Ties That Bind: Part Six
The Haunted Woods. An unpredictable, treacherous place where few dared to set foot. Home of witches, malevolent spirits, and feral creatures, a man was wise to fear it. According to some of the knowledgeable mages, it was also regarded as the birthplace of the art of sorcery. Any sort of magic within its boundaries was likely to be harmful, at best. And yet it was there where Layla had been taken.
Harwood would have avoided the Woods if he had a choice. The path grew narrow, the light overhead blocked off by swarms of clawed branches. The forest seemed lifeless, aside from the peculiar colored lights the Eyrie often spotted into the distance. He guessed that they were witches' enchantments, sent out to distract weary travelers and lead them astray. Perhaps that was why they always said that the Wood swallowed up its visitors.
The defender kept a solid pace, ignoring whatever howls and rustles and snapping twigs he could. Branches grazed his limbs, but he continued making progress, only stopping for brief rests. Layla wasn't far; that much he could tell. Harwood wished it were possible to fly to her location, but the trees grew too close together for him to make a safe landing. The Eyrie didn't quite trust himself, either. With a throbbing head injury and the returning ache in his chest, it would be difficult to stay aloft. If flight was needed, he would have to be careful.
It wasn't long before the smell of smoke tinged the air, signaling that there were people nearby. The trees that were so tightly packed together began to ebb away, creating a clearing up ahead. Faint shouting could be heard, and Harwood slowed his pace, stepping off the path and ducking for cover in the woods.
Creeping closer to the clearing, the Eyrie hoisted himself up into a tree, using his wings and claws to his advantage as he climbed. When he was up high enough, Harwood scanned the surroundings below.
The clearing seemed to have been forged months ago, all trees in the area burned down to make room. In their place was a campsite, around a dozen crimson tents pitched in a wide circle. The inhabitants all appeared to be Buzz, darting around and completing tasks to keep the settlement moving. Some were moving crates around, others discussing matters with workers in higher power. They seemed agitated, excited by some recent event.
Attaining a mental outline of the camp, Harwood lowered himself to the ground. Moving behind the cover of the outlying trees, he tried to spot the one tent that was guarded, a pair of Buzz standing at its entrance. Shifting through the underbrush just so, he soon found it. The tent was located near the edge of the camp. He could use that.
Being located in the Haunted Woods, it wasn't expected that anyone unawares could reach the campsite. This was most likely why no one had bothered to guard the rear end of the tent. Harwood silently crept over to it, freezing in place whenever someone walked nearby. He was thankful that he was a grey at the surrounding trees, serving as camouflage. When the Eyrie was just behind the tent, he reached to his side, expecting his sword to be there.
Harwood cursed under his breath, finding nothing but an empty sheath. He must have been disarmed after the ambush, and the discovery annoyed him to no end, especially because he hadn’t noticed it sooner. He'd had that sword for years, and it would be difficult to replace. If the chance arose, the Eyrie planned to walk out of this with both Layla and his stolen weapon. It wasn't likely, but Harwood wasn't about to let any thief wield that blade.
Slipping under the tent's canvas, the settings quickly changed from a desolate forest to a king's treasure vault. The inside was decorated with lavish spoils, from gilded trunks to a pile of coin purses. Everything was kept under lock and key, aside from a few half-covered sculptures. This tent was the thieves' trophy room, a place where their stolen findings were hoarded.
The grandeur wasn't what he noticed when he first entered. Harwood saw Layla, gagged and tied to one of the tent poles. Upon his arrival, her tired eyes flashed in desperation as she struggled against her bonds. The Eyrie signaled for her to be still, then scanned the room with a careful eye. If this was where the loot was stashed, then...
There we go. Harwood spotted his sword propped up against a crate. He restored it to its rightful owner, having a firm grip on its hilt once again. It was some small relief that he was armed, for he now had more than himself to protect.
The Eyrie let the blade slice through the frayed ropes, freeing the girl. Layla scrambled to her feet, rubbing her wrists and untying the gag. “Took your time getting here,” she whispered angrily, though something in her tone showed the gratitude she felt.
“Quiet.” Harwood gestured for her to stay close. His gaze was hooked on the tent's entrance, keeping watch for the guards. The defender signaled for Layla to exit out the back, his gaze unmoving as he lifted the red canvas. She ducked outside, leaving him to follow, his hand resting on his sword. Harwood knew they couldn't have gone undetected for this long.
He hadn't, however, been expecting the entire camp.
The Eyrie was taken off guard, surrounded by at least thirty armed Buzz. Each looks quite capable of murder, cutting off every way of escape. Layla backed up in fright, staying close as he stood his ground.
Out of the group stepped a tall Buzz, his scales giving off a fiery sheen. He offered a smile, showing mock friendliness as he gripped a dagger. It was the same weapon that had caused Harwood's near downfall. The Eyrie glared at him with disgust.
“Well,” the Buzz said, smirking with pleasure. “You-”
“Sullivan,” Harwood sneered. “Zachary Sullivan.”
The Buzz's brow rose. “Have we met?”
