Taint of Chaos
|This story contains adult content.
The three royal rangers hustled over the moorlands, their burden slung in a litter between the trailing two. They didn't know whether their theft had yet to be detected or what pursuit might even now be on their trail. In theory it could be a day or more until the cult found out what they'd done... but better to be safe than sorry, and move as if they had much less time.
Winra led. No longer needing to pass as the meek initiate, she'd torn the trailing hem from her robes to keep it from tripping her up and fashioned a crude belt to hold a stolen sword. She was blazing the trail, making sure there were no hidden pitfalls or snags to trip her companions, but she was keeping a brutal pace.
Though the casket the other two bore was small, only a cubic foot or so in capacity, it weighed nearly as much as a full-grown man. It could have easily been filled to the brim with solid gold. What was actually within was more valuable than that, though, and far more dangerous; a Shard of Chaos, one of the biggest any of them had ever heard of before. The sweat on Delric and Perin's brows came only partly from the exertion of carrying the thing, the rest was from the stress of knowing what might happen should they drop it hard enough to break the seals.
"Hff... hff... How much farther... to the woods?" Perin panted. The sylvan forest of Rochelle lay ahead, once they'd reached the dubious safety of its cover they would at least be able to slow down a bit. Out here they were still far too visible.
Winra didn't answer, either unable to hear the question from up ahead or simply finding it pointless - they'd reach the wood when they reached it. Delric had a clearer view from the front of the litter, though, and could empathize with Perin's weariness better. "Can just see it on the horizon now, maybe another few hours."
Should've taken the road... Perin chuckled ruefully and shook his head. Ah hell, I understand why Winra chose this route. Can't say it was wrong.
The cult of Terato had established their temple far from any recognized towns of the kingdom, just beyond the ill-defined border with the western wildlands. It had grown in recent years into the center of a wretched town of its own, ever balancing on the cusp of being a big enough threat to warrant the expenditure of the troops needed to root it out but never quite tipping over. It had its own cadre of warriors and there was no way they'd have been able to make it back to royal lands via the open road without encountering some.
Perin was no slouch with a sword himself, and certainly willing to try taking them on. Which was why, he recognized, the quiet and calculating Winra had been put in charge of the operation. Stealth and fleetness were what was needed right now. He could bear her leadership.
What he couldn't bear for much longer was this litter. It seemed to have become subtly larger and heavier in the hours they'd been carrying it. "Delric," He gasped to the man ahead of him. "I can't keep up much longer. How're you doing?"
Delric's muscles were actually doing okay despite the heavy load, he'd thus far managed without complaint and figured he could go on for a while yet before it started to become a problem. But he could hear the strain in Perin's voice and knew that trading off to Winra wouldn't work for long - the willowy woman had stamina but no strength. "My feet are getting a bit sore," he answered. "Winra, can we at least take a breather?"
Winra stopped at the top of the next low hummock of sod, turning and surveying the land behind them for a long moment. She sighed, with a hint of exasperation but mostly relief. "No sign of anyone behind us yet. I want to get under cover as soon as possible but... let's hunker down."
They carried the litter around the hummock and set it down ever so carefully, not wanting to jar the cask. The cask itself was a major contributor to the load's weight. It was lined with a solid layer of iron - one of the few substances that could block the magical emanations of a shard of chaos - and the seam of the lid had been sealed with a rivulet of molten lead, but it had been cracked open at some point by the cultists and they hadn't bothered to re-seal it properly. The followers of Terato actually embraced the chaos, called it 'Terato's touch'. It was the great perversion for which they were persecuted and feared.
The world had once been nothing but chaos, the raw stuff of all things that could potentially exist. The gods had shaped it and refined it until it became only those things that did exist, but for whatever reason they had not quite finished the task and occasional pieces of the original stuff of chaos could still be found. It had a destabilizing influence on the world, causing the stuff of reality around it to slip into flux. In small amounts it was the source of all magic, giving those who could control it the ability to reshape the world in various ways. In amounts as large as this, however, no mortal could control it. It was raw and dangerous, acting at random.
The three hunkered down around it, trying to keep a low profile on the empty moorland. Winra rubbed her stiff lower back, admitting silently to herself that a break in their forced march may have been necessary for her as well. But she couldn't admit such weakness out loud, not with so much farther yet to go.
They had infiltrated temple in disguise, stolen their holy of holies, and had actually managed to spirit it out of the town itself without the alarm being raised. Now they had to get it to the safety of one of the border forts, a place strong enough to resist an assault by Terato's followers should they pick up the trail. Many of the cultists had been affected by chaos and had been warped in various ways, some into hideous monsters of unpredictable powers, so she definitely didn't want to get into a fight out here on their own.
Perin adjusted his acolyte's robes uncomfortably. They had stolen them from the town's tailor shop - even chaos cults needed tailors - and he'd got a set that was obviously too large for him. In hindsight it was remarkable he'd managed to pass. "I'm expecting a big bonus for this," he muttered. "If we get this thing back to safety, not only will the cult have lost a major weapon but the King's sorcerers will be supplied with material for their chaos magic for years to come..."
"Shush," Winra cautioned. To the common man there was little difference between controlled magic and uncontrolled chaos, so the king's sorcerers were kept as only a rumor among them. Even out here it was best not to speak of such things lightly.
Delric sighed. He didn't worry much about such things himself, he wasn't in the job for money or power. He was a simple soldier at heart. Pulling off one of his own ill-fitting boots, in his case a bit too small, he gingerly touched the sore heel where it had been rubbing against the leather and flexed his numb toes.
