The Darkest HourTable of ContentsChapter 4.1: Reigned In/Unleashed
"As important as it is for the men to rest and recover," Gao Han was saying, "we can't let the Sorceress slip away. Someone will need to follow her--find out where she's going and how fast, whether or not she's having trouble with the beasts, and so on. Wen, you're relatively unmarred from our battles--goes with your role as a spirit-speaker. Pick one of the men and follow her trail."
I swallowed. "Right, sir."
"And don't drag off any of the stone-callers. We need them to fortify the camp."
"Of course not, sir."
Even as he walked away, our stone-callers began raising battlements from the ground. I walked over towards Jie. "How goes it?"
He patted the wall he had just raised. "This is good earth. Good stone. Not like that powdery [redacted] we dealt with out in the Wastes. It'll hold against most anything." He smiled. "Well, who knows what will come out of these woods next?"
I nodded and moved on. Near the center of the valley, our two healers were hard at work dealing with all of the injuries from the battle. I brushed the bandages on my burned arm. "Jiro," I asked, "how do you feel?"
My friend's arm was in a sling and there was a bandage around his head, but he immediately jumped to his feet when he saw me. "Ready to keep fighting."
"That's what I'd hoped you would say," I replied with a grin. "Can you march with that sling?"
Jiro unhooked the sling from his shoulders and gave his arm an experimental stretch. "Don't need it."
"Wait a minute, now wait a minute, you are in no condition to--" a healer began.
"Healer, there are others who need your attention more," I said, cutting him off. "This one'll be fine. I'll take care of him."
"So what's the plan?" Jiro asked as we walked off.
"We're following the Sorceress--tracking her while the others recover and fortify here. I'm going to grab some supplies; wait here."
Already some of our men were beginning to forage in the trees around the valley, and I carefully grabbed a satchel of the scavenged vegetables. Checking that my writing kit was in place on my belt as a force of habit, I returned to where Jiro was standing, leaning on his spear.
He nodded. "Of course."
"Then let's get moving."
We exited the growing compound through a gate and began to march, Jiro using his spear as a walking stick. Following the Sorceress's trail through the end of the valley, we found where she had bridged Jie's chasm and crossed over the makeshift bridge of felled trees.
"I'm surprised she isn't heading north, back towards the portal," I said as the trail continued to go dead south. "What is she thinking?"
Jiro snorted. "Probably frightened that an entire army of monks is on her trail. If she knew half the truth she wouldn't have run. They would have slaughtered us easily if they had stood and fought." He spat. "Cowards."
I wasn't sure if he was referring to the Verorians or those who had stayed behind--or both. Instead of pressing the issue, I kept moving. As we marched, Jiro began to lean more and more on his spear and fall farther and farther behind. I didn't stop, but I didn't lose sight of him either. Spotting a clearing, I stopped and waited for him to catch up, taking the opportunity to scribble down a few notes.
"Looks like the Verorians stopped here earlier," I said. "They cleared out a lot less space this time."
Jiro nodded, kicking the ashes of a campfire. "Looks like there are maybe a dozen of them left, by the size of the place."
"Indeed. And they don't have shelter. Most if not all of the thralls who would carry it for them are dead and they abandoned their camp anyway. What surprises me is their course." I gestured at the stars becoming visible in the sky as night fell. "Southwest. Why?"
Jiro shrugged. "I don't know and I don't care."
I wrote a report on our progress for Gao Han and summoned a spirit to carry it to him, then spread out my bedroll. "I'll take second watch," I said. "Wake me before you fall asleep from exhaustion."
Jiro saluted. "Yes, sir, commander."
"I'm not the commander," I grumbled, fidgeting to try and find a comfortable spot on the hard ground. "The Stalwart is still in charge."