by Ma'alkeen

The captain's hand went up to signal the others to stop. Her nose sniffed the air carefully while her hand slowly went to her sword. The others did likewise. She signed for them to follow her but slowly. Eyes turned to the world around them, scanning the trees, the undergrowth and snow carefully. Not a sound could be heard as they continued forward following the captain's nose until she stopped before a tree.

At its base was an arm. Around the arm were the tell-tale sign of a scuffle. A trail of blood and footprints lead away from the arm deeper into the woods. None of the prints on the trail seemed to belong to lutins most were human but also there were hooves belonging to a large bovine. As they followed the trail it appeared to stop in the leeward side of a boulder with the still roots of a tree compressing it to the earth.

The entire patrol watched the branches. The crow's wits weren't as strong as the others so his gaze was quicker to scan the tangle bare branches and the needled leaves above. They didn't need to look long though before they got a hint as to what happened at the tree.

"What's that?" Elwood would point to the north eastern slope leaving the rock face and the others followed his gaze. Standing there, looking at them with bone white eyes was a medium sized canine, its pitch black form pronounced among the brilliant white snow.

One who sees, one who knows. The creature would speak, its voice a hushed whisper. The voice was distinctly feminine.

"Why are you here spirit?" The Tulae stepped closer to it, her hand resting on her sword. It was most unusual for anyone to come across spirits in places outside of the haunted woods. Often times they don't make themselves visible and those who possess divine or magical powers have to coax them come within their presence.

I am here because I see those who come here and know the secret they keep.

"See who, what secret?"

Follow and you shall see too. Then know a secret concerns you all.

Ma'alkeen's eyes were clenched tight, his focus was sensing what Nod sensed beyond his immediate area. He could see them, four souls moving through the woods. In their hearts he could see a curiosity and fear mixed with unyielding determination, especially in the one leading them. He hoped they can time this right, otherwise no one's going to make it out of this alive.

The sun was over the ridge now, two days ago he got news of their crossing into the valley and with his inability to properly stem the flow of magic after being left in a weakened state was going to affect him with this curse earlier than he would have desired. He still had four hours, it was just after noon when he caught word from Nod about entering the cursed area. She had planned on setting the distance between them so she could spring her attack when he would be most vulnerable. However they were also traveling at a rate which has a chance of intercepting him right at the moment she would spring her trap. Guards are predictable in trying to aid whoever they perceive to be aligned with their morals, such as sacrificing a stranger to a demon.

Instead of moving to spring the trap, or even to give himself distance from the summoner who is likely hiding less than twenty minutes away from him. He decides to sit there and meditate, drawing up energy from the few plants and creatures dying nearby. He then felt that dead zone, the area drained of so much life that all plants have begun to wither beyond redemption and those few animals who lay under them cried out in anguish as decomposition was forced upon them while still living, for a few agonizing seconds.

That was when he'll see the flash of her eyes, black as tar, gaze filled with contempt, then a sudden shot of pain that rippled his body. His scream of anguish radiated like the burning pain filling his body. The prickling of needles began ran through every molecule of his being as it began a painful process of reshaping brought about from the summoner. A chuckle came to him, her voice was taunting him with malice.

I thought of rewarding your patience and resilience in pursing me little killer by speeding up your change. It may hurt a bit but there's no need to thank me, I'll help myself while you're preoccupied.

The demon tapping whore finally made her move. Through the pain filling his body he opened his eyes to try to observe where she was moving however his focus was split a third way as he'll notice fur growing out of his skin, a mixture of gray and brown with white around his palm and digits. Low on his spine he felt a stretching, growth and shaping of bone as a tail began to form. The pain gripping his skull caused him to ignore the poping and restructuring of his legs and feet before. The agony gripping him during the restructuring of his head nearly rendered him unconscious when he felt a sudden numbness and cooling grip him.

I will take this pain for you. Open your eyes! The distressed voice of Nod reached him.

