Soaked ground lay in front of him where moments ago a massive creature made of ice had been. Gale stared in shock and tried to comprehend what he had just seen. “What was that thing,” he asked.
Barry responded with a similar tone of shock in his voice, “A winged lizard… a creature of legend… a dragon. I always thought such things were just stories that moms told their kids. Never before have I heard of one being made of ice. If I hadn’t just seen it with my own eyes, I would never believe it.”
“We should not linger here,” said Blind Seer, pacing back and forth and clearly agitated, “I feel a sense of dread building slowly in my stomach when I look upon the spot where the creature melted.”
“Yes. We should return to Rognvald,” said Ku, staring at the soaked ground and waving his frills slightly.
They headed back towards the road. Gale glanced back to look at the wet dirt. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this incident marked the beginning of something.
The group was making their way back to Rognvald in silence. Gale, Ku, and Barry had remounted their horses. Everyone seemed unsettled. “So,” Blind Seer tentatively broke the silence, “The… dragon… it looked heavily wounded. The question arises… what could harm such a massive creature?” Everyone was silent for several moments while they considered the question.
“Perhaps… Perhaps there are more of them,” Gale said,“and they fought with this one?”
“Where did it even come from,” Barry asked.
“It flew in from the north,” said Ku, “Perhaps it flew out of the Bittercold.”
The group fell into silence again. Blind Seer could not shake the tingling of dread in his stomach.
They made it back to Rognvald, who asked the group, “What happened?”
Ku described what they had seen, ending with, “I do not know what that creature was. It was grievously wounded, though, and we do not know by what. I suggest that we find a covered place to camp tonight.”
“Have you ever heard of such a beast, Rognvald,” Barry asked.
“No. In all my years of travel, I have not heard of such a thing. We’ve all heard the hearth-side stories of dragons, I’m sure… but one made of ice? I agree with Ku. We should find a campsite with overhead shelter tonight. The sooner the better.”
The group fell into their places around the merchant’s cart. Ku kept glancing backwards, towards the north, watching the sky.
They moved along at what Barry now felt was too slow of a pace. He tried to recall all the stories about dragons that he had heard. In all of them, they were massive winged lizards that reigned fire down upon villages. ‘Many legends have kernels of truth hidden in them,’ Barry thought, ‘I do hope we find cover soon.’ He checked the sky and saw that Nostiarna was just starting to cover the sun, creating the approximately hour-long twilight of Daern.
“There,” Ku called out, “Ahead. I see trees.”
He was laying down for bed. They had made camp under the trees and ate a few birds for dinner. Everyone still felt nervous, but the cover of the trees took some of uneasiness away. Gale was just beginning to enter his state of meditation, wishing for a hot bath to scrub himself clean with when a sudden blackness overtook him. Then, he felt that he had perfect clarity. He looked up and found himself standing under a large tree, a deciduous tree, which he had seen only a few of. From the tales of other slaves, he knew that the Forest of Screams had many such trees. Sunlight streamed through the branches of the tree and as Gale watched, a leaf broke off from one of the branches and began falling towards the ground. When it had almost hit it, a light breeze stirred the air. The leaf was lifted up and began floating away. Gale looked down and saw that there were many leaves strewn across the ground beneath the tree. Darkness overtook him again and he awoke.
He lapped water from the river which was near the campsite. Rognvald had said that it flowed all the way down from the Cold Forest to Rivers’ Crossing, where it split into two branches, one going to the Shattered Ocean and the other to the Frostmelt Sea. About halfway between here and Rivers’ Crossing was Lakeside. Blind Seer headed back to the campsite and settled down in a spot near the fire. He was watching it dance when darkness came upon him swiftly and suddenly. He opened his eyes and saw the home of his tribe, heard the playful yips of pups not yet ready for bed, smelled the blood of a fresh kill roasting over a smokey fire pit. Then, he heard another sound. The twang of a bow. Blind Seer saw an arrow arc into the sky, blazing across it, for it was lit with fire. It crashed down on the hut of the elders, the leaders of the tribe. Blackness swallowed his sight and he awoke.
He finished cleaning and sharpening his blade and began doing his mental exercises. Closing his eyes, Ku could still see a red glow from the fire. He let his other senses expand, including the one that let him hear the whispers of thoughts of unguarded minds. The glow of the fire suddenly died and all went dark. He opened his eyes and found himself in a cave. He heard a roaring sound from up ahead, perhaps from a waterfall. Ku went around a corner in the passageway and found himself on a ledge overlooking a huge cavern. He looked down and saw a huge crowd of people filling the floor from wall to wall. From what he could tell, all the races of Daern were present in the crowd. They were all well armed and armored and were bashing spears on the floor and weapons on shields. This was the source of the waterfall noise. There was an eerie lack of voices which were usually raised in such a warrior’s rally. The scene went dark and the glow of the campfire returned.
He stretched and finished tending to the horses, then headed straight for bed. He hoped that it was safe under the trees from any more dragons that might come flying over. Barry stared up at the pine trees, which clustered by the river. He listened to the gentle flow of it near the campsite and the distant rushing further downstream. Darkness swept upon him suddenly. Opening his eyes, he was greeted by thick mists, crowding his view. All color here was muted tones of blue and gray. Up ahead, Barry saw some sort of light. He pushed his way through the mists and came upon a flowing stream of bright white energy. The words of the old man that they had met on the road came back to him now… “I’ve never seen the River swirl around anyone such as it does with you.” Barry approached the River and it seemed to sense him, for tendrils of energy branched off and began to reach towards him. He saw that there were actually many colors in the River, perhaps all the colors in the world. Darkness covered him again and he awoke.
Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry
They were all wide awake and looking around at each other. It was the middle of the night and everyone else was asleep, except for one of the bandits-turned-guard, who was standing watch a ways off from the camp. They saw in each others’ eyes that all had had a strange dream of some sort. “What did you see,” Blind Seer asked. “A leaf blowing on a breeze,” said Gale. “A mass of silent people preparing for battle in a cave,” said Ku. “The River… the Other Side,” said Barry. “I saw a burning arrow fall upon the hut of the elders of my tribe,” said Blind Seer, “What do you think it all means?” They all sat silently for a while. None of them could come up with a good explanation and eventually they all decided to get back to sleep, thinking that perhaps their dreams had just been dreams.
