The Mountain’s Maw – Part 2: Strange Bedfellows

It was early morning and the only sound that rung through the crisp, cold air was the crunching of snow beneath Ortan’s boots. He had been blessed with sunshine and a break in the wind and was glad for both. With his belly still warm from the ample breakfast the kind people at the Waylight had provided for him, he had set off just as the sun began to rise. He was overjoyed that it was bringing a larger share of its warmth than it had the past few days.

It had been about a week since he had left Marecade in search of his sister, and aside from the brief respite of his stay at the Waylight, it had been an arduous journey. Traveling the Kragen mountain path in winter was not a journey many attempted, and one that even fewer survived. But when Ortan had awoken to find his sister gone, he found himself with little choice but to go after her.

After their father had passed a few months ago, they had made the journey to Marecade to see him interred. After that, they had arranged the sale of their small family farm to some ambitious farmers. The sale of the land was surprisingly easy. The men who purchased it had the resources to harvest the fields, and benefit from reaping what they had not had to sow. Since then, Ortan and his sister Jesali had spent their time in a hostel in Marecade, making money off odd jobs and trying to decide what to do next.

They were now the only family each other had left, and so when Jesali disappeared without warning one morning, Ortan had set out immediately to find her. He had spoken to a town watchman who said he had seen a woman matching Jesali’s description leaving the city gates on the north road late the previous night. Armed with a general direction, Ortan had then visited one of the city’s diviners. He’d spent a small fortune on having a strip of cloth from one of Jesali’s left behind garments enchanted to help point the way to her.

Ortan held up his hand and concentrated, that same small strip of cloth wrapped around his palm and tied. He focused on his breath for a moment and then, as the diviner had instructed, reached out with his mind through the cloth, trying to feel where Jesali was. He could feel a small still hum, like an echo of an echo, calling him north further into the mountains.

Ortan fought not to dwell on the worry he felt for his sister and keep his mind focused solely on finding her. He had almost given himself over to complete despair a few days earlier but had found solace in recalling his mother’s prayers to Pelor.

“Our barns are full to bursting with the provision of your hands,” he recited quietly as he trekked, “You feed the deer and sparrow, your bounty sustains through biting frost and famine.”

The sun felt warm on Ortan’s face and it felt like a grace from the gods themselves. The surrounding forested landscape was numb and still; winter had laid its claim like an occupying army, and it held its ground furiously.

“Though mice may steal our grain, this too is Pelor’s care, for the mice require grain to live just as we. What Pelor has bestowed once, he can, again and again, so do not hold tightly to anything.”

A snapping of deadfall broke Ortan from his reverie. He stopped and listened for a moment, then slowly readied the bow from off his back. He nocked an arrow and held the bow low, but not drawn, as he slowly crept forward towards the source of the sound.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of movement and he saw what had made the noise. A rabbit, nose aloft and twitching, moved cautiously through the snowy wood in search of food. It was fat with its winter weight and the site of it set Ortan’s stomach to growling.

Time almost seemed to slow as Ortan lifted and drew his bow, training it on the small woodland creature. He took a slow quiet breath and held it as he took aim, and unleashed the pent up energy of the bow, hurling the arrow true towards his quarry.

In a matter of seconds, it was all over; the arrow had found its mark. The rabbit dropped before it even knew it was in peril; its little life ended swiftly. Ortan thanked Pelor for fresh food and trudged up to collect his kill. He removed the arrow and placed it back in his quiver seeing that it had not been compromised, and tied a small bit of rope around the still warm rabbit to hang it from his pack. Knowing the frigid air would keep his kill fresh so he could dress it later when he stopped for the night, Ortan kept moving.

The next few hours were more of the same snowy thicket. Had it not been for the charm wrapped around Ortan’s palm giving him bearings, he could have easily ended up lost in the homogenous landscape. As the day wore on, the weather that had started out almost pleasant for the region began to grow more inhospitable. As he neared the mountains the trees began to thin and the ground went from soft snow drifts that hid dead plant matter, to snow-covered hard earth penetrated here and there by rocky outcroppings.

Soon, the sun began to tease the western skyline, and the clear sky erupted in vibrant pinks, oranges, and reds. Small wispy clouds intermittently banded the sky. Ortan was breathing heavy as the ground around him grew more and more steep as he passed the timberline; the forest around him giving way to sparse tundra.

His stomach, which he had momentarily been able to ignore, began to growl ferociously again. He was suddenly very aware of the small amount of extra weight on his pack; the rabbit swinging to and fro with each footfall. Ortan was torn; finding Jesali was the most important thing to him right now, but stopping to find shelter for the night and to eat something would ultimately help him reach that goal. He would be no good to her dead; he just hoped he wasn’t wasting precious time.

It didn’t take Ortan long to find a cave large enough to make camp for the night. He inspected the mouth of the cave carefully for signs of recent habitation. Both the snow and nearby brush all looked undisturbed. He cautiously began to creep inside. There were many large beasts in the mountains that could make a cave like this home, and Ortan did not want to run into any of them.

The interior of the cave was not very deep. It was deep enough to provide plenty of shelter for the night, but not so deep that he had to worry about something lurking further within the cave. After a few minutes of searching, he was satisfied that it was vacant, at least for the time being. He had not stumbled into an active lair or den, and he thanked Pelor for that as well.

After a few minutes of gathering up the driest wood he could find, he started a small cooking fire within the cave. With the rock walls to shield him from the wind, and trap some of the fire’s warmth, he soon felt comfortable enough to remove a few layers of his snow-soaked clothing.

He hung his garments near the fire to help them dry and then began to prepare his meal. Taking a small knife from his waist, he made a small cut across the rabbit’s throat with practiced skill and drained it of blood. Then he skinned it and rigged up a spit over the fire for it to cook.

Soon the smell of the roasting creature permeated the small cave. Ortan was practically drooling in anticipation; the smell of the meat promising a warm and savory meal. Aside from his meals at the Waylight, it had been hardtack and jerky for most of the past week. Ortan’s patience began to wear thin and he wished with all his might that the little beast would cook faster.

Before he could enjoy his meal however, a low growling sound joined in the chorus of the crackling fire. Ortan felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Near the mouth of the cave, Ortan could see two eyes reflecting back at him in the firelight. The smell of his meal had attracted a guest.

Ortan got to his feet slowly, hoping not to provoke an attack. He unsheathed his sword and held it at the ready. The creature advanced, teeth bared, maintaining its low growl. As it came forward further into the firelight Ortan could see that it was a wolf.

It was on the leaner side as far as wolves go, but still a large and powerful creature. That actually put Ortan a little more on edge. Creatures fat from ample food supplies will often leave travelers well enough alone. It’s when beasts get hungry that they are all the more dangerous.

The wolf continued its slow advance, hunger in its eyes. Its fur was mostly grey dappled with white and was matted with what looked to be dried blood. Ortan could not tell if it was that of a recent kill or the creature’s own blood that decorated its coat.

Without taking his eyes off the slowly advancing beast, he did his best to check his peripherals for the rest of the pack. He didn’t see any other signs of movement and could hear no more snarling than that of the wolf ahead of him. It seemed to be alone.

It was now about half way between the mouth of the cave and his cooking fire. It sniffed the air and licked its chops but slowed, seemingly hesitant to approach. It eyed him cautiously. Ortan could not tell if it had stopped because of him or maybe the fire, but he was glad to have a moment without it bearing down on him.

The creature began to pace back and forth along the width of the cave, keeping the same distance from Ortan. He was able to get a better look at it now. The red-orange glow of the firelight shown in its eyes and its cold wet nose. It was favoring one of its legs. Every other step its front left paw would just barely touch the ground before it hopped on to its other legs.

Ortan lowered his sword and inched almost imperceptibly forward. The wolf eyed him intensely. Then he raised his hand towards the now cooked rabbit to retrieve it from the spit. At this, the wolf growled and snapped at the air in his direction, its fur prickling up to make itself appear bigger.

“Woah, easy now,” Ortan said, hand still outstretched. The wolf continued to growl but did not advance. Slowly, calmly, Ortan removed the rabbit from the heat. He grabbed his water skin and poured some water over the meat to try and cool it faster, and ripped off a chunk and tossed it in the wolf’s direction.

