The Mountain’s Maw – Part 7: The Nature of Magic

Ortan slept like the dead. Upon waking the next morning, he felt more refreshed than he had in any of the time since setting out from Marecade. He awoke once again in Dem’s tent, although unlike the previous day, this morning, he was not alone on his bedroll. Curled next to him in a large furry ball was the wolf.

Things had moved so fast since their first meeting in that cave he had scarcely had time to think about it all. The strange creature had tracked him as he’d left the cave, and at the last moment, saved him from the Skaradyle attack. Not only that, but it had somehow known to bring him to Dem, who just so happened to be able to remedy the poisoning. Ortan was convinced this was no ordinary wolf. Though why the creature had decided to stick so close to him, he could not say. All he had done was feed it, and now it would not leave his side, not that he wanted it to.

It seemed to Ortan that if the wolf was going to remain his traveling companion than it was proper that it be given a name. He thought for a moment, still lying on his back, not having moved since waking except to glance around. He relished this small period of half-wakefulness before all reality fully took hold for the day. He turned several names over in his head but rejected his initial ideas just as quickly as they came. Nothing he could think of seemed to fit. As he wracked his brain for a suitable name, the wolf’s eyes fluttered open. As soon as it noticed him studying it, it sprang up excitedly and began to lick his face.

“Alright!,” Ortan said, holding up an interposing hand. He got to his feet as soon as he could, the wolf moving excitedly around him, tail wagging. The creature amazed him. Whatever the mysterious creature was, be it magic or fae or something else, acted much the same way as the puppies he’d raised on the family farm when he was younger.

There had been one winter on the farm, Ortan recalled, where they’d had a particularly large litter. He had been just a boy, not yet ten, but he could still remember the flurry of excitement when they were born. There had been one pup that had needed special attention, but the specifics escaped the notice of his young mind. He did remember his mother spending a lot of time caring for it. Sadly, it had not made it, despite her best efforts.

Father dug a grave out by the gnarled fruit tree behind the barn, and Ortan and his mother had cried as they laid the pup to rest. Jesali had been too young to understand the situation, and played peacefully in the grass, unaware of life’s finality. They had placed a board in the ground to mark the spot, into which Ortan’s father had carved the name his mother had given the pup while it fought for life in her arms days earlier. Ortan tried to remember what the board had said…

“Wik,” he said aloud after a moment. The wolf stopped and tilted it’s head at him quizzically. “I’m going to call you Wik, is that alright?” The wolf yipped in apparent affirmation, tail wagging still. Ortan smiled, feeling a small smile cross his lips and a lump in his throat in the afterglow of the memories.

Satisfied that the wolf had been properly dubbed, Ortan finally pulled himself to his feet, though his legs ached in protest. The constant travel had been hard on him, and he felt as if he could sleep for weeks given the chance. He had to press on, he knew, and he quickly did his best to steel himself for the day ahead. Glancing around the tent, he found Dem’s bedroll neatly rolled and the paladin nowhere in sight. Ortan quickly stowed his own bedroll and put on his traveling clothes. Pulling his cloak tightly around him, he opened the flap of the tent and stepped out into the crisp morning air, Wik close behind him.

He made his way up towards the ruins of the temple on the hill, where he suspected the paladin to be, boots crunching on the fresh inches of snow as he did. The sun was just beginning to rise, the sky alight with the pastels of morning’s glory. When he reached the temple grounds, he was surprised when his foot hit soft, warm earth.

He found Dem, armor-clad and ready for travel, sitting on the ground with his head bowed in prayer. That was no surprise to Ortan. What was surprising was that surrounding the paladin was a 30-foot perfect circle melted into the snow. Where the snow had been was vibrant, living grass, as if in the middle of summer. Ortan had no idea what to make of it. He hadn’t noticed anything like this the last time he had been up to the temple grounds.

Dotted among the grass were fairly sizeable stones, all uniform. In addition to their size, their spacing seemed contemplated and orderly.  After a minute recognition swept over Ortan’s face. Grave markers. The reason he hadn’t seen any human remains littered among the rubble is that they had all been painstakingly collected and buried here, and Dem had been the one to do it. He had laid his entire village to rest here in the shadow of the temple’s husk. It was in that moment of revelation that the sun finally crested it’s way over the ridge, bathing the area in the first rays of the direct sunlight.

Suddenly, from the fertile earth above each grave, something emerged from the ground. Thin tendrils of green snaked their way up from the damp earth and into the air, leaves unfolding as they rose. Then all at once, flowering buds burst open on each of the newly formed plants, bathing the field in a wash of color that mirrored the composition the sun had painted across the sky.

Ortan stood in breathless amazement. The magic in this place hung tangibly in the air and just the sight of this sudden burst of life after weeks of traversing the cold, sleeping earth filled him with a bit of renewed hope. “Good morning,” Dem said, looking up, his prayers completed. “Are you ready to be on our way?” As he said this he rose to his feet, and his countenance was solemn and then it slowly slid back into a look of resolute purpose.