Delric blinked in surprise at their appearance and his heart sank. "Uh, Winra... Perrin... my foot." The two turned their attention to him and Winra made a sound of dismay. They hadn't made it out of Terato's grasp unscathed; several of Delric's toes seemed to have fused together, the toenails growing into a thick mass and the skin shadowed with a coating of short hairs. He'd been tainted by exposure to raw chaos.
"When did that happen?" Winra asked urgently.
"I don't know, but..." Delric thought quickly. He'd switched to these boots right before they'd stolen the shard of chaos and his feet had definitely been normal then. "Must've been when we got this thing. There must've been unshielded shards in the temple we didn't know about. Maybe for their high-level initiation ceremonies, or as traps."
Winra nodded and Perin resumed sweating. That meant the other two may have been exposed as well. They all began a quick self-examination, patting themselves down under their clothing to see if anything had changed.
Perin found nothing obvious. Winra, on the other hand, made another quiet dismayed sound as she ran her fingers down her lower spine. "There's something wrong with my skin. Perin, help me check this." She undid her crude belt and hiked up the robe further, trying not to feel embarrassed at such exposure to a subordinate.
Perrin nodded grimly. "I'm not sure how to describe it, but it's like it's turning into brown scales. Just on your lower back. How does it feel?"
"Stiff." She twisted her torso to flex it a bit and winced. "Not painful, though. Damn... this isn't too bad. We can still get it purified when we make it back." There was a certain point where the changes wrought by exposure to chaos became so great that they overcame the forces that held one in one's natural form, but before then the gods could be called on to restore their old work.
Delric had pulled off his other boot and found changes to his other foot that matched the first. It was a very strange feeling, having parts of his body that had been his for his whole life suddenly taken away and remolded like this... but he nodded back, setting his jaw and keeping a stoic expression. "I can still walk on these."
"After we've rested," Perin reminded. He was still winded from the walking they'd done already. The others agreed and despite their unsettling discovery they settled down to rest.
Winra kept watch. The town was still visible as a small blot on the distant horizon even after hours of marching, there being very little cover anywhere near it - a detriment to them should they be noticed, of course, but also a boon for detecting followers. There still didn't seem to be any. They'd re-locked the sanctum behind them when they'd stolen the chaos shard, so if they were lucky it might even be a day or two before the theft was discovered...
Perin perked up. "Do you hear that?" He hissed quietly. The other two shook their heads. Perin listened carefully for a minute longer until he was certain, then sighed. "Horns. I think I can hear the alarm being raised."
"You hear it from all the way out here?" Winra asked incredulously.
Perin nodded. "Yeah, I guess I've just got good ear-ahh!" He reached up to tug an earlobe and was startled in mid-sentence to discover the shape of his ears had changed, becoming pointed and elfin. "Damnation! Damn, damn, it got me too!" He clutched his ears miserably. Why didn't I notice this when I checked myself out earlier?
"Doesn't look so bad," Delric offered consolingly. Perin shot him a sharp glare but after a moment's reflection had to admit Delric was right, at least comparatively speaking; the other man's feet had been pretty badly transmuted. They barely looked human.
"Right, let's go. We've still got hours of lead on them, let's widen it more before they pick up the trail."
Perin groaned, momentarily distracted from the change to his ears by the thought of more marching; they'd barely had time to rest. He stood and stretched, hoping his tired muscles had received at least some benefit. Delric didn't complain either, simply grabbing his boots and trying to put them back on. Getting them off turned out to have been easier than getting them back on again, they no longer seemed large enough to fit, and once the others had spent a minute waiting for him he gave up and tossed the boots on the litter with the cask. "The ground's soft," he muttered, "I'll manage."
They set off on a rapid march again, the promise of pursuit now spurring them on to almost match their pre-rest speed. The edge of the forest was only a few hours away.
They barely made it. Chaos cultist pursuit turned out not to be such a big threat, though Perin continued to catch the occasional sound of hunters out on the moors with his newly sensitive ears and Winra even once caught a glimpse of moving specks in the distance highlighted by the sinking afternoon sun. Even their own fatigue didn't hinder them much yet. The main problem arose from the fact that their taints were worsening.
Perin had lost a full twelve inches of height by the time they reached the wood, his clothing becoming positively baggy. Delric, on the other hand, had actually become a bit taller as his feet continued to change. The fused toes and thickening nails beginning to pull into the recognizable shape of a pair of hooves, allowing him to continue going barefoot on the rougher forest soil but making his balance much more precarious as he tried to get used to walking on them. Between the two of them it was becoming increasingly difficult to carry the litter.
Winra, too, had started having trouble with her changes. She had developed a stubby tail that had torn its way out through the seat of her trousers under her robes, a strange rigid appendage covered in the same rough brown scales as her lower back and projecting straight downward from the base of her spine. None of them recognized it, which wasn't too surprising considering the random vagaries of a chaos shard's effects.
There was only one plausible explanation for the taint continuing to get worse this far from the temple of Terato, and especially for it to be advancing so quickly. The damaged seal on the cask was leaking. Having made the cover of the fringe of the wood, the two set the litter down and the party moved a short distance away to catch their breaths. Delric and Perin sat down on a fallen log - Delric to take the opportunity to examine his legs more carefully, Perin simply to rest - and Winra remained standing stiffly upright to maintain a vigil on the moor behind them. Sitting down would have been tricky anyhow with that strange tail sticking out of her.
