Chapter 13
A Wilde Encounter

Scotia, Arma

"Felix once said disunity in the ranks topples an army faster than any foe. I hated to see it come true. People have many different ways of thinking. Sometimes they align and sometimes they collide. A successful group must be able to survive the collisions."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Needless to say, Mark had a hard time sleeping in those precious few hours between Roque's attack and daybreak. Turbulent dreams surged in his mind, battered his subconscious like the whipping waves of a stormy sea. Then a single ray of calm pierced the squall. It was Catherine's voice.
My poor, dear Mark, you did not have to do that, but I know your conscience would have allowed nothing less. I am grateful to you, and this is the comfort I can give you: Your fellowship will not remain broken for long. Once you are reunited, you will stay together until the end. Take heart in that.
Now, I will calm your dreams. Forget your cares for a time. Rest and recover your strength. You will have need of it in the days ahead.
Catherine was true to her word. The waters stilled, leaving Mark to sleep in peaceful oblivion. For a brief while, he did not feel the weight of his troubles.

* * *

The group wasted no time moving out at first light. Jill had left an hour earlier to scout out the area and find Roque's trail. She was waiting for the others when they passed through the city gates. As usual, she reported to Sonia, who then passed the information along to everyone else.
"Jill's picked up the trail," the fencer said. She pointed northward. "He's heading north-northeast. It looks like open country, but there's no telling how far he plans on going." The fencer looked to Mark and crossed her arms. "That's not all she found. She also saw the tracks of three other people, most likely the drunkard, Giles and Spooky."
Mark cocked his head. "Spooky? You mean Adrienne?"
"I mean Spooky," Sonia said. "The name fits her better. Anyway, it looks like she's leading the other two." Sonia shook her head. "She's not much of a tracker though. She's moving in the right general direction, but she's going all over the place to do it. That bandit's moving fairly straight, but you'd never be able to tell following her lead."
Mark knew better than to believe that. Although he did not fully understand the breadth and scope of the dhampir's powers, he was sure that hunting down Roque was nothing more than a trifle for her. Adrienne could probably follow the scent of his blood from miles away. Rather than being a poor tracker, she was stalling her companions, buying time for Mark and the others to catch up. No one would give her credit for it, but she was actually looking out for the well-being of the entire group by siding with Edward.
Left to his own devices, the Prince would have gotten himself hopelessly lost in the unfamiliar territory. Adrienne had been with the group long enough to know Jill's ability as a tracker and her adamant loyalty to Sonia. Instead of letting Edward wander around aimlessly, she was guiding him along the right path while carefully managing his progress to avoid an encounter before the group was reunited.
Just when he was starting to feel good about Adrienne, Mark came to a terrible realization. If her powers were so great, could she not sense Roque coming? Could she not have stopped him from executing his plan? If she could stop him, why did she let him go? This sinister turn demanded a reckoning, but it had to wait. Now he needed to focus on the bandit.
Speaking of the bandit, Roque claimed to have whole gang of henchmen when the group first met him. This, of course, was proven to be a bald-faced lie, but that did not mean he was without confederates. If there was anyone to help him, their task would be all the more difficult. The only answer was to catch him before he reached his destination.
Unfortunately, they were not doing well to gain on their quarry. Even though they only stopped to rest an hour the first night, they failed to close the distance between them. Apparently Roque was pushing himself just as hard and with only his single captive in tow, he had a clear advantage in agility. The task of carrying Catherine's litter and the less athletic members of the group put marked limitations on the pace of their pursuit. All the while, Adrienne was content to keep her two companions neatly between the two sides. Mark could only wonder what she was waiting for.
The pursuit dragged on for five whole days. It was still early in the morning when the group reached the fringes of a forest. What better place for a bandit's hideout? Jill had gone on ahead to scout, but the group did not get a chance to venture far when she came rushing back to them. Her findings more urgent than usual, the huntress did not use Sonia as an intermediary, but instead she addressed the group directly.
"I've found them up ahead," she said. "They're fighting some monsters right now." She looked tentatively at Mark and then to Sonia. "Do we help?"
"Of course we do," Mark replied without a second thought. He turned to the others. "Teresa, Jasper, you two stay with Catherine. The rest of you, follow me."