He sighed in relief, glad that the rest of the journey had gone smoothly. Lakeside was in sight. They would reach it by late afternoon. “We’ll have soft beds to sleep on tonight,” he said to the group.
“What can you tell us about Lakeside,” asked Blind Seer.
“Well, many decades ago, this town was just a speck on the map, a decent fishing village but certainly not the trade hub that it is now. A young businessman by the name of Gerald Walton, recently married to Laura Tanner, traveled up here from Rivers’ Crossing to assess the fishing operation, which his father was considering funding. Turned out that the fishing operation didn’t look to be a good investment, but Gerald did see a potential business. The shores of the lake had high quantities of high quality clay. Gerald Walton soon moved his family out here and set up a brick making workshop. It was very successful and soon Walton’s bricks were floating down the rivers on barges to Rivers’ Crossing and beyond. Walton made good money and Lakeside prospered, growing quickly to support the new industry. A few years ago, the Waltons had a big party on the lake, floating their barges out to the middle and serving drinks. A lot of the Waltons’ extended family was there, along with the Waltons’ servants. Gerald’s wife, Laura was unable to attend though, as she was feeling a bit ill that day. A terrible storm rose up. The party ended in disaster. The barges were sunk and nearly everyone out there that day drowned in the murky waters of the lake. Laura was stricken with a grief from which she never recovered. She lost her family and her mind that day. She went through the motions of carrying on the brick making business, but it suffered, as she lacked any real motivation to continue it. The Walton Manor began to fall into disrepair. Many came to her, offering their service, sometimes for no cost, as they felt sorry for the grieving widow. Laura turned them all away, though, saying that she had plenty of help around the house and that their services were not required. Laura’s brother, Jeremy Tanner, came up from Rivers’ Crossing and tried to help her get out of her grief. Unfortunately, she was unable to. She passed away about a year ago.”
He pulled his hat lower as he walked into town. ‘Best not let anyone see my pointed ears here,’ he thought. Gale studied the town as they approached. The buildings were short, made of brick and timber, and sprawled out across the low hills of the eastern shore of the lake. The lake was sizable. Gale could just see the far shore. On the lake, he could see barges being loaded at crude docks. Near the docks, close to the shore, men were working to pull mud and clay out of the ground and pack it into wooden brick forms further up the shore.
“The brick making industry carries on,” Rognvald was saying to the group, “but it is not as prosperous as it was under Gerald Walton’s management. They probably made three times as many bricks in those days. Let’s take these prisoners to the courthouse then find a place to stay for the night.”
He gazed around at the buildings as they entered the town. This was the largest human settlement that Blind Seer had ever been in. He sniffed the air. ‘So many smells,’ he thought, ‘and most of them unpleasant! How do humans live like this?’
As they made their way through the streets, Blind Seer saw several enieto scattered among the humans. “I thought most enieto lived in Void Temples,” he remarked.
“That is where we are born and raised,” said Ku, “but most of us leave the temples and live our lives elsewhere. Many settle down in human towns. Some travel to Laushurno and join the enieto community there.”
“Ah, here we are,” said Rognvald, “the courthouse.”
He looked around as they entered the courthouse, hauling the still tied prisoners in. The building was simply built, though it used the highest quality bricks that Ku had seen so far. Inside, three humans sat on a raised platform. Next to the platform stood an enieto. The enieto and the three humans were looking at two men that stood in the middle of the room. One had his hands bound behind his back. The other looked to be some sort of guard. Near the back wall, to the right of the entryway, stood another enieto with arms crossed. Just to the left of the entryway was another human, who produced a book and quill, then approached Rognvald.
Rognvald quietly whispered to the human with the book and quill, who then scribbled in his book and sat back down. The human in the middle of the raised platform spoke, “After reviewing the evidence presented yesterday, this court finds you guilty of thievery. For this crime, the criminal is sentenced to lose the first joint of his fifth left-hand finger.” The bound criminal accepted his fate stoically and the guard led him out of the courthouse.
The man with the book stood up and said, “To the court, I present Garsk of the Deepguard.” The enieto near the back of the room unfolded his arms and stepped forward.
“Ah, Garsk. Good to see you again,” one of the human judges said. “How were your travels?”
The enieto replied, “Full of fair weather and safe roads, thank you. How have things been here?”
“Well enough, thank you. Well, we will have our prisoners brought out to the square in a few minutes and deal out the punishments.”
Garsk nodded, turned, and headed out of the courthouse.
“To the court, I present Rognvald, the merchant,” said the scribe.
Rognvald stepped forward and told the judges about the skirmish at Edgeville and how they had captured three of the bandits and an elf. Rognvald left out the part about some of the bandits becoming his guards. The judges listened patiently, looking at the prisoners. Their gaze lingered on the elf, then they turned to the enieto that stood near the raised platform and nodded to him.
The enieto stepped forward and said, “Hello. I am called Vosok. As part of standard procedure, I must attempt to verify your story. Is anyone in the accusing party or the accused party opposed to me reading their mind?” One of the bandits, Thorkell, replied that he was opposed to having “one of you things poking around in my head”. Vosok nodded and said that he would exclude him from the mind reading.
Ku felt a foreign presence enter his mind, creeping around the edges and gazing in. Ku relaxed his mental barriers and allowed the presence to look freely. Ku glanced at the rest of the group and saw that some were clearly discomforted by the experience. It was soon over.
Vosok turned to face the judges and said, “Let the records state that the enieto inquisitor Vosok finds no evidence to contradict the accusing side.”
The judges nodded and turned to Rognvald, saying “Vosok’s investigation and the fact that one of your prisoners is obviously an elf is enough to verify your story. This court finds the accused guilty. For the crime of banditry, this court sentences the humans accused to death by beheading. For the crime of illegally entering the Fadafir Kingdom, this court sentences the elf accused to death by beheading.”
As the group began to head out of the courthouse, Ku saw Vosok pull Gale aside and give him a long look. Ku had the feeling that they were having a telepathic conversation. Vosok turned away and headed back towards the front of the courtroom. Gale hurried outside with a worried look on his face. Ku wondered what all that was about, but shrugged, figuring it was none of his business.
He followed Rognvald outside the courthouse, feeling a bit shaky. ‘I am also guilty of banditry… Surely Vosok found that out.’ Luckily for Barry, enieto inquisitors were sworn to report only on the crimes stated before the court by the accusing party.
