“So… fine weather we’re having, eh?” Rognvald made a feeble attempt to get a conversation started. Things had been different since Lakeside. Gale was even quieter than before, riding with head down for most of the day. Barry and Ku rode near each other, occasionally speaking softly. They would often look in Gale’s direction, with expressions of wariness. Barry and Ku also seemed to be shunning Blind Seer, who had started wandering out further and further to hunt. They had told Rognvald about the events at Lakeside with the abominations, but he was pretty sure that something else had happened between them as well.
Rognvald had been surprised to hear that Jeremy Tanner had been convicted of necromancy. Rognvald was further surprised to hear that he had been allowed to live and join the Deepguard. The enieto were usually strict on such matters. The Deepguard party had travelled alongside Rognvald’s a few hours when they left Lakeside, but the Deepguard had soon outpaced Rognvald’s rumbling wagon. “Enjoy the next few weeks of sunlight,” the Deepguard Keeper, Garsk, had said, “for it may be your last.” The other enieto with Garsk, who Rognvald hadn’t caught the name of, was obviously a Deepguard Captain. From what Rognvald understood, Keepers and Captains served similar roles in the Deepguard, both leading squads into the Deep. The Keepers focus on psionic abilities and the mental health of their squads, while the Captains focus on martial prowess and the physical health of their squads.
Rognvald let out a long sigh and thought, ‘We could sure use a Keeper right about now. I wonder what is bothering those four.’
He heard Rognvald say, “So… fine weather we’re having, eh,” then let out a sigh several moments later. Gale glanced back at Ku and Barry, who were riding a ways behind the cart. They were still watching him closely, as they had been ever since leaving Lakeside. It was almost like being a slave again. Gale was sorry for deceiving them and understood their suspicion, but he was also starting to get angry with them. ‘They have no idea what I’ve been through! The enlightened elves,’ Gale thought, ‘have kept me in chains for most of my life. I can still remember mom’s face, but dad’s has begun to fade after so many years. The enlightened elves have taken everything from me and now the people I was beginning to see as friends have equated me with them just because I have pointed ears. I am nothing like the enlightened elves, a fact that they loved to remind me of every day. My people are weak imitations in their eyes.’
Gale let out a long sigh a few moments after Rognvald’s and then reluctantly replied, “Yes. Clear skies and a warm breeze. We should enjoy it while we can, for autumn will soon be upon us.”
Rognvald replied in overly cordial tones, making it obvious that he was avoiding talking about the silence that had reigned over the group since Lakeside, “Indeed. At least we will-” Rognvald stopped mid-sentence and looked behind him. Gale could hear it too now… hoof beats, several of them, riding fast.
Gale loosened his sword and began to move behind the cart to where Ku and Barry were as five riders came around the last bend in the road. They slowed down, approaching Ku and Barry cautiously, then called out, “Hail travelers. We seek no trouble. We bear a message for Lord Eric Indaren. Will you let us past?”
Ku and Barry glanced back towards Rognvald, who nodded. They moved aside. The riders began to move around the cart on the opposite side of the road. Rognvald said, “Unless I’m mistaken, you’re scouts from Lord Eric Indaren’s army. Makes me nervous seeing you ride so quickly. Anything for us to worry about that might be following you up the road?”
One of the riders spoke, slowing his horse down but still moving by, “No traveler, nothing to worry about. There have been a few elf raids along the border of the Cold Forest, but that is many days away from here. You are not in danger. Safe travels.” The riders made it around the cart and resumed their previous pace, galloping down the road, heading south.
He had been scouting further and further away from the road, or if he was honest with himself, the group. Tense silence had reigned since that night in Lakeside when Ku and Barry had found out that Gale was an elf of some sort. Ku and Barry had also been cold towards Blind Seer, as he had kept Gale’s secret since Edgeville. He and Ku had stopped working together on training their mental powers. Blind Seer had gone to talk to Gale, but Gale had said, “You’d better stay away or they’ll distrust you more.”
So, Blind Seer had stayed away… far away… from everyone. He had taken to scouting far out to the side of the road, only returning to the group in the evening. Blind Seer was uncomfortable with the whole situation, but had no idea what to do about it.
Blind Seer was walking along, pondering all this and ranging far from the group, when he came across a patch of blood in the grass. He sniffed at it and was alarmed to find that it was wolfos blood. It was fairly fresh, but he could not tell which direction the injured wolfos had gone. He called out, but received no answer. He worried that the injured wolfos might be unconscious nearby, bleeding out.
Blind Seer steadied his nerves and began to access the still part of his mind. He let his senses expand over the nearby area. Ku had mentioned that one of the other enieto at his Void Temple had been able to detect the psychic impressions that creatures left in areas when they experienced an emotional situation. Blind Seer focused his mind and tried pick up on these psychic impressions. He sat quietly for several minutes. A sudden spike of fear hit him. He had to run, the monster that had injured him was still following him. He stumbled, fell, and spit out some blood in the grass. He had to hide and soon. He got to his feet and struggled his way over to some bushes that were growing at the bottom of a hill. He heard the monster arrive behind him, heard it sniffing at the blood. It crept closer to the bushes and his heart pounded. An animal rustled in the grass further down the way. The monster darted off in that direction. He breathed a sigh of relief, then felt his consciousness fading. Blind Seer shook his head, reeling from the strange experience of feeling the emotions of another person. He hurried to the bushes that the psychic reading had showed him and soon found the injured wolfos. He was still breathing, but only just. Blind Seer hurried off to find the group, not wanting to risk moving the injured wolfos.
