Winfeld pushed tassels of long grass that hung over a dirt and gravel road. The evening sun illuminated Mt. Nahan in the distance. Dark red and orange light glared from the rocky facets of the mountain. Before the mountain he could make out a structure jutting out from a hilltop.
As he rushed through the old road, he came upon an old metal fence. Years of weather had taken it's toll leaving the top of the fence dull and brown. He approached. He pulled at the gate. There was no chain and lock but the gate didn't move. "Damn, rusted shut hinges," he said examining the gate. He started to climb. As he reached for the top beam. It crumbled in his grip. Sharp pains shot up his hands and arm as the rusted metal crumbled tearing into his his flesh.
Despite the pain he knew he had to reach the Shaman on the hill. His kids lives depended on her. The beam broke under his weight allowing an easier time of scaling the gate. He wrapped a handkerchief around his damaged hands. He sighed. At least the path ahead was less overgrown and he could quicken his pace.
The bottoms of the clouds turned a florescent red against a darkening sky. The road turned from gravel to dirt. Fields had given way to thick brush and low trees. A howl some distance away shattered the twilight. His pulse quickened; from both fear and exhaustion. Another howl, this one from his left and much closer filled him with a shot of adrenaline. In the dimming twilight, he could see less than 50 feet ahead. He rested his hand on his side arm.
As he approached where the path began to climb up the hill, a low growl greeted him. He stopped slowing pulling out the firearm. Thump. Thump. Thump, his heart pounded. Two yellow eyes and fangs appeared before him. As the wolf came into view, another low growl came from behind. "Please, I need the shaman," he said pointing the gun in front. The wolf before him stopped. He heard rustling to his sides. His gaze darted from side to side but couldn't make out their source.
"Why do you need the shaman of the hill?" a woman's voice called from the dark.
"Uh, my kids, they've gone missing," Winfeld said nervously. A form moved in the darkness behind the front wolf. It approached.
"Why do you think the shaman of the hill can help find your kids?" she said, passing the wolf.
"Elias said she would."
She sighed, hanging her head. "Okay, follow me." She motioned and turned to continue along the path. Winfeld could barely make out the path in the shadow of the hill yet the woman seemed to have no trouble navigating its furrows. Every so often he heard rustles behind and to each side.
Sun light was just leaving the sky when he reached the top of the hill. The path was steep and the pace the woman kept made the climb grueling. Ahead he could make out several structures. Low light from the central structure allowed him to get more details on his companions.
The woman moved gracefully even across the rough terrain. His own lumbering footsteps contrasted to the silence of her movements. A black-furred wolf walked aside her. Its head reached her mid-torso. The creature was much larger than he had thought. Light from the house sparkled across the wolf's coat, flickering like stars.
Once Winfeld climbed to the porch he stopped to catch his breath. The woman turned and petted the black-furred wolf. Two more passed by as he breathed deeply. Both had gray, brown and even green patches that would have made them invisible in the brush. A fourth passed by and lay next to the others.
Winfeld spent his days running between various jobsites. In his younger days he even competed in the Fen Island Games. The climb had left him winded. Yet, the woman had only a slight trace of a quickened breath. She petted each as she approached Winfeld.
"Come. While I bandage you hands, you can tell me exactly what Elias told you to tell me to help find your kids," she said pulling down her hood. A deep red-brown braid fell to one side. She beckoned Winfeld into the house.
The Shaman waved her hand and light filled the room as they entered. It was not what Winfeld expected from an isolated shaman's abode. Before him was a recessed sitting area with rustic sofas. Eight adults could lounge with room to spare. Beyond the sitting are were 4 large book cases, with little room for additional books.
"Sit over at the bar," the shaman said, hanging her cloak off and pointing toward his left. The woman had tanned skin with a red-brown braid that reached mid-back. She looked to be in her late twenties. Her ears tapered to rounded points signifying her Yan'ere heritage. She wore a sleeveless green tunic and brown work pant with a distinctly feminine cut. She entered a room on the right.
Winfeld turned and passed the sitting area, entering an open kitchen. He sat on a bar stool. The scent of cooking broth and vegetables wafted from a pot on the opposite side. His stomach gurgled; he had not eaten since lunch.
"How do you know Elias?" she called from the far room.
"I helped him and Ellie renovate a couple years back. I also do the occasional delivery for them." She exited the room carrying a small bag. The tink of glass on glass came from bag as she laid it on the bar. She stared into his eyes. Her own bright green eyes seemed to glow in the light. "Right I think I remember them talking about your work last time I was in their shop."
She grabbed his right arm firmly; more firmly than Winfeld would have guessed she was capable. She adeptly peeled off the torn handkerchief. She pursed her lips and then grabbed his left arm proceeding with the same operation.
"Thank you, but they'll mend."
"Metal's in pretty deep. How'd you do this?"