Completely disinterested, Stefan tapped his staff on his shoulder. "I don't trust the two of them alone with Lady Catherine," he said, proving that he understood Everardian more than he let on. "The monsters could come here and I doubt these two could handle it." The fighter locked eyes with the accusative glare Mark was growing accustomed to seeing. "Besides, you're a fool to risk your neck for people who are so quick to desert you."
"Maybe I am," Mark said, which was as far as he was willing to debate with Stefan.
Rather than squabbling with his fractious friend, time was of the essence if he wanted to help the others. He turned away from Stefan and motioned for Jill to lead the way. Even less inclined to argue with Stefan than Mark was, Sonia and Ignatiy followed closely behind. It did not take long to hear the clamor of the battle raging in the depths of the forest.
Alerted by an ominous creaking, Mark narrowly dodged a tree as it crashed to the ground. The felled tree cleared the view of the fight in progress. Edward and Giles stood back-to-back, the Prince's broad swordstrokes complimented by the precise jabs of the former general's pike. Suspiciously, Adrienne was nowhere to be found.
The chimeric beasts the duo was fighting came in two varieties. The first resembled a lean wolf with large bat ears, reptilian feet and two snakelike tails that lashed about like whips. The second was like a large raptor with a hairless, vaguely humanoid head whose oversized mouth sported a full set of sharp fangs. A couple dozen of each type were still in the fray with at least as many bodies strewn about on the ground.
Mark did not need to inquire about the situation. He charged forward, decapitating one of the land beasts on the draw and sending a lightning bolt surging through one of the avians. Another land beast tried to attack Sonia from behind, but a quick backhand smashed its muzzle against her buckler, leaving the creature stunned and defenseless while her rapier pierced its heart. Jill devoted her arrows to the avians, by far the most difficult targets, taking full advantage of her ambidextrous archery to increase the speed of her kills.
The new threats prompted the land beasts to go on the defensive, circling around to attack from a better position. Most of them were coming together near the felled tree. If they retreated at this point, they would head right toward the place the group had left Catherine. Mark immediately realized the danger and rushed at them headlong to drive them off. Before the beasts were within sword's reach, twin explosions knocked Mark back, tore through the bodies of several monsters, and scared the others away from the tree, now blackened and splintered by Ignatiy's bombs.
Instinctively coordinating their movements, the fighters repositioned themselves to prevent any further flanking, but the enemy's numbers had already become too depleted to pose much of a threat. After another flurry of attacks felled most of the remainder, Sonia loosed a fireball that sent the last beast shrieking into the darker depths of the forest.
Although everyone had fought together as if it were completely natural, it did not take long for the air to become heavy with tension. Technically, Edward and Giles stood in direct competition with Mark and the others. As such, it was rather unseemly to be saved by the rival faction. The prideful Edward was all too aware of this and though he was obviously worn from the prolonged fight, he did his best to hide his exhaustion. Maintaining appearances must have required all of the Prince's energy, but he somehow spared just enough to scowl at Mark.
"I never asked for your help," he growled. Edward noticed the absence of the four members kept out of the fray. "Hmph, I you've got a few less worthless people with you. Don't tell me you came to your senses and got rid of them."
Before Mark could say anything, Sonia moved in front of him to give Edward a piece of her mind.
"Come off it, you big drunken fool! We left them behind a ways back to save your sorry carcasses. Honestly, after all this time, you should know Mark better than that."
Edward only grunted. Giles, however, had no intention of being so cold. Looking somewhat abashed, he walked up to Mark and rested his hand on the swordsman's pauldron.
"I can't speak for the Prince," the pikeman said, "but I appreciate the help. It was foolhardy for us to separate. After all, what good would it have done us if we died here?"
Edward grunted again. Mark knew better than to fight with Edward's pride, so he simply accepted Giles' gratitude.
"Thank you," Mark replied. "I know you meant no ill by going with Edward. In fact, I'm grateful to you for keeping him alive."
Another grunt from Edward. There was no telling how long he intended to sulk. Thinking it best to leave him be, Mark looked around for the third member of the splinter group. She was nowhere to be seen.
"What happened to Adrienne?" he asked.