He did just that, realizing they were closed again while the pain had grabbed him. He was partially tangled in his clothes his body's sudden shift in shape and size shocked him for a moment longer but he felt the presence coming towards him. A maligned spirit was moving swiftly through the trees he'll quickly enter a partial spirit state and his clothes would fall through him. He would close his eyes, remembering that intelligence spoke of the Keeper's ability to shift shape so he focused on trying to make himself as human as possible. A relaxing cool filled him and for a moment he felt his body's muscle and bone structure change to accommodate an upright position.

Once he stood out from spirit form emerged a grey fox, his form seemed slightly hunched forward though he was bipedal he seemed to want to go quadruped. His eyes opened once more, the red speckles that lined the dark green eyes were gone. His focus returned in time to hear the monster's bone shattering roar before it tore through the undergrowth before him and his hands quickly reached for the bone short sword and used his own spiritual energy to make it shift to the dual bracers and quickly took a defensive stance with his left hand and foot moving forward his right hand would raise. Both blades were turned towards the monster.

A lumbering mass of half decomposed flesh, exposed bone and long fangs lunged at the assassin. Its claws were the length of short blades, the fangs were the size of daggers. The fox would spring to the side partially spinning as he does so. Not only did he evade this attack much easier than he thought he would he was almost out of range of his ability to counter attack for the blade to slash into its arm when it passed Ma'alkeen's body. It roared in pain, the hulking body was as thick as a bear's yet the head and legs were more similar to a lion's. Backing to a thick tree part of Ma'alkeen wanted to get away as fast as he could from this thing. Fear was defeated by turning fear into a tinge of anger and bloodlust for the one who summoned it, to defeat her monster then execute her and he killed these creatures before.

It rushed towards him its left claw swipes towards him and immediately he'll jump a few feet off the ground towards the tree, then quickly push off vaulting him over the monster's head as it started to stand, tendrils of dark magic forming in his muzzle during the slow attempt to block his passage. Its enraged visage followed his evading from above, both of the assassin's arms shot down and the blades would find their mark, through both eyes, into the remnants of the brain and spinal cord. A black burst of energy shot out of the blades and into the undead creature resulting in a monstrous roar of pain before it shattered into black ooze.

Upon touching the snow, he'll wipe his blades on the cold white ground. He felt somewhat warmer now with his own coat of fur and being an animal who occasionally have been seen in this far north. Moving was keeping the blood rushing through the body and he needed to push the circulation if he's to succeed against Illkira. He was also learning how to move in this body fairly well, he felt lighter in step and more spring in these digitgrade legs. His tail was helping him keep his balance though he did notice he leans forward slightly. His hands or rather hand paws, seemed to be caught in the mid process of hands and paws. He could hold things yes, but he started to see some problems with more dexterous usages of them, such as untying knots.

He would look down to his hands once more and then to his clothes and equipment laying not too far from where he first engaged the monster. Some of his tools will need to be refitted for a different body, mainly the knife belts he ties around his legs. Right now he did need the belt that goes around the chest then call the last of his equipment into the shadow world before he follows the trail in the physical one. The path the monster took to get to him was different from the path Illkira left. Maybe she found the place she was looking for. In any case he wasn't going to wait for her to send another monster after him again. Starting with a walk leading to a small jog, several jumps, somersaults then bounding from the side of one tree after another, Ma'alkeen began testing his body. To adapt to how it moved which felt far easier with more agility at his disposal compared to how it originally was; after he understood being digitgrade. The claws of the tree fox were rather helpful as he started to test his ability to not just climb the trees, but to go limb from limb in them, adapting a quadruped style of movement and keeping himself focused on going no higher than the second layer of branches while humanoid. While he'll lack immediate intimidation and compared to felines he isn't as graceful, he will certainly take full advantage of his new gifts. Nod did well, though Illkira maybe pushed this curse further than it should normally have gone.

