Chapter 3

“Well, if you say I did, then I must have. But, I thought it was impossible.” Jumah said with a shining smile.

Riana pushed a branch out of her way as she stepped over a gnarly tangle of roots and sighed. “It IS impossible. That spell slows time in the immediate area down to a fraction of its normal pace. I mean the only way someone could possibly still move is if they were somehow immune…”

“Which I assure you I am not.”

“…or…” she tossed him a sidelong glance, then winced in pain as a protruding branch dug into the freshly dressed wound on her shoulder.

“Or…” Jumah prompted her, after she had taken a few deep breaths to stem the pain.

“Or…” She continued, “If the person in question could move so fast that they could get to that state under their own power.”

Jumah contemplated this comment for a moment as he bent a particularly thick branch out of the way and held it for her as she passed. “You mean the person in question would have to be able to move so fast that they could slow down time around them?”

“Not slow down time per se, just move so fast that it would appear to everyone else that they had simply vanished, or teleported.”

“Wow. That sounds pretty fast. I don’t think I can move quite that quickly, personally.” His tenor voice called out from behind her as they forged on into the forest.

“I don’t see how you could. I mean there’s only one species…” Riana now held a branch back for Jumah. As he passed in front of her, she confirmed that his long golden locks had the faintest dark splotches speckled throughout.

“Thank you m’lady.” He flashed her another grin as he ducked under the branch and moved ahead to the next obstacle. “So, what species is this that could move that fast?”

Riana shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. “Were-Cheetah.” She watched his face for a reaction before continuing. “But no one has seen any of their kind in decades, possibly a century or more. Most of the were-creatures were hunted to extinction after the great wars. Nobody trusted them to not spread their lycanthropy like a plague.”

“I see.” Jumah’s voice was a bit less jovial as he held back a series of branches for her to get past. “So what do you think?”

“About what?” She turned to look at him and walked sidelong into a thick branch.Her foot caught in a clump of roots and she knew she was going to break something in the fall as she keeled over. Closing her eyes and clenching her jaw in preparation for the pain, she gasped as strong arms wrapped around her, stopping her mid-fall.

Opening her eyes tentatively and looking up she was met by Jumah’s crystal clear blue eyes and his mischievous grin. “About these supposedly plague-bearing were-beasts.”He used his free hand to delicately chase a few locks of hair out of her eyes.

Her skin turned hot and a deep blush suffused her cheeks. Finally she managed to turn her head away from his gaze. His hand pressed against her side and she was suddenly aware of the strength behind those fingers. His fingers were rough, but gentle as he helped her stand up.

She turned her back to him for a moment, pretending to adjust her belt and pouches as she tried to force her body back under her control.

Jumah watched as she shuffled and adjusted, patiently waiting and leaning against the tree he had rescued her from. When she turned back to face him, he stared into her deep, violet eyes.

Forcing herself to look at his chin or his shoulder, anywhere but those pools of crystal blue that heated her skin and made her heart thump in her chest like a goblin war drum. “Well, canine lycanthropes were the ones able to transfer their condition via bites, but the feline lycanthropes could only pass their abilities to their offspring. Or so I’ve read.” She adjusted her sword awkwardly.

“I see.” Jumah said as he stood up and pushed a series of branches aside, holding them for her.

She nodded a thank you as she passed him, trying not to think about his muscular body sliding past hers.

Taking a few strides, he was again in front of her, his hand reaching out toward the next thicket of branches. As he reached out to grab the branches, he paused just as her hand snatched his wrist. Turning to look at her with raised eyebrows, he saw her staring at his chest with a blank expression and her long elven ears perked up and splayed out in concentrated effort. “You hear it too?” He whispered to her.

“More goblins. Just there.” She whispered back in a barely audible voice and pointed through the branches he was about to move, reluctantly releasing his arm in the process.

Quietly, they both crept forward and peeled away some of the smaller branches and leaves. Peering through them, they saw what they were up against.

A large clearing with a dilapidated stone tower standing in the center was just beyond their hiding place. The tower looked to be about five stories high with a disintegrating tile roof, no visible windows, and a single door around which huddled a mass of goblins. The creatures mulled about nervously as though they expected to be set upon at any moment by a monster.

“That must be our tower then.” Jumah whispered.

“You think?” Riana whispered back with a grin on her face. “What gave it away? I mean, aside from the horde of goblins at the door?”

“Obviously it’s the state of the thing. I mean, look at those roof tiles. I haven’t seen craftsmanship of that qualityin years.” He grinned back at her.

With some effort Riana stifled a laugh. Forcing herself back to the matter at hand, she took stock of the situation. It was getting late in the day, with darkness due any moment. There were twenty goblins guarding the single door to the tower, and they stood in the center of a clearing that would guarantee anyone approaching the tower would be seen, unless…

“How much do you like me?” She hissed at Jumah who responded by sitting up so quickly that he hit his head on a branch and then was slapped in the face by the twigs he had let go of in surprise at the bluntness of the question.

“M’lady I… I’m sure you… ah…”

She turned and looked at him with an amused smile on her face. ‘At least it’s not just me.’

She leaned in close to him and brought up her left forearm, pointing to a glyph there she explained, “I don’t know an invisibility enchantment strong enough for multiple people yet. But the one I do know will affect myself and whatever is in my very immediate vicinity.”

“Ah. How immediate are we talking about here?”

She grinned at him. For the first time since she had met him that morning she realized that this man was not imperturbable. “Physical contact close.”

“You don’t mean just holding hands, right?” His eyes darted from left to right as though he was half expecting her parents to break in on them.

