“Damn,” Solitude said, looking at Yarrow as she made it inside a small chapel, the one deigned for them to meet up. “Am I that late? Have you been waiting long?” If it were any other person, like Dirty Diaz, Solitude would have waited a little longer outside just to make sure they were definitely waiting a long time. But this was Yarrow, not Diaz, which meant that this contract was going to be a piece of cake.
Besides, all they had to do was take back some bell from some assassin who thought to give the Church the middle finger. Only issue was that the assassin was a priest. A pissed off priest who didn’t have their second shadowkin but was still a priest nonetheless. It seemed the Church was still understaffed when it came to throwing assassins on missions, so Solitude and Yarrow were told they were going to work together and bring Sister Serenity down!
They didn’t exactly word it that way, but that was the best way that Sol understood it.
And she wasn’t complaining! Between her and Yarrow they would get in the good graces of the Cardinal and be able to brag about taking down a priest. Take that Love, Abandon and Diaz! Although it was more likely Yarrow would end up doing most of the hard work but Solitude had every intention of snagging some credit for herself as well.
Solitude kicked at a rock that had somehow found it’s way in the chapel. Strangely enough, all the chapels seemed to be dilapidated in Sheketh, not like the ones on Liadin were any better, they were actually worse, especially when got closer to the Cortosi homestead.
Yarrow looked up from where she was sitting, a strange glimmer in her eye. 'Yes to both, I'm afraid,' she replied, standing to welcome her Sister -sometimes friend- to the chapel. A lone candle burned on a nearby window sill, bathing the shadows in a murky light. Deeper than most, they hid well the Shadowkin lurking there. White eyes, like stars in the night sky, watched as Sol walked further into the chapel, down an aisle choked by dust and debris from the collapsed roof.
'Didn't have to wait outside, y'know,' Yarrow said, slinking from between pews to catch Sol in a quick embrace. Bigger than most of her brethren, Yarrow could move fast when she wanted to. Most of the time it was to avoid trouble, or unwanted conversation with Diaz. Not that he talked much.
Thank Mother for that.
'You ready to rock?' The she-orc asked, a faint smile creasing her lips as she sidestepped the stone Sol booted her way. It was almost funny how "unintentionally" bad at things her sweet Sister was. Had Sol meant to punt the stone at her, Yarrow might have taken offense. Had she meant to?
“I wasn’t waiting outside! A black cat crossed my path and I had to take the long way around because, yanno, black cats are bad luck!” Solitude protested, momentarily still when Yarrow embraced her. Sheesh, they hadn’t done that since they were kids— and sometimes after when they weren’t kids. But here in the Chapel, it felt almost wrong. Not because Solitude didn’t like Yarrow’s hug, for shortly after her pause she had hugged her friend back as well, but because since when did assassins of the Church hug each other before a mission?
Well other than missions with Brother Love?
Regardless, the hug was quick, as fast as it had come it felt like the embrace was almost a figment of Sol’s imagination. Perhaps that was for the best.
“Yeah, let’s go.” Solitude said, quickly pivoting on her heel, and wobbling a bit to one side as she did so, causing her to become unbalanced and without any semblance of grace careen over to a pew to catch herself. Simultaneously, a piece of the chapel’s ceiling broke apart and fall down, landing where Solitude would have been if she hadn’t fallen off to the side.
“You’d think,” Solitude said, righting herself up and looking at Yarrow over her shoulder, “with all the money we bring in, the Church would want to, I dunno, fix some of these chapels up a bit?” Unceremoniously, she kicked at the rubble, a plume of gray dust floating up. Luckily with her mask on, despite the allergies she had, Solitude didn’t sneeze and so she stalked out the Chapel.
“Like, this can’t be a good look for us. We look like we’re poor and desperate.”
Yarrow didn't much know if it was good luck or bad luck that had seen her paired with Solitude. On the one hand, Sol was one of the few friends Yarrow had. Capable in her own way, she had finished just as many contracts as she had failed, though, to hear her speak it, she hadn't so much failed them as completed them in a manner frowned upon by her peers. Whatever the Hell that meant.
And that right there was the other hand. Yarrow wanted to return "home" victorious. With Sol tagging along, the odds of success -and survival- had dropped considerably.
But then they were going up against one of their Sisters here. Yarrow didn't like to think of Serenity as an ex-sister. There was no such thing in her eyes. Either you were or you weren't. Nuff said. 'You look like you're poor and desperate,' Yarrow replied, swatting at the dust plastering Sol's shoulders and hair. 'Honestly? The look suits you. If I was one of your deaders and I passed you in the street, I'd turn my nose up at you in disgust.'
Smiling, Yarrow held Sol at arm's-length, gave her a pat. All done.
'As for the chapels, well... you wouldn't want to go announcing our presence to the bloody Celestials, would you?' Actually, knowing Sol, she would probably go and do that. Accidentally, of course. For all her supposed good luck, she had days where she was cursed with bad luck, too. Yarrow knew this... because Sol never shut up about it.
