‘I hate rain.’
‘Is there anything you don’t hate, Kozz?’
The leprechaun scratched his back and stretched his legs closer to the small campfire. They were huddled next to an overhanging pair of rocks, somewhat safe from the deluge that had started raging just as dusk had come. It had gotten so dark and the water was falling so thick even Diana’s spells couldn’t help them see where they were going. The forest bed became a marshland and the torrents of water flowing by carried rotting wood, leaves, small rocks, and whatever former living critters hadn’t found refuge in time. It hampered their progress to the point they almost turned back, but Diana reminded Kozz of the people he’d so gallantly wanted to rush to the aid of that very morning. They were lucky to find the rocks jutting out from the side of a small hill which was bald but for a couple trees now creaking wildly with the raging wind.
‘I don’t hate you’ Kozz mused out loud, then stole a glance at Diana and continued, ‘not always, in any case.’
‘That’s alright, Kozz. I don’t hate you either.’
‘No. I’m too tired to hate anything right now.’ Diana said, and rolled onto her other side.
A frugal meal had sated their hunger and they’d managed to get a fire going with a bit of ingenuity and no small amount of magic Diana had conjured with the help of her staff. Thunder cracked all around them and the heavy clouds bloomed with the bright blues and purples of lightning. It would’ve been beautiful if not for the coming doom those clouds foretold.
‘Try to sleep’ Diana said, sensing Kozz was still fidgeting and itching to move on ‘We’ll need our strength to bring those people back safely.’
‘If they’re even alive anymore…’ Kozz put in, his tone sullen.
‘They are. Trust me.’ Diana sighed.
‘That rider said they wouldn’t even move from the scene, they could’ve been eaten by bears twice over.’
‘We’ll find them. Rest.’ Diana said and dozed off into a fitful sleep.
Her dreams were as filled with cantankerous noise and as turmoiled as the skies above them. She saw thousands of corpses roving sodden fields, rows upon rows of beings that should have been dead marching in unison to the rhythm of clanking bones and snapping sinews, a deathly procession guided by something hidden behind a dense fog that followed close behind. They laid waste to everything in their path and took over city after city with frightening ease.
With each one the hosts grew in number and picked up speed, and the fog cleared out bit by bit and coalesced into a being of nightmarish horror. A three-pronged crown rested upon its head and long, wispy hair flowed over the pale flesh on its chest and arms. A long cape fluttered behind the figure and its hands and eyes were ablaze with plumes of green flame.
This wasn’t the first time Diana had seen the Dead King’s hosts march across the valley, nor indeed the King himself, but she wasn’t sure what she was seeing, exactly – when and where did those visions all come from?
‘Is he close?’ Diana heard Kozz’ voice as the nightmare dissipated and gave way to the equally as nightmarish weather.
She realised only a few moments had passed and Kozz hadn’t been able, or more likely willing to take her advice and rest. She turned onto her back and breathed deep, trying to recapture the dream. She desperately wanted to look for any details she may have missed before, something to help her understand what, if anything, could be done about the apocalyptic events engulfing the land around them.
‘Hhm?’ she grumbled, ‘Is who close?’
Kozz rolled his eyes and threw another half-damp twig on the fire.
‘Father Winter and his jolly band of molerats, who do you think?’
Diana let a few seconds go by before answering, she knew the wait would irritate Kozz.
‘He’s closer than anyone would like to.’
‘Cryptic talk. I hate cryptic talk.’
‘More so than rain?’
Kozz almost let himself smile and instead snorted and stood up.
‘I thought I saw tomorrow’s breakfast merrily hopping along, nearby. I’ll try getting some sleep soon, I promise.’
Diana knew better than trying to argue anymore. She dozed off again and slept deep and long.
She woke up feeling rested, to a clear sky and calm surroundings distinctly devoid of any grouchy leprechauns. She stood up, stretched, and dug into her half of the rabbit that Kozz had already cooked. Everything was peaceful, quiet, and the meat was done just right. Which told her something was wrong.
She jumped to her feet when her eyes paused on the marks of a struggle that led away from their camp and back into the thick of the woods nearby. She dropped the rabbit, picked up her staff, and bounded down the slope, following the deep ruts in the mud – it looked like someone had been dragged through there against their will. The familiar discarded axe she soon passed by meant that someone had very likely been Kozz. She picked up his axe and quickened her pace.
The tracks led her into a nearby, moss overgrown cave, with a copse of young pines huddled in front of it. She thrust headfirst through the pines and thought she heard a voice call to her from the darkness. She pricked her ears.
‘Kozz?’ she called as she tried casting some light and finding her way through the winding tunnel.
All sounds faded about her as she focused her senses on the sound she’d heard before. It wasn’t long until she heard it again, calling back at her. Feeble, but easy to make out in her state of heightened awareness.
‘Kozz!’ she cried and started racing down the slippery rocks and into darkness ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Diana!’ the noise was coming through clearer, louder.
‘Hang on! I’m coming!’
The cries came through once more and then stopped altogether as she reached a crossroads.
‘Diana!’ she heard the cry again a few moments on, but couldn’t tell which path it was coming from, the echo was making it impossible to discern and the ground was hard packed, with no trace of anyone ever passing through.
‘Kozz, where are you?!’
‘Here!’ the voice said, coming from so many directions at once it sent her head spinning.
Silence fell again, stifling and cold.
‘What in the name of- Yes, dammit, I’m right here!!’
She jumped up, panting, and found herself staring at a wide awake Kozz busying himself with breakfast. There was a stoked fire going and the rabbit was merrily sizzling on its spit, entirely overdone if not outright burnt as was anything Kozz ever cooked. She looked around – the storm had subsided, the sky was clear, there was no sign of a struggle, and the leprechaun was in his perpetually peppy morning mood. It annoyed Diana, but this time Kozz wasn’t the main reason behind her headache.
‘Come on’ he said ‘we’re eating this on the way, we’ve dallied long enough.’
He stopped putting his gear in order and sat down when he saw Diana was not all there.
‘You alright?’ he raised an eyebrow.
Diana breathed deep and shook her head.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Seeing things again?’
‘Could be.’ Diana shrugged, then looked over at the rabbit.
‘It’s still fairly hit and miss. Could be anything at this point.’
Kozz pursed his lips, slapped his hands down on his knees and got up.
‘Well, you can tell me all about it on the road. It’s already been a whole day, we’ll be lucky if we even find those unlucky bastards’ bones anymore.’
~All existing names, characters, images, and references pertaining to the HexploreIt IP are the property of their respective owners, and are used in this work of fan fiction without the express intent of monetary gain or other benefits. Any new characters and locales are original works of the author and bear no intent to infringe upon the existing IP in any way.~
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