Giles shrugged. "She disappeared about the time the monsters started to attack us."
"I should have known better than to trust her," Edward grumbled.
The old saying, 'Speak of the Devil and he shall appear', held true as Adrienne emerged suddenly and inexplicably within the midst of the party. Poor Ignatiy nearly jumped out of his skin. The others were simply more adept at concealing their surprise.
Edward finally had an excuse to stop sulking. He was more than a little angry about being abandoned earlier and was not afraid to express that anger in loud terms.
"Where did you slither off to!?" he shouted.
Adrienne looked at him with a cruel smile. "You're the great Prince Edward, son of Edgar, heir to the bloodline of Everard the Mountain King. Those beasts should have been no challenge for you. Besides, it was more important for me follow the bandit. I knew Mark's group was closing in and they saved you right on schedule." Rather than mocking Edward some more, her expression became grave. "Things have taken a turn for the worse. Before we tackle this new problem, there's a village not far from here. We should pay a visit."
Mark was inclined to believe Adrienne, but he knew the others didn't trust her. Knowing he had to feign a similar measure of disbelief, Mark quickly devised a solution.
"We'll follow Adrienne's directions to the town. Jill, I want you to see how much farther you can follow Roque's trail."
Jill looked to Sonia, who nodded in agreement. As Jill backtracked to pick up Roque's trail, Mark went to fetch the four they left behind. Once everyone was assembled, they followed Adrienne's lead. They walked about half an hour and it was beginning to get dark when Jill caught up to the group.
"The trail didn't go very far," she said. "There was some kind of fight. I found a couple dead monsters and then the trail splits. The big one heads due west and the small one goes south, pretty much the way you're going. The small one belongs to the bandit. He's wounded and alone. Whatever attacked him took the Princess. I didn't find any signs that she'd been eaten, not yet at least, but that may change real soon."
"We need to forget about this village and follow the Princess," Sonia said. "Who knows what's got ahold of her now? If she's still alive, she may not be much longer."
"Which is why you need to stop by the village," Adrienne countered. "Remember what happened in the glacier. You will fail if you don't know your enemy and the Princess will die. It's not much farther to the village. The Princess is still alive for now. We have enough time to spare to do this right."
Ever distrustful of Adrienne, Sonia frowned. "I don't like it. We can't be wasting time in some village. We have to go now." She turned to her cousin. "Mark, at least let me go with Jill to follow the trail. As long as the Princess isn't in any immediate danger, we'll stand fast until the rest of you get there."
Mark did not like the thought of splitting the party again, but this concession could save it from a future schism. He nodded to Sonia.
"Go on ahead then, but don't engage the enemy until we get there. If they find you, you need to think up some kind of signal, something we can see from a mile away at least." He placed his hand on Sonia's shoulder. "Be careful."
The fencer grinned. "Always am. Just don't waste too much time, okay?"
Sonia and Jill were well on their way as the others followed Adrienne along a footpath that cut into the forest floor. They soon found the first sign of human settlement: a tall wooden fence that snaked along the treeline on one side and the banks of a nearby lake on the other.
As soon as they approached the entrance, several guards armed with spears barred the way, barking orders in a guttural tongue none of them could understand. Mark thought it sounded like a variant of Mosaic, but his training in that ancient tongue was restricted to reading and writing. He had no real practice speaking it and even if he could, he did not know if the locals would be able to understand him.
A voice spoke up in the local tongue of Porto Sul. The voice belonged to a bearded man wearing simple robes and a skullcap. He stepped forward and stood a few paces in front of the guards. The man motioned for the guards to stand down and Mark returned the favor, urging the others to keep their hands away from their weapons.
Before Felix was killed, he gave Mark some basic lessons in the language known as Portical. It was enough that he could ask if the man could speak in any other languages. Fortunately, he happened to know Bannish and so they were able to communicate.
"You are neither from the port city nor the mountain kingdom," the man observed. "Who are you and why have you come here?"
Once again, Mark took it up himself to speak for the group.
"I am Mark the Guardian and we have been charged by the King of Scotia to find his daughter. She was kidnapped by a bandit named Roque and his trail leads to this village. Have any of your people seen a wounded man dressed in green?"