He finished his examination of the injured wolfos and knew that it was beyond his skill to treat. Blind Seer had burst onto the road and told Gale, Ku, and Barry to come help him. As they road through the grasses and brush, Blind Seer had explained that he had found an injured wolfos. Ku turned to the group now and shook his head, signaling that he couldn’t treat the wolfos. Gale stepped forward and said, “Let me take a look.”
Barry and Ku kept a close eye on Gale as he checked over the injury. After looking at it, Gale sat silently for several moments with his eyes closed, then laid a hand on the injury. There was a brief glow and then the wolfos began to stir. The wolfos’ eyes suddenly flew open, wide awake. He began to struggle, obviously in terror. “Stay still,” Gale said to him sternly, “or you will reopen the wound! You are no longer in danger!” The wolfos took in his surroundings and began to calm down. “Who are you,” the wolfos asked. The group members introduced themselves and explained how they had found him. The wolfos bowed deeply and thanked them for healing him. Ku asked what the wolfos’ name was.
“I have no name and may never gain one, for I am not sure I can defeat that foul creature. I am on my First Hunt, you see,” the wolfos replied.
Gale, Ku, and Barry stared blankly at the nameless wolfos. Blind Seer chimed in, “In wolfos culture, the First Hunt is a right of passage into adulthood. The tasks involved in a First Hunt vary from tribe to tribe. Some tribes do not name their young until they have completed their First Hunt. Which tribe are you from?”
“The Broken Claw tribe,” the nameless wolfos replied.
Blind Seer nodded and said, “I am from the Sagesnouts. We have heard of the Broken Claws. If I recall correctly, you have been here since before this was the Fadafir Kingdom.”
“Yes. We follow the old ways, hence the names only being granted after the First Hunt.”
“So the task of your First Hunt is to defeat some foul creature,” Blind Seer asked, tilting his head slightly to one side.
“I have been tasked with reclaiming the bones of one of our tribe’s ancestors. Our burial site was disturbed and the bones were taken. I tracked the scent from there, thinking perhaps some wild animal had taken them, but when I reached the end of the trail, what I found was much worse than an animal.”
He kept a close eye on Gale as the nameless wolfos was being healed. Barry still had his suspicions about this elf that was supposedly not an enlightened elf. He had grown up hearing all sorts of terrible stories about the elves, about how they were treacherous and dangerous. It was obvious that Gale had some sort of strange magic. Barry half suspected that Gale’s whole story was some elaborate elf scheme. Still, though, Barry wondered if Gale might truly be a Forgotten Elf. He had heard many stories about Forgotten Elves and Gale matched the description of the stories… Sharp and slim as a sword, and hair like living flame. Barry had thought the stories were just fiction to entertain children, but he had thought the same of dragons, and folk tales often have a grain of truth in them. Yet the enlightened elves may have heard these stories too, and sent their spy, Gale, cloaked in such uncertainty to infiltrate the Fadafir Kingdom.
Barry shook himself out of the thoughts that were chasing circles in his head. The nameless wolfos was talking to Blind Seer, saying, “I tracked the scent from there, thinking perhaps some wild animal had taken them, but when I reached the end of the trail, what I found was much worse than an animal.”
The nameless wolfos continued his tale, “The trail led me to a cave and when I went inside, I found a hideous creature with long arms and gnashing teeth. I have never seen or heard of anything like it. The thing noticed me and attacked, biting my side and beating against my head with its arms. Before I fled, I saw a pile of bones in there… Many more than just my ancestor’s bones. The creature must have been collecting them for quite some time.”
Blind Seer paced back and forth as the nameless wolfos spoke. When the tale was done, Blind Seer said, “It pains me to think that this creature has likely disturbed many graves in this region. The dead should be left to rest. Maybe we could help you with your First Hunt.”
“I am not sure if that is allowed,” the nameless wolfos said.
Blind Seer stopped pacing and said, “The purpose of the First Hunt is to prove yourself and earn a place in the tribe. To be part of a tribe, you must learn to work with others. If I have learned anything while traveling with these three, it is that we are all weak on our own. Only by acting together and trusting each other can we hope to achieve anything, supporting the weaknesses of other pack members with our strength and relying on the strengths of the other pack members to support our weaknesses. You were given a First Hunt that you cannot complete on your own. Surely it is not coincidence that we have crossed paths. The Guarding Hunter guides our fates this day. Friends, will you help this wolfos complete his First Hunt?”
Gale nodded solemnly. Ku unsheathed his greatsword and replied in the affirmative. ‘I am willing to act together, but I still do not trust Gale,’ Barry thought, then said, “Yes, I will aid in this task.”
The nameless wolfos stood a little taller and said, “Thank you. I may yet earn my name.”
