Dimitri held his breath as he watched the dark phantom wrapped in a ragged cloak of an archmage fly overhead. He was sure Thael's invisibility cloak shrouded them from the spirit, but he dared not make a sound, even breathing, while the creature flew so close to them. Though the woods were thick where they ventured, the twisting grey-brown trees of the Shade Wood never seemed to produce a leaf, only sporadic branches above, which gave them virtually no cover from above.
"It has to be a patrol wraith," Jannel said.
Thanks for the obvious statement, Dimitri wanted to say, but he held his tongue.
"Perhaps we should follow it, let it lead us to its master," Thael suggested.
When the wraith was further away they continued moving, slower now than before.
Dimitri sighed. No wonder the guild had given him an escort of these two archmages, they were idiots! How they were granted the title of archmage baffled him, but they had it for a reason and by all accounts should be far better sorcerers’ than himself. Looking back at the wraith still flying away he was suddenly glad to have them with him.
If whoever had taken the kids was strong enough to control a wraith then there'd be little he could do on his own. It was bad enough that only he was searching for these kids, but he wasn't surprised. They disappeared away from the academy's grounds and so the headmaster wouldn't sanction an official search for them because that would somehow imply the academy's involvement with the disappearances.
It seemed no one cared enough about the kids to look for them besides their families. He too was content to let it all go, but his dreams haunted him for it. All four of them were his students, he knew their faces and names well, they were good kids, and he was terrified to go looking for them alone.
So he petitioned the regional guild about it and he was granted the escort of the two arch mages with him now. Their trail led them to the Shade Woods and he wanted to turn back there and be content with a job well half done. But courage compelled him to push forward, he'd already come that far, and with a pair of archmages, he shouldn't fear the tales of what lay inside those woods.
Dimitri lowered his voice and said, "No its patrol route would take us further away from whatever it's guarding. But it does prove that we're getting close to finding whoever took those kids."
Though he was sure that he tracked the kids properly, now that they were in the heart of the woods he wanted to doubt even more. That wraith proved nothing, it could be a stray wandered out from the Haunted Lands and drawn into the woods. It would be even more likely, they had already encountered wandering spirits in these woods along their way.
But these were passive spirits, they ignored it, and it ignored them in return. That dark spirit they saw was different, though, master or no, had it spotted them it would have attacked. Dark spirits were volatile and attacked any living creature.
As they continued they eventually saw a dim light ahead. Though it was day the light came from a small fire. He knew because even during the day these woods were, as the name implied: shaded and thus always dark.
Cautiously they moved to the source of the light and were led into a small clearing where a base fire sat in the center. Bound to the trees was the four students stripped naked and their heads hung low. There was no one and nothing else around. They approached the kids.
"Please..." one of the kids said, barely audible. Her voice was so hoarse it sounded like she hadn't had any water for days.
Jannel and Thael gasped at seeing the kids up close and whispered some sort of prayer. Dimitri turned to them confused; they continued staring at the students in horror.
He looked back to them; the four of them were humans, like himself, and in their teen years. It took him a moment to see what the archmage's saw, but when he finally did his jaw dropped horrified.
They were not bound to the trees; they were partially infused into them; merged as one with the trees. Their fusion ran up to the thighs on the legs and to their shoulders on their arms. They were kept prisoner but not fully fused with the trees that they could not be safely pulled out.
"Can you free them?" Dimitri asked.
"It looks like a basic druid spell," Jannel said. "They won't be able to move their arms or legs for a week afterwards, but I can get them out. It's just going to take some time."
"I'll cover you," Thael said. "Dimitri you keep an eye out."
"Please," one of the girls croaked out.
Dimitri went up to her, gently putting a hand on her cheek to comfort her. "It's all going to be okay I promise."
"Kill us," the girl pleaded in her weak voice.
Dimitri and Jannel exchanged concerned glances.
"They shouldn't be in any pain from this, just numb," Jannel said studying them.
"Kill us," they all weakly cried out in unison. "Kill us." They continued, begging for death. They kept begging until their voices gave out, and then they cried.
"Get them the hell out of there!" Dimitri said, turning away from them to look out for anything.
He soon realized that being in the area with the small fire going made it near impossible to see too far into the woods, even during the day. He'd have to patrol around to see out there. And though he hated the concept, it was better than seeing those kids like that.
Walking around slowly he made sure to keep a short distance within the small clearing, always to the point where he could see the archmages at least. He constantly looked back at them, afraid they'd suddenly vanish on him. They didn't.
