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 3: Descent

Jesali’s feet ached more than they ever had before. She was not used to traveling at such a pace for so many days in a row. Now, each pained footfall punctuated just how far they had traveled in such a short time. She’d been uncomfortable on horseback, but under the current circumstances, she’d give anything to go back to the luxury of saddle sores.

The rough-hewn rock walls that surrounded her encroached too closely on the path for mounted passage to be possible, so she and her company had left the horses behind. The air around them in the cavern had been slowly warming for hours as they descended. Now, dripping with sweat, her exhaustion was beginning to set in. Her dark hair stuck to her forehead, and her once light colored pants were stained with weeks of dirt and sweat.

She removed the thick furry coat that she was still wearing and looked around for a minute, not sure what to do with it.
“Jus’ toss it,” came a gruff voice from behind her, “you won’ need that where we’re go’in.”

The source of the voice was a gigantic, barrel-chested lug of a man; one of her new traveling companions by the name of Ingar. He was covered in dense muscle and one might swear he was a lycanthrope from the sheer amount of thick black body hair that carpeted every exposed bit of his flesh. Only on his face, in the spaces around his eyes and on his forehead, did his bare skin show through. The bottom half of his face was obscured by a bushy black beard that looked course enough to take the skin off of your fingers, should you choose to stroke it.

Ingar grunted and spat on the cave wall as he lumbered just ahead of Jesali. He was dressed in the same traveling gear as he had worn through the snowy tundra: boots, shorts, and pauldrons -all fur covered- and a cowl made from the head of a bear. The cowl was constructed in such a way so that it appeared as if he was looking out of the bear’s roaring mouth. He seemed unphased by the change in temperature, though his exposed skin glistened with sweat. He smelled as if the outfit he wore was the only one he owned, and that he was often just as sweaty, or more so.

As they had traveled, he had not spoken often, but when he did it was short and to the point. He had not proven himself the brightest example of the human race but he made up for his lack of mental acuity with an ample supply of brawn. His physicality had made him a worthy travel companion many times over; Jesali had not had to worry about being assaulted during the night in any of the cities they had passed through. She had slept better at night knowing Ingar would come to her aid if something sinister happened upon their camp in the middle of the night.

Jesali complied with his suggestion and tossed the coat to the side of the corridor, and wiped the beads of sweat from her brow. She had lost track by now of just how long they had been inside the mountain. It was a strange sensation; without a view of the sky, there was no real way for her to guess the time of day or night. She thought about perhaps asking Ingar, but thought better of it, so she instead turned to her other companion.
“How long until we reach our destination?”
He did not respond. He seemed to be deep in thought or purposely ignoring her.

He was an elf, possibly noble-born, but he had not detailed his upbringing to Jesali. He held himself with a regality that spoke of much finer environs than Jesali was used to. She could not tell how old he was, or if he was particularly old at all as far as elves go, but she did guess from his appearance that he was probably older than she was. His long dark grey hair was pulled back behind his head and tied with a blue ribbon; a style which did nothing to hide his large pointed ears. His face seemed permanently affixed into a half-scowl.

He was dressed in long flowing robes that almost trailed the cavern floor as he walked, though Jesali could not see a speck of dirt on them, even after days of travel through the mud and snow. As they walked he held a book out in front of him and he seemed to be reading from it rather than paying attention much to where they were going. He would very occasionally look up to bark something to Ingar in a language Jesali did not understand and then return to his reading.

Finally, he surfaced long enough from the pages to take notice of her studying him.
“Did you need something?” he asked dryly, his eyes now reading her instead of the tome he held.
“I just wanted to know how much longer.” His gaze was harsh and discerning. It seemed to penetrate her; to look straight into her heart. Despite the intensity of his gaze, he did not seem angry at her question; his demeanor exuded something much more akin to boredom, mixed with the most minimal amount of curiosity, as he analyzed this woman now questioning him.
“We should be to The Infernal City within a day,” he answered with an air of disinterest before switching his attention back to his book. She got the feeling that would be all the information she’d glean from him for a while.

What followed was probably close to an hour of silence, save for the occasional uncouth body-sound from Ingar and the shuffling of their six boots on the stone. The deeper into the mountain they traveled the more the temperature in the cavern rose. Jesali, now shed of a few more layers of clothing, was beginning to feel as if they would never reach the city.

