Banner art by JackOfClubs (jack_spire on livejournal).
You can find the whole cover art here- JoC did a great job on it!
There's also a great mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 7)
Meren retrieved the rope and stashed it back into her bag before turning to face the wizard again. Only then did she realize that she'd had her back to him the whole time, but he hadn't even moved. He had a sad, distant look on his face, as though he was thinking hard about something, and it wasn't until she'd walked over and poked him in the arm that he snapped out of it. As he blinked down at her, Meren noticed that his eyes were an uncanny shade of dark brown, almost a black. Is that normal for humans? she wondered, although this didn't hold her attention long. "I'll lead you to the edge of our lands. Be sure not to come across here again because the other guards won't be as kind."
"Trapping me in a hole is kind?" he asked bitterly. When he saw Meren frown again he bowed his head, letting his now rather-mussed long hair fall over his face, and clutched at his quarterstaff. "I didn't mean- look, thank you for getting me out and fixing me up. I do appreciate that, elf-girl."
Meren could tell that something was bothering him but wasn't sure if she should pry. Instead she just nodded as they began walking, or hobbling some, in his case. "It's fine. I do have a name, you know. It's Meren."
"Surprisingly pronounceable. I'll try to remember that for the next time I need a healer... not that if I get hurt, I'll wander around a forest, of course. And I'm Phillip, by the way." The wood elf was relieved to hear his voice take on a less cynical quality.
She couldn't resist asking, however, why a human wizard was wandering a forest. "Why were you here this time?"
There was that sad look on his face again and Meren almost felt bad for asking. Almost, because she knew herself to be far too inquisitive to let something like that go. "I'm trying to get home. My master-" he stopped in mid-sentence and began to look around again, frantically looking from side to side.
"Isn't here," Meren finished, assuming that that was who he was looking to avoid. She was sure of that; anyone wandering this area wouldn't be doing so undiscovered for long, whatever this master was.
As his dark eyes went large, the wood elf was sure that she'd hit a sore spot, or, rather, a paranoid crazy spot. He whispered to her, "No, you don't understand. He's... horrible, evil, unhinged. He may not be here, but what if one of his servants are?"
Now Meren was entirely confused. Why would servants be a problem? Didn't humans just use them for pouring tea or watching their children or something? Clearly this was a cultural misunderstanding. "Come again?"
Phillip shook his head and continued in a low voice, "You don't want to understand, elf-girl. Trust me."
The wood elf tried to shrug nonchalantly, but this actually had her somewhat worried. Whatever had gotten to the young man had obviously upset him and she didn't think he was faking that fear. Maybe if she changed the subject? "Alright, I won't ask. Where is your home?"
For some reason that subject did seem to calm him down and he loosened his grip on his quarterstaff, his knuckles fading from the white that they'd become. "Birchlyn. It's a village-"
"To the southwest," Meren answered with a smile, one mystery solved. So that was why he spoke Halfling! She knew that to be the nearest town to Woodedge, a halfling village and, oddly enough, where the shorter side of her family was from. Since he was local, that would mean that he at least had heard of the forest he'd ended up in. "You overshot when trying to get back there and ended up in the outskirts of Fayiron."
For the first time the elf saw the wizard give a genuine smile, which made him look a lot less haunted. "Then I am close to my destination. That is good to hear!"
Meren was extremely curious about those halflings who must have taught him their language; he was quite fluent, so it was likely that it wasn't something he'd picked up secondhand. She was just about to ask him more about his home when she was startled by horrible laughter to her right.
They'd left most of the trees behind them and Meren's curiosity had left her not to realize just how out in the open the two of them were, which wouldn't have been a problem, except for the group of monsters that seemed to have them surrounded. There was that orc the elf had wished for earlier and two more of its kin. But even worse than that were … well, they had to be what Phillip was talking about earlier.
Meren shuddered as she was hit with deja vu. Here was a handful- flock? Horde? Graveyard? Words flipped through her head- of skeletons, which were upright and walking towards them, clinking slightly as they moved. No wonder Phillip's so jumpy! she thought. Gripping her bow tightly, she drew an arrow from her quiver and put it to the string. If these things thought they could just stroll into her home, they had another thing coming to them, or so Meren hoped. She had a feeling arrows would only harmlessly go through the more boney enemies. She looked over at the man, her only backup in this mess. Phillip had frozen in place, his eyes wide again and he appeared to be trembling slightly. Meren sighed. Yeah, that's a big help.