It hit the ground and skittered until it came to rest about a foot in front of the wolf. The injured beast recoiled slightly at first. It moved closer to investigate, sniffing at the offering and then greedily snatched it up with its sharp teeth.

“This too is Pelor’s care,” Ortan whispered, “So don’t hold tightly to anything.”

Ortan tossed another piece and this time the wolf did not recoil. It seemed to relax, fur no longer bristling. Ortan took a bit for himself and then another to the wolf. They continued on like this, sharing Ortan’s kill amidst their silent armistice.

Eventually, the wolf laid on its belly in the dust of the cave floor and ate happily. It kept its eyes firmly on Ortan though, giving him a guarded look. Ortan sat as well, lowering himself to the ground right where he stood. All that stood between them was the crackling fire and a tense peace and understanding that this was about the food. And so Ortan and his uninvited guest both ate in the warmth and shelter of that little cave.

After Ortan had picked clean what he could from the rabbit, he tossed the bones and anything else that remained over to the wolf and then sat back.

“What happened to you friend?” He said. The wolf just continued to gnaw on the carcass, but its ear twitched at the sound of Ortan’s voice.
“How’d you get all bloody? Did your pack leave you to die out here?”

The wolf said nothing, as expected, but Ortan found some small bit of comfort in having something else to talk to.

When the wolf had its fill of the rabbit, it let out a contented yawn; its tongue curling up in between its gleaming fangs. It stood and walked in a small circle and then curled up near the fire’s warmth, resting its jaw on the floor, still watching Ortan.

“You can stay here in the warmth tonight, friend, if you promise to leave me be.”
When Ortan spoke, one if the wolf’s ears perked up and its eyes scanned him quizzically. Seemingly content with a meal and a warm place to sleep, it closed its eyes. Before long it was asleep, there by Ortan’s fire.

Ortan rummaged into his bag for something to give him some peace of mind while he slept. He fished a small smooth stone from his pack. On its surface was carved an intricate rune. He had acquired the stone on one of his mercenary jobs a few months back while he and Jesali were working in Marecade.

It was a warding stone. It allowed him to create a small magical barrier around himself while he slept. It wasn’t a particularly powerful enchantment, but it would be enough to deter the injured wolf if it decided he looked too appetizing in the middle of the night. Should the wolf try to move on him and trigger the barrier, it would most likely be stunned pretty well. Should something worse come along, it would give Ortan warning and a chance to defend himself at the very least.

He placed the stone in his palm, closing his fist tightly around it and closed his eyes. This type of magic was new to him, but the diviners of Marecade had said that the items they sold did most of the work. He envisioned a sphere around himself, just as they had instructed, and then he threw it forcefully down into the dirt at his feet. A pale blue sphere erupted from it, surrounding Ortan for a moment. It was wide enough for him the lay down in. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, it vanished.

“Ok, they said it would do that,” He said under his breath to himself. He bent down and placed a finger on the warding stone and felt it was slightly warm. The diviners had said that as long as the stone emitted a slight warmth, the ward had succeeded. Satisfied that the ward was in place, he settled in to get some rest.

The minute he laid on the ground his utter exhaustion hit him like a stampede. It was like his constant activity had been holding it at bay and the very moment he allowed himself to relax the dam failed and the wave of his fatigue enveloped him. The past week of travel had taken a lot out of him, and his legs ached from the incline of the day’s hike. He welcomed sleep wholly and unabashedly and it came in mere minutes. He slept like the dead.

Upon waking the next morning, his feral camp-mate was nowhere to be seen. His ward had remained intact and there were no signs that the beast had made any advances against him in the night. It appeared to have risen before the sun and left him in peace. He retrieved the stone from its place in the dirt, and he could feel it rapidly cool as he picked it up out of the earth. He returned it to his pack as he gathered up the rest of his things.

The fire had burned down until it just small glowing embers. Thankfully the cave had retained enough residual heat that Ortan was only slightly uncomfortable as he donned his now dry, but considerably smoke-scented wardrobe. He stirred the dying embers with a stick to expedite their cooling; kicking dust from the cave floor atop the coals for good measure.

Upon exiting the cave, he had to hold up his hand to shield his eyes. The sun shone vividly off of the snow and threatened to blind him. He gave his eyes a minute to adjust and then set about orienting himself. He once again concentrated on the charm on his palm and felt the now familiar pull as it beckoned him still in the direction of the mountains.

Unlike before, the sensation seemed somehow fuzzier this morning. The pull he felt was somehow not as sure as it had been previously. Ortan did not understand much beyond the basic workings of the charm that was explained to him upon his purchase, and he hoped that this wasn’t a bad sign. He also noticed that, contrary to his expectations, the pull seemed somehow lower than he expected, a lot lower; like his destination lay not at the peak of the mountain but deep in the earth, below the mountain itself.

He hoped that as he drew nearer the sensation might clarify and he set out once again to continue his search for his sister. The snow crunched under his feet as he walked, and the familiar rhythm prompted him to resume his recitations.

“Our barns are full to bursting with the provision of your hands. You feed the deer and sparrow, your bounty sustains through biting frost and famine.”

He trudged on, determined to find Jesali. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing his last remaining family in this world. And as he continued to make his way up the mountain, a pair of canine eyes watched him from the shadows.

Permanent Objects

We spend eight hours a night, on average, practicing for death.
Letting go of the consciousness we fight so hard for in the end.
We slip into the unknown, night after night, with no promise of waking.
Am I not the only one who thinks that should be terrifying?

Have we developed such overwhelming object permanence that we believe not only that everything will still be there when we open our eyes in the morning,
but that we are, ourselves, permanent objects?

We wear the evidence of our impermanence on our faces, first in laugh lines and freckles, then in wrinkles and liver spots. We slowly gain experience and wisdom and lose days…

But I digress, of course the typical mind would not dwell on these questions,
lest it be robbed of the very desire to continue chasing continuity.
We crave infinity. We cannot grasp immortality, but we all run towards it.
Some have resolved themselves to the reality that it is not truly attainable,
but most are still quietly dowsing, at least internally, for the fountain of youth.

That practice of divination points us instead towards other more immediate pleasures, and as the drink and the lust make us forget, they draw us nearer still to that which we are running from.

So what are we to conclude? I am no sage or guru, but I will tell you this:

I think an awareness of the end is important for the journey. Knowing something is temporary allows us to pay attention while it is present.

So keep a hand on the wheel, watch the stars at night, gauge the wind, and keep the figurehead pointed toward the mark, lest you wind up adrift and find you are no longer practicing.

The Moutain’s Maw – Part 1: Waylight’s Warmth

In the Waylight Lodge the hearth was always warm. It was an old snow covered log building that sat as a last bastion of peace on the harsh road north to the Great Kragen Mountains. Just outside the village of Frosthollow, the Waylight gave weary travelers one final chance for respite before braving the treacherous range. The thick wood surrounding the lodge provided plenty of trees for firewood; evergreen branches all bent low with winter’s weight.

Though surrounded by frigid winter snowdrifts, the small lodge glowed with warmth; smoke billowing out of the stone chimney, chugging into the dark night sky. The true warmth in the lodge came not from the fireplace but from the stories that always filled the air, wafting as woodsmoke and filling the inn with a familial radiance. While the world outside was oppressive with cold, the countryside clutched tightly in winter’s cruel grip, Gemman Krast regaled his grandson with smoldering tales of awe and wonder.

“The world is old… “, Gemman said as the fire crackled, “older than you can imagine, young one.”

“Older than you grandpa?”

Leko, a young boy of about eight with sandy blonde hair, stared in wide-eyed amazement as he listened to his grandfather’s tale. Story time was the time that he cherished most, and it came often in their little lodge. If grandpa wasn’t spinning a yarn, then Leko was usually adept at drawing a story out from one of the lodgers availing themselves of one of their rooms for rent; though that happened more in the summer months. They hardly saw anyone foolhardy enough to travel the Kragens in the dead of winter.

Gemman chuckled. “Yes Leko, far older than me. Older than my grandpa, or his grandpa before him, or even his grandpa’s grandpa…

Back before there were any humans -or elves or dwarves for that matter- there were the Children of Ima. Back when the world was still young, with no continents or kingdoms dividing the land, the children of Ima played all over the wild and formless realm…”

“Ima?” the boy asked, blinking in that innocently forgetful sort of way that children do when an oft repeated story, or loving correction, hasn’t been retained.