"Okay, so now what?" Perin piped up at last, his voice coming out distinctly higher-pitched than normal. "We can't take the damned thing any further into these woods. Look at what it's doing to us."
Winra sighed. It was true that the three of them traveling through these woods would be a dicey proposition even at the best of times; the Rochelle Forest was a mildly tainted land out on the fringes of the kingdom's control, so it was no doubt crawling with monsters and fae. Perhaps some of them were even members of Terato's cult themselves. It was the shortest path to civilization, though, and they were far less likely to encounter cultists in it than if they went back to the road. There was little question that they'd have to take this route one way or the other. The question was what to do about the shard of chaos they bore in the meantime. "If we leave it here it'll be found by the cult. How well do you think we could hide it?"
"We didn't bring a shovel," Delric mused. "I'm not sure..."
"Even if we did, we're still too damned close to the temple. They'd find traces of digging. If we hid it in a natural hole or piled stuff on it, they'd find it simply from the effects the leaking chaos would have on the local environment." Winra shook her head. "It'd be risky leaving it unattended for so long, even if we made it unhindered to the fort and brought a division of rangers back with us immediately to reclaim it."
"So, what, we keep bathing in that thing's cursed spoor? Delric and I stumbling along turning into gods know what while lugging it through a monster-infested forest? At night?" Perin's hot-blooded outburst was deadly serious despite the high, piping tone of his voice and Delric resisted a snicker.
Winra also refrained from reacting, but in her case resisting the reflex to snap at his insubordinate attitude. He's right to at least some degree, she had to admit. The sun was getting low and the forest journey would be a hard slog. "Okay. Here's what we'll do. We'll take it a short distance farther in and find a good place to camp, then set the cask a safe distance away and get some rest. Hopefully the cultists won't want to comb the forest at night either. In the morning we'll see what makes sense as our next step. Perhaps a better hiding spot will come along, a large pond we could sink it in or something."
It wasn't perfect but the plan made sense, under the circumstances it seemed like the best short-term approach to take. Perin was starting to wonder whether keeping the shard out of the cult's hands - and the monetary rewards of bringing it to the king's vaults - was really worth the risks, but kept his doubts to himself for now. Both Winra and Delric were still firmly committed to the greater good of their mission and weren't ready to cut their losses just yet.
Carrying the cask the short distance further into the wood turned out to be a bigger task than they'd expected. Delric's balance was becoming worse even as they confronted difficult tangled roots and fallen trees to clamber over, Perrin's decreased height was throwing his own reflexes off too, and the combination of Winra's stiff back and rigid foot-long tail-spike made it hard for her to navigate some of the obstacles even without the burden of the litter weighing her down.
They finally broke through to a wide clearing, an intersection of game trails at the edge of a narrow and placid little brook. It was a perfect spot to set up camp. They set the cask down at one edge of the clearing and moved over to the other, hurrying to make use of the little remaining sunlight to prepare bedding with what they could scrape up from the underbrush. There would be no fire so they'd have to make do with what little comfort they could muster.
"I'll take first watch," Winra volunteered. The combination of her awkward deformity and a strange lingering sense of restlessness made the thought of lying down quite unappealing. There were no complaints; Perin and Delric were exhausted. Keeping their swords close at hand should monsters or cultists appear suddenly, the two soon managed to pass into sleep.
Winra stood quietly on guard in the clearing as the sun set, the moonlight replacing its warm orange with a cool blue glow. She had to admit that the magical aura of the place really was beautiful in its own way, despite the unknown monstrous dangers that no doubt lurked out there in the night.
There were old tracks scattered in the soft soil of the clearing by the brook and Winra paced slowly to check them out. Cloven hooves, like deer. That was reassuring; if deer could survive in this place then the dangers might not be so extreme. Unless, of course, these were the tracks of cloven-hoofed predators. She knew of none but that didn't mean chaos couldn't produce them, there were unique new creatures in every patch of tainted land...
Her eyes were drawn to the cask resting at the far edge of the clearing where they'd set it nestled next to a mossy boulder. What was it doing to her? The strange appendage projecting down behind her legs wasn't much like any tail she'd seen or heard of before. She could feel when she touched its hard surface, but couldn't move it in any way; it was completely solid and free of joints.
And it was itchy. Winra dipped her hand in the stream and then rubbed the moisture gently on its tip, soothing it somewhat, but that didn't feel quite right. She needed something else for it. She started pacing the clearing again, the restlessness that had kept her from sleeping even stronger now. She scuffed and prodded the ground with her feet as she went, searching without really knowing what she was looking for. She dimly realized she was losing focus on keeping watch but this search seemed very important somehow...
There. She'd found the right place. She crouched down and sat carefully on the ground, the tip of her tail-spine sinking a few inches into the cool, moist soil and supporting her like a stool. A sigh of relief escaped her lips as the restlessness and itching both faded immediately away, replaced with a warm feeling flowing up into her body that lulled her into dreamy contentment. It didn't register on her how close she'd wound up sitting to the leaky cask.
Her rigid tail resumed its slow growth, gradually raising her up from her seated posture to stand nearly upright again. But it also grew downward into the earth, branching out under the surface. The hard brown crust spread up Winra's back and when it reached her neck it sprouted another spike that curved upward behind her. The changes were very gradual, taking hours, but in her current mental state the time passed with little meaning. The only sounds were the faint creaking of the woody growth and her occasional quiet half-delirious moans. Feels so good...