The cave stood before them, black and ominous. Even Gale’s eyes could not penetrate the dark. The entrance was wedged between two hills, which crowded in on either side. Grass and brush clogged the opening which led down into the earth. The grass nearby was folded over and trampled down. Something large had frequented this place. “Let’s do this,” said Gale, looking around at Blind Seer, Barry, Ku, and the nameless wolfos. Barry lit a torch. Gale hopped down into the cave. The others followed.
As they made their way deeper into the cave, with Barry’s torchlight flickering off the earth and rock walls that glistened with moisture, Gale thought about what Blind Seer had said. ‘Only by acting together and trusting each other can we hope to achieve anything. How will Ku and Barry ever trust me again? How can I ever trust them? It might be safer to just slip off into the night… but then they would hunt me just as the Molroito do. My traveling companions are good people, it’s just that the enlightened elves have turned their minds to fear.’ Gale sighed as he thought, noting that the passageway of the cave was getting wider now, then went on thinking, ‘The Guarding Hunter guides our fates this day. Seems the Lord of the Winds, or Freedom’s Blade as the humans call him, also guides our fate. I am sure now that it is he who has granted me my magic. To what end, though? Surely there are other slaves that deserve freedom more than me. What does the Lord of the Winds have in store for me?’
Gale came around a turn in the cave and halted. Before him was a pit about ten feet deep. The floor sloped into the pit and looked like it could be walked with care. In the pit, though, was a swirling fog. It was thin enough to see the floor of the pit through it as tendrils of it drifted about. The pit was about twenty feet long. The light shone to the other side and Gale could see that the cave turned over there. “What do you make of this,” Gale asked the others, crouching down and waving his hand through the fog.
He asked the nameless wolfos about the fog. The wolfos told Blind Seer that the fog had not been here before. Blind Seer tentatively sniffed at it. He smelled the damp earth of the cave and the smell of his companions, but nothing else. “Perhaps it merely came from the moisture in this cave,” he said.
“Let us cross it then,” said Ku, striding down the slope into the pit and the fog, greatsword drawn and gleaming in the light from Barry’s torch. He strode along the floor of the pit for a ways, reaching the middle of the pit, then stumbled. “I am… I… can’t keep… eyes… sleep,” Ku called back to the group, dropping to the ground, letting go of his greatsword, which scraped against a rock then fell to the dirt. Blind Seer started to move forward to help, but Gale put a hand on his back and said, “Wait. It seems the fog has put him to sleep.”
“What will we do,” asked Blind Seer, “I think we could cross the pit with our breath held if we hurried, but it would take too long if we tried to pull Ku out of there.”
Gale strode into the fog. Blind Seer exclaimed, “What are you doing?!” Gale calmly walked to the middle of the pit, retrieving Ku’s greatsword and beginning to drag him to the other side. Barry, Blind Seer, and the nameless wolfos exchanged a look, then held their breath and hurried through the fog. Gale managed to drag Ku up and out of the fog on the far side of the pit as Barry and Blind Seer made it through. The nameless wolfos was still hurrying along a little ways back. Blind Seer let out his breath, then turned to ask Gale, “How?”
Gale smirked and said, “We don’t sleep.” He pointed to where his ears were concealed under his hat. As the nameless wolfos rejoined them, Gale crouched down and tried to wake Ku up.
The fog smelled sweet at first, but then began to choke his breath. He reflexively gasped for air, but that only served to draw in more of the fog. His vision swam and his eyelids began to droop. He tried to call out a warning to his companions as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Next he knew, Ku was on the floor and Gale was crouching over him. “Oh good, you’re awake again. You dropped this,” Gale said, pressing the greatsword back into Ku’s hands. Ku shook his head to clear the drowsiness when suddenly it slammed into Gale. It was big. Barry, Blind Seer, and the nameless wolfos exclaimed in shock and fear. Ku rolled to his feet, gripping his greatsword, and surveyed the scene. A mass of writhing, boneless limbs had Gale backed against a wall. Gale raised his arms to shield his face as the creature beat against him with its limbs.
Barry and Blind Seer jumped into action. Blind Seer summoned a beam of energy and slung it at the creature. Barry lashed out with his rapier. The creature turned and Ku saw two misshapen, mismatched eyes, white and bulbous, framing a mouth with sharp teeth. The creature seemed to lack a neck and its body was a mass of misshapen skin, smooth and glistening with moisture. It propelled itself with its squirming limbs, which were haphazardly placed all over its body. The creature was vaguely shaped like a salamander. A puff of fog escaped from the creature’s skin. An image from a book read long ago rose to the surface of Ku’s mind. Hebeni, “unborn”, the result of an enieto larva being left in the spawning pool for too long. The larva would begin to eat each other, eventually building up enough chemicals to trigger their growth. With no human to act as framework, though, the larva would not develop correctly, growing limbs in wrong places and a misshapen body. The mind would not develop properly, either, as the larva would lack the necessary nutrients normally gathered while developing within a human’s body. With no framework, hebeni could continue growing throughout their life. This one had grown to a massive size. Ku had never heard of one that produced sleep-inducing gas, but he knew that hebeni developed all sorts of strange defenses in their unchecked growth.
