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 it’s 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!”

The Road to Marecade

It had been three days since Ortan’s father died, but to him it felt like mere minutes.

That evening, they had been outlining the plans for the harvest over a dinner of thick, gamey stew made from a boar that Ortan had shot earlier in the week. The busy season for their little farm was fast approaching and his father had been afraid that help would be scarce this year. After dinner, they’d spent a few hours fixing the wagon; it was wont to break down, but it was what they had. Later, a little after sundown, Ortan had gone to bed; he had planned to go out hunting again early the next morning. His father had stayed behind to finish up the repairs; told Ortan that he’d be in soon. But he never came in.

Ortan found him the next morning, on the floor of the barn, cold and staring at the ceiling. If Ortan had any time to really consider his reaction, he might have felt bad, but the immediate thoughts that entered his head were just about the practical realities of what needed to be done. He saw to the body; made sure it was wrapped before he told his sister. He had been the one to find their mother as well, and maybe that had numbed him a bit. He thanked the gods that Jesali hadn’t found either of them in that state. He would much rather shoulder that burden than to have her carry those bitter visions like he now did. It was watching her face as he told her, the realization dawning like the earth itself cracking, that finally got to him.

A few days passed, and as Ortan sat on that same freshly repaired cart, reins in hand, he fought to keep his weariness at bay. It was early, a low fog hung over the underbrush, dew still sparkling on the leaves, as they made their way down the narrow road through the trees. Jesali’s head rested gently on Ortan’s shoulder; eyes closed, breath shallow as she slept. She had cried herself to sleep the past few nights, and at this moment preferred unconsciousness to the itching grief of waking life. Ortan was glad she was able to find sleep, it had been mostly elusive to him in the days since their father had passed.

In the rear of the cart was a long wooden box that currently held the body of the family patriarch. Burying their father on the farm would have been easier, Ortan knew, but their mother was buried in the city, next to the small church where the two were wed, and they needed to be together. And so, early in the morning, a week before they would have started to reap this years harvest, they set out on the journey to Marecade to sow their father’s body in the earth. It had been at least a year since the last time they had made the trip. What had at one time been at least a monthly occurrence, had largely fallen off after their mother had passed. Mom would insist that they make the journey to town to pay their respects to Pelor, and Dad would go along.

Their mother had always been close to Pelor, but Ortan didn’t think that Dad had much faith. He always said the the seasons came each year whether he prayed or not, but mom was convinced she did enough praying for the both of them. Dad’s purpose for the visit was usually to buy supplies or new tools while they were in town, but he would visit the church alongside her and just stand, respectful and quiet, while she conducted her devotions. Sometimes Jesali or Ortan would go along, and sometimes they would stay behind and tend the farm- it usually depended on the time of year, and how much work there was to be done, but Dad never let Mom make the trip alone.

Marecade was about half a day’s journey from their little farm, and it required passage through a large, dangerous expanse of wild, forested lands known as the Shadowood. Many a beast, and some darker things, could be found in the wood, but you could usually make it through fairly safely as long as the trip was made during the day.

Ortan focused his attention on the road ahead once more. Though their horse knew the way, and would make the journey largely unguided, it was best for him to stay alert. He listened deeply to see if he could perceive any sort of incoming threat, but everything seemed fine for the moment. He heard the rustling of leaves from the faint morning breeze, the plopping of the old mare’s hooves in the damp dirt of the roadway, the soft shallow breaths of his younger sister, and not much else- a distant bird chorus or two- nothing nefarious.

The cart hit a minor bump in the road and some of Jesali’s hair fell in front of her face and onto Ortan’s shoulder. He reached up and gently brushed it behind her ear. As he looked at her sleeping face, his heart climbed into his throat a little. His sister was all that he had left now; she was his only remaining family in this vast and wild world.

Moments later there was a resounding crash as the cart hit another, larger bump; the impact more violent than the first, caused something to give way and the rear of the cart sank. Jesali let out a small yelp as she was jolted awake.