The soles of Winra's boots lifted gently from the ground. She blinked, the unexpected sensation for some reason catching her attention and opening a crack in her daze that none of the other changes so far had managed. Wh... what feels so good? She raised both knees to her chest, remaining suspended above the ground, and looked down between her legs in confusion.
The 'tail' had developed into a trunk a full six inches wide at the base where thick roots dug deep and anchored it in the soil. Anchored her in the soil. She flailed in a sudden burst of panic, trying to pull away, but the trunk was a solid part of her body and didn't budge. It continued all the way up along her spine, holding her torso rigid and immobile, then emerged again behind her head. Winra's struggle momentarily ceased as she looked upward in stunned awe at the enormous canopy of branches silhouetted against the night sky above her. Her branches. She could actually feel them moving as they swayed gently in the breeze, an indescribable sensation of air blowing soothingly through the myriad twigs.
"Oh gods," she whispered, then took a shaky breath and raised her voice. "Gods! Delric, Perin! Help me!"
The two, now at least somewhat rested, woke instantly at her call and leapt to their feet. Delric promptly stumbled and fell again, still not used to the hooves that had replaced his, but Perin was quick to seize his sword and hold the slightly oversized weapon at the ready in Winra's direction.
From what little he could make out in the dim light, it looked like a tree had sprung up and grabbed Winra from behind. "Gyah! Hells!" He charged, hoping he could run around to strike at it before it swept its fiendish limbs down to snatch him up too.
"No, wait!" Both Winra and Delric called out simultaneously. Perin skidded to a halt and stood in tense confusion as the tableau held for a moment. The tree isn't moving, Perin finally realized. Then he saw how tightly interfused Winra's torso was with the tree's trunk, and he repeated his curse more quietly under his breath. He'd heard of such creatures.
"Dryad," Delric confirmed as he climbed awkwardly back to his hooves again. "Not even a regular dryad, a full hamadryad of some sort. She's become fully corrupted somehow, Terato's taken her." He shook his head, realizing how close she was rooted to the cask. "Why? Why did you stand watch there?"
Winra tried hard to keep the panic at bay and think for a moment. Her thoughts were sluggish and scattered, hindering her normally quick analytical mind. But now that the dreaminess had been dispelled she remembered what had happened with an eerie clarity, even if she was having trouble making sense of it all. "The... the ground was right," she stammered at last, though her own answer still confused her. "Gods. Help me, Delric? I'm stuck."
Delric sighed, an expression of pained sympathy on his face. "Yeah, I think you are. Winra..."
The full implication of what Delric had said earlier finally dawned on her, and the tree nymph that had been their strong, resolute, experienced leader burst into tears.
The next little while was an awkward time. Perin and Delric moved the leaky cask away from Winra, not that there was likely anything more it could do to her at this point, and Delric spent some time trying to calm her down. It was partly to reduce the noise of her sobbing but mostly out of simple compassion.
None of them had actually seen a hamadryad before but as with any rangers who worked the wilderness they'd learned all they could about the known species of monsters they might encounter. Of all the monsters Winra could have become this one was particularly bad. True, she was supernaturally beautiful - most nymphs were - but hamadryads were a variety of nymph whose lives were quite literally bound to a single tree. In a sense she was the tree now, a tree with an animate growth on the side of its trunk in the shape of a woman. Her arms and legs were free but they were effectively just decorative. Her toes didn't even reach the ground.
That, more than simply becoming one of the chaos-cursed monsters she had spent her life keeping back from the kingdom's borders, was the main source of her distress; she was never going to leave this spot again. But she could only let her emotions run away with her for so long before her old resolve started reasserting itself again. She knew there was still a mission to be done and the other two would have to leave her to finish it. There were a few things yet that she had to do.
Soon. Winra glanced east - now forever to her left, her body was on the south side of her trunk - and felt a strange tremble of anticipation course through the branches of her canopy. The buds lining her twigs were rapidly sprouting into leaves, the finishing touches of her transformation still going to completion even without the chaos shard nearby. "Soon," she repeated out loud. The horizon was just starting to lighten with the first traces of dawn.
Delric smiled sympathetically. "I know, we can't stay much longer. I'm sorry, but there's still hunters after us. We'll come back once this is all over, I promise, but do you want us to get you anything before we go?" Delric hated the thought of leaving her alone here, even though technically speaking it was an ideal place for her now; she just seemed so defenseless rooted in place like that.
Winra shook her head. "No, you don't understand." She frowned in concentration. The alien feelings whirling through her body were still very hard even for she herself to understand, but she was pretty sure she knew what was going on here. It was more than just desire for sunlight that was awakening in her. It frightened and distressed her, but she'd already let herself have an emotional breakdown over her situation and realized there were important things to do now and having another wouldn't solve anything. "Help me... help me get these clothes off."
Delric blinked, a little taken aback. The robe, tunic and trousers she'd been wearing had torn in two places at the back to let her trunk through but had otherwise remained reasonably intact; he'd figured that the modicum of modesty they provided her would be important to her. "You sure?"
"Yes. Everything. Hurry."
"I'll keep watch," Perin offered quickly, moving a short distance away and taking up guard at the trail leading into the clearing. Delric rolled his eyes and turned back to Winra without further questions, quickly and efficiently helping her strip her clothing.
Winra's robes had concealed a final detail of her change. A scattering of buds were emerging from the soft green skin on her abdomen, much larger than the ones on her branches that her leaves had emerged from. A few were developing at her temples too, he noticed now that he was looking for them. Delric curiously touched one with a fingertip and Winra shuddered slightly with a quiet moan. He snatched his hand back. "Sorry! They hurt?"