“Child, you know Ima…” Grandpa said in a tone filled with love, but acutely aware that this was a repeated lesson. He gestured towards a small stone statuette sitting on its own table near the window. The idol was about two feet high and resembled a young woman in long flowing robes. Her face was smooth; indistinct, like the artisan who carved her dare not venture a guess at what a goddess might look like. She was surrounded by dried flowers and candles, and a small currently empty bowl sat on the table in front of her.

The child nodded in recognition. Gemman continued his story, “The Children of Ima were mighty warriors… The twin brothers, Chos and Krage, formed the mountains as they wrestled each other. Ugota thought the landscape too plain, so she planted the great forests. Aesitra had her heart broken, and her tears formed the very oceans…”

“Who broke her heart?” Leko interrupted, giving his grandfather a concerned look.
Gemman paused. “Eventually, Ima had more children, and we humans came to live in the land… It was a human man who broke Aesitra’s heart.”

“A human made a goddess cry?”
“Yes boy.”
“Why did he do that?”
Gemman stared wistfully off into the distance. “Sometimes it can’t be helped, boy. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love, even when you don’t want to.”

Leko sat nodding his head for a minute, mimicking understanding. Of course, being eight years old, he had not yet lived enough life to quite grasp the true meaning of his grandfather’s words, but that answer seemed to satisfy him for the moment, though it sparked new and unexpected questions in the boy.

“Was it you grandpa? Did you make her cry?”
At this, Gemman’s eyes went wide, his bushy eyebrows lifting themselves so high on his forehead they threatened to take flight, and he let out a bellowing laugh.
“No, no child. I have done a great many things in my eighty-odd years, but court a goddess twasn’t one of them!” He tousled the boy’s hair, “Besides, your grandmother’s the only woman for me- though I dare say, she’s as beautiful as any goddess ever was!”

Gemman’s boisterous comment elicited a disembodied laugh from the other room that mingled its own sweetness into the warm atmosphere of the room. Grandma had been listening from the kitchen where she was busy making soup and fresh bread, the scent of which also spread itself amply about the lodge.

Gemman winked at his grandson, his leathery face crinkling with lines made by years of similar warm stories and laughter. Leko giggled.

“Boys, dinner’s ready!” Grandma called from the kitchen. Leko leapt to his feet and rushed into the kitchen, eager to fill his belly with warm broth on this cold night. Gemman followed, but slowly, using his cane to pull himself up from his comfortable chair in front of the fire. On his way into the kitchen, he stopped for a moment next to the shrine of Ima.

He grabbed a coal from the fireplace with a pair of metal tongs and placed it in the bowl in front of the statuette. Then, from a small box next to the table he took a handful of incense and sprinkled it over the coal. Small, fragrant wisps of smoke began to dance upward, circling in invisible eddies and hanging in the cabin’s mostly still air. He lingered for a moment, eyes closed and head slightly bowed in reverence. Then, in a motion as familiar as breathing, he kissed his fingers and touched them to the smooth face of the statue before heading the rest of the way into the kitchen for supper.

Not two minutes after they had sat down for their meal, there came a loud knocking at their door.
“Now who could that be in weather like this?” Gemman said. Grandma began to rise to get the door, but Gemman quickly interjected.
“Sit Wissa! Eat. You’ve been working hard. Sit and relax, I’ll get the door.” He used the arm of his chair and his cane to pull himself to his feet and made his way to the door, Leko trailing close behind, excited about their visitor.

Another knock sounded on the heavy wood door, and Gemman called out. “Coming! Saint Lucian’s Flame, I’m coming!” Reaching the door, he undid the thick iron latch and slowly pulled the door open just enough to see out.

The wind howled, buffeting the cracked door with the ferocity of a pack of wild dogs, snow and draft invading the room through the small opening. Gemman squinted against the brisk onslaught. After his eyes adjusted, he could see a young man standing outside, bundled in many layers of thick animal hide, with the look that he had been traveling. He had dark hair and a bit of stubble which had ensnared a great deal of wayward snowflakes like flies in a spider’s web.

“Good ev’nin'” the young man said, “Am I to understand you’ve got rooms?” He couldn’t have been much older than thirty, Gemman surmised, but he had a weary look to him that suggested he’d lived a great deal of life in those thirty years. Hard living aside, there was a pleasantness to him that came across even in that short meeting, which put Gemman at ease.
“Aye,” the older man said, “Here, come in out of the cold.” He pushed the door open further to let the man in and then quickly shut it behind him to keep as much of the cold’s incursion at bay as he could.

Now that he was inside and lit by the firelight, they could see that the man was covered in small cuts. None of them fresh, he wasn’t bleeding, but they did not have the look of old scars either.
“Thank you kindly,” he said as he began to remove his large leather boots. They were soaked to the bone, and he soon removed his wool socks as well, massaging his feet with his hands to warm them.
“We just sat down to dinner. There’s warm soup and bread,” Wissa called from the kitchen.
“That would be lovely,” the stranger said, “It’s been a few days since I’ve had a warm meal.”
“I’m Gemman Krast, I run this lodge with my wife Wissa. And the little one there is our grandchild, Leko.”
The man stuck his hand out to Gemman for a shake. “Name’s Ortan. Ortan Wrensworn.”

“I’m Leko! Are you going to stay here? Where did you come from? Can I touch your beard? I’m eight! How old are you? Is that a real sword!?”
The boy buzzed with excitement, harrying their guest with a barrage of questions far too quickly for him to respond.
“Quiet Leko, let the poor man alone!” Wissa called from the kitchen, with a resolved tone that spoke of how common the boy let his excitement get the better of him.
“It’s alright,” Ortan said chuckling. He knelt down so that he could be eye-level with Leko. “Yes, it is a sword. The roads can be dangerous.”
“Can I see it!”
Ortan looked at Gemman, raising an eyebrow quizzically.
“Maybe after dinner Leko,” Gemman said. At this mention of dinner Leko suddenly remembered that he was hungry and went bounding off back to the kitchen.
“Ortan, you can sit by me!” He called excitedly as he went.

“Let me show you to your room so you can get into some dry clothes before dinner.”
Gemman led Ortan up the stairs to one of the extra rooms they had. It was small but had everything a traveler might need for a restful night of sleep. “I’ll leave you to it,” Gemman said, closing the door gently as he retreated back down the stairs to join the family at the dinner table. Ortan scanned the room and found a place to hang his clothes over the fireplace. He reached deep within the pack he had been carrying on his back and was able to find a tightly rolled wad of sleeping clothes that had managed to remain mostly dry. He quickly changed, even as his stomach began to rumble, and the hunger pangs he’d been successful at ignoring to this point could abide no longer. The smell of the soup permeated his room and made him almost trip over his pants as he tried to hurriedly put them on.

Once dressed, he made his way into the kitchen and took a seat at the table next to little Leko. The fact that the boy didn’t immediately start in on Ortan with his puerile inquisition told Ortan that the boy had probably had a bit of a talking-to while he was in the other room. It was actually Wissa who spoke first.

“We don’t get too many travelers by in the midwinter months. You’re either doing something very important, or you’re crazy, or very stupid. So, which is it?”

Gemman started to make a placating gesture but Ortan smiled. “Well, I’m not about to deny my stupidity… But actually I’m looking for my sister.”
“Your sister?” Leko piped up, not able to contain his curiosity. Wissa looked at the boy sternly but said nothing.

“She went missing a few months ago. I’ve been trying to track her down, heard rumor she may have come through the mountains not too long ago…”
“She ain’t been here, I’m afraid,” said Gemman, “We haven’t had a boarder or even a guest for the night since the big snow started falling. Probably at least a month now where it’s just been the three of us.”
“Well, I thank you for the warm place to sleep. I’ll continue my search in the morning.”

“Why did your sister go away?” Leko asked innocently.
“Leko, leave the man alone.” Wissa chided.
“No, it’s alright,” Ortan said. “I don’t know, little one.”
“Well, I hope you find her,” Leko said sweetly, “I don’t have a sister.”
“She’s the only one I have,” said Ortan. Leko stared into his soup bowl for a minute, not knowing what to say, finally he spoke.
“Grandpa! Can you finish your story?” Leko asked before turning aside to Ortan, “Grandpa’s stories always make me happy when I feel sad.”