After a while, the hypnotic rhythm of their boots began to lull Jesali into an almost trance-like state. She stopped paying much attention to the tunnel around her and just followed Ingar while her mind drifted towards other things. She let herself get lost in thought for the first time since they had set off from Marecade, though not before having the thought that she could probably follow Ingar blindfolded, purely by smell alone.

She thought back to the time she had spent in Marecade with Ortan. As she thought about her brother, her chest grew tight; she had purposely been avoiding letting her mind traverse the alleys occupied by such thoughts. She knew he was probably worried sick about her, or even grieving her death by now. Had she made the right decision in leaving him behind? She regretted not telling him goodbye, not explaining to him what she needed to do. But time had been of the essence, and there was nothing she could do about it now. She hoped that, if the day ever came that she saw him again, he would forgive her.

Once she had made the decision to venture out on her own, things had happened so fast. She booked passage with these men because she could not make the journey alone. She could have asked Ortan to come, and he would have in a heartbeat, but she could not be her brother’s burden anymore. She was ashamed of how weak she had been. She thought back to that night in the Shadowood when they had almost been overtaken by the undead. She had felt so helpless; paralyzed by her own fear as those bony fingers gripped her wrists and dragged her through the dirt. Ortan had almost been overwhelmed by the hoard trying to save her. She had been weak, and she would have been responsible for both of their deaths had that strange paladin not arrived and come to their aid. She was sick of being saved.

In her reverie, she came close to a collision with Ingar, who had come to a stop in the middle of the corridor. She stopped herself just in time, but she got close enough to experience the full bouquet of his unwashed aura. She put her hand to her mouth and almost choked herself to keep from dry heaving. Just beyond him, the cavern appeared to come to an abrupt end.

“Malrinn!” Ingar called. The elf called Malrinn, who still had his nose buried in the book, held his finger up. His eyes did not leave the page as he stood this way, finishing the page he was on. After what seemed like a slightly spiteful amount of time, he closed the book, keeping his page marked with his other thumb.

“Git it open!” Ingar barked. Malrinn looked at Ingar, eyes cold, as he walked past the oaf and up to the cavern wall ahead of them. The alliance between the two of them seemed, to Jesali, to be tenuous at best. It was clear by the way they interacted that if each of them did not possess traits the other lacked, they would have dissolved their partnership long ago.

When Malrinn reached the wall he pressed his free hand against it, brushing his fingers along the rough surface seemingly feeling for something. After a moment, he settled on a spot about two feet up the wall and pressed his palm flat against it. He closed his eyes and muttered under his breath in yet another language that Jesali did not recognize. In an instant, a fist-sized hole appeared in the wall where Malrinn’s hand was touching it. He did not puncture the wall with force, the surface of the stone was simply unmade; one minute there, and the next gone. It happened in the blink of an eye, and Jesali felt slightly sick as her brain tried to process what had just taken place.

“Is ‘at it?” Ingar said mockingly, “Your goin’ta hafta make a bigger hole ‘an ‘at.”
Malrinn did not even bother with a response. He simply backed up from the hole he created and whistled. As the shrill sound filled the air Malrinn’s robes suddenly began to billow in the windless cavern. Then, seemingly from nowhere, something began moving within his robes. The strange bulge of fabric crawled across his chest, over his shoulder, and wriggled down the length of his arm, finally emerging from his sleeve. It was a long, serpent-like creature, covered in bright feathers. Its four clawed feet gripped Malrinn’s arm as it crawled along it and came to a sort of coiling perch on his hand.

The creature looked at Malrinn expectantly, coiling with potential energy like an overwound spring. He whistled again, two short blasts of varying timbre, and the creature took off in a flash of motion. It darted from Malrinn’s hand straight through the hole. Ingar yawned, seemingly unimpressed, but Jesali was rapt in utter amazement. She had never seen any creature like it before. Had Malrinn been hiding the thing under his robes this entire journey?

About a minute after the creature had disappeared into the cavern wall came a large audible click, and then the sound of scraping stone as the wall blocking their advance began to lift up revealing the way forward. Where once a blank wall stood, in its place now was an archway large enough for the three of them to pass through. The border of the arch was intricately carved stone, depicting flames and dancing imps.

Malrinn whistled again and the feathered serpent came bounding back up to him, leaping up to perch on his hand again. Malrinn scratched it under the chin and it let out a happy croak. With another whistle and a windless billow of Malrinn’s cloak and the thing disappeared to wherever it had come from.