Though fools they seemed before, those two were highly alert and focused on their duty. So Dimitri was surprised they didn't see the attack coming. He was so caught off guard he failed to shout to them, to warn them about the demons sneaking right up on them. Or maybe it was fear that stopped him, fear for seeing such monsters come into the light.
Regardless the arch mages never stood a chance as the demons jumped them, knocking them down with a single blow. Dimitri could have helped, could have blinded them and given Jannel and Thael a chance to fight back. Instead, he turned and ran for his own life.
What could he do against them? They were at least two heads taller than him, and though humanoid in figure, their pale grey skin seemed to blend with the environment perfectly. Their eyes were large sockets with green flames that burned brighter when they attacked. And their mouths, which opened as they snarled, stretched wide past where their cheek bones should be and were filled with stained yellow canines.
And so Dimitri ran, fast as he could and far as he could. Until he tripped over some thick tree roots while looking over his shoulder. He quickly got back up and looked back again, but soon realized no one, or no thing, was following him. He made it. As long as he kept going and didn't turn back he should be safe.
Kill us. The voices of the kids begging for death resounded in his head as he jogged away to safety. He tried shaking it off, but their begging seemed to only grow louder. Stopping, he then cursed his cowardice over and over. Grabbing the knife in his belt he took a breath.
There was nothing he could do for the archmages, but at the very least he could do those kids just one mercy, then, and only then, could he go back to being a coward. Otherwise, they'd haunt him for the rest of his life. Maybe they would haunt him anyways.
Once again the clearing was empty save for the kids, and the still burning fire. He watched patiently for the demons to show, but they never did. So he carefully made his way to the kids, eyes constantly darting back to the woods as his heart beat so fast he feared it might explode.
He got to the first kid and raised his knife to her throat. His hand was trembling terribly. Never before had he killed someone, let alone someone he tried desperately to save. They shouldn't be in pain, but they were; so much they begged for death.
It's merciful, he told himself. I can't save them.
He closed his eyes and ran the blade across her throat. Shuddering as her warm blood sprayed on him. His tears were hotter as they ran down his cheeks and he moved onto the next kid.
"I'm sorry," he said with a weighted heart as he went to them one by one; ending their misery.
With the grim deed done he turned away and saw burning green eyes between the trees. The demons pounced. He never stood a chance.
Dimitri was only half conscious when they dragged him away. But it still took him some time to become fully coherent. Thael and Jannel were on their knees bound tightly in a thin wire.
They were still in the woods, but it was night time now. The only source of light came from a green rift down the center of a massive boulder jutting out of the ground. A pair of the demons approached the archmages from behind and simultaneously pierced a single claw into their backs.
Jannel and Thael erupted into raw mana - a shimmering blue energy - that was rapidly sucked into the rift; causing it to grow. Dimitri didn't want to believe what he saw, but his eyes didn't betray him. The rift opened wide enough for a human figure to walk right out of it. He appeared like a man in his mid-twenties, with bronzed skin, brown hair, and amber eyes.
To the rest of the world he'd appear human, but humans didn't walk right out of the underworld. Only demons lived there. Though the rift shrank exponentially, if demons were being summoned from the underworld by other demons then it was bad news. For now, he hoped these demons were working as a third party to the will of another sorcerer, or something.
But it was all relevant if he didn't escape and warn them. He decided there was no better chance he would make it out than right now; so he stood up and ran. Fortunately, they didn't bind him, probably didn't think he was a threat.
Dimitri didn't know how far he would make it in the dark, running through the woods, but he kept going. Several times he stumbled or tripped, but he didn't dare stop. Didn't even dare look behind him; just kept running. He ran straight into the trees a few times, it hurt, but he shook it off and continued on.
Eventually, a pair of green dots ahead forced him to stop. The demons were nearby. But he hadn't been spotted just yet if he could quietly sneak behind a nearby tree while they continued on they might go past him.
Dimitri turned to hide and was met with a pair of green flames just a few feet ahead of him. All he saw was those pair of flames that acted as the demon's eyes, no sockets, or monstrous face, just the green flames. An instant later a sharp claw gouged out his throat.
He didn't even feel it. All he felt was something pulling him back, and his mind slipping away. He saw his body collapse, saw the demon, no longer shrouded in the dark. Saw the trees fly past him as he was pulled.
He resisted and pushed forward with all his might.
I have to warn them...