“Yes, as soon as we can pack up camp, I am ready to go.”
“Good, we are about half a day from the entrance into the land beneath the mountains.”
Beneath the mountains?” Ortan inquired, not sure what to make of Dem’s comment.
“Yes. Styrheim, The Infernal City, lies deep underground within the mountains. Given the direction you sensed your sister was moving, there is no other likely destination. As such, we should leave as soon as we are able.”

They packed up camp in a matter of minutes and set off before the sun had made it much higher in the sky. Ortan was eager to reach Jesali, but the prospect of traveling alongside Dem filled him with a renewed vigor. He had to resist the urge to pepper the tiefling with an endless barrage of questions. There was so much Ortan felt Dem could teach him about the nature of the world, and he could barely hold back the flood. Unable to resist completely, he chose his first inquiry, trying to remain as nonchalant as possible.

“The ground near the graves on the temple grounds… Why was the snow melted in that circle?” For a minute Dem said nothing, the crunching of the snow the only sound as the three trekked, and Ortan briefly worried if he had overstepped his bounds. Ortan could relate to Dem’s loss, not of an entire village perhaps, but of those closest to him. He wasn’t eager to discuss things closely related to his parents so he could understand if he had struck a nerve.

After a moment, the paladin simply smiled at Ortan and explained, his voice gracious. “It has much to do with the nature of magic. It can cling to the earth in places; the land can be imbued with latent magical essence by events of sacrifice.” Ortan’s face screwed into an expression that looked as if he had just been asked to solve an arithmetic equation. Maybe this line of questioning had been a mistake for a starting point.

“I don’t know much about magic,” Ortan confessed. “Didn’t have much need to know much about it on the farm. Didn’t affect our business, the trinkets and baubles the local artificers sold were mostly too expensive and more luxury than a necessity. My dad would say, ‘why spend half the harvest’s profits on a stick that makes water when we’ve got buckets and a creek and horses?’ He was a practical man.”
“It sounds like he was a wise man,” said Dem, nodding. “Too many run to magic to solve their problems without understanding it’s cost.”

“Like, gold?”
“Well, in the case of the trinkets you describe, yes. But magic as a whole carries with it some more complex costs.” Dem’s voice was calm and fatherly, with no hint of condescension or the slightest bit of annoyance, and Ortan began to feel more comfortable in his questioning. Dem set him at ease and Ortan was able to begin putting the pieces together into something that made a little sense.

“You said that the land was imbued by sacrifice? So, those people dying made the land… magical?” Ortan’s face flushed a little, unsatisfied with his wording but unable to find something more appropriate. “All magic requires a certain degree of sacrifice. Whether tapping into the powers of nature, of the gods, or one’s own latent potential, harnessing those powers has a cost. Death can be that cost sometimes, either through valiant self-sacrifice or with the darker magics, the blood of others… but no, it was not the sacrifice of the people of Grache that imbued the land on its own.”

“Oh?,” Ortan said, puzzled.”
“Magic requires sacrifice, but also purpose. It needs a will to guide it to some end, otherwise, it just fizzles into nothing. The people of Grache were slaughtered, but not by those seeking to purposely harness that power for some evil end. No, I believe I am responsible for the small amount of magic that has attached itself to the land there. In the wake of the tragedy there, I spent months digging through the rubble to ensure that all who met their end that night had a proper burial in the sight of Lathander. Lathander blessed the sacrifice of my time by granting me magic to aid the process, and my will left its mark on the land.”

“I’m not sure I entirely understand,” Ortan said, brow furrowed. At this, Dem let out a hearty laugh.
“I’m not sure I do either,” he said, his smile wide. “There is much mystery in magic. I may be slightly more well-versed than you, but perhaps only slightly, in the relative sense of things.”

“Interesting,” Ortan said sincerely. All of this was fascinating to him. It was a window into a much larger world that had always existed just beyond the horizon for him, but with the death of his parents and the disappearance of his sister, it was one that he had been thrust headlong into with no primer. He thanked Pelor that he had encountered Dem and that the paladin was so patient and willing to guide him. The few mages he had met in passing during his few years in Marecade seemed to look down their nose at those who lacked knowledge of the mystical; it had seemed to Ortan to be a bit of an exclusive caste.

The morning was bright, and the air crisp, perfect for traveling. Had they been facing a strong wind, or worse, blizzards, the walk would have been far more arduous. If not for the urgency and mission at hand, it would have been, to Ortan, almost pleasant. At the very least, his conversation with Dem helped the time pass and was able to take his mind off of his sister’s peril for a few small spurts of respite. A few more minutes of silence passed before Ortan asked his next question, feeling enough time had passed that it would feel more like a casual conversation than an inquisition. “So, have you been to this Infernal City before?”

“I have, I am less than eager to return, but we must do what we can to find your sister.”
“I appreciate that,” Ortan said. “Infernal City... Doesn’t sound like a fun place.”
“I assure you, it isn’t. I suppose most tieflings would feel right at home there, but I am not most tieflings.” Ortan knew this to be true, though not from personal experience. Dem still remained the only tiefling he had encountered, but he knew from their reputation that Dem was an outlier of his race.