Blind Seer and Barry gave ground as the hebeni surged forward. It spied the nameless wolfos and charged, moving with surprising speed despite its grotesquely deformed body. The hebeni slammed the nameless wolfos against a wall and loomed over him, preparing for a killing blow. The wolfos struggled feebly, trying to get to his feet but stumbling on his battered legs. The hebeni’s vicious mouth opened wide and it moved to bite at the wolfos. Ku slammed his greatsword into the creature’s body just below its mouth. The hebeni squirmed. Ku stared into its eyes, which were filled only with hunger and madness. The hebeni wrapped some of its limbs around Ku, beating at his head with the other limbs. Ku struggled to free himself and his greatsword, but the hebeni held him tight, drawing him closer to its mouth of gnashing, pointed teeth. Ku tried to calm himself, focusing his thoughts and beginning to draw power from his mind, but the hebeni squeezed him tight and he lost his focus.
He saw Ku get dragged beneath the mass of writhing limbs. Barry darted forward and stabbed with his rapier, aiming for the creature’s eyes. The creature blocked his blow and grabbed Barry’s arm, causing him to drop his blade. Blind Seer ran up and bit the limb which held Barry. The creature recoiled. Ku let out a cry of pain as the creature squeezed him. A fork of golden lightning hit the creature near its eyes. Barry glanced over and saw Gale leaning against the cave wall, breathing hard. Barry stooped to retrieve his rapier, spinning around and stabbing with it as he stood up. The blow hit home and the creature squealed. Ku broke free, somehow still clutching his greatsword. Gale pushed off the wall and drew his short sword. The creature backed away a foot or so, realizing too late that this group was not easy prey. Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, Barry, and the nameless wolfos fell upon the creature with renewed vigor, slashing, stabbing, and biting until its many limbs squirmed no more. When it was done, they fell to their knees or laid on the floor, breathing heavily for several minutes.
After he caught his breath, Barry exclaimed, “What in the Elders’ names was that thing?”
“A hebeni,” said Ku, leaning on his greatsword, “An enieto larva left in the pool too long. Happens most often when a Void Temple is abandoned.”
Barry frowned, “I’ve never heard of that happening. Where do you think it came from?”
“I’m not sure,” replied Ku, “I’ve heard no news of any Void Temples being abandoned in this region in recent times. That hebeni was quite large. Could be that it was abandoned long ago.”
They sat for a few moments more, catching their breath. The nameless wolfos got to his feet and limped forward. Gale saw that he was injured and came over to help. “You’re lucky it isn’t broken. It is just sprained and bruised. I think I can fix this.” The nameless wolfos looked on in amazement as Gale placed his hand over the leg, which glowed briefly, then looked better. The wolfos bowed and said, “I hadn’t realized… Thank you… shaman.”
The nameless wolfos then walked over to Ku. “Thank you as well,” the wolfos said, “You threw yourself between me and that creature. You saved my life. I would be honored to share the name of such a brave warrior. When I complete my First Hunt, I shall be known as Ku of the Broken Claw.” Ku the enieto stood up and nodded solemnly.
Around the corner, they found a large pile of bones, amongst which was the bones of the nameless wolfos’ ancestor. The wolfos retrieved the bones, tying them carefully and reverently to his back. The group made their way out of the cave, holding their breath as they passed through the sleeping fog, and bid farewell to the wolfos.
“You lot sure do find all sorts of trouble,” Rognvald said when they returned and told him what had happened. Nostiarna had risen high in the sky and was beginning to cover the sun, so the caravan made their way off the road and made camp not far from the river.
As they were getting dinner ready, Gale found a rock to sit on and took a look at his arms. Back at the cave, he had wiped off as much as he could in the grass, but there was still hebeni blood and bile on them, dry now and clinging to his skin. Gale got up and slipped out of camp while everyone was busy with the cook fire. He headed down towards the river. He was no stranger to being dirty. Back at the farms, there were many days where he had been covered in dirt after a day of work, or smeared with blood after a brutal beating, but he had always had access to water at the end of the day, so Gale had taken to keeping himself clean, even when the other slaves had long since resigned themselves to being dirty. It also comforted him to have some small measure of control over his life, even though the enlightened elves had taken nearly everything else.
Gale found his way to the river, took off his clothes, and eased into the icy waters.
He felt good that they had been able to help out a fellow wolfos. Blind Seer thought back to his own First Hunt. He and all the other younglings of his clan born in the same year as him had been tasked with hunting a boar. They had tracked it through the hills and were closing in on it. Blind Seer had felt a strange feeling of dread as they approached a bush. As they neared it, he had suddenly felt compelled to shove his friend. As Blind Seer had pushed his friend, the boar charged out of the bush, narrowly missing them both. The hunting pack had taken it down together after that. Looking back, Blind Seer now knew that the dread he had felt had been the first manifestations of his psionic powers.
“Here you go,” Rognvald said, handing Blind Seer a stick with some meat on it. Blind Seer ate happily and joined the conversation around the campfire.
He reflected on the fight with the hebeni as he ate. He had been unable to manifest any psionic powers as it had pulled him close with its mass of limbs, too distracted by the pain and the prospect of being eaten. Ku decided that he would have to redouble his efforts to incorporate psionics into his fighting style. He was glad that he had been able to save the wolfos, though, and was further pleased that the wolfos had decided to take Ku’s name for his own. Well, his spoken name anyways. Ku hadn’t told anyone in the group his mind name yet. Only he and the other enieto back at his home Void Temple knew that.
