It seemed that the world passed beneath our feet too quickly, even faster than a blink of an eye. All too soon, the troop of brass-clad soldiers came into view, around a corner that should have taken us a good twenty minutes of hiking to reach.
“Between them, but do not touch them!” Aurora shouted, and Silva and the mule dashed between the ranks, followed by Demarra and Ana.
If they even saw us, I had no way of knowing. The soldiers did not react, just kept their dead-eyed, stiff-legged march. Four strides, and we were through the ten files of soldiers. Ahead, the twins gave a short cry, and their black dragonstones burst alight. The golden haze surrounding us shimmered into a muted, watery gray, the moonlight diminishing as if it were but a mere sliver.
Two short, broad-shouldered figures flashed by, but I dared not glance backwards— to stumble here would mean capture, or worse.
Pyrklist pointed, another half-dozen strides further along, towards the righthand fork in the canyon’s trail, and we veered that direction, the muted crunching of gravel beneath our feet accented by the harsh gasping for breath.
“Here!” the halfling called out, and only then did Aurora signal us to slow our pace. We’d rounded another bend in the trail before everybody slowed and finally halted.
“Do you— suppose — you could— tell us — what that was now?” Ana panted.
I glanced up, frowning. The moon should have sunk well below the ridge of the mountains above, yet it looked as if it barely touched the peaks.
“That cannot be right,” I said.
Silva smiled at her sister. “I did say it, that it would make much longer.”
Aurora huffed, and crossed her arms.
“That was your plan? To simply run past the hunting party? To get ahead of them?” Gilliam asked.
”It was that or don their armor and follow behind,” Aurora said.
Ana wrinkled her nose.
“They might wonder about so short a trooper” Gilliam said, with a nod towards the twins and the halfling
“If we have to deal with them now,” Aurora continued, “we can face those at the head of the column, rather than rank after rank of their automata.”
“Those looked to be dwarves,” Varis said. “Don’t see too many in these parts with hair or beards that dark.”
“All of the Tarsfotar are colored as such,” Pyrklist said.
“There is something… not-right… in them,” Silva said, with the slightest of shudders. “Their thoughts did not feel the same as Kuric and Durin.”
Aurora gave a derisive sniff, but kept her silence. Instead, she turned to the halfling.
“How much further until we reach these mines of yours?”
“Not far,” Pyrklist said. “We can reach one of the tunnels before the moon crosses the peaks.”
And with that, we were off again, the halfling pointing the way from the back of the pack mule. Silva led the beast, and Aurora was no more than a pace away. Gilliam and Varis took rearguard, hands never far from the hilts of their swords, the weapons half-drawn at every stray sound in the deepening night.
Pyrklist’s guess was correct, for we still had Matera’s light to pick out the half-dead scrub partially obscuring a deeper darkness in the rocks.
“Wait,” I warned, as Aurora made to pull the brambles aside.
“Stranglethorn,” she said, drawing her hand back. She glanced up at the halfling. “And you were content to just let us press right past it?”
“This one does not—“ Pyrlkist started. “Mistresses, please. They have those Pyrklist holds closest to his heart. This one… does not wish them harmed. There are not many of us left.”
“You may as well drop the pretense,” came the deep voice of the Dulgardar. The stones around us wavered, and then the edges melted away as broad-shouldered forms stepped apart from the mountainside. Matera’s light glinted off edges of brass and steel, revealed a dark beard shot with gray, the other shorter figure sporting a beard so black as to be nearly purple in the moonlight.
“Melrask, you owe me a pouch of garnet sand,” the taller, iron-bearded figure said.
“Take it from Egred,” Pyrklist said, from the back of the mule. But the halfling was no longer there. Instead, there hunched a third broad figure, his voice a rasping tumble of sand upon shale. Gold glinted from thick fingers which still clutched the harnesses. “I bet him the same that we’d snarl these fools in the bloodbriars.” He spat. “The Oracle stone said nothing of a Druid amongst them.”
In less time than it took to blink, Silva and Aurora both sang a brief note, and the stones adorning their bracers flared to painful light.
Just as quickly, a crackling, rasping note sprang forth, and the girls’ dragonstones went dark. We were left blinking, disoriented amidst the ghosts of the stones’ light in the deepening night.
“Do not look to your pretty little stones to save you,” the dwarf hunched on the mule said. He muttered a word, and waved his hand. The twins’ eyes widening was the last voluntary motion they made for the rest of the night.