“The city is inhabited by a great deal of my kind, in fact, there are few places in the realm where you will find a larger concentration. This is why we must make haste. There are not many humans in Styrheim, both you and your sister will attract attention… and that could be problematic.”
“Who’s attention is it that we want to avoid?”
“Everyone’s if possible. It’ll be hard to pick out the unsavory types since most wandering the streets of the city have probably had the descriptor applied to them at some point. We should do our utmost to steer clear of the Triarch’s guard in particular if we can help it.”

“Triarch?”
Dem’s expression darkened. “Styrheim is ruled by The Triarch, a group of three who rule absolutely. You will see a large palace when we reach Styrheim; they reside there. Their guard garrison is the city’s marshal force. Attracting the attention of the Triarchy is a good way to end up in a cell… or worse.”
“Noted. Let’s try keeping our distance then,” Ortan chuckled, more from nerves than mirth.
“Agreed.”

Several hours passed. Ortan, like a patch of sun-parched ground, absorbed any bit of information Dem was willing to dispense. He tried not to seem overeager and to give the paladin plenty of chances to just enjoy the silence of travel. Ortan was relieved whenever the paladin would offer up conversation unprompted and it made him feel less like a niggling child. Ortan did not think Dem was that much older than he was, but he couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the tiefling and his father.

Ortan had driven his father to his wit’s end with much less when he was a child. His father wasn’t really a gentle man, and could not suffer his insistent questioning for long. Ultimately, Ortan’s nagging would resolve with a solid “that’s just the way it is,” said as firmly as a door closing. Ortan knew his Father had loved him, but it remained largely unspoken, as did most things the man thought. Dem, on the other hand, seemed willing to answer any question Ortan posed, though he did not have an answer for all of them.

The conversation made the time pass relatively quickly, and there was still a bit of daylight left before Dem brought them up to the opening of a cave.
“This is where we say goodbye to the sun for the remainder of our trip. We will move underground from here forth.” Ortan fished around in his bag for a torch and begin to try to light it when Dem held up a hand. The tiefling removed his shield from where he had it strapped to his back and held it in front of him. It was the same shield Ortan had seen the other day upon waking, emblazoned with the image of the rising sun cresting the horizon. It glittered and gleamed in the sunlight. Wait, no. It was glowing with a light of its own as if the graven image etched into his shield held a portion of the solar flame. Dem ducked inside the cave and at once their path was illuminated.

“Ok, that’s pretty cool,” Ortan said.
“Perks of serving the sun god,” Dem said with a chuckle and a wink as they made their way into the cave and beneath the mountain.

The Mountain’s Maw – Part 6: Den of Sin

The small tiefling boy led the company through the streets of Styrheim for what, to Jesali, seemed like ages. Her eyes had begun to adjust to the relative blackness of the city, but she still feared that were she to lose sight of her party now, she would have no idea how to make her way back to the city gates.

The streets and alleyways of the city twisted and turned all over, some ascending to make elevated walkways between buildings, others tunneling beneath the rock into complete darkness. It was a complete maze to Jesali, with no apparent design or forethought that she could observe. Upon closer inspection of the buildings, it seemed that some were rather new, while others appeared ancient, their stone crumbling and patched in places. It was as if the city had stood for thousands of years, and rather than expanding outward like some surface cities did, it was just constantly being built over.

It was at one such nondescript building that the boy finally stopped. There was nothing that Jesali could see from the outside that identified it as different than any of the dozens of buildings around it, or the hundreds they had passed to get here. Nevertheless, their trek stopped and the boy turned to Malrinn, palm extended.

Malrinn eyed him dryly before flicking his hand to Ingar, who dug out a small copper coin and tossed it to the boy. The boy snatched it up with a look of spurn that communicated he had expected more and it almost seemed he was about to demand it, but then thought better of it, sizing up the barbarous brute Ingar and deciding to let it go. Without a word he took off down one of the alleyways and vanished into the labyrinthine metropolis.

Ingar approached the door and rapped on it three times with his meaty fist. After a minute or two, some shuffling sounds could be heard inside and then a small slit in the door slid open revealing two yellow eyes surrounded by red skin. They peered quizzically out at the three travelers and then said in the common tongue. “What is your business?”

Jesali was surprised to hear the voice speak in the language that she understood. She assumed it must have been because the being had looked out and seen that two of them were human. Whatever the case may be, Jesali was glad to at least have an inkling of what was going on.

Malrinn moved forward, brushing Ingar aside with the back of his hand, and came into the view of the being behind the door. Upon seeing Malrinn, the yellow eyes went wide and the slit quickly slid shut. Then, Jesali could hear the sound of latches being undone on the other side of the door. A moment later the door swung wide, creaking as it did, to reveal a male tiefling standing in the doorway, smiling wide.