"No. The opposite." Winra smiled, her expression strangely haunted but also with some of the old crafty confidence that Delric hadn't seen since she'd changed. "It's still late spring, isn't it? Gods, did I ever pick the wrong time to turn into a hamadryad... or the right time, maybe." She shook her head. "It doesn't matter, it's happening either way. I can feel it. Morning's coming... I think I'm getting ready to flower."
Delric's eyes widened. "Oh... oh! Perrin, we do have to go, now!"
"Wait!" Winra reached out and grabbed Delric's arm just before he pulled out of reach. Delric stopped, holding up his other hand and motioning Perin to do likewise. "I don't want to waste it. The cultists following us, if they do come this way I can delay them."
"You don't mean..." Delric trailed off, appalled.
"It's what hamadryads do," she said firmly, managing to keep the tremble she felt out of her voice. "And it's all I can do for you now. Take my clothing, every trace - I don't want them to figure out who I was. I'm just another corrupt denizen of the forest now as far as they'll know, they'll consider me sacred. Take the cask. I know it's dangerous for you, but there's no time to hide it here." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, her expression wavering somewhere between unsettled and rapturous. "It's almost dawn."
Delric glanced at the large buds on her torso again, noting that the green outer leaves were already starting to part and reveal the yellow petals folded within. There was a faint scent, honey-sweet, and for just a moment he wished he could stay to see what her blossoms would look like. He shook his head, clearing it. "Okay, if it's what you want..."
"My last order. You're in charge now."
Perin didn't immediately understand what Delric's sudden hurry was all about, but could tell something serious was up and so refrained from objecting even when Delric told him to pick up the litter again. They bundled up Winra's clothing with Delric's boots and headed onward down the game trail, barely sparing time for a farewell wave - urgency aside, none of them wanted the situation to get more emotional than it already was. Once they were on the move again Delric finally had time to explain.
"There haven't been many detailed studies done, mind you," he began. "But the theory I read is that hamadryads are basically big magical flowers. Ordinary flowers, they attract small insects with their appearance and scent to induce them to pollinate in exchange for nectar. Hamadryads, though... they attract bigger fare."
"Oh, I see, so she'll draw them to her... but why are we running?"
Delric shot a venomous glare over his shoulder, but quickly took it back when he realized that Perin's question was not meant as lewdly as it had seemed - he really didn't know why flight was so urgent. "It's magical. The scent overcomes all will... if we're too close we might get stuck there as well. I don't know if she could prevent it."
Perin swallowed nervously. "If the path branches see if you can veer left a bit. That's more upwind."
Delric nodded grimly, glad that Perin at least accepted the danger they were running from. Then he stumbled, a hoof catching on a root thanks to his feet once again being slightly longer than he'd grown used to, and barely kept from falling.
Now, what to do about the danger they were still carrying with them...
They'd traveled for over an hour and dawn was well past when Perin finally demanded they stop. They'd made good time despite their increasing physical difficulties and Winra was probably in full bloom by now, making close pursuit unlikely, so Delric couldn't begrudge him that.
Perin had lost another twelve inches of height. He was now no more than three and a half feet tall; his clothing was hanging very loose and he'd had to tie his boots on with strips of cloth to keep them from falling off with every step. The tips of his pointed ears now poked up above the top of his head and his facial features had taken on a distinctly elven cast that matched his slimming physique; it was clear that he was turning into a fae of some kind. But despite all that, Perin's complaints were somewhat subdued. Delric's developments seemed worse.
The changes had spread up Delric's legs almost to the hips. His skin was covered in a layer of coarse, short hairs of a brownish-grey hue, and the bones had reshaped into a much more animalistic shape that had torn open some of the seams on his trousers. A short stub of a tail had started sprouting from Delric's hindquarters, covered in a black whisk of longer hair. He'd been tripping and stumbling increasingly often but Perin was frankly amazed that Delric was still moving on those clunky horse hooves as gracefully as he was.
They set down the cask, moving off the trail to conceal it in a hollow between several fallen logs, then continued a short distance down the trail to get out of the worst of the chaos' influence. Delric found a suitable hummock of earth and sat down very carefully, his legs bending in unfamiliar ways, and Perin climbed up onto a tree stump beside him. They took a moment to recover their breath.
"We can't go on like this," Perin said at last. Delric nodded silently; he didn't know when exactly it would become too late to purify the growing taint of chaos from their bodies but it had only taken a few additional hours of steady exposure in Winra's case to push her over that edge. Not to mention that it was becoming increasingly hard simply carrying the litter between them; Delric had lost a little height now as his legs continued to deform but Perin's reduction in size and carrying capacity was more than enough to throw their balance off completely.
"What can you hear?" Delric asked. "Any hints of pursuit?"
They listened in silence for a moment. Perin could actually feel his pointed ears turn, catching the faintest sounds of the sylvan forest. There was nothing in particular from the direction they'd come. But there was something else up ahead... Perin stood up on the tree stump in a tense, furtive pose, his ears twitching as he strained to clarify what he was hearing. "Music," he murmured at last. "Someone's playing pipes up ahead. Way far ahead."
Delric cocked his head. They were still at least a full day's travel from the far edge of Rochelle Forest, perhaps more, and the road that lay beyond was a military patrol route unlikely to have wandering minstrels on it. Still, they had reason to hurry even with the shard hidden and with Winra's sacrifice to slow pursuit. It wasn't safe in these woods. "At least that should give us plenty of warning time to skirt around them, whoever they are," Delric decided. "We'll press on and try to get help. Keep your ears peeled." Delric stood back up and wobbled for a moment, having trouble balancing on his two hooves without the litter to stabilize him. "And help me find a walking stick, if you would."