“Well, alright,” Gemman said, “Now where was I?”
“The man who made the goddess cry!” Leko almost shouted with excitement.
“Aesitra,” Ortan said thoughtfully.
“Yes, Indeed,” Gemman said.
“She fell in love with a blacksmith’s boy,” Ortan began, “He would make her pretty things out of iron and steel.”
“You know your lore boy,” Gemman chuckled. Ortan might have corrected Gemman’s use of the word ‘boy’ had Gemman not been at least fifty years his senior.
“My father used to tell me that story,” Ortan said with a sad smile.

“But I thought love was a good thing? Why did that make her cry?” Leko asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“It didn’t at first,” Gemman replied, continuing where Ortan had left off, “The blacksmith’s boy returned her love, and they were happy together for a time. He made great statues and works of art in her honor, masterful pieces made from iron, bronze, and even gold. But in the end, he grew old, and his body failed him, while the goddess stayed the same as the day they had met. And then he was gone and all that remained of their love were the sculptures he had made. You see Leko, goddesses live much longer than men do.”

Leko seemed to consider that for a minute. “That’s a sad story Grandpa,” he concluded.
“Life is full of them, little one. In time you’ll learn that…”

“Alright Leko, It’s time for bed,” Wissa said, scooping the boy up into her arms. He only complained a little, and it was evident that the boy was tired, despite his petitions to remain awake with the others.

“Good night, Ortan!” He called from his Grandmother’s arms as she carried him up the stairs to his room, “Goodnight Grandpa!”
“Goodnight,” Ortan replied.
“Go on!” Gemman called, love in his voice, “Sleep tight little one!”

After Leko had made his exit, Gemman turned to Ortan. “So you’ll be after your sister in the morning then?”
“Aye,” Ortan replied, “Just after dawn’s light. I’d leave earlier if I could, but I’ll wait for the sun’s warmth to help me through.”
“Well, Wissa and I will be up early. We’ll make sure to send you on your way with a morning meal in your belly.”

“That’s very kind of you- How much do I owe you for the room and the meals?”
Gemman put his hand out in a polite refusal. “I’m sorry about your sister, consider your stay as our way of aiding in her safe return.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I insist you let me pay you.”
“If you really feel that strongly about it, then whatever you decide is fine. Wissa and I have everything we need, and not much life left to squirrel things away for. It’s all for Leko these days.”

Early the next morning, Gemman and Wissa prepared a meal while Leko slept, and then shared what they had with Ortan before he departed for the mountains. Their visitor was all Leko could talk about all through breakfast and most of the morning. He would get this way about a lot of the guests, but a man with a sword who had been nice to Leko- this encounter seemed to have particularly excited the young boy.

After breakfast, Wissa went to tidy up the room that Ortan had stayed in, only to find it spotless. The bed had been made and nothing seemed out of place, save for a small bag on the bed and bundle of cloth. She brought the items downstairs without opening them and called for Gemman.

They opened them together. The bag held five whole gold pieces, much more than they ever charged for a single night’s stay. Inside the cloth was a small silver dagger and leather scabbard. Gemman recognized the dagger to be of very good craftsmanship and was easily worth a hundred times what had been left in gold pieces. A small slip of parchment was tucked next to the dagger, it read, For Leko, the roads can be dangerous.

Malrinn’s Bargain: A Staring Contest With Shadow

Malrinn Tzull was an elf of singular purpose; fueled by one solitary desire that drove his ambitions. He did not desire the touch of a woman, or the love of a family. He did not desire hedonistic pursuits or wealth, excepting for one of the byproducts that wealth could grant… No, Malrinn had but one vice, and it harried him like an erinyes. Malrinn only cared for power.

It is often said that ‘one will seek voraciously what they have been previously denied.’ This could not be more true for Malrinn. He had spent a great deal of his long life without even the smallest semblance of power. Born last into a large family of mostly boys, he struggled. In addition to his station as youngest sibling, he was physically weaker than his brothers, and even a few of his sisters. Malrinn almost did not survive infancy, due to a heart defect, something extremely rare within the eleven race. Though he persisted to adolescence, his growth was stunted. He spent a good majority of his early life indoors, reading rather than learning to hunt or fight alongside his brothers.

His lack of bodily fortitude led to alienation by most of his peers, who preferred carousing and games of sport to bookish studies. Most days, he would become winded just carrying books up the stairs of the family home to his room where he hermited himself away, heart pounding in his chest as he’d dump his new selections beside his bed before collapsing onto it for a few minutes. This perpetual weakness made him bitter. And he vowed that one day he would be free of it, and prove to the world he was worthy to be a part of it and not a useless drain on resources.

He found the key to his pursuit among his constant stream of books. First with stories of magic and adventure, and then with more technical descriptions of the arcane arts. Eventually, he was able to attain books that could actually begin to teach him how to wield magic. They cost him all the money he had at the time, but the information was priceless to him. With a firm resolve, he began to study the arcane arts in secret, and over the years began to amass a portion of the power that he so desperately craved. He gained the ability to bolster his frail physique with magical strength, and he found that he no longer lost his breath simply moving about the house.

He grew in magical prowess and soon there was not much that his peers could do that he could not. As an adult, he had access to as much material wealth as he desired to conjure, and he lived a comfortable life because of it. Even still, he found himself unsatisfied. He wanted more from his life. So when he came upon a tome detailing the methods to contact dark beings, with power not of this world, he could not resist the temptation.

Malrinn’s face scrunched as he concentrated, dragging a piece of charcoal along the cold stone floor. It left a thick, black line in its wake, as he traced circular runes of ornate design on the surface of the stone. In his other hand, he held the tome, open to a page showing the runes he was now copying down. The book was old, ancient even; the pages dark and discolored with age, lit now by only flickering candlelight. The book’s spine was more of a suggestion now rather than any sort of substantial binding, and Malrinn had to keep the book carefully balanced to avoid spilling clumps of pages to the ground.

He finished his drawing and then took a small satchel from his side. Reaching in, he grabbed a copious handful of salt and began sprinkling it around the perimeter of the circle. Once he had completed the ring, he grabbed a bag of candles that had been lying just outside of the circle and began to place them at the intersections of the design, lighting them with another candle that had already been burning on the large wooden table off to the side of the room.

Slowly, methodically, he continued the ritual; as the dozen newly lit candles cast dancing shadows around the room. The dank cellar was lined with many large bookcases, which along with the table, were all piled high with books of every shape and size. The chamber was also littered with various odds and ends; a vial of liquid here, a dagger there, a small strong box, a variety of small and medium sized skulls which appeared to be animal in nature… Malrinn’s lair was his refuge, but it was also his hoard, a life collected in baubles and books.

Malrinn stood once again from his crouched position and surveyed his work. His eyes traced the designs on the floor, then in the book, and then back again. Satisfied, he carefully closed the tome, placing a black quill between the pages as he shut it to keep his place. He then set the book on the table, in an area that wasn’t part of the various piles. Reaching for a different book, he opened it to another marked set of pages and began to read from it.

The language was not his own and it had taken him a considerable amount of time to decipher and learn. But now, with practiced grace he began his recitation, softly at first. The longer he read, the louder he grew, until he was almost shouting. The air in the dark cellar began to stir, unnoticed at first by Malrinn, but as he read on it grew more and more violent. Eventually, it was howling, whipping his black hair wildly; rifling through the pages of books that lay open on the table, sending the odd loose paper pirouetting around the room.

Malrinn smiled an ominous, toothy smile, and could not help but laugh. It was a deep and sinister sound that held more malice than joy. His blood felt as if it was boiling within him and the skin on his face vibrated with flushed anticipation. He felt for a moment like his heart might burst, but the feeling quickly passed, only to be replaced by a sickening, heavy millstone of dread in his gut. This pure feeling of thick, otherworldly malice quelled his laughter even as it heralded the arrival of his intended guest.

The temperature in the room immediately dropped a noticeable degree, and dark black plumes of smoke began to pour from the candles on the floor, swirling in the wind like a dervish. Soon, the cloud began to coalesce; taking the shape of something vaguely elf-like, but not. A being made of entirely of shadow, with glowing red eyes like stoked coals suspended within the fog.

