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 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 Mountain’s Maw – Part 4: Intervention

The sun was high in the sky now and, still, Ortan traveled deeper into the mountains in search of Jesali. The longer he traveled, the more the terrain continued to grow difficult and inhospitable. The enchantment on his palm had led him to a narrow mountainside path. He walked as if balanced on a blade’s edge; hard stone wall rising ever upward on to his left, deep chasm to his right. The thin band of earth that lay between was his only way forward.

He would occasionally pass small caves as he trod on; inlets in the cliff face where he might take a small respite, but they did not allow his mind the same rest as his body. He was wary, for any one of them could contain all manner of hidden horrors.

He felt exposed. With such a restrictive path, he felt vulnerable. Soon his worry became flesh. Signaled first by pebbles cascading down the mountainside to his left, something was moving quickly along the rock above him. Then, with a flash of grey-green, it came scurrying down the cavern wall towards him, cutting off any chance of retreating back the way he had come.

It landed on the path behind him as he whirled around the face it. It was a lanky, lizard-like creature and it stalked slowly towards him now, hissing as it did. Its long sinewy body was held aloft by four muscular legs built for running and jumping. Each leg ended in three large scythe-like claws.

Ortan had heard tale of dragons and other large reptilian beasts, but he did not recognize the beast standing before him now. As it menaced its way towards him, he prayed to Pelor for strength. He had come a long way to find his sister, and he would not let some wild animal bring his journey to an end.

It stared him down with ravenous intensity. Its eyes were hunter’s eyes, like his own in some respects, but yellow with diamond-shaped pupils. It crept toward him now; forked tongue flicking out from between its long needle-like teeth. He could sense the creature’s hunger. Its jaws snapped and its hissing grew louder, tail twitching with anticipation.

Ortan calmly and methodically moved his arms towards the bow strapped to his back, being careful not to move fast enough to provoke the animal to pounce. He felt the smooth leather grip of his recurved bow with one hand, and his other hand soon made contact with the fletching of an arrow. Before he could draw them, however, the creature stirred.

It reared itself up onto its hide legs and threw its head back, letting out three screeching cries. It landed back on all fours, tilting its head to the side and licking at the air. Ortan’s heart sank a moment later when from two distinct directions he heard similar cries. Amid the slowly-loudening sounds of skittering approach, Ortan tried his best to formulate a plan. He dared to steal a glance over his shoulder, in the direction he had been heading before the ambush. The narrow path seemed to open up ahead. As the other lizards closed on him, he had no choice now but to act.

Quick as a whip he pulled his bow, nocking the arrow as he did. Time seemed to slow as the lizard that had been stalking him seemed ready to explode with movement. The tension in its powerful legs mimicked that of his taut bow, and they both released the pent up energy at the same time.

The creature flew toward him as he let his arrow fly. It took no longer than a second before it crashed into him. It hit him in the shoulder; its thick skull battering him hard, almost sending him to the ground. The claws and teeth Ortan expected never came though, as the creature landed with a thud. The arrow had hit its mark, right into one of the creature’s eyes.

Ortan barely had time to register what had happened, adrenaline vibrating through his veins. He turned and ran as fast as he could up the path, as black ichor began to spill from the lizard’s limp corpse. He darted up the path to where it widened out into a shelf as more lizard-howls reverberated off the crags around him.

It wasn’t long before Ortan realized his mistake. He came skidding to a stop, his boots sliding a bit on the loose gravel of the path. What he could not see before was that the path came to an abrupt end. From the looks of things, it had collapsed and there was no longer a fast way through.

If he weren’t being chased, he might have been able to scale the cliff face down to another ledge that ran along the cliff, but if he attempted that now he would have no way to defend himself and the beasts would surely overtake him. He briefly considered trying to jump, but he did not like his odds of survival. So he pivoted on his heel and drew his sword just as the first two lizards reached him.

