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…”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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.”