Morning had broken a few hours before the group arrived in the all too familiar clearing. Two weeks had passed since they had been here last and Alaiya immediately ran around the western ridge where Cyrxx had been. She promptly found his statue and slumped against it, her thoughts wandering off into the silent solitude that she imposed on herself. The others combed the clearing, searching for clues.
“There’re more statues here than I remember,” said Elias. He had become intrigued with the craftsmanship of the figurines and had begun inspecting them closely. “Look at them, these men – they’re all, heh, well, they’re all funny looking.” He went to another statue and poured over the impeccable detail. “But I don’t quite get why the crafter thought to make them so, old looking.”
“Who are these people, de Geffriel? Who are they, and why does Lan want them? What answers do you have that you aren’t telling us?” Stoyan turned around the clearing, looking for the target of his accusations. As he turned, he saw Elias at a statue, Alaiya, working her way back to the main clearing, and no one else. “de Geffriel! Who are they?! Answer me!” No response came, just the rustling of leaves in the wind and a bird call. “de Geffriel! Where are you?! Damn you, woman, get out here and answer me! We don’t have time for your little games!”
Still, the air was silent, even the land had quieted beneath the anger of the Paladin. Infuriated with the casualness of de Geffriel’s games, Stoyan started to draw his blade, intent on smashing something, anything, to release his frustration. A small tug at his sword arm snapped him out of his single-mindedness. “What?” he yelled, turning on the person who still held onto his arm.
Alaiya rolled her eyes at the man, obviously used to his fits of fury. She pulled on his arm again, turning him toward the nearby tree line. Pointing to the shadows of a massive cedarglenn, she jabbed her finger in the air and pushed Stoyan forward. He stumbled a bit before realizing what she was doing.
From the shadows de Geffriel emerged, a look of irritation on her face, which she made evident to Alaiya. The Scout then turned to Stoyan, threw on a smile, and stuck her arm through his. “Now, what was it you were asking?” she inquired, flirtation in her voice. She guided him away from the Sorceress, worried that she might intervene with her skills. Stoyan, on the other hand, looked ready and willing to be lead, even if it was astray.
Content with exposing the woman, Alaiya looked around for Elias. Quickly finding him, she noticed that he was crouched on the ground, fiddling with some rubble. As she watched he jumped up suddenly and enhanced his pace of work. With an audible gasp and a flail of his arms, Elias leapt to his feet and started running back to the center of the clearing. “That’s impossible, how can that be?” Seeing Alaiya, his mind did a quick one-eighty, and he immediately pulled her to one of the nearby statues that was still erect. “Quick,” he demanded, “how old is that thing? And I don’t mean the rock, I mean, the clothing, the times. You studied in a tower, you know history, right? Quickly, now, how old is it?”
Alaiya took a step back and studied the statue. The attire of the person was casual, not of royalty as she would have expected. The length of hair was cut in a familiar way, something akin to travelers she often saw in the taverns when she ran errands. However, it was tucked away, banded in an unusual way, similar to the styles of the past. Examining the detailed etchings of the clothes and the type of the weapon he held in his hand and sported on his belt, Alaiya tried to recall as much as she could about the histories of Delagraad.
“I’m not really sure, but maybe a hundred seventy-five years. Why would they make a statue – hmmm. No, maybe somewhere between two hundred and two twenty-five. But why would they make such old-looking statues, and why are they out here?”
“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug, “it’s all rather strange if you ask me. But you should see this.” Elias brought Alaiya over to the pile of stone’s he had been working on. He had arranged them into a few different piles and she could immediately tell why; he had been recreating the statue’s parts. Off to one side was a lower portion of a leg running from mid-calf down. He had found most of the leather boot and, from what Alaiya could gather, it was the right leg. Next to that was a portion of the statues torso. Composed of most of the front section, it was easy enough to tell that it was standard leather armor. Familiar clasps and straps adorned the piece, but Alaiya could not place where she had seen them. Unlike the previous statue and its older design, the reconstructed pieces she was looking at now seemed modern. When she saw the third assemblage, she knew why. In a creepy, surreal pose Elias had recreated a Human forearm, though he likely had not started out with that intention. Etched into the stone, at the center of the recreation, was an all too familiar mark; the melted wax streaming down the hardened pillar, the wick, slightly crooked and bent; above, the wisps of newly created smoke fluttered away as though the candle had just been extinguished.
