For your reading pleasure... the newest installment of The Forest Lord.
The Forest Lord #5; by Tucker McCallahan:
“Remind me why we sit here in the wood?” Jhul wore her usual scowl as she spoke, her voice little more than a whispered hiss.
“The arisa ordered us to wait, so we wait.” Kala knelt in a thick copse of heavy growth. Iym and Zak stood with Ilztafay and the remaining mechanical mounts, cloaking them in illusion and silence.
The early morning sunshine barely penetrated the dense canopy of the Div’eari Forest. The raiding party had followed the Amazu River south through the forest to its mouth at Lake Tizoc. Now the party waited, concealed, as T’Riss scouted the settlement he insisted would be lakeside. As was becoming customary, Jhul argued with him and continued to argue even in his absence.
“We are wasting time.”
Zak couldn’t stop the disgusted snort that escaped his mouth. He shook his head and turned to gaze upon the disgruntled priestess. “What is this obsession you’ve developed with time? Since we departed the Azure Palace you’ve done nothing but harp about wasting time. Tell me, Jhulryna, is there some time shortage of which we’re all unaware?”
Sunlight flashed and glinted off Jhul’s staff as she brought it around in front of her, its magic flaring to life. Zakn’yl’s green eyes blazed and a wicked smile twisted his perfectly formed mouth. His hands flickered with the lightning fast reflexes of a trained war mage. Darkness that was not darkness welled up from his palms; he caged the energy with both hands, prepared to shape it into defensive or offensive magic, whatever would most benefit him.
Before the two could let fly with immolation spells and death magic, Kala stepped between them, her massive scimitar drawn and in her hands.
“I should let you kill each other. But the arisa would be cross if a spell battle in the northern trees alerted the humans to our presence.”
Jhul gave Kala a withering glare, but the staff returned to rest position. “As I’ve stated half a dozen times, no settlement exists on or around Lake Tizoc. You know this. It’s on none of our maps.”
Kala turned to Zak and raised an eyebrow. Zak shrugged rather elegantly. “The humans know our city exists and it is on none of their maps.”
Kala hid her smile as she turned and slipped back through the brush to her spot. Zakn’yl’s point was well made and Jhul’s fury was obvious as she fumed. Kala had hoped Zak’s barb and his demonstration that he wasn’t afraid to use magic against the Sister of Lune would render her silent, at least for a little while.
She should’ve known better.
“If there is a settlement,” Jhul was no longer making any effort to whisper, “and by saying that I am in no way admitting the existence of such a place, but if one did exist, then the Unmentionable should’ve sent you to scout it, Lady Kala. After all, that is why you are with us, for infiltration.”
“I’m sure the arisa had his reasons for going himself,” Kala murmured.
“Which he should’ve shared with the rest of us.” The purring tone of Jhul’s voice elicited an almost touchable quality. “If he does not trust you to do this one small thing, then how can you be sure he will trust you in the heat of battle? When your backs are to the wall, how can you know he is honest if he is not honest with you in this?”
“Sister Jhulryna, the sun is high. If this settlement is at the side of the lake where the arisa believes it to be, then even with all my prodigious skill I could not infiltrate it until tonight, after sunset.”
“Like you, I was raised underground, away from the poisons the human filth belched into the water, sky, and earth. The naked sun burns my skin as it does yours. I move best on the surface at night, in darkness and shadow.”
At Kala’s words, Jhul made an attempt to glance up at the mostly covered sky, but quickly pulled her hood tighter. The gesture covered her small jerk as the vast emptiness above her nearly swallowed her whole. She would never admit to experiencing such a common fear.
“How is it that he is immune to the burn of the sun’s light, then?” Jhul hadn’t yet used T’Riss’s name or his title, though she knew better than to name him Unmentionable again. That particular curse had been lifted from him and Zakn’yl both.
“He is not.”
T’Riss stepped into their midst as though he’d appeared from nowhere. Indeed, he managed to take them all, save Zak, by surprise, and the soft feminine gasps and hisses were like a chorus of sweet birdsong, lightening his heart.
Kala slowly shook her head, that strange smile on her face. “I wish I knew that trick.” She glanced up at T’Riss. “How long have you been out there, listening to us?”
His sharp chin jutted out. “You tell me.”
“I detected something on our eastern flank, but it was small…” Her eyes narrowed. “Tricksy, arisa. Very tricksy.”
“The settlement?” Zak asked.
“They’ve moved around the lake, almost all the way to the mouth of the Iruka River.”
“They aren’t going into Adintana, are they?”
T’Riss shrugged wordlessly as he swung up into Nath’s seat. “Mount up.” He looked at Iym. “Are you able to maintain a sun shield if we move slowly?” She nodded wordlessly. T’Riss tipped his head to his mate. “An illusion then, Zak.”
The tiny war mage nodded and moved to the center of the group beside Iym. “We’ll all need to stay close, and keep the mounts as close to the water’s edge as possible.”
Jhul made a disgusted sound as she moved ahead of the two casting. She mumbled and groused as the group left the safety of the Div’eari Forest and cantered down onto the sandy dirt surrounding the western edge of Lake Tizoc.