"The one you speak of is known as Ben-Oni here in Ziph," the man replied. "I am Josiah Ben-Ezra, the rabbi of this village. Since he is a son of this village, Ben-Oni must be dealt with by us alone."
Knowing better than to argue with the rabbi, Mark replied, "We will respect your ways, but may we at least speak with him? My scout tells me he lost the Princess in the forest. I must know what happened."
The rabbi spent a moment sizing up the group. He looked like he had his doubts, but nevertheless told them, "I will grant your request, but you must swear not to draw your weapons while in the village."
Mark placed his hand over his heart. "You have my word."
"The others must swear, too."
After the others pledged to do the same, Josiah nodded. "Very well, come."
The rabbi led them to a small house where Roque was being kept. His condition was far worse than what they had seen in Scotia. Newly dressed wounds covered his entire body, his face pale from blood loss and his breathing labored. Seeing the group enter the house, his head rose with a start. Gritting his teeth, the bandit gave them a venomous glare. Unaffected by the clear antagonism, Josiah stood over him with the stern gaze of an angry father.
"Ben-Oni, these people have come here because of your transgressions. Tell them what they need to know and your life will be spared. You have caused your people much grief and if I send you away, you will lose our protection."
The ferocity drained from the bandit's expression. The fear of certain death on the outside clearly outweighed his pride. He reclined back on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. He could barely muster the strength to speak and his voice was so low that Mark had to move closer just to hear him.
"You were much faster than I expected. The Master of the Woods attacked me and took the Princess. She probably will be dead in a day's time."
"Who is the Master of the Woods?" Mark asked.
Josiah answered, "A beast from the very pits of Sheol who calls himself Wilde. They say he was once a man, a wizard who tinkered in the forbidden arts. As it must be for all who vainly seek the power Man is not meant to have, he was punished, cursed by his own spells and transformed into a monster.
"For too long has he been trapped in his beastly form. Even though his mind becomes less and less human, his thirst for power remains. Not only is he strong in his own right, but his minions are many, so many that we can barely protect the village from his wrath."
Mark turned to Adrienne.
"Is this what you wanted us to see?" he asked.
Adrienne nodded.
"You needed to have some idea of what you up against. And I thought you'd want to account for the bandit. You don't need any distractions in this fight either, so you should leave the noncombatants here until our business is taken care of."
"You have a point," Mark said. "Teresa, you stay here with Catherine. You'll be safe here. The rest of us need to hurry. I don't know how long Sonia and Jill can remain undetected." Mark looked to Stefan. "We need everyone who can fight. You said you're only loyal to Catherine. I understand that, but we need you, too."
Stefan turned away.
"I'll do it," he said, "but not for you, not for the Princess, and not for these people either. If I'm to have my revenge, my skills need to stay sharp. That's the only reason."
Mark would not allow himself to take offense at Stefan's words. "That'll do," he said. The swordsman then turned to the rabbi. "Will you allow two of my companions to remain here? They are not fighters. We are going now to slay the beast, but I want them to be safe from harm. Will you grant them sanctuary until we return?"
Josiah stroked his beard in contemplation and gave a faint sigh before offering his assent.
"We do not usually allow outsiders to stay in our village, but if you intend to challenge the Master of the Woods, such a favor is the least we could do. Very well, I will grant your request. Go quickly, and I pray for your success."
The group had barely left the house when they saw a jet of fire streak into the sky. Mark knew that Sonia and Jill were already fighting Wilde's monsters. They wasted no time, but there was a lot of ground to cover. Adrienne scaled a nearby tree and escaped from view, apparently wanting to take advantage of her supernatural speed safely out of the view of the others. Being the least encumbered, Stefan and Jasper ran ahead, leaving their armored counterparts behind. Mark did not trail them by a significant margin thanks to the magical nature of his armor, but running was a virtual impossibility for Edward, Giles and Ignatiy.
By the time Mark arrived at the scene, Jill and Sonia's stamina was all but spent. They struggled to stay in the fight, but by that point, most of the combat was in the hands of Stefan, Jasper and Adrienne. Mark immediately jumped in the fray, eager to draw away as many of the enemy as he could.