Ingar just let out an indignant grunt and trudged forward. Jesali couldn’t help but stare at Malrinn in amazement. Up until this point, the elf had remained mostly engrossed in his reading material. This was the first time he had displayed the skills she had heard he possessed. Ingar had singlehandedly been able to drive off any bandits or beasts they had encountered on the trek. Malrinn hadn’t had to lift a finger yet, but puzzles and illusions were beyond the scope of Ingar’s capabilities. Jesali was thankful she had found such skilled traveling companions; she would not have been able to reach The Infernal City without them.

“Was that thing… in your cloak the whole time?” The words left Jesali’s lips before she even realized she was asking the question. Malrinn raised his eyebrow, and she swore he almost smiled, but again he did not look up from his book.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” he said oozing condescension.
“Explain it to me,” Jesali prodded, a new boldness beginning to emerge.

Malrinn let out a heavy sigh and closed his book, tucking it into his robe somewhere. At this, Jesali was honestly surprised. Not much had broken through his solitary disposition on their journey. She guessed that the appeal to his ego was why she had earned a response; the chance to brag about his arcane prowess seemingly enough for her to indulge her.

“My robe is enchanted with a very powerful spell of my own devising. It took me months to get it correct. The enchantment allows me to open a door to a private pocket dimension whenever I desire.”
“And that thing came from that dimension?”
“That thing is a Quetzi, and she is my pet. She guards my collection and is also particularly handy for situations like this.”
“A Quetzi?” Jesali said in awe. She had heard many stories as a child of strange and magical creatures but had not encountered them until very recently. There was so much that fascinated her these days as she traveled the wide world outside of the small farming community where she’d been born. When she thought about that, she blushed a bit; embarrassed by her naïveté.

Malrinn didn’t answer her last question; it seemed that zoological explanations did not do enough for his ego to elicit a response, and he quickly returned to his book. Jesali wondered, for just a moment, if he stowed even the book in his pocket dimension.

Not long after they had passed through the arch, the corridor ahead of them began to widen and soon there was room for the three of them to walk side-by-side with ample clearance of both cavern walls. The once still air of the cavern was now filled with a warm breeze which carried with it a smell that Jesali could not identify. It reminded her of rotting fruit with a hint of sulfur. Small flakes, almost like snow, floated and twirled through the air around them. Jesali held up and hand, catching one of the flakes, and then smeared the flake across her palm with her finger: ash.

As they advanced the air grew more and more saturated with ash. It coated the walls and floor of the cavern in this area, giving the already dark stone and even darker appearance. The hem of Jesali’s garment, which had already been ruined by the mud and snow, was now collecting the black soot and ash from the ground. She glanced at Malrinn’s robes and again: still spotless. Even the falling ash particles seemed to magically avoid landing on him. She thought about the word “repulsive” in connection to him and it made her giggle. It had been quite some time since she had done that and it felt almost strange.

And then, finally, there it was. The cavern ahead dropped suddenly, a sheer cliff-face in front of them as the walls opened up around them into an enormous underground cavity. They stood on a precipice now overlooking a vast city of obsidian buildings. The streets were paved in dark cobblestone, covered in the same soot and ash they walked through now. Surrounding the city was a blistering trough of molten rock; it surged and flowed with a strange thickness, undulating back and forth across the threshold from liquid to solid.

Even though it was still a ways off, Jesali could see that the city was bustling with activity. Beings, some she didn’t recognize, moved up and down the streets in every direction. Jesali could scarcely take in the site, the city was several times larger than Marecade and completely underground.

Ingar stopped at the edge of the cliff and, chuckling, turned to her.
“Welcome, to Styrheim, m’lady. The Infernal City awaits!”

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.

The Moutain’s Maw – Part 1: Waylight’s Warmth

In the Waylight Lodge the hearth was always warm. It was an old snow covered log building that sat as a last bastion of peace on the harsh road north to the Great Kragen Mountains. Just outside the village of Frosthollow, the Waylight gave weary travelers one final chance for respite before braving the treacherous range. The thick wood surrounding the lodge provided plenty of trees for firewood; evergreen branches all bent low with winter’s weight.