“Madness. Moving about in broad daylight. We’ll be sun-scorched in under an hour. Nobody can hold an illusion over this large an area, as it moves, when another is already working magic on part of the space. Ridiculous.”
“Jhulryna, if your hands did half as much work as your mouth, this mission would be guaranteed success.” Kala delivered the line cheerfully, but her red eyes were hard when she turned on her mount to glare at the priestess.
“Suust!” T’Riss hissed the command for quiet. “I will slay whoever makes the next sound.”
Their progress around the lake was slow, with frequent stops for rest breaks. Jhul wasn’t strong enough in her gift to cast a sun shield, though she was able to use her priestess energies to bolster Iym. Zak simply created an illusion that spread the lake water several meters further inland, using the glint of the sun off the water to confuse mortal eyes.
By day’s end they’d reached the human settlement of Tizocana. Comprised of several dozen buildings, it was bordered by the Iruka River to the south and west, Lake Tizoc to the east, and to the north, a shanty town of clapboard shacks, tanner and trapper sheds, and tents of all types. A low stone wall with a sturdy wooden gate surrounded the entire disgusting, stinking collection of humanity.
The very first thing the group saw, posted clearly on the first lake willow tree that provided enough shade for them all to crowd beneath, was a large “Wanted” poster.
For the cruelle torchure & murder of 13 innocent soules
All Dark Elves, Drow, & Monsterous Creatures of Adintana Forest
DEAD OR ALIVE
“And we came here why?” Iym murmured.
“Information. We must know why the humans believe us guilty,” T’Riss whispered.
“I shall be back momentarily, then, with a human to provide you with you seek, arisa.” Kala looked all too eager as she caressed the hilt of her tremendous blade.
“No. Not you.” T’Riss glanced past her at his mate. “Zak?”
“You’re going to send the mage?” The incredulity was clear in Jhul’s voice.
“I cannot believe I’m agreeing with Jhul, but arisa… surely I’m the better choice.” Kala almost let her pride show.
“I’m sorry, Kala, but no. Not for this. Zak, you know what we need.”
“I do. Take Ilztafay and pitch a tent. We’ll find you.”
Heedless of the three females with them, T’Riss pulled Zak to him and bent forward, tasting his lips in a gentle kiss. “Che dos.”
“Che dos, mrann d’ssinss.” Zak stepped back and looked at the others. “You’ll have two minutes before the invisibility wears off.” With that and some mumbled words, he vanished.
T’Riss led the group swiftly through the darkening shanty town to the area where the tents were set up. Mostly, they were left to themselves. Few tents showed any signs of life.
“Where is everybody?” Iym asked. “Are they all asleep?”
“Getting drunk,” T’Riss said. “Here. Pitch the two large tents and get the mounts out of sight into one.”
“What about the walking bait?” Jhul asked acidly.
“I’ll see to Ilztafay.”
The females set up the two tents, magical and larger on the inside than they were outside, then one by one they led the mechans into one of the tents. T’Riss waited until the females were out of sight. He held Ilztafay’s bridle and quietly spoke the command word. The Darkelsian horse sparkled, the burgundy fur melting away and the cherry mane shortening until all that was left was a long fall of luscious hair on a beautiful human female. She smiled at T’Riss.
“You are gorgeous, as always. Inside, pretty girl. Zakn’yl will have need of us both when he brings the human back.”
Oh yes. Of that, T’Riss had no doubt. He sat down beside Ilztafay and tried to be patient as he waited for his mate. He didn’t have to wait long. He heard Zak before he saw him.
The tent flap flung back and a tall, broad set of shoulders came through, trailing a dark head that laughed and stank of ale.
“See?” Zak’s voice was velvety and lovely. “I told you I had a tent. And there’s my gorgeous sister, just like I promised.”
The head came up and the eyes, bleary, found Ilztafay. T’Riss, from his spot in the shadows, noticed that this human was extraordinarily well-built. Damn Zak for always going after the lovely ones.
Zak came in, pushing the human onto his knees. Only Zak wore an illusion of a human female, only his long inky black hair was the same.
“You sure weren’t lyin’. Dang.”
Before Zak could secure his wrists behind his back as he’d planned to do, the “drunken” human suddenly flipped over and slid on his ass into the corner directly opposite T’Riss. From out of nowhere, shiny silver guns appeared in each of his hands, one trained on Zak and the other on the corner where T’Riss was not quite concealed anymore. The human squinted eyes that weren’t bleary any longer and sighted down each of his barrels.
“You didn’t say anything about this being that kind of party, Sugar.”
Zak slowly raised his hands. “I-I don’t-”
“How ‘bout you move real slow there. I’d hate to put a hole in you by accident.”
“As I’d hate to put one in you,” T’Riss said, leaning forward with his crossbow aimed.
“God damn. A dark elf.” The human’s face went ice cold. He instantly swung both guns toward T’Riss.
Before he could squeeze the triggers, Zak spoke a single word, and the man collapsed, unconscious, to the ground. The guns fell from his hands. The two drow stared down at him as the moonlight caught his unshaven jaw. It was perfectly square and very strong.
T’Riss looked at Zak. “You do have a talent for finding the pretty ones.”
Zak grinned. “Tie him up.”
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