Letting the question hang, Yarrow moved across to the windowsill to snuff out the lone candle. Wetting her thumb, she took one last look at Solitude before extinguishing the flame for good.
Solitude was more than happy to have Yarrow clean her off. Even with Yarrow’s rougher and heavier hand, Solitude’s eyes were smiling at the kind gesture. She even bent her head low so Yarrow could get rid of the debris easier.
“You know, Yarrow, I know no one believes me when I say this, but I really did fight off that Celestial priestess and paladin last year. I mean, I near died, but that witch….” Solitude trailed off, thinking of the witch in the Falwood that had actually saved her life. She hadn’t kept the promise, but she hoped the witch understood.
The Church came first. Business was business. She’d make it up to the chick someday.
“Yeah, so I feel pretty confident letting all those Celestial bimbos know that Sister Solitude is here and ready to rumble!” The flame went out. Sol’s eyes adjusted to the darkness immediately. Unable to see any color and only grayscale, but every object was clear. Even Yarrow’s look of… was it humor or pity? Solitude couldn’t tell. She also couldn’t care.
“In all seriousness,” she said, beginning to exit the chapel. “It’s been awhile since I’ve been in the Unburnt Woods. Place used to give me nightmares.” Solitude admitted. She wasn’t the first to say such a thing. Unburnt Woods was an unusual place on Shekath, known as the only woods near the volcanoes that always seemed to remain unscathed.
The nutrient rich magma from the volcanoes would create a special silt that slowly dribbled into the woods every rain season, making the forest grow. The trees and fog were so dense in the area that many chose to avoid it. There were whispers of the fae and will-o-wisps tricking foolish travelers, but even more whispers of the monsters that lived there.
No goblins or ogres or giants, just pure primordial monsters that sought to destroy whatever sorry sap came into their territory. Moths that drank blood and ate flesh, wasps that stung and turned anything organic into a tree, ants that were the size of horses and their creepy faces— the list could go on and on.
Sister Serenity was in there now. Somewhere in the Unburnt Woods, waiting for unsuspecting prey. Or maybe waiting for Solitude and Yarrow to deliver a timely death.
Yarrow stepped from the shadows and into the light of day. Pale as she was, it was easy to mistake her for a walking, talking corpse at times. The Half-Orc found the comparison quite fitting, considering she had been in the murder business all her life. 'Yeah, well, you'll have to tell me about her sometime,' she said, keeping her mask pulled down. The humid air was already starting to make her sweat under her leathers, and she knew it would only get worse once they made it to the Unburnt Woods.
If they made it. Knowing Sol, her bad luck would appear to bite them both in the ass before then.
Fingers crossed it doesn't come to that, Yarrow thought, listening as Sol shared her fears. 'I remember,' Yarrow said, shrugging as if it was no big deal. They had grown up together, after all. Shared hardships and nightmares aplenty. And punishments. Most had been her sister's fault, of course, but Yarrow hadn't exactly been the most well-behaved of children. Some of the elders had even blamed her nature. Like, what the fuck did that even mean?
'Place still gives me the creeps, truth be told.' Yarrow felt herself grimace. 'But I've got you with me, so what's to fear, right?' Smiling faintly, the she-orc looked over at Sol. Hopefully, all going well, they would be in and out before they ran into anything they couldn't handle. Hopefully.
Coward, a voice much like her own whispered from the mist.
Shut up, Yarrow thought, proceeding to ignore her dead twin's mocking laughter in much the same way she had before she'd stuck a knife in her. 'You remember much about Sister Serenity?' the she-orc asked, keen to rid herself of the intrusive thoughts rattling around her skull. 'I never worked with her, so far as I can recall. Heard things about her though,' she shot a glance at Sol. 'Wonder how much of it is true.'
A playful grin though Solitude’s mask covered it up as the two of them headed out from the Chapel. Walking out in the sunlight would often be seen as a faux pas for any assassin, but there weren’t any sort of civilization for at least a hundred or more miles. The closer they got to the Unburnt Woods, the further away they would be from seeing people.
Yarrow was right, as long as they were together, what was there to fear? Other than dying or losing a arm or a head or—
“Sister Serenity did not live up to her name, lemme tell you, she was a raging cunt twenty-four-seven.” Solitude said, not even bothering to hide the bitterness in her tone. As she spoke, she moved her hands in large and wide gestures, as if that would help with showcasing just how much Solitude didn’t like Sister Serenity. “You know, like, I suck sometimes and I get that. I accept it, I am not perfect. Sister Serenity though? She sucked and thought she was great. I mean, when she got two shadowkins, sure she got a lot better and was slaying contracts left and right, but how could you not with two shadowkin?”
