The shadow darts towards the wagon at a manic, staggered pace.
It’s a blur for mere moments, until it resolves into a shape about a hundred meters out. With Ane’s carefully-focused sight-hum, the thing comes into sharp clarity: a squat, hunched figure, slumped down even as it sprints along the side of the road. Their posture is despondent and their body clad in rags, as if they stand destitute even now. Altogether, they seem alive, but wholly unnatural in their jerky movements.
A steady stream of inky blackness rises from their head and chest. It stops and stands in place, head and shoulders jittering unnaturally.
Ane jerks her head in its direction, signalling to her guards. When she speaks, her voice is a tight, tense whisper.
“Hundred yards, right side of the road. Sort of hunched down, not running towards us — yet.”
The fuhajen nods. He leans forward, squinting his trio of eyes hard as he peers into the dark. He does so for a few seconds longer, before he mutters in frustration.
“Void, I can’t see it at all. Passing it on.” The guard peers over the front of the wagon and shouts to the riders in front, “Light in front, paletorch at the ready!”
A few seconds later, there’s the sound of tinder being struck, then the whoosh of a flame. While a regular torch would do practically nothing here, the caravan is fortunately supplied with a bullseye lantern. Its fuel is far cheaper than a paletorch, which are sued as a last resort, as just one of which can cost a small fortune.
The lantern casts out a cone of light along the path ahead, stretching on about a hundred-and-twenty feet. Beyond this is first silhouettes, then yet more darkness.
A few seconds pass as the caravan travels further down the road. Ane’s ears twitch, sensing a rapid, approaching sound coming from ahead…
The faceless has risen to stand, and now it’s dashing, straight at the caravan.
Within seconds, it reaches the edge of the lantern’s light. There it stops and stands, revealing a black scarf over the lower half of a huikkaran’s head. Above it, there is nothing– no eyes, no nose, just inky blackness and burn marks.
And yet despite its near-lack of a mouth, it shouts.
“STAND AND DELIVE-”
The fuhajen looses an arrow, and it lands straight in the thing’s chest. It continues to stay stationary, shouting its nonsense like a broken poem.
“STAND AND ‘LIVER, STAND AND! STAND AN–”
Twang, snap! Snap!
The fuhajen sends off two more arrows, this time landing them in the thing’s head. Both pound easily into the skull, shattering bone and sundering the charred face-flesh. It begins to lurch forward, slowly dropping.
“STAND! Stand! Stand. Stand…”
It falls face-first into the dirt, now silent. The voidstuff within it pools around its motionless body, like a churning puddle of tar.
Ane exhales a tight breath.
“One down,” she mutters softly.
“Void take bandits,” the archer swears.
Now that the body is felled, the darkness pooled around it seems to… drip upwards. It’s slow, like jam falling from a piece of toast. Slowly but surely, the strange essence begins to dissipate, until there’s nothing left but a lifeless corpse. As the caravan passes towards it, someone at the front hops off. This mercenary, clad in metallic scale armor, takes the thing up by the hair. When he goes out of Ane’s veiw, she hears the grim snap of a neck being severed and something heavy being tossed back along the side of the road.
“Grim work,” the tzuskar guard comments from beside Ane on the wagon-top. “The Void-ness takes almost any corpse, but not ones without a face to remove.” She sighs. “Decapitatin’ it probably wasn’t necessary, though I guess you can’t blame a little superstition.”
Ane shrugs a shoulder, feigning a nonchalance she does not feel.
“Better safe than surprised, I guess.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” the fuhajen archer agrees, adjusting his hat. Soon he settles into the task of counting his arrows and testing the string of his bow.
The hours begin to pass. The shadowlands remain barren and featureless, and the caravan trundles on ceaselessly and without incident. Yet the deeper the caravan heads into the shadowlands, the more the landscape continues to warp and change… The few sparse copses of trees give way to strange, featureless land, all with soil covered in strange white webbing. Even the road wastes away, until it’s naught but an ancient trend in the dust.
The only real “feature” of the land is the occasional tunnel-mouth, each going down into the spongy soil beneath the earth. Without the shadowland’s oppressive mycelium cover, those tunnels seem lush and vibrant by comparison. With their heat-vents and own local ecosystems, they’re a world apart from this wasteland. The mycelium along some of the ground even clumps there, trying to get at the scraps…
In the distance, something begins to emerge: light. It comes in small pinpricks, barely perceptible, but it’s there all the same. Whenever Ane moves, even to breathe, they seem to flicker out. Soon, the reason for this becomes more apparent — they’re coming from behind a curtain of thick, barky trees. A whole forest looms ahead in the distance. The border of the forest seems to go on for miles in either direction, while the road continues towards it undeterred…
Off to the right, the mountain range dips lower, though not by much, just a fraction of the overall height. It still doesn’t permit much shardlight to pass from beyond it, but the dip permits some illumination into the strange, impending forest.