Though surrounded by frigid winter snowdrifts, the small lodge glowed with warmth; smoke billowing out of the stone chimney, chugging into the dark night sky. The true warmth in the lodge came not from the fireplace but from the stories that always filled the air, wafting as woodsmoke and filling the inn with a familial radiance. While the world outside was oppressive with cold, the countryside clutched tightly in winter’s cruel grip, Gemman Krast regaled his grandson with smoldering tales of awe and wonder.

“The world is old… “, Gemman said as the fire crackled, “older than you can imagine, young one.”

“Older than you grandpa?”

Leko, a young boy of about eight with sandy blonde hair, stared in wide-eyed amazement as he listened to his grandfather’s tale. Story time was the time that he cherished most, and it came often in their little lodge. If grandpa wasn’t spinning a yarn, then Leko was usually adept at drawing a story out from one of the lodgers availing themselves of one of their rooms for rent; though that happened more in the summer months. They hardly saw anyone foolhardy enough to travel the Kragens in the dead of winter.

Gemman chuckled. “Yes Leko, far older than me. Older than my grandpa, or his grandpa before him, or even his grandpa’s grandpa…

Back before there were any humans -or elves or dwarves for that matter- there were the Children of Ima. Back when the world was still young, with no continents or kingdoms dividing the land, the children of Ima played all over the wild and formless realm…”

“Ima?” the boy asked, blinking in that innocently forgetful sort of way that children do when an oft repeated story, or loving correction, hasn’t been retained.

“Child, you know Ima…” Grandpa said in a tone filled with love, but acutely aware that this was a repeated lesson. He gestured towards a small stone statuette sitting on its own table near the window. The idol was about two feet high and resembled a young woman in long flowing robes. Her face was smooth; indistinct, like the artisan who carved her dare not venture a guess at what a goddess might look like. She was surrounded by dried flowers and candles, and a small currently empty bowl sat on the table in front of her.

The child nodded in recognition. Gemman continued his story, “The Children of Ima were mighty warriors… The twin brothers, Chos and Krage, formed the mountains as they wrestled each other. Ugota thought the landscape too plain, so she planted the great forests. Aesitra had her heart broken, and her tears formed the very oceans…”

“Who broke her heart?” Leko interrupted, giving his grandfather a concerned look.
Gemman paused. “Eventually, Ima had more children, and we humans came to live in the land… It was a human man who broke Aesitra’s heart.”

“A human made a goddess cry?”
“Yes boy.”
“Why did he do that?”
Gemman stared wistfully off into the distance. “Sometimes it can’t be helped, boy. Sometimes you hurt the ones you love, even when you don’t want to.”

Leko sat nodding his head for a minute, mimicking understanding. Of course, being eight years old, he had not yet lived enough life to quite grasp the true meaning of his grandfather’s words, but that answer seemed to satisfy him for the moment, though it sparked new and unexpected questions in the boy.

“Was it you grandpa? Did you make her cry?”
At this, Gemman’s eyes went wide, his bushy eyebrows lifting themselves so high on his forehead they threatened to take flight, and he let out a bellowing laugh.
“No, no child. I have done a great many things in my eighty-odd years, but court a goddess twasn’t one of them!” He tousled the boy’s hair, “Besides, your grandmother’s the only woman for me- though I dare say, she’s as beautiful as any goddess ever was!”

Gemman’s boisterous comment elicited a disembodied laugh from the other room that mingled its own sweetness into the warm atmosphere of the room. Grandma had been listening from the kitchen where she was busy making soup and fresh bread, the scent of which also spread itself amply about the lodge.

Gemman winked at his grandson, his leathery face crinkling with lines made by years of similar warm stories and laughter. Leko giggled.

“Boys, dinner’s ready!” Grandma called from the kitchen. Leko leapt to his feet and rushed into the kitchen, eager to fill his belly with warm broth on this cold night. Gemman followed, but slowly, using his cane to pull himself up from his comfortable chair in front of the fire. On his way into the kitchen, he stopped for a moment next to the shrine of Ima.

He grabbed a coal from the fireplace with a pair of metal tongs and placed it in the bowl in front of the statuette. Then, from a small box next to the table he took a handful of incense and sprinkled it over the coal. Small, fragrant wisps of smoke began to dance upward, circling in invisible eddies and hanging in the cabin’s mostly still air. He lingered for a moment, eyes closed and head slightly bowed in reverence. Then, in a motion as familiar as breathing, he kissed his fingers and touched them to the smooth face of the statue before heading the rest of the way into the kitchen for supper.