“Woah, easy there,” Ortan called out as he pulled back on the reins. The cart came to a stop and Ortan muttered a curse as he surveyed the damage; one rear wheel now dragged through the mud, the wooden rim separated from a few broken and splintered spokes.

“Again with this damn cart!”
“It’s alright, Ortan,” said Jesali, her voice calm, even in the midst of being startled awake, broke through Ortan’s momentary fuming.
“Do you think you can fix it?”
“Aye, we brought a spare, thank the gods.”

And with that, Ortan hopped down off the wagon and went around the back to start rummaging through the supplies they had brought. The contents of the cart, including their father, had been jostled but had remained contained, seemingly no worse for wear. Jesali took a moment to take in the their surroundings. This part of The Shadowood was currently rather peaceful; beams of light streaming through the small breaks in the canopy, falling on the carpet of ferns and other ground cover underneath the towering deciduous trees. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, inviting the crisp late morning air, saturated with petrichor and floral notes, into her lungs.

“This is nice,” she said, exhaling contentedly. Ortan was surprised. She seemed suddenly so cavalier. For the past three days she’d been unable to do much other than weep, but right now she was acting as much like herself as she ever had.
“Did you sleep well sister?” he asked, working to prop up the cart by the axle with some wood blocks to give him free access to fix the wheel.
“I did actually,” she replied, eyes fixated on what seemed like nothing in particular off in the middle distance, “I… had some interesting dreams…”
“More nightmares?”
“No, no…” She paused and seemed to think for a moment, “they were quite nice- pleasant really… I saw Dad. And Mom. And they were with Pelor. And, someone else… I can’t explain it, but I feel… I’m starting to feel like maybe things are going to be alright.”
“You’re not still sad?”
“Oh, I’m still sad- of course I am… But this dream felt like… Like, I don’t know… Less of a dream and more like… like Pelor was speaking to me.”

“All right,” Ortan said flatly, but he smiled. Jesali seemed to be dealing with things in her own way. He much preferred to see her like this, and if believing that she was receiving visions from the gods is what helped her get there, he would not complain. She took after mother that way. He was more like their father.

Thinking about his father, his smile faded, and he set back to work on the wheel. After a few hours of straining and cursing, Ortan eventually won out in his scuffle with their rickety little cart. He had been wise enough to bring supplies in case something like this happened, but he still was unsatisfied with the degree to which he was able to repair the cart without the benefit of all the proper tools and time they usually had back at the barn. These slapdash bindings would have to do, at least until they could make it to Marecade. It was becoming clear that this little breakdown was going to delay their arrival until after nightfall.

As Ortan thought about the implications of that, he felt Jesali’s soft hand on his shoulder, and when he turned to look at her, he saw that she was holding a cup out to him in her other hand.
“Here, brother.” He took it and drank deeply, the cool water a welcome sensation after wrestling with the repairs.
“I’ve made us a meal as well,” she said with a wink as she handed him a piece of dried boar meat from a satchel they had brought with them.

“Just like Dad used to make,” he said, smiling and tearing a chunk off with his teeth. The meat was dry, tough, and salted to the point of losing any other discernible flavor, but it traveled well. When he said that she said nothing, her expression falling a little before she smiled again, though her brow remained slightly furrowed.

“Best get a move on,” Ortan said after a minute and a few more chunks of boar. “We still have a ways to go yet, and we need to make it as far as we can while the sun still shines.

It was now early afternoon, later than Ortan would have liked. More than half of their trip still lay before them. It took a few more minutes to load the tools and supplies back into the cart and then they were off. It didn’t take much time for the rhythmic bobbing of the cart to lull Jesali back to sleep. Ortan envied her, not just what seemed to be her newly found sense of peace, but the rest that she was getting would have been good for Ortan. Jesali could have driven. She knew the way, and the horse did most of the work anyhow, but Ortan wouldn’t hear of it. He felt like it was his responsibility to get them to Marecade safely, and he trusted Jesali, but he trusted himself more.

