Thanks for joining me again for the next installment of The Forest Lord. Enjoy!
The Forest Lord #7; by Tucker McCallahan:
The small party, its number increased by one, moved cautiously through the outer boundary of the Adintana Forest. T’Riss rode Nath out in front, the pair of them utterly silent. Further back, Zakn’yl and Iym rode side by side, a dampening spell surrounding them. It served multiple purposes: maintaining stealth, hiding their magic, and preventing Ilzatay’s scent from escaping into the woods. As Jhulryna pointed out before they left Chasz’Chalolvir, the aroma of fresh horse drifting through the Adintana Forest would be like using walking bait.
Whether it was her dislike of that aroma or because she wasn’t speaking to Iym, Jhulryna rode behind the pair, her staff in her hand and her disposition worse than ever. She was steaming mad, mostly because Smoke, the arisa’s new human pet, rode a huge, black, mechan stallion right beside her. Next to a human was the very last place Jhul wanted to be. A strange, cloying scent hung about him and as they rode, he kept up a continual warble in a low, deep baritone.
“Suust!” Jhulryna hissed. “You’re going to get us all killed!”
“What was that you spat, darlin’?”
Jhul’s eyes were angry rubies in the forest darkness as she glared at Smoke. “I told you to be quiet,” she whispered.
“You hiss just like a lil’ wet kitten. So angry and small and offended and cute all at once.” Smoke smirked at her and lifted his left hand, wiggling his index finger. A large gold ring sat there, looking perfectly at home on his big hand. “See that beauty? Makes me impossible to track. Wipes out scent, sound, the ol’ girl’s prints…” He patted the side of his mechanical mount.
“That’s fine and good for you, human, but it doesn’t help me.” Jhul managed to maintain her haughty visage as she motioned to the others with a quick jerk of her golden staff. “Or the rest of mine.”
“Sure it does.” Smoke’s smile, very much like a permanent smirk, never wavered. “Ring’s got a radius effect, sugar. You stay nice and tight on me and she’ll protect you, too.”
“Darling? Sugar? Are you incapable of using my name?”
“Don’t know your name.”
When she didn’t respond to that, Smoke went back to singing. This time his low, sweet voice growled out a song about hunting a deadly black hare. During the third verse when the fearless hunter dove under the apron of a young barmaid with his gun drawn to pursue the black hare, Jhul finally realized just what Smoke was singing about. She jerked, her back going ramrod straight in the saddle. As her head swung around toward him, her scarlet eyes nearly shot laser beams through the darkness.
“Foul, filthy beast!”
He broke off singing and nodded sagely, holding her gaze. The force of his dark eyes shocked her. No man had ever dared look her in the eye.
“Black hares can be dangerous. No doubt you know something of that, eh?”
His smirk was back. Without removing his full attention from Jhul, Smoke deliberately checked over his shoulder to find Kala guarding their rear.
“Oh yes,” he murmured, his head still nodding. “Deadly indeed.”
“Males of worth do not speak of such things.”
Smoke’s smile grew wider, but his eyes hardened like black diamonds. “Darlin’, none of us is worth more than the price of the next bullet.”
“I don’t even know what you’re talking about!” But Jhul’s slate-colored skin was flushed and sweat covered the valley between her breasts. Her brows furrowed as she huddled on her mount. Confusing creature! It had to be his scent, an odd, heavy, almost sweet smell of sassafras mixed with the thoroughly chemical odor of his gun powder and solvent. She’d never smelled anything like it before, ever.
Chuckling, Smoke gave Jhul a tiny bit of space. He couldn’t give her too much, though; he’d been honest about that. The ring wouldn’t protect her if he let her ride off alone. Smile firmly in place and every sense on alert once more, the gunfighter resumed his bawdy song.
The attack came without warning from every side.
The great, massive oak trees came alive. Roots rippled through the soil and snaked over the path. They tangled around the legs of the mechans, bringing the big mechanical beasts down with startling ease. Ilztafay screamed as they tried to ensnare her, rearing up and pawing at the air. She threw Zak from her back and the slight war mage tumbled to the ground in a flurry of her mane and crumpled, dead leaves.