Not two minutes after they had sat down for their meal, there came a loud knocking at their door.
“Now who could that be in weather like this?” Gemman said. Grandma began to rise to get the door, but Gemman quickly interjected.
“Sit Wissa! Eat. You’ve been working hard. Sit and relax, I’ll get the door.” He used the arm of his chair and his cane to pull himself to his feet and made his way to the door, Leko trailing close behind, excited about their visitor.

Another knock sounded on the heavy wood door, and Gemman called out. “Coming! Saint Lucian’s Flame, I’m coming!” Reaching the door, he undid the thick iron latch and slowly pulled the door open just enough to see out.

The wind howled, buffeting the cracked door with the ferocity of a pack of wild dogs, snow and draft invading the room through the small opening. Gemman squinted against the brisk onslaught. After his eyes adjusted, he could see a young man standing outside, bundled in many layers of thick animal hide, with the look that he had been traveling. He had dark hair and a bit of stubble which had ensnared a great deal of wayward snowflakes like flies in a spider’s web.

“Good ev’nin'” the young man said, “Am I to understand you’ve got rooms?” He couldn’t have been much older than thirty, Gemman surmised, but he had a weary look to him that suggested he’d lived a great deal of life in those thirty years. Hard living aside, there was a pleasantness to him that came across even in that short meeting, which put Gemman at ease.
“Aye,” the older man said, “Here, come in out of the cold.” He pushed the door open further to let the man in and then quickly shut it behind him to keep as much of the cold’s incursion at bay as he could.

Now that he was inside and lit by the firelight, they could see that the man was covered in small cuts. None of them fresh, he wasn’t bleeding, but they did not have the look of old scars either.
“Thank you kindly,” he said as he began to remove his large leather boots. They were soaked to the bone, and he soon removed his wool socks as well, massaging his feet with his hands to warm them.
“We just sat down to dinner. There’s warm soup and bread,” Wissa called from the kitchen.
“That would be lovely,” the stranger said, “It’s been a few days since I’ve had a warm meal.”
“I’m Gemman Krast, I run this lodge with my wife Wissa. And the little one there is our grandchild, Leko.”
The man stuck his hand out to Gemman for a shake. “Name’s Ortan. Ortan Wrensworn.”

“I’m Leko! Are you going to stay here? Where did you come from? Can I touch your beard? I’m eight! How old are you? Is that a real sword!?”
The boy buzzed with excitement, harrying their guest with a barrage of questions far too quickly for him to respond.
“Quiet Leko, let the poor man alone!” Wissa called from the kitchen, with a resolved tone that spoke of how common the boy let his excitement get the better of him.
“It’s alright,” Ortan said chuckling. He knelt down so that he could be eye-level with Leko. “Yes, it is a sword. The roads can be dangerous.”
“Can I see it!”
Ortan looked at Gemman, raising an eyebrow quizzically.
“Maybe after dinner Leko,” Gemman said. At this mention of dinner Leko suddenly remembered that he was hungry and went bounding off back to the kitchen.
“Ortan, you can sit by me!” He called excitedly as he went.

“Let me show you to your room so you can get into some dry clothes before dinner.”
Gemman led Ortan up the stairs to one of the extra rooms they had. It was small but had everything a traveler might need for a restful night of sleep. “I’ll leave you to it,” Gemman said, closing the door gently as he retreated back down the stairs to join the family at the dinner table. Ortan scanned the room and found a place to hang his clothes over the fireplace. He reached deep within the pack he had been carrying on his back and was able to find a tightly rolled wad of sleeping clothes that had managed to remain mostly dry. He quickly changed, even as his stomach began to rumble, and the hunger pangs he’d been successful at ignoring to this point could abide no longer. The smell of the soup permeated his room and made him almost trip over his pants as he tried to hurriedly put them on.

Once dressed, he made his way into the kitchen and took a seat at the table next to little Leko. The fact that the boy didn’t immediately start in on Ortan with his puerile inquisition told Ortan that the boy had probably had a bit of a talking-to while he was in the other room. It was actually Wissa who spoke first.

“We don’t get too many travelers by in the midwinter months. You’re either doing something very important, or you’re crazy, or very stupid. So, which is it?”

