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 2: Strange Bedfellows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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