Outside, Barry saw that guards had brought out bound criminals and lined them up in the square by the courthouse. A crowd of people had gathered and were watching. Across the square stood two guards and a man with a black hood covering his face. Near them also stood Garsk, arms crossed and robe stirring in the breeze, and another enieto, dressed in chainmail with a hand resting on the hilt of a sheathed sword.
The scribe from the courthouse came outside and made his way to the middle of the square. “You have all been sentenced by the court of Lakeside,” he called out, addressing the bound criminals, “Today, the court shall deal out your punishments. Let it be known to you that if you will it, instead of receiving the punishment sentenced to you by the court, you may elect to hand your life over to the Deepguard and serve them in defense against the abominations of the Deep.”
The scribe paused, then opened his book and flipped through it. Stopping at a page, he raised his head and said, “Bring forth Thorkell, found guilty of banditry, sentenced to death by beheading.” Guards brought Thorkell forth and stood him in front of the scribe. “What is your choice,” the scribe asked Thorkell.
Thorkell spat in the direction of Garsk and the other enieto and said, “I ain’t going with those things. Their kind loves to poke around in people’s brains. Ain’t going to let them mess around in there and make me lose my head…” Thorkell continued on in this manner, spitting curses and accusations at the enieto as the guards hauled him over to a bloodstained block, forcing him to kneel over it. The enieto looked on impassively as the executioner did his work and Thorkell lost his head. It rolled over near the other criminals, who hastily backed away.
‘They always start with the most stubborn prisoner with the harshest punishment,’ Barry thought amusedly, ‘Shows the other prisoners that they mean business. After seeing it up close, serving out the rest of your life in the Deepguard starts to sound rather nice. Gets more recruits for the Deepguard and gets more criminals out of the human community. Win-win.’
The punishments continued. Most of those with harsh punishments chose to join the Deepguard instead. Even some with lesser punishments chose it. The executioner took many fingers and toes. Somewhat surprisingly, the elf chose to join the Deepguard, silently walking over to them when the scribe asked him what his choice was. Garsk began applying the Mark of Submission to the new Deepguard recruits, a brand across the face, imbued with psionic energy that made the recruits susceptible to mental control should they ever try to escape or harm a fellow recruit.
‘Damn,’ he thought when he heard that the inn didn’t have any bathing facilities. Rognvald paid for food and rooms for the whole group. Gale headed straight for the innkeeper and got his food. He sat down at a table in the common room and attacked his plate, astonished that they had given him such a large portion, at least three times as much as a meal back at the farms.
The common room started to fill up as the evening went on. A fiddler started up a jig and the townsfolk hopped up to dance. Gale, who had had quite a few drinks by this point, joined them. He soon found himself dancing with a rather pretty woman.
“Hi,” said the woman, “My name is Mary. What’s yours?”
“Gale. You’re a good dancer.”
“Aren’t you hot in that hat,” asked Mary, reaching for the Gale’s hat, which had stayed firmly on his head ever since entering town. He sobered a bit and gently blocked her reaching arms. She ducked under his arms and hugged him tight, giggling and saying, “Oh come on. I bet you’re even cuter under that hat.” She began making another attempt to remove Gale’s hat.
A stern voice rang out across the room, “Mary!” Gale looked in the direction of the voice and saw a burly man stomping towards them. The man stopped nearby and said, “Come on, it’s time to go home… And you, stay away from my daughter!”
As soon as Mary loosened her grip on Gale, he mumbled an apology to her father and hurried outside, seeking fresh air. ‘Fool,’ he thought to himself, ’You’ve got to be more careful. That was too close.’
It was all a bit overwhelming. The smells, the music, the dancing. This was the largest human inn that Blind Seer had ever been in. He enjoyed the music that they were playing. It reminded him of home, for it sounded similar in some ways to the music of his tribe. The smells, though, were becoming hard to handle. Blind Seer was used to the smell of sweating wolfos and even, to some degree, the smell of his new companions, but the assault of odor from the horde of people was beginning to make him ill. He saw Gale leave and was grateful for the excuse to head outside, telling his friends that he was going to check on Gale.
Blind Seer found Gale leaning against the fence that divided the inn’s small front yard from the brick street. The glow from the inn dimly lit the street as the short twilight of Daern began to fade. The other nearby buildings were dark, as they were shops and closed for the evening. Blind Seer approached Gale and saw that he had a somber expression on his face. “Are you alright? What happened back there,” he asked Gale.
After a long pause, Gale replied, “She tried to take off my hat.”
“The girl I was dancing with. She tried to take off my hat. She almost found out what I am. And Vosok, the enieto from the courthouse, he knows. He found out while reading our minds to verify our story. I think he also saw some of my days as a slave, which is probably the only reason he didn’t reveal me to the guards. He certainly doesn’t trust me, though. Before we left, he told me to stay out of trouble.”
Blind Seer pondered for a moment, upset by his friend’s distress, then said, “It must be hard having to conceal your true nature all the time. I wish there was something I could do to help.”
Gale sighed and said, “I’m sorry to vent all this to you. You’ve already done a lot by keeping my secret. I just… I don’t know… I just thought freedom would be different. I have escaped the chains of the ‘enlightened’ elves, but now it seems I am bound by chains of a different sort.”
As Blind Seer was considering Gale’s words, a man hobbled up from down the street, favoring one of his legs. The man approached Gale and Blind Seer.
He sat with Barry, Blind Seer, and Rognvald at a table near the door. Ku thought the food tasted good, though the ale was a bit bitter. He had a nice plate of fish, fresh caught from the lake. “So Rognvald,” Ku said as he crunched through the fish’s scales, “What is the plan for tomorrow? What can you tell us of the road ahead?”
Rognvald set down his drink and replied, “Well, I’ll probably drop by the temple tomorrow morning to thank Arian for our safe travels so far and to ask for our continued safety on the road south.”
“Oh, there is a temple here,” Ku asked. The four of them saw Gale hurry out the door. Blind Seer politely excused himself, saying that he was going to go check on Gale.
“Yes, quite an elaborate one in fact,” Rognvald replied to Ku’s question, “Used to just be a small shrine, but Gerald Walton paid for it to be expanded. The finest bricks were used in making the temple building, which encloses a courtyard that holds finely carved statues of the Six Elders and the Human Primals. Supposedly, it has been blessed by the clergy of the Six Elders, protection, peace, and all that.”
