Red, everything was red. It oozed and dripped and covered everything. It pressed down over him, stifling him. Moans rang all around. There were shrieks of pain and then silence. Suddenly there were hands, dozens of them, grabbing, pinching, lifting him.
With a gasp, Torren sat up in the tree-deepened darkness. His blue-gray eyes flickered around him, the feeling of those hands still with him as his breath rushed wildly in and out. A few burning embers in the small pit from his fire twinkled back at him, showing him he was alone.
His pack and boots were still leaning against the large maple closest to him. His sword was in its scabbard at his side, as he'd left it, within easy reach. His breathing slowed, these facts, one by one, calming him. The perspiration on his sun weathered face and arms turned cold and made him shiver. The last tendrils of the dream left him.
Wiping at his face and close-cropped blond, almost white hair, he flicked his blanket aside and climbed to his bare feet. Chiding himself as he took yet another look around to make sure he was alone, he hobbled over to his pack to change his sodden shirt.
The dream-the memories-they hadn't visited him in over a year. He'd actually started to hope they were gone for good this time. They were an annoyance and a horrid reminder of things he'd rather forget. Not that he ever could.
He wasn't sure if it was due to the fact he'd not suffered the dream in a long time, but this time it felt sharper, more immediate than ever before. He thrust the thought aside, not wanting to look at it too closely.
Pulling his shirt over his head, he shuddered as the night breeze touched his skin. Setting the shirt out to dry over a low branch, he quickly retrieved another out of his pack and slipped it on. With a grimace, he sat down on his damp blankets, not sure he could sleep again. He glanced up through the overhanging branches of the maple up at the sky. Two of the three moons were still visible. He sighed, figuring he still had about six hours left before dawn.
Tomorrow, if he was lucky, he would run across a farm or other travelers on the road and possibly hear more rumors about the happenings up toward the northern border. A set of mountains stood between the boundary of the Empire and the country of Galt. For generations it had helped maintain an uneasy peace between the two; the trouble of moving massive armies over the few passes carved through the mountains and the likelihood of ambush while doing so too risky to make it worthwhile. Recently though, it seemed matters had changed. Whispers of war were in the air. Forces were supposedly gathering near the border. Weapon sales had increased. If half of what he'd heard so far was true, there was a good chance he'd be able to offer his services in the area as a bodyguard or mercenary and perhaps get an even better than average wage.
Torren frowned as a slow shadow crossed before the smaller of the two moons. He stared at it, the long mass cutting across the bright surface as it drifted through the sky-it was one of the floating cities of El. The moonlight gleamed off some of its tall spires, making them appear like gleaming jewels. As he watched, the protective field over the island shimmered like stardust.
The floating cities of El-home to his people, the Chosen. A culture apart from the rest, living on their islands and high reaches where no mere mortals tread. A fantasyland paradise, if you believed what half of those living on the ground adhered to, though in truth no Lander had ever been within the floating cities.
The Empire still spent inordinate amounts of money trying to figure out how to tap the magic which kept the islands aloft and shielded them from the weather. Others tried to worship El instead, since he supposedly created the islands for his people as gifts, before being closed off from the world like the other gods by the First Mother. Neither method had yet to bear any fruit for their efforts.
He was sure the other empires of the world were probably doing much the same as well. Though the Shirak Empire had little contact with those across the wide oceans, the Chosen did. And somehow he doubted those other countries' feelings about them could be too far from those felt here. As far apart as the continents lay, and the treachery of the waters, gaining the secret of the islands or their flying ships would be a boon to whoever could replicate their secrets. Then the Chosen would not be the only ones linking the world in trade.
With a snort, he lay back down and turned away from the sight. First the dream and now this-would he never be free of them? He had no need of those places-or of their kind. Yet, though he'd turned away from the moving island, he could still feel the pull of the Chosen city as it traveled across the sky, almost as if it were calling out to him. He closed his eyes, trying his best to shut the feeling out with little success. Still the island's presence, the fact he'd had the dream again, and knowing he was close to the area where...
Torren abruptly stiffened, dropping his train of thought as a faint rustling sound came from somewhere behind him. He sat up and turned, his hand automatically reaching for his scabbard. He'd half risen, partially drawing his blade, when a figure burst out from the darkness and plowed into him in a tangle of arms and legs.
He fell back, and using the momentum, grabbed the intruder and flipped him to the ground, pinning him under his weight. So he was slightly taken aback as he looked down at the face of his attacker in the dim light and saw what appeared to be a frightened young girl. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked her gruffly.