Ku finished his food and excused himself, walking to the edge of the camp and finding a log to sit on. The shores of the river that the road followed had stands of trees clustered near it, sending their roots down into the earth to drink the water. Ku closed his eyes and began his mental exercises, flexing his frills and focusing his mind. ‘Good food’, Ku heard a mental voice think. After a moment, Ku recognized it as the thoughts of Barry. Ku hadn’t meant to eavesdrop on anyone’s thoughts, as doing such was considered extremely rude. He was about to sever the connection when he heard Barry think, ‘Where did that damn elf go? I’d better go find him.’ Barry stood up from the camp fire and told everyone that he was going to patrol the camp perimeter. Ku thought about offering to help him find Gale, but realized he couldn’t without revealing that he had accidentally eavesdropped on Barry’s thoughts, so Ku decided to stay put and continue practicing his psionics.
He pushed aside the brush and looked out across the river, which was wide and calm in this area. Barry could hear the churning rapids further down where it narrowed and crashed against rocks. He saw clothes and armor strewn about the river shore. Out in the water, Gale stood half submerged, using a rock to obsessively scrape and scrub at his skin, focused on his task with a vacant, haunted stare. Moonlight from Iarthrod shone down on the water and Barry saw Gale’s back. A network of wicked scars covered it and almost no unharmed skin remained. Barry had seen men lashed before, but Gale’s back could only be the product of savage brutality. Barry had always figured that the stories about enlightened elves were somewhat exaggerated, but now he knew the cruelties of reality were just as bad. Barry felt his stomach twist in revulsion at the ruined skin, followed by a feeling of shame as he thought, ‘Seems his story might be true. Gale may really have been a slave to the enlightened elves.’ Barry turned away and crept back to camp.
Things had been better the past few days as they continued to travel south. Barry and Ku were once again talking to Gale, though it was still awkward between them, and Blind Seer had stayed closer to the group. The hills were getting shorter each day as they traveled south, and the stands of trees grew more frequent. Gale spotted a few deciduous trees, but the small forests were still dominated by coniferous trees.
As Gale crested a low hill, he saw a large open area stretching out before him. The road ahead continued near to the river, with trees only on the far bank, and atop a hill that Gale estimated to be two hours away at current pace, stood a sturdy fortress of smooth grey stone. The road passed between the fortress and the river, and by the fortress, a stone bridge spanned the flowing waters. On the horizon, Gale saw that the river split, one branch heading southeast and the other heading west. A city sprawled over the river and its branches, and between the branches of the river Gale could just make out a castle, rising above the buildings that surrounded it and the two bridges that led to it across the river branches. Rognvald’s cart rumbled to the top of the hill and Rognvald said, “Ah, Fort Duristan. We should reach it in a couple of hours. There in the distance is our journey’s destination. Rivers’ Crossing. It’ll be a few days beyond Fort Duristan that we reach it. Come, I doubt they will let us inside, but if we hurry we can eat our lunch in the shadow of Fort Duristan.”
As they approached Fort Duristan, the sound of a warhorn split the air. Blind Seer looked towards the fort. The road split near it and a short stretch of road led up the hill to the gates of the fort. The gates opened and a rider came galloping down the hill towards the group. “Hail, travelers. You must move off the road. Several soldiers will be needing it momentarily.”
“How long will our delay be,” asked Rognvald.
“An hour, perhaps,” the rider from the fort replied.
“As good a time as any to eat lunch I suppose. Where are the soldiers bound? Is there trouble up north?”
“Aye, there is. Trouble down south, too. Seems the elves need more slaves. They are raiding several towns. Not many of them up north, though. Our force should be enough to clear them out. If you’re heading south beyond Rivers’ Crossing, though, I’d be careful. There have been several elf raids in the Silent Hills and the lands around Brightharbor. Take care.”
Rognvald nodded and moved his cart off the road. The rest of the group tied their horses’ reins to some trees and got out the dried food for lunch. Soon, a column of soldiers began snaking out from Fort Duristan. A few were mounted, but most were on foot. They streamed by as Blind Seer watched. Since they had time, Blind Seer decided to practice his psionic powers. He focused his mind and tried to sense any psychic impressions that may have been left in this area, much as he had done in order to find the wolfos before.
For a long while, Blind Seer got nothing from his reading. He listened to the marching of the troops as he sat and waited. Suddenly, his vision blurred and the sound of the marching troops changed. Blind Seer looked and saw blurred figures moving quickly up the road, towards the gates of Fort Duristan, which loomed as a blurry mass of stone atop the hill. Some of the figures stopped nearby and fired bows towards the fort. Up close, Blind Seer could see that the figures had pointed ears. Looking back towards the fort, he could see figures on the battlements now, firing back at the elves with bows and javelins. A banner above the gatehouse came into focus and Blind Seer could see a longboat on a field of dark blue.