“Master Tzull!”, he said joyously, “I apologize for the inquisition. I did not recognize your retinue.” As he said this, he bowed low, and Jesali could see that his horns were decorated with all manner of finery; gold and silver bands encrusted with jewels, a few fine chains hung from them, some pearled, crisscrossing over his short, slicked-back hair. He wore a tunic of fine purple silk which flowed over his frame, masking its exact form in layers of cascading fabric. His tail swished back and forth with excitement, as he smiled rakishly up at them. It was also banded with jewelry, as were his arms, and his fingers held several rings.

He rose from his bow and a wave of warm air from the room behind him rolled out through the doorway and over Jesali. It swirled with aromatic smoke that was thick with the smell of fruit and spices. It was a bit overpowering, though not wholly unpleasant.
“Please, come in,” he said, stepping to the side of the door and holding his hands out in a welcoming gesture, “I’ve been expecting you.”

The building inside opened up into a large room filled with draperies and silks hanging from the ceiling, dividing the room into smaller sections. From where they entered, Jesali could see that there were piles of cushions all over the floor, and all manner and race of people lounged in the smoky air. None of the denizens gave them so much as a sidelong glance, some engaged in low conversation with each other. Others drank wine from garish goblets and drew in smoke from the hoses of large central hookahs that dotted the room. Others still just laid back and stared at the ceiling, their faces screwed into stupid grins.

Moving back and forth through the throng were several serving girls of varied races clad in barely enough cloth to be considered clothing, which made Jesali blush. They poured wine and served food to the patrons as they lounged, and each of them wore a thick brass choker around their next. It did not look comfortable.

“Where are my manners,” the tiefling man said after a moment, turning more to Ingar and Jesali than Malrinn. “I am Rakon Teel.” He flashed another charismatic smile at Jesali and before she could react, took her hand in his and kissed it. “J… Jesali,” she said meekly, her name catching in her throat.

He put his hand out a moment later to shake Ingar’s hand, but the barbarian merely grunted and looked at him. Whether the tiefling was offended or not was not apparent from his smooth demeanor. He lifted his hands and clapped them twice and almost instantly, two more serving girls appeared carrying trays holding goblets of wine. They held the trays out but kept their eyes low in the posture of servants. Rakon took a goblet for himself, and motioned to the tray, offering the drinks to his guests. Malrinn held up a hand in refusal, and Jesali followed suit, but Ingar grabbed one goblet in each hand and drank greedily.

Though he was quite charming at first blush, Jesali felt in her stomach that Rakon was not to be trusted. She could not say for certain what it was about him exactly, she had only really interacted with one other tiefling for any length of time, and though he was also quite charismatic, he was also very different. Unlike Rakon, Jesali had immediately felt comfortable with Dem. But here in this den where things she could only imagine took place, she felt it was best to remain guarded.

Rakon led them further into his establishment until they reached the far side of the large room and a large wooden door. He swung it open wide and gestured for them to enter as he held the door open. Malrinn strolled inside with a lack of concern that put Jesali at ease at least somewhat. If the elf had no suspicions of Rakon, then they were probably safe for the moment. She still did not like him but proceeded into the room at his request. Ingar brought up the rear, now with two newly filled goblets and small rivulets of wine dribbling from the corners of his mouth, leaving droplets to hang in his wiry beard.

This room was much smaller and resembled more of a private lounge. “Take a seat wherever you like,” Rakon said. Malrinn made no move to sit, but his refusal simply rolled off of Rakon. Ingar plopped down on one of the big cushions and waved a now newly emptied goblet at the servant girl that had been shadowing him, and she proceeded to fill it in haste. Jesali chose to stand as well.

Rakon turned to another servant that had been following close behind him and for the first time since they’d arrived, said something in what Jesali was now beginning to recognize as the tiefling tongue. The servant bowed low and backed out of the room hurriedly, off to fetch whatever it was that Rakon had sent her to retrieve. It was not long before the servant returned followed by two guards.

The guards were also tieflings, shirtless and each of their horns was adorned with one silver band a piece. Both of them had large, menacing looking swords strapped to their sides. They were ushering a third figure into the room.

She was a tiefling as well, but different than any that Jesali had seen since entering the city. For one thing, her skin was a pale white rather than the red or grey she’d seen among others of her race. It was so pale it seemed to almost glow like moonlight in the dim interior light. She was not festooned with jewelry as Rakon was, but she did wear the brass choker of the serving girls. One of her two horns was broken off at about the midway point, a scar from some unfortunate past. Her outfit was simple and much less revealing than the rest of the serving girls, just a plain grey tunic. She was bound in chains, a few of them attached to the choker at her neck, by which the guards led her into the center of the room.

She appeared young to Jesali, though how young, she could not say since she was unfamiliar with how those of her race aged. Her face was soft, her expression dour, and her eyes were covered with a thick white veil. It wasn’t sheer and Jesali wondered how she could see through it, but a the same time, it did not seem to be a blindfold placed purposely by the guards. It hung limply from her brow in front of her eyes, not bound tightly as if intended to keep her from seeing where she was.