Dismissively, Solitude waved that notion away with a hand as thought of more stuff to say about Serenity. However, before she could continue with her ranting and raving, from Sol’s shadow appeared her sister. Grotesque and frightening, with a large open maw and rows upon rows of eight-inch teeth, without a nose or seemingly any eyes, most would call her a monster.
Solitude couldn’t call her anything but sister, her other half, her soul. Sure she looked awful now, but that was what happened when souls combined. Didn’t make her sister a monster, after all, it was her sister who had the most sense between the two of them.
“Be. Nice.” She said, her voice sounding far away yet close at the same time, a high pitch echo that contrasted with a reverberating deepness.
“Yeah, yeah, you liked Serenity. But I hated her! And I still do.” Solitude said, crossing her arms over her chest and huffing. “And the feeling was mutual.”
'Huh,'Yarrow replied, somewhat noncommittally. 'You really don't like her, do you?' Glancing at Sol, Yarrow's smile widened for a moment. Stating the obvious was one of the she-orc's favourite pastimes, and doing so had always annoyed her sister. Her real sister, anyway. She wasn't so sure about Solitude.
Besides, it seemed like the dark-haired assassin had already done a good enough job of working herself up. It wouldn't do to annoy her further, not without running the risk of getting punched in the kidneys. Which, funnily enough, hurt like a bitch.
'Maybe we can use your mutual hatred to lure her out when the time comes,' she continued, 'and who knows, maybe we'll make it home in time for dinner. I sure hope so.' Patting her belly, Yarrow raised her chin proudly, puffed out her chest a little. 'I'm still growing, or so Sister Celerity told me the last time I ended up in the infirmary. A healthy diet goes a long way towards maintaining a healthy physique.' And Mother knew how hard she had worked on that.
Following a shepherd's trail up into the foothills, Yarrow led the way, if you could call walking side by side leading. She was loathe to let Solitude out of her sight given her track record, and even so, it always helped to know where your friends were.
Is she, though? Yarrow's sister rose from the brown grasses flanking the trail. Cloaked in ashes, mortal wounds weeping despite the fact she was already dead, Root blinked in and out of existence like some sort of apparition. She'll betray you sooner or later, she said, so close to Yarrow's ear she could feel her breath, smell the stench of decay. And when her ambitions and lack of control prove too much, don't come crying to me about it!
Refusing to turn around, Yarrow soldiered on in silence. She could practically see the grin twisting her sister's face. Like a rictus, she thought. Sensing her discomfort, Root started to laugh.
'Please, shut the fuck up!' Yarrow spat, wheeling about to find her twin already gone. Big surprise there. Sighing, she turned back to the trail. Then it struck her. 'Did I say that out loud?' she asked, embarrassment colouring her cheeks. 'Fuck... Tell me I didn't!'
How the heck Yarrow was still growing was beyond Sol’s imagination. Already her senior, and partially belonging to a race that boasted their size, Solitude had thought that by now, Yarrow would be done growing. She glanced over to the size of Yarrow’s biceps, the seams of her armor and clothing containing her awesome musculature right now, but Solitude bet it was a struggle.
She wished she had the devotion and resilience that Yarrow’s seams did.
“Yeah, it’s a body you’ve killed for.” Solitude said in agreement, still keeping pace with the she-orc. Speaking of Sister C, Sol needed to see Sister Celerity about that surgery she had mentioned to her last month. Her fat fingers were starting to naw away at her. Not much time had passed when Yarrow cursed at… surely, not Sol? This time Solitude kept her gaze ahead, out of respect more than anything else.
Her twin had always made it a habit of showing herself. She had never been shy. Other twins seemed to prefer their privacy, even as they were lecturing the living.
“You did, but I won’t tell anyone.” Sol assured, although Rosario turned their eyeless head and gaping maw towards Yarrow.
“No. Cursing. At. Sissssster.” Rosario warned to Yarrow.
“She wasn’t cursing at me.” Solitude said. A gurgle of a growl came from Rosario and she placed her strangely large and long and lethal hands on Solitude’s shoulders. “I don’t think any of us like the Unburnt Woods. We’re all on edge, aren’t we?” Solitude said after a moment. Rosario wasn’t the sort to argue with her, and Celosia had kept her bickering to the minimum. It seemed the closer they got to their destination, the more the shadowkins and their twins were preparing.
For what, Solitude couldn’t say. It was just one assassin. Sister Serenity wasn’t even that big of a threat. And together, Yarrow and Solitude should handle it without question.
Yarrow hmphed quietly. Like it or not, the Unburnt Woods would be a real test for the assassins and their shadowkins. They would have to keep their wits about them when the swirling mists pressed in close, and the creaking of ancient trees started to sound like footsteps on the wind. That Sister Serenity had fled there did not surprise Yarrow in the slightest. Expecting her to be alive when they got there though...
Well, time would tell if she was as good as she believed herself to be. With two shadowkins at her disposal, she had more of an advantage than most.