The column of soldiers had finished marching by and the group had continued on. Ku had estimated that there had been at least one hundred soldiers plus a few supply wagons. The group had continued on and made camp as night fell. Blind Seer told the group about how he had read the psychic impressions around Fort Duristan and seen elves attacking it. Rognvald nodded slowly and said, “Aye, that’d probably be the Second Great Human-Elf War that you saw. One of the battles of it, anyways.”
Ku remembered that he had had a few history lessons from the Void Temple about the Second War, but he couldn’t remember the contents of the lessons, as his history teacher had been a ponderous old enieto and had a knack for putting his students to sleep.
“We have no history books in my tribe,” said Blind Seer, “What can you tell me about this Second Great Human-Elf War?”
“Well let’s see. At the end of the First War, that would have been… hmm, year 1292 when it was over, the Longman family had carved the eastern shore of the Shattered Ocean into the Fadafir Kingdom. Many years later, they pressed eastward and established Rivers’ Crossing. The elves retaliated and thus began the Second War. That was year 1375. Lasted until 1431. Always long wars when you are going up against an enemy that can easily reach 300 years of age.”
Blind Seer tilted his head to one side and asked, “So there used to be elves in the Riverlands?”
“Oh yes. They used to rule over all the lands between the Singing Forest and the Cold Forest. They took slaves in those days just as they do now and eventually a prominent human captain of the Shattered Ocean, Langmann, banded together several other humans and attacked the elves. They landed in year 1247 at what became Longport, started the First Great Human-Elf War, and established the Fadafir Kingdom. Like I said, at the end of that war, the Fadafir Kingdom stretched across much of the eastern shore of the Shattered Ocean.”
Ku stretched as he listened to Rognvald, then jumped to his feet. “Look,” he said to the group, pointing to where he had spotted a thin trail of smoke in the sky.
“Looks like a campfire,” said Barry.
Ku nodded and said, “We’d best check it out. If it’s bandits, we should move our camp further away. If it’s other travelers, perhaps we can combine camps for greater safety.”
The others nodded agreement. Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry headed off to check it out.
They approached the area where they had spotted the campfire. Barry motioned to the others to wait while he crept forward a few more feet. He could hear the crackling and popping of burning wood. Light danced up ahead, casting shadows from the shrubs and few trees that populated the hills that huddled close together, creating a sheltered low area between them. Barry heard the soft murmuring of a voice, but couldn’t make out any of the words at this distance. He eased his way through the grass and brush, then saw down into the campsite.
Their gear was piled near the fire. Barry saw backpacks, bows, arrows, and wooden masks, painted with strange symbols. He looked to the two campers, who sat by the fire, speaking a strange tongue. Barry saw that the had black hair and pointed ears. He slowly crept away back to the group and whispered, “Molroito. I’d recognize their masks anywhere. I’ll sneak up on them, perhaps we can capture one and see what they are doing here.” The others nodded agreement to his plan.
Barry moved around the campsite such that he would be behind the elves, then moved quietly through the brush. He saw the Molroito again, who were still sitting and talking. ‘Thought these pointy-eared bastards were supposed to have good hearing,’ Barry thought as he stepped into the camp, rapier at the ready. One of the elves turned at that moment and cried out a warning. Barry pierced that one’s neck with his rapier and the elf fell to the ground. As Barry pulled out his rapier, he saw that the other elf had already found his bow and had an arrow ready. Barry rolled forward, trying to dodge the arrow, but it struck him in the leg. Barry fell to his knees. The elf readied another arrow, aiming for Barry’s throat. Barry tried to lash out with his rapier, but the elf was standing just outside of range. The elf shot the arrow, but it went wildly wide, as the elf was scrambling to stay standing on the ice that had just appeared below his feet. The elf failed to keep his feet and fell forward, right onto Barry’s blade. Gale, Blind Seer, and Ku rushed out of the brush. “Damn. Wanted to take that one alive. Thanks for saving my life, though,” Barry said, nodding to Blind Seer.
“Don’t thank me. Thank him,” Blind Seer said, pointing his nose towards Gale.
Barry raised his eyebrows and asked, “Since when do you make ice slicks?”
“Since I just thought it up three seconds ago,” Gale replied, “I seem to be gaining greater control over my magic. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“I… thank you,” Barry said sheepishly.
“Well I couldn’t have you dying on me. You’re part of my grand plan to rule over you dirty humans,” Gale said with a smirk, “Now let’s see about that leg.”
He healed Barry’s leg while Blind Seer and Ku checked the elves and their gear. “Both are dead,” Ku reported.
Blind Seer sniffed at their campfire and said, “What do you think they were doing here?”
Gale looked around and spotted a small hammer by some brush that clustered around the side of the hill, which rose steeply at this spot. Gale went over and picked up the hammer, then pushed some of the plants aside. “Perhaps they were here for this,” he said, gesturing at the now uncovered stone door. Gale gave it a push, but it wouldn’t budge. He stepped back to examine the door. It was on the edge of the campfire’s light, but Gale’s eyes could see it just fine. There was a carving in the stone door that depicted a forest of tall pine trees on one side, a crowd of people on the other side, and a person standing in the middle with hands upraised.
Barry came over and looked at the door. Even after several minutes of searching around the door, he couldn’t find a way to open it. Ku tried to move it, but couldn’t, even after augmenting his strength with psionic power. Barry studied the door again, murmuring some words and passing his hands over the carving. “There is magic at work here,” he said.