"The rusted gate," he flinched as she rubbed a balm around the wounds.
"Right. I keep meaning to take that fence down." She said preparing a sweet smelling concoction. "I need to pull the fragments out. It'll sting." Winfeld nodded.
She wiped the concoction on her hands and began to chant. He felt a tingle. She moved her hands a few inches above his. A moment later the tingle turned into sharp pinches as small fragments of metal gathered between her hands and his. She slowly pushed his hands aside and let the fragments fall into a bowl. She quickly applied more of the balm and wrapped his hands in bandages.
"Should be back to full strength in a few days," she said cleaning up around the counter. "Now why'd you come here?"
"My kids, they didn't come home from school," Winfeld began. "Normally I meet them near the old Aesryc Church." The shaman nodded. "They weren't there tonight."
"And they didn't get a head start home?"
"First place I checked."
"And not to friend's house?"
"I checked that too."
"Absolutely not!" Winfeld stood. "Our kids were happy."
"Even happy kids have problems with their parents." She approached him staring into his eyes. She sighed after a moment.
"Look we don't have grand house or land. But we did right by them." he protested. "Elias, said you'd pry. And you're the best tracker on the island." Her lips formed a subtle smile.
"I'll come back with you. Let me gather a few things." She said approaching a stair way leading up. "Bowls are in the right cupboard. Utensils in the drawer above."
Winfeld gathered some stew and sat staring out the large windows near the entry. They formed a transparent wall. Beyond the reflection of the room he could see forms move. Probably the wolves he said to himself. He approached the window. In the distance he could make out specs of light surrounding a large region that formed the city of New Fenton in the distance.
A couple shirts and pants landed onto the bed. Next came some intimates and a small bag. The shaman moved around the room gathering things. She stopped and rubbed her hands approaching a mirror.
"Okay, Lily," she said staring at the Yan'ere woman in the mirror. "I know how much you love New Fenton." She said straightening her shirt. "Mom and Dad will be ecstatic to have me overnight at least."
Lily tightened her braid, her fingers weaved her hair like she had done many times before. As she reached the top of her head her fingers touched the subtle warmth of her metal hair pin. Waves of energy pulsed through her hands and arms. She stopped, letting her arms fall to her sides.
Looking down she saw the tanned skin of her hands and arms whirled and dithered. She clenched he fists and closed her eyes. After a few deep breaths she opened them to see the familiar Yan'ere staring back at her. She sighed.
She packed up the things on her bed and headed down stairs. Winfeld was at the sink washing his bowl and spoon. She opened a closet. "Ready?" She said.
"Yeah. Didn't want to leave a mess."
"Thanks," Lily said, grabbing a bow and quiver from a closet. She slung both around her shoulder. Hoisting the pot she motioned for Winfeld to the door. After passing through the door Lily motioned and the lights inside returned to the low light Winfeld saw on his first approach.
Lily set the pot on the porch. "Did you run here?"
"No, I parked next to the old road."
"Got it, we'll take the old road then. Banner's in the barn." She motioned toward a mid-sized structure behind him.
Winfeld guessed a few horses and cows were in there. He found the horse chewing on some hay in the corner. As soon as he entered, Banner walk up to him and pressed his nose to Winfeld's forehead. Winfeld scratched the side of Banner's neck.
"Hey boy, you're friendly," Winfeld said. "Lets get you saddled up." Banner stood still and let Winfeld work. Winfeld was familiar enough with riding and it didn't take him long to finish. Banner walked out and Winfeld closed the barn.
On the porch he saw the shaman and six large wolves. He heard softs grunts and yips as they lapped up the stew. The shaman approached each touching her forehead to theirs.
"There were four earlier," Winfeld thought. "Well, discretion is probably the better course." He followed Banner to the porch. Lily stood placing her bow onto a hanger in Banner's saddle. She then made a few adjustments to the saddle.
Lily mounted the saddle in a smooth, expert movement. Winfeld stared."Are you getting on?" She asked twisting around to looking him in the eye.
Banner was one of the largest horses on the island. Seeing the shaman mount like a cavalryman from days past shocked Winfeld. "Yeah, uh sure." He placed his hands the back of the horse and readied himself.
"Need a hand?"
"Just trying to find a good position that won't tear open my hands." Lily pushed a stirrup back and offered a hand for his fore arm. After a bit of a struggle he was seated behind her.
She whistled. The wolves stared at the two as they rode off. The trip was considerably easier on Banner's back than it had been walking up the old road. It was dark. Winfeld could barely make out the brush on either side of the road as they trotted.
"What are your kids' names?" Lily asked.
"Thomas is my boy. Margot's my little girl." Winfeld said with a mix of pride and sadness.
"They play with all the kids under the old oak in the Aesryc courtyard?"
"Yeah, well until a few months back. A storm took down the big branch that hung over the field."