Not against us, Yarrow thought, drawing from the well of energy in her soul. Anger mixed with sadness as she pondered on the woman's betrayal. Was it really so easy for the lure of power to draw them from the path of righteousness? Serenity certainly wasn't the first killer to forsake her oaths to Mother and the Church, but would she be the last? Not likely. Frowning, Yarrow pushed that sad truth to the back of her mind.
The time for distractions was fast fading, and she wanted to get through this with her head -and Sol's- still attached to her shoulders.
Reckon you can do it? Root asked, winking into existence alongside Yarrow. Of all the slain twins, hers was the only one who didn't appear to anyone else, or at least that was what Yarrow had come to believe during her years in service to Mother and her most unholy daughters. The she-orc sighed. 'Reckon I can do... what, exactly?'Keep her alive, Root continued, her smile opening the one drawn across her throat. Personally,I don't think so. No, she'll only slow you down in there, and once you start trying to protect her like you always have, well, figures it'll be too late for you as well.
Root's smile grew. There's a pleasant thought.
'I'm sure we will be just fine without your contribution, thanks!' Yarrow turned her head to look at Sol. Root appeared beside her and Rosario in an instant, her smile drawing the skin across her shaved skull tight. 'Go into a fight expecting to lose... and you will.' An old teaching, Yarrow remembered it well. Grinning, she threw an arm around her little sister's shoulders. Rosario mewed -or tried to- jealously.
'Good thing we're armed to the teeth, then. Speaking of which, did Splinters allow you to take anything from his beloved armoury before you set off?' Yarrow questioned. 'Don't be shy! Show me!'
A arched brow and a small glance over to Yarrow as Solitude felt a arm snake around her shoulders. Not that Solitude minded it, but Rosario wasn’t too pleased by it. Ever protective of Solitude, it seemed no matter who was near her, Rosario was quick to pounce. She trusted people far less than Solitude did.
“You know Splinters doesn’t allow me in his armory,” Solitude said nonchalantly. Unfortunately, it was true. The man had a thing for weapons, all weapons. Making them, collecting them, using them, hoarding them… and Sol had been unlucky to break or lose any of the weapons he had first bestowed upon her. She had yet to pay to replace them, mostly because she constantly needed weapons and if Splinters wasn’t giving her any then she had to buy her own.
Strangely enough, buying her own weapons seemed to make her take better care of them.
“Did he give you anything good?” She asked Yarrow.
'Can't possibly imagine why,'Yarrow replied, racking her brains for all of a millisecond before finding the answer. 'But Splinters is like that with everybody, including me.' It was true, too. The finicky old master-of-arms had always been that way, or so Yarrow's time-addled memories told her. Her experiences as a youth had probably left her a bit jaded where Brother Splinters was concerned, but she was bigger now. Meaner.
If she wanted to "borrow" a weapon, no-one was likely to try stopping her. These muscles weren't for show, after all.
Though sometimes they were. 'He let me have this cool-looking war pick.' Yarrow turned to show Sol the new addition to her arsenal. The weapon was probably a bit lumpy for the other assassin's tastes, but it suited Yarrow's just fine. Savage! Root whispered in her ear, slipping an invisible arm around her shoulders so that it looked like the three walked together down the dusty track.
Rosario did some scary contortionist act in response, and Root stuck her tongue out at her, before disappearing back into the netherrealm.
'Should do the trick,' she continued, letting her arm fall back to her side. Entanglements -in every sense of the word- were risky for an assassin, and this job was sure to be plenty risky. 'Your knives and good looks. My pick and propensity for violence.' Yarrow snorted, amused. 'Does Serenity even stand a chance?'
Favoritism. That could explain how Yarrow always seemed to get stuff she wasn’t supposed to get. Splinters was crazy, Solitude was certain that if Cardinal Solace asked for something, Splinters would still tell her no if he found it to be valuable or only for himself. And no one told the Cardinal ‘no’ unless they wanted a death wish. But Splinters was the sort of man who was willing to die for his craft.
Sol couldn’t imagine such devotion to something that wasn’t alive.
“Very cool,” Sol agreed, even if war-picks weren’t her thing. They suited someone like Yarrow much better while knives suited someone like Sol. As Root and Rosario messed around with one another, or whatever it was that they were doing— Rosario wasn’t enjoying a single moment of it but Sol had no reason to stop it if it was just harmless teasing. It seemed all too soon, their twins were done playing around.
Probably because they had just arrived at the entrance of the Unburnt Woods. A few more steps and they would be stepping inside the unsightly wood and after Serenity. The time for chitchat was over, even if it had been nice catching up with Yarrow a little bit. Solitude paused, looking at the wood. It was hardly green, looking more like a wood in winter than the current spring season they were in.
