Gaurang hated this forest. He’d been raised to fear them, but now that he was lost inside, he’d come to realize just how abominable the Dawnless Woods really were.
They’d claimed one of his soldiers within an hour of entering. Their unit lost another four to another of the forest’s monsters when they broke camp. The north’s finest scholars claimed the Dawnless curse was making their drought worse, and even the untouchables understood that there would be no war in the east if Midway had never disappeared into this endless night.
There seemed no end to the reasons for hating the Dawnless Woods.
As he and his remaining troops sprinted along the proselytes’ trail, he reckoned there was only one thing he hated more than these woods: the girl. Gaurang had never met her, but he did know she was the worst kind of traitor.
No deed could be more glorious than dying for the greater good. Yet this whelp had refused to do so. The Destroyer would weep, if he knew. He was always bound to be the most misunderstood of the three faces of God, but a member of the clergy should know better. If God demands your death, you die smiling for the honor.
If Gaurang had any say in the matter, the Destroyer would never know of her shame. The deity’s attention was focused on the war in the east, and that’s where it belonged.
Gaurang might not be a true proselyte, but as a soldier, he admired his warlord. If giving the campaign a religious flavor made the war easier to swallow, Gaurang was happy to participate. Whether as a heathen or a simple traitor, he’d see the girl die.
His thoughts were interrupted by a shift in the trail. The unit began to drift left, cutting the corner off the girl’s path. Gaurang couldn’t guess what inspired her to change direction, but he hoped this was a sign that they were getting closer. They’d been sprinting for less than a day, but the darkness and silence made it seem so much longer. If even his disciplined mind was beginning to wonder how long it could last, then his subordinates were surely in danger of going mad.
What would they do if the trail ended inside the woods? The mission was more important than their lives, they all understood that. Still, if the girl died, there was no need for them to do the same. Their Breaths could tell glean information from the atmosphere, but unless a miraculous shift of wind brought them some unmistakable trace of the outside world, none of them knew how to ask the air to point them towards sunlight.
They could follow their own trail back to where they entered, but Gaurang refused to consider that option. They’d survived the trek once, but one good roll of the dice did nothing to help the next one.
His eyes suddenly burned, and the world became white. Gaurang skidded to a stop and shielded his face. No amount of blinking seemed to help his eyes come back into focus, but he grinned in spite of the shock. Gaurang couldn’t guess how she’d managed it, but the girl had led them out.
He heard his comrades emerge in rapid succession. There were a few collisions as some soldiers stopped too abruptly for the one behind them, but the sense of relief was still palpable.
Even as his soldiers began to break their long silence with mutual congratulations, Gaurang’s own relief waned. He’d been so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t noticed the traces of smoke in the wind.
Seven funeral pyres were smoldering in an evenly-spaced semicircle. Northern customs demanded that the dead be burned, and while these fires hadn’t been made in the proper manner, this couldn’t be a coincidence. The proselytes had died, and their killers had done their best to respect their funeral customs.
It wasn’t enough. This couldn’t be forgiven.
“Who could have done this?” Gaurang didn’t bother seeing which of his subordinates was asking. “The monsters wouldn’t respect our dead like this, but it would take a monster to kill seven proselytes…”
“Don’t be a moron,” Gaurang interrupted. “Take a Breath and know for yourself. They’re close. She is close.”
He heard several of his soldiers obey; the rest had probably not needed his prompting. A large group was camped nearby, and the girl’s trail lead into that collection of smoke, leather, and sweat.
Now that he was outside the woods, he didn’t understand how it took so long to notice the camp was there. It had probably been the anchor the girl used to navigate out of the darkness.
“She’s defected!” One of the men postulated. “She sent word ahead, and the west met her here and ambushed our brethren as they left the woods!”
It wasn’t a bad theory, but Gaurang wondered. There’d been a fight here, that much was certain. Still, would the proselytes die without taking a single enemy with them? There wasn’t enough blood, was no sign of any enemy casualties. Even exhausted, even while temporarily blinded by the sun, the proselytes should have had some warning that an army was waiting for them. Gaurang didn’t know of any way to hide that many people from a Breather; not at this distance.
Perhaps the west was more formidable than they thought. Perhaps the girl had defected, and they’d sent some of their own artists to counter the north’s Breathers. There were applications of all seven elements that could compensate for a Breather’s strengths.
“Get some rest, everyone.” Gaurang squinted towards the sun. Just after midday, he reckoned. “In six hours, we’ll begin preparations. We strike after sundown.”
Some soldiers collapsed where they stood, too exhausted to bother with their packs. Others approached the dying fires to pay their respects. Gaurang’s brightest came to him; they’d refuse to rest until they had the beginnings of a plan.
“They aren’t military, captain.” Visheta wasted no time.
“What makes you say that?” Gaurang hoped she’d thought this through.