"That's a shame," Lily replied. "Were there any other places they'd play?"
"All the kids liked the market. But no one saw them tonight."
"How about their friends?"
"I told you we checked."
"Did they mention any new kids hanging around?"
"Well a blond haired boy and girl started hanging out with them a few months back," Winfeld said in thought. "They gave all the kids candy sometimes. I met them a few times. They seemed nice but aloof."
"No, I haven't seen them around for a week."
Banner settled into a trot after scaling down the hill. "Is the 9th Street Market across from the Church still?"
"There and booming. Plenty of militia around too." Winfeld sighed.
"Must be plenty of militia around still. Did the patrols see anything?"
"Nothing, but they weren't forthcoming."
"Hold tight." Lily said.
Banner transferred into to a canter. Winfeld steadied himself. At a gallop Banner leaped into air and landed on gravel. Winfeld looked back to see the old fence disappear into the night. He looked forward. The shaman was half-seated. He couldn't see her face but guessed she was smiling.
"I see why the fence isn't a priority," Winfeld said settling into the saddle. The shaman turned and nodded. "Impressive animal."
"Banner's a special horse," she said with air of pride. She patted him along his neck. "He was my father's. During the war."
"The Giant's War? Pretty good for an old horse. I'm surprised he's not out to pasture. Or as a stud." Banner huffed.
"Oh, he has too much energy for that. Still wants to go out on more adventures," She said scratching Banner's ears. Banner lifted his head in an agreeable nod.
"Yeah, I see," Winfeld said. "Speaking of which how'd you know the fence was coming up? I can barely see the sides of the road."
"Must be my heritage," she shot back. Winfeld didn't recall anything about Yan'ere seeing better in low light than an Aerthun. "Actually, Banner and I have been down this road many times. He's doing the driving."
"Are your parents from New Fenton?"
"My parents are dead."
"I'm sorry," He returned by reflex. Lily shrugged.
"The War left lots of orphans," she said. "I guess I had it better than most, being here."
The rest of the trip was in companionable silence. Winfeld didn't feel like prying further and the night sounds provided plenty of distractions. They rounded the last stretch of overgrown grasses and approached a well used truck. Winfeld dismounted.
"Thank you," he said looking up at her.
"I'll follow you into town," she said directing Banner to the opposite side of the paved road.
"Thomas, Thomas Winfeld," he said raising his voice. "Just realized I didn't introduce myself."
"You didn't have to," Lily returned. "I'm the Shaman of the Hill." Winfeld cocked his head. She and Banner stopped. "But I guess you can call me Lily."
The Maddock Road, so called because it traversed the Maddock Range to the southwest ending in Orbar's Hope, wasn't busy this time of night. Winfeld kept his speed slow so Banner could keep pace. He was surprised at the horse's endurance as they entered the outskirts of New Fenton.
For Lily entering the city always put her on edge. Scents and sounds of traffic and crowds overwhelmed her senses. She was learning to put up with the commotion. Her god-parents always encouraged her to visit but she never liked to stay more than a day or two.
Winfeld turned, with Lily following, down a lighted parkway. Modest townhouses bordered well groomed shrubs and wide sidewalks. Despite the hour, a good number of people strolled along the parkway.
Winfeld pulled to an empty driveway and stopped. Lily directed Banner behind the truck. She dismounted. Winfeld exited the truck motioning for her to follow. "Can I see their rooms?" Lily asked as they approached the door.
Once through the door a middle-aged woman with tear-stained eyes ran up to Winfeld, embracing him. "Thomas, you found her?" Lily put down her hood.
"Nira," Winfeld motioned toward Lily with his hand. "This is Lily, the Shaman of-"
"Pleasure ma'am," Lily said tipping her head in respect.
"I'm so glad you came. From one woman to another I can't… I don't know what we'd do if…" Nira choked with tears. Winfeld pulled her close. "But oh uh you must be thirsty or hungry," she said wiping her eyes with a cloth.
"Thank you but, no," Lily said respectfully. "I'll find your boy and girl," she said confidently.
"Their bed rooms are up stairs," Winfeld interjected. "I can show you." Lily motioned for him to lead. The inside of the town home was cozy and, having lived in the country for quite some time, felt closed in.
"Thomas' is here. Margot's is over there," Winfeld motioned.
"Thank you," Lily said passing Winfeld trying not rub against him or the wall. Winfeld shifted his weight.
"Do you need me to-"
"No, I'll be just a moment in each," She said halfway into Thomas' room. Winfeld stared blankly at here. "Shaman secrets and all."
"Oh, uh right. I'll be down stairs." Winfeld turned.
The room was what Lily expected an early teen-aged boy's room to be. Low light, clothes strewn about the floor, mixed with toys and graphic novels. She closed her eyes and breathed deep. Sweat, adolescent hormones and stale crumbs assaulted her nose. There was something else there too. A sweet floral scent like honeysuckle. She took a few slow breathes.