And all that fog. Already, even on the outskirts of the imposing wood, Solitude could only see so much ahead. The shadows seemed bigger and deeper, as if the sun couldn’t quite reach through the wood despite the sparse branches of the trees. Sound also seemed absent, as if the wood sucked their voices into a void and muffled their steps.. No light, no sound. Just darkness and quiet. No wonder why this place was so unnerving, it was unnatural.
“She might.” Solitude said, not realizing she had lowered her voice. “But there’s two of us, one of her. Let’s go.” And without waiting another second, Solitude headed straight into the Unburnt Woods.
The Unburnt Woods? More like the Slightly Singed Woods. Following Solitude into the fogbank, Yarrow couldn't help but feel like someone had mislabelled the place. Trees as white and skeletal as fingerbones stretched from the saturated earth to loom over the path down which they travelled. The air here was damp and hot, and stank mildly of mildew and rot. It was the kind of smell Yarrow associated with death.
'Cause that's what the Unburnt Woods were. Death and rebirth in its most natural state.
A lot of the older assassins liked to say that you went in as one person and came out as another. The experience of surviving the Woods either moulded you into something tougher, more resilient, or else it broke you. Yarrow had been in a handful of times, and each time had proven just as dangerous as the one before. The woods didn't change, they changed.
No wonder Serenity had chosen to flee here. It was an act of desperation, and a sign of the madness that had infected her mind, turned her from Mother and all She held dear. Yet, Yarrow still felt a certain kinship with the runaway assassin. It was not her place to judge the woman for her past misdeeds, or the mistakes that had led to her abandonment of the Church. Yarrow knew she would likely have to kill her before she could recover the stolen relic. A shame.
Every dead brother and sister opened a wound in the she-orc's heart that would likely never mend. Not until she joined them, anyway.
Aww, how sweet! crowed Root, looking down through the gloom from atop a wind-bent tree. Miss them, do you? Do you miss me, too? Yarrow bit back a rash "no." They both knew it wouldn't have been true. 'You know I do,' she said, not bothering to hide her words from Sol, or the lumbertooth masquerading as a fallen tree thirty meters to their left. It was no secret -to Root at least- that Yarrow thought the wrong sister had survived their fight. You couldn't undo the past, alas.
More's the pity.
Yarrow stopped walking. 'Got something,' she told Solitude, 'at your 11 o'clock. A mix of ash and pepper and cooked meat.' Yarrow wetted her lips with her tongue. 'Kind of want a snack now.'
Solitude stopped when Yarrow did, looking over at the half-orc and tilting her head to the side curiously. She always forgot that with shadowkins many assassins experienced specific boons. Sucked that with a fox, she got nothing but maybe some good luck every now and then. Half the time it didn’t even work.
“Right. Your sense of smell.” Solitude said, mostly to herself. She herself couldn’t smell anything, and even as she looked over to the direction that Yarrow had pointed out, she couldn’t even see a tendril of smoke thanks to the ever present fog. Regardless or not if Solitude could see or smell what Yarrow had pointed out, the assassin knew better than to be skeptical of her friend.
“So we head there first and investigate, see if maybe the relic is around?” Not that the two of them could come back without Sister Serenity’s head. The easiest part would probably be finding the relic, the hardest part would be trying to find Sister Serenity and not dying after finding her.
Without waiting for Yarrow’s permission, Solitude headed in the direction towards the camp, being as silent as she could be. There weren’t many deep and dark shadows to hide within but the fog gave her nice coverage. The issue was, while the fog helped to hide the assassins from whatever could be lurking in these woods, so too were things hidden from their sight.
“Rosario, search ahead, yeah?” Solitude told her twin, her shadow quivering as a dark, hazy shape of Rosario formed once again before slithering along the ground before them. “Yousmell anything out of the ordinary?” She asked Yarrow.
'Depends on what you consider ordinary.' In this place, nothing was. The wildlife. The flora they sometimes feasted on. Even the local tribes could be considered thoroughly abnormal when compared to the rest of Shekath. Mind you, that didn't make the place any less crazy... Just a different kind of crazy to the Unburnt Woods.
The locals went a long way towards marking it out as its own little petty kingdom. Indigenous tribes such as the Ashfoots and Ashtongues called the place home, and had done so for what seemed a millennia now. Hardy folk, they had a habit of dyeing their skin grey and used poisons made from imp stool and swamp fungi to paralyse their prey. Yarrow knew first-hand how effective their needle darts could be, and had counted her blessings every day since.
Sol was lucky in that regard. So far as the half-orc knew, she had never experienced tribal hospitality. Hopefully, she would never have to.
Smell that? Root rose from the nearby waters to stare at the assassins as they wandered on by. Figured out what the cooked meat is yet? she sniffed, licked her lips like she still possessed an appetite. Yarrow nodded, slowed Sol with a whisper. 'Dead up ahead,' she informed the black-haired killer, keeping her movements to a minimum. 'Three if my nose doth not deceive me.'
Ghosting her way into the camp, Yarrow examined the scene with her peepers.
