The sun was warm and bright, perhaps even blinding. Through the emerald canopy, there was an almost tranquil and mystic glow that emitted from the yellow globe in the sky. However, when trying to shed through the green roof of the menacing forest, it wasn’t that useful for providing sufficient light, nor hope. Callista, with the two mages on her back, was trotting down the dirt path, which was bordered by the dark, green barricade of trees. Worry was as plain as daylight in her eyes, as well as in every step she took. It was beginning to spread to her riders, too.
Her hooves stopped treading on the old, callous soil, causing Tristessa and Tanya to give the horse a look of concern and inquiry. Did she sense danger? What was the delay?
"What is it, Callista?" the fiery-haired mage asked. The animal answered with a small shake of her ivory head, then followed by a soft snort. She was irritated by something they had yet to see. After Tristessa gave her a comforting pat on her mane, again, the stallion moved forward, her steps a touch slower than before. Tanya was soundless behind her companion, simply staring ahead around the other witch’s arm in order to detect anything peculiar.
"There," she gasped softly, and though the sound was quiet and barely heard above Callista’s trotting, it caused both her and Tristessa to jerk in surprise. Tanya pointed a finger out to the distance. There was a clearing in the woods, and beyond it, a series of low hills, prairies, and a small pond. It was a fair few yards away, but still within sight. "The Blue Plains."
"Why do they call them The Blue Plains when they’re not even blue?" Tristessa asked, coaxing a soft chuckle from Tanya.
"I can only propose that it’s because it never rains here. The skies are always blue."
They continued forward, Callista appearing a little less reluctant than earlier, apparently motivated by the hopeful opening of light that waited for them. A howl sounding in the distance caused her to freeze and panic again. Perhaps it was just a wolf, but with one vicious canine came more of them. Such creatures were known to travel in packs.
"Go, Callista!" Tristessa suddenly shouted, her green eyes darting over her left shoulder in panic. She saw a shape beyond the countless, leaning columns, then another one standing close by that was identical. Quickly, before she could get a good look at the beasts that were stalking them, they were off, the air smacking her in the face with a chilly, painful force, momentarily mistaken for the twigs that branched from the barren trees. Suddenly, there was a squeal from the white steed, and Tanya lost hold, slipping down the behind and into the forest’s dirt.
"Damnit!" Tristessa hissed, yanking on the harness’s rope in hopes to steady Callista. And then she realized why the horse had reacted the way she had.
They were surrounded. Three more figures on four legs appeared before them, and the first two were a lot closer, ready to attack from behind. They resembled wolves, although everything about them was bigger. They were primarily black, short-haired on the body while the fur on their tails displayed much more in extension. They glared, hunger flickering in the crimson depths of their eyes. Their claws and fangs were also quite prominent, threatening to dig the deepest incisions into their flesh. Tristessa wouldn’t have been surprised if they even caused infection. They were all still and waiting around them, one of them hungrily licking its jaws as it spotted vulnerable Tanya on the ground.
Suddenly, one launched itself toward her, but as she defensively threw out her arm to cover her face, a wall of vines sprouted from the ground to throw back the monstrous wolf. It was enough to alarm the beasts, and as Tristessa pulled her back up onto the horse, they were taking flight at full speed toward the clearing.
Once again, however, the path was choked, and another diabolical canine stood between the group and their means of escape. Callista was forced to turn around and take another route. In moments, they were getting further and further away from the light. At the revelation, Tristessa cursed under her breath.
Soon after the wolves were out of sight, Callista came to a steady halt.
"Is there another way out?"
"I… I don’t know…" Tanya answered.
Callista shifted uncomfortably, huffing and puffing beneath them before releasing another snort. She was trying to detect the savage dogs again.
"What were they?"
"Stygian hounds," came the matter-of-fact reply. "Somewhat like hellhounds, but much larger." She looked to the direction they came from. There were no howls - no signs of the Stygian hounds coming for them. But now, they were lost - a fate not much better than the one they just managed to crawl out of. Both of the girls looked from left to right, but even though Tanya knew the adjacent areas of Payal rather well, she was equally as dumbfounded. The intimidation of the forest certainly didn’t help matters.
Tristessa looked over at her friend, curiosity lighting up her eyes. “What was that, anyway?” she asked.
"Those things that shot up from the ground… Were they vines?"
Tanya seemed to understand, according to the look on her face, but she couldn’t seem to answer the question. “I guess they were,” she said. “Where did they come from?”
Tristessa looked around at the trees that towered over them. Was it possible that perhaps the forest was trying to aid them? Maybe even Strider Forest wanted to see them vanquish the Prince of Darkness. Silly as it sounded, with some of the things in the world, it wasn’t impossible for a place to have instincts.
"We’d best keep moving," she proposed after a moment’s silence. "The hounds will find us if we don’t." Which direction to take was another question altogether, as Callista’s frenzy had taken them well off-course from the beaten path.
"Tristessa," Tanya then murmured from behind her. In her peripheral vision, she saw a finger stretch out towards the trees of the forest, darkening and seeming ever taller. "Sundown is only a couple of hours away. What will we do if we don’t make it out in time?"
The redhead could only imagine that the numbers of the Stygian hounds would only grow when dusk settled, but she didn’t want her fear to get the best of them. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” she insisted, “but I’m sure we’ll be fine.” In truth, she was far from certain, and perhaps giving Tanya false hopes wasn’t the right thing to do. All they could do was continue on, and hope, even if not fully genuine, was all they had to rely on.