The deathly quiet around her was unnerving. Even Gangi, almost in another world across the mountains, had heard the stories of the Forest, and the undead Hunter that roamed its confines. And those tales were now fresh in her mind as she trod the lifeless soil of the Forest's floor.
She could count the number of adventurous fools and faith-filled warriors who had returned from the Forest on the fingers of one hand. Even the Church had long ago given up on assaulting it, when even the deep power of their faith could not breach the lightless domain.
Yet here I am, Quinn thought, halfway into a nightmare. She wasn't sure if it was her Obscuring or some other unknown reason that had allowed her to come so far unmolested, and she didn't really care. All she knew was that Vryce had been here.
He always told me my curiosity was going to get me in trouble someday. I'll bet though, that he never thought it'd do so because of him. It had been over a year since her mentor had been sent on the long journey to the Catherdral at Jaggonath. The trip alone from Gangi to the fabled city had taken her almost three months of hard travel and fighting. Vryce of course had managed it in two.
The Reverand Mother had let her read his letters, the first one, detailing his arrival, and then the second, which told of his desperate mission to save the very soul of a Jaggonath adept from an evil that lurked deep in mysterious the Rahklands. That was the last they had heard from him.
So the Reverand mother had sent her, Vryce's best student, to take his place. The official letter she had carried to the Patriarch said she was to take Vryce's place as sorcery instructor, until his return. But what the letter hadn't detailed was the Reverand Mother's other task for her: to find out what had happened to Damien Kilcannon Vryce.
And so she now found herself in the middle of the Forest, frozen by the female scream just ahead. She snapped out of her shock and rushed forward, drawing her sword. She burst into a clearing, and stopped as suddenly as if she'd hit some invisible wall.
The woman was beyond help. She lay lifeless in the arms of a figure that embodied darkness. Immaculately attired in rich garment, the Hunter looked up from his prey, a small trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.
His gaze pierced her Obscuring as if it had never existed, and Quinn froze yet again, pinned by the terror that welled up in her as their eyes locked. The Hunter carefully wiped away the bead of blood at his lip as he watched Quinn. They stood, motionless, gazes locked, for a long moment before Quinn broke and ran.
She knew nothing of herself, only terror, which the dark fae so easily brought to life in her path. She fought the creatures of her own design in a mindless frenzy for what seemed like forever (and in fact was hours), until she could just see the faint aura of light ahead, where the strongest sunlight crept its way to the edge of the evernight realm. She bolted forward, lungs burning from her headlong flight, toward the life-filled light.
She was almost out when a last faeborn, stronger than the rest to exist even this close to the light, caught up to her. It tangled her ankle in a spindly clawed hand, and with a scream, she fell headlong to the ground. Her last thought as her head hit an exposed root and darkness took her was that at least she wouldn't see her own fear, in the form of the faeborn that was reaching for her throat, kill her.
But the faeborn never got its chance. A crossbow bolt imbedded in its chest, throwing it away from the unconscious priestess. A man stepped out of the shadows of the Forest and over to Quinn. He looked down at her, his eyes filled with a confused jumble of pride, fear, exasperation and relief. He picked her up with ease, and carried her well out of the Forest, before laying her down gain in a patch of grass in the full light of the sun. He Worked a minor Healing upon her, all he could do in his own exhausted state, just enough to make sure she would not die before she was found. The worst wound seemed to be the two deep slashes under her chin, where the faeborn he'd killed had begun to rip out her throat. He Healed those a bit, enough to stop the blood flow. They would scar, though. But someone would be along to find her and take her back soon enough. And in the sunlight, she would be safe from dark fae of the Forest.
"Sorry I can't do more for you, Quinn," he said sadly as he looked at the hundreds of other bloody slashes and scratches that covered her. "But I thank you for coming after me. It's nice to know someone still cares..." He stroked her hair and sighed. "Though I doubt your father'd be pleased, wherever he is, if you'd gotten killed for my sake. Take care, little one. Maybe I'll see you again someday under better circumstances." With that, Vryce got up, and with a last look at his student and charge, returned to the darkness of the Forest.
"It was as if the very darkness held me. I could not move, breathe, or even think. I was nothing. I was filled with terror. I was prey. I was sure I would die then, at the hands of Erna's greatest Darkness, but then I saw his eyes...
"The terror faded then, as I looked into those pools of black in that pale face. And on impulse, I Worked a Knowing. But I did not even need the fae to see what so suprised me in his eyes: pain. For what seemed an instant eternity we faced each other. I knew he could read from my face what I saw in his eyes, and the sympathy that filled my heart for him. But he said nothing, just held me with that dark gaze full of the war of cold arrogance and human pain. And for maybe just the barest moment, a small spark of gratitude for my understanding.
But then the spell was broken, and I ran. I had to fight my way out; the dark fae which thrived in the lightless place fed off of my fear and created my very nightmares in my path.
"I woke up in the Abbey two days later, exhausted and injured, but alive. And full of questions.
"Evil is not supposed to feel pain, is it? But it was there. A deep, blinding pain and anguish. It was unmistakable. Something has returned a portion of humanity to the Hunter, whose legend of cold, unfeeling darkness leaves no room for pain. And he let me live. I have no illusions that the Hunter could have killed me at any moment. I saw his weakness, and he let me live. If the primary of Erna's evils is still human at his core, then maybe it is not the fae itself that corrupted him. Maybe the Church's work has been going the wrong way. The fae itself is not evil. And even though the Patriarch preaches otherwise, I know that neither is its use. Faith may control the fae, but as I saw today, fear is often stronger than faith. But where do we go from here? Maybe, the solution is that which some have practiced all along - coexistance. The fae is a part of Erna, we have to admit that sometime... "But does that mean our faith has nomeaning at all? I don't know, but I think that such thought will prey on my mind as long as I bear these scars as a reminder."