CHAPTER XI: HUNTED BY THE HOUNDS

A SANTHARIAN NOVEL

 
Darkling Abroad   
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Introduction. After a long wait, the slow pace of Viresse's trip begins to quicken as she enters a world wholly unfamiliar, and both interesting and deadly.

 

he day began to pass and the night began to creep across the sky. Viresse looked up after some time of pondering, and smiled. All she had to do was wait. They would find her, or so she was told. So she sat, and waited.

A trio of grey-cloaked figures entered the town square. It had cleared out considerably - once the sun had started to disappear, the patrons and residents began to quickly depart indoors. Viresse wondered if it was because of the town's proximity to the dark elven Paelelon. Viresse looked at them with interest. They moved in a catlike fashion - no move was wasted, no energy exerted that did not need to be. One turned its head and looked over at Viresse, a silver glimmer alight at its throat. It stopped moving, like a poised cat stalking its prey. It reached out with a cloaked arm, and tapped the closest cloaked individual. They met eyes for a second, and though Viresse could see no exchange between the two, the second looked in Viresse's direction. It too became extremely interested. The two looked at each other once again, and without any visible exchange, they began to move together, though with seperate minds - like a pack.

The third still edged about the square, but upon looking up and spotting the two moving toward Viresse, quickly turned its attention toward her and followed the two others, moving in her direction. She swallowed, and rose from her bench seat.
 

Within a few seconds they were at her side. Dark elves with black hair and skin the color of pale cream. Two male, one female. One of the males had a marking upon his face, as if an animal with three claws had caught him upon the chin and left a black scar. Viresse, with a harder look noted it to be a tattoo.

The female stepped forward and dropped her hood, her elven ears extending out of her hair. She was a beautiful elf, but her eyes were very cold - as if she was made of ice. "Viresse?" she asked.
" Yes," Viresse answered. With little thought, she realized that these were her escorts to the Palelon. Who else would escort her?

The tatooed male answered. "Come with us. We shall take you to the Paelelon." He held out an arm to gesture for her to begin walking. Viresse did. Quickly the tatooed male fell in behind her, while the other male made a quick step to fall in before her. The female dark elf Viresse did not know where she went. She assumed behind the tattooed male - two females in succesion would appear to be a weak link.

As they began to head south out of the city of Elsreth, the tattooed male behind her started to talk. "We do walk fast, Viresse, but it is in your best interest if you keep up with our pace. We do not have the cover of night for long, and we intend to make the best of it. If anyone would choose to attempt anything upon us as we travel, please keep your own weapons sheathed - we will take care of that. Several more people will join us on your journey, do not be alarmed."

They reached a fair distance from the city - the golden lights of uncapped lanterns still glowed, though eerily as the atmosphere caused the lights in the distance to twinkle. Suddenly, the head dark elf stopped. Viresse looked around, and could see nothing. No forest, no houses, just flat land with the fores in the distance.


The elf behind her made a howling noise, and as quick as Viresse could blink, figures arose from the high grass that flanked the road. To her surprise, a few even were on horseback, and one had a pair of dogs. Viresse was amazed by this display of stealth- they must have trained both the dogs and the horses to do that kind of work, and that took years of practice. Viresse found herself, for the first time as long as she had been in the Santharian Kingdom, fearful for her life, despite that these people were her escorts.

The walk was fast paced and silent, save for the trod of six elves, two dogs and a pair of horses. The horses were being the loudest, beign animals of burden, but Viresse had no worries, in the fact that she did not have to fear any outside attacks. She smirked to herself. She looked around for the female elf she had spied earlier, and found her a few peds away, walking behind one of the horses. Viresse made a gesture to catch her attention, and when she did so she spoke to her.

"Who are you people?" Viresse asked.

"What do you mean?" She asked. She sounded confused, but her face did not convey emotion, at least not that Viresse could see by the faint light of the moon.

"You all are dressed the same, surely you are a part of something important," she said.
The elven woman nodded slowly. "We are." She made a wide but restrained flourish with her arm. "We are the Hounds of the Paelelon."

