It was only a few more minutes of walking until Raulin saw exactly what Telbarisk had been talking about. “Yes, that’s perfect,” he said, beckoning the wizard to join him.
The trail banked left around a mound of rock that, while solid, appeared to ooze into the forest around it. It was quite sizable, twice the height of any of them, and wide enough to build a small house. Time, nature, or idle hands had flattened the top into what might be a lovely place to sit and look at the forest, perhaps take a lunch with companions on a day like the one they marching through. In fact, there was a worn path in the surrounding dirt that led up to the top. More importantly, it tipped forward slightly so that anything on top was clearly visible from the path.
Raulin took off his pack, pulled out the bladder and bag, and handed them to Al. “Hike to the top and make a nice surprise for our pursuers. Something like what you think a trirec would use to ward off people. Ghastly, frightening, perturbing. Though, don’t get carried away; we need to leave as quickly as possible.”
“How long?” he asked, opening the bag and jerking his head away in disgust at the smell.
“Let’s say no more than ten minutes. It needs to look premeditated, but you don’t have to be overly intricate.”
“Okay,” he said with some excitement, jiggling the corpse of the squirrel he had found as he bounded up the rock.
“Am I alone in saying there is a strangeness about the wizard?” Raulin asked the other two.
“He’s…eager to please in strange ways,” Anladet admitted.
“His behavior would be concerning to those not living a hermetic life,” Telbarisk said.
“Good, we’re in agreement.” He pulled his water skin out. “Now’s a good time to rest and hydrate, especially you, Tel. I know this air is hotter and more humid than you’re used to and I’m going to push us hard whenever the wizard is ready.”
Almost ten minutes passed when Al looked down and waved Raulin up. The rock’s surface had become some sort of unholy funeral rite for the poor squirrel. He laid belly-down, his arms spread out on either side. Circling him were the chicken bones, arranged as symmetrically as possible, in some sort of mandala. Each was marked with a dab of blood, which connected to strange markings that radiated out from the demised rodent. The sharp rocks, bird’s skull, feathers, and clumps of hair were set in cardinal piles, to complete the morbid affair.
“Wizard, that is quite macabre indeed. An exercise in exorcism. Well done, I suppose. Hopefully that gives us a little more distance while our pursuers examine it.” Raulin peered down a little closer. “Where did you get the hair?”
Al pushed a section of the hair from the back of his head up with his dirty hands. “I have plenty of it. In fact, I’m in dire need of a haircut.”
“Indeed. All right, then. Let’s keep going. Any difference, Tel?”
The grivven reported an unusual amount of people gathering north of the town as well as a few smaller groups that were less than a mile behind them. “The chase is on, then,” Raulin said. “We need to cover as much ground as possible before we rest. Let’s shoot for forty miles.”
“Fort-,” Al choked. “That’s a lot.”
“I know, Wizard, but I think we can do it. We break for lunch in a few miles and then again for dinner, so you’ll get your rest.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’m…”
“A cross-switcher. I know. You all have the advantage over me. I don’t have the stride of Telbarisk, the nimble footing of Anladet, nor the magic you have to keep you going. I will do my best, though.”
His face might be comfortable, but sweat soaked Raulin’s tunic by mid-morning. The day grew hotter and the forest began to thin, exposing the four for chunks of time in the blazing sun. He prayed for a thick copse of trees or a nice, fat gathering of clouds to block out the sun for just a few minutes. Still, Raulin managed to keep up with the other three, even take the lead at several points.
Just before lunch they came upon a small village. Raulin made a show of greeting people on the street and quickly perused the goods in the general store, grateful to both get out of the sun and help their cause . The wary owner made small conversation with him, which led to Raulin weaving in their itinerary while he bought some soft cheese and bread. He was very loud and clear.
“Was that wise?” Anladet asked him as they passed the village’s mill. “I understand leaving them a trail, but we will have to shake them at some point.”
