"Footprints are the most obvious and important of clues when tracking both beast and human. Keep in mind, though, that the inferences to be made depend entirely upon whether the footprints were left in passing travel or amidst dire conflict. The ability to detect a battle long passed is a gift of the wise."
-- The Ranger's Guide to Gyersheld, 4th edition
Thick trees towered over the misty grass, blotting out the afternoon sun with rising panoplies of green. More green, just like the off-colour sun. Yet shadows hung thickly between the trunks, the rising ferns and the apparent trails of passing creatures.
"There, in the mud," said a young woman, wearing an iron breastplate which bore the crossed blades of House Richten's crest.
"Gyershlings," said her companion, a sharp-nosed older man. His face was partly covered by a studded leather mask.
"Oh," she muttered, dismayed.
The mud held the form of small footprints. She had assumed they were from the passage of light steps, rather than tiny feet. On closer inspection, they resembled prints left by children, yet the toes seemed clawed.
"I am afraid we've lost the archer's tracks, Baltus," said the woman. Her gentle brown hair was tied back in a ponytail, which in turn was bunched roundly at the back of her bronze helmet, where it came out through a hole. A chainmail skirt covered her legs down to the knee, below which her shins and ankles were protected with bronze-plated leather armour, just as her arms were.
"Fret not, Mordeina," said Baltus, leading her in the direction of the footsteps with a careful gaze upon the ground before them. "The gyershlings are as good a sign as any. Like vultures picking at the dead, they often cling to the old ruins, the vestiges of their ancient enemies' strongholds. Where they are thick in number, so too will be the passage of the one we sleuth."
"Pardon by prying. Why are you so adamant about the king's killer being so consumed with Old Gyersheld? He may be cowardly and cunning, but he is no gyershling."
Baltus pointed at more gyershling footprints as they passed another patch of drying mud. And after a moment, he answered his travelling companion's query, "I read something once, in my mistress's library, of Old Gyersheld. It was a poorly translated account, of the falling of that civilization. Within that text, was mention of enchanted arrows that vanished from wound, leaving all blood behind, and falling into quiver as if never shot."
"Ah, so you think he is one of the reckless treasure hunters who gleans fortune from the ruins?" ventured Mordeina, holding her spare spear steady in both hands as she kept pace with Baltus, following him through the woods on a barely trodden path.
"It explains his garb. It explains his talents. And it explains his business in town on the night of Winter Solstice. That is always a good day for business," he reminded her. His ashened black mane of hair stuck out from behind his mask with wild dignity.
"This entire trek today," asked Mordeina, "is it to confront him?"
Baltus nodded. "If we run into him, and know it is him, we will dispose of him."
Mordeina's lips tightened, and let her stride bring her closer to his side. Then she spoke, "You are weaker without her beside you."
"I know," said Baltus. "I miss her so."
"And if we come back empty-handed?" asked Mordeina.
"There is a call out for a large diamond, the kind gyershlings groan out from the rocks of our abandoned mines. They bear them most frequently in the staffs of their magicians and clergy."
"Clergy? Those twisted little brutes have religion?" Mordeina was shocked.
In the distance, a raven crowed with content.
"Just mysticism," judged Baltus. His nostrils flared. And he stopped walking.
Mordeina stopped close behind him, almost bumping into him.
The wind stirred the ferns, and carried the scents of many things. All Mordeina could smell was the mist and the greenery. But to Baltus, of so keen a tracker's senses, was the stench of blood. It belonged to neither beast nor human, rather to something inbetween.
"What is it?" whispered Mordeina.
"Gyershlings have been slain nearby," cautioned Baltus. "I could smell it better were my beloved Oprythe here with us."
Mordeina shook her head, and moved forward. There were tracks, and their footprints were further apart as if the tiny clawed feet that had left them had begun to run, pushing more firmly into the mud and even leaving marks in the moist dirt.
"You learn well," praised Baltus.
And then, out of the ground in the distance, emerged the moss and vine covered blocky edges of large bricks and pillars. The stones were a soft brown, lighter than the tree trunks.
And as they approached, a small and humanoid corpse could be seen at its entrance, a small javelin fallen by its side. The skin was greyed, leathery and tight. The bone structure was gaunt and sharp, sometimes poking right out of the skin in crude spikes and boned horns. The irises of the eyes were red, upon grey eyes and empty black pupils. The sockets were sunken. The teeth were yellow and elongated. And the breast was pierced through the heart by a wound where nothing lay.
Mordeina prodded it with the butt of her spear handle.
"Vanishing arrows," said Baltus. "We are on the right track."
Mordeina looked around. There were more fallen gyershlings, one behind a log and another partway down a stairwell. The stairwell entered downward into the ancient building they had been guarding.
"This place was built by magic," said Baltus. "And we may encounter far worse within than gyershlings."
"I have heard the chilling rumours," acknowledged Mordeina, her lips tightening once again.