The procession ambled slowly, winding down a green forest path. Seven sages, all clad in ornate robes of varying colors, shuffling through brambles and sidesteping wayward branches.
"This is so stereotypical," a young girl huffed from her vantage point.
Her companion shushed her, pushing back a thick arm of foliage to get a better look.
She glanced at the boy beside her and sighed heavily. He was staring intensely at the stuffy old men as they crawled down the hillside. Every so often they were lost in the trees, blocked from the sight of the two spies. The girl looked down at her leggings, brushing away dead leaves, dead grass, and dead dirt.
Her companion was looking at her. She must have grumbled again.
"What?" She spat.
His brown eyes crinkled, mouth opened to speak, closed again. In the end he only shook his head and continued his watch.
The seven sages were in plain view now. Cloud Mountain was craggy and dense with forest, but the path that wound around the edges of each range was sure enough in most places. Her attention narrowed—for once-- as a glittering object caught her eye. The foremost sage, a wizened old man draped in blue, held a thickly bound grimoire in his hand. The book looked ancient, sparkling with emeralds, diamonds, and sapphires carved from the earth centuries ago. She noticed that each of the seven held a sacred object in their hands. A silver sword and a trio of glittering orbs were among the menagerie of items.
The boy leaned forward, mouth slack. Her companions name was Seth. He seemed to be just out of manhood, perhaps a year or two older than her. Thick, dark hair shadowed his brow and gave him a foreboding look. He had a well kept, wiry build and a tall figure. Before the clan had paired them together for this undertaking, they were strangers. Now they were only slightly acquainted.
"Ruthy-" Seth began, still staring off into the distance.
"Its Ruby," She said flatly.
He didn't look away from the string of ancient travelers. "Right. Anyway," he pointed at the man with the book. "That's Casoran, the Mordus Sage. He's the most powerful, has the most seasoned magic."
Ruby nodded, though the sage, Casoran, looked like he would fall down on his shaky knees at any moment. However, if there was anything she had learned in her line of work, it was to never, ever underestimate old men. They always held the most surprises.
Seth pointed to the woman behind Casoran. She carried a bell so thick Ruby wondered how the old hag could manage the weight so effortlessly. Magic, she figured.
"That's Suria. She's one of the few Deadwalkers left. But unless there are some conveniently placed corpses around, she won't be much of a threat."
Deadwalker. That was a not a word she heard often. Ruby thought they were only to be found in stories. She shrugged inwardly. Apparently not.
Seth inched forward again, and Ruby was afraid for a moment that he would fall from the cliff. He righted himself, unperturbed, and continued with his guided visual tour: the dark-skinned sage, Mathias, holding an onyx box; Lydia, a flaxen haired old crone clutching an elaborate headdress.
Ruby watched silently as Seth outlined the parade of sages. The sun, high in the sky, was beginning to wane. Shadows lengthened, and still the seven plodded on. She and Seth would have to make their move soon. She voiced this, to which he replied:
"Soon. Once it's dark."
So they waited, leaned against their tattered packs. It had taken days of harsh traveling to get to this spot. The difficulty had lain in traversing the thick forest in a path that would align with the route of the sages. This was next to impossible, given that no one knew where the sages went on their once-a-century trek through Cloud Mountain.
Ruby deftly braided her hair, brown strands shining in the dying light. Seth had stretched out his legs, crossed his booted feet, and went to work cleaning a dagger in silence.
The mountain path, while not well known to most, was seemingly well maintained. It snaked and zigzagged along the side of each mountain peak. Across from where the bandits sat was a wide valley lined at the bottom with jagged pieces of rock. The seven were making their way on the other side. Soon they would follow the curve and find themselves on the path where the thieves were hiding, unaware of the ambush in store for them.
It was Ruby's job to conjure a mist up from the valley and cast a Stone of Silence. The sages would be unable to see or hear as the pair went through their ranks and carried off the sacred objects.
Ruby chewed the hem of her tunic sleeve. Seth seemed able enough, though she knew next to nothing about him. A modest short sword and a bow were propped against a tree near his head. He wore no armor, just a simple and a plain ensemble shirt, trouser, and boot. They were both clothed in dark green, the color of their order.
She, on the other hand, was proficient in the artes of deception. She knew quite a few Elemental magicks, along with mind tricks and the occasional summoning of spirits. Her name came from the rings she wore on her fingers, all blood red Rubies passed down through the ages. Each was different, but all three were blessed objects that willingly lent her power.
Despite the positive attributes she was able to attach to both herself and her comrade, she knew not what to expect from the sages. Each was ancient—Seth had pounded that much into her head—and wise. Why else be called sages? Each represented a wealth of knowledge, a repository for their respective art. A rune master, an elemental mage, a deceptive (who she wouldn't mind having a conversation with), a beastspeaker, and a death walker, among others. To say they would be powerful was an understatement. Could she really hope to fool them with two simple spells even the dullest of deceptives could perform? She prayed that the weight of so many years pressed heavily on the seven, had pulled a shroud over their minds.