They pressed onward. It was much easier without their burden now, both physically and emotionally, but Delric couldn't help but feel a sense of failure. Winra had worked with him out here on the frontier for a long time... She's not dead, he reminded himself. Hell, hamadryads probably live hundreds of years longer than people do. I'll be back.
Delric could also hear the music now, a distant melody filtering through the trees. It was a very catchy tune and the soft clopping of his hooves on the mossy soil slipped easily into the rhythm, making walking a bit easier for a change. The soreness of his muscles and aching lower back also began to ease and he stopped leaning quite so heavily on his walking stick for support.
It wasn't having such a positive effect on Perin. He kept shooting Delric wary glances, unsettled both by the music and the effect it seemed to be having on his partner. Delric almost seemed to be dancing to it now, trotting along the forest path in a sort of bipedal canter that was hard for Perin to keep up with on his short legs and floppy boots. "Hey... hey, Delric!"
Delric broke stride, staggering to a halt with a disoriented snort. "Uh, Perin?" He shook his head. "Sorry, got a bit carried away there..."
"I don't know if this way is safe for you," Perin suggested. Winra had put Delric in charge, true, but it was just the two of them now and Perin wasn't about to watch another of his companions succumb to chaos. Even without the shard's baleful influence they were still dangerously in flux, wavering near the boundary of normal life and the distorted mockery of it here in these tainted lands. They were particularly vulnerable to fae influences right now.
Delric shook his head again. "No, I..." he trailed off, a strange tickle brushing the side of his head and drawing his hand to his ear. It had grown slightly pointed and was fringed with a light fuzz of hair. He staggered slightly, unsteady on his hooves again, and grabbed a nearby sapling for support. "Oh."
Perin could clearly make out the other sounds of revelry now. There was piping, and definitely some sort of dancing - rhythmic footsteps, if nothing else. But the vocalizations that accompanied it weren't human, and weren't remotely civilized. It was just grunting and bleating, like an agitated herd of goats. "Satyrs," Perin explained with a definite note of disgust.
Delric rubbed his forehead and sighed in relief. No sign of budding horns, and his horse-like hooves remained uncloven. The satyrs' particular flavor of chaos hadn't had much influence yet on whatever random change the shard in the cask had inflicted on him. Still, there was a definite sense of attraction that was affecting him more than it was affecting Perin. It would be so easy right now to join them, cast off his concerns in exchange for simple carnal desires... "We should backtrack. Find a different route," Delric agreed.
The way back was more difficult. Now rejecting the distant rhythm of the satyr herd's music, Delric's hooves felt clumsy and heavy again and the ache returned to his lower back. Perin helped lead him away, though, keeping a small but firm hand on Delric's arm whenever the game trail was wide enough and falling behind to subtly prod him when it wasn't. Delric flushed slightly in embarrassment at the treatment, doubting that he needed to be shepherded as closely as this. But on the other hand, he had to admit that he'd almost slipped blindly into a trap before Perin had snatched him out of it.
Now that he was paying closer attention the signs were more obvious. The cloven hoofprints that made up a major part of the trail's traces were unusually deep, and in a number of places clear enough to see they were from a biped. Delric kicked himself mentally; his own hoofprints followed almost the same pattern, merely with a different shape. He should have noticed.
They reached a juncture in the trails that they'd passed over before, a side path branching off that appeared less heavily traveled than the one they'd followed. Fewer signs of satyrs, at any rate. They were out of range of the enticing music now and so they both paused briefly for a rest.
"I hope it rains," Delric muttered.
"Huh? Why?" Perin glanced at the sky and was relieved that Delric's wish appeared to be an idle one; there were only light patchy clouds. He didn't feel up to slogging through mud with his boots as loose as they were.
"Our tracks are pretty obvious. Mine are, anyway..." Delric frowned, not liking this train of thought.
"I don't think it will. Rain would only slow us down, anyway," Perin shook his head. "We've got to get out of here. We're already so badly tainted it'll take months in Myrmi's Temple to get purified."
"And get reinforcements." Delric snorted, the words bitter in his mouth. It's a lie. The cultists'll recover the shard at this rate, without a direct route we can't get out of these woods fast enough to bring reinforcements in time. Damned satyrs. But they couldn't move the chaos shard any farther themselves without risking irreparable corruption. All they could do now was save their own skins.
At the expense of Winra.
Delric snorted again, climbing to his hooves. "No, dammit. We won't make it. Perin... I'm no good as a leader after all. You go, bring the cavalry. I'm going to go get the shard and keep it ahead of them. They won't get it."
"What?" Perin blinked. "Are you crazy? You can't go back! You don't know what it'll do to you!"
"I'll drag it in my teeth if I have to." Delric crossed his arms and glared down at the slender half-fae, secretly still frightened but outwardly resolute. "Besides, you can't carry it. It has to be this way."
There seemed little room for debate since Perin was ostensibly in complete agreement with his part of the new plan, but he argued anyway. He was reluctant to head out all on his own, his shortened stature leaving him feeling somewhat vulnerable. But Delric finally forced the issue, setting off back down the path they'd come from and leaving Perin's high-pitched objections behind.