Why thank you. The spirit's voice would suddenly say, not even registering a flinch in the assassin.

How far are you? He would ask his guardian while he finished his brief testing period. He felt a very cold and sinister energy building ahead of him. She was summoning something again, however it was something far worse than that monster she just called. Speed became paramount and if it wasn't for the dark storm clouds looming overhead he would shadow step now he just relied on his new gait. I'm going to need you soon.

We'll be there as the storm hits which won't be long. Ma'alkeen couldn't close his eyes and try to focus on his guardian. His ears, now far more sensitive than before, would hear the faint sound of chanting. Under his paws the malleable snow was replaced by rigid stone. Before within the blink of an eye, he was among a fallen temple shrine

Tulae's ears would raise as her legs slowed to a halt. That sound, that roar, it wasn't from any creature she encountered before. It caused a shudder to go through her spine. The others slowed as well, not really too fond of the idea of following something they knew nothing about but followed their captain's orders. She knew that if they stopped the spirit had to have stopped as well and if it was as it claimed to be, it would know about this. Sure enough it would answer her question before it was asked.

I have seen that creature before, long ago. They aren't usually raised by necromancers though the process of creating them may appeal to some of the stronger sorcerers. They are several species of creature merged together into one. They are bound with another spirit, in this case one filled with rage. Normally they act as guardians of places invaluable to mages. This one had its frustration directed at a target and unleashed upon it. It is a Chimera twisted by necromancy to form a mad, incomplete creature. A taste of what can come should we get there too late.

Talen would look at both the captain and the spirit. Like the others he wasn't able to hear the monster's roar in the far distance, not in the direction they were going but to the side. "What's going on, get where too late?"

"A seal." Tulae would quickly answer before jumping after the spirit. Alison and Elwood were quick to follow as Talen stumbled to catch up. Their captain would call to the spirit. "If we're going towards the one who summoned it, am I right to say the monster was attacking another?"

Ah, perceptive you are. It wouldn't turn to look to the scouts. It was sent to attack the one who's hunted this necromancer for a third of his life. The monster shall not last.

This caused her to contemplate just what the spirit told her. It knew about this hunter and necromancer. If this necromancer was indeed here for what sounds to be close to or after the Battle of Three Gates someone should've detected some use of its power by now. Also it would explain why the spirit knew this much already. However if they are from beyond the valley all together, that means this spirit is a servant of one of them so it was likely they were being used. Despite this, there wasn't much choice in what they could do. If they stopped following this spirit they risk something very dangerous escaping into the valley possibly threatening not just the keep and all those in the valley, but possibly to the south as well.

"Talen, take to the keep and warn them that we have monsters being summoned, possibly something worse in the valley. Give them our last known location." The crow nods his head though his face reflected the dire feeling permeating from the forest. An unnatural chill came from where they were heading and it didn't take much knowledge of the supernatural to know it was from whatever was being conjured deeper into the woods. "I pray we stop it."

The crow took to the skies and to the northwest, with the towers of the keep in the distance. Below was the point where he ascended, not more than ten feet from that the trees began to gray and not from snow. It was like the life was being sucked from the ground. Tulae would soon see the same shortly.

The air was heavy he could feel the pressure building as he got closer. Though the plants were alive, he knew they were slowly dying. There was a power here that many priest and mages tried to seal away, the keys to the seal were suppose to be lost and forgotten as they were scattered to several corners of the world. Deep within the mountains, submerged under the seas, buried deep within the earth. And now here he was, years of hunting down this Roulj this Black Heart necromancer, now she finally stops. He doubted many who dwelled in this valley know knew of this seal and should he perform this job right, no one should have to worry about it again.