“Sounds like an interesting place. I’ll join you tomorrow if you don’t mind.”
Rognvald nodded in agreement and said, “As for the road south, there isn’t much between here and Rivers’ Crossing. About the only thing of significance is Fort Duristan. It was built near the end of the Second Great Human-Elf War to protect Rivers’ Crossing.”
At this time, Blind Seer reappeared in the doorway and gestured for them to come outside. Rognvald finished his drink and said, "Well I’m heading to bed. Just be sure you younglings don’t get into any trouble. Ku and Barry nodded, then followed Blind Seer outside.
He followed Blind Seer and Ku outside and saw Gale standing near a man that leaned heavily on one leg. Gale nodded to Ku and Barry and said, “This gentleman is asking for help.”
The man spoke up, “Aye. It’s a bit embarrassing, but… well, I told my boy some stories about my grandfather, who studied the arcane arts… and you see, I had my grandfather’s ring, passed down to my father then to me. Showed it to my boy, telling him someday it’d be passed down to him. Set it on the mantle so we could admire it for a few days before stowing it back safely away. My boy gets it in his head to play with the ring, pretending to be a wizard and such nonsense that kids get into their heads. It don’t have special properties, mind you, just an old family heirloom that happened to have been owned by a mage. Anyways, my boy takes the ring, goes to play in the old Walton manor, and loses it in there! I’d very much like to get it back, as it has much sentimental value to me. Tried to send my boy back in to get it, but he wouldn’t, squirming and screaming about how the house had come alive and tried to kill him. It’s amazing what nonsense gets into their heads, eh? I’d go get it myself, but my leg here isn’t in the best of shape and, truth be told, the old manor can be dangerous, as it is in disrepair. Shouldn’t be any danger to spry young gentlemen such as yourselves, though. There’s coin in it if you can get my heirloom back. How about it?”
Barry looked around at Gale, Blind Seer, and Ku. They all nodded, so he said to the man, “Yes sir, I believe we can help you.”
They stood before the old Walton manor. They had set out immediately, since they were heading on to Rivers’ Crossing in the morning and didn’t want this opportunity to earn coin to pass them by. Twilight had faded to night. Only one of the moons, Ruthaen, was in the sky today, casting a dim red light down upon Daern. It was a rusty red half circle, tucked in the sky between the horizon and Nostiarna, which loomed overhead.
They had brought their gear and weapons as Barry had suggested, for they were traversing an unknown town at night and he said there was a chance that they might run into criminals. Ku had lit a torch, lighting their way as they travelled amongst the brick and timber buildings, which were beginning to crack and fade in some areas.
The Walton manor was enclosed by a wrought iron fence. The light from the torch cast long shadows across the yard beyond, which was overgrown with patches of tall grass. The manor itself was still beyond the reach of the light, a black silhouette to the human eye. Gale could see it, though, his eyes dilating beyond the range of a human’s to let in more light. As Rognvald had told them, the manor had stood vacant ever since Laura Walton died, about a year ago, though it had fallen into disrepair long before that, for in her grief she had refused to hire more servants to replace those that had died alongside her family in the terrible storm on the lake. The manor was two stories, modestly sized compared to the enlightened elf mansions that Gale had seen. It was made of what was once high quality brick, timber supports, and wooden shingles. Now, the brick was cracked and faded, the timber was sagging and splintered, and the shingles were worn and missing in places. Gale saw that many of the shutters were hanging crooked, clinging to the house with the few good hinges left to them. Some had fallen off, smashing against the roof of the porch and sliding off to the ground, bringing several shingles with them. The glass of many of the windows was still intact, surprising since it was worth a good amount of coin for anyone willing to take it. A few were broken, though, smashed by kids or in the case of one on the top floor, a tree branch that had crunched the roof and window frame.
The wrought iron fence was beginning to show rust in places, though it still held sturdy, and was topped with spikes. The bars were spaced wide enough for a skinny child to wriggle through, if he were determined enough, but too narrow by far for adults. There was a wrought iron gate as well, though it had a chain wrapped tight around it with a sturdy lock. Barry stepped toward the lock, pulling something out of his coat and mumbling about picking up a few tricks over the years. He fiddled with the lock for a minute and got it to pop open. He unwound the chain and placed it and the lock on the ground, then opened the gate. It screeched but the sound was quickly swallowed up by the night. They all headed through and headed for the front door.
As he was stepping through the gate, Gale thought he heard whispering in the streets behind them. He turned around and scanned the streets, peering into the alleyways and checking the rooftops. He saw nothing and began to doubt if he had actually heard anything. After a moment, he turned back towards the manor and hurried to catch up with the group.
They entered the manor and found themselves in a large room. Opposite the entrance was a fireplace, black with old soot on the inside and long gone cold. A low table sat before it with a couch and two plush chairs gathered around it. Blind Seer recognized the fabric of the couch and chairs as wolfos made. His tribe didn’t spin, preferring to live in the more traditional way, but they occasionally traded with another tribe of the north Riverlands that herded sheep and spun their wool into high quality fabrics. It was a way of life that was becoming popular among wolfos tribes, especially those that lived in the human nations, for the trade it brought garnered valuable products from human communities. To the right of the entrance was a sizeable alcove with another low table, this one square, with four plush chairs around it. A cabinet with a glass front door stood in the alcove as well, mostly empty except for a few bottles that still held dregs of hard liquor. To the left of the entrance was a fine dining table with eight high-back wooden chairs around it. Beyond the dining table was a door, as well as one near the fireplace. The air smelled stale and dusty to Blind Seer and the once fine furnishings were mouse-chewed and cracking after having been abandoned.
They searched through the room, looking for the ring. As Blind Seer was looking under the table by the fireplace, he suddenly felt cold, shivering and bumping against the table, which scraped against the floor. The cold left him as quickly as it had set upon him. “Did you hear that,” asked Gale, who was searching over near the liquor cabinet.
“Sorry,” replied Blind Seer, “I bumped the table.”
“No, not that,” said Gale, looking towards the door by the dining table, “I thought I heard someone whispering over there.”