Those that heard her statement made a glance in her direction, and let a small yip of agreement escape them.

"What do you do?" Viresse asked the elven woman again, and the elven woman responded in a crisp authoratitive manner.

"We were once hunters of the forest, but have expanded our reaches beyond the Palelon. We now hunt what we deem fit, or for money, what one will tell us. We are swift and thorough, and any job we take will be completed, no matter the cost. This is not just our word to our patrons, but a law amongst ourselves."

Viresse nodded slowly, and the elven woman turned back around. The Hounds of the Paelelon. These were the elves that everyone accused her of being. Of what she had seen, she could only vaguely compare herself to these elves. She was not dressed in gray, she did not have the restrained movements and soft silent voice that they did, and she didn't think she came off at all as a killer of any kind.

Perhaps they only called her a Hound because she was a dark elf. That would make sense. Humans were always trying to label things to make it easier for them to understand. They were quite unethical in that way - labels carry assumptions, and assumptiopns, as far as she knew, have always hurt people - be it they were right or wrong.

Viresse looked up, and found a massive dark shape looming just over the crest of the gently rolling hill. The bumpy, rough top edge confirmed it as being uneven, and as they continued to move toward it, Viresse realized it was the Paelelon. As they crested the hill, a dank smell reached across them, and while only some of the Hounds responded by clutching their cloaks over their faces, Viresse coughed, then did the same. The stench of rotting plant matter, and stagnant water was strong, and Viresse mentally recalled the hand-drewn maps of Artimidor that displayed the Paelelon. The Seanian Swamps were to the east of it - from the direction they were heading toward the dark elven forest, it would be to the lLeft of them. The breeze was strong as it swept over the flat lands before the Paelelon, and Viresse noticed hints of salt water upon it - gusts from the sea carried across the swamps into this part of the land. No wonder noone established anything out this far - the stench was quite foul.

They continued walking for some time, and eventually the breeze calmed itself, and a low fog crept across the land. It seemed to eke out of the Paelelon itself, as if the fog was trying to escape. Viresse knew that to not be true - the mist arose due to the flat land and high ground moisture. Viresse did like the fog - it was a beautiful thing for it undulated and moved of its own accord, as if it was a living thing. Viresse watched it as she walked for some time - watching it seperate as she cut through it, then turning to see the swath she had laid become swallowed by the mist, only to be cleaved again by another elf behind her.

Soon, the forest was upon them. They had only walked through some substantial shrubbery, and then as if it was built by hand, the forest Paelelon reached into the sky as if it was a wall. The Hounds stopped at the massive wall of trees, and seperated to allow Viresse to continue on. She stood for a second in the area between the seperated group and looked at them all. The one she had met earlier with the tattoos on which chin made a long, low howl with his hand cupped around his mouth.

After a few seconds, a rustle erupted from inside the forest, and two decently dressed men appeared. They were clad in leather jerkins and dark cloaks, the boots dampened by the fog. Their black hair was long and fashioned as to stay away form their elegant, thin faces. One had a bow, while the other seemed empty-handed (though with long, dark nails), however, a dagger was sheathed at his hip.

The tattooed Hound stepped forward, and the forest men regarded him with a cold, contempted stare. The tension between the three men jumped twofold, and some of the Hounds figeted uncomfortably in the silence. Finally the Hound unstrapped a bag from his waist, it jingled cheerfully - completely out of place considerign the moment and the tension. He held it out to the forest elves. One took it and nodded slowly, then retreated back into the forest.

The other, the long nailed dark elf, stood confidently. He looked at the tattooed Hound, then quickly diverted his attention to Viresse, whose full black cloak made her stick out compared to the gray-clad Hounds.

The tattooed Hound looked to the long nailed elf. "We were paid to escort this dark elf Viresse here. All we need you to do is to send her to Sifl. He is expecting her, and any ill she does will be his responsibility, not ours." He turned his head up, looking down his nose. He was done with this transaction.