He rolled out of the way as the first dove at him, catching the second midair with his blade. It barely made a scratch in the creatures thick hide, a small line of black appearing on its chest. The creature hissed its disapproval and still managed to land on its feet, its momentum carrying it skidding backward towards the cliff edge.

Thinking quickly, Ortan rushed it, giving it a swift kick and sending the off-balance lizard rolling off the edge. It screeched as it fell. Before Ortan could tell whether or not it had managed to survive, the other lizard was on him. There was a bright burst of pain as the lizard sank its long teeth into Ortan’s shoulder and didn’t let go. The weight of the beast dragged him to the ground; the force of the bite holding him fast. His vision began to darken at the edges as he felt a new kind of pain radiate from the wound.

His insides burned like a blacksmith’s mold being filled with liquid metal; the white-hot pain slithering through his veins, seeping into every vein and capillary. His muscles began to seize and it became difficult to keep a grip on his sword.

Fear gripped Ortan as the realization hit him that this could die here as some beast’s prey. In the chaos, he thought he could make out two lizards surrounding him, the one that had bitten him, and one other. He tried to scramble to his feet in vain as the second lizard closed the distance. It was almost upon him when another flash of movement slammed into it from behind, sending it up and over Ortan and over the side of the ridge.

The one still clamped to Ortan released him and spun to address the new arrival. Ortan recognized the new arrival. Standing tall wreathed in light, was the wolf he had spent the last evening with. He could not tell if he was imagining it, but the creature seemed no longer to be limping and to be rippling with some strange power. The beast, whatever it was, had followed him here. It bared its fangs at the lizard, growling. The final lizard, startled, gave a little ground and seemed to be sizing up this new threat.

The wolf moved around to interpose itself in front of Ortan. As the wolf and lizard stared each other down Ortan felt his consciousness slipping. The venom in his veins was tightening its hellish grip. As the two powerful creatures sqaured off, Ortan’s eyes closed. The last thought he had before the darkness took him was a hope that the wolf was indeed defending him and not just claiming him as its rightful kill.

***

Ortan awoke hours later groggy and disoriented. When he opened his eyes, he found himself in a small tent lit by flickering lantern light. He sat up and took a deep breath. His head throbbed but his arm and shoulder no longer burned. He pulled back his shirt to see that his wound had been dressed and bandaged.

Looking around the tent, it was fairly empty. A small pack and a stack of a few books lay off to one side. Other than the few lanterns and some cooking supplies, the only other thing of note in the tent was a shield. It was fairly ornate, with the image of a brilliant sun cresting the horizon engraved into the front of it. Even though the shield was decorated, it did not look like a mere display piece; in pits and scratches, it told the story of many an onslaught.

Ortan pulled himself to his feet and all of his muscles ached. He had no idea how long he had been asleep and where he was now, but he did not feel to be in immediate danger. He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword at his side. Whoever had helped him had left him with all his belongings and weapons. He moved to the entrance of the tent and out into the crisp night air.

Before he could take even two steps from the tent, he was tackled to the ground. Something warm and wet caressed his face and for a moment he was stunned. The large wolf stood over him, repeatedly licking his face, it’s weight pressing down on him painfully, if unintentionally so.

“Alright, easy…” he said, bringing his hands up to guard his face. After a minute the wolf abated and Ortan stood to his feet. The wolf stood staring at him, its tail wagging excitedly.

“Thank you,” Ortan said, “You came along at just the right time.” It let out a little yip; its almost playful sound contrasting the beast’s size. Then it turned and started to head off up the road, stopping after a few feet and turning to Ortan, beckoning him to follow with its eyes. Ortan did.

It led him away from the tent and up the winding road through what appeared to have at one time been a small village. It now lay in ruin. Long burnt-out husks of buildings and unrecognizable piles of rubble lined the streets. Ortan couldn’t help but picture the town as it had once been. He could almost see ghosts of children running and playing in the streets, lined with the apparitions of fruit and vegetable vendors hawking their ethereal wares. But the streets were full of neither life nor un-life, and they seemed to have been that way for years.