Ku, who was searching near the dining table, moved over to the door and waved everyone over. He opened it and they stepped through into a kitchen. A brick oven sat against the left wall, a stone counter against the opposite, and on the right wall was a door. In the middle of the kitchen was a wooden table with cooking implements hanging above it. There was no one besides them in the room. “I think you’re hearing things, Gale,” said Barry. Ku put a hand on the central table, crouching down to peer underneath it. The cooking implements rattled suddenly as the straps on the handle of a knife broke, letting it fall through the hanging implements, bouncing against them and landing tip down in the table right next to Ku’s hand. He pulled it back quickly and eyed the other implements warily.
They searched the kitchen but didn’t find the ring. They went through the door to the right of the kitchen entrance and found a long hallway that stretched to the right. There was one door on the left and one on the right. At the end of the hall were both stairs up and stairs down. “That should lead back to the front room,” Blind Seer said, pointing his nose towards the door on the right. They opened it to check and indeed found that this was the door near the fireplace in the front room. They opened the other door in the hallway next. Blind Seer headed in first and saw several bunk beds to the left and an open area with a rug and items strewn about to the right. “Probably servants’ sleeping quarters,” Barry said, gesturing to the bunk beds. Blind Seer went to investigate the area with the rug. As he got close, he saw that the items strewn about were children’s toys. He had had similar toys when he was a pup. One of the toys was a rag doll, crumpled sadly in the middle of the rug, its button eyes seeming to stare up at the ceiling.
“Huh, look at this,” Barry said, who had started searching amongst the bunk beds. He held up a small, flat, circular stone that had a strange design of swirls and lines painted on it. “That’s a symbol of the Gate Warden,” he said. Barry flipped the stone over. It had another design on the other side, this time scratched crudely into the stone. “And that’s a folk’s rune that means protection. Found it under one of these mattresses. What do you think the servants wanted protection from?”
They all pondered the stone for a few moments more, then shrugged and decided to continue the search for the ring in the rest of the house. As they headed back into the hallway, Blind Seer glanced back at the rag doll. Its button eyes seemed to stare straight at him. Another chill ran through Blind Seer’s body. He shivered but shook it off and followed the group into the hallway.
They headed downstairs. The bottom of the stairs opened out into a sizeable cellar that was filled with shelves, both pushed against the walls and freestanding in the middle of the room. The shelves were filled with a variety of items, ranging from books to woodworking tools. The air was colder down here, though still stale. They began to search amongst the shelves.
“What,” asked Gale, “What did you say?” The others replied that they hadn’t said anything. “I thought I heard something,” Gale said. Barry mumbled that he thought Gale had had too much to drink back at the inn. They continued searching.
At the back of the cellar, Ku found several items on the ground. Something glinted amongst them in the torchlight. Ku moved closer and saw that it was a ring. He called the others over and picked it up.
“That’s how he described it,” said Barry, “must be what we’re looking for.”
Blind Seer sniffed at the items on the ground and said, “The man said his son claimed that the house came alive and attacked him. I guess this stuff fell on him while he was exploring. Must have scared him.”
They all nodded and headed back towards the stairs. Ku eyed the fallen items. The shelves around them were empty, so presumably the items came from them. None of the shelves were broken, though, and they were much too heavy to tilt. How then did the items get off the shelves to fall on the boy? Ku pondered this for a moment then shrugged. They had the ring back now, so it was time to get out of this old manor and get to bed. Ku followed the group up the stairs.
As he neared the top of the stairs, Ku felt one of the steps crack under his foot. He fell up the stairs, leg plunging through the broken, splintered step. He felt his leg go cold as he scrambled awkwardly to free it. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Blind Seer shiver and fall against the wall of the hallway. Barry swayed at the top of the steps, threatening to topple back down them. Barry looked around and Ku saw that his eyes had a dazed look in them.
He heard the step crack behind him and Ku struggling to free himself. Blind Seer began shivering and fell against the wall. Without warning, Barry’s vision blurred and he saw the Other Side. The mists swirled around him and the River streamed by a ways ahead of him. He peered through the mists and saw that there were distortions nearby. His vision began to blur back and forth between the normal world and the Other Side, disorienting him and causing him to sway as he tried to regain his balance. Barry saw that one of the distortions in the mists was near Blind Seer. Turning slowly, he saw that another was underneath the basement stairs. Focusing on the distortion, he thought he caught a glimpse of a human figure in it. Barry’s vision snapped completely back to the normal world and he grabbed the stair railing to steady himself. Blind Seer stopped shivering and Ku got his leg free from the broken step. Barry was about to say something about what he saw when Gale said, “I know I hear something this time!” Indeed, they all heard it now. The front door slamming open and the sound of running footsteps entering the manor. The group had a moment to glance at each other, wondering who else could be in the manor, then a man ran into the hallway from the door to the front room. He stopped short, looking surprised to find other people here. “Who are you,” the man asked, trying to catch his breath after running.
The man was plain looking. Brown hair, brown eyes, probably about thirty years of age. He looked rather distressed. The group hesitated, then Gale asked, “Who are you?”
“Jeremy Tanner. Excuse me.” The man dashed around the group and up the stairs.
“Jeremy Tanner,” Gale said, “Didn’t Rognvald say that he was the brother of Laura Walton?”
The group looked around at each other, shocked by the sudden appearance of the man. They cautiously followed him upstairs. They found Jeremy in a room just to the right of the top of the stairs. He was searching frantically through the room. Barry noted that this room looked less run down than the others and that many of the things in the room were not covered in dust. He supposed that Jeremy may have been living or at least working here for some time. “Jeremy Tanner,” Barry said, “brother of Laura Walton?”
“Yes,” replied Jeremy as he shuffled through a desk full of papers, “My poor, poor sister. She never deserved what I did to her.”
Barry glanced at the others, starting to feel uneasy about the situation. “What… what did you do to her,” he asked Jeremy.