Wide eyes stared at him unseeing even as the girl struggled vainly to get out from under him. Her breath came in harsh gasps, her arms and face scratched and bleeding from running through the brush.
He kept her pinned, wondering what someone like her was doing out here at this time of night. He assumed she came from a nearby farm, not much else being out there. Unfortunately the fire had burned too low to see anything clearly aside from her sex. Slowly, the girl's struggles eased, her gaze actually focusing on him for the first time. Tears welled up in her large eyes as her gaze locked with his own. "Help me. Please help me."
He released her, sitting down beside her in an attempt to keep her calm. "Are you being chased?"
The girl sat up, a shudder running through her as she did so, her arms wrapping themselves around her. She nodded. "I lost them, I think. But..."
Picking up his sword and scabbard, he strapped them on as he stood, staring in the direction she'd come from. If the girl was being followed, her pursuers couldn't be far behind. There were no sounds heralding their presence yet, but he knew he'd still have to work quickly. Anyone about at this time of night couldn't be up to much good.
"Grab the blankets and go stand by that tree." He pointed from the ground over to the maple his pack was leaning against. Turning away, he put on his boots and then with his foot, quickly pushed dirt back over the fire pit. With a faint hiss and rising smell of ashes, the embers were buried, what little light they'd been emitting gone. He then shoved leaves over the newly covered hole and waved at the air around him to dispel any of the remaining smoke.
Still keeping an ear to the muted night sounds around him, he hurried back to the large tree where the girl stood waiting for him. Cloaked in shadow, she was huddled against the tree's massive trunk, holding the blankets she'd retrieved as a shield against her chest.
"Come on," he told her, "time to climb up."
The girl, who only reached about the height of his shoulder, only stared blankly at him at his words. Torren frowned. "We need to climb this tree. You don't want to be found, right?"
She shook her head rapidly from side to side, yet made no move to do as he'd asked.
Trying hard not to let his irritation show on his face, he yanked his damp shirt off the tree limb and shoved it into his pack. Turning to look at the girl again, he slung the pack onto his shoulders. She hadn't moved, her large eyes staring at him intently. He sighed silently, figuring he'd have to do this the hard way.
Coming close, he grabbed her by her small waist, eliciting a surprised gasp from the girl. Ignoring it, he lifted her upwards. She gasped again and let go of the blankets, raining them down like leaves on his head.
Trying not to become even more annoyed than he was already, he spoke to her again. "Grab a limb and climb up. Do it now!"
Feeling her body finally going up, he let go of her and pulled the blankets off his head and then settled them on his shoulder. After a moment, he climbed up after her. The scent of the tree's bark was strong. "Keep going. You need to get up into the thickest part of the canopy."
Without a word, the girl scurried upward into the higher branches of the tree without much trouble. The leaves barely rustled as she passed.
"That's far enough." He was forced to reach out and grab her by the ankle as it looked as if she would keep going until she reached the top of the tree and beyond. "Sit there."
Timidly, the girl drifted back down and nestled herself where he pointed. Three limbs jutted out from a thick, central branch, making a seat Torren hoped she'd have a hard time falling out of. Making sure she was secure and looked to be staying put, he then found a place for himself.
"Here, cover yourself with this. It'll make you harder to see." He handed over one of the blankets, already having trouble making her out amongst the foliage. The girl quickly wrapped herself inside it, her teeth chattering softly.
Shaking his head as he watched her, he took the second blanket and wrapped it around himself. When he was done, he ignored her, instead concentrating his senses on the wooded landscape below. If the girl was being chased, her pursuers were late. If they were lucky, she'd lost them in the brush, but it was best to make sure.
After several long minutes, the crickets, which had grown silent at her abrupt arrival and later started up again, went suddenly silent once more. A curse echoed through the small clearing.
"Why would she have come this way?"
Torren stiffened at the sound of the annoyed voice, not having sensed the stranger's presence until then. He glanced over at the girl and saw her duck her head inside the blanket in fear.
"She's stupid? How should I know?" said a second voice sounding even more annoyed than the first.
"She won't be running through all this for long though, that's for sure." The first one snorted. "Never seen anyone run so fast."
"Fear's a great motivator." The second man paused. "I think she may have gone this way." The two men's voices drifted closer. More curses colored the night as they were forced to deal with the brush.