As she entered the room, the smallest of smirks crept across Malrinn’s face for but an instant but disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared. Jesali had seen it though, and it proved that this girl was the reason that they had come to this place. It was such a fleeting expression, but it was enough to send cold shivers down Jesali’s spine. It was a look of hunger, the look a wolf gives an injured lamb.

Malrinn stepped toward her calmly while Rakon stood, hands clasped in front of him expectantly. He looked her at her with intense scrutiny, seemingly searching her for something. Then, he reached up and removed her veil, letting it fall to the floor. Her eyes were open, but they did not look at Malrinn. They were entirely milky white and did not seem to focus on anything. She was blind, Jesali realized. That is why the veil did not seem to impede her vision. The veil was not for her, but a courtesy to others, that they need not look upon her sightless gaze.

Malrinn placed his hand on either side of her face and studied it, reminiscent of the way one might study a horse they wished to purchase. It sickened Jesali. She half expected Malrinn to pinch her jaw open and begin examining her teeth, but thankfully, he released her without any further intrusion. What kind of person had she taken up traveling with? Jesali shivered, regret at her choice of traveling companions swelling in her gut.

Rakon nodded approvingly once Malrinn had finished his physical examination of the poor girl, and then spoke. “Do you wish for a demonstration?” he said. Malrinn nodded coolly, and Rakon barked something to the girl in tiefling language. She looked stricken, blushing and saying nothing. She stood hesitantly for an instant before one of the guards produced a whip from his belt. No sooner had the whip unfurled did the girl let out a barely audible gasp, and straighten, bowing her head low to Rakon. The guard did not move to strike her as she began to acquiesce to her master’s request. Jesali was surprised, she hadn’t heard the guard make any noise as he brandished the whip, though somehow the girl had perceived the threat.

The pale tiefling girl held up her hands in surrender and then closed her eyes and bowed her head. For a moment nothing happened. Then, her head snapped back up violently, her eyes open and glowing with an eerie blue light. The hanging silk around the room began to ruffle as a preternatural breeze manifested from nowhere.

“Malrinn Tzull, approach,” she said in a voice that was at once commanding and gentle. It sounding nothing like what Jesali had imagined the small, timid slave to sound like. She also was fairly certain that no one had said Malrinn’s name in her presence. Rakon had said it earlier upon their arrival, but nowhere near the pallid tiefling. Malrinn, not one to be ordered about, approached her once again with no hint of reluctance. As he stood in front of her, she placed her hand on his forehead. The girl’s sudden, sharp in-draw of breath made Jesali realize that she was holding her own and she forced herself to let it out and take in fresh air. The girl’s eyes closed again and for a moment Malrinn’s eyelids fluttered. Then she spoke.

“To the ends of the earth the scattered four, brought together to unleash the hoard. King of fire, prince of glade, one imprisoned within the grave. And one… One you already possess…” Then she released Malrinn and the glow in her eyes faded. She looked visibly haggard like whatever had just happened had taken some of her vitality from her.

She and Malrinn just stood for a minute, looking into each other’s eyes. Jesali could see tears welling in the young tiefling’s eyes. Then, almost inaudibly, she spoke again. This time her voice matched much more closely to her appearance, frail, delicate, and airy.
“I’m sorry,” she said, cupping Malrinn’s face in one of her hands, “She was beautiful.”

Suddenly, the room exploded with movement. Malrinn struck the girl fiercely with the back of his hand and she crumpled to the floor. “How dare you speak of her!” His voice broke, quivering with rage. His eyes were wild and beginning to fill with tears. “I am not to be pitied by the likes of you!” Jesali stepped back instinctively as Malrinn roiled with unbridled rage. She had seen nothing but the slightest hint of emotion from the elf for the entirety of their travel to the Infernal City. Whatever this clairvoyant young girl had seen within him had allowed her to cut him so deeply to the quick that his normally unflappable facade was rendered inert. He stood at once open, raw and exposed for all in the room to see.

The girl remained in a crumpled heap on the floor as Malrinn turned his back to her, a few stray tears streaming down his cheeks which he quickly wiped away. A small trickle of blood leaked from the girl’s nose and down her face, her mouth parted slightly as shallowed breaths passed in and out.

Rakon, mortified, began to rush to Malrinn’s side, fumbling an apology, as one of the guards pulled the girl to her feet and began to carry her half-limp form from the room. Malrinn raised a hand to silence Rakon. “I will return for later for the whelp. Ingar will settle the account with you now.” Ingar was already standing, the action of the past few minutes enough to rouse him from his drinking. With that, Malrinn left the way they had come, his affected air of disinterest slowly settling back and wrapping him like a cloak. Jesali was unsure whether she should follow, but he left too quickly for her to decide to join him, so she remained with Ingar. The remaining guard stood near the guard, eyes fixed on her and Ingar, hand resting on the hilt of his sword.

“As you can see, she is something of a rarity. That makes her quite valuable to me,” Rakon weaseled, started in on his haggling immediately as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Ingar just stood, stone-faced, his bulky arms crossed in front of him. “We have gold,” he said flatly, sending a breath heavy-laden with alcohol washing over Rakon, who managed only to wince slightly and blink a few times.