From the looks of it, their opponents were nothing more than the same monsters from before. They fought with all ferocity until the entire group was assembled, then they began to lose their nerve and retreat further into the forest. This concern over self-preservation was a new twist. Before they had fought to the last, so this demonstration was rather unexpected.
The others were inclined to pursue the enemy and finish them off, but Mark motioned for them to stand fast. He knew they needed to hurry for the Princess' sake, but he sensed a trap. There was no reason to put his companions in any unnecessary danger.
Mark anticipated another wave waiting in the wings. He called on the others to tighten up their formation and prepare for the next onslaught. Even as they were taking their places, they could hear the underbrush crunching in the distance. Something was coming.
Emerging from the shadows was a great and terrible beast that could be nothing other than Wilde himself. Like his servants, the Master of the Woods was a fearsome chimera, an abomination believed to be purged centuries ago. His lower body was like the long tail of a monstrous serpent with malformed hind legs curled up uselessly at the sides. His upper torso was more of a humanoid shape, covered in a thick coat of black fur with large bat wings rising from his shoulders. His sinewy arms were like a lizard's, with long, menacing claws and brow-grey scales covered in a thin layer of hair. His head was mostly lupine with a stubbed muzzle, the wide ears of a bat and large, feral yellow eyes.
Scorning arms and armor, all Wilde carried with him was his trophy. Held by the throat in his right hand, the Princess dangled like a ragdoll. From where he stood, Mark could not tell if she was already dead or merely unconscious. As if he knew Mark was the representative of the group, the Master of the Woods focused his attention on him.
"It has been ages," he snarled, his speech interrupted by a random twitch, "ages since anyone (twitch) has dared (twitch) to challenge me (twitch) like (twitch), like this." After pausing a moment to gauge Mark's reaction, the beast grinned in cruel malice as his twitchy gaze ran up and down the Princess' limp body. "You (twitch), you want this?" His voice was as smooth as his monstrous throat and stuttering speech would allow, as if he was going to offer her up to them.
"A trade (twitch) then?" He spent a moment evaluating Sonia, Jill and Adrienne, only to scowl in dissatisfaction. "Not these. Too (twitch), too hard, their flesh. I need (twitch), I need something (twitch), something softer. You (twitch), you have it (twitch), don't you? Smelled it when you came. Soft (twitch), soft female. One (twitch), one smelled (twitch), smelled of herbs. Other (twitch), other rich." He licked his chops. "Rich (twitch), pampered meat. Either good (twitch), good trade."
Even if Mark had abandoned all morality and reason by sacrificing Catherine or Teresa in exchange for the Princess, Wilde would face bloody, mortal opposition from either side as long as Jasper and Stefan still drew breath. Of course, Mark did not entertain such a notion for even a moment, not even as a ruse to fool the beast.
"Never," the swordsman declared. "I'd never betray a companion to the likes of you or even think about handing any human over to you to sate your monstrous appetite." He pointed his blade directly at Wilde's head. "No, you're going to give us the girl now if you want to live. You'll give us the girl, you'll stay away from the village and you'll never threaten another human being again."
Wilde threw his head back and cackled, a laugh disjointed by his twitching. When he was done, he looked back down at Mark. "Funny (twitch), funny human. I give you (twitch), I give you a chance." He raised his arm high. "Come! Come and claim her!"
With the challenge issued, the lesser monsters reemerged from the depths of the forest, bolstered by a full compliment of reinforcements. They swarmed at the group from all angles. Mark and his companions shifted their formation into a defensive ring, but even this measure would eventually fail against the seemingly endless numbers set against them.
There was not much room for them to move around and fighting in such close quarters kept them on a short leash. Mark and Sonia could only use their weaker attacks lest they harm to friend and foe alike, Edward's sword was unusable, and even Ignatiy was discouraged from detonating his bombs.
To compensate for this handicap, they began to fight in pairs, not quite as effective as acting as a single cohesive unit but still safer than a free-for-all. Sonia covered Jill while she refilled her quiver with arrows recovered from the corpses of creatures she had already felled. Meanwhile, Edward and Giles modified the tactics they had employed when they were one their own, the Prince swiping at the land beasts with his axe and mace while Giles' pike fended off the avians. Stefan threw himself at monsters like a ravenous tiger, loosing a flurry of kicks and punches that loudly cracked bones with each strike, leaving Adrienne to snatch the avians out of the air with her whip and dash them against the ground. Armed only with his knife, Jasper went to considerable lengths braving snapping jaws and greedy talons to protect Ignatiy from threats on land and in the air while the Pendant Bearer prepared a spell. The thief's efforts were made worthwhile when Ignatiy conjured several red-orange spheres that burst over the heads of at least a half dozen land beasts, smothering them in blankets of flame.