Blood, bits of bodies, ashes still warm to the touch... And tracks. Lots of tracks. 'Serenity didn't do this,' Yarrow surmised, following the rutted ground to where the third tribal lay, dismembered amongst the reeds of a small, algae-filled pond. 'And if she did, it doesn't bode well for us.'
Stooping, she lifted a small pointed object from the mud, held it up for Solitude to inspect. 'Don't cut yourself with it,' Yarrow warned her, ''less you feel like "dancing" your way into an early grave.'
As they got closer to the camp, Solitude couldn’t help but to wrinkle up her nose in disgust. Sure, she was an assassin but that didn’t mean she had to like the spell of rotting and decomposing flesh. The fog especially made the smell more putrid than it needed to be, keeping exposed innards moist and plump with the wet air. She didn’t know how Yarrow was able to stomach the smell, especially with her much keener senses.
Looking around the camp, Solitude noted how open it had been. There had been a fire and they were close to a too-green body of water. That stagnant little puddle of algae wasn’t helping with the smell. The camp most definitely belonged to the tribe— which tribe was hard to say but did it even really matter at this point?
“It looks less like a person and more like a monster did this.” They all knew the signs, they all remembered the fables that were told to them while they were young. Each and every one of them could turn into a beast. If they turned their back from the Mother and fell into sin, into the welcoming hands of the Usurper, then there was no hope of ever going back. “Look at those gnarly bites.” Solitude added before seeing that her partner had actually found something of interest.
The raven-haired assassin took the object, covered in mud and who knew what else, and cleaned off the grime by rubbing it against the fabric around her calf.
“Oh shit, this is from—“ Solitude didn’t have a chance to finish her sentence, her sister emerging from her shadow behind her and screaming into the woods. Darts flew out, striking not Sol but Rosario instead. Her sister’s form began to melt back into the shadow and Solitude stood up, still holding up that golden needle that Sister Serenity had been fond of. Well, she had a set, hidden throughout her long hair or embedded into her clothing. But there was no time to point that out as Solitude moved to get behind a tree, beginning to scale up it.
Yarrow was already moving by the time the darts started to fly. She didn't know the exact spot they had been loosed from, but she had a general sense of direction and that was all she needed. Considering the tribals had managed to get the drop on them, it stood to reason that the she-orc could no longer rely on her heightened sense of smell to get the job done. She was okay with that.
Blocking out the stench of death and decay with practised ease, the pale assassin slipped around the green waters and into the thicket beyond. Careful, now, Root warned her, like she needed warning. I sense three shooters, one in the trees, two flanking. They're using-
'I know what they're using.' Yarrow's whisper was harsh, and far too loud in the sudden silence that had descended upon the woods. Though the tribal warriors had taken measures to mask their scent using plants native to the area, they could do little to hide the poisons they coated their darts with. Lethal. One drop in my bloodstream will have me seeing double, two will have me seizing. Three...
Well, three didn't warrant thinking about.
Slipping between the trees, cautiously quick, Yarrow threw herself forwards as a shadow leapt from the branches above her head. The tribal warrior, a dark-skinned man wearing nothing but a loincloth and camo-paste, issued a ululating war cry as he descended from the trees, his blowgun all but forgotten.
Absorbing the shock with his knees, the warrior launched himself at Yarrow with wild abandon. He had a rather primitive club in his right hand, and a stone knife in his left. Swinging at her, the stone head embedded itself in the trunk of the tree behind Yarrow as she ducked, rolled aside.
Her pick came free of her belt, and with vicious spin, the half-orc drove its curved head into the small of the tribal's back.
One down, she thought, rolling again as a needle dart whistled past her head.
Solitude was climbing a tree while Yarrow was fighting for her life. In Solitude’s defense, she had always done much better when she was hidden. Although she supposed that she had already been found out, so what was the point in trying to hide once again? Sure the fog was nice in hiding but the tribal people already understood that there were two assassins hiding about in the woods. A moment later and she heard movement, looking to the side and seeing Yarrow clobbering one of the men with her pick.
Solitude reached up a bit higher, her feet finding purchase on one particularly sturdy branch and she pulled forth three throwing knives.
“Your left!” She shouted down below, not caring if once again she was giving away her position. But if she wasn’t down there fighting then the least that she could do was keep an eye out for Yarrow. Two other men were on the half-orc’s left, and it seemed one lingered behind to try and shoot a poisoned dart at Yarrow. With a precise throw, one of the throwing knives hit the man with the blowgun, blue blood spurting out between his lips as Solitude threw another.
The second knife was off. Way off. Using her bracer to deflect it away from her exposed face, Yarrow turned to address the latest threat to her survival. The man she had thwacked with her pick was down and screaming, but his pained cries did little to dissuade his fellow tribesman as he charged in, spiked club swinging.
A step back saw his attack wasted on thin air. A step forward saw his skull crushed. A quick blow, just above the ear. It was textbook, really. Yarrow's mentors would have been proud.
