The world was too bright, the air too clear. Each breath was overwhelmingly sweet, free of the toxins that I didn't even know I had grown accustomed to on Reish. And the green. I have never seen so much green in my life, nor such vibrant color. It was thoroughly disorienting, and the entire column stumbled along for the first five minutes, overwhelmed by the vitality of this world.
And with each breath we took, we knew: we were right. We could not abandon this world to the Sorceress when we had a chance to defend it. With every breath I stood taller, confident. Even being banished from Jinhai was worth the righteousness that we felt in those first moments, surrounded by the thoroughly alive world, a world so different from our own--a world that had gone so right where ours had gone so horribly wrong.
I watched Gao Han regain his composure, his eyes alight and determined. He glanced around the clearing that surrounded the rift, taking it all in. Then his eyes narrowed and he set off at a jog. We fell in behind him, glorying in the colors around us.
Only to follow the Sorceress's trail. It was not a difficult path to follow. She had made it easy both to track and to pursue her by clearing out the trees and undergrowth where it had grown too thick for her entourage, leaving a corrupted trail of death that we recognized all too well.
Jiro snarled. "This stinks of the Sorceress."
I rolled my eyes. "Of course it does. Why do you think we're following it?"
Suddenly we came to a halt. Gao Han knelt by the edge of the death-trail and waved me over. "What do you think?" he asked, gesturing at the grass. It had been singed in a square pattern, but not destroyed.
"Looks like binding magic," I said, kneeling down to get a closer look. I took a deep breath, concentrating, and placed my hand over the scorch marks. Blue spirit magic swirled around my hand, then cleared. I took a deep breath and nodded. "Definitely binding magic. And the Sorceress's as well, judging by the strength. It matches her other handiwork."
Gao Han nodded. "As I suspected. Someone tried to escape."
"So they did take prisoners."
"And at least one was alive... when they were here. Do you know how old this is?"
I shook my head. "Maybe if I knew more about this world, the rate at which the grass grows, and a million other details. I can only guess."
"A day ago? No more than two, I think."
"This damn death magic is a clear trail, but it's making it impossible to tell how quickly they're going." He nodded and stood up. "We need to keep moving, and fast. The sooner we catch up to the Sorceress, the better."
We marched for another hour before stopping for lunch in an area that had been more widely cleared by the Verorians. "Look here," Jiro said, kicking a corpse, "they must have run into something."
"Captain Hyeon did mention beasts coming through the rift," I said, examining the body. "Whatever it is, it definitely isn't human."
Jiro nodded and pointed at the edge of the trees. "I'm willing to bet that there are corpses of cultists out there. How long do you think they stayed at this spot?"
Jie, one of the few stone-callers to join us, spoke up. "Judging by the size of the clearing they created and the remains of several campsites, I would guess that this was an overnight camp. Look, you can see here that a large tent was set up, no doubt for the Sorceress. On the other side of the clearing the ground has been depressed, suggesting a heavy load--such as prison cages."
"Can you tell how many?" I asked.
He shook his head. "No. The earth doesn't tell me everything, sadly."
"If they stayed here overnight," I began.
"Then if we can keep marching that will mean that we're catching up to them," Jiro finished, grinning. "I can't wait to see the look on their faces when we slaughter them."
"Discipline, Jiro," I said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Don't be overeager, and don't underestimate your foe. Remember that our strength is not what it was yesterday."
At the other end of the clearing, Gao Han spoke up. "Enough talk, we need to keep moving." So we did.
As the sun began to set behind the trees--trees, whole forests of them, like none I had ever witnessed or even heard of on Reish--Gao Han called a halt, sniffing the air. "Rain!" he barked out. "Take cover!"
We scrambled away from the unprotected openness of the death-trail, hurriedly setting up lean-tos beneath the trees on the trail's edge. I summoned a layer of spirit armor above my makeshift tent, watching the entire forest light up as Gao Han summoned enough spirit armor to protect the entire force. The rain came down, plop-plop-plopping onto the magical shields with a steady beat before running off to the ground. We huddled beneath our canopies, eyeing the skies warily as they turned a mixture of red and black from the sunset and the rainclouds.
And then Jiro laughed. "We're fools," he said, grinning from ear to ear. And then he cast off his rain-cloak and walked out into the open, spreading his arms wide and laughing. Before I could respond he cupped his hands together and began to drink the rainwater. I froze with a protective spell on my lips, horrified.
He's a dead man. What's gotten into him?
Then he turned around and grinned again, laughing at all of us. "We're not on Reish, remember?" Jiro said, gesturing at the trees and life around us. "The rain isn't poison here."
Gao Han let the spirit armor fade and we all had a good chuckle at our own foolishness. I walked out to Jiro and shook his hand, letting the rainwater soak into my hair and run down my back. It felt good, refreshing. I couldn't remember the last time I had witnessed one of the few 'safe rains' back in Jinhai. "Old habits die hard," I said, smiling at my friend.
He grinned. "My first instinct was to find cover as well."
"Now that we've all made sufficient fools of ourselves," Gao Han declared, "we might as well make camp for the night. Wen, arrange the watch shifts."
I bowed. "Of course, commander."
Gao Han looked up at the sky, rain streaming down his face as he smiled. "Beautiful," he whispered. "Absolutely beautiful."
So ends chapter 2. The hunt is afoot, and on the other side of the Untamed World the United Talich Front is invading. For those of you wondering, I've written Coyle with the ability to absorb the powers and abilities of those around him--including language. He can also transfer those abilities to others. Although he claims to be working to help stop the violence, his true motives remain unclear.
The last scene, with the rain, is one of my favorites. I've thought a lot about how the different environments on the various worlds would affect the characters' attitudes, and the contrast between the Untamed World and Reish is a huge influence. As I see it, it's a major part of why Gao Han's fighting.
I hope you've enjoyed it so far, and stay tuned for Chapter 3!