It wasn't very far, and the cask was easy to find; all the trees within ten feet of where they'd stashed it had sprouted black thorns and vines bearing blue fruit dangled overhead. Delric was relieved that the cultist hunters hadn't come this far yet. A faint honey-sweet scent drifted on the air, perhaps explaining their tardiness...
Best not to think about that. Delric pushed all such thoughts hard from his mind, focusing on the tricky task of dragging the litter out from its treacherous hiding place. It was harder with just one person but he felt stronger than ever and the fur on his legs protected his hide from the worst of the thorns. And as he'd expected, the litter would make a decent enough travois. No time to lose. Need to get going. He hefted his end of the litter, gripping its handles tightly, and then paused in sudden indecision.
Which way? It was not something he'd expected would be a challenge, but for some reason he was having trouble figuring out the direction to go. He felt like he should be heading south, but he also wanted to go north... Snorting and stamping a hoof in frustration, he picked one and started moving.
"Delric, wait!" Delric's furry ears twitched at Perin's call, surprise breaking through the light cloud of confusion that had begun settling over his mind. He turned and looked back at the diminutive man hurrying down the trail toward him.
Behind me? Delric shook his head in astonishment, realizing he had almost set off in the wrong direction, back toward Winra. "Perin. Uh, I think we hid it too close, there's a smell..."
Perin just sighed in exasperation. "You're right about not being a good leader. You fall for every magical lure this place has to offer!" As he reached Delric he grabbed the other end of the litter, hoisting it up. "Come on, it's this way. Let's hurry before I change my damned mind again."
Delric grinned and fell in behind Perin. He had no idea what had changed it in the first place but he wasn't about to pry. They had enough troubles ahead of them without needlessly pouring over what had happened before. Moving quickly beyond Winra's spreading scent, they took the side trail they'd stopped at earlier and headed deeper into the forest.
And just as they'd both expected, the influence of the chaos shard resumed its disturbingly rapid work.
Perin grew smaller still, having to take time at regular intervals to adjust his boots and clothing just to keep them from falling off him. He was learning quite quickly how to do impromptu tailoring with just a knife and bits of string. He was unable to remain in the front for long, frequently dropping his end of the litter or risking being overrun by it when Delric moved too quickly, so he traded positions back to the rear and scrambled to keep up with child-sized legs.
Delric also developed new problems of his own. The changes to his legs spread up over his hips, starting to reshape his hindquarters in a drastic manner. His tail was growing out long and ropy, not so equine after all, and a sheath of skin was sliding up to envelop his manhood and hold it raised against his belly in an embarrassing manner. He found it increasingly hard to stand up straight. Leaning forward eased the strain on his back, but did little to help his balance...
Perin tripped and dropped his end of the litter again, giving Delric a shove that sent him stumbling. "Haw!" He yelped, dropping the handles and sprawling forward to catch himself with his hands on the ground. Then Delric froze, his furry ears physically flicking back against the sides of his head in an expression of surprise.
For the first time in what must have been hours he felt comfortable. He twisted around to look back at himself, lifting one foot and experimentally tapping the tip of his hoof on the ground. His legs were about the same length as his arms now, his torso straight and level now that he was down on all fours. Perin was watching him from behind with open dismay and Delric tried offering him a reassuring grin. "I'm alright. I guess we know what the chaos is doing to me." He flicked his tail.
"You can't be turning into a donkey," Perin objected. "That's too normal. Chaos' corruption never copies the work of the gods!"
"Well, at least from the waist down it has." Delric shook his head and sighed, feeling his ears flick again. "Not much different from satyrs and such, eh?"
"Satyrs can stand up." Perin kicked his end of the litter in frustration, the loose flapping of the oversized rags he was wearing and the resemblance to a petulant child making Delric chuckle despite himself. "Gods! After I went and threw away my last chance... how are we going to move this thing now?"
Delric sat carefully on his haunches, deciding to focus on more immediate concerns. If he was to stay on all fours his tattered robe and the remnants of his trousers would only be a hindrance now, as bad as Perin's boots had been. Won't do any good clinging to them. Time to shed these... He fumbled with the knot on his belt. His fingers still looked normal but they felt strangely stiff. "Uh, Perin? Could you help me with this?"
The little fae walked over and nimbly unfastened it. Delric was startled by just how small Perin had become, not having had much opportunity to look at him in recent hours while carrying the front end of the litter; with Delric seated their eye levels were almost even. He was amazed Perin could still manage to lift the litter at all, he must have been quite strong for his size.
Delric finished shucking all of his clothing save for his tunic, then got back up on all fours and took a few experimental paces. Gods, it's strange that this could be so comfortable! He flexed his neck, realizing it must have subtly changed to let him look ahead of himself more easily in this posture. The clumsiness of his hands also seemed to be a result of subtle adaptations for the role of supporting him, the skin on his palms already toughened with calluses.
Perin examined Delric thoughtfully. Can't be turning into an ordinary donkey, chaos doesn't work that way. But maybe close enough. "Del, I've got an idea." Perin retrieved the rope from Delric's pile of clothing, added the ones he and Winra had been wearing, and started tying them together with strips of cloth torn from their discarded robes. Delric watched silently, puzzled at first and then mildly disturbed once he recognized what Perin was constructing. But he had to admit that it made sense...
They slipped the makeshift harness over Delric's torso and Perin tied it snugly in place. Perin had to cut and lash two short poles to the handles of the litter to make them long enough to fit, but once it was all assembled and fastened Delric had to admit that it was a very fine job indeed. With that remarkable inherent skill and his fine stature Delric was beginning to suspect Perin was becoming a brownie of some sort. They made legendary tailors.