They continued on like this for hours; large stretches of uneventful time marked by the occasional tree branch in the path that they had to either move or circumvent. At one point they came to an old bridge over a small river, and Ortan let the horse drink before they crossed it without issue. The highlight of the afternoon was coming upon a large buck, 10 hands high, Ortan guessed, with a long full rack of antlers. If not for the fact that they were in a hurry, and not able to move their ramshackle funeral procession very silently, Ortan would have tried to take him. That magnificent beast would have kept the two of them fed for months. But just as it had come into view, it’s head darted up, ears perked, and it took off leaping through the underbrush and out of sight. Shortly after that, the light of day began to wane into dusk.

As the sun sank in the sky, Ortan grew anxious. He lit a few lanterns and hung them from the side of the cart to give them some light to continue making their way by. Were they somewhere else, they would just stop and make camp for the night and make the last leg of the journey into Marecade in the morning. But The Shadowood was not a safe place to be at night. Ortan had heard terrifying stories of beasts, large and ravenous, that would attack those who wandered the forest at night. And he’d heard rumor of even stranger things- things once living, back from the dead, harrying travelers in the darkness.

A twig snapped somewhere out of sight and Ortan’s heart leapt into his throat. For a second all he could hear was the blood pumping in his ears, but after a moment of his eyes scanning the forest around him and not seeing or hearing anything else, he relaxed a little. It was probably just another deer, he thought.

The sun continued to sink beneath the horizon, the shadows of the trees growing tall; their gnarled forms casting images like thick tentacles that seemed to reach out to strangle Ortan. The forest at night was oppressive; the very air was thick with some dark unseen presence. Ortan grew more and more uncomfortable as it grew ever darker, and he found himself, to his surprise, muttering prayers to Pelor under his breath.

Jesali stirred and her eyes fluttered open. “How much longer brother?”
“I don’t know… a few hours I think.”
“It’s cold,” she said, crossing her arms in front of her and gripping her own shoulders.
A preternatural chill had settled over the wood; the drop in temperature sudden and unignorable.

“I think there are some blankets in the back,” Ortan replied. Jesali leaned to begin rummaging through the cart for something to keep her warm. Ortan’s eyelids felt heavy, but their terrible surroundings were enough to steel his will against the encroaching fatigue. He forced himself to stay awake and keep going. Even still, a minute later, his eyes burst open after he found he had momentarily lost his battle of will; jolted to full awareness by the sound of his sister screaming.

Ortan’s head whipped around just as Jesali was torn from the back of the cart and the scene immediately erupted into chaos. Their horse began to panic, screaming and snorting and rearing wildly, causing their cart to come to an abrupt halt and one of the two lanterns to crash on the ground, extinguishing its flame.

“Jes!” Ortan yelled as he jumped from the cart, drawing the short sword from his side as he did. Jesali was still screaming, as something dragged her into the dark underbrush. With only one lantern now, Ortan couldn’t make out what manner of creature had a hold of his sister, but it did not matter. He rushed headlong into the woods after her.

A sharp whizzing sound buzzed Ortan’s ear. He could feel the ripples in the air as an arrow missed him by only a hair’s breadth and impacted on the gnarled oak right behind him. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk! Another volley of projectiles struck the dirt in front of him as he quickly rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding them. Only then was he able to get the first glance at his attacker. He could see something white gleaming in the moonlight, which quickly came into focus as a human skull; but it was not part of a pile of remains or a lifeless husk… The skull, and the rest of the skeleton it was attached to, was covered with mossy growths. It held a crude bow, and torn, ragged dregs of clothing hung loosely from its hollow frame. With unnatural movement that was the very mockery of life, it shambled towards him, eye sockets aglow with a soulless green light.

Ortan swung his blade for its head as soon as he was near it; the skeleton hissing a haunting, breathless gasp, jawbone chattering as the ghastly scream emanated up from its lungless chest. Ortan’s sword struck true and with a sickening crack, the skull went tumbling off into the ground cover. The now-headless skeleton groped the darkness with its bony, moss covered fingers, trying to grab Ortan, but he evaded it and continued past it at speed.