“In a way.” The Eyrie had heard of this group of bandits striking near Brightvale. When you worked with the Defenders, lots of information was passed around. Sullivan’s reign was a long and cruel one, he remembered, and Harwood wanted nothing more than to run him through on the spot.
“You know who I am. You want to kill me.” The thief's tone toyed with Harwood's nerves. “Then by all means, defender. Do your job.”
The Eyrie grasped his sword, trying to control himself. But his anger was getting the best of him. He tensed, prepared to strike.
Let me cause a distraction. Then we can escape.
Harwood froze, hearing Layla's voice in his thoughts. He caught himself, glad that she had intervened. Starting a fight would have meant the end of them both.
The Gnorbu stepped forward, silent and expressionless. Eyes unfocused, she extended a hand to the Buzz. The effect was awkward and unsettling, and the bandits murmured with uncertainty.
“Enough games,” Layla said loudly, her body rigid. “Had you any idea that you'd captured a mage?”
The crowd shifted apprehensively. Some muttered of witchery, others stepping back in fear. It appeared as if the girl had been possessed during her time in the Wood, and whatever inhabited her spirit wasn't pleased.
Sullivan sneered at her attempts. “I've no time for jokes, you stupid little...”
The Buzz's words fell short as he saw Layla's outstretched hand trembling violently. A purple energy bubbled up from her palm, erupting into a mess of fizzing light. Whatever it landed on seemed to blacken and burst into flame, sizzling dangerously. The wind picked up, spreading the fire and making it all the stronger. Even to the untrained eye, black shadows could be seen dancing within the flames.
The bandits were horrified, thinking their speculations correct. The young Gnorbu's eyes burned with the ignition, a haunting sight among the growing destruction. Those who weren't frozen with fear could only think to run.
Sullivan, however, wasn't nearly as fazed. He brandished his daggers, hollering “Attack!” His remaining recruits threw fear aside and dashed forward, weapons poised to kill.
Layla threw the violet mass of energy in her hand at her assailants, and it splashed onto their armor with a loud, dreadful hiss. In seconds, the magic exploded into flames, claimed all who it touched. The Gnorbu knew her distraction was complete, taking care to lie low and watch her back.
Harwood stepped into front of Layla, parrying whatever attacks the unexpended thieves aimed at her. The Eyrie fought off the aggressors with quick precision; it felt good to be able to hack at something again. He hoped he would be able to clash with Sullivan and rid the place of his presence, but it wasn't to be.
The fires were growing rapidly, eager to consume, tongues of flames licking at anything in its path. While defending themselves, Harwood and Layla had found themselves no longer surrounded by thieves but their own hazardous doings. The magical fire had them cornered, burning the very air they breathed.
Harwood realized there was no other way of escape. After shaking off the last of the visible attackers, he carefully extended his wings and turned to Layla. “Get on!”
Layla had no time to object, climbing onto his back and hooking her arms around his neck with a suffocating, fearful grip.
“Stop clinging,” the Eyrie barked, flinching as his fur was singed. With a strong flap of his wings, Harwood kicked off the ground, sending a gust of wind through the tendrils of flame. It was difficult with the added weight, but he managed to gain altitude, swerving away from a large cloud of smoke. The defender put as much distance between them and the camp as possible, hoping the survivors weren't close behind.
The skies were clear and crisp, a welcome sight after just dodging fire and sword. Gliding on the currents, Harwood breathed in the clean air, letting the wind run through his sweaty fur and clothing. The taste of freedom was sweet. Sullivan was a serious criminal, and such a chance getaway was impressive, in the least. Having everything together again was a small weight lifted from the defender’s back.
Layla was stiff with fear, skeptical of Harwood's ability to keep her from falling to her death. But, after a while, she began to relax a bit, taking in the wonders of flight. The Gnorbu had never felt so free, with the wind whipping at her hair and the trees just a blurred mass of grey below.
Layla sighed with relief. “That was a close call. Thanks for showing up. You had me worried for a minute there.”
“Why not escape yourself?” he commented, referring to her magical capabilities.
“Of course not. That spell was sloppy at best, not to mention out of control. If I'd tried to get out, I could've ended up killing myself. I need someone to teach me how to harness it, see?”
“All the more reason to get to the Desert.” Harwood hoped she would keep quiet for the rest of the way there. Wheeling over miles of forests already took enough concentration as it was. But his hopes, quite predictably, were dashed in an instant.
“It was weird... I could feel you getting closer to the campsite, back when I was trapped. That Bind sure came in handy in the end, huh?”
The Eyrie was about to say something she would regard as rather inappropriate when his wings suddenly went stiff. His heart began to pump in that horribly familiar, erratic rate. The pain crashed into him seconds later, seeping into his skin and causing him to freeze up.
Not now! Harwood clutched at the ache in his chest, trying to stay aloft. The few frantic beats of his wings grew too painful to continue, and dark spots began blotting out his vision. Layla's panicked cry reached his ear, urging him to fly, but there was nothing to be done.
The last thing he heard was Layla’s frightened chanting as they plummeted to the ground.
To be continued...