“Gold is nice. But, as a businessman, I’m interested in… investments,” he said, the last word dripping with predatory meaning. Ingar seemed to consider things for a moment and then clasped one huge hand on to Jesali’s shoulder so tight she almost cried out. He turned to her and said, “Your debt’s square, love.” Then he shoved her toward the guard before she could react, who caught her and restrained her.

“No! What are you doing! Let me go!” Jesali cried, completely blindsided. She began to scream, kicking uselessly against the vice-like grip of the tiefling guard. He wrestled with her, but he was much stronger than her, and it wasn’t long before he had clapped her arms in irons behind her back. Then, he tied a cloth gag around her mouth to drown out her protests. She continued to make muffled noises as the bargaining continued in front of her.

“She’ll do,” Rakon said lecherously, his eyes surveying Jesali from the ground up, “She is definitely the sort more of clients usually go for. Many of them have much more… base desires than your friend Malrinn.” Jesali’s muffled cries transitioned to sobs, tears streaming down her face and soaking the gag around her mouth.

“It’s not an even trade,” he continued, “She’ll have to be broken, and that takes time. My investment won’t be profitable for some time. You’ll need to throw in some more… liquid assets.” Ingar huffed and tossed a bag of gold at Rakon’s feet less than respectfully. The rakish procurer seemed satisfied with that and dismissed Ingar with a wave of his hand as. Without a hint of remorse, Ingar took one last look at Jesali and turned to leave the same way as Malrinn had.

Jesali overwhelmed with emotion, her head swimming with the sudden betrayal, slumped to the floor and began to feel her consciousness slip. Between the constant travel of the last few days, and the shock of the last few moments, the tidal wave of fatigue swept over her with such force that she stood no chance of fighting it. Jesali slipped into unconsciousness, now a prisoner in a strange land, her last thought a prayer to Pelor. She heard no reply.

The Mountain’s Maw – Part 5: Traveling Companions

Styrheim was unlike any city Jesali had ever seen. The buildings were made from the blackest rock; it was impossibly black, seeming to devour the light around it. However, the cavernous city was not devoid of light. It was illuminated by giant braziers of flame dotted throughout its twisting streets and atop taller buildings. The roofs of the buildings were made not of the cedar shakes of the small villages she was used to, but brilliantly gleaming copper.

Looking out over the city, it almost appeared as a field of stars, the black of the buildings blending into a shadowed backdrop while each of the metallic roofs reflected their own pinpoint of light. It was brilliant and beautiful.

Jesali could not tell what fueled the brazier’s flames. Were it wood, they would easily require the contents of a small forest to keep the city lit even a day. Jesali saw no evidence of logging, and they had passed many forests on their way to Styrheim, all intact, so the braziers must have had another source.

Upon entering the city, Jesali’s senses were accosted by a barrage of sight and sound. The streets of the city were bustling with all manner of creatures; elves, dwarves, and many, many tieflings. There were humans among them too, but they were a definite minority; it made Jesali feel out of place and she wondered if this was how these creatures felt when they came to human cities. Many of the small towns she had known growing up were entirely populated by humans and ones that were quite skittish of “other-folk” at that.

Jesali could count on one hand the times she had seen an elf or dwarf passing through the farmlands she called home and until a few years ago, she had never even seen a tiefling. She knew the majority of humanity regarded them as monsters and suspected them to be in league with demons and dark abominations. The tieflings, no doubt aware of their reputation, seemed to think it better to keep to their own kind. The tiefling paladin she had met a few years back had seemed different than what she had heard.

Redemption Ravenhart had not seemed evil at all, in fact far from it. He had saved them, Ortan and her. He had been so strong, so confident. So good. He was every bit the storybook hero knight-in-shining-armor, save for the horns and eyes and color of his skin. He had literally shown with holy light that night as he fought back the hoards of undead.

That one night had left an impression on Jesali. She wanted to be like that. She wanted to be able to fend for herself, and more, to be able to protect people. Dem -he had said to call him- had been so sure of his faith and purpose that he could manifest the power of the gods to drive away evil and suffering. She longed for such a connection to the gods, and the power to stand for good. She longed not to be helpless.

Since that night, she had spent the past few years in Marecade trying to figure out how she could find this mysterious paladin. She had begun serving at an inn for room and board and a little coin and had asked everyone that passed through if they knew anything about the mysterious Lathandrian knight. She had gone to the monasteries and temples around Marecade too, but her search had proved fruitless. No one knew anything. Most would become quite tight-lipped the minute she began to describe his devilish features. It was nothing short of divine providence that she had run into the elf Malrinn on his way through Marecade.

She had overheard him speaking with a mercenary that she now knew as Ingar about venturing into the mountain to the city of the tieflings. Swallowing her fear, she approached them and begged to go with them, offering them a large portion of the money she had left from selling their farm and working at the inn in Marecade. Surely she would be able to find Redemption there, among his kind- or at the very least, someone there would know how to find him.