Ahead of him now, he could see several more skeletons of similar ilk, some brandishing rough iron swords, others also armed with bows. Two of them were dragging Jesali, kicking a screaming violently, deeper into the forest. As she flailed, her foot made contact with the shin of one of them and with a crunch its leg crumbled beneath it, but it held tight to her, as the other continued unabated, dragging them both along with it.

“Ortan!” Jesali screamed as she saw him approach. Before he could catch up to her, two more skeletons interposed themselves between Ortan and Jesali. Snarling, they swung their rusted blades, and Ortan was able to duck below one, but the other struck a glancing blow off his shoulder, tearing his tunic and drawing blood. He cried out in pain but did not slow; it was mostly a surface wound. Fueled by adrenaline and desperation, he hacked away at the two skeletons in his path, ably felling them both, but the gap between him and his sister continued to widen.

As more and more skeletons emerged from the surrounding wood, a pit began to form in Ortan’s gut. The thought of losing Jesali now, so soon after their father, filled his midsection with sand and gripped his heart like a vice. The hoard of unlife continued to press in around him, obscuring his view of his captive sister, and it seemed like all hope would be lost. With each foe he slew, two more sprang from the loam in their place. He was just one man against the ranks of The Shadowood’s Army of Night.

Suddenly, the maelstrom sound of a mighty rushing wind filled the forest, temporarily drowning out the noise of the fray. It was followed by an impossibly loud, inhuman war-cry; deep and powerful, like the sound of a hundred-warrior-charge. Ortan recoiled from the sheer volume of it, and looked around in horror, with the expectation of some even more fiendish and terrible monster entering the brawl. Then there was a magnificently bright flash of light up near where Ortan had seen Jesali last, and a booming crack of thunder soon followed. The skeletons let out a chorus of otherworldly shrieks, as their forms shuddered from the shockwave.

Another bright flash of light arched through the darkness ahead, and Ortan watched as several skeletons were turned to dust in its wake. The hoard’s attention shifted to this new threat and began to converge on it. Ortan ran with the torrent of moss and bone, eager to reach Jesali for fear that whatever it was that was momentarily harrying the skeletons could be an even greater danger to her.

As Ortan neared his sister, he could see a man that glowed with a bright white light. His sword, wreathed in an even more brilliant light, was carving swathes through the skeletal ranks with little apparent resistance. The warrior also carried a shield, and was dressed in full plate armor, but he moved with power and grace even in such heavy mail.

The brilliant light made it difficult to see much further detail, but something about their unheralded savior seemed strange to Ortan. In the heat of battle, he had no time to dwell on it however, as a nearby skeleton took his close proximity as opportunity to take another swing at him. He ducked beneath it and kicked it hard in the center of the ribcage, sending it backward into a pile of its fallen brethren.

After dispatching the skeleton, Ortan finally caught up to Jesali on the ground, back against a tree. She was covered in dirt and leaves, and she was bleeding from a cut on her cheek, but she was conscious, breathing heavily.

“Jes!”
“Tan-Tan!” Her childhood pet name for her brother bubbling out despite the dire circumstances. It was a welcome, if infinitesimally small, comfort to them both; a drop of normal in a sea of chaos.
“Are you ok?”
“It’s an angel of Pelor! I… I saw him in my dream!” she raved, declining to answer his question, or perhaps not even hearing it. Ortan didn’t say anything in reply. They had just been attacked by an undead army; he was not about to argue with his sister about the whims of the gods and their champions.

The “Angel” continued its assault and soon the few skeletons remaining began to withdraw in haste. Soon the din of the battle returned to the normal sounds of forest nightlife and the light rustling of foliage. The figure’s glow began to fade, allowing them to begin to distinguish the features of their rescuer. They were both very surprised by what they saw. Their visitor was not a man, but had the general figure of one except that his skin was a darker, unfamiliar shade; it was hard to tell in the midnight darkness of the forest, but it was inhuman, a grey or reddish even.