In the center of this temple, the dome roof long since caved in, scattered and broken down between the pillars lined with now white vines, mosses and ferns. He would see what the normal eye couldn't, the black pulsing energy running through the roots like blood in veins was spreading its toxin through this once blessed now trice cursed place. The heart of this pumping black blood was under a statue of a long forgotten goddess from the old empire. Only one he knew remembered these old gods. He only knew she was once the goddess of guidance and protection. Now she was desecrated, black veins wrapped the body and appeared to suck the life out of it like leeches sucked blood.

Under her stood the black cloak figure Ma'alkeen has sought for nearly seven years; Illkira. On her back was the same mark on the amulet he acquired just before this final pursuit. Seven points with smaller eyes at the tips surrounding a large eye. Under the large eye, a drop of blood formed just where the last point would be and in the center of that drop was a tangle of gnashing teeth. The stone circle she stood in was aglow with pulsating purple energy and black, the tendrils extended beyond the reach of the circle and into the ground itself. The plants immediately around the circle were already a pale white, their branches brittle and whatever leaves were on some ferns wilted. The more life it absorbed the more features grew on the stone under her feet.

Ma'alkeen quietly focused on the target, his breathing was all but slowed. Slowly he pulled one of his throwing knives from its sheath. Even with the heightened sense of hearing the sound of the knife being drawn was suppressed beyond human perception. He carefully drew back the blade noting the difference in grip with the padded paw like fingers, slightly adjusting his grip of the blade so it wouldn't interfere with the trajectory before with not even the slightest sound, the blade was flicked towards the necromancer.

The spinning blade moved through the chamber silently, leaving only the faintest trace of its presence in the shadow, the spinning disk of a knife was silent as moth wings in the dead of night. The blade wouldn't find the bite it sought. As a shadow breached the pulsing black circle taking the form of a charcoal black head of possessing only an oversized jaw and teeth which swallowed the knife before falling back into the tar like substance like a demonic whale returning to the dark sea.

"Come now, you didn't really expect me to fall for a simple knife throw. I know you've been tailing me since Janik seven years ago assassin." She laughs with a mocking smile crossing her lips. "I have avoided others like you for over twenty years." Her chuckling made him snarl "Now, much to your dismay, we have a face to face encounter." She turns to him before removing her hood revealing a hauntingly beautiful face despite two long black scars running over the bridge of her nose and around eyes; pale white surrounding pure black irises. Her smile was that of a devious cat finding a mouse. "I see into your heart and find frustration with a little hint of fear." This got a growl out of the assassin as he clenched his hands into fist nearly drawing blood. "I'll make you drown in that fear soon enough."

"I'll make you drown in your blood now!" He snarled the blades unsheathed from the bracers almost piercing the air around them. Without a second thought he raced towards the necromancer, his left arm extended slightly before his body to for deflection of blows, his right arm behind him to quickly follow through. Two words spoken in a language known only to certain mortals who cared not for their soul made the circle below her flare a deep purple pulsing out to roughly twice the area of the circle engulfing him and it in a black malestorm.

Ma'alkeen was forced to close his eyes against the torrent of black wind. His eyes became encased in crimson once more as he entered the Shadowed sight. Past the whirling negative energy he would see two creatures, one growing out of the ground the other emerging from the malestorm itself to stand beside the necromancer. One was similar to the creature he slain in the woods. The creature crawling out of the black miasma was pure bone, consisting of eight legs ending in sharp boned tips, a fanged snake's head formed the tip of a long tail attached to a narrow abdomen with a fanged human skull on a long neck nearly reaching the ground.

Before the necromancer he saw the start of a long clawed reptilian hand reaching out of the ground. A smile came across Illkira's face and he knew this was Exsal. The fox didn't hear an order, but knew she gave it when her abominations advanced. He hopes Nod is ready.

The sudden appearance of a black windstorm upon passing into the slowly whitewashed world was almost like stepping into another world trying to overtake theirs. The plants that are farther down the process of decay and death are blown apart. Tulae was willing to wager that in the storm's center lies the necromancer and the creature she was summoning.