And that was how she had come to set out for Styrheim with a barbarian and a sorcerer, venturing out into the wild world without her brother or anyone she knew. It had terrified her, but she did not shrink from it as she had things in the past. She did not want to be a mouse anymore. She had to fight every day to keep that resolve. Whenever she dwelled too long on her decision to leave Marecade, she could feel the dread begin to surface, but she would muster every ounce of bravery she had and press on with her singular goal in mind.

Now as she walked the streets of that very city, she could feel a pit growing in her stomach. Crowds packed the streets so full that she had to turn sideways often to make her way through the throngs of people. Ingar’s hulking mass and intimidating aura afforded him a wide berth that the crowds did not give to all. Malrinn was able to remain unmolested by the throng by merely traveling in Ingmar’s wake. She understood a little more about why Malrinn traveled with Ingar as she watched them traverse the crowded streets.

They passed various shops and roadside stands where vendors hawked their wares. In this way, it felt similar to any other city. It was only when Jesali looked at the faces of the people buying and selling and noticed their pointed ears, yellow eyes, swept back horns- only then did it feel odd, this strange city in the belly of the mountain, simultaneously completely normal and incredibly foreign.

After they had been walking through the city for a good hour, they came to a sort of central bazaar in a large clearing surrounded by buildings. Malrinn approached one of the stalls that appeared to be selling leather goods and laid a copper piece on the counter of the stall. Keeping his finger on it, he said a few words to the burly man behind the counter. Jesali could not hear what they were saying.

Then the man barked something in a language she did not understand over his shoulder and a young tiefling boy appeared and came out to Malrinn. Satisfied, the elf lifted his finger to release the coin and the man snapped it up greedily as Malrinn turned from the stall to speak with the boy.

The language they spoke was not one that Jesali recognized. It was deep, but not guttural or harsh. She had heard Malrinn speak elvish once or twice on their journey, and this did not sound at all like that. Elvish was sweet and lilting, and it sounded elegant coming from Malrinn. This was something else, something dark that she almost couldn’t quite hear as if her ears were somehow not attuned to the strange sounds they made. The language had an off-putting quality to it that made Jesali’s skin crawl, but she could not place exactly what it was about it that made her feel the way she did. The boy replied in that same strange language and turned, waving his hand that they should follow.

Malrinn held up a finger to indicate the boy should wait a moment, then turned to Jesali.
“Well I believe this is where we part ways,” he said. “You can settle the rest of your passage remuneration with Ingar.” Jesali’s stomach dropped as panic surged through her, caught off guard by the sudden and abrupt nature of Malrinn’s statement. How would she proceed alone? She had not realized just how lost she would feel when she reached the city. Without being able to speak the language, she had no idea how she would find Dem.

“I…,” she began, “Can I accompany you for a bit longer… just until I get my bearings?” Ingmar laughed from behind them. “Scared little bird.”
“I’m not scared,” she protested, “just a bit out of my element here.”

Malrinn looked at her without the least bit of compassion and spoke.
“I am no nursemaid, child. If you are to accompany us, you will need to look out for yourself.”
“Also, you pay more,” Ingar chimed in, grinning deviously and tapping his index finger into his upturned palm, “twice the deposit plus what you still owe.”

Jesali tried to do the mental arithmetic quickly, knowing that Malrinn was not a patient elf. She considered what remained in her coin purse, and shoving down her growing internal panic, decided that the continued assistance of Malrinn and protection of the brute Ingar were far more valuable than the gold.

“Alright,” she said. Ingar smiled widely, his hand seeming to caress phantom coins. Malrinn said nothing but his demeanor betrayed that it would not take much for him to end their relationship without warning. He turned back to the boy and gestured for him to lead on, and they followed as he led them through the winding streets of the city, to where, Jesali could only guess.

***

Ortan and Dem sat around a roaring fire outside Dem’s tent; the same tent that Ortan had woken up in a few hours earlier. The waves of warm air that washed over Ortan as they radiated from the fire echoed the waves of relief he felt at the company of another person. He had been mostly alone since leaving Marecade, and he hadn’t noticed how much it had taken it’s toll until he was suddenly not anymore. The only other beings he’d seen in the past month that had not tried to kill him were the kind folks at the Waylight Inn and his mysterious new wolf friend, who currently lay curled at his feet, asleep in the warmth of the fire.

“He isn’t mine,” Dem had said when Ortan had thanked him for sending the wolf, “You seem to have a bit of a guardian angel.” Dem smiled and the irony of his devilish face smiling at the mention of angels was not lost on Ortan; Dem was the very embodiment of juxtaposition. “He found me here, camped in the village,” he continued. “You were poisoned -skaradyle venom, nasty stuff. You were quite fortunate he found me when he did. Had you gone much longer without intervention, I fear you would not be sitting here tonight.”

Ortan looked down at the beast asleep at his feet. After he had discovered Dem here in the ruins of the village Grache, he had assumed the wolf was some sort of magical or holy beast sent by the tiefling. Now he was left with so many questions. Was it just a normal wolf, abandoned by its pack, following him because he had fed it? Had he imagined it’s radiating light? Dem wasn’t as helpful in answering those questions as he would like and was, in Ortan’s opinion, a bit quick to attribute things to the work of the gods.