In the corner of the room, on a desk covered in graphic novels, drawings and notebooks she found a small hard candy; the source of the sweet scent. She brought it to her nose and took another slow breath in. The sweet scent almost overpowered another set scents. The other scent brought images of stagnant water, decaying wood and the type of mud you'd find in swamp.
Lily moved some of the papers aside from where she found the candy. A note was scribbled in the margin of the page. "Tira said I looked cute and wanted to bring me to her father. She said Margot could come too but I tried to tell her no. I'll meet her at the broken oak where we first met tomorrow night. Bet she'll let me touch her boobs." Next to the note was crude scribble of a woman's top-half with ample breasts.
Lily turned to leave but something caught her eye on the bed. Beneath a pillow was a small stuffed animal. She picked it up. It was inundated with the boy's scent. She held it for moment and left the room.
Margot's room reminded Lily of another preteen girl's room with which she was familiar. There were a few dolls and books. Various perfumes, fruit scents and a familiar sweet smell permeated the space. On a desk she found a beginner's electronics kit. After a short search she found several more candies.
In the night stand drawer she also found a diary. "Kyle and Tira are so generous they're always bring us candy and telling us about the wild adventures they've had with their father. I hope I can go with them one time. Of course Jinny said that I should be careful eating so much candy. Jinny said she heard from Sara, that her mother talk about how many inches sugar puts on her waist. She said I should be careful because girls should have a thin waist. Tomorrow they want us to meet their father. I'm excited but I think we should let Pops and Mom know. Tira said we'll be back by the time Pops usually meets us. But I still think we should tell them."
Lily carefully put the diary back. There were plenty of stuffed animals and blankets on the bed. Rummaging through the items Lily found a smaller blanket. It's hem had been repaired numerous times. The once bright yellows, greens, and blue of the hatch pattern were faded with time and wear. It carried Margot's scent more than any other item. She held onto it and carefully left the room.
Downstairs she found Winfeld and Nira on the sitting room couch. Winfeld started to stand as Lily approached. Lily lifted her hand motioning for him not to get up. "Well?" he said.
"I'm on their trail." Lily began. "Do you mind if I hold onto these while I look for them?" She held up the stuffed animal and the blanket.
"Not at all," Nira said. "Just please, find them." Lily bowed her head in thanks and placed them into her bag.
"Do you want anything else?" Winfeld asked.
"No, no," Lily said graciously. "I've imposed enough."
"Should I come-" Winfeld started.
"No!" Lily shot back. "You stay and comfort your wife. Besides you should rest and let your hands heal."
"Okay." Winfeld sounded relieved. "All the same I think we'll visit the station again."
Lily nodded and drew up her hood. Outside Banner was patiently waiting by the truck. "Now, we need to stop by Mom and Dad's." Lily sighed patting Banner's neck.
Horses were not an uncommon sight in the outskirts of New Fenton. Many of the surrounding communities made use of animal labor. Steam, internal combustion and arcane powered machines were the norm in the town center however. The constant gurgling, low thrums and whistles were enough to convince Lily to come into New Fenton town center rarely.
Passers by watched the Shaman and horse make their way across parkways and through bustling markets. Even at night there were deals to be made and goods to trade. As they approached Market Square, the central trade forum, Lily directed banner down a side street. They approached an iron gate, beyond which was a small courtyard and stable. Lily dismounted, fumbled through a pocket in her pack and unlocked the gate. Banner moved through, settling near a stall.
Fluttering feathers from above caught her attention. She looked up with a scowl. After seeing that Banner was stabled and gathered a few items she crossed the courtyard to a set of stairs. As she approached the door to unlock it, it flew open. A tall Yan'ere with combed back hair graying at the temples, white stubble and piercing blue eyes stood before her. "Hello dad," she said reluctantly.
"Lily," He said smiling. "What brings you into town?" He opened his arms getting ready to hug. Lily shifted her weight and crossed her arms. He let his arms down.
"We're both concerned about you," He began. Lily stared at him.
"You could have come visit?" She said. "You didn't have to concoct a kidnapping."
"I sent him to you out of real distress. Thomas Winfeld and his family are good people. The kind you should engage with more often." Elias ended in the same tone he used to lecture. Lily huffed.
"Welcome home dear," a woman's voice echoed from behind Elias. "I've made up your old room. Just getting finished with a brew."
Lily raised an eye brow. The fluttering sound started behind her again ending with the sound of talons against wood. She turned to see a white harpy eagle standing on the railing. "Stars, you little spy," she muttered. The eagle cocked her head. Turning back, she gave Elias a quick hug and entered the building.