The battle has started. No matter what you must stop the sorceress before she finishes the summoning ritual.

"How do we stop it? Kill her?"

Not just kill her, keep the one who hunted her from dying in the maelstrom. For it needs his power to begin its foothold in this world.

The spirit guides them through ruins with several statues depicting a woman in a long gown with a weather worn shield standing over them in prayer. However what would have been a holy gesture was instead something of horror as black veins pulsed through the statues, some clawed out of eyes, going into the ground to suck the life out of it. The collie had a feeling that the spirit was keeping these twisted vines from taking their life force like it's taking the woods.

In the storm's center was a ruined temple, the black wind ripped apart what life once grew over this sanctuary. There they saw a large purple and black ring that acted as the storm's eye. Inside were creatures that can only be dreamt of in nightmares fighting a lone figure, a gray fox armed with only a knife belt and blades attached to a set of bracers he wore. He ducked under a claw from the eight legged monster, holding a bracer up to keep its leg from coming down on him and cut at the leg directly behind it, stepping under the monster and bound off that same leg as the enraged undead Chimera bit at him. Instead it ended up getting the skeleton creature's leg. An eerie chant radiated through the broken walls, a dread language spoken in a hissing voice.

Before they could figure out their method of attack and how to see through this black storm a mighty yowl escaped the muzzle of the canine spirit. For a moment temporarily halting the storm and dimming the circle which formed the center of the circle. The keepers immediately rushed towards the weakened barrier. Elwood intercepted the spider creature as it tried to stab the fox with its right claw, parrying the leg so it would go above both of them while Alison fired two shots into the left flank of the chimera making the creature wheel around to Tulae's strike at its face with her scimitar.

The others wouldn't see the spirit fly towards Ma'alkeen who now had free reign to engage Illkira who stopped her chant to begin charging for what looked to be chain lightning. Given all the metal being used it would devastate the entire group.

They knew just the trick now that they were together. Ma'alkeen quickly concentrates the shadow cast by the approaching storm into a stream that goes right into Illkira's eyes. The woman snarled as pain gripped her, darkening her vision and immediately forcing her to try to rely using her magic for vision. She was able to make out the immediate threat of the assassin approaching from her right and instead of casting the bolt towards the keepers occupying her monsters she cast it at the assassin nearly about to drive his blade into her throat. Her haste was rewarded by the fox image dissipating like fog. That was when she sensed an apparition behind her but before she could turn to try to cast again she felt the distinct pressure of a blade piercing her neck cutting through the amulet's eye and a cold numbing pain coursing through her body. Her vision returned to normal as she looked at the snarling fox.

"Game's over." She says with a small smile on her lips before her eyes began to grow dark. The energy of the circle began to fold into itself and the creature that made a futile attempt to pull itself out of the ground to escape as it was sucked back into the abyss.

The monsters began to fade into the black ichor and smoke dissolving and vanishing into the air and ground. The black tendrils that were ravaging the land stopped pulsing with energy. The ravaged stark white trees and shrubs with the dead black veins lingered, even when the summoning has been halted.

"Why do I feel like we still failed?" Elwood would voice the same thing that was on the minds of both Alison and Tulae. Then they all felt a sudden gust of air come from the direction of the altar. Standing over the dead necromancer, Ma'alkeen took the broken amulet she held, then silently spoke a few words that felt alien to the captain's ears. From out of the shadows next to him another amulet risen. This one was surrounded in black energy. The dog officer took a step forward towards the fox, her ears flattened.

"What are you doing?" She spoke over to him. More dark magic, this didn't feel good at all.

We cannot leave this area barren of the life that once dwelled here. The voice everyone recognized. It was the voice of the spirit who guided them here. It came out of the shadow to Ma'alkeen's right taking a shape almost identical of the fox right now. Trust us.

