The Darkest HourTable of ContentsChapter 5.1: Alive/Undead
Back on my feet, I was already calling forth spirit armor. Even if we couldn't survive the beasts' attack, we could make them pay--and force them to close in rather than throw their spears from afar. Sensing my magic surrounding him, Jiro took a few steps forward and leveled his spear, placing himself between me and the beasts.
The fox-men merely looked at us, growling back and forth to one another.
"Well?" Jiro shouted, and their heads turned instantly to stare at us. "Well?"
"If they aren't going to attack, I suggest that we back out of here very slowly," I said softly. "There's no reason to alarm them."
Jiro shook his head. "I'd rather fight in the Sorceress's clearing than in those woods. Here I can see where they're coming from."
I glanced at the beasts, waiting for them to make a move. "They may not attack us."
"Well, if we turn and run they definitely will. If we run, they will chase. That's how animals work. Ao Shun's whiskers, that's how humans work half the time. But if we show our strength, it will confuse them. Buy us time."
"And what do you suggest we do with the extra time?"
"You're a scribe, right? So get to work on that report. The Sorceress is back in Reish. We failed."
I shook my head, not that he could see. "We didn't fail. We drove her off and saved this world."
"That may be so, but in case you forgot we've been banished. The only way we are going back home is with the Sorceress in chains, and clearly that isn't happening."
The beasts were still watching us, and it seemed that they were as uncertain of what to do as we were. I noticed them shifting from foot to foot, then watched as several clustered and began to converse in low tones.
"So, how long do you think this standoff can last?" I asked, fetching paper and ink from my writing supplies and kneeling. Using my knee as a hard surface, I began to scribble down a report. It definitely wasn't my best work, but I didn't know how much time we would have.
"How long do you need?" Jiro asked, grinding his teeth. "If it's all the same to you, once you're done with that report I'd like to attack. Take them by surprise, may be able to deal some damage that way. I hate standing around."
"Discipline, Jiro," I responded almost automatically. "Dying here won't accomplish anything. It's possible that the Stalwart is already on his way to reinforce us. Unlikely, but possible. Understood?" There was no response. I looked up. "Jiro, do you hear me?"
He nodded. "You know, I don't think that'll be necessary. Look."
There, walking out of the forest, were two humans. One was a man wearing leggings and a cloak, his wild hair somehow kept out of his face. Next to him was a woman I recognized wearing monk's robes. Tattered, but unmistakable.
"Captain?" I said, my report forgotten. I stood up and saluted.
Captain Hyeon smiled. "You're Gao Han's scribe, right? Wen, is it?"
I nodded and bowed. "We received your message but arrived too late to secure the rift. Gao Han led a force through to track down the Sorceress. We managed to defeat her in battle, but she escaped with the remains of her entourage. I was sent to track her. She just opened a rift to Reish and got away."
The captain nodded. "I see. The Stalwart's been industrious."
"If you don't mind," I said, "I didn't exactly expect to see you here. We freed a few of the prisoners and they said you had escaped and disappeared. How did you survive?"
Hyeon smiled again and gestured towards one of the vulpine beasts. "Mavuto helped me to escape and brought me to the Warpath's leader, Hehkeem. With the help of Coyle," the man standing next to her bowed, "our... translator, we were able to reach an alliance. Hehkeem sent members of his pack against the Sorceress. We only just arrived, but they said that you helped in the battle."
I shook my head. "There was little we could do."
"Where is the rest of the force? Gao Han's hundred men weren't wiped out by the Verorians, were they?"
"As if," Jiro scoffed. "No, after the battle with the Sorceress's cultists the Stalwart fortified the area so our wounded could recover."
"There's something else," I said. "We are nowhere near a hundred strong. The Sages ordered that the Rift be abandoned and Gao Han return to his post on the Wall. Only some twenty-five of us followed him here, and the battles have taken their toll. All of us who remain have been banished from Jinhai."
Captain Hyeon gasped and Coyle frowned.
"Is that bad?" he asked.
"Bad?" Jiro exploded. "Bad? Banishment is the ultimate censure and you ask if it's bad?"
Hyeon nodded. "To be cast out from Jinhai is to be cut off from all that is good in Reish. It brings dishonor upon your ancestors and dooms you to a slow death in the wastes."
Coyle nodded. "I see."
"Who is this man?" I asked, narrowing my eyes.
"I told you," Hyeon replied, "he is our translator."
"With the beasts?"
"With anyone you want," Coyle declared. "I can learn any language in a heartbeat and teach anyone in two."
Hyeon glared at him. "Discipline, Coyle. You exaggerate."
He scowled. "It's true, though. If there's anyone you need to talk to, I'm your man."
By now the beasts had closed in around us, but all signs of violence had passed. I let Jiro's spirit armor dissipate as the one beast, Mavuto, spoke. "Even with the Sorceress fled to Reish, there is much to discuss with your leader."
I tried and failed to hide my shock that he was using our language. "Wha-what?"
Captain Hyeon smiled. "We need to speak with Gao Han."
I saluted again. "Of course, Captain."
"Hehkeem will want to be there," Mavuto growled.
"Naturally," Hyeon replied, her voice smooth. "He will be accorded respect proper to his station as Caller of the Warpath."
"Caller of the Warpath?" Jiro asked.
"For the time being, Hehkeem commands the loyalty of every beast in the Untamed World," Hyeon explained.
I gulped. "Well, when would you like to depart?"
"I think now would be good," Coyle said. "Hehkeem will follow at his own pace. He is still dealing with the Talich-born."
"Talich?" Jiro asked.
"It's his home," Hyeon said. "Now, let's return to your camp. I would suggest notifying Gao Han of recent events."
I looked at my hastily written report. "You're right, I'll prepare a report immediately. Just a few minutes and we can head out."
"I'll summon the courier while you write," Hyeon said, blue magic already swirling around her fingertips.
"Thank you, Captain."
Within no time, we were following the trail back northeast, surrounded by a score of vulpine beasts. It was without a doubt the strangest company I had ever kept.