After the creature had taken its form, the wind began to abate. Soon a deathly stillness hung in the room, save for the twitching mass of shadow and smoke. It did not make a sound; it just loomed in the air with an intense and diabolical presence.

“Ehoten!” Malrinn said, breaking the silence. When he evoked the creature’s name, he swore it smiled, if a thing made of smoke could do such a thing.
“Ehoten, I am the one who summoned you. I entreat you! Grant me your power!”
The creature swelled, and spoke, not with audible words, but directly into Malrinn’s mind.

“What do you offer?” Its voice deep and raspy, seemed to vibrate Malrinn’s very skull. He fought not to wince. Each word was like a knife; like the worst headache he’d ever experienced. With each word Ehoten spoke, a penetrating and bitter cold raced down Malrinn’s spine, causing the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end. He felt like every last bit of warmth in his body was being drained away. His stomach did somersaults as the dark figure continued its dialogue, it’s very presence polluting the area around it like a miasma that Malrinn felt threatened to choke him.
“What is worthy of my power?”

Malrinn pulled a bundle of tattered cloth from his cloak and unwrapped from within it a weapon; a dagger, three blades affixed to an obsidian hilt. It was not ornate, but it had a presence of its own, not too dissimilar from that of the shadow fiend he intended to offer it to. He let the cloth fall to the ground and held the menacing blade aloft.
“An artifact of great power, and that has drunk deep of the blood of countless lives.”

The shadowy creature let out a burbling, disquieting laugh, and it’s eyes began to glow with an even more intense light. Somehow the sound of the creature’s laughter made Malrinn even more uncomfortable than he already was in the thing’s presence, but he held his composure.
“How did one such as you come by this artifact?” Ehoten asked him.
“It was… difficult, but I have my ways.” Malrinn replied dryly, his face iron. He was so close to attaining his goal and had come too far to falter now. He would not be intimidated by Ehoten.

“I reject your offering,” it sneered, “It is not enough. What use do I have for a blade when I can kill hundreds with mere words? If I wished it, I could command you to tear your own heart out, and you would obey! I have broken those more powerful than you, elf-whelp!”
Malrinn stared daggers at Ehoten, and what little shock of his that remained since initially encountering the fiend was brushed aside by a searing anger.
“Don’t play coy!,” he spat, ignoring Ehoten’s threats and posturing, “Your deception is wasted on me, Shadow Demon! You know exactly what this is!”

Ehoten answered in wordless howling rage; his form swelling defiantly as the wind began to swirl in the room again. Malrinn held the blade firm in his hand and began to mutter an incantation under his breath. His pupils disappeared as his eyes began to glow with their own bluish light. The hand that held the blade began to spark with blue, crackling energy, and the strands of his hair began to repel one-another a little. Then, with just the smallest smirk, he released the arcane electricity he had collected directly into the blade.

The demon shuddered and let out a squeal of pain. The attack seemed to lessen the swelling of its form and it was plain to Malrinn that Ehoten had definitely felt the strike. Even still, the demon continued its tirade.
“You dare raise a hand against me!” Malrinn’s head began to pound even harder as the creatures voice grew louder inside his head. Unabated, he let loose another surge of electricity into the blade, and the shadow shrieked as his form continued to dwindle. It was now about the size it had been when he had first summoned it.

“I know you are bound to this blade!,” Malrinn shouted over the wind. “I also know you wish to be free of the link. I can’t imagine you enjoy anyone having sway over you like this…” He did not break his gaze with the demon, the motion of his hair and cloak in the wind a stark contrast to this unmoving demeanor. Again he began to prepare himself for another volley, fingers sparking blue at his whim. Rather than attack however, he held it at the ready for a moment, determined to win this battle of wills.

“Enough!” Ehoten called finally, his voice quieter now, but still raking across Malrinn’s mind. “You will relinquish the blade to me in exchange for a share of my power?”
“I will destroy the blade, and your link to it. And in exchange, you will imbue me with a portion of your power.” The being stayed silent for a moment, flickering. It seemed to weigh Malrinn’s proposal, though it was hard to read any emotion in its vaporous form.

“You have the means of destroying the artifact?” Its tone was skeptical. “Many have tried… And many have failed. Other’s still have been corrupted by its power. Many a noble man with ideas of felling kingdoms and tyrants have tried to keep it for themselves… You are the first I’ve encountered to possess the blade and be unsatisfied with the power it grants…”

Malrinn smiled a devilish smile. “Assassination is not my style… Neither are noble ideals…” He knew that he had won now, but continued with the obligatory question. “Do we have a deal then?”
“I accept,” Ehoten said after a moment. “When you do destroy the blade and free the part of me encased within, it will enter you instead of returning to me. This will grant you the power that you hunger for.”

And with that, the being was gone; instantaneously. As if it had never been there. The candles still burned, and the room looked exactly as it had moments before Malrinn had completed the ritual. He still held the blade in his hand, and for a moment he looked down at it, trying to judge if what had just taken place had actually happened, or had been in his mind.

He shook his head and steeled his expression, and began to make his preparations for the next step of his plan. He carried the blade up the stairway and out of the cellar where he had made his audience with the dark apparition. And made his way into the open living area of his home.

It was bleakly sparse. A single wooden chair next to a small table, which still held a few used silver dishes; bits of dry food caked onto most of them, with one set containing the remains of a more recent meal.

He moved over to the fireplace which was currently unlit but stacked with tinder. Without looking, he lit it magically with a flick of his finger. The fire roared and crackled to life. He sat in the chair, still holding the blade, and turned it over in his hand; deep in thought. As he moved his eyes back and forth over the blade, he considered the bargain he had struck. A difficult road lay ahead of him, he knew, but that had always been his lot. For once, this time, the destination was in sight.

The Wraithsclaw


The following is an excerpt from an entry in the Armourie Fantasticum by Archmage Gailluogh Granscen, a tome detailing information on many legendary arms and armor.

The Wraithsclaw

The Wraithsclaw is a relic of immense power with nefarious origins. Though not as ancient as some of the other items mentioned in this book, its power is enough to rival most of them, though a brutal hand is required to wield it effectively.

This unique dagger has not one, but three curved blades, each about eight inches in length. The 3 blades run parallel to each other, affixed to one thick, obsidian hilt. The space between each blade is less than an inch. Wounds inflicted by this dagger are claw-like cuts, three gashes very near each other, which have a very low likelihood of naturally healing well. The intent of the weapon is to kill, either immediately or indirectly from blood-loss or infection; though usually the wielder prefers the former because of the blade’s magical properties.

Once sated with blood from a mortal wound, the dagger grants its user temporary invisibility, making it a very useful tool for covert escape after the dark deed has been done. Conversely, it has often been documented that the blade was used as a tool of infiltration by those who had no objections to murdering an innocent to activate the weapon’s power.

It was commissioned for the legendary assassin Kazal Gra’uum who was as vindictive as he was skilled. Kazal was cruel, with allegiances only to gold and his own lust for blood. This, along with his magic blade, earned him the nickname, “The Dragon’s Ghost.” Though there were many cleaner and more efficient ways of dispatching a mark, Kazal preferred to make a spectacle and took pleasure in the kill as much as he did the compensation.

His dealings were most secretive, and the carnage in his wake, while very public, was difficult to trace. He took great pleasure in taunting those who would enforce the laws or attempt to protect those he targeted. If you were unfortunate enough to find yourself on Gra’uum’s hit list, it typically was not something you had to worry about for long- most never even knew he stalked them and were ushered into the realm beyond still unaware of having encountered him.

It was Kazal himself, and this very blade, that was instrumental in the removal of Emperor Jasaat of Emuria. It is rumored that the rival kingdom of Shalestrow sold almost half its assets to contract Kazal and aim him and his instrument of death against Jasaat. Though the rumor has never been confirmed, Shalestrow did benefit greatly from the emperor’s fall.

Eventually, Kazal was captured by The Emurian Remnant and condemned to spend eternity in The Gravemouth, a prison fortress of Emuria where the incarcerated are kept living indefinitely, through arcane means, to pay for their crimes. Even for one such as Gra’uum, the use of such an extreme facility is considered unduly cruel and barbaric by the majority of the continent, and many fight in the senate over its operation. Still it is believed Kazal remains there to this day, though The Gravemouth will not release a prisoner manifest.