Jeremy was frantically tossing papers to the floor, babbling distractedly and uncontrollably to the total strangers. “When I heard about the tragedy on the lake, her husband and family dying in a storm, I traveled up here to comfort her. Well, I’ve dabbled in the arcane arts you see, and I thought perhaps that I could let her talk to Gerald’s spirit. Find some peace.” Jeremy pulled a paper out of the desk and glanced over it, then ran to a shelf that held several ceramic jars and began looking through them. “The ritual I attempted… I was surprised that it worked. I was mostly just desperate to try anything to help my sister. It… it didn’t work quite right, though. It bound the spirits of the dead to this house.” Jeremy grabbed a few of the jars and dashed over to a bag that lay against a wall. He put the jars in it and started to read the paper again. “I think she started to lose grip on reality then, not knowing who was alive and who was dead. The servants lived in fear and eventually all moved out. A year ago, she passed away. My ritual, though… it still lingers I suppose. Her spirit was also bound here. I searched and studied and finally I thought I had found a way to end this. A spell to raise the bodies from the lake and a blessing to say over them and lay their spirits to rest. Something went wrong with the spell, though, and now… well, now there are abominations crawling out of the lake. Maybe I can try the blessing anyways,” he said, running his finger down the paper, “Yes, that’s it, I’ve got everything.” Jeremy picked up the bag, stuffed the paper inside it, and ran past the group out the door.
They all stood dumbfounded at what they had just heard. Abominations were something they had all heard stories of. Monsters in the Deep that the Deepguard fought. The thought that some were here, threatening Lakeside was disturbing to say the least. They looked at each other for a moment, then ran out the door, rushing to catch up with Jeremy.
They caught up to Jeremy out on the street in front of the Walton manor. “Abominations,” Gale exclaimed questioningly. Jeremy nodded and kept running. They reached the shore of the lake near the brick making workshop. Gale scanned the shore, not really sure what to expect. Then he saw them. The waters and the fish had made them nearly unrecognizable, rotted forms of what were once humans. They were struggling through the thick mud and clay, grasping towards the last few lights that were still lit in the town settling down for the night. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it quick,” Gale said to Jeremy. There were several of the abominations. More were starting to rise from the deeper waters and some had managed to make it to dry ground, where they began to make steadier progress towards the buildings. Jeremy set down his bag and pulled out the paper and the jars, then began drawing symbols in the dirt. Gale drew his short sword and moved to intercept the abominations, hoping to keep them out of the town. The abominations spotted him and shambled towards him. He shoved one back, feeling uneasy about attacking it with a sword, for it had once been a person. While Gale was regaining his footing after the push, another one shambled up and grabbed his arm. The first one stumbled forward again and slammed its rotting arms against Gale’s chest, putting a dent in his armor. They smelled terrible. As he struggled to free his arm, he saw that two more had made their way to dry ground and were heading his way.
He hung back near Jeremy, struggling to comprehend the situation. Dead things were clawing their way through the water and mud. Abominations… sure, he had heard the scary stories occasionally told around the fire by Anyar, the Elder Teacher of his tribe… but he had always thought that they were just stories. Now the small horde of them rising from the lake was proving him wrong. They were beginning to overwhelm Gale! Blind Seer gathered his wits and calmed his mind, drawing upon the deep, still part of his mind. He stabbed out with his mind at the one holding Gale’s arm. It was as if is mental blade had jabbed at nothing. Blind Seer reeled, off-balance just as a swordsman would be if he had stabbed at nothing but air. ‘They are utterly mindless,’ he thought, starting to feel panic rising, ‘There is nothing to attack!’ He drew again on the still part of his mind, which was now slightly drained from his first sally, this time targeting his mental energy towards the ground near the abominations. He and Ku had been doing mental exercises together and Ku had explained the theory he had learned in the Void Temple that mind could effect matter. Blind Seer didn’t fully understand it, but he was desperate. He willed the ground near Gale to become muddy and slippery, focusing all of his mind on it. He felt a rush of energy leave his still pool and suddenly the abominations that had nearly reached Gale slipped and flailed about on the ground. Gale was still struggling with two of them, though.
He had drawn his greatsword as they ran through town. Now, he surveyed the scene, seeing Gale get slammed by one of the abominations. He charged that one, aware that a few that had been heading Gale’s way were now down and flailing in a patch of mud. He smashed his blade through the head of one of the abominations. Ku had no qualms about the fact that they had once been living people. They had taught him much about abominations at the Void Temple and he knew that they were a very real threat faced by the Deepguard every day. They were dead and his friends were alive. To keep his friends alive, he must have no hesitation. Gale got himself free from the abomination and aimed a wild swing at it with his sword, apparently having gotten over the fact that they had once been people. Ku stepped forward and chopped one of the ones flailing in the mud in half. Suddenly, though, there were several near him that came in from the sides, bypassing the slippery mud. They grasped and clawed at him and he was unable to wield his sword effectively. Several started to beat on his armor, knocking the wind out of him. He struggled to free himself. Ku took a deep breath and focused his mind, willing his muscles to stretch and grow. He felt strength flowing into his limbs. Ku twisted and jerked, breaking the grip of the abominations, then swung his sword in a wide arc, knocking several of them back. As he paused in the momentary respite, he noted that it had begun to rain.
He saw Gale and Ku dispatch a few of the abominations. Gale was being pushed back towards Jeremy, cut off from where Ku now struggled with several of the things. Barry had never doubted the existence of abominations, but there was a big difference between hearing about the Deepguard fighting them and suddenly having twenty to thirty rushing at you. One shambled up close to Jeremy. Barry ran it through with his rapier, but it kept flailing, smacking Barry in the arm with a cold, wet, dead arm. His heart pounded and his dinner threatened to come up at the stench. Barry kicked the thing off his sword then slashed desperately at it, smashing in its head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ku throw back several of them. He felt raindrops splashing on his skin. “No, no, no,” Jeremy said with a wild look in his eye, staring at his scratchings in the dirt which were now being washed away, “We must go to the temple,” he said, now sounding drained and hopeless, “Our only hope to live is if the old stories about it being warded are true.” Gale and Ku had both made it back to Jeremy, Blind Seer, and Barry. The group dashed off, Jeremy leading the way to the temple. The horde of abominations followed behind them, grasping, dripping, and splashing through the puddles being formed on the brick streets by the rain. They saw what must be the temple ahead. As they neared it, Jeremy slipped in a puddle. The abominations closed in near him. Blind Seer and Barry grabbed him and dragged him through the archway that led into the temple courtyard while Gale and Ku held back the closest abominations. Soon, the whole group was in the temple courtyard. The abominations hesitated beyond the archway, seemingly unwilling to pass through it.
Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry
They breathed a sigh of relief, glad for the respite from the onslaught and scanned the courtyard, trying to determine their next move. In the middle of the courtyard, four statues stood close together. They depicted the Human Primals: Otac, a sturdy middle-aged man holding a stalk of wheat, tender of the land; Talam, his wife, a gracefully aged woman holding an apple, tender of the home; Arian, their older son, a clean shaven handsome young man holding coins, promoter of honest business and philanthropy; Twyllo, their younger son, a ruggedly handsome young man with tousled hair holding a smiling theater mask, promoter of fun and laughter. More statues, larger than the ones in the middle, stood in the corners of the courtyard and in the middle of the walls to the left and right. These depicted the Six Elders: The Radiant One, clad from head to toe in armor, holding a sword in one hand and a hammer in the other, defender of justice and patron of craftsmen; The Guarding Hunter, a stern looking figure whose face seemed almost as a beast’s, holding a tree branch as a staff, defender of the wilds; Freedom’s Blade, a handsome man whose hair seemed to blow in the wind, holding a winged sword pointed downwards, champion of liberty and of the wrongfully imprisoned; The Voidwatcher, an enieto with unblinking eyes, hands clasped in front of him, seer of the truth; The Mystic Lord, a middle aged man with a sly smirk, leaning on a slender staff, master of magic; The Gate Warden, a beautiful but cold looking woman, a hand stretched out in front of her, the mistress of death and life. Counterpart to the Six Elders were the Three Elders. They were not depicted here, for they were considered by humans to be cruel and evil deities, though all knew their appearances from the stories. The Enlightened Master, a perfectly sculpted elf, holding a chain, lord of the enlightened elves and enforcer of order; The Nightstalker, a darkly handsome man, wreathed in a black cloak, master of material gain and self indulgence; The Ravenous One, a hideous enieto with skin that had black energy bursting from it, lord of hunger and madness.
As they took in their surroundings, Jeremy got to his feet slowly with his back turned to the group, looking towards the abominations that shuffled beyond the archway. He began to laugh in a much deeper voice than before, which somehow seemed full of menace. Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry exchanged worried looks. Jeremy turned and grinned at the group. He looked the same, but they had the uncomfortable feeling that something else was looking out of Jeremy’s eyes… something Evil. It spoke with Jeremy’s voice, deeper and calmer than his previous babbling, “What an unexpected fortune that has fallen my way. Drawn here by the screams of mass death on the lake. Latched onto this one when he came to town, clutching his spells and hoping to speak to the dead. Corrupted his rituals, trapped the souls and gave the bodies hunger. The banquet poised to die, so that I may feast on the memories of their terror. Now these come along and grant me entrance to the town’s only bastion, pulling me through the barrier which I could not cross willingly. Now I can destroy the bastion from within. Now these will be added to the banquet of screams.”
Jeremy raised a hand and pointed at Barry. A burst of dark purple energy lashed out and struck Barry in the chest, who dropped his rapier and fell to his knees, clutching at his heart. Ku jumped into action and dashed forward, slicing his greatsword horizontally through the air. He opened a deep cut on Jeremy’s arm and chest. Jeremy laughed as the gash closed up, scarring over quickly. He shoved Ku, arms flashing with more dark purple energy. Ku was sent tumbling backwards several feet, caught off guard by Jeremy’s unnatural strength. Jeremy pointed a finger towards Blind Seer. Gale felt the power welling up inside of him, raising a hand and facing an open palm towards a point between Jeremy and Blind Seer. Energy flashed out through the air from both Jeremy and Gale. A boiling beam of dark purple and a golden arc in the shape of lightning. The beams collided and deflected off each other, crashing into the wall near the statue of the Voidwatcher, which sat unmoved and continued to stare impassively over the fight. The rain hissed and steamed around the impact site as a few of the bricks cracked and crumbled to the ground. Blind Seer’s stomach had twisted as Jeremy pointed at him. Now he was shocked and relieved that Gale had blocked the beam. Blind Seer began to draw upon the last reserves of the still part of his mind. A wind began to blow about the courtyard, lashing the rain sideways and whipping all their clothes around. Barry had regained his feet and his rapier, dashing around to get behind Jeremy. He slid his blade between Jeremy’s ribs, straight into his heart. Jeremy coughed up some blood. Blind Seer stabbed out with his mind. He met with a swirl of disconnected memories of pain and screaming. With a struggle, Blind Seer punched through these. As he was withdrawing his mental blade, a thought entered his mind. Blind Seer somehow knew that it was Jeremy… the real Jeremy. The thought was, ‘Help me!’ The Evil laughed with Jeremy’s voice and managed to speak through a mouthful of blood, “If I go, this poor fool goes with me.” Blind Seer called out to the others, “Jeremy is still in there, struggling to free himself!” The rain poured down harder and the wind kicked up into a frenzy. The distant rumblings of thunder could be heard. Gale raised his voice above the storm, “Hold him down!” Barry pulled his rapier out of Jeremy and kicked out the back of his knees. Jeremy dropped to a kneel, coughing up blood even as the sword wound closed up and scarred over. Having regained his feet, Ku went over and locked his grip around Jeremy’s arm. Gale stepped towards Jeremy and spoke to the Evil, “Leave him.” The Evil laughed with Jeremy’s voice and raised his head to look Gale in the eye, grinning with a mouthful of blood covered teeth and malice. Gale grabbed Jeremy and shook him, yelling at the Evil, “Leave him!” At that moment, a bolt of lightning crashed down from the storm, striking Jeremy straight in the head. Gale, Barry, and Ku leapt backwards, dropping Jeremy, who fell to the ground unmoving. Gale stared wide-eyed and shocked. Blind Seer looked on, dumbfounded. Gale reached up, absentmindedly running a hand through his hair, and suddenly realized that the blast from the lightning strike had blown off his hat.