Ortan was surprised to have crossed paths with the mysterious paladin again. He had disappeared without a trace shortly after saving him and Jesali from a mob of skeletons a few years back. The fact that he was the one to treat Ortan’s poisoning now had left him a bit gob-smacked at the sheer unlikelihood of it all, and he had said as much. “There is no such thing as a coincidence, all is as Lathander wills it,” Dem had said. At this, Ortan could not suppress a scoff.

“All?”, Ortan said incredulously, “My parents are dead. My sister is missing… Is this the will of your Lathander?” After this, the silence was palpable, broken only by the crackling of the fire and the occasional chirping of some unknown nightlife. Ortan’s tone was perhaps more biting than he had intended it to be, and he immediately felt shame for the way he had responded. He hadn’t meant to direct his frustration at Dem, especially after the paladin had saved his life twice now.

Finally, Dem spoke, his voice softly edging the silence aside. “Disaster is an unavoidable aspect of life.” He motioned in a sweeping gesture to the ruins around them, his face a mixture of concern and perhaps guilt. “I learned that at a very young age.” A look of realization flooded Ortan’s face, and the shame he had felt began to boil over. This was no random village to Redemption Ravenhart, this was his village.

Dem gave him a knowing look and a gentle smile and he continued, “I was the only one to survive when the village was raided. I came back to find everyone that I had ever loved gone, and I buried them all.” Dem’s eyes sparkled as they began to fill with tears at the memory, but he blinked them back. “I spent a long time cursing Lathander. Asking him why he did not keep the rectory from burning. Why he had to take my only family from me… It took me a long time to realize I had been given a gift.”

Dem sat back and sighed deeply, releasing the flood of emotion-filled memory into the air around him. “Not a gift in the destruction of the village, but a gift in it being my home at all. Every year I was able to live in that monastery was a gift I easily could never have received…” As he looked into the distance, seemingly caught in a new flood of memory, he trailed off. Ortan could think of nothing to say.

They sat in silence now as the fire crackled, ash floating up to heaven like pixies in flight, darting and sparkling in the darkness. “I may have been too quick to speak earlier,” Dem said, breaking the silence and looking Ortan in the eye. “The truths of the gods are complex, and too often, mortal words fail to convey them well. Brevity can do more harm than good.”

Ortan let out a breath in a heavy sigh. “I’m just frustrated… faith… the gods… putting any real stock in them is new to me. It was always my parents or my sister who were the religious types.” Dem nodded.

“Now, I’ve been trying to feel what they felt. I guess the ritual of it all makes me feel connected to my family, especially my mother -to some sort of a solid past- It’s comforting, but I still have my doubts about how much more it is than that.”

Ortan eyed Dem’s sword hanging at his side. “Though it’s pretty hard to deny there’s something to it when I see you swinging that thing around all lit up with daylight.” At this, Dem chuckled. “The gods make their presence known through their servants, and I have faith that if you are truly looking they will not hide themselves from you. It is a journey we must each take on our own.”

“Have you been traveling alone this whole time?” Dem said, changing the subject. Ortan was glad for the change, discussing his shaky faith with a full-fledged paladin, even such a gentle and charismatic one, was intimidating, to say the least. From someone else, the question would have seemed to Ortan to be chastising; he acknowledged it was not the wisest decision to travel these lands without the strength of an entire party. From Dem though, the question seemed genuine and without a hint of reproach.

“As soon as I found out Jesali was gone, I set out to find her. I should have hired a mercenary or two to go with me, but I felt that there wasn’t time,” Ortan said, a bit of the shame returning, “An unwise mistake I almost paid dearly for.”
“You’ve made progress in your search?”
Ortan held up his hand to show Dem the charm wrapped around his palm. The paladin nodded, seeming to understand.
“Which way from here?” he asked.

Ortan closed his eyes and focused, then held out his arm and pointed. When he opened his eyes, he saw Dem’s expression twist into a frown. “I was afraid of that,” he said, following the direction of Ortan’s pointing with his eyes.
“You know where they are going?” Ortan asked hopeful, though also afraid of whatever it was that had soured Dem’s expression.
“There is only one place that makes sense in that direction. They are bound for the Heart of the Mountain, the Infernal City, Styrheim.” Ortan had heard only vague rumors about the place, but from what he had heard it seemed like a place quite inhospitable towards humans.

We leave in the morning,” Dem said.
“Dem…” Ortan began to protest. He held up his hand to gently quiet Ortan.
“You said it yourself, it’s unwise to travel alone. Besides, it is not a place you will be able to get into on your own. It is the city of demonlings, the people of my birth. Though I have no family among them, I do know their ways and will be quite useful to you there.”
“You’ve done so much for me already,” Ortan said, unsure how to properly convey his gratitude. “I go where Lathander leads, our meeting here is no accident. We will leave at first light, if your sister is truly in Styrheim, then there is no time to waste.”

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.