The odd man out, Mark cut down any monster within reach and did his best to compensate for any openings in the defenses of his companions. It did not take long for him to realize they could not continue at this rate for long. If he killed Wilde, the swordsman thought, the lesser monsters were likely to flee or disappear entirely. It could be the only chance for the Princess and the group. He had to take it.
Sending arcs of electricity racing across the ground, he cleared the way between himself and Wilde before charging forward. Seeing Mark's approach, the Master of the Woods raised up the Princess and tightened the grip on her neck. Mark stopped dead in his tracks, his mind screaming at him for trying something so reckless.
Any of Mark's magical attacks would also be absorbed by the Princess and Wilde could easily kill her before his blade came anywhere close. He did not have many options and Wilde knew it. His beastly face twisted into an expression that oozed with smug self-surety.
"You (twitch) are not a complete fool, I see (twitch). How do you (twitch) intend to take this from (twitch), from me? I can snap (twitch), snap (twitch), snap its neck like a dry twig. You know (twitch), you know you are not fast enough. What (twitch) will you do?"
The Master of the Woods was answered by an eruption of blood from the pit of his left elbow. As a pained howl pierced through the forest, the shock of the attack caused Wilde to let go of the Princess, who fell into the waiting arms of Adrienne. The dhampir immediately jumped to the side, easily dodging a swipe from Wilde's undamaged arm.
"Finish him, Mark!" she shouted.
No longer posing a threat to the Princess, Mark boldly charged at the wounded monster. Blocking Wilde's claws with his shield, Mark cut deeply into the monster's side. Howling in pain again, Wilde pushed Mark back, throwing him off-balance before a strong gust of wind knocked him to the ground.
Beating his wings heavily, Wilde lifted himself into the air, hovering briefly before dropping on Mark's chest with all his weight. The crushing blow forced the air out of his lungs in a single violent cough, spraying blood on Wilde's scales. Without the protection of his armor, his ribcage would have been smashed to pieces.
Mark nearly lost consciousness from the pain, but he refused to let the darkness take him. Before Wilde could rise off the ground, Mark shoved his blade beneath one of the larger scales and focused all his energy into the sword. With electricity surging through his body, every inch of Wilde shook violently. With ear-piercing shrieks, Wilde flailed his arms in a frantic attempt to save his life, but not even a single swipe hit Mark. Wilde's shrieking soon settled into a low gurgling sound and his body stilled, save for a few last twitches. At that moment, all the lesser monsters still fighting against the group fell lifeless to the ground.
While the others were preoccupied with making sure all their enemies were truly dead, Adrienne laid the Princess on the ground and effortlessly pulled Wilde's heavy corpse off Mark. Plucking a silver stiletto from the monster's left arm, she wiped the blade off and concealed it within her cloak before returning to the Princess.
Noticing her cousin lying on the ground, Sonia hurried up to Mark to help him get back up on his feet. His ribs ached and it was difficult to breath. It seemed like his legs were not unable to support his weight. Fortunately, Sonia compensated by slinging his arm over her shoulder and holding him up herself.
"Are you okay, Mark?" she asked.
"Yeah..." he replied with a wince. Even saying so little was painful.
Ignoring his own injuries, Mark's concern shifted to the Princess. He had not been able to tell if she was still alive during the heat of battle and was afraid her rough treatment had been more than her fragile constitution could handle. He looked to Adrienne.
"Is she alive?"
Adrienne nodded.
"She'll probably need the nun's care, but she'll live."
Breathing a sigh of relief, Mark was ready to head back to Ziph. He had trouble walking easily and Sonia insisted that he lean on her for support. Adrienne carried the Princess and Edward took Wilde's head as a trophy and proof of their victory. The latest trial had been overcome, but their journey was far from over.