“Some of them are warriors, certainly,” Visheta glanced at the nearest pyre. “But there are elders and children among them. It isn’t a military camp, it’s more like a village.”
Gaurang knew it must be true; Visheta was talented at deciphering the winds’ tidings.
“Nomads, probably.” Old Bodhi thought he knew everything. “The west is not known for its cohesion.”
“You’re telling me a group of savages killed seven Breathers?” Gaurang let his impatience leak into his voice. If they were going to share their theories, he wanted them to be certain. “Would those with the Destroyer’s blessing fall without bringing a single enemy with them?”
“Yes.” Visheta didn’t hesitate. Gaurang knew she was hawkish, but this still surprised him. “Their camp is too close to the Dawnless Woods by most sane standards. If they do this regularly, they must have warriors capable of protecting the weak from those monsters.”
“The proselytes would have been even more exhausted than we are,” Bodhi observed. “As formidable as the proselytes are, even these primitives might best them in that condition. Particularly if they brought superior numbers.”
“So if they’re not military, we won’t be marching to certain death,” Gaurang interpreted. He had been prepared to do so. “This is fortunate.”
His advisors glanced at each other before Bodhi replied. “Perhaps not, but we shouldn’t underestimate them. Seven proselytes died to a small force. We suspect unusual circumstances, but that should still be cause for caution.”
“As if I could forget!” Gaurang snapped. The pragmatic part of him was struggling to control his desire for vengeance; he was tempted to change their objective and slaughter everyone in that camp. “We’re Breathers, the Destroyer’s scouts and assassins. Our role has always been to walk the line between careful and bold.”
“Then you agree.” Bodhi ignored his superior’s anger. “We should take the proper time and scout…”
“No.” Gaurang nodded into the wind. “This may be the usual current. It would explain how the girl managed to leave the woods. But if we take too long and the wind shifts, she’ll know we’re coming. If we take that chance, we’re forced to resume the chase.”
If the girl fled, it also meant Gaurang couldn’t afford to waste time exacting his revenge on these people. That would almost be as bad as failing the mission.
“The line between careful and bold is nice and thick here, captain.” Both men looked to Visheta as she spoke. “These circumstances are ideal.”
“You have a plan?” Gaurang prompted.
“The usual, only simpler.” Visheta pointed in the direction of their enemy. “Some of us engage their warriors. Kill a few while surprise is on our side. That will make their comrades good and mad, mad enough to only focus on the enemy they can see. As Breathers, there’s no risk of being overrun before we can retreat; once the decoys have pulled their fighters away, a few of us surround and terminate the target.”
“And if she’s smart enough to stay with the warriors as they chase the decoy?” Bodhi asked.
“They don’t know our numbers.” Visheta smiled mischievously. “The decoy can be small enough that we can make a third division.”
“One that collects hostages,” Gaurang realized what Visheta was suggesting. “We force the warriors to choose between their family and the girl.”
“Civilized people hide their weak behind walls.” Visheta gave the captain a knowing nod. “They may be strong, but this is proof they’re primitive.”
Gaurang felt Visheta’s wicked smile creeping across his own lips. She was right, this was good. “Think we can convince Nabhi to be in the division that targets the girl?”
“Not a chance.” Bodhi shook his head. “He’ll insist on being a decoy. If we refuse, he won’t participate.”
Gaurang sneered. “The only thing more infuriating than his insubordinance is the fact he’s good enough to get away with it.”
Visheta shrugged. “At least we know he’ll succeed in whatever role he accepts.”
“True enough,” Gaurang’s mood was lightening. “Visheta, Bodhi; once again your service is exemplary. Consider how we’ll make the divisions as you rest.”
“As you command,” they said in unison, saluting with a fist over their hearts. As they walked away, Gaurang caught hints of the fatigue they were hiding.
He sighed, unshouldering his pack and plopping into a weary sit. He’d stretched his own limits in this mission, so most of his comrades were probably at wits’ end. The Destroyer would make it up to them. After this mission, they’d all be candidates for proselyte.
As he lay his head into a softer portion of his pack, he considered an earlier thought: no deed could be more glorious than dying for the greater good. That death would be even more glorious if it was preceded by a whole lot of killing for the greater good.
1.) Didja follow everything okay? Who these people are, the fact that they're after Svara, how they're tracking her, and their plan to assassinate her: was it all clear?
2.) Were the names too exotic? The north has a Hindi vibe to its culture, so all the names are Indian. Should I try harder to find ones that feel more natural to an English-speaker?
A.) I'm not sure it's necessary, but I like the idea of a reader anticipating where the three parties will collide. In this chapter, I'm kinda hoping the reader remembers that Miracle is planning to ensure that nobody lives to tell about that time they chased a girl through the Dawnless Woods. As you listened to Gaurang and his unit making their plans, was Miracle still there in the back of your mind?
Again, not sure it necessarily needs to, but I think it'd be fun it it worked that way.