Gemman started to make a placating gesture but Ortan smiled. “Well, I’m not about to deny my stupidity… But actually I’m looking for my sister.”
“Your sister?” Leko piped up, not able to contain his curiosity. Wissa looked at the boy sternly but said nothing.

“She went missing a few months ago. I’ve been trying to track her down, heard rumor she may have come through the mountains not too long ago…”
“She ain’t been here, I’m afraid,” said Gemman, “We haven’t had a boarder or even a guest for the night since the big snow started falling. Probably at least a month now where it’s just been the three of us.”
“Well, I thank you for the warm place to sleep. I’ll continue my search in the morning.”

“Why did your sister go away?” Leko asked innocently.
“Leko, leave the man alone.” Wissa chided.
“No, it’s alright,” Ortan said. “I don’t know, little one.”
“Well, I hope you find her,” Leko said sweetly, “I don’t have a sister.”
“She’s the only one I have,” said Ortan. Leko stared into his soup bowl for a minute, not knowing what to say, finally he spoke.
“Grandpa! Can you finish your story?” Leko asked before turning aside to Ortan, “Grandpa’s stories always make me happy when I feel sad.”

“Well, alright,” Gemman said, “Now where was I?”
“The man who made the goddess cry!” Leko almost shouted with excitement.
“Aesitra,” Ortan said thoughtfully.
“Yes, Indeed,” Gemman said.
“She fell in love with a blacksmith’s boy,” Ortan began, “He would make her pretty things out of iron and steel.”
“You know your lore boy,” Gemman chuckled. Ortan might have corrected Gemman’s use of the word ‘boy’ had Gemman not been at least fifty years his senior.
“My father used to tell me that story,” Ortan said with a sad smile.

“But I thought love was a good thing? Why did that make her cry?” Leko asked, a puzzled look on his face.
“It didn’t at first,” Gemman replied, continuing where Ortan had left off, “The blacksmith’s boy returned her love, and they were happy together for a time. He made great statues and works of art in her honor, masterful pieces made from iron, bronze, and even gold. But in the end, he grew old, and his body failed him, while the goddess stayed the same as the day they had met. And then he was gone and all that remained of their love were the sculptures he had made. You see Leko, goddesses live much longer than men do.”

Leko seemed to consider that for a minute. “That’s a sad story Grandpa,” he concluded.
“Life is full of them, little one. In time you’ll learn that…”

“Alright Leko, It’s time for bed,” Wissa said, scooping the boy up into her arms. He only complained a little, and it was evident that the boy was tired, despite his petitions to remain awake with the others.

“Good night, Ortan!” He called from his Grandmother’s arms as she carried him up the stairs to his room, “Goodnight Grandpa!”
“Goodnight,” Ortan replied.
“Go on!” Gemman called, love in his voice, “Sleep tight little one!”

After Leko had made his exit, Gemman turned to Ortan. “So you’ll be after your sister in the morning then?”
“Aye,” Ortan replied, “Just after dawn’s light. I’d leave earlier if I could, but I’ll wait for the sun’s warmth to help me through.”
“Well, Wissa and I will be up early. We’ll make sure to send you on your way with a morning meal in your belly.”

“That’s very kind of you- How much do I owe you for the room and the meals?”
Gemman put his hand out in a polite refusal. “I’m sorry about your sister, consider your stay as our way of aiding in her safe return.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I insist you let me pay you.”
“If you really feel that strongly about it, then whatever you decide is fine. Wissa and I have everything we need, and not much life left to squirrel things away for. It’s all for Leko these days.”

Early the next morning, Gemman and Wissa prepared a meal while Leko slept, and then shared what they had with Ortan before he departed for the mountains. Their visitor was all Leko could talk about all through breakfast and most of the morning. He would get this way about a lot of the guests, but a man with a sword who had been nice to Leko- this encounter seemed to have particularly excited the young boy.

After breakfast, Wissa went to tidy up the room that Ortan had stayed in, only to find it spotless. The bed had been made and nothing seemed out of place, save for a small bag on the bed and bundle of cloth. She brought the items downstairs without opening them and called for Gemman.

They opened them together. The bag held five whole gold pieces, much more than they ever charged for a single night’s stay. Inside the cloth was a small silver dagger and leather scabbard. Gemman recognized the dagger to be of very good craftsmanship and was easily worth a hundred times what had been left in gold pieces. A small slip of parchment was tucked next to the dagger, it read, For Leko, the roads can be dangerous.

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.