We left the roads several hours in, entering the forests. “We’ll cut through the less dense parts of the forest. I don’t know why they went to Haen, but near as I can tell most of the other groups are where we headed.” He remarked as we pushed through the brush.
He was quite the master of shadows, somehow even I lost him if I wasn’t watching carefully. “Where did you get this information?” I asked. The gnolls were unlikely to have telegraphed their movements so loudly that you could hear about it near Soren.
“I have a person who’s been sending me updates.” He answered. “Though they’ve been slow to send any for the past few days.” His eyes raised to the sky for a brief moment, before returning to the ground. “We should move faster.”
I nodded, pushing through, we kept to the less forested areas, allowing out progress to be mostly unimpeded. More importantly, it kept us from the large beasts that made their homes deep within where large trees grew to blot out the sun. The spider I’d encountered was the least of them.
Numen guided me around the native wildlife, easily spotting and evading threats that I’d barely even noticed. He gave a commentary every once in a while at my behest, explaining the various threats based on tracks, common behaviour and sometimes just experience. “Those bushes are really animals under those leaves, it’s some kind of growth.” He said, as we snuck past one of the moving bushes. I guess that meant they were definitely mortal by my hand, good to know.
“You’re surprisingly stealthy for a warrior you know that?” He asked, as we reached the boundary of the forest. “Do you normally do hunting for the farm?”
“Not this one.” I replied, shaking my head. Most of the time excursions outward were not particularly encouraged, reasonable considering the high mortality rates. “It was a different farm, a long time ago.” He looked at me with a strange wry smile.
“Ah, alright.” He whispered. “That makes some sense.”
As we began to exit to the road he perked up, and I stopped. He sniffed for a moment, but it took me a while to discern his concern. Woodfire. My brows knitted together, could that be the gnolls? He turned to me, and I simply nodded, my helmet keeping my features hidden.
We closed in, and Numen climbed a tree, timing his movements to the wind he slipped across the branches unseen. The sway of the branches incorporated amongst the others in the wind, unnoticeable. I simply watched from a slightly elevated position.
Through the leaves and shadows, I could only make out a long train of gnolls. It didn’t look like a particularly disciplined force, though obscured as it was, I waited for Numen to provide information.
He slithered down from the tree a few hours later, finding me resting still amongst leaves that had fallen. My helmet tilted up with a crinkle of leaves, and they dropped to sit across me, somehow failing to disturb the leaves. I cocked my head, but waited for them to speak.
“My informant was captured.” He started. “I saw him being dragged into one of the tents. This isn’t the main group, just a single detachment of two hundred.” Oh, is that all? “Only a few small groups are patrolling the camps.” He took a breath. “I have to get him out of there.”
“Do you have a plan?” I asked, my voice measured. They kept him alive? Torture perhaps. I thought. Or bait. It didn’t matter, he’s likely have more information on the camp than anyone else, it’d be useful to learn it directly.
Numen’s plan was simple, some might say absurdly so, but a group of two was restricted in their choices. We waited for night, creeping forward as the light faded from the sky. The night guards circled their individual groups as the convoy split, shrinking into segments separated by darkness.
I stopped a distance off, knowing myself incapable of stealth in the way that Numen was. His form simply disappeared as he went, another shadow blending into the darkness. I only saw him as he struck, signalling the time for me to move forward in my own bumbling way.
He lay the guard to rest behind a few crates, just out of sight. We continued to the tent where the informant had been seen, Numen guiding me around guards and patrols. Muffled voices raised in anger emanated from it, and shadows played against the walls, vague and amorphous, hinting at nothing but action and turmoil.
He put his arm through the bow, slinging it diagonally across, and drew his short sword along with a dagger. Bucklers probably made too much noise. I drew my sword gently from my scabbard, and waited for his signal.
I burst in from the back, a swift cut tearing a hole that I quickly hopped through. I’d caught them unawares, and a few were too engrossed in the person sitting in the chair. I lunged at the first to begin recovering, silencing him with a hard punch to the throat as I ran him through. It was a glancing blow, but with several inches of steel in his chest his voice was effectively silenced anyway.
Numen in turn walked in from the opposite side, quietly incapacitating one of them as I turned to kill the last of them. He found his voice as my blade cleaved into his collar, a howl of pain and horror that extinguished almost instantly.
“Dammit.” I said, deliberately speaking in English. How coarse the words sounded now, after such disuse. I spun to the informant, bleeding and in pain, Numen fed them a sip of healing potion, as I sliced their bonds. He stood, woozy from blood loss, small cuts remained on his skin, a remnant of the gaping wounds he had. I let him lean on me for a moment.