Gale continued to study the carving. He narrowed his eyes at it and said, “Strange… The scene depicted here reminds me of a story that my mother told me. The story was about my people, though. I’m not sure my people have been in the Riverlands much.”
“What happened in the story,” Blind Seer asked.
“Well, one of our heroes led my people to a new home. The new home was safe from the enlightened elves, but held dangers of its own, so when the hero beheld it he said, ‘Oh blessed haven, oh damned prison.’ That’s the best translation I can come up with, anyways. I originally heard the story in the tongue of my people.”
Blind Seer sat for a moment, then asked, “What does the phrase sound like in the tongue of your people?” Gale repeated the phrase in a language that sounded somehow earthy but also flowed easily off the tongue. Gale heard a grinding noise and turned to see that the door was opening.
He sniffed the air as the stone door slowly opened. He saw Gale lean forward, trying to peer into the darkness. Blind Seer smelled stale air, earth, and something he couldn’t place. A sudden dread stabbed into his heart and he cried out to Gale, “Watch out!” Gale frantically drew his short sword and brought it up to defend himself. A gleaming longsword came swinging out of the darkness beyond the stone door. The blades came together with a mighty clang. The ringing continued for several moments, then there was a noise of scraping metal followed by silence. Blind Seer saw that Gale’s short sword had split apart. The blade had fallen to the ground, while Gale still clung to the hilt. The wielder of the longsword stepped out of the darkness beyond the stone door and into the light of the dead Molroito’s campfire.
The stranger exclaimed, “What in the Lord of the Wind’s sacred ale horn is another highland elf doing here?” Blind Seer turned his head sideways and examined the stranger. He was tall, nearly as tall as Ku, towering over the short height of Gale. He had white-grey hair which may once have been blond… and short pointed ears! Blind Seer narrowed his eyes suspiciously and took another sniff. Now that some of the stale air had cleared out, Blind Seer noticed some similarities between the scents of Gale and the stranger.
Gale dropped the hilt of his broken short sword and said in an awed voice, “Who…? How…? Who are you?”
The stranger replied, “I am Tarim, Scout of the Highland Elves. I thought you were those Molroito, but I see you’ve taken care of them. They’ve been here for days trying to starve me out. Sorry for breaking your sword and nearly slicing off your head.”
Gale regained some of his composure and said, “Seeing as I still have my head, I’ll accept your apology. I am Gale. Are there more highland elves around? What is this place? Why is there a carving of one of our people’s stories on this stone door?”
Tarim put the point of the longsword into the ground and leaned on it. Blind Seer now saw that he looked tired, thin, and old. Tarim replied to Gale’s barrage of questions, “There are no other highland elves nearby. I have been out here on my own for a long time. This is a barrow of our people from the First Great Human-Elf War. I discovered it a while back and have used it as a base of operations for scouting in this area. I ran into those Molroito and their friends a few days ago and took shelter in here. Heheh, the other Molroito didn’t make it, I made sure of that, couldn’t shake these two, though. The barrow has wards, as I’m sure you noticed, that keep it sealed unless you know the pass phrase. Please, come in. Let us talk while I pack my things. It has been too long since I have spoken to another, ah… highland elf.”
After exchanging looks, they all followed Tarim into the barrow cautiously.
He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Tarim as the group headed into the darkness beyond the stone door. Ku had been rather surprised to find an elf behind the stone door… a forgotten elf, or highland elf as Tarim had called himself. Ku kept his guard up as they traversed a short, twisting tunnel that opened up into a cramped chamber. There was a small pile of gear against the back wall that appeared to be the only items in the room without a layer of dust. In the earthen walls were about a dozen stone sarcophagi, stacked three high in earth and stone shelves. Some were tilted at odd angles, as the dirt in the shelves had eroded away. All were covered in a thick layer of dust. Ku swept the dust off the nearest sarcophagus and saw that runes of an unknown tongue were carved into the side of it.
Tarim walked over to the pile of gear, placed a hand on the wall, and began to lower himself to sit. Ku noticed that Tarim’s face was a grimace of pain and that his arms were shaking. Tarim finished sitting down, set his longsword aside, began to sort through the pile of gear, then said, “So… A human, a wolfos, an enieto, and a highland elf. Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, heheh – ahem. Let’s see… the human, obviously a bandit, not a thug, though… knows how to move, probably a pickpocket before, maybe from Rivers’ Crossing, something different about him now, is it magic? The wolfos, fur coloring indicates northern birth, not too north, probably the hills near the Cold Forest, doesn’t wear armor, but walks with confidence, power or naivety, both perhaps, shaman? The enieto, huge, greatsword strapped to his back, no question there, a warrior, sword bears the mark of the Void Temple near Edgeville, doesn’t trust me, but then who would trust a stranger that sprung out of a barrow? The highland elf, short, very short, abnormal maybe, or just underfed for all of his life, he is an escaped slave after all, probably taken young, the ‘education’ farms, right?” Tarim turned his head around and looked expectantly at Gale over his shoulder.
The four of them stood in a stunned silence. Blind Seer said, “How… how did you know all that about us?”