“My plan is to confuse them into thinking we did shake them. We just need to stay ahead of them enough to tease them, give them the hope of victory. And I also did tell the shopkeeper we were on the road to Ashven.”
“We’re not? But this is the Sharkan-Ashven merchant trail.”
“That is true. However, if my memory serves me correctly, there is an intersection about fifty or sixty miles north of here that banks right towards Iascond. Hopefully we will have lost our tail by then and the three of us can part ways. If not, they will be more likely to go the way they think they caught us admitting to.”
“How many times have you had to escape like this?” she asked.
He clicked his tongue and thought. “Quite a few, over a dozen, I believe. While I can say with confidence I’m a prolific trirec, I’m not necessarily a methodical one. But, that means I’m very practiced in escapes and losing my scent. There’s nothing you need to be worried about.”
“If you say so. I will defer to your expertise.”
They stopped for lunch, eating the cheese and bread, and some fruit and nuts purchased in Ammet Bronsto. Raulin kept his eye on each member of the group, wondering if it wouldn’t be prudent to think they might be plotting something against him. Anladet was a crafty woman, but she hadn’t used her magic against him nor had she really asked for any really destructive information that she could use. The wizard seemed quiet, but Raulin suspected it was more embarrassment than anything else. It would be good to clarify things in the not-so-distant future. And Telbarisk…well, if he were plotting something against Raulin, then he may as well consider land wet and water dry. It was unlikely, but it was never a bad idea to keep that thought in mind.
The afternoon sun was beginning to touch the tops of the trees stunted by salty winds when the forest opened up into a large meadow. The river that had been to the path’s right narrowed and crossed left about halfway between where the quartet stood and the treeline about an eighth of a mile away. It was easily forded and would be a nice, cool respite on their tired feet.
The meadow made Raulin nervous. It was too open, should the group catch up to them. He trusted Tel to tell him if there was anything wrong and would continue to do so, though he still scanned the area for anything that could cause them issues. He saw no structures where people could be lying in wait or vantage points for archers, save some things close to the border on the right of the meadow.
“Wizard,” he said, beckoning him forward, “what’s that over there?”
Al squinted and put his left hand up to block the sun. “They’re…damn. What are those things called?”
“Just describe them, then.”
“Tall stone mounds.”
Raulin clicked his tongue. “Karsts?”
“Tel? Is there anyone in the clearing, especially near the karsts?”
He shook his head. “There are some people on the trail ahead, but they are some distance ahead of us.”
A plan formed in Raulin’s mind, a bolt of lightening followed by the details in the roll of thunder. “Yes,” he said, pumping his arm. “I love it.”
“What?” Al asked.
“Okay,” Raulin said as he started to jog, “we need to get this done fast. We only have until the group catches up and we’ll need every second. Keep your shoes on; sorry they will get wet for this.”
The four crossed the river and followed Raulin on the grass to the rocky portion of the clearing. “Telbarisk, I need you to carve likenesses of yourself, Anladet, and Wizard into the stones at about the height each would stand. You don’t have to carve out the whole rock, but it would be more believable if you could.”
Anladet purred. “The ‘if a man sees a trirec with his mask off, he turns to stone’ fable. I like it. Can Telbarisk do that?”
“Not only can he carve the rock, being a kiluid, but he’s quite an artist. He’s good with sculpting and drawing, too. He made a drawing of me that I kept…well, until I was shipwrecked.”
Telbarisk looked at Raulin wide-eyed and with a small smile touching his lips. “All these years? I didn’t think it was that good.”
“It was amazing, Tel. I think you should sketch things for the manual you’re writing on Gheny.”
“That is a wonderful idea. I appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome. All right, jobs. We’re going to be vulnerable while we do this. Anladet, I know it’s difficult for you to hear our pursuers in this circumstance, but Tel will be busy with his art. I need you let me know well before the group makes it into the wide-open space. If your concentration isn’t compromised, I’d also like you to find wide, flat rocks. Wizard, I will help you make taking the detour irresistible to those following us.”