In addition to his skin, his eyes were without pupils and pure white, and they continued to give off a faint glow, even as the rest of his aura faded, save for his sword and some type of amulet that hung around his neck in front of his breastplate. He had dark but human-looking hair, long on his head, and shorn to a goatee on his face. More notably, were the two large swept back horns that protruded from his head through that dark hair. They were long and the light emanating from his sword glinted off them in places. They could also see, periodically in the darkness behind him, what looked to be a thick pointed tail swishing back and forth, with a motion that reminded Ortan of one of their prowling barn cats.

Ortan quickly helped Jesali to her feet and placed himself between her and the horned man. Ortan had never seen anything like him before and in this moment, even though he was grateful the skeletons had been dealt with, he remained cautious.

“It’s alright,” the figure said, breaking the tense silence, as he sheathed his sword and held out his hand in a placating posture. “I mean you no harm.”
Ortan tightened his grip on his sword, but kept it low at his side, ready but not wanting to provoke an attack.
“Did Pelor send you?” Jesali blurted, her wonder betraying her lack of the same measure of caution as her brother. At this the figure let out a chuckle; it was warm and resonated with calm, not threat.
“Maybe he did,” he replied, “I am Redemption Ravenhart, Paladin and servant of Lathander, The Morninglord. My friends, new and old, call me ‘Dem.'”

“Lathander?” Jesali inquired.
“He is a kindred god to your Pelor. Their dominions though different are very much in line.”

Satisfied for now with the paladin’s demeanor, Ortan sheathed his sword and exhaled deeply, allowing himself to relax just a little.
“Thank you… for saving us,'” he said meekly.
“In service to Lathander, I serve light and I serve life. It is my duty. I am just glad I came upon you when I did. Why in Lathander’s name do you travel The Shadowood after dark?”
“Our cart broke down while we were on the way to Marecade to bury our father.” Dem’s countenance fell in compassion at the mention of their plight. Before he could respond, Jesali suddenly took off running back towards the road.
“Father!”
Both Ortan and Dem fell into step just behind her as she, now reminded of their father’s body, frantically ran to search for it.

As they broke the tree line into the small clearing that the road cut through the forest, they could see their cart, mostly intact, but tipped to the side and missing their horse, sitting where they had been forced to leave it. The second lantern was also shattered, and several spent arrows stuck out of the cart in places. At first glance, all the contents of the cart, including the pine box that held their father, were still there. It seemed that the undead cared not for food rations or blankets. Whether they cared for corpses or not, Ortan hoped never to learn.

It took both Dem and Ortan to right the cart, but they were able to manage it without too much trouble. As luck would have it, none of the actual functionality of the cart had been damaged, which made Ortan roll his eyes. The cart withstood an army from hell, but couldn’t best a divot in the road.

Ortan and Jesali began to gather up the rest of their scattered belongings.
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t catch your names…” Dem said, working along side them.
“Ortan Wrensworn, and my sister is Jesali. I’m sorry, we’re still in shock.” Jesali, not sure what was befitting an introduction to someone who had just saved their lives, gave a curtsey, which due to the blood and mud and leaves, was a little absurd.
“Your shock is wholly understandable,” he said with a chuckle that seemed to come easily to him, despite the horrors they’d fought not an hour ago. He gave a sincerely formal bow in response to Jesali.

Ortan wasn’t sure how to feel about Dem; he wasn’t off-putting, just so unfamiliar compared to anything that Ortan was used to. The “man” of faith was charismatic and obviously powerful. From the few words they had already exchanged, Ortan felt that his concern for their well being was genuine, and he seemed to be genuinely good despite his hellish appearance. He was a paradoxical mix of a genteel and calm servant of holy light, and a powerful hellspawn. Ortan was glad that he had come along, and that he seemed to be on their side.

“Ortan, Jesali, please allow me to accompany you the rest of the way to Marecade. We should be able to make it safely within the hour if we can avoid any further denizens of the night- but don’t worry about that, I am very good at avoiding them when I wish to.”
“Thank you so much,” Jesali replied, “but we cannot leave our father’s body. He must be buried in Marecade or we risked our very lives for nothing.”
“Oh, I mean to take the cart with us.”