He passed what looked to at one time been the local blacksmith. Worked bits of wrought-iron littered the ground; pieces from the ordinary to the ornate, but all useless now. Only one of the four walls still stood, though what was left of it was only a few feet tall. The forge looked to be intact but was currently surrounded by a few small shrubs, growing up and out of what had at one time been the quenching barrel.

They continued along the winding path as it climbed a small hill that overlooked the remains of the village. Soon, a building that seemed to be much more intact than the rest began to come into view. Unlike the mostly wood buildings of the rest of the village, this was built of stone. As such, it had remained a little more together over the years, but it appeared it had not escaped the fate of the city below.

The stained glass windows were shattered; small bits of them clung still to the window frames in one of two of the least destroyed walls. Ortan imagined that they had been beautiful once. He could see in his mind’s eye the sun cresting the hill and filling them with vibrant first dawn’s light; the escapades of gods and holy men vibrating with an energy that proclaimed of their deeds across the barrier of time. As they neared, Ortan could see that the stone was covered in soot, and the doors and any other wood had been burned away.

This village was familiar to Ortan. He hadn’t been here, but he felt a connection to it. It reminded him of Mercade, though it appeared a bit smaller. It reminded him of Smard; the closest village to his childhood family farm. There were probably thousands of small towns like this one scattered all over the continent. This was the type of town that held his people; regular folks just trying to make a living. It hurt him to see this.

The wolf came to a stop in front of the arch where the church’s large wooden doors would have been; the threshold between the outside that was the town and the inside of the church that was now just additional outside. It stared at Ortan as if telling him to enter. Reverently, he stepped through the arch and continued down what would have been the center aisle of the sanctuary at one time.

He could tell, for one, because many of these small temples were laid out the same way. The place where he and Jesali had buried their parents was the same thing; a large main sanctuary with a few small adjoining rooms in the wings. The aisle was lined with piles of ash and half burned out pews.

In all this destruction, Ortan was surprised not to see a single bit of human remains; not a single skeleton. For a minute he thought of the Shadowood, of fighting off the hordes of skeletal warriors, and it sent a chill down his spine. He hoped there was a better reason behind it than something like that.

He reached the front of the sanctuary. There in the center was a large stone statue of a god. He looked to be a man, with a featureless face as these idols often had. Something sculpted into the stone stood out to Ortan though; he had what looked like rays of light coming from behind his head, making his head appear wreathed in sunlight.

“Lathander,” Ortan whispered under his breath. At the base of the statue was a large basin full of ash. Ortan almost paid it no mind- the entire village was full of ash- but suddenly a whiff of something he had not sensed before hit his nose. It was a pungently sweet aroma that reminded him of his parents funeral: incense. He pushed his fingers into the ash and to his surprise, they were warm.

He pulled his hand back instinctively. It wasn’t warm enough to burn him, but it startled him all the same. From what he could tell, the village had been abandoned for some time, but it seemed that someone had been here recently. He stared up at the statue and whispered again.

“Why am I here?”

His question hung in the still air for a moment and mixed with the lingering scent of holy herbs. Ortan stood respectfully and bowed his head, not really knowing why. He felt like the place he was in was once a very good place, and he wanted to honor what it had been, even if its god had left long ago.

To his surprise, the darkness answered him.

“You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”

He opened his eyes wide and stared at the statue, and the voice continued, “Welcome to the Temple of Lathander at Grache.” Ortan recognized the voice, and that it was coming from behind him. “It’s looked better,” it said.

He turned to see a familiar face. A grey-skinned tiefling stood behind him, clad in shining armor. His black hair moved lightly in the wind. Redemption Ravenhart, Paladin of Lathander flashed Ortan a charismatic smile. “You’re awake. That’s good!”

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.