They walked back to the trail and began making obvious signs of their departure: footprints in the muddy ground, bent grass, puddles on the other side to simulate dripping. Al even found another piece of bread from dinner in the jail that he tossed on the ground before grinning at Raulin, who sighed heavily.
Raulin used the time they were working to put his mind at ease. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘the cheating lover is forever jealous’, Wizard?”
“No. What does it mean?”
“It means that often the person who continues to bring up potential problems is guilty of them first. You keep thinking I’m untrustworthy, that I’m going to tie you up and leave you for the hunters. Are you going to do the same? Do I have to worry about back-door deals?”
“No! I wouldn’t do that. Nor could I.”
“Of course you could. Just as you’ve pointed out that I could somehow dupe you three into some trap and leave you for the men following us, you could do it as well. In fact, you’d be the more likely culprit. You among us could then outrun the pursuers, having the skills as a hard wizard. In fact, I’m unsure why you haven’t yet, deceit or not.”
“Because I can’t!” Al blurted. “I cannot be more than a mile away from the group.” He sighed, his shoulders sagging. “We’ve been trying to think of the best time to tell you, but I may as well say it now. The chalice you drank from in the jail cell was a deitic artifact. It’s Mikros’s chalice and it means that you are bound to proximity to the rest of us.”
Raulin watched him for a moment. “Wizard, I promised I wouldn’t leave until everyone is cleared from being hunted. You don’t need to make things up in order to keep me around.”
“I’m not making it up! Okay, were you ill when you went to your hotel room in Carvek?”
“Yes, I was.”
“That’s what the chalice does. It makes you ill if you go outside of the one mile mark from the rest of us.”
“I was ill because I was still recovering from a concussion.”
“No, you were ill because we reached the boundaries. That’s why we were waiting in the alleys instead of at the gate.”
“I thought you were…” Just then, Anladet gave a shrill whistle and waved. They hurried over.
“They are getting close. Good news, however, is that they seem a little spooked and keep talking about the ritual site.”
“Excellent! See, well done, Wizard.” Raulin took a few steps to the stones and took in a soft breath. “Oh, Telbarisk, they’re wonderful.”
The likenesses were uncanny. They weren’t perfection, but with what little time he’d had, Tel had created three replicas that could fool any man into believing they had once been human. Without prompting, he had given each a look of astonishment across their faces, as if they had just seen something ghastly. Their hands were raised in front of them, to protect them from the unseen horror that had assaulted their senses and turned these poor wretches to stone. Only those two areas were visible, making it seem like they were caught halfway between the states of living and statue.
“If we need to leave now,” Tel said, wiping the sweat from his brow, “I won’t be able to remove the rest of the stone.”
“That’s fine, Tel. More than fine. I think we have a good thing going here.”
“Do I really look like that?” Al asked, touching his nose.
“Yes, exactly like that. Now, what we need to do, and quickly, is to smooth all the footprints up to about here,” he said, toeing the area where the dirt opened up for the karsts. “Back out to the edge so that you wind up on the grass.”
“You’re making us disappear,” Anladet said.
“Almost. I’m changing the clues to change our story.” He waited until the three of them were on the grass before continuing. “Now, each of you come here with your rocks and match up to where your statue is. Then, walk in front of it.”
Raulin followed but stood in the center of the clearing. “Turn around and stand right in front of it, then stamp a few times. Get your footprints nice and deep. Then, step out to the grass if you can. Use your rocks if you need some extra distance.”
Once the three were on grass patches, he sighed. “Beautiful. I’m going to walk back to the path. You three follow the grass you took to get here. After that, use the river for as long as you can, then step only on the grass, leaves, or rocks. Try not to brush against or touch anything. Hide if anyone approaches us. You are not to walk on the path for any reason until I say otherwise.
“We are now on the lookout for our last item: a very large rock formation, like the one we used for the ritual. Tel, gather all the kil you can for this last task.”
“What’s the last task?” Al asked.
“Now it’s my turn to disappear, Wizard.”