During the whole conversation the Nahfalt's chant continued the black energy engulfing the one amulet began to grow and take in the other deepening in color as the two evil forces were contained. There was one reason he brought this amulet. Now was the most appropriate time to use it. The Nahfalt's duties boil down to two things. Stop the summoning of some of the worst forces to walk the plain of mortals and to heal the wounds so few know of what transpired.

This shrine had several seals on it. Illkira broke them before she tried to summon Exsal. Ma'alkeen would raise his blade over the two amulets chanting a small prayer in a language none recognized to a deity none knew anything about before plunging the sword on the amulets resulting in a horrid screech which caused everyone present to cover their ears. The veins flailed and screamed with the amulets. Broken, the symbol began to decay with the veins following them. The energy that once flowed through the amulets entered the sword before the blade was then plunged into the earth.

What followed could have been deemed a revival of the land. Those trees and plants that haven't given into death began to gain their color once more. What they couldn't see was the energy that couldn't return to the now deceased source was given to empower the land and seeds that haven't hatched yet, something that would allow them to grow to replace what was lost.

The fox would close his eyes and bowed his head before the altar. Yet his prayers weren't directly towards the goddess.

I return that which was taken in excess. May it heal the scars you have suffered under another's hubris.

Ma'alkeen's eyes opened and ears flicked at movement behind him. Due to Illkira forcing him into a rather painful change and the battle, he all but drained what power he had left. Blood spilled down his right arm, bleeding freely as he slumped to the ground. He timed this a little too close. However the keeper's approaching him, under the guidance of Nod, came in handy, like he thought they would. He had a distinct feeling he couldn't really evade the nature of their relationship at this point. Nod's behavior made that clear to him.

I am grateful you managed to bring them here Nod. He would relay to the spirit.

The assassin seeking the help of the realm's soldiers. Normally we run from them. Using them, I think she didn't expect that. A slightly deranged cackle echoed through his mind. Had Ma'alkeen not spent the last twenty seven years of his life with Nod he would have figured the umbral spirit as some malevolent force meant to drive him mad. Though the opposite, they complement each other. He was the host and Nod would experience the living world in a way no dark spirit could on its own. In exchange he gave him something that made him capable of surviving situations like this.

"Allison, see to his wounds. Elwood help him up. Let's move before anything else comes out." The voice of Tulae would sound rather loud to his sensitive ears. Perhaps one day he may be able to repay them for aiding him in this battle. Usually he only repays debts by keeping creatures like Exsal sealed. However this valley and some of the secrets of it were his responsibility to protect. The bitter air blowing over his arm and rapidly bandaged wounds served as a reminder of the environment his life will likely be spent. It was the middle of winter and a storm coming. With adrenaline fading being inside will at least provide more warmth than the ruins.

"Who are you? What exactly are you?" He heard her voice call to him though he wished to rest after exhausting his powers, what few he was able to use. He would dignify her with an answer.

"I am Ma'alkeen of the Nahfalt." He would look her in the eyes. Before he could communicate to Nod, the spirit already figured what he wanted. His next words felt prophetic. "I feel your life is going to change."

As Elwood would reach out to help him to his feet the shadows began to come to life and fox sunk into them. The three scouts stepped away as the darkness engulfed him. As he vanished the ruins grew transparent and began to fade like mist. They began to back out of the shrine as stone and the plants touching the shrine began to fade with it.

"Out the shine!" She barked as the group fell back to the entrance of ruins. When the collie turned to look back to ancient and once hallowed ground, it was gone. The group all turned to each other before the snow covered clearing that was before them. Had they not fought inside its halls, they wouldn't have known the shrine was even here. As the snow fall gradually increased they were left with an uneasy feeling and the only person who could explain what was happening had just slipped from their grasp.

They wouldn't notice the Nahfalt watching them, fully transformed and looking down through the needles of a pine. His words to Tulae hung thick in her mind. She knew they would see them again. It was her sincerest desire that it wouldn't be when another threat began to grow within the valley.

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