Tarim continued to look at Gale, “I’m a scout. It’s my job to be observant. Am I right about the ‘education’ farms?” After a moment, Gale nodded. Tarim gave a satisfied nod to himself, turned back to the pile of gear, and continued, “So what brings such an odd collection of people together? And what brings you to this place?”
Gale cleared his throat and stepped forward, “We are all guards for a merchant. We were traveling nearby when we saw the smoke from the Molroito’s camp. That brought us here, then we found the stone door. I had no idea that our people had scouts out this far from the… from home.”
“I imagine there is much you do not know after having been enslaved for so long,” Tarim said. He dropped one of the bags that he was sorting through and Ku saw that his hand was clenched tight into a fist and his arm was shaking. After a few moments, Tarim picked the bag back up and continued, “I doubt the enlightened elves taught you much about the history and culture of our people, but perhaps you heard it from other slaves?”
Gale glanced at the ground, “The only other highland elves there were women. The men and women had separate quarters and we weren’t allowed to interact much, so I’m afraid I only have quickly whispered stories and the blurry memories of my childhood.”
Tarim sighed, stood up, and turned to face Gale, “I am sure that you have many questions for me. I’m afraid I don’t have many answers for you. I have been out here, away from our… homeland… since the Second War. I send in my reports and occasionally receive orders, but I know little about the current culture of our people. Even if I did know more, there is not enough time left for me to answer you.” Tarim clutched his stomach and his whole body shook for a moment.
Gale stepped forward and attempted to assist, but Tarim waved him off. Gale’s face grew solemn, “Out here since the Second War? You… you must be nearly four hundred years of age. Are you alright?”
“My time is nearing its end,” Tarim said as he bent to rummage in a bag, “A sickness has taken root in my stomach and my body is failing me.” He pulled a handful of small leaves out of the bag and put them in his mouth to chew, “I aim to travel to the nearest Void Temple, heheh, what a shock it will be for them when an elf wanders in for the End of Life Journey.”
“Perhaps I can heal you,” said Gale, “I… I have magic.”
“There is no magic that can cure old age.”
“Mine can heal wounds… maybe even cure diseases.”
Tarim raised an eyebrow, “The old magic? What an odd group indeed… No, though, even if you could cure this sickness, it has already done too much damage to my body. Do not mourn for me. I was on my way to the Void Temple already, then those Molroito found me. I am thankful that you have come along and given me this chance to have all my years of knowledge recorded in the enieto’s memory tablets. It is time for me to put down my sword. My sword…” Tarim looked down at his sword on the ground where he had left it, a strange expression on his face. “Do you hear that?”
They all held their breath and listened in the silence of the barrow. A faint ringing noise seemed to be emanating from the sword.
Tarim continued to stare at the sword, “It has only done that once before… when I found it. It was in a place much like this one, another highland elf barrow, though much older, to the south, in the Silent Hills.” He reached down to pick up the sword, but when his hand neared the hilt, the sword spun, scraping against a rock that protruded from the dirt, and came to a halt with its hilt pointed towards Gale. Tarim slowly stood back up, regarding Gale closely, “Seems Olctire has chosen you to be its new bearer. Take it. I owe you a sword anyways. I no longer have need of it.”
Gale stooped down and grasped the hilt of the blade. He stood and gave a solemn nod, “Olctire… ‘destroyer of evil’… This is a noble gift. Thank you.” Tarim handed over a scabbard that fit the sword and picked up his pack of gear. They headed outside and Tarim bid farewell to the group. Ku saw that Tarim stopped to talk briefly with Barry before heading out, but couldn’t hear what was said.
Tarim approached him as they exited the barrow. The stone door groaned and scraped shut behind them. Tarim gave Barry a long look and said, “You remind me of a man I once knew. Ferdinand Werner Longman. A great man. Fought alongside him in the Second War. You ever heard of him? Seems like this group may be destined for something. Will you be a great man? Heheh, guess only time will tell. Farewell.”
The name sounded familiar to Barry. He thought that Ferdinand Longman might have had a hand in establishing Rivers’ Crossing. Barry was not the best student of history, though, so he couldn’t be sure.
They began to make their way back to Rognvald. They agreed to stay silent about the stone door and Tarim. Gale held up his new sword, ‘Olctire’ Tarim had called it, and asked how they were going to explain it. It was a fine blade, polished steel, a small gemstone in the hilt, and the hilt was shaped like feathered wings that spread straight out. It was clearly not of enlightened elf origin, so they couldn’t claim that it was the Molroito’s weapon. After some thought, Barry replied, “We investigated the source of the smoke and found two Molroito camping there. We tried to capture them, but they noticed us and took up their weapons. We managed to slay them, but unfortunately in the process Gale’s short sword was broken. We found this sword amongst their belongings. Not sure where it came from. They must have taken it off someone in one of their raids.”
When they returned to the camp and told this story to Rognvald, he examined the blade and said, “Hmm. I’ve seen priests of Freedom’s Blade use swords that looked similar to this one. Perhaps the Molroito captured a priest. Well, it is yours now I suppose. Can’t have a sword-less guardsman.”
They all headed to bed and slept well, glad that they were only a few days from their destination, Rivers’ Crossing.