Anxiety was gnawing at her, and Ruby looked at Seth to see if he was in a similar state. What she saw was cool composure. He seemed, initially, to be simple minded to her. But as they traveled together she came to view him as more focused than anything else. They were similar in age, but couldn't be any more different in personality. He was patient, she edgy. He was matter-of-fact, she verbose.
Seth stood up, which shook all the thoughts from her mind. Ruby stood up too. They looked at one another.
"Ready?" He locked eyes with her.
"Yes," she said, a tremor running under her words like bubbles in a streams. Seth nodded and set to work.
They stowed their packs beneath a hardy bush and began stalking towards the path. At first she couldn't see it, and would have missed the soft runway of grass if she hadn't been looking for it specifically. Seth, bent forward, had not drawn his sword. Ruby wondered vaguely if there would be bloodshed.
"Here," Seth whispered, crouching down in the foliage. "Concentrate on the spells. That's all you should think about. I will take care of the rest."
Ruby nodded and lowered herself to his level. The forest was quiet except for the occasional breeze and twitter of birds. A deer cracked a dead limb somewhere deeper in the woods, but by then Ruby was completely engrossed in her work and didn't notice it.
Water was more or less her adverse element; she was more comfortable working with fire, but water would yield to her control. She had practiced each night of the journey, crafting pictures made of fog, floating rivers, and patterns of water drops in progressively more complicated arrangements. Deafening their prey would be simple—she had made the stone days ago, and all she had to do to activate it was throw it.
Ruby reached into her pocket and drew out two stubs of wax. Seth noticed this and nodded to himself, following suit. Both thieves worked the wax into their ears, to negate the effects of the stone on themselves. All the pair would hear was a high pitched whine. The sages, on the other hand, would experience horrible pain in their ears, a great roar and then complete and utter silence. Ruby knew, as she had experienced it herself. The effect was maddening and lasted for hours.
Because they could no longer listen, Ruby and Seth carefully scanned the road. There was a movement, then a swishing of deep blue entered their vision. Casoran had finally rounded the corner, the book held dutifully before him. Ruby was struck suddenly by how positively old he looked. A hawkish nose, wrinkles aplenty, and wiry white hair that rippled down from his chin. When Ruby looked at his eyes she felt her insides turn cold. They were dark, almost completely black. But they were sharp. She felt that familiar feeling of anxiety and fear. For a moment she thought of backing up slowly, turning around, and making a run for it.
Her hands tightened, the rings pressed into her flesh. No, she would not run. She had a job, and she would see it through.
More of the procession became visible. They were all impossibly old, slow moving, but each held an undeniable presence. The seven were all the more frightening because of the strangely terrible objects they each held, all imbued with a finality Ruby had never experienced before. Just looking at them scared her, and she began to sweat with the knowledge that she would be carrying most of them through the forest and out of the country.
Seth's hand flicked by his thigh and she watched it intently. They had agreed she would follow his cues. First the stone, to take them by surprise, then the mist. His long fingers twitched, perhaps from excitement, but she focused on his index finger.
Tension coiled inside her with each agonizing step that the seven took. She felt sick as sweat slide down her back and between his breasts.
Finally his finger flicked outward. Ruby sprung forward, the Stone of Silence clutched in her right hand.
She bounded in four great leaps until she had reached the center of the path. The first of the seven halted, peering at her, but the others had not yet noticed the commotion. Good.
Ruby threw the stone with all of the force she could muster. It seemed drawn from her hand by some great force, and it collided with the ground and exploded in a harsh white light. Ruby did not wait to see what happened, instead diving back from the path and into the foliage. She scrambled to her knees and closed her eyes, trusting that Seth would protect her.
The spirit script flowed across her mind's eye. Long, looping patterns and short, harsh markings; all of it in a rehearsed order of her design. She could feel the temperature dropping as moisture collected in the air. Air flew past her, ruffling her clothes and tickling her face.
Ruby opened her eyes and looked at what she had done. The mist was impossibly thick, coiling in the air like goat's milk. It oozed into every corner and crevice, coated the entire forest in white. She plucked the wax from her ears, and in that moment her breath caught in her throat.
The world was still silent. There was no screaming, no hoarse shouts of confusion like what she imagined would fill the scene. Her breathing was loud in her ears—deafness had not befallen her-- but she was still frightened of the quiet. Where was the chaos? The confusion?
She looked for Seth, but couldn't see him anywhere. He may already be getting to work, flitting between each sage like a specter, but somehow she doubted that.
