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 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.”

 

Children of Dawn

At the base of the Kragen mountains was a small village named Grache. It was little more than a cluster of buildings, ten to twelve in number, surrounded by nothing but farmland for miles. Most of the buildings were unremarkable; private dwellings with a few shops peppered throughout. A little further up the road to the mountains sat a humble white stone temple overlooking the village.

On a typical morning, you could often find Father Eagen Ravenhart sitting on the steps there eating his morning meal.As a part of his morning routine, the Father would watch the sunrise over the village; buildings only jagged silhouettes as the sun began to crest the horizon, painting the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside with the pastel hues of dawn. It was truly a sight to behold; a bit of Lathander’s glory bleeding into this realm. There was a time when Eagen could almost hear the world hum awake around him, reverberating with the harmonies and resonances of the high heavens touching earth. At one time the sight and sound would have filled Eagen with such hope and fulfillment. But now, as each day the sun rose exactly as it had the day before, Father Ravenhart felt nothing.

Eagen had been given charge of Grache’s spiritual well-being as a young cleric, graduating out from under the tutelage of a much older and highly pious man in a much larger metropolis. Day in and day out, he’d tend to the needs of the townsfolk. He’d perform marriage ceremonies, bless infants, and recite funeral rites. He was present for every significant moment in the lives of each of the people who called Grache their home. And as he labored he did so in joy, and there was the hum.

But as time passed, many that he’d blessed as infants, and later consecrated on their wedding days, he’d then buried. Famines, bandits, wild beasts; the pitfalls of the savage world would take some before their time, and those same eyes that took in the dawn each morning watched the sun set on friends, neighbors, and even children, and those ears had to strain to hear the melody.

Despite all of this, he never faltered in his faithfulness to the little hamlet nestled in the mountainside. He had a responsibility to the townsfolk to be their shepherd, a pillar of the community and a symbol of Lathander’s blessed guidance, and he knew in his heart that despite his feelings, he could not disappoint them. His days were busy with the bustling eb and flow of the lives he helped to guide, and his nights were still and quiet as, through the years, the Morning Lord grew silent.

Each night, a little while after the last parishioner had left for the day, his hair still smelling of incense, Eagan would lie awake and wonder if, perhaps, that night would be his last. Maybe, just maybe, he would shut his eyes and would not have to endure another morning of the Dawn King’s hollow sunrise.

It was late on a night such as this that there came a knocking on the temple doors. It took Eagen a moment to register the sound amidst his nightly existential ponderations. Again it came, the unmistakable, rhythmic thudding of purposed hands upon the thick wood; it was not the wind, the Father had a visitor.

“Just a minute,” he called into the darkness as he took a small oil lamp from a sconce on the wall and turned its small flickering back up to a flame that would provide actual illumination for making his way to answer his late night summons. Grabbing the nearest thing to cover himself, his vestments, and throwing them on, he left his small room off the left side of the temple’s vaulted sanctuary, and made his way towards the door. Light from his lamp flickered on the rows of wood pews as large stained glass windows loomed over him at his back, rimming his balding head in dappled shades of moonlight.

It did not take the Father long to reach the door, only a minute or two, but when he took hold of the large twisted iron handles and heaved the thick double wooden doors open, his unexpected visitor was nowhere to be seen. The Father stuck his head out the doorway, peering to either side as he did, the cold night air stinging at his face. “Hello? Is anyone there?” he called into the still dark night. His call was met by only the soft rustling of leaves from a nearby tree, tousled by the light midnight breeze, and by the occasional chirp of the wayward insect or frog.

That was just great; local farmhand errand boys playing late night tricks on an old religious man- rabble rousers and buffoons the lot of them. If Ravenhart had a gold piece for every time one of the young townsfolk had shown him disrespect, he would be living the life of a noble. Lathander forgive them, they know not that they are fools…

Just as Eagen was getting ready to stomp back to bed, he caught sight of something at the bottom of the stairs; a small crate. Ravenhart recognized it as an offering crate. The townsfolk would occasionally make sacrifices and offerings to Lathander as part of their petitioning for high harvest yields, or favorable marrying partnerships. Exactly who, in their right mind, would be making deliveries at this hour however, the Father knew not.

For a brief moment, Eagen considered leaving the crate there and dealing with it in the morning, but occasionally small birds or mammals were sacrificed and it would reflect very poorly on Eagen if some stray dog or wild beast got to it in the middle of the night before it was properly offered to Lathander. That would not be an easy thing to live down, for word traveled fast and completely in Grache.