“Well… That’s a blessing and a curse,” the fuhajen comments. “We’ll be able to see a little, but there’ll be plenty of things for those monsters to hide behind…”
Ane nods, a slow, solemn, singular bob of her head.
“Too bad drawing cards doesn’t help much here,” she says with flat sardonicism. “There’d be less pressure that way.”
The archer lets out a light laugh.
“Wish you’d said that a few hours ago… You’re busy spottin’, but we’ve just been pinching ourselves this whole time to stay awake.”
The tzuskar sighs, crossing her gauntleted arms.
“I don’t think she meant playing cards… Didn’t you see the style of the wagon? She’s a fortune teller.”
“… Well,” the fuhajen murmurs, chastened. “That doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have a deck of playing cards too…”
As the wagon rolls closer to the forest’s edge, the true, sheer enormousness of it becomes apparent. If this is the same forest that Ane explored in her trance a day ago, borrowing that strange body, then its small size must have disguised how large the forest really was. The trees here seem to be two, sometimes even three stories tall. Certainly this forest hasn’t seen an axe for almost a millennium. All this time, it seems the forest has had no shardlight to nurture it — none save for the strange, ambient glow that emanates from what she can only assume is its center. This glow is mirrored by the trees themselves, but not the ones out here towards the edge… Those strange, glowing discs must be deeper inside, hiding behind layer upon layer of these barky phalanxes.
The wagon wheels continue to roll. It’s just a few more moments now ‘till the first wagon enters the forest. Strangely, there is still a path going through. It’s a low, desperate thing, but it’s wide enough for the caravan and also seems to stretch deep into the forest. Not a single tree nor root marrs the dusty surface of the stones. It must be by magic or some sort of trickery that the path is preserved… or the path of some hidden fungus hidden amidst the leaf-litter. Some of them are selfish like that — pushing back other forms of life with secret poisons, so that their own might take hold.
Ane’s fingers itch to dig into dark turf, to see what kind of tiny, botanical treasures she might find. Surely, a place like this must have some useful herb, root, or mushroom in it… The forest looks like it was distilled from a nightmare as it is, so it’s got to hold something helpful for some strange, dark facet of the mind.
Unfortunately, the caravan is dead-set on trundling forward, even though the column does move rather slowly as it squeezes between the pressing walls of ancient trees. Some of the branches dip low, obstructing the bulk of the wagons as they begin to pass through. And yet the wagons carry on anyway, snapping through even the thickest of branches with the unstoppable force of the marching trumba.
Of course, the trio on the roof isn’t so comfortable. The tree branches force the tzuskar to join the archer at the front, where she begins to hack and whack at the barring branches, swinging her sword like a machete. The archer joins her in this, fortunately drawing a hatchet from his pack. It seems tiring work, but fortunately it comes in short bursts, with long bouts of rest in-between. Altogether, it’s enough to have the fuhajen puffing heavy breaths, though the tzuskar doesn’t seem terribly bothered — save for the twig stuck in her feathers.
In the midst of all this, Ane plucks a stray twig from the wagon’s roof, secreting it away in the pocketbag tied around her waist. She’ll investigate it later, once she has the luxury of more time and when her humming sight isn’t pressed into service as a lookout. Right now, the two mercenaries seem very distracted by the stray branches. If something were sneaking on the caravan, they’d probably be at a disadvantage. They do occasionally have pauses in this work, though, allowing the two of them to glance around a little.
During these gaps between weighty chops and snapping wood, Ane finds it easier to keep a lookout as well — and it’s a bit more interesting to the senses. There’s a lot to listen to out here, with the forest practically teeming with bizarre life. Things all seem a little different in this place.
The creatures here seem to be a departure from their usual counterparts. The clap-voles are a little louder, the skittering quarrels are a little bigger… And at some point, by the side of the road, there even appears to be a three-foot tall smeerp. It’s as if all the life here were sequestered away to an island, allowed to grow and change without regard for common sense. By the look of things, there aren’t any signs of true predators — none that are living, anyway.
The dead are another story.
A strange echo permeates the woods, like a voice bouncing off of trees. It almost sounds like a bark. This notion is only comforting for a few moments, before the sound comes into greater clarity… There are vowels and consonants in there, even if no true words can be discerned.
Ane sweeps the forest with her gaze as best as she can — first the path wending ahead and behind them, then the underbrush lining it, and then up into the trees. The vibration of her hum against the leaves makes it difficult for her to see very far, but she might be able to catch a burned-away face or a stray limb before it’s too late.