The main room had a large couch, table and chairs at it center. An antique armoire to her left held Ellie's medical bag, a variety of boots and cloaks. City budgets, council proposals and various alchemical formulas were strewn over the coffee table, as well as a smaller table next to a high-backed chair. The scent of old wood, lavender, and various alchemical components that wafted up from her god-parent's shop below.
"Mom should be finished soon," Elias said ushering her to the couch. Lily set her bow, quiver and pack between the couch and coffee table. He sat into a high-backed chair.
"I'm surprised Winfeld didn't recognize me."
"You're much older than you are in those pictures." Elias said "You've matured."
"And you didn't tell him?" Lily said. Elias leaned forward in is chair.
"You've acquired a bit of a fable around here. The Shaman of the Hill. People know and count on that reputation. I thought it better to let him figure it out."
"Or did you want to protect yourselves, in case," Lily stopped looking at her nails and hand. Elias stood, walked over and cradled her shoulders.
"Ellie and I are proud of what you do out there. People need to be able to depend on a healer close by. We just wish you'd devote some of those talents in town as well." Lily grabbed her step-father's hand and squeezed.
"Well that should be enough to keep us stocked for the rest of the year," A middle-aged Yan'ere woman said as she cleaned her hands with a towel. She had frizzy platinum blonde hair a sturdy figure and wore a leather apron. She made her way to Lily embracing her in a bear hug. Smells of spent fuel, spell fire and various components followed her.
"Sounds like you've been busy," Lily said with a slight smile.
"Oh nothing. We have enough solvent and essence to keep us going for a good while now." She said leading Lily to the couch. "Now then darling, how have you been doing?"
"Fine?" Ellie looked at Elias. "A months and all we get is a 'Fine'."
"You were in Dubihn part of that." Lily said.
"Two weeks. On business. What about the other two?"Ellie said leaning in.
"I'll get some tea," Elias said walking to the kitchen.
"You know what I like, hun," Ellie said. "Hows the hill?"
"Same as it has been."
"Any interesting visitors?"
"Not really. Mostly farm hands, ranchers and the odd prospector."
"Any of them cute?"
Lily smirked and looked at Ellie."I don't think any of them were my type."
"Tea, love," Ellias said handing Ellie a mug. Lily stood.
"Speaking of visitors, I have some kids to find," Lily said looking at Elias.
"Oh yes, the Winfeld brood," Ellie said taking a sip.
"I need just needed to drop a few things off and then I wanted to check the church." Lily said picking up her things. She started walking to the hall.
"At this hour?" Ellie said.
"Best time, less commotion," Lily called from her room. A few minutes passed and Lily returned with her bag, bow and quiver. Ellie stood by the door with a concerned look. Elias intercepted Lily. He hugged her and Lily hugged him back.
"Be careful." Lily nodded and the approached Ellie.
"I'm glad you're helping the Winfelds. Just be safe," Ellie said embracing Lily.
"I'll be back soon," Lily said as she passed through the door.
"Love you," Elias and Ellie called.
"Love you too," Lily returned as door closed.
Stars was still sitting where she had landed when Elias and Lily were talking.
"Guess you're keeping an eye on me now?" The eagle cocked it head left then right. Lily scratched the bird under her beak.
Banner was munching on some oats when Lily entered the stable. "I should be back soon boy," she said brushing his neck. He returned by rubbing his head against her. "Just needed to grab a few things," Lily said pulling several throwing knives from a satchel on his saddle.
Lily approached the old Aesryc Church. Massive stone buttresses jutted from the overgrown turf. The walls between had crumbled through the years making the ruin look like a giant rib cage. On the near side a two foot high wall encompassed a large courtyard. It was one of a few large grassy areas in the cobble stone and cement covered center of New Fenton. Against the edge, between two buttresses a large oak stood.
As a child Lily and her friends from school played on the grassy field. She was glad to see that little had changed in the intervening years. Light from 9th Street market illuminated most of the field. Divots from games played earlier that day were visible. A militia patrol stopped to spy. Lily nodded, acknowledging their presence. The patrol stayed, watching Lily make her way to the middle of the field.
Lily closed her eyes, lifting her head and took a deep slow breathe. Grass, freshly exposed dirt, oak sap, and wet stone were the most immediate scents she picked up. Taking another few breaths, images of children running, sweating and eating came to her mind. The scent of the items they were consuming was familiar; sweet and floral. She followed the scent.
As she approached the old oak the two scents stood out from the amalgam of the others. They were of the stuffed bear and blanket. She passed the oak becoming aware of another smell. While sweet, there was an acridness to it. She circled the edge of the courtyard furthest from the market. Images of the candy entered her thoughts. Under the scent something else; something putrid and unwashed.
Following the scent she left the courtyard. Away from the church the smells like the bear, blanket and sweet-astringent smell were easier to hone onto and follow. These scents lead her north. Past the edge of the town center, and away from the well-lit parkway that lead into it. On the horizon she could make out a dimly lit fog that stood out in the otherwise clear moonless night.