Numen pulled out immediately, exiting from the large hole I’d made. I pulled the orc out with me, he stumbled across the material below, tugging it for a few crucial seconds as my sword lunged out to deter the gnolls now arriving. He rushed forward, led by Numen and ushered by me.
I snarled at the gnolls nipping at our heels, my blade injuring a few while they learned that my armour wasn’t as easily shredded. Numen swapped positions with me after a moment, trusting me to smash through the gnolls that tried to mass ahead of us. I slammed into them with my weight behind my blade, cleaving a space where we slipped through.
Adrenalin coursed as I spun around, letting the two pass as I brought up the vanguard once more. I growled at them, slapping aside their blades and spears with my forearm. Next time I’m making a shield. I thought to myself, as my arm began to feel heavy and wet. I pulled it back, softening the armour before pinching it tight and hardening it to constrict blood flow.
My sword arm swung out again, from its position at rest on my shoulder, I backed up for a moment while the two broke into a dead sprint. Satisfied that they’d make it I stepped forward with a heavy swing that spun me around, sheathing my sword and running for the hills. Something slammed into my back, nearly tripping me while I ran, but luckily stopped against the plate on my back.
We entered the forest, and the gnolls slowed, while a few brave, or more appropriately, reckless, souls charged on. Numen had been waiting, some had time to scream as the arrows slammed into their stomachs, while others simply choked. We drew back deeper into the forest, and adrenalin gone I collapsed against a tree, dizzy and sluggish from blood loss, removing my helmet to breathe.
One benefit of the Liaen was how aware I was of its state and form. I knew that I had several gashes across my left elbow, one puncture at my right hip and multiple cuts to my left arm as a whole. I coughed for a moment, and I felt something pressed against my lips. I shook my head gently, keeping the fluid out. Healing potion probably. Taking one now would kill me, the pushing grew more insistent, and I raised my right arm to firmly push it away, careful not to spill any.
I spat onto the ground. “It won’t work.” I said, my head light and my sight blurry. “Just let me sit for a while.” Sense told me that they retreated, though even that was indistinct. Can’t focus. I thought to myself. Page, what’s the damage?
[Not entirely sure yet, nanomachines have identified eight bleeding wounds, one actually seems to run half the length of your forearm. Oh, wait, looks like you’ve got some minor bruising on your back.] Page replied.
I huffed. Well at least I’m not in danger of being delirious and unable to fight. I began to smooth the armour, piecing the cut bits of my armour back together. The puncture on my waist was a bit harder, and I detached one of the connections to slide my hand from under it, pressing them back up. There’s a lot to consider while designing this. I thought to myself.
Now that my head was less dizzy, I took in my surroundings. We were pretty deep into the forest. Numen had begun patrolling the area, and the orc was in better shape than I was, only a few cuts left on him. I stood up, the dizziness returning for a bit though I kept my face as neutral as possible.
“You’ve got the constitution of a troll.” The orc remarked, watching my actions with some fascination. “That’s some slick recovery.” I arched an eyebrow at him, and he continued. “Is that something about the armour? Gives you regeneration but robs you of the ability to use potions?”
I shrugged. “That’s not important. Tell us about the gnolls, are there other irregulars that you know of in the vicinity?” He stared at me for a while, then shook his head.
“Touchy.” He said. “I was captured about a day or two ago. Then, they had a group about three to four times that size. I dunno where the others went exactly, but they were all headed mostly north. They’re probably going to try to take Fireboar.” That meant Kikre, which was a village, one farm, and a single town. Along with Kayio and Gen.
“Why?” I asked. “One small group had attacked Haen some time ago. That’s Stoneward territory.”
“I dunno about the Haen group, maybe they’re rogue elements?” The orc shrugged.
“Fireboar makes sense because of its size.” Numen absentmindedly replied, as he passed us. “They’re small, and have some good economical infrastructure.”
“I didn’t see any of the irregulars while I was here, but I was pretty busy trying not to get detected. Anyway. My work here is done. I’ll be going home to rest and recover tomorrow morning, you know where to find me Numen.” The orc said.
My eyebrows raised in surprise. “You’re not joining us?” He laughed deeply.
“I’m a scout, not a warrior, and this has reached the point where my services are no longer required.” He said. “We may meet again, but I sincerely hope I’ll never have to fight you.” He said with a smile.
I leaned back with a sigh and rested on my palms. “If we’re going to deal with this we should remove the threat of this group first. Do you have any ideas?”
Numen turned to me. “I was hoping that the other irregulars would be nearby.” He shrugged. “But we can make do, with time we can whittle down their numbers. Their mistake was not to chase after us.” He smiled faintly.
“Some did.” A voice spoke up from the gloom. “Qent and I dealt with them.”