The path ahead holds nothing. Just a dark, lonely road.
The path behind holds nothing. Just a long train of wagons, followed by trees.
The underbrush — was that a grinning, half fused mouth? No, it was just a large, wet leaf.
But the trees…
“Erue enee nikethai! Sylaa, sylaa!” The non-words, maybe another language, cry out in a chant. They’re falling, falling, until…
The form of a large, hook-armed callosian falls onto the roof of the wagon. It could’ve crashed through anything not made of such sturdy old wood. The thing’s face is burnt away, charred like the coals of a long-dead flame. Its body is ancient, skeletal in parts, and otherwise half torn away. The head is still intact, offering onlookers a view of half a pair of disturbingly perfect, pierced lips, burnt shut halfway through their span. Above, the eyes and nose are lost in a crater of whispy darkness. Below, the monstrosity is covered in strange fabrics, patterns, and jewelry — an ancient horror, lost to time.
“Sylaa, Sylaa! Krun tukka sin laan! Sin laan, sin laan!” It echoes, again and again, slapping its arms of fused flesh together. The hands have worn way to bone, and that bone to a point, marked by endless bite-marks. “Sin laan, sin laan…” It raves in ancient tongue.
“PALE TORCHES! Light them!” The archer calls desperately. “FACELESS ON THE-”
The thing lumbers forward, planting its feet, before…
…slamming one of its hook-bone hands into the archer’s torso. He’s tossed back, sent tumbling from the roof of the wagon. He lands with a thud and a clank, striking the wagon coupling below, before doubtlessly tumbling onto the road beneath.
The tzuskar had only just drawn her sword.
Far back on the wagon train, there’s a similar commotion. Another Faceless is there, stomping on the top of Jiselmo’s wagon. There’s a shriek, and Jiselmo cowers into his cabin, latching his roof-hatch shut. Atop it, a featherless, Void-ridden tzuskar stomps powerfully. He hefts a strange, bulging sack over his shoulder, and carries a savage stone-fashioned axe in-hand…
Ane’s group has more than their own share of trouble.
Ane barely has time to get out a word, and, when she does, it’s less a word than a kind of startled yelp as she scrambles to her feet. She holds the knobby length of gurran jawbone clutched in an iron grip, swinging it high over the point of her shoulder as she readies herself to strike the shouting callosian’s burned-away face.
The tzuskar has fortunately come to her senses, just as surprised as Ane. She stands backed up against the front of the wagon, much like the archer was before he took his fall. She steels herself and plants her feet, taking a wide stance as she faces the creature.
“Over here, ugly!” She shouts, too frazzled to quip. She raises up her metal shield and clangs it against her sword, drawing the monster’s attention. “See if you can toss me so easily, bastard!” She flares her wings around her in a shielding sort of fan. It’s not enough to block incoming attacks, but obscures her center of mass, making her a harder target.
The Faceless, already positioned between her and Ane, turns its full attention towards the warrior. This leaves his back and skull exposed to Ane, showing the cancerous bald-patches on its cranium that give way down to the bone. Bizarrely, it throws testing punches at the guard’s shield, as if it’s trying to disrupt her stance.
“Sin laan, sin laan! Krun tukka sin laan!” It continues to shout. Its voice is irate and raw, moreso than the usual mad raving. Void, the tone even sounds like it’s instructing.
Ane doesn’t need to be told twice. Once the creature’s back is turned to her, she brings the curved end of the jawbone down on the bared, rotting skull. The sheer weight of the weapon forces her to follow through completely — it’s less a blow intended to strike the creature’s skull, as it is one that fully intends to go through it.
The strike is bone against bone. With a loud THWACK, the bludgeon clubs straight through the back of the Faceless’ skull. Once the bits of flesh and skull are shot off like shrapnel, a deep, seething nothingness is revealed beneath. It swirls within what was once the cranium, tumbling over itself like smoke in a bottle. With the back removed, it billows out, bringing with it the horrible stench of old flesh and baneful magic.
The mawkish, sulfurous stink of death blows over Ane’s face as the callosian’s skull gives way. She takes a half step backward, bracing herself as she yanks the heavy jawbone free of the crushed mass of splintered bone and papery, desiccated tissue.
Suddenly the form goes slack, then slowly tips forward on the force of the wagon. It falls towards the tzuskar, who’s left only a moment between her and the crash of the body. She manages to bring her shield up in time, catching the thing’s weight. With a flare of strength, she tosses it aside, letting it topple from the roof and down to the road below.