T’Riss in the front and Kala in the rear managed to jump free before their mounts crashed to the forest floor, but Iym and Jhul ended up under their mounts, trying desperately not to be crushed as the wicked tree roots wrapped around legs and necks in an attempt to pull the mechans apart. T’Riss tried valiantly to see through the chaos, to make sense of who was attacking, from where, and how he could best help both his mate and the group when the huge limbs of the oaks came crashing down to deal death upon them from above.
A massive branch caught T’Riss directly across the chest, knocking wind from him and sending him stumbling several steps backward. His sword in hand, T’Riss struggled to breathe and looked down to see one of the adamantine plates of his vest crumpled like parchment. Cold fear flooded his veins as heat and fire lit up the night from the western flank.
Zak stood with Ilztafay at his back at the edge of the trees, fierce determination on his face as liquid flame poured from his hands onto the roots that covered the mechanical mounts. Kala whirled in a deadly semi-circle behind Zak, her tremendous scimitar severing roots and shearing off branches as they came at the mage.
Satisfied his mate was safe, T’Riss waded into the battle to rescue their priestesses. As he began to move forward surrounded by the bizarre rushing leaves and roaring sound of the evil treants, he caught sight of Smoke. A jagged rip in the gunslinger’s leather coat showed where a branch tried to impale him, but the big human was otherwise untouched. Jhulryna hung over one of his broad shoulders and he backed slowly out of the fray with both of his large odd guns firing round after round at the gigantic, swinging branches.
T’Riss’s eyes swept the forest floor. Two of the mechans lay in pieces, gears and parts strewn along the ground mixed with bits of leaf and swiftly rotting tree material. He didn’t see Iym anywhere. A tingle along his neck was T’Riss’s only warning, and on instinct he dove. A fist-sized gnarl slammed into the ground where he’d been, and one of the attached limbs whipped across T’Riss’s face cutting deep into his flesh.
Zak’s frantic psychic cry nearly rent T’Riss in two. He had little choice but to obey, leaping away from the battle area. His heart ached at the idea of losing the only true priestess they had with them, but he couldn’t sacrifice his life for hers. Somersaulting free, the rush of heat swept over T’Riss’s back as Zak poured more fire onto the trees.
“Clear!” Smoke shouted.
T’Riss turned in time to see the human lob a black powder bomb directly into the center of Zak’s magical fire. The heat ignited the powder and the bomb exploded with a concussion that shook the ground. Fire flared out in a wide circle, scorching all the treants.
Silence blanketed the forest once more.
The three remaining mechans returned when summoned. T’Riss glanced around at his companions to assess injury. “We should move off from the battle site before we see to wounds.”
“I can heal you now, arisa.”
At the sounds of Iym’s voice, T’Riss whirled around. The mistress/priestess of Lune stood there, no worse for wear, holy symbol in hand.
“I… lost track of you during the battle,” T’Riss said quietly as she placed one hand to the deep slash along his face. A few murmured words and a bit of warmth restored him, and Iym gave him calm, guileless eyes.
“I was trapped under my mount and had to use a spell to free myself. I wasn’t able to do anything else, I’m afraid.”
T’Riss nodded. Smoke walked up leading his mount, Jhul laying over its back. T’Riss nodded towards her. “How badly injured is she?”
“Hit her head. Don’t think it’s too bad, but if we have healing…” Smoke shrugged.
T’Riss’s eyes narrowed, his gaze constantly flicking around the forest. “We need to move. We’ll set up camp in a click and treat her there.” He looked at Iym. “You’re welcome to share my mount, Sister.”
She bowed her head. “You’re too kind, arisa. But I shall share Kala’s mount. There will be more room to maneuver should we be attacked again.”
Without any more wasted words, T’Riss took to Nath’s back and once again led his group deeper into the Adintana Forest, unaware that their presence had already been marked.
So I found the most awesome depiction of the monster that T'Riss and Co. faced in this installment. I need to say first that this image is copyrighted by Thunderstone for the Alderac Entertainment Group. Done by Shane Tyree, this is an evil treant.
If you're impressed by Shane's work, you can see his complete portfolio here.
Thanks so much for reading! Comments are, as always, craved and appreciated.
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Be Well ~ Tux