"Please, not Old Fenton," She said, shoulders dropping. She was still with her parents far from the island when the cataclysm had occurred. Elias and Ellie told her stories of day Old Fenton was abandoned. That morning waves of magical energy stirred up winds and storms throughout the city. Those caught at the center never made it out. To this day the ruins sit in an ever swirling fog. Only the most brazen treasure hunter or evilest of being entered those ruins.
Lily heard Stars above. "Still got my back?" she said. Pulling her bow off her shoulder she then knocked an arrow. She took a deep breath and reacquired her quarry. As she proceeded along the road, a feeling of relief filled her as the scent turned into trail through the brush leading her west.
The scents were stronger in the brush letting Lily focus more on what may lie ahead. Were Tira and Kyle the hunter and Thomas and Margot prey? Were the children being controlled by a malevolent spirit? The trail passed over an embankment ending in a bog.
Traveling through the bog was slow. The smells of decaying plants and reducing mud was overpowering. It was similar to undertones she smelled from the candy. However, when she could follow the childrens' scent, it was strongest it had been on the journey. It lead her to large dead swamp maple.
Lily stopped at the tree. The trunk split as it protruded out of the ground allowing a large opening into the tree. Peering into the opening Lily could see someone or something had carved a tunnel leading down. Instead of mud and other smells to which she was accustomed in a swamp, the same putrid odor that accompanied the children' wafted from the tunnel. Stars landed on a stump above Lily.
"Well, let dad know where I am," Lily commanded. Stars took flight disappearing into the night sky.
The trail here was packed mud but the tunnel wall appeared to have stone and even wood beams placed for support. Lily slowly peered around a corner. Light from torches illuminated the hall before her. She could hear scurrying feet as well as something heavy moving around ahead. With bow readied she cautiously approached the sounds.
At an intersection, silence came from the left. All the commotion seemed to be coming from the right. Slurping and gnashing sounds greeted her as she entered a cavern. Their source was a rotund creature the size of a child sitting near a small table. It's hair was oily and clumped, barely covering an oval head. Dark red spots covered pale skin. Ragged pajamas with half cured fur patches covered it's round torso.
The creature lifted a bone. Charred meat hung off it as the creature swung it back and forth. It let out a nasally giggle between swings and nibbles. Lily loosed an arrow, hitting the creature between the skull and neck. It stood, twitched and fell to the floor.
Examining the debris around the creature Lily identified that it was having rabbit for its meal. Relief filled her thoughts. The room looked like a common area complete with a fire pit and grill. Next, she examined the creature's corpse. It's clothes were pajamas like a child much thinner would wear. Putrid skin and fur patched sections of the pajamas that had broken. A rope holding the head and body of an aged stuffed animal was wrapped around its torso. It had a collar, with 'Tum Tum Gurpin' embossed.
Lily recognized the name Gurpin. They were a wealthy land owner in New Fenton. Old Man Gurpin was notorious for sitting on his porch with shotgun trained at anything that approached. She also recalled the family lost a child a few years ago. It caused such a scandal that, despite as isolated as she kept herself, even she had heard of it. Using one of her knives she cut the bear from the rope and put it in her bag.
A child's cry caught her attention. She moved through the tunnels finding another intersection. A laugh to her left directed her movements. In another cavern she found Margot skipping around a small pot in the middle of the floor. Every third step she'd stop, pull a candy out and chew it quickly. Lily approached.
"Margot?" The girl ignored her. Lily knelt and held the girl by her shoulders.
"Margot Winfeld. Snap out of it."
The girl looked up at Lily confused. "I know that name, but who is she?" She laughed. "Have you come to get some candy too? Father says I can have as much as I want."
Lily shook the girl. "Where's your brother? I'm getting you two out of this hole."
"Oww," she cried. Lily pulled the blanket out from her bag. The girl fell silent with a confused look. "He, Thomas?" She pulled the blanket to her face. "I don't know."
"Little sister, who has come to play?" A girl's voice came from behind Lily. She stood slowly turning to see a blonde haired girl with a butcher knife. A blonde haired boy accompanied her. He held a rough club. Lily raised her bow.
"Move goblin," Lily commanded. The two stared at her.
"Meat has come to play sister," the boy said.
"Lets show our new sister-" The girl was interrupted by the sounds of an arrow flying through the air. Her body fell back with an arrow lodged in her chest.
Margot laughed frightfully. The boy lunged. Lily dodged the club spinning around the creature. As she did, she buried a knife into the back of the creatures neck. He fell face down, lifeless.
Lily carried Margot, who was still laughing. The girl's alabaster skin, blond hair and blue dress faded away. In their place the distended form of goblin appeared. In a pocket on the worn dirty dress Lily noticed a glint of metal. She knelt to examine the object. It was a small music box. Like the stuffed bear, it was worn but the cleanest item on the goblin. Engraved on the bottom was the name Roesia De Kainia. De Kainia was another family name she recognized from New Fenton.