Before either Ortan or Jesali could ask Dem if he meant them to carry the cart themselves, or hunt down their missing and very probably dead steed, he put his hand around his amulet, and began speaking a language they did not understand under his breath. The holy symbol began to glow brighter and then wisps of pinkish white light began to appear out of seemingly nowhere and coalesce in the space in front of the cart. After a few minutes, the form of a large warhorse appeared, completely translucent at first, but it slowly began to become more and more corporeal.

The materialized spectral horse’s mane seemed to be made of liquid light; luminous and in constant vibrant motion despite the relative lightness of the actual breeze. Dem approached the great beast and patted it on the neck, the horse nuzzling into him with familiarity.
“Hello old friend.”

Ortan and Jesali just stood dumbfounded. Both of them had heard stories of magic, and they even believed that many of them were true, but they had lived simple lives far away from the arcane and the fantastic. Dem just turned to them and smiled.
“Thunderer here will make our travel quite expedient.”

And he did. For the next hour, as Dem drove Thunderer towards Marecade, Jesali slept in the back of the cart, collapsed in exhaustion. Ortan, equally tired, could not resist his curiosity about their savior.

“So… How did… Uh…” Ortan began awkwardly.
“How did a tiefling like myself become a paladin of Lathander?”
“Uh… Yeah… Sorry, I mean no offense… You don’t have to answer that…”
“No, it’s quite alright,” Dem said smiling, his hair flowing in the wind of their hasted exodus of The Shadowood.

“I get asked that a lot,” he continued. “The man who raised me was a very devoted servant of Lathander. We lived in a small community with no others of my kind. I have met many since, some of which who respected me, others who despised me. I took my name when I came of age and entered the god’s service.”

“And your parents?”
For the first time since they had met, Ortan saw Dem’s face shift into a negative emotion, though only for a second.
“I never had a chance to know them. But Father Ravenhart was a godsend and I have lived a very good life because of him.”
“That’s good.”
“I’m sorry about your father,” Dem said, “we shall see that he gets to where he needs to be.”

Ortan didn’t remember falling asleep, but the next day, he awoke in a bed that he also didn’t remember getting into. He found Jesali in the next room over, and she had slept the entire trip into Marecade, not remembering how they had acquired these rooms either. They were still in their traveling clothes, still covered in dirt and blood, but their wounds seemed to have closed and healed with remarkable speed.

When they made their way downstairs, they discovered that they had spent the night in the very church they had been seeking. The priest and caretaker informed them that a donation to cover their room and meals had already been made, and that their cart was in the barn out back. He brought them to a small room with a table that had a fresh morning meal prepared and they devoured it greedily after all the action of the previous night compounded by a day of dried boar.

Soon it was time to say goodbye to their father. They found the spot where their mother lay; empty plot still next to it. Ortan dug the grave himself, and as he heaved each shovelful of earth, warm tears drew lines down his dirty cheeks. Jesali stood at the edge of the pit, speaking the same prayers their mother had reverently, her voice breaking and barely audible. When Ortan finished digging, the priest helped him lower the simple coffin, and then set about performing his rites.

Once the grave had been filled, the priest retreated back into the church and Ortan and Jesali lingered over their parents’ final resting place. “Hi mom,” Jesali said, sniffling but smiling, placing her hand on top of her mother’s grave marker. It’s inscription read, Here lies Annalise Wrensworn, loving wife and mother. May Pelor always protect you.

“He has, ma,” Ortan said, putting his arm around his sister as a soft rain began to fall, “he has.”

 

Children of Dawn

At the base of the Kragen mountains was a small village named Grache. It was little more than a cluster of buildings, ten to twelve in number, surrounded by nothing but farmland for miles. Most of the buildings were unremarkable; private dwellings with a few shops peppered throughout. A little further up the road to the mountains sat a humble white stone temple overlooking the village.