"Heeded. Viresse is no longer yours. But Sifl's. Be assured she is in good care until the moment she reaches her destination." The long nailed elf answered eloquently, though with a sting that reminded her that at the moment, she was not a person, but a parcel to be delivered. Again. She covered her dislike of the situation with a shifting of her weight from one foot to the other.

The Hounds turned around and left, leaving Viresse alone at the perimeter of the forest. For such a lack of words, that exchage was very tension laden. She pondered it for a second.

"Viresse, then?" The dark elf said.

"Yes," she answered.

"Come with me. We will take you to Sifl." He waited for her to pass ahead of him, then he fell in behind her. "Head toward the campfire - we need to retrieve our party, then will go on to Sifl."
 
Viresse nodded, and walked toward the fire. She smiled blankly to herself - she always liked fire. It seemed alive, no movement was ever repeated. The embodiment of chaos...
Quicker than she realized she found herself just inside the ring of light that the fire emitted. She looked around and saw the one from the perimiter, and another two seated near him - a female and another male, whose locks were far different than the other. His head was half shaven, and the other half had a length of hair that rivalled the two men she had met. The female dark elf seemed to be clad in clothes that were a bit big for her, but she seemed no different than the males she sat with. She had that dark, cold burn in her eyes, and had an air of confidence that would be difficult to waver.

"Viresse. This is Tragus, Jael and Ghellon. I am Malus. Tragus and I are brothers." He introduced the three that sat, Ghellon was the shaven one and Jael was the female. She rose from her seat and walked toward Viresse.

She stood before Viresse for a few seconds, her cold eyes boring into Viresse. Viress stood rod still - it felt oddly as if the girl was sizing her up, like the way one's rivals did in Sevari... "Malus - you know - she looks like a Eophy... - and then, she doesn't." Jael said. "So, Viresse - why did you need a Hound escort to your own forest? Been away too long?" She snickered at herself, and Viresse blinked.

She'd have to tell this girl the whole story, and she doubted Jael would believe it. But, Viresse took a breath and finally began to speak. "I'm not an Eophyrhim. I come from Nybelmar, and other than the fact that I myself am a dark elf, you and I have nothing in common. So do not attempt to belittle me with concepts that do not apply... You will only annoy me and bore yourself." Viresse absently set her hand on her hilt, and touched the handle of her Cor'hm dagger. She then tossed her head to one side, and the Cor'hm filigree collar caught some of the fire light. Jael took a step back from Viresse and nodded.

"Fine. Just remember - for your own sake. You aren't home, and you never will be. Do one thing wrong and I'll be on your back like you were a wounded fawn." She smiled cruelly, her teeth bright - but slightly pink. Viresse found that familiar, though uncomfortable.

"Jael! Hush." Malus told the dark elven girl. He then turned to his brother. "Mind setting down the lights? We might as well get this done with." Tragus nodded, then extinguished the lights with the contents of a water skin and a few handfuls of dirt. As Viresse watched the fire go out, Ghellon wandered toward Jael and they conversed quietly to one another.

Without a word, Malus headed the party westward. He was followed by his brother, then Viresse, Ghellon and Jael.

The walk was mostly quiet. The forest was quite dark, as if a pot of ink had spilled across the trees. She could hear animals rustle about the trees, but more than one occasion, she felt as if she was being stared at from beyond the line she walked in. It was eerily familiar, as everything quickly became to be once she entered the forest. She felt as if she had been there before, but shrugged it off due to her vast time spent in the Crystalwoods.

Soon, Viresse saw the first flames of an encampment, and the party stopped. Malus turned around and spoke to her. "Here is the commune that Sifl lives in. He's been expecting you, so go ahead and walk in - I'm sure he's waiting." Malus then gestured to his brother, and the pair stepped back with Jael and Ghellon.

Viresse watched the area for a second. It seemed alive and lively, with fires burning and excited speaking and shouting. It seemed very much like a small village, save that for as long as she had been in the Santharian Kingdom, this small village was full of dark elves. She smiled at the thought.

She then turned to thank those that helped her get there, but they had disappeared into the inky blackness of the Paelelon. She shrugged. Perhaps that was better - that Jael was a head case. She sighed and walked toward the warm communal light.
 


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