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.”
“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.”
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.
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.