Behind the tzuskar, a flash of white light flares up. It’s not wholly familiar to Ane, but it’s distinct and well-known enough to be identified: Palefire light. The caravan dares not stop now. Faceless tend to attack in hoards, just like the men they once were. The paletorch, while expensive, is the only option to ward off more attackers. The halo of light barely reaches back to where Ane and the guard stand. It certainly doesn’t reach back to the other wagons, where they hear a muffled-
“HEEELP! By the gods, lumberjacks are even worse after the expiration date!”
Jiselmo shouts his quip, jesting faster than ever while peeking out of his hatch. He immediately ducks back down before the stone axe can strike, hitting the wooden hatch instead. His drivers are frantically searching for paletorches in their packs, but seem to be coming up empty.
When Ane hears Jiselmo’s cry, her hum darts to his wagon. It’s too far of a gap for her to jump, and there isn’t time to scramble down, get past the trumbas, and scramble up the side of his wagon…
“Go,” Ane shouts hoarsely to the tzuskar. “I can cover this for now. Go!”
The guard nods. Without a word, she spreads her wings and dashes towards the end of the wagon. She takes flight just in time, catching enough wind to catch her wings into a short glide befroe she can tumble to the road below. She comes to land upon the first wagon of Jiselmo’s train, briefly dropping to one knee as she steadies herself. Once she has her balance upon the swaying wagon-top, she dashes forward, battered sword at the ready and her shield raised high. She leaps the next gape in-stride, then stops and takes up her stance. Across from her, the Faceless immediately raises its head, now focusing upon her. That entrance was hard to ignore, after all.
“Put your backs into it!” The Faceless raves, heaving up its axe. “A path for the king!”
The tzuskar spits. “Another condescending one, great!” Apparently she’s had enough of being scolded by old, dead men.
The two clash, as the creature swings its whole body into every blow, hammering against her shield. One of those strikes could probably sweep a person off their feet. This guard, however, gives it no ground…
Back on her wagon, Ane finds relative quiet. There are no more shouts coming from her end, and all the action now seems to be further back in the train. The paletorch lit in the front seems almost useless up here. It’s a bit of a waste, too, since it’s likely to burn out within a few minutes. Unlike the sort that cities use — which draw upon a whole leyline system of magic — this one carries just a short burst. It’s enough to frighten, damage, and even sometimes kill Faceless in the short term, but it doesn’t do much good in a prolonged situation.
Ane curses under her breath. They’d be better served by snuffing the paletorch, at this point — it isn’t doing them much good back here, where the Faceless actually are.
She sweeps the path with her gaze, then the underbrush, then the trees. It’s hard not to watch the fight against the other undead creature, but she can’t run the risk of letting her attention waver enough to miss another onslaught.
Back on Jiselmo’s wagon, the fight between the tzuskar and the Faceless is long and bloody, even if it’s carried over less than a minute. Even in armor, the woman moves quite a bit faster than the creature, able to duck under the arcs of its axe-swings. It’s a tough thing, though, since the warrior quickly finds she can’t rely upon her shield in this. Whenever it catches a blow, the metal dents and threatens to permit a strike straight into her arm.
Grunting with effort, she dodges back from a swing, then takes a follow-up from the blunt side of the weapon straight in the gut. She nearly doubles over. Gritting her teeth, she stares up at the thing. Grinning with an unnatural hunger and rotten, charred teeth, it raises its crude axe high over its head. This would be the finishing blow, cracking down against a foe too battered to roll aside…
A pair of voices comes from below:
“ONE… TWO… HEAVE!”
The raving creature stumbles back, lifted off-balance by the hatch beneath its feet. The mercenary regains just enough of her breath to leap after it, plunging her sword into the thing’s skull. It pierces through, letting out gouts of ink which soon dissipate into the air. Panting, she takes a knee, treasuring her life for a moment while the dark bleeds out of the creature in front of her.
As the abomination falls away, Jiselmo and Korin pop out of their hatch. The two performers seem triumphant, grinning to one another.
“See, Korin? I told you the old lift-and-trip would work,” Jiselmo declares proudly, hands on his hips.
“Would’ve worked sooner if you’d just lifted on ‘heave’ like I said,” Korin chides him, crammed into the hatch with his tzuskar wings.
“I was waiting for ‘Three’! Who does ‘one, two, heave’? It’s either heave-ho, or you count. Honestly,” the two banter, smiling from adrenaline and triumph.
Back atop her wagon, Ane breathes a tense sigh. She can hear Jiselmo (it’s hard not to hear Jiselmo, sometimes), so at least that fight is over with…
She nudges a bit of gummy, rotted flesh off of the heavy jawbone with the tip of her shoe, and then returns to her vigil.