Those trapped in the nets watch in horror as the black axe rises above the large man’s head. Meah readies for the impending strike.
“Meah!” Daniil and Kylii scream in unison, struggling against the nets.
An arrow flies through the village, stabbing through Ash man’s head. The axe falls from his hands. The young girl tugs on one end of the arrow, confusion filling her face. The Elder grabs her as Ash man falls to the ground dead.
Silence overtakes the village as all eyes lock onto the large man’s still body. Blood pools around his head. His axe turns to ash.
Meah opens her eyes. She carefully turns her head so she can see the cause of the silence. Shock causes her to gape at the dead man. The men holding her quickly move away from the body, releasing her.
The young girl fights the Elder until she’s released. She crawls to Ash man and tugs at the arrow again. She prods his cheek. She screams.
Her voice reanimates the villagers and their angry shouts fill the village. They spread out, searching the surrounding trees for the source of the arrow. Several go after those in the nets, grabbing at them and screaming in their strange language.
Dozens of arrows fly from the forest into the village, striking villagers. Only a few shots miss vital areas. Bodies pile on the ground and those still alive realize they’re powerless against the unseen enemies. They escape into the forest, leaving their dead brethren behind.
The Elder grabs the young girl and disappears into the forest. Her screams echo behind even as they vanish from sight.
Lying still on the wood block, Meah waits until the sound of firing arrows stops before slowly moving her head to look at the group in the nets. The arrows avoided them, striking only the villagers surrounding them.
Heavy footsteps walk up behind Meah. Other footsteps follow, but stop several feet away. The heavy footsteps continue moving closer and Meah feels the cool metal of a blade placed at her throat.
“Stand.” The deep voice rumbles, reminding Meah of an animal growling.
Having a little trouble with her hands restrained behind her back, Meah slowly rises to her feet. Quick movement behind her frees her hands and she raises them above her head to show she’s unarmed.
Men appear from the forest, holding bows aimed at her and the nets behind. Scarves cover their heads and mouths. Their clothing is made of light material and belts hold small packs, jugs of water, and weapons. Leather armor keeps the cloth from being too loose.
“Who are you?” the man with his sword at Meah’s throat asks.
“Travellers.” Meah moves her head carefully to see the man behind her.
The skin she can see is dark. Light brown eyes, the color of sand, watch her cautiously. She can tell from the way he stands, this man is the one in charge. With his free hand he removes the scarf covering his mouth, leaving it hanging below his chin.
“The East. Beyond the mountains.”
“There are many mountains.”
“The mountains that are found between this forest and Karrion Desert.”
“That’s a long way for a group to travel. Why?”
Licking her lips nervously, Meah answers, “We’re looking for a city in a canyon located on the other side of this forest.”
Narrowing his sandy eyes, the man lowers his blade and motions to the nets. “There are some in your group wearing the clothes of Eraunel. Explain.”
Casting a glance at the group, Meah sees more of the men aiming their weapons at the defenseless prisoners. Jaxon is regaining consciousness cursing at the new development he missed while sleeping.
“I asked you to explain.”
“We were guests of Wynsil of Eraunel for several days. He provided us some of his men as guides to ensure we reach our destination,” Meah responds.
The man stands in silence, his thoughts unreadable on his face. Sheathing his weapon, he turns to those aiming their weapons at the nets. “Release them.”
The men immediately put their weapons away and cut the nets down. Once lowered to the ground, the men help disentangle the group before moving away to allow space. Several assist carrying the pile of weapons to the group and placing them on the ground.
The group stands, lifting those who were shot with sleep darts during the ceremony. Bruer and Fleance try helping Jaxon, but he shoves them away. He’s the first to grab his weapons, allowing others too tentative to make a move first follow.
Daniil and Kylii lift Ime from the ground, his head hanging forward. Meah wants to run to him, but the presence of the man with sandy eyes makes her hesitate.
The man nods his head at Ime. “Go.”
She runs to Ime and places her hands on his cheeks. His breathing is regular and he struggles against the brothers’ holds. His eyes flutter open, still unfocused. He lifts his head to meet Meah’s eyes and a sigh escapes his lips. “You’re all right?”
Nodding her head, Meah smiles. “Yeah.”
She takes Daniil’s place, allowing Ime to relax against her. Kylii makes sure she’s comfortable holding Ime before releasing him. Ime notices the men surrounding them and a wave of energy surges through him.
“What’s going on?” he asks, placing less of his weight against Meah. His eyes are more alert, but the effect of the sleep dart is still noticeable.
“They saved us.”
Tanith walks out from the forest behind the man with sandy eyes. She approaches Dnaiil with her head low and tail dragging. She nudges his leg with her snout to get his attention before lying on her belly.
Daniil kneels. “You were able to escape.” He pauses, listening intently. “I don’t blame you for hiding. You understood it wouldn’t help if all of us were captured. Someone needed to escape to find help. I can’t believe you found someone, though.”
“Your beast found us while we were on patrol. She asked for our help,” Sandy Eyes says.
“You can hear her voice?” Kylii asks with sharpness to his voice that causes Daniil to place a hand on his brother’s leg.
Sandy Eyes ignores the hostility beneath Kylii’s words and moves to the side. “No. But he can.”
A Khorgoi appears from the trees. He walks to Sandy Eyes and sits. His scales are charcoal grey. A tan mane contrasts the scales and the black horn curving from his head. He is larger than Tanith, his horn longer as well.
“This is Saunem. Your Khorgoi caught his attention and told him where to go.”
Saunem looks at Tanith with dark blue eyes and coos. Tanith leaps to her feet and bares her fangs, slapping her tail on the ground. Daniil places a hand on her head, but he can’t help the small smile on his lips.
“Who are you?” Jaxon asks, approaching Sandy Eyes.
The playfulness in Saunem disappears and he growls at Jaxon. Sandy Eyes places a hand on his chest. “My name is Deven. My group patrols the edge of the forest to make sure the people of this village stay in the forest. They’re a danger to many and we like to keep them contained.”
“An awfully large patrol group for one small village.”
Deven’s eyes move to Meah. “What kind of magic do you practice, mage?”
Regaining his strength, Ime moves in front of Meah, placing himself between her and Deven. “How do you know she’s a magic user?”
“The people of this village have a unique talent, besides their few magic users. They can sense the magic inside of mages. They take the one with the most unique magic and sacrifice him or her to their spirits. So I’ll ask again, what kind of magic do you practice, mage?”
“Healing,” Meah says.
“You’re going to have to be more specific.”
Hesitating, Meah looks at Ime who nods his head. “I’m a Life Healer.”
Deven’s eyes narrow as a thought crosses his face. “We’re leaving. The ones of this village won’t stay away for much longer. Come with us.”
“And where would you be taking us?” Kylii asks.
“You can come with us or you can stay.” Giving a sharp whistle, Deven and his men return to the darkness of the forest.
The group’s hesitation doesn’t last long. They follow, catching up to Deven quickly.