The girl didn't move, crouched in the grass as mist swirled with the energy of lost souls. What should she do? Ruby stood slowly, listening.
Sounds began to reach her, a low thrumming in the air. She froze, her fear intensifying. The nausea attacked her again, clenching her stomach in angry knots. The noise grew. It was coming closer.
Run! Her mind shouted. Urging her legs to move made no impact; they were deaf to her pleas, rooted to the spot. Panic swelled, blotting out all of her other sensations. A scream bubbled in her lungs but could find no purchase. It became strangled in her throat, lodged there like a stone in a stream.
A disturbance in the mist—her eyes followed the movement and her ears registered a thud. She could see a vague shape, a body on the ground before it was obscured by white tendrils. The mist became frenzied and upset, twirling and constricting around itself until it parted down the middle of the path. The tear became wider, like an invisible force was pushing it back. Seth, unconscious, became visible as the mist rolled back. It slipped from his limbs like a silk blanket sliding away.
The sages stepped through the mist. Ruby was horrified. They were each serene, regal, and composed. It appeared that no physical symptoms ailed them. She did not run, but merely stood in numb silence as the seven emerged through her petty illusion.
Casoran stopped. His robes rustled around him, whispering with a terrible finality. His eyes were fierce and dark, intense as a sea storm. Brow furrowed, he glared at Ruby, looking her up and down.
Ruby was vaguely aware that the others were regarding her too. They stood behind their leader, each loosely clutching an object of immeasurable value.
Casoran stepped forward, closing the little bit of space left between them. The book was even more menacing up close, the leather ancient and cracked but still strong. The gems drew her attention, glistening with a liquid energy. As she gazed at them there was a slow warmth in her fingers. It was a trifle annoying at first, and she tried to brush it away and center her attention on the grimoire. The heat intensified and began to burn.
Ruby groaned and looked down at her hands. Her rings, her rubies were vibrating violently, hurting her. She choked back a sob and stared as the energy charred her flesh, as the gems shuddered and pulsated. Her other fingers tried to save their brethren from the agony, but the rings could not be loosed. The girl fell to her knees, whimpering.
The sages formed a half circle around her. They watched silently, the crimson light cast from the stones reflected on their faces and in their eyes. Mouths set in sharp lines, wasted muscles focusing only on keeping them upright.
Ruby looked up, into the face of the Mordus sage. "Help me," she mouthed, her throat desert-dry. What she saw was startling enough to penetrate her haze of pain. The sage regarded her as he might a tree, or a pebble. His features were drained of emotion, like a sheet of parchment that has grown so weathered as to become illegible.
The young girl groaned, feeling consciousness intrude on her dark dreams. Slowly she sat up, blinking in the gloom.
Night had fallen, enveloped the forest path in soft, inky darkness. Seth was still unconscious, lying on the ground in the same position she had last seen him, before her rings…
She closed her eyes, not moving a muscle, hands cradled gently in her lap. Probing lightly with only thoughts, she felt the skin of her fingers and recognized the cold absence of feeling. No, not numb. But cold, from the frigid air around her.
With a deep breath the girl's eyes widened and her head tipped forward. Her fingers were whole, eyes watery.
The rings were gone, but she was whole. She kissed each finger, crying, salty tears dripping from her nose. Soot on her skin, where her beautiful rings had hurt her. But they were gone, and her hands whole.
The forest creaked and swayed around her, and she became aware of it then, emerging from herself. She rose wearily, feeling as though she had slept a thousand years, and walked to the prone figure on the forest floor.
She lowered to her knees and put a hand on his shoulder. The boy's cheek was pressed into the grass, his eyes closed loosely as his chest rose and fell. She traced a gash along his temple where someone had struck him. Bruises were already rising to the surface, black and garish. Her fingers brushed back a lock of his hair. It was soft and thick. She touched her own hair, loosed it from its braid and let it fall across her shoulders.
The girl squeezed her hands, clutching her fingers close. The boy groaned.
An eye opened groggily, his cheek framed by green grass.
The girl merely shook her head and gazed down the mountain path, where the seven had come from. Seth sat up beside her and groaned, rubbing his eyes.
"Damn," he said simply, softly. "They're hours ahead of us now."
She looked at her companion in the gloom, studying the hardened expression and the way determination curled his lips into a tight grimace. Seth stood, brushed the leaves and grass from his clothing, and gingerly touched the cut on his face.
After a while he said, "Are you ready to get going, Ruby?"
"I'm not going anywhere."
Seth regarded her as she kneeled in the grass, her expression distant and sad.
"We shouldn't have meddled," she murmured, meeting his eyes. Her voice was hoarse and solemn.
"What are you talking about?"
She shook her head again and looked away, down at her hands.