And Delric had been drafted as a draft animal. They set off again, dragging the litter as a travois, with Perin giving up on carrying it and leading in front again where he could use his enhanced senses more easily. The path was winding and treacherous, the same lack of satyr traffic that had drawn them to it also making it rough and overgrown, but Delric was surprised by his own agility in his new posture. The grip of his fingers helped him climb over obstacles and the solid power of his hoofed hind legs made pulling his load easy. Perin even resorted to climbing up on Delric's back and riding him through some of the roughest patches.
Night eventually fell. They didn't find a clearing like they had before, the ground too uneven and the woods too tangled for anything like that, so they had to make do with a small hollow in the brush.
They didn't stash the cask very far away from camp this time. Neither of them spoke of it; there was no point. They both knew it was already too late to reverse what had happened, the corruption had gone too deep. The next morning neither of them had changed much farther, despite the proximity of such a large shard of chaos, and they both knew they were finished.
It was almost anticlimactic when they emerged from the far side of the forest the next day, encountering a patrol of the king's soldiers by noon and - after some fast talking and showing of credentials - riding the rest of the way to the fort in a cart. No members of Terato's cult had made it through.
Winra relaxed dreamily in the warm afternoon sun, eyes shut but soaking up the light with her outstretched leaves.
By all rights she should be mad with boredom. And some evenings when she was suspended between sunlight and sleep, she was; those could be rough nights. But during the day the sun felt too good for her to feel bad, even if she wanted to, and so she had gradually learned to surrender herself to it instead. Fewer and fewer things disturbed her these days.
The first few weeks had been tough. It had been the cultist hunters at first, just as she'd anticipated, and she'd spent all day calling them to her. She'd been disgusted with herself over what she did. But the next day she'd bloomed again, and the next, and the next. She couldn't stop her body from doing it, it was a purely natural function. She must have experienced the attentions of every male creature within miles around, and some of the females as well. The satyrs had seemed to be particularly susceptible, and particularly insatiable...
The weeks passed and spring became summer. She'd become so used to it that when she'd finally stopped flowering and the buds dropped off she was almost disappointed. But with summer came a new form of fulfillment, the joy of drinking in the energy around her and simply growing. The feeling had made her stretch her arms up as high as she could along her trunk and her toes as far down as they'd go, wood creaking pleasantly under her self-embrace. The feeling had also kept her from panicking when her limbs had stiffened in that pose. Since she wasn't flowering any more she no longer needed even that limited mobility, she'd reasoned once she had the presence of mind to think about it rationally, and she consoled herself with the thought that she'd probably be able to move again the next spring. It was hard thinking that far ahead, though. The eternal 'now' of sunlight and rain was a powerful draw.
But not so powerful that she was unaware of anything else around her. The vibration of approaching footsteps tickled her roots. Winra opened her eyes, blinking and giving her head a slight shake to clear it before turning toward the source. Even without the compelling draw of her flowers satyrs still occasionally came to her, perhaps drawn by memory instead, though now they were as likely to just mate with each other in her shade as anything else.
The footfalls didn't feel like satyrs, though. She blinked in surprise as the visitors came into view. An elf perhaps two and a half feet tall, dressed in a tiny field uniform of the king's rangers, riding on the back of a man - no, a half-man, half-donkey - who was also wearing the uniform of the king's rangers. The upper half of one, at any rate. Despite his long, furry ears, she instantly recognized his face. "Delric!?"
The donkey-man broke into a grin at the sight of her. "Winra!" He reared up and tottered forward on his hind legs to embrace her - body evidently better suited to the posture of a quadruped despite his humanlike arms - and the elf yelped in alarm and jumped off before he was thrown.
"Del, for crying out loud!" The little elf exclaimed angrily. Then, dusting himself off, he grinned up at Winra too. "Sorry, he's got poor impulse control these days."
Winra laughed. "And Perin! Gods, I hardly recognize you!" She realized that tears were leaking down her face, the welter of emotions mixing with the feeling of the sun to thoroughly confuse her reactions. "It's been so long! You... you didn't make it back...?"
"It's a long story," Delric responded, stepping back and sinking back down to his donkey haunches. "We did manage to drag that thing back to civilization, it's safely locked away and the cult's been crippled locally by the loss. But as you can see, we got a little too corrupted by the chaos."
"Captain Galt couldn't figure out whether he was supposed to exile us to the wilderness as monsters, or promote us as heroes," Perin continued. "Took a while to sort that out. In the end he did both." He proudly pointed to the insignia pin that fastened his tiny cloak in place. "It's apparently not the first time rangers have become corrupted in the line of duty, it's just not widely announced when it happens. We're still rangers and Rochelle Forest is our permanent patrol area now."
Winra laughed again at the little man. "Oh, Gods. You outrank me!"
Delric pawed at one of the pouches on his belt, then called for Perin's assistance when he couldn't manage to get it open with his clumsy fingers. He pulled out another silver rank insignia, this one fashioned into a pendant to be worn on a chain, and held it up for her to see. "No he doesn't! This one's yours, if you want it."
Winra blinked, speechless with confusion for a moment. "I can't even move," she objected. "I may well sleep through winter entirely. What kind of ranger can I possibly be now?"
Perin's grin widened. "Outpost commander? We're going to need a place to camp."
A tumult of possible responses spilled through Winra's mind, but in the end the only one she could give was to lean her head forward and allow Delric to slip the insignia into place. It felt as warm as the sun resting on her breast.