Careful to keep the monsters in her line of sight, she kicked the wizard in the shin. It wasn't the injured one, but it hurt enough that he scowled at her, fear replaced by annoyance, which had been the elf's intention. "Now what?" she asked. Before the human could reply, one of the orcs began to speak.
"A new friend? Too bad for her we'll have to kill her, too," the orc said in the human tongue. Phillip glanced over at Meren, worried about her reaction to that statement. Upon seeing her expression of complete incomprehension, he realized she had no idea what the orc had said. One small favor there.
Taking a deep breath as he tried to keep his fear under control, he asked, "It was a waste of time to follow me, was it not? Don't you have something more important to do than follow one worthless apprentice?" Maybe they'd listen if he sounded like his master...
No such luck. The orcs only sneered at him while the skeletons, lacking faces with which to emote, remained still, which disturbed him even more. Maybe if I can get the green ones away, the creepier ones will follow, he thought as the skeletons continued to stare at him with empty eye sockets. He gave a shudder and looked over at the elf. She, too, hadn't moved further than to ready her bow and Phillip hoped she'd be be willing to cover for him with it if his idea didn't work.
The man reached into the neck of his robe with his free hand to retrieve the amulet he'd left hanging there and tugged the chain over his head. Assuming what he hoped was a powerful wizardly stance, but worrying he simply looked like a ragged, injured, terrified boy, he thrust the amulet forward. Doing his best to make his voice boom, he demanded, "Stand back or I'll unleash the full fury of this arcane amulet!"
To his amazement, this worked. Partly. The orcs stepped back, looking nervously between themselves. Phillip gave a quiet sigh of relief. Now can I get this thing to actually do something? For all that his master had desired it so much, he'd never actually used it, or if he had, it wasn't in his apprentice's presence. He concentrated deeply on the charm danging from his hand, trying to weave the power he controlled around it. Preoccupied by this, he didn't notice that Meren had begun chanting next to him. Since his eyes were directed at the item in his hand, however, he did take notice of its current state: the stone began flickering between purple and green. After a few seconds it settled on a deep blueish-purple, as though both colors had combined into one. He had only a moment to wonder about this, however.
Suddenly struck by what felt like a bolt of lightning, or as though a cat the size of an elephant had rubbed against his leg, he fell to his knees. As a cloud of purple smoke engulfed him, he began gasping to try to breathe through the heavy fog. His lungs felt on fire, his skin tingled, his head rang. What's going on? Never had his magic done anything like this, even as a new apprentice; the most he'd done was catch a book on fire, but this was a bigger problem than a bucket could fix.
As he gasped and wheezed, he felt something grope for his arm and he flinched back, knowing what kind of horrible things were near. When he saw the tattooed vines on the hand rather than bones or claws, he let out a sigh of relief, which caused him to break into another coughing fit. Leaning heavily on the elf and his staff, he was able to get to his feet as the smoke began to clear, but something was wrong... his lungs continued to ache and he felt a draft on the back of his neck, which contrasted greatly with the hot tingling of a moment before. And his hands, why did they look so discolored? Meren gave a gasp and he looked over to see her staring at him with her mouth open, but before he could ask, the sound of approaching rattling made him look past her. The monsters, no longer frightened since the smoke had all but dissipated, were approaching again. The orcs seemed to be staying as far from the skeletons as they could, but all were moving forward.
Phillip was at a complete loss. He couldn't run, he could barely breathe and what would happen to a spell if he couldn't stop coughing while trying to recite the necessary words? He was defenseless; all he'd be good for would be getting in Meren's way as the monsters sent after him got her, too. Perhaps if she could get back into the thick part of the forest, she'd lose them. He couldn't get away, but he had no reason to expect her not to want to flee.
His mind now made up in a decision he couldn't really comprehend, he found the elf's hand again. He dropped the amulet into it and whispered hoarsely, "Run, elf-girl. They want me, not you."
Her reaction surprised him as much as his own had. Meren looked up at him, her green eyes narrowed, and shook her head defiantly. "This is my home. My land. My magic. They have to get through me."
Before he could do more than blink at her vehement reaction, she dropped to the ground in a crouch, letting go of her bow to clutch the grass, keeping the amulet in her one hand. As the monsters neared, she began to chant in her unfamiliar airy language. Hoping she knew what she was doing, Phillip gripped his staff tightly with both hands, pushing back the pain in his ankle and the ache that still filled his lungs. If an elf was willing and brave enough to face monsters obviously arcane, then a wizard darn well could do the same.
Part 7 can be found here.