On a typical morning, you could often find Father Eagen Ravenhart sitting on the steps there eating his morning meal.As a part of his morning routine, the Father would watch the sunrise over the village; buildings only jagged silhouettes as the sun began to crest the horizon, painting the rolling hills of the surrounding countryside with the pastel hues of dawn. It was truly a sight to behold; a bit of Lathander’s glory bleeding into this realm. There was a time when Eagen could almost hear the world hum awake around him, reverberating with the harmonies and resonances of the high heavens touching earth. At one time the sight and sound would have filled Eagen with such hope and fulfillment. But now, as each day the sun rose exactly as it had the day before, Father Ravenhart felt nothing.

Eagen had been given charge of Grache’s spiritual well-being as a young cleric, graduating out from under the tutelage of a much older and highly pious man in a much larger metropolis. Day in and day out, he’d tend to the needs of the townsfolk. He’d perform marriage ceremonies, bless infants, and recite funeral rites. He was present for every significant moment in the lives of each of the people who called Grache their home. And as he labored he did so in joy, and there was the hum.

But as time passed, many that he’d blessed as infants, and later consecrated on their wedding days, he’d then buried. Famines, bandits, wild beasts; the pitfalls of the savage world would take some before their time, and those same eyes that took in the dawn each morning watched the sun set on friends, neighbors, and even children, and those ears had to strain to hear the melody.

Despite all of this, he never faltered in his faithfulness to the little hamlet nestled in the mountainside. He had a responsibility to the townsfolk to be their shepherd, a pillar of the community and a symbol of Lathander’s blessed guidance, and he knew in his heart that despite his feelings, he could not disappoint them. His days were busy with the bustling eb and flow of the lives he helped to guide, and his nights were still and quiet as, through the years, the Morning Lord grew silent.

Each night, a little while after the last parishioner had left for the day, his hair still smelling of incense, Eagan would lie awake and wonder if, perhaps, that night would be his last. Maybe, just maybe, he would shut his eyes and would not have to endure another morning of the Dawn King’s hollow sunrise.

It was late on a night such as this that there came a knocking on the temple doors. It took Eagen a moment to register the sound amidst his nightly existential ponderations. Again it came, the unmistakable, rhythmic thudding of purposed hands upon the thick wood; it was not the wind, the Father had a visitor.

“Just a minute,” he called into the darkness as he took a small oil lamp from a sconce on the wall and turned its small flickering back up to a flame that would provide actual illumination for making his way to answer his late night summons. Grabbing the nearest thing to cover himself, his vestments, and throwing them on, he left his small room off the left side of the temple’s vaulted sanctuary, and made his way towards the door. Light from his lamp flickered on the rows of wood pews as large stained glass windows loomed over him at his back, rimming his balding head in dappled shades of moonlight.

It did not take the Father long to reach the door, only a minute or two, but when he took hold of the large twisted iron handles and heaved the thick double wooden doors open, his unexpected visitor was nowhere to be seen. The Father stuck his head out the doorway, peering to either side as he did, the cold night air stinging at his face. “Hello? Is anyone there?” he called into the still dark night. His call was met by only the soft rustling of leaves from a nearby tree, tousled by the light midnight breeze, and by the occasional chirp of the wayward insect or frog.

That was just great; local farmhand errand boys playing late night tricks on an old religious man- rabble rousers and buffoons the lot of them. If Ravenhart had a gold piece for every time one of the young townsfolk had shown him disrespect, he would be living the life of a noble. Lathander forgive them, they know not that they are fools…

Just as Eagen was getting ready to stomp back to bed, he caught sight of something at the bottom of the stairs; a small crate. Ravenhart recognized it as an offering crate. The townsfolk would occasionally make sacrifices and offerings to Lathander as part of their petitioning for high harvest yields, or favorable marrying partnerships. Exactly who, in their right mind, would be making deliveries at this hour however, the Father knew not.

For a brief moment, Eagen considered leaving the crate there and dealing with it in the morning, but occasionally small birds or mammals were sacrificed and it would reflect very poorly on Eagen if some stray dog or wild beast got to it in the middle of the night before it was properly offered to Lathander. That would not be an easy thing to live down, for word traveled fast and completely in Grache.