Testing an idea Lily searched the other goblin's corpse. She found a small journal. Nicholas A Wycliff was written on the inside cover. The last few entries described as frighteningly similar scenario. Two children, strangers to the crowd showed up to play. They shared candies and described how special their father was to their playmates. After a few days they encouraged the kids to follow them to meet their father. The last entry was unintelligible. She placed it in her bag with the music box.
Cries and maniacal laughs came from the hall. Amid the cacophony Lily could make out a boy's cries and sloshes of mud. She set down Margot and approached the laughs. Two goblins were jumping between furs and blankets that made pallets where the denizens of the barrow slept. Moving ahead she readied an arrow.
"Monster in the shadow! Monster in the shadow!" One goblin cried looking right at Lily.
"Kill it and play! Kill it and play!" The other shouted excitedly.
The goblin threw a variety of knives at Lily. She launched the arrow but missed dodging the objects. She pulled a handful of seeds from a leather pouch. Warmth radiated around her hand as she recited an incantation. As the goblins rushed at her she threw seeds before their feet. Each sprouted rapidly thickening vines. The vines entangled the goblins pinning them to the wall.
"No fair, No-," one said as the vines suffocated the life from he.
Lily returned to the sleeping chamber carrying Margot. In a smaller room a boy was trudging through muddy water. He reached one side, turned and then slid through the smelly puddle to other.
"Thomas!" Lily commanded. The boy looked at her and then jumped in the puddle laughing. Lily sat Margot, who was sobbing into her blanket, down. Lily marched over to Thomas lifted him out of the puddle and slapped him.
"Snap out of it. Your sister needs you and your parents are worried." Thomas squirmed.
"No," he shouted throwing mud against Lily's cloak. She dragged him to the adjoining cavern. She didn't know what the goblins were preparing in here but they did have a pot of mostly clean water. She poured it over Thomas washing most of the mud and grim from him. He stopped struggling and looked up at Lily. She handed him the stuffed bear from his room. After staring at it for a moment, he held it close. Lily left to collect Margot.
"What?" he said in a daze as Lily returned.
"Can you stand? We need to get out, now." Thomas looked around and focused on the stuffed bear in his arms hugging it tighter. Lily shifted Margot under one arm and lifted Thomas under the other.
Back through the tunnel and past the cavern where she found Margot, Lily carried the two children. She reached the first chamber only to hear heavy footfalls coming from the tunnel leading out. Lily stopped, put the children down, and readied an arrow.
From the entrance a large creature emerged. It was over 7 feet tall and half as wide at the shoulder. Scents of wet fur, beer, and charcoal followed. It's eyes glowed from beneath a thick, furrowed brow. Dark brown hair protruded from it head down the side of it's face and along what little neck extended from the mass of muscle at it shoulders. Arms the size of fence posts extended down to massive hands. Hides covered it's torso and legs. It's scowl turned to a sinister, gnarled smile as it examined the trespasser.
"To what do I owe pleasure? You blood smells so sweet," It grumbled.
"It'll be your blood. Clear the path," Lily commanded. The creature laughed a fully bellied deep laugh.
"Does the child killer and she-who-steals-my-chosen try to command me?" he said taking a few small slow steps toward Lily, stopping to lean on table.
"Last chance, bugbear."
"Make me, sweet dinner." Lily loosed her arrow but the bugbear's reflexes proved acute. He lifted the table on which he leaning to deflect the arrow. As he lowered the table, Lily was already on him. She rushed passed, raking her fingers along the creature's torso. The hide shredded and four gashes seeped dark blood.
The bugbear winced in agony. He twisted bringing his left arm and elbow around. It landed against Lily's head and upper body knocking her back. She flipped ending in squat where she was a moment before Her red hair fell to the side of her face.
The exposed skin on her arms dithered and faded revealing red fur. It spread down her arms changing to white mid forearm. The white fur continued down her hands and fingers. Each digit ended in a small dark claw. Baring canine teeth she growled. Wolf-like ears protruded from the hair atop her head. A bushy red-brown tail with a white tip swayed behind. Her bright green eyes fixated on the Bugbear.
"Huh, the creature revealed," he said holding his side. "I'll have a new rug and were bitch for dinner." The bugbear unhitched two clubs from his harness. Lily lunged, throwing knives toward the bugbear. He blocked one but the other two embedded into his leg and arm. He swung. She nimbly avoided one but the other caught her side knocking her toward the entrance tunnel.
Her side ached. Sharp pains radiated along her rib-cage with each breathe. They had switched positions.
"The entrance is open. Go," he commanded pointing with one club.
"Not without them," Lily responded.
"So it's pups of your own? You could have just asked," The bugbear said through a smile while grabbing at his crotch.