Upon Gra’uum’s seizure, The Wraithsclaw seems to have disappeared and its current whereabouts are unknown to this day. There have been many unsubstantiated rumors concerning the blade’s current location, but likely, if it was found, it has enabled its new owner to remain as hidden as Kazal.

The Trampled Hearts

Oh, chiseled marble, pure and white! Oh, new and stately tombs!
Within you, piles of rotting flesh, the rat and fly consume.
And writ upon the wall the words, a pledge forever ‘true’,
‘In God We Trust,’ collecting dust, new avenues pursued.

‘Of course we love our fellow man, as long as they can pay,
the widows and the orphans are just getting in the way.
The progression of this nation great, a dream for everyone.
There’s automatic membership for every highborn son.’

A monumental outcry rings of languages confused,
Resounding in conflicted din, their unity removed.
For chaos now has overcome those men that would be God,
the rug pulled out, the floorboards rot, a crumbling facade.

The Parthenon is waterlogged, the Sphinx sinks in the sand,
The Hanging Gardens, Babylon, a blighted withered land.
Still they offer up their tithes and gold, their bodies and their minds,
And in the idols’ molten hands, their burning children lie.

A sundering is coming soon, injustice can’t prevail,
the Year of Jubilee is due, a tearing of the veil.
The family will be whole again, the ledger set aside,
This wall you’re building cannot stand, the trampled hearts will rise.

The Road to Marecade

It had been three days since Ortan’s father died, but to him it felt like mere minutes.

That evening, they had been outlining the plans for the harvest over a dinner of thick, gamey stew made from a boar that Ortan had shot earlier in the week. The busy season for their little farm was fast approaching and his father had been afraid that help would be scarce this year. After dinner, they’d spent a few hours fixing the wagon; it was wont to break down, but it was what they had. Later, a little after sundown, Ortan had gone to bed; he had planned to go out hunting again early the next morning. His father had stayed behind to finish up the repairs; told Ortan that he’d be in soon. But he never came in.

Ortan found him the next morning, on the floor of the barn, cold and staring at the ceiling. If Ortan had any time to really consider his reaction, he might have felt bad, but the immediate thoughts that entered his head were just about the practical realities of what needed to be done. He saw to the body; made sure it was wrapped before he told his sister. He had been the one to find their mother as well, and maybe that had numbed him a bit. He thanked the gods that Jesali hadn’t found either of them in that state. He would much rather shoulder that burden than to have her carry those bitter visions like he now did. It was watching her face as he told her, the realization dawning like the earth itself cracking, that finally got to him.

A few days passed, and as Ortan sat on that same freshly repaired cart, reins in hand, he fought to keep his weariness at bay. It was early, a low fog hung over the underbrush, dew still sparkling on the leaves, as they made their way down the narrow road through the trees. Jesali’s head rested gently on Ortan’s shoulder; eyes closed, breath shallow as she slept. She had cried herself to sleep the past few nights, and at this moment preferred unconsciousness to the itching grief of waking life. Ortan was glad she was able to find sleep, it had been mostly elusive to him in the days since their father had passed.

In the rear of the cart was a long wooden box that currently held the body of the family patriarch. Burying their father on the farm would have been easier, Ortan knew, but their mother was buried in the city, next to the small church where the two were wed, and they needed to be together. And so, early in the morning, a week before they would have started to reap this years harvest, they set out on the journey to Marecade to sow their father’s body in the earth. It had been at least a year since the last time they had made the trip. What had at one time been at least a monthly occurrence, had largely fallen off after their mother had passed. Mom would insist that they make the journey to town to pay their respects to Pelor, and Dad would go along.

Their mother had always been close to Pelor, but Ortan didn’t think that Dad had much faith. He always said the the seasons came each year whether he prayed or not, but mom was convinced she did enough praying for the both of them. Dad’s purpose for the visit was usually to buy supplies or new tools while they were in town, but he would visit the church alongside her and just stand, respectful and quiet, while she conducted her devotions. Sometimes Jesali or Ortan would go along, and sometimes they would stay behind and tend the farm- it usually depended on the time of year, and how much work there was to be done, but Dad never let Mom make the trip alone.

Marecade was about half a day’s journey from their little farm, and it required passage through a large, dangerous expanse of wild, forested lands known as the Shadowood. Many a beast, and some darker things, could be found in the wood, but you could usually make it through fairly safely as long as the trip was made during the day.

Ortan focused his attention on the road ahead once more. Though their horse knew the way, and would make the journey largely unguided, it was best for him to stay alert. He listened deeply to see if he could perceive any sort of incoming threat, but everything seemed fine for the moment. He heard the rustling of leaves from the faint morning breeze, the plopping of the old mare’s hooves in the damp dirt of the roadway, the soft shallow breaths of his younger sister, and not much else- a distant bird chorus or two- nothing nefarious.

The cart hit a minor bump in the road and some of Jesali’s hair fell in front of her face and onto Ortan’s shoulder. He reached up and gently brushed it behind her ear. As he looked at her sleeping face, his heart climbed into his throat a little. His sister was all that he had left now; she was his only remaining family in this vast and wild world.

Moments later there was a resounding crash as the cart hit another, larger bump; the impact more violent than the first, caused something to give way and the rear of the cart sank. Jesali let out a small yelp as she was jolted awake.

“Woah, easy there,” Ortan called out as he pulled back on the reins. The cart came to a stop and Ortan muttered a curse as he surveyed the damage; one rear wheel now dragged through the mud, the wooden rim separated from a few broken and splintered spokes.

“Again with this damn cart!”
“It’s alright, Ortan,” said Jesali, her voice calm, even in the midst of being startled awake, broke through Ortan’s momentary fuming.
“Do you think you can fix it?”
“Aye, we brought a spare, thank the gods.”

And with that, Ortan hopped down off the wagon and went around the back to start rummaging through the supplies they had brought. The contents of the cart, including their father, had been jostled but had remained contained, seemingly no worse for wear. Jesali took a moment to take in the their surroundings. This part of The Shadowood was currently rather peaceful; beams of light streaming through the small breaks in the canopy, falling on the carpet of ferns and other ground cover underneath the towering deciduous trees. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, inviting the crisp late morning air, saturated with petrichor and floral notes, into her lungs.

“This is nice,” she said, exhaling contentedly. Ortan was surprised. She seemed suddenly so cavalier. For the past three days she’d been unable to do much other than weep, but right now she was acting as much like herself as she ever had.
“Did you sleep well sister?” he asked, working to prop up the cart by the axle with some wood blocks to give him free access to fix the wheel.
“I did actually,” she replied, eyes fixated on what seemed like nothing in particular off in the middle distance, “I… had some interesting dreams…”
“More nightmares?”
“No, no…” She paused and seemed to think for a moment, “they were quite nice- pleasant really… I saw Dad. And Mom. And they were with Pelor. And, someone else… I can’t explain it, but I feel… I’m starting to feel like maybe things are going to be alright.”
“You’re not still sad?”
“Oh, I’m still sad- of course I am… But this dream felt like… Like, I don’t know… Less of a dream and more like… like Pelor was speaking to me.”

“All right,” Ortan said flatly, but he smiled. Jesali seemed to be dealing with things in her own way. He much preferred to see her like this, and if believing that she was receiving visions from the gods is what helped her get there, he would not complain. She took after mother that way. He was more like their father.

Thinking about his father, his smile faded, and he set back to work on the wheel. After a few hours of straining and cursing, Ortan eventually won out in his scuffle with their rickety little cart. He had been wise enough to bring supplies in case something like this happened, but he still was unsatisfied with the degree to which he was able to repair the cart without the benefit of all the proper tools and time they usually had back at the barn. These slapdash bindings would have to do, at least until they could make it to Marecade. It was becoming clear that this little breakdown was going to delay their arrival until after nightfall.

As Ortan thought about the implications of that, he felt Jesali’s soft hand on his shoulder, and when he turned to look at her, he saw that she was holding a cup out to him in her other hand.
“Here, brother.” He took it and drank deeply, the cool water a welcome sensation after wrestling with the repairs.
“I’ve made us a meal as well,” she said with a wink as she handed him a piece of dried boar meat from a satchel they had brought with them.