Eagen bent to pick up the crate and was surprised by the weight of it. Must not be a bird this time, maybe a piglet or lamb. Upon closer inspection, he could see that it was lined with straw, and amidst the straw was a tightly bundled blanket. Leaving the crate on the ground, Eagen lifted the bundle out. It did not squirm, or make any noise, and for a split second, the Father thought he may have been wrong in his earlier assessment and that it wasn’t a living sacrifice at all. And then, he found the loose end of the blanket and unrolled it a small amount, and what he saw then he had not expected at all. It was the face of a child, asleep, hair still covered by the blanket.

In an instant a myriad of thoughts ran through the Father’s mind. Who had left this poor babe here? Was it intended as a sacrifice? Lathander was not the type of god to demand the children of his faithful, in fact, he was the very deity of birth and renewal, and Eagan was damn sure that such an offering was blasphemous. Then why? Why leave this child with him? In such a town where more offspring meant more help on the family farm, the pure economic absurdity of abandoning one’s child in Grache gave the Father great pause.

He could not tell if it was merely the moonlight, or if the infant was the bearer of some infection or malady, but its skin appeared to have an almost grey pallor to it. That’s it, perhaps the babe was brought to him for healing, though why the child’s guardian would flee and not stay to witness their ward cured, was beyond him. Eagan raised his hand to the infant’s forehead to feel its temperature and as he did so, he brushed the swaddle from the top of its head. The babe was indeed hot to the touch, but it was what the Father saw, not what he felt, that alarmed him in that moment. In was then that the infant awoke. It stayed silent as its eyes fluttered open; staring back at Eagan with strange pupiless, fully white eyes. Even more alarming, Eagen could now see two small horns on the top of the infant’s forehead, each about an inch in length.

“By the dawn… ” he exclaimed. The infant just looked up at him, silent. It had yet to make a sound that the Father had heard, not a wail, not even a burble. Eagen found his breath shallow as he recalled tales he had heard of such creatures as the one he now held.

He recognized, though he had never seen one in Grache, that he now held within his arms a Tiefling child. They were said to be the descendants of hellspawn; to have the very blood of demons in the their veins from the ancient times. Eagen’s knowledge on these demon-folk was not extensive, but he seemed to remember hearing that though descended from demons long ago, they were not inherently demonic themselves necessarily. Still, they had a reputation for being treacherous, thieving, maniacal and generally wise to avoid.

Had this infant been left on any other doorstep in Grache, Eagen thought, the simple farmers and their wives would riot in the streets. For simple folk understand little, and all fear what they don’t understand. So the reasoning behind why this babe was left with him made some sense, but it still left Father Ravenhart with so many questions.

“What’s your name, little one?” the Father asked after a minute, mostly to himself, perceiving the babe to not be of speaking age. The only sound was that of Eagen’s own voice, but it’s gentle timbre in that moment surprised Eagen.

“Where is your mother?” It was hard for Eagen to imagine any Tiefling living in Grache. He must have come from some traveling mother’s act of desperation as she passed through the village, maybe on her way to the mountains. Regarding the simple folk, she may have very well been on the run from a lynch mob, and thought that maybe she could lead them away and at least keep the infant safe, but there was no way to know for sure.

It was then that the babe let out a small coo. The first sound Ravenhart had heard it make; one of contentment really, not trauma. Whatever this little one had gone through in the short time it was alive, they seemed to have been adequately sheltered from it, or to be taking it in stride.

“Now what am I to do with you?” Eagen said as he loosened the blanket, freeing the infant’s arms from its side. As the Father looked down on the small grey-skinned bundle, he did not feel the soul of a demon behind those small, pupiless white eyes. As he watched the babe play with its own fingers in front of its face, and as it briefly managed to grasp a handful of the Father’s beard and tug it gently before losing its fumbling grip, he did not feel malicious intent or nefarious purpose. Nor did he feel afraid when looking at the small thing in his arms that had supposedly descended from demons millenia ago. What he did feel then, a moment later, was the chubby fingers of a tiny hand grasp his finger with all of its little might, and this time, the grip persisted. And as that tiny hand held tightly to his finger, the Father felt something else. He felt a warmth he hadn’t felt in ages; the deep, humming warmth of the coming dawn.