Eagen bent to pick up the crate and was surprised by the weight of it. Must not be a bird this time, maybe a piglet or lamb. Upon closer inspection, he could see that it was lined with straw, and amidst the straw was a tightly bundled blanket. Leaving the crate on the ground, Eagen lifted the bundle out. It did not squirm, or make any noise, and for a split second, the Father thought he may have been wrong in his earlier assessment and that it wasn’t a living sacrifice at all. And then, he found the loose end of the blanket and unrolled it a small amount, and what he saw then he had not expected at all. It was the face of a child, asleep, hair still covered by the blanket.

In an instant a myriad of thoughts ran through the Father’s mind. Who had left this poor babe here? Was it intended as a sacrifice? Lathander was not the type of god to demand the children of his faithful, in fact, he was the very deity of birth and renewal, and Eagan was damn sure that such an offering was blasphemous. Then why? Why leave this child with him? In such a town where more offspring meant more help on the family farm, the pure economic absurdity of abandoning one’s child in Grache gave the Father great pause.

He could not tell if it was merely the moonlight, or if the infant was the bearer of some infection or malady, but its skin appeared to have an almost grey pallor to it. That’s it, perhaps the babe was brought to him for healing, though why the child’s guardian would flee and not stay to witness their ward cured, was beyond him. Eagan raised his hand to the infant’s forehead to feel its temperature and as he did so, he brushed the swaddle from the top of its head. The babe was indeed hot to the touch, but it was what the Father saw, not what he felt, that alarmed him in that moment. In was then that the infant awoke. It stayed silent as its eyes fluttered open; staring back at Eagan with strange pupiless, fully white eyes. Even more alarming, Eagen could now see two small horns on the top of the infant’s forehead, each about an inch in length.

“By the dawn… ” he exclaimed. The infant just looked up at him, silent. It had yet to make a sound that the Father had heard, not a wail, not even a burble. Eagen found his breath shallow as he recalled tales he had heard of such creatures as the one he now held.

He recognized, though he had never seen one in Grache, that he now held within his arms a Tiefling child. They were said to be the descendants of hellspawn; to have the very blood of demons in the their veins from the ancient times. Eagen’s knowledge on these demon-folk was not extensive, but he seemed to remember hearing that though descended from demons long ago, they were not inherently demonic themselves necessarily. Still, they had a reputation for being treacherous, thieving, maniacal and generally wise to avoid.

Had this infant been left on any other doorstep in Grache, Eagen thought, the simple farmers and their wives would riot in the streets. For simple folk understand little, and all fear what they don’t understand. So the reasoning behind why this babe was left with him made some sense, but it still left Father Ravenhart with so many questions.

“What’s your name, little one?” the Father asked after a minute, mostly to himself, perceiving the babe to not be of speaking age. The only sound was that of Eagen’s own voice, but it’s gentle timbre in that moment surprised Eagen.

“Where is your mother?” It was hard for Eagen to imagine any Tiefling living in Grache. He must have come from some traveling mother’s act of desperation as she passed through the village, maybe on her way to the mountains. Regarding the simple folk, she may have very well been on the run from a lynch mob, and thought that maybe she could lead them away and at least keep the infant safe, but there was no way to know for sure.

It was then that the babe let out a small coo. The first sound Ravenhart had heard it make; one of contentment really, not trauma. Whatever this little one had gone through in the short time it was alive, they seemed to have been adequately sheltered from it, or to be taking it in stride.

“Now what am I to do with you?” Eagen said as he loosened the blanket, freeing the infant’s arms from its side. As the Father looked down on the small grey-skinned bundle, he did not feel the soul of a demon behind those small, pupiless white eyes. As he watched the babe play with its own fingers in front of its face, and as it briefly managed to grasp a handful of the Father’s beard and tug it gently before losing its fumbling grip, he did not feel malicious intent or nefarious purpose. Nor did he feel afraid when looking at the small thing in his arms that had supposedly descended from demons millenia ago. What he did feel then, a moment later, was the chubby fingers of a tiny hand grasp his finger with all of its little might, and this time, the grip persisted. And as that tiny hand held tightly to his finger, the Father felt something else. He felt a warmth he hadn’t felt in ages; the deep, humming warmth of the coming dawn.