Shield. Blackbow. Old bow. Sword. Dagger. One hundred and seven arrows, five enchanted, in a quiver. Spare clothes: shirt, jacket, trousers, underclothes, shoes. Pan, cutlery, cloth, waterskin (full). Bedroll. Two torches. Eleven days of nuts and dried berries. One potion of healing.

Cathaoir lifted the pack that contained most of those possessions and donned it gently. Quietly.

For the third time, the man in the mask found himself abandoning a group of traveling companions in the dead of night, collecting the gear that was his and leaving that which might otherwise be missed. For the third time, he pulled the buckles on his armor tight in perfect silence, checking the fit without rattling any of the metal joints. For the third time, he picked a route out of camp free of tripping hazards and unlikely to leave tracks: a rocky protrusion that would take him south to lower, harder-packed desert sands as he made his way to the dunes to the east.

Same as the two times before, Cathaoir conducted this ritual out of necessity. But this time he resented every step.

Allister, Joanna, Amanodel, and Dóin were Cathaoir’s dearest companions. They shared a purpose, something Cathaoir could say of no other man or woman in this world, save perhaps Chase. They were to restore the barriers between the planes, between the world of the material, which was human, animal, wild, familiar, thrilling; and the shadowfell, which was capricious, wicked, hateful. Doing this would drive back the fey of the Shadow Court, the sadistic monsters who sought to upend the natural way of things, to turn the world into a blackened pit. Facing these fey together, as comrades-in-arms, had given Cathaoir an appreciation for not just the abilities of the assorted adventurers, but also their spirits. The quirks of their personalities and the cut of their humor. The strength of their arms and minds but also the strength of their courage.

But a trap had been laid for Cathaoir, and there was only one way out of it.

Keeva’s appearence had been sudden, to say the least. She should have been in Taemordan. As Cathaoir had feebly explained to Joanna just a few hours ago, Keeva was merely a Keeper of the Peace there. It was not her job to be hounding her elder brother out in the arid wastes to the west, and it was most certainly not in her purview to employ the magic of the fey in pursuit. But here she was, come to tell Cathaoir that his soul had been promised on his behalf, that the shadow-bound hunters would stalk him in ever-tightening circles until they at last grasped him and dragged him off to whatever hell they had come from.

Cathaoir had determined that it would be better to depart and meet this mysterious threat alone. It would be better for himself to have a chance of influencing the time and place of the encounter. It would be better for the Oakheart Adventurers that they be free of a constant threat of ambush and that they continue their journey west without delay.

And so he strode off into the desert, cursing the day he had forced Keeva to choose between her soul and his life, hoping that he might make things whole and, someday, return to his comrades.