She took the opportunity to play with him a bit, taking advantage of his apparent gentlemanly nature. Offering him a wry smile that he instantly took to daydreaming about. “I think we may have to get rather more… intimate, than that.” She pressed on, relishing the rosy color of his cheeks. “Unless you want to fight the lot of them?” She jerked her thumb over her shoulder toward the clearing and the goblins therein by way of explanation.

“Not especially, no.”

“Nor do I.” She stated flatly. “So.”

He looked around for a moment.

“Ok then. How about this? You invis yourself and head over there with the key. You open the door and I’ll meet you inside. Just hold it open for a second before you close it.”

Riana looked at him with a look of amusement on her face. “You’re going to run from here to there in a second? And without alarming the goblins?” She raised her eyebrows skeptically at him.

“Yes. I am going to run that distance in a second, and no I won’t alert the goblins. You’ll already have done that.”

“I’ll already have done that… Why exactly?”

“Do you think they won’t see the door opening by itself?” He smirked at her.

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.” She chided herself inwardly.

“Don’t worry about it. This way, my movement will distract them from the door and we’ll have a better chance of locking it behind us without a bunch of them spilling in first.”

“Are you sure about this? If we do it my way it ensures we’ll both get there at once.”

“Because,”he paused, “we’ll have to disentangle from one another before we can deal with the goblins. I think this will work better.”

Suddenly the sky darkened. In a matter of seconds it transitioned from daylight to night, much like somebody turning down a dimmer switch on an electric light.

Jumah pointed toward the clearing and said, “Go now. While their eyes are adjusting to the darkness.”

“Alright, but I want it noted that I think this is a bad idea.” Riana whispered as her eyes glowed and then vanished from sight along with the rest of her.

A moment later, she pushed her way slowly through the foliage with a soft rustling sound and then quietly padded toward the ominous door at the base of the tower.

Holding the handle of Elkorine, to keep it from swinging on her belt and touching a goblin, or making some unexpected noise. Riana picked her way through the goblin guard detail, clenching Elkorine tightly in case something unexpected happened and she needed to defend herself.Moving as quickly as she dared, more than once she ended up face to face with one of the little green creatures. Eventually she reached the tower and squeezed herself behind a particularly burly looking, armor clad, goblin warrior, bearing a large—for him—axe. She gently slotted the old skeleton key into the door’s lock and slid it home.

The key bottomed out in the lock and clanked against the back plate ever so slightly. Riana held her breath as the goblin perked its ears up and began to look around. After a moment it settled down again and Riana slowly let out her breath and drew in another deep draught of fresh air. Glancing briefly over her shoulder to where she knew Jumah should be watching from, she nodded in his direction, forgetting that she was invisible. Looking back to the door, she placed a hand on its rough surface and paused for an instant to prepare.

‘Here we go. This is where we both get shot up by goblin archers.’ With all the courage and speed she could muster, she twisted the key in the lock cringing when it echoed with a loud clanking noise. Wrenching the key back out of the lock, she pushed. The door swung in on its hinges and groaned so loud that she thought it must have alerted the Obscuri in their caves halfway across Kalijor.

She felt the activity before she heard it. The goblins realizing that someone was opening the door behind them. The slow and painful process that went in to that epiphany was almost comical, while their reaction was anything but. A sudden tidal wave of noise came up behind her as the goblins began yelling and screaming, raising their weapons in anger and foul intent.

Riana was already pushing the door aside with her body, pivoting around its open edge and bracing her shoulder against the inside of the wooden barrier, preparing to push it closed again. The goblins’ confusion focused on the open space and the empty doorway. Several crooked arrows embedded themselves in the door near her head and she looked up to see the armor-clad axe-wielding goblin swinging his weapon in a wide arc in a blind attempt at the blood of the intruder.

She smiled at the goblin as an arc of lightning issued forth from her right hand, dispelling her invisibility enchantment. Before they could do much more than register her sudden appearance, the blast of electricity arced back and forth through the assembled mass of goblins, scaring some, stunning others, and outright killing a few.

‘He’s had his second and I need to get through this, with or without him.’ She thought as she pushed with her legs, driving the wooden door closed with all her strength. The heavy door closed against the stone with a resounding thud. Jamming the rusty key into the lock on the inside, she twisted it home with a reassuring clank.

“Well that was fun!”

Riana jumped at the sound, whirling around to put her back to the door and her hand on her sword. “What the?!”

“Calm down m’lady. It’s just me.” Jumah smiled reassuringly at her in the wan light of the tower’s interior.

“How did you… I mean, I just… And you weren’t…”

His smile turned to a knowing, mischievous grin. “It’s a trade secret. I could tell you but…”

“But what? You’d have to kill me?” She looked at him sarcastically.

“No. I just think it’s more fun to make you keep guessing.”

Riana stared at the blonde man with a look somewhere between amazement and incredulity. She had no idea why she liked him. He was arrogant and over-confident. He behaved like a child playing a game, and yet he was still somehow serious enough to make it seem as though he was here for all the right reasons. He smiled at her impishly as she stared at him.

“Look…” She said, releasing her grip on her sword’s handle and moving to examine the small, dark, stone room they found themselves in.

“Is this where you tell me you don’t like handsome, capable, eligible bachelors?” His grin widened. “Would it change things if I told you I cook too?”

She turned her violet eyes back toward him and gave him a look that instantly withered his mood. His back straightened and his muscles tensed. He was ready for instant action and the levity was gone.

“I am looking for my sister. She was beaten nearly to death and then dragged away by a man named Malice. I don’t know where he has taken her, but I have been able to find out that it is a place where GM’s cannot see, or go.”

Jumah nodded solemnly, taking this new information in stride, he did not appear in any way surprised by what she had said. “How long has she been stuck in the system?”

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