But Yarrow's mentors weren't here. A pity. 'All clear!' She called up to Solitude as the man went down. He jerked a few times before he went still. Most of them did. The third guy, the one with the knife protruding from his shoulder, jerked just the same. Either Sol's throwing knives were coated in poison or the fool had swallowed his own dart. Probably both.
'Poor bastard,' said Yarrow. Better him than you, replied Root.
Yeah... Stepping up to the nearest tribesman, Yarrow rolled the dead man over. A bit of brain matter seeped from the rent in the side of his head to smatter the muddied earth beneath. A makeshift belt woven from reeds was looped around his waist. A clay pot wrapped in a small hide hung there. All of the bodies bore them.
Crouching down, Yarrow brought the pot up to eye-level. She couldn't quite place the smell wafting from the pot's stoppered throat. Mostly because it didn't have a smell to begin with. 'Guess we found out why I didn't detect them sooner,' she smiled, tossing the pot to Solitude as she sauntered over, a victorious sway to her hips. 'They use paste to hide themselves from predators. It's what gives their skin a grey hue. Probably why they don't fashion clothes, too.'
Relieving the other two of their pots, Yarrow slipped one into her satchel. The other she opened. There was a fleck of blood on the clay. She wiped it away with her thumb. 'Could come in handy.'
Solitude whooped in victory as Yarrow was able to finish the rest of the guys off with practiced ease. Her form was flawless and while Solitude could work on her aim a little bit, Yarrow didn’t need to. Every hit found their mark and in a matter of seconds the men were on the ground, eyes looking up to the sky and glazing over.
She wasted little time in climbing down the tree, although she really just slid down it. Once her feet were back on the ground, Solitude jogged over to Yarrow. She kicked one of the members in his side for good measure, as if she had actually killed him. Although she did get one, and one was better than none!
“That was tight,” Solitude complimented, looking back down at the ground and seeing the bodies. She went over to collect her two throwing knives, placing them back long the concealed compartments on her being. She barely had enough time to catch one of the pots that were tossed over to her, and due to her butter fingers, she groaned as the lid slipped open, falling to the ground and letting all the slimy gray contents slide onto Sol’s hands.
“Ugh. Gross.” She said, dropping the pot as well onto the ground. She looked at her open palms, crimson eyes narrowing in disgust, and then shrugged, wiping the paste over her breeches and along her compact bracers. “It better come in handy and I better not smell worse than an Allirian sewer.” Sol mumbled under her breath. With her hands mostly cleaned off, she then produced the needle that Yarrow had found earlier.
“Check it out, it’s Serenity’s. I know it is. She was gaudy with her choice of weaponry.”
'Spend much time in Allirian sewers, do you?'Yarrow grinned across at Sol as she applied the paste. To her clothes. Her skin. Everything she could reach, really. The she-orc knew from experience that she didn't have to be too liberal with its application. A smear here and there would do it.
A speck of gold caught her eye, and Yarrow turned to regard Sol as she brandished the needle dart like some sort of trophy. It was more a lead than anything, but she wasn't about to neglect Sol's excitement by chastising her. She would leave that to the Vicars and Priests once they got back. Demise, perhaps? She loved punishing people, revelled in the sense of superiority she felt.
Her ego would probably get her killed sooner or later. You could say it would prove her demise, even. Get it?
Ha-ha, very funny. Root's tone said otherwise. 'You knew her better than I. If you say it's hers, it's hers.' Patting herself down for wounds, the she-orc stepped over to the first tribesman. He was still mewling in pain, and though he had tried to kill her, Yarrow didn't feel any particular enmity towards the guy. It was just business. 'Sorry about this,' she said, slipping a dagger through his back and into his heart.
The man spasmed once, then, went still.
'Suppose we should get a move on before the bodies start to attract scavengers.' Flicking some dirt from Solitude's shoulder, Yarrow tilted her head to the side. 'Tracks lead this a-ways. Come on!' With a quick smile, Yarrow led Sol deeper into the woods. The carrion birds were already flocking down from their roosts to peck the corpses bare. A lumbertooth rumbled off in the distance.
'Nice knife work, by the way!' Yarrow's comment was jovial, if a little bitter. 'Only almost took my eye out. Not bad for being halfway up a tree.' Yarrow grinned cheekily.
Solitude opened her mouth to object to Yarrow’s jest, but no words came out. Unfortunately, it was true. Solitude did spend a lot of time in Allirian sewers. Not because she wanted to, but somehow it seemed she always ended up using the sewer system to run away. She only nodded her head stiffly as Yarrow reminded her of the scavengers that resided in the Unburnt Woods.