Lily attacked again digging her claws into his left arm. He grabbed at her, pulling her cloak off. She flipped back between the bugbear and the Winfeld children. They circled. Lily's tail moved steadying her balance. He cradled his side while Lily struggled not to show her injury. Each spied the other looking for a weakness in their stance to exploit.
The Bugbear pulled a throwing knife from his led launching it toward Lily. She acrobatically avoided the knife while rushing at the large mass of muscle. Her claws tore into the bugbears leg. He maneuvered away exposing his back to Lily. She jumped onto the Bugbear's back latching onto the bugbear's back with her claws. Seeing an opportunity she bit into the creature's shoulder and neck. He flesh was tough, stringy and tasted metallic. He roared in agony. Two massive hands reached back and grabbed her. She flew through the air, hitting the soft packed-earthen wall and landed between Margot and Thomas. She got up on all fours and spat out the chunk of flesh.
The bugbear stood staring blankly at the three of them. His hand covered his neck. Dark blood oozed from between his fingers down his arm and torso. She stood leaning to her side. The bugbear didn't flinch. He stared at her struggling for breath.
Thomas was standing but Margot laid on the ground moving from a cry to laugh and back. Lily lifted Margot and directed Thomas with the other hand. The three passed the Bugbear. He slumped to his knees. As they approached the entrance a metallic glint caught Lily's eye. Her hair pin had been knocked out in the fight and now laid half-covered in dirt.
Lily knelt to collect the item. Bringing it to the bottom of her shirt she wiped away any mud and dirt. With her free hand she put the hairpin atop her head, between her ears. They twitched at a dull thump coming from behind. The bugbear lay against the floor, lifeless. They continued out of the barrow with out looking back.
Fresh, humid air greeted Lily and the children as they emerged from the stump. It was refreshing compared to the stagnant still air of the barrow. She set Margot down next to the tree. Despite the sharp pains, Lily was able to concentrate enough to focus her will. She said a few phrases of an incantation. Warmth filled her side and the fierce pain dulled. Turning to her attention to the children she saw they were doubled over vomiting. They looked at each other and then at Lily with vacant eyes.
"Let's get you back," Lily sighed with a subtle smile. She lifted Margot but Thomas was able to walk, albeit with direction from Lily.
The embankment loomed ahead. Lily caught a new scent. She lifted her nose into the air. Images of pressed uniforms, gun polish and perspiration whirled in her mind. She set Margot against the earthen wall. Deftly, she tightened her hair around the hair pin. Touching the pin filled her hands with energy. Waves energy moved through her body. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The illusion of a tanned Yan'ere woman returned.
As the three approached the pavement Lily could distinctly smell and hear a squad of militia advancing toward them. The three rounded the last stand of brush.
"Thomas! Margot!" Winfeld shouted running over to them. Lily set down Margot, who had gained enough strength and stood next to Thomas. Winfeld knelt cradling a child against each shoulder. Holding back tears he lifted them both.
"Thank you," he said. "Thank you." Lily nodded and patted his shoulder. She followed him back to the patrol. Ellie, followed by two medics helped Winfeld, Thomas and Margot to an ambulance.
"My dear, you look frightful," Ellie said giving Lily a gentle hug. Lily returned the hug trying not get mud on Ellie. "I'll tend to the children but I want to hear all about it." She headed back to ambulance.
One medic approached Lily but she refused aid. Lily spied Elias in the middle of the commotion speaking to the sergeant. Lily made her way to him.
"I guess I'll stay an extra day," Lily said. Elias stood before her with a contented smile. "Just to see that kids are well before I head home."
"I'm glad, your mother will be thrilled as well," Lily laid her forehead against his shoulder for moment of peace. She looked up at him and stepped back.
"There's a barrow a few hundred feet west of the embankment," Lily told the militia sergeant. The sergeant looked at Elias who nodded. "Use fire to cleanse and let their souls rest."
"We'll take care of it ma'am," she said. "Councilor," the sergeant said nodding to Elias. She left to direct several militiamen.
Lily turned to Elias. "I found several objects on the goblins,"
"Tokens, like those that a child would find precious?" Elias said leaning against a vehicle, arms crossed.
"Yes," Lily said a bit shocked. Elias looked at her with sullen eyes. Lily shook her head. "I'll return them. I'm sure their families would like closure."
"Tomorrow, it's late." Elias said. Lily squeezed his shoulder and headed away from the throng of vehicles and people. "Do you want a ride back?"
"No, I'm fine." Lily said continuing away from the crowd.
"We'll see you soon," Elias called before heading back into the fray.
Despite pangs of dull pain along her side Lily felt content. Moments later she caught the smell of burning wood. Immolated swamp oak came to mind. Ahead the lights of the city illuminated her path and for the first time in a while she didn't feel as daunted by the chaos of New Fenton.