The storm calmed down quickly to a steady rain. Barry and Ku were still for a moment, taking in Gale’s uncovered features. The dark red hair, the ever so slightly slanted eyes, the pointed ears. Gale brought his hand back down to his side, taking on a resolved look and half-heartedly bringing his short sword up to a guard position. “Elf,” Ku spat, leveling his greatsword at Gale’s chest, “Explain.” Barry charged at him, swinging his rapier in a wild overcut. Blind Seer rushed forward and clamped his teeth onto Barry’s sleeve, disrupting his blow. “It’s not what you think,” Blind Seer growled through his teeth. Barry eyed him wildly and exclaimed, “You knew?!” Gale sighed and lowered his sword, then said, “I know you have all heard the stories about the ‘enlightened’ elves, but I know the truth of their cruelty better than most. I have been a slave to them ever since I was very young, ripped from my mother’s arms. I share certain features with them, but by no means am I akin to them. I am what many call a Forgotten Elf.” Ku kept his greatsword pointed at Gale’s chest. Barry narrowed his eyes at Gale as a distant memory rose to the surface of his mind. Long ago, his mother had told him stories of the Forgotten Elves, how they had helped the humans in the First Great Human-Elf War hundreds of years ago. Everyone just thought that Forgotten Elves were hearth-tales… but then again, everyone thought the same of dragons. Gale continued, “It was never my intention to deceive anyone. The only thing on my mind was to get as far away from the Cold Forest as possible. The elves back at Edgeville were there for me, seeking to drag me back into slavery.” Blind Seer let go of Barry, as he seemed to now at least be listening to Gale. Blind Seer said, “I discovered Gale’s nature in the fight with the Molroito back in Edgeville. Gale does not smell the same as the other elves.” Gale nodded thanks to Blind Seer and said, “I’ve only wanted to get away from the Molroito and Rognvald offered the perfect opportunity. I feared such a reaction just as this if you found me out, so I stayed silent and kept concealed.” Ku reluctantly lowered his greatsword and said, “You have watched my back throughout this journey and for that I thank you. I know not if you are truly a Forgotten Elf, but as far as I can tell, you have not yet tried to enslave us,” pausing to smirk ever so slightly, then continuing again with a stern look, “I will be watching you carefully, though, as we continue our travels together.” Barry said, “Your story could be true… but it could also be false. I’ll also keep my eye on you as we continue our journey. And yes, you will definitely stay with us even though we know what you are. If you try to slink off, I will know for sure that you are a dirty elf spy and I will come hunt you down.” Blind Seer looked nervously between the other three. Jeremy stirred and groaned on the ground. Everyone looked to him, astonished to see that he seemed relatively unscathed from the lightning strike. Then they brought their weapons up to guard positions, wondering if the Evil had regenerated his body from the bolt. Jeremy slowly sat up, rubbing his head and eyes. “What happened,” he asked, holding his forehead and staring at one of his hands, speaking in a normal voice, “Did I… did I hurt anyone?” Convinced that the Evil had left Jeremy, Gale hurried off to find his hat.
Gale found his hat over by one of the statues of the Elders. He picked it up, wrung out the water in it, and put it firmly back on his head. Gale looked up at the statue and saw that it was Freedom’s Blade, the Chainbreaker, as he had heard some human slaves call him back at the farm. Gale’s people had a different name for the Elder, though… The Lord of the Winds, for he was said to revel in storms and the freedom that they symbolized. Gale thought back on the lightning shaped energy ray that he had used to deflect the Evil’s beam, and on the real lightning bolt that had struck Jeremy and seemed to have cleansed him of the Evil. Gale whispered a quick prayer of thanks to Freedom’s Blade. Gale felt the warm glow of the power, rising in his heart. He had occasionally suspected, but Gale knew then for sure from whom the power originated.
The rain stopped shortly after and the group carefully inched outside the temple, relieved to see that the abominations had all fallen to the ground, unmoving. At Jeremy’s request for help, they began to collect the bodies, laying them out as respectfully as possible, for Jeremy still wished to perform final rites for the dead. They were finishing up just as Edromyn was beginning to be uncovered. Jeremy said a blessing over the bodies, then the group sat silent, exhausted and unsure of what to do next. A scream pierced the air. Guards soon arrived, finding nearly thirty corpses with five blood covered people sitting nearby. The group was arrested and taken to the courthouse. The judges and Vosok, the enieto inquisitor, were roused from their beds for an immediate trial. Jeremy stammered out an explanation of all that had occurred. Their minds were examined. Thankfully, Vosok continued to stay silent on the fact that Gale was an elf, and also left out much of the details of the fight, only saying that they had overpowered Jeremy. The man who had asked them to retrieve the ring was summoned to court as a witness. By the time they found him, several townsfolk had also come to watch, as well as the enieto Deepguard recruiters. Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry were found to be innocent in the events of the previous night. Jeremy was found guilty of necromancy and sentenced to immediate death. Blind Seer spoke up, “Honorable sirs, it was not Jeremy, but the Evil within him that performed the necromancy.” The judges replied, “The spirit trapping and the raising of the abominations, yes, but Jeremy’s initial attempt to speak with the dead is necromancy as well. The law makes no exceptions for that dark magic. Not even the Deepguard accept those that have performed necromancy.” Gale chimed in, “The Evil may have influenced Jeremy to attempt that spell in the first place.” Vosok said, “In your memories, before it attacked you, the Evil said that it latched onto Jeremy only after he came to Lakeside. Jeremy was considering casting the spell to speak with the dead long before that.” Ku stepped up and said, “Before last night, I thought the stories about Evils that could possess people were just hearth-tales, but our encounter last night was exactly as the stories describe. Looking into someone’s eyes and feeling something otherworldly looking back at you… The stories also say that Evils are expert liars. It is entirely possible that the Evil was lying to us last night and it has actually been working within Jeremy for much longer.” The judges frowned and replied to all the debate, “This is all irrelevant. Whether it was the Evil influencing him or not, Jeremy still studied necromancy and still knows how to perform that dark magic. It is safer for the world to extinguish that abhorrent knowledge. This court stands by its verdict.” Gale said, “We are not arguing that he be let completely off the hook, merely asking that you lessen his punishment, for it seems he has already been punished much the past few years.” Garsk, the Deepguard Keeper, stepped forward and said, “In light of the exceptional circumstances of this case, I would be willing to offer Jeremy a place the Deepguard in lieu of his sentence.” All were shocked, for usually the enieto were unyielding in their views on necromancy. Jeremy accepted Garsk’s offer and the court slowly began to disperse. Gale, Blind Seer, Ku, and Barry returned the heirloom ring to the man, who handed over a decent sized pouch of coins. They returned to the inn and found Rognvald finishing the packing of his wagon. “Ah, there you are,” he said, “Ready to get on the road towards Rivers’ Crossing? I tried to go by the temple this morning, but the guards had it blocked off, talking about some sort of incident last night. Heard anything about it?” The four glanced at each other, unsure of how to begin.