Horrible creatures, far worse than the usual suspects that went crazy over a free meal. Sure the Woods didn’t have vultures but they did have a strange amalgamation called a long-beak badger. It neither looked like a badger or a bird, and the way it moved wasn’t a sight for children. Or Solitude. The creature looked like a hunched over, three-legged badger with a strange beak and mushrooms grew from every slow by slow step. The things always creeped her out and while they looked feeble, getting one angry was a death sentence waiting to happen.
Their bite was lethal, but not because it killed right away. It mutated the poor thing that was dumb enough to get bitten. These hyper mutations sometimes took years to show up, but the longer they took to show, the more crazy they were. Solitude had seen a guy with three heads growing out of his back and something like a long, thin white mushroom out of his mouth and ears.
Following after Yarrow, Solitude was taken away from her grim thoughts and raised her hands up in surrender.
“You were in my way! Or else I would’ve definitely hit the dude.” Solitude protested but she sounded more sheepish and embarrassed than anything. “He was a small target, you know it’s harder to hit a small target. And all the fog…” the assassin trailed off, realizing she wasn’t making a strong case for herself. She looked at the long needle in her hand, flipping it up in the air before catching it.
“Maybe I could get some tutoring on my knife throwing though if you have time?” She ventured, trying her best to sound indifferent instead of hopeful.
'For you, I have all the time in the world!' Smiling playfully, the she-orc pressed on. Sure, Solitude might not be the best assassin the Church had at its disposal, but she certainly wasn't the worst. The fact she was still alive was proof positive that she possessed some skills worth having. Maybe not as many as Love or some of the other high-ranking assassins, but then Yarrow couldn't claim to be as skilled as them either.
One day, perhaps.
Striding along, Yarrow jutted her chin towards a hill up ahead. 'What's that strange light?' she asked no-one in particular. The hill, much like everything else in the Unburnt Woods, was shrouded in a fog so thick it baffled the senses. A bleak, wintery white glow could be seen blinking in and out every so often. It reminded Yarrow of a lighthouse, or some kind of watchfire.
Could be a Ferryman, Root warned her, appearing like a ghost from the fog. Unlike Rosario or the others' twins, she didn't like to be seen by any of the other assassins. Only Yarrow. She would have found the sentiment quite sweet had it not been for one small truth: Root annoyed her to death.
Still, annoying as she was, she came up with some useful theories from time to time. Could be, Yarrow replied in her mind, certain that Solitude already thought her crazy but not willing to confirm it. Could be more tribals, too. Ashtongues? Root shook her head. The wound in her neck opened up like a second mouth, closed, then opened again with every shake. Not their territory, she said. Unburnt or Ashfoots, most like. Or a fuckin' Ferryman... Take your pick!
With that grim bit of information in mind,Yarrow stopped walking, waited for Sol to catch up. The raven-haired assassin nearly bumped into her despite having her head on a swivel. 'Hey! Eyes up here!' Yarrow joked, trying to alleviate some of the tension in the air. With a smile that wasn't entirely fake, she pointed to the light, and how the tracks they'd been following veered away from it.
Solitude had continued to keep her eyes on the needle instead of around her. With Yarrow taking the lead, Solitude far too comfortable within these woods. If she had been by herself maybe she would have a greater sense of self preservation. She stepped into Yarrow’s strong back and quickly made sure to take a step back, her free hand going up to rub at her nose. Whoops. Maybe she should be paying a lot more attention. She was lucky she had walked into Yarrow not into another tribe ambush.
Or a trap set out by Serenity.
Stepping to the side, Solitude put Serenity’s golden needle away to poke out of a pouch on her thigh and looked at the light that Yarrow had pointed out. She frowned.
“Could be a will-o-wisp.” Solitude said, and if it was fae, it wasn’t going to be anything trustworthy. Did they need another hindrance to this mission? But then again, their only lead on Serenity was the camp and the weapon she had left behind. They didn’t have anything else to go off of. Solitude could feel her sister stirring in her mind again, warning her that her power was weaken from the poison darts she took for Sol.
They would have to be cautious. Rosario wouldn’t be fully healed until it was night and Solitude wasn’t sure she wanted to hang around the Unburnt Woods while nighttime reigned over the cursed place.
“Okay, we check out the hill, but slowly and carefully.” As if she had to tell Yarrow to be careful. “Gotta be stealthy on this one.” Solitude added and then with a cheeky grin, her body began to turn hazy. If it was night, she would have blended in perfectly with the atmosphere, but currently with all the gray and white fog, Solitude still stood out.
Not as much as she normally did, but it was hard to ignore the blurry, dark smog that curled and snapped it’s tendrils towards any shadows close by that was suspiciously human shaped.
Solitude moved forward, crouching down low and using the trees for cover.
As the two of the assassins would near the hill they would hear a faint sound of someone singing. Unbeknown to Solitude, the more she listened to the song and the louder it became, the more she would feel compelled to go up to the hill where the light was. At the base of the hill, when they finally got to it, a dark ring of upturned earth could be seen, a barrier from the point they were at and the hill before them.