“Just like Dad used to make,” he said, smiling and tearing a chunk off with his teeth. The meat was dry, tough, and salted to the point of losing any other discernible flavor, but it traveled well. When he said that she said nothing, her expression falling a little before she smiled again, though her brow remained slightly furrowed.

“Best get a move on,” Ortan said after a minute and a few more chunks of boar. “We still have a ways to go yet, and we need to make it as far as we can while the sun still shines.

It was now early afternoon, later than Ortan would have liked. More than half of their trip still lay before them. It took a few more minutes to load the tools and supplies back into the cart and then they were off. It didn’t take much time for the rhythmic bobbing of the cart to lull Jesali back to sleep. Ortan envied her, not just what seemed to be her newly found sense of peace, but the rest that she was getting would have been good for Ortan. Jesali could have driven. She knew the way, and the horse did most of the work anyhow, but Ortan wouldn’t hear of it. He felt like it was his responsibility to get them to Marecade safely, and he trusted Jesali, but he trusted himself more.

They continued on like this for hours; large stretches of uneventful time marked by the occasional tree branch in the path that they had to either move or circumvent. At one point they came to an old bridge over a small river, and Ortan let the horse drink before they crossed it without issue. The highlight of the afternoon was coming upon a large buck, 10 hands high, Ortan guessed, with a long full rack of antlers. If not for the fact that they were in a hurry, and not able to move their ramshackle funeral procession very silently, Ortan would have tried to take him. That magnificent beast would have kept the two of them fed for months. But just as it had come into view, it’s head darted up, ears perked, and it took off leaping through the underbrush and out of sight. Shortly after that, the light of day began to wane into dusk.

As the sun sank in the sky, Ortan grew anxious. He lit a few lanterns and hung them from the side of the cart to give them some light to continue making their way by. Were they somewhere else, they would just stop and make camp for the night and make the last leg of the journey into Marecade in the morning. But The Shadowood was not a safe place to be at night. Ortan had heard terrifying stories of beasts, large and ravenous, that would attack those who wandered the forest at night. And he’d heard rumor of even stranger things- things once living, back from the dead, harrying travelers in the darkness.

A twig snapped somewhere out of sight and Ortan’s heart leapt into his throat. For a second all he could hear was the blood pumping in his ears, but after a moment of his eyes scanning the forest around him and not seeing or hearing anything else, he relaxed a little. It was probably just another deer, he thought.

The sun continued to sink beneath the horizon, the shadows of the trees growing tall; their gnarled forms casting images like thick tentacles that seemed to reach out to strangle Ortan. The forest at night was oppressive; the very air was thick with some dark unseen presence. Ortan grew more and more uncomfortable as it grew ever darker, and he found himself, to his surprise, muttering prayers to Pelor under his breath.

Jesali stirred and her eyes fluttered open. “How much longer brother?”
“I don’t know… a few hours I think.”
“It’s cold,” she said, crossing her arms in front of her and gripping her own shoulders.
A preternatural chill had settled over the wood; the drop in temperature sudden and unignorable.

“I think there are some blankets in the back,” Ortan replied. Jesali leaned to begin rummaging through the cart for something to keep her warm. Ortan’s eyelids felt heavy, but their terrible surroundings were enough to steel his will against the encroaching fatigue. He forced himself to stay awake and keep going. Even still, a minute later, his eyes burst open after he found he had momentarily lost his battle of will; jolted to full awareness by the sound of his sister screaming.

Ortan’s head whipped around just as Jesali was torn from the back of the cart and the scene immediately erupted into chaos. Their horse began to panic, screaming and snorting and rearing wildly, causing their cart to come to an abrupt halt and one of the two lanterns to crash on the ground, extinguishing its flame.

“Jes!” Ortan yelled as he jumped from the cart, drawing the short sword from his side as he did. Jesali was still screaming, as something dragged her into the dark underbrush. With only one lantern now, Ortan couldn’t make out what manner of creature had a hold of his sister, but it did not matter. He rushed headlong into the woods after her.

A sharp whizzing sound buzzed Ortan’s ear. He could feel the ripples in the air as an arrow missed him by only a hair’s breadth and impacted on the gnarled oak right behind him. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk! Another volley of projectiles struck the dirt in front of him as he quickly rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding them. Only then was he able to get the first glance at his attacker. He could see something white gleaming in the moonlight, which quickly came into focus as a human skull; but it was not part of a pile of remains or a lifeless husk… The skull, and the rest of the skeleton it was attached to, was covered with mossy growths. It held a crude bow, and torn, ragged dregs of clothing hung loosely from its hollow frame. With unnatural movement that was the very mockery of life, it shambled towards him, eye sockets aglow with a soulless green light.

Ortan swung his blade for its head as soon as he was near it; the skeleton hissing a haunting, breathless gasp, jawbone chattering as the ghastly scream emanated up from its lungless chest. Ortan’s sword struck true and with a sickening crack, the skull went tumbling off into the ground cover. The now-headless skeleton groped the darkness with its bony, moss covered fingers, trying to grab Ortan, but he evaded it and continued past it at speed.

Ahead of him now, he could see several more skeletons of similar ilk, some brandishing rough iron swords, others also armed with bows. Two of them were dragging Jesali, kicking a screaming violently, deeper into the forest. As she flailed, her foot made contact with the shin of one of them and with a crunch its leg crumbled beneath it, but it held tight to her, as the other continued unabated, dragging them both along with it.

“Ortan!” Jesali screamed as she saw him approach. Before he could catch up to her, two more skeletons interposed themselves between Ortan and Jesali. Snarling, they swung their rusted blades, and Ortan was able to duck below one, but the other struck a glancing blow off his shoulder, tearing his tunic and drawing blood. He cried out in pain but did not slow; it was mostly a surface wound. Fueled by adrenaline and desperation, he hacked away at the two skeletons in his path, ably felling them both, but the gap between him and his sister continued to widen.

As more and more skeletons emerged from the surrounding wood, a pit began to form in Ortan’s gut. The thought of losing Jesali now, so soon after their father, filled his midsection with sand and gripped his heart like a vice. The hoard of unlife continued to press in around him, obscuring his view of his captive sister, and it seemed like all hope would be lost. With each foe he slew, two more sprang from the loam in their place. He was just one man against the ranks of The Shadowood’s Army of Night.

Suddenly, the maelstrom sound of a mighty rushing wind filled the forest, temporarily drowning out the noise of the fray. It was followed by an impossibly loud, inhuman war-cry; deep and powerful, like the sound of a hundred-warrior-charge. Ortan recoiled from the sheer volume of it, and looked around in horror, with the expectation of some even more fiendish and terrible monster entering the brawl. Then there was a magnificently bright flash of light up near where Ortan had seen Jesali last, and a booming crack of thunder soon followed. The skeletons let out a chorus of otherworldly shrieks, as their forms shuddered from the shockwave.

Another bright flash of light arched through the darkness ahead, and Ortan watched as several skeletons were turned to dust in its wake. The hoard’s attention shifted to this new threat and began to converge on it. Ortan ran with the torrent of moss and bone, eager to reach Jesali for fear that whatever it was that was momentarily harrying the skeletons could be an even greater danger to her.

As Ortan neared his sister, he could see a man that glowed with a bright white light. His sword, wreathed in an even more brilliant light, was carving swathes through the skeletal ranks with little apparent resistance. The warrior also carried a shield, and was dressed in full plate armor, but he moved with power and grace even in such heavy mail.

The brilliant light made it difficult to see much further detail, but something about their unheralded savior seemed strange to Ortan. In the heat of battle, he had no time to dwell on it however, as a nearby skeleton took his close proximity as opportunity to take another swing at him. He ducked beneath it and kicked it hard in the center of the ribcage, sending it backward into a pile of its fallen brethren.

After dispatching the skeleton, Ortan finally caught up to Jesali on the ground, back against a tree. She was covered in dirt and leaves, and she was bleeding from a cut on her cheek, but she was conscious, breathing heavily.

“Jes!”
“Tan-Tan!” Her childhood pet name for her brother bubbling out despite the dire circumstances. It was a welcome, if infinitesimally small, comfort to them both; a drop of normal in a sea of chaos.
“Are you ok?”
“It’s an angel of Pelor! I… I saw him in my dream!” she raved, declining to answer his question, or perhaps not even hearing it. Ortan didn’t say anything in reply. They had just been attacked by an undead army; he was not about to argue with his sister about the whims of the gods and their champions.

