pine.
The arachnions hadn't just been setting traps for their prospective prey. They'd been hunting together — an odd behavior for the ordinarily solitary beasts.
Reziel was the first to react, nocking an arrow and loosing it with lightning speed as the monster lashed out with its tail and pincers. The arrow bounced ineffectively off of the arachnion's hard shell, and the beast continued its forward charge, undaunted, as Reziel loosed another volley. The arachnion batted the second arrow aside by swinging its pincer in a wide arc, knocking Roderick and Reziel to the ground.
The collision with the ground, and the impact of a body falling on top of him, forced the air out of Roderick's lungs and flooded his vision with white and black splotches. And, as his senses gradually returned, Roderick could feel hot blood dripping onto him. Checking himself for wounds, Roderick discovered the blood was Reziel's. The arachnion’s tail had grazed the Elf, carving a hideous gash along his side, and his convulsions meant the barb's deadly toxins were already coursing through his veins.
Knowing death would soon claim his friend if the beast wasn't slain with haste, Roderick pushed Reziel over onto his back and wobbled to his feet.
"All of you, take Reziel back to Aeryndael. I will fend off the monster," he roared over his shoulder, gripping his sword in trembling hands. The initiates who were still standing obeyed without question. But Mirielle looked on, deaf to his plea and frozen in horror.
Though he was still unsteady, Roderick sidestepped the first swipe from the arachnion's right pincer. But he failed to see the other pincer until he was caught helplessly in its grasp. The arachnion lashed out with blinding speed, its tail a deadly lance. And, with his strength quickly waning, Roderick could barely evade its strikes.
Taking advantage of a momentary lull in the onslaught, he mustered what little strength he had left and hacked at the arachnion's arm, his blade biting deep into its tough, ebony flesh and injuring it enough to make it drop him. As he fell back to the ground, landing clumsily, the beast's barbed tail lashed out again, scarcely missing his head.
Out of nowhere, a hot ball of flame whizzed past him from behind, and he felt relief and dread as Mirielle joined the fray. The magick fire reacted explosively with the toxins coating the arachnion's stinger, setting its entire tail alight, and the beast elicited a scream from Roderick's worst nightmares.
More flames followed, staggering the beast and forcing it back against the trees at the edge of the clearing. The fire engulfing its tail began to dance amongst the forest canopy, spreading from branch to branch and threatening to set the woods ablaze, and the air grew thick with smoke and oppressive heat.
As darkness crept inward from the corners of his vision, Roderick's mind left his body. He jumped atop the flailing arachnion's head, stabbing and slashing wildly. In his blind frenzy, he didn't realize the arachnion's flaming tail barb had pierced his shoulder until unconsciousness took hold.