Torren silently removed his sword from its sheath and then the large knife hidden in his boot. He considered giving the girl the dagger in his pack but then rejected the idea. She was more likely to hurt herself with it than them.
The two men shoved their way out of the bushes into the small clearing and stopped.
He watched them, not able to make out much about them in the dark. One of the two scrunched closer to the ground. "Which way?" asked the other.
The first was silent for almost a full minute as he tried to study the ground around him. "It's too dark. The signs aren't clear."
"Dek is not going to want to hear this."
The first snorted. "You don't know how lucky we've been to have been able to follow her this far."
The other grunted in reply, not at all happy. "What now?"
The first rose to his feet. "We go back. What else? If Dek still wants to find her, we can try to pick up her trail again in the morning."
"So much for this easy job." The two men started back the way they'd come.
He slowly felt himself relax.
The fact they'd been able to track her at all from the road at night meant they were good. If they'd brought a light with them, they would have surely been able to tell where she'd gone and he'd have had no choice but to fight them. Still, the girl was surely a farmer's daughter. The closest town was a few days away, so why would people of such skill be after someone like her?
He shook his head. It didn't matter. What did was that they'd be back. Once they examined the area in daylight, they'd realize the girl ran across someone. This would change the rules of the game. Depending on why they wanted her, they might decide to take offense at the fact he'd seen her. The more distance he could put between himself and these men before they came back, the better.
"It's time to go."
The covered lump that was his unexpected guest didn't move. For a long moment, Torren considered just leaving her there. He knew he wouldn't, but he considered it all the same. With an irritated sigh, he got off his perch and reached over to remove the blanket from her head.
As he threw the corner of it off her, she jumped in her seat with a small squeal.
"If you don't want them to find you, we have to go. Now." He pointed to the ground and after a moment, she scampered down away from him with wide eyes. Though she wasn't what he'd call graceful, it looked as if she'd had experience climbing trees before.
Following at a more sedate pace, he descended, trying to go over their options. Traveling through the trees at night would be difficult, and he didn't know of any convenient streams nearby which they could use to hide their trail. If he wanted to get away, it seemed they'd have no choice but to use the road. There would be nothing there to trip over and the packed ground should hide any traces of their passing. Even better, he would use the pursuers own trail to get back to the road to make things even more difficult for them in the morning-that would work just fine.
Torren glanced over at where the girl stood waiting for him, still huddled in the blanket. "Stick close to me. We're going to make our way back to the road."
The girl stiffened before him, her face looking pale and wan in the moonlight. "No..."
His brow went up. "Suit yourself. You can stay here if you want. But they'll definitely find you in the morning." He shrugged when she said nothing and started on his way, not caring whether she followed one way or the other. If she didn't want his help, so be it.
He hadn't gone far before he heard her struggling to catch up.
In less than ten minutes, they made their way back to a wide dirt road. Though not one of the Empire's stone highways, the road was broad and followed a well-used route. Before stepping onto it, he glanced up and down the road to make sure the girl's two pursuers were nowhere near. Spotting no one, he left the shelter of the surrounding trees and started north. A minute or so later, the girl also left the concealment of the trees and followed after him.
Quietly, the two of them made their way down the empty road. Shadows played in the moonlit darkness to either side but Torren ignored them, keeping his senses primed for living threats.
They traveled down the road for over an hour and saw nothing and no one. Figuring he'd gone far enough to distance them from his old camp, he stopped and waited for the girl. He watched her as she came up and almost bumped into him, her figure half bent as she worked only at putting one foot in front of the other.
"We're getting off the road here," he informed her. The spot he'd chosen was bare of bushes or small plants and looked to be hard enough where they wouldn't leave much of a lead trail. Unless her pursuers had brought sniffers with them, which he doubted, they'd be hard pressed to find where the two of them went off the road. "Step where I step."
He stared hard at the ground as they left the road, trying to choose their trail carefully. He avoided plants or places of soft earth, for a cracked branch or indentation would give them away to one with skill. When he felt they'd gone far enough away from the road, he searched for a place for them to stop.
Finding a likely spot, he gratefully let his pack fall from his shoulders. "We'll be staying here until morning. I suggest you get what sleep you can." Without saying anything else, he stepped over to a nearby tree and sat down to keep watch for a while. The girl didn't move from where she stopped, but instead slouched down onto the ground and then curled up into a ball with the blanket and fell asleep.
He slowly shook his head as he watched her do this and then stared off into the night.