The “Angel” continued its assault and soon the few skeletons remaining began to withdraw in haste. Soon the din of the battle returned to the normal sounds of forest nightlife and the light rustling of foliage. The figure’s glow began to fade, allowing them to begin to distinguish the features of their rescuer. They were both very surprised by what they saw. Their visitor was not a man, but had the general figure of one except that his skin was a darker, unfamiliar shade; it was hard to tell in the midnight darkness of the forest, but it was inhuman, a grey or reddish even.

In addition to his skin, his eyes were without pupils and pure white, and they continued to give off a faint glow, even as the rest of his aura faded, save for his sword and some type of amulet that hung around his neck in front of his breastplate. He had dark but human-looking hair, long on his head, and shorn to a goatee on his face. More notably, were the two large swept back horns that protruded from his head through that dark hair. They were long and the light emanating from his sword glinted off them in places. They could also see, periodically in the darkness behind him, what looked to be a thick pointed tail swishing back and forth, with a motion that reminded Ortan of one of their prowling barn cats.

Ortan quickly helped Jesali to her feet and placed himself between her and the horned man. Ortan had never seen anything like him before and in this moment, even though he was grateful the skeletons had been dealt with, he remained cautious.

“It’s alright,” the figure said, breaking the tense silence, as he sheathed his sword and held out his hand in a placating posture. “I mean you no harm.”
Ortan tightened his grip on his sword, but kept it low at his side, ready but not wanting to provoke an attack.
“Did Pelor send you?” Jesali blurted, her wonder betraying her lack of the same measure of caution as her brother. At this the figure let out a chuckle; it was warm and resonated with calm, not threat.
“Maybe he did,” he replied, “I am Redemption Ravenhart, Paladin and servant of Lathander, The Morninglord. My friends, new and old, call me ‘Dem.'”

“Lathander?” Jesali inquired.
“He is a kindred god to your Pelor. Their dominions though different are very much in line.”

Satisfied for now with the paladin’s demeanor, Ortan sheathed his sword and exhaled deeply, allowing himself to relax just a little.
“Thank you… for saving us,'” he said meekly.
“In service to Lathander, I serve light and I serve life. It is my duty. I am just glad I came upon you when I did. Why in Lathander’s name do you travel The Shadowood after dark?”
“Our cart broke down while we were on the way to Marecade to bury our father.” Dem’s countenance fell in compassion at the mention of their plight. Before he could respond, Jesali suddenly took off running back towards the road.
“Father!”
Both Ortan and Dem fell into step just behind her as she, now reminded of their father’s body, frantically ran to search for it.

As they broke the tree line into the small clearing that the road cut through the forest, they could see their cart, mostly intact, but tipped to the side and missing their horse, sitting where they had been forced to leave it. The second lantern was also shattered, and several spent arrows stuck out of the cart in places. At first glance, all the contents of the cart, including the pine box that held their father, were still there. It seemed that the undead cared not for food rations or blankets. Whether they cared for corpses or not, Ortan hoped never to learn.

It took both Dem and Ortan to right the cart, but they were able to manage it without too much trouble. As luck would have it, none of the actual functionality of the cart had been damaged, which made Ortan roll his eyes. The cart withstood an army from hell, but couldn’t best a divot in the road.

Ortan and Jesali began to gather up the rest of their scattered belongings.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your names…” Dem said, working along side them.
“Ortan Wrensworn, and my sister is Jesali. I’m sorry, we’re still in shock.” Jesali, not sure what was befitting an introduction to someone who had just saved their lives, gave a curtsey, which due to the blood and mud and leaves, was a little absurd.
“Your shock is wholly understandable,” he said with a chuckle that seemed to come easily to him, despite the horrors they’d fought not an hour ago. He gave a sincerely formal bow in response to Jesali.

Ortan wasn’t sure how to feel about Dem; he wasn’t off-putting, just so unfamiliar compared to anything that Ortan was used to. The “man” of faith was charismatic and obviously powerful. From the few words they had already exchanged, Ortan felt that his concern for their well being was genuine, and he seemed to be genuinely good despite his hellish appearance. He was a paradoxical mix of a genteel and calm servant of holy light, and a powerful hellspawn. Ortan was glad that he had come along, and that he seemed to be on their side.

“Ortan, Jesali, please allow me to accompany you the rest of the way to Marecade. We should be able to make it safely within the hour if we can avoid any further denizens of the night- but don’t worry about that, I am very good at avoiding them when I wish to.”
“Thank you so much,” Jesali replied, “but we cannot leave our father’s body. He must be buried in Marecade or we risked our very lives for nothing.”
“Oh, I mean to take the cart with us.”

Before either Ortan or Jesali could ask Dem if he meant them to carry the cart themselves, or hunt down their missing and very probably dead steed, he put his hand around his amulet, and began speaking a language they did not understand under his breath. The holy symbol began to glow brighter and then wisps of pinkish white light began to appear out of seemingly nowhere and coalesce in the space in front of the cart. After a few minutes, the form of a large warhorse appeared, completely translucent at first, but it slowly began to become more and more corporeal.

The materialized spectral horse’s mane seemed to be made of liquid light; luminous and in constant vibrant motion despite the relative lightness of the actual breeze. Dem approached the great beast and patted it on the neck, the horse nuzzling into him with familiarity.
“Hello old friend.”

Ortan and Jesali just stood dumbfounded. Both of them had heard stories of magic, and they even believed that many of them were true, but they had lived simple lives far away from the arcane and the fantastic. Dem just turned to them and smiled.
“Thunderer here will make our travel quite expedient.”

And he did. For the next hour, as Dem drove Thunderer towards Marecade, Jesali slept in the back of the cart, collapsed in exhaustion. Ortan, equally tired, could not resist his curiosity about their savior.

“So… How did… Uh…” Ortan began awkwardly.
“How did a tiefling like myself become a paladin of Lathander?”
“Uh… Yeah… Sorry, I mean no offense… You don’t have to answer that…”
“No, it’s quite alright,” Dem said smiling, his hair flowing in the wind of their hasted exodus of The Shadowood.

“I get asked that a lot,” he continued. “The man who raised me was a very devoted servant of Lathander. We lived in a small community with no others of my kind. I have met many since, some of which who respected me, others who despised me. I took my name when I came of age and entered the god’s service.”

“And your parents?”
For the first time since they had met, Ortan saw Dem’s face shift into a negative emotion, though only for a second.
“I never had a chance to know them. But Father Ravenhart was a godsend and I have lived a very good life because of him.”
“That’s good.”
“I’m sorry about your father,” Dem said, “we shall see that he gets to where he needs to be.”

Ortan didn’t remember falling asleep, but the next day, he awoke in a bed that he also didn’t remember getting into. He found Jesali in the next room over, and she had slept the entire trip into Marecade, not remembering how they had acquired these rooms either. They were still in their traveling clothes, still covered in dirt and blood, but their wounds seemed to have closed and healed with remarkable speed.

When they made their way downstairs, they discovered that they had spent the night in the very church they had been seeking. The priest and caretaker informed them that a donation to cover their room and meals had already been made, and that their cart was in the barn out back. He brought them to a small room with a table that had a fresh morning meal prepared and they devoured it greedily after all the action of the previous night compounded by a day of dried boar.

Soon it was time to say goodbye to their father. They found the spot where their mother lay; empty plot still next to it. Ortan dug the grave himself, and as he heaved each shovelful of earth, warm tears drew lines down his dirty cheeks. Jesali stood at the edge of the pit, speaking the same prayers their mother had reverently, her voice breaking and barely audible. When Ortan finished digging, the priest helped him lower the simple coffin, and then set about performing his rites.

Once the grave had been filled, the priest retreated back into the church and Ortan and Jesali lingered over their parents’ final resting place. “Hi mom,” Jesali said, sniffling but smiling, placing her hand on top of her mother’s grave marker. It’s inscription read, Here lies Annalise Wrensworn, loving wife and mother. May Pelor always protect you.

“He has, ma,” Ortan said, putting his arm around his sister as a soft rain began to fall, “he has.”