“The Dark Light,” whispered Alaiya. “Why would this statue have their tattoo?”
“So, that’s what happened here. Rogue Wizard turning people to stone. Bastards taking advantage of the god’s leniency. I’ve been telling you, this magick stuff is evil. Ow!” Alaiya stormed away from Stoyan in disgust, leaving him to rub the pain out of his shin. “Anyway, that’s how de Geffriel got here. Turned to stone two hundred years ago and along with the others. Lan was apparently looking for one of them and decided to destroy the evidence when she left. That’s why we don’t see any female statues; she was looking for a woman.”
“Also explains why I found a few Elves. Makes sense if they used to get along with everyone.” Elias paused for a moment before correcting himself. “Well, I supposed they might have gotten along with everyone.”
“What troubles me though is that whatever Lan was searching for, it can’t be good. And why would she need Veth and this woman? What is she plotting? I don’t like it, not one bit.”
de Geffriel walked over to Stoyan and promptly kicked him in the butt. “Sitting here isn’t going to do anything for you, Mopey-Pants. We have an idea of where she was headed, and we know we have to hurry.” She glanced up into the sky noting the lateness of the morning. “Look, we’ve already wasted enough of the day looking at silly statues. Let’s get out of this cursed place and find this Lan.”
As they gathered up their things, de Geffriel found Alaiya and watched her very carefully. “You aren’t turnin’ me to stone again. Never!” Alaiya involuntarily shuddered as a chill ran down her spine.
The day had long turned into late afternoon, though it was hard to tell by the thickness of the trees and their overhanging canopy. The path was rugged, forged as their feet landed, and essentially relied on their sense of direction and ability to maintain a straight direction. They had started off from the clearing well enough, and had traveled a few hours with no worry, but none of them knew if their bearings were accurate. However, de Geffriel had heard indiscernible movements to their left as they traveled, and they ended up being surprised by a small patrol of Dark Light members. Fortunately, the patrol was small and the fight quick, not lasting more than ten minutes, and had proved invaluable. As Alaiya had pointed out, if they had maintained their current orientation, they would have eventually reached the plains; they had veered that far off the northern path. As they had continued, Alaiya could not shake a feeling that they were being led astray. Not by any power of their own, but by something greater, something unnatural. But she kept the thought to herself as now, directly ahead of them, they heard a second patrol, though it seemed to be larger than the previous one.
“We might be getting closer. If these patrols are any indication, we’re on the right track.” Stoyan’s confidence in their journey bolstered their spirits, though it did little to ease the heavy burden on his heart. “We’re coming for you, Veth. I swear, I’ll find you!”
Stoyan the others into positions as a small flock of birds shot out of the underbrush ahead of them, frightened by the commotion caused by the patrol. He positioned himself between the advance and Alaiya as de Geffriel took to the trees above. As they waited, the first of the black garb flitted into view, weaving in and out of the trunks of the cedarglenn and Stoyan’s sword arm tensed. He heard the whistle of an arrow fly through the air, followed by the hum of Alaiya’s magick. As he prepared to charge into the fray, hoping to catch the patrol off guard, he stalled, taken aback by Elias’s unusual eagerness to engage the enemy head on.
“What are you…? STOP!” Stoyan’s voice echoed fiercely off the compact forest, effectively alerting the patrol to their location. No sooner than he yelled did a searing flare pierce the air, narrowly missing both Stoyan and Alaiya as a nearby cedarglenn erupted into a column of flames. “Shit! Mage – take the Mage down!” he ordered, but his voice was lost among the sudden fray of battle.
Squinting to shield his eyes from the burning air, Stoyan noticed a man clad in black casually approach the open Elias and catch the Gnome across the chest with his longsword. Elias nimbly dove back, avoiding most of the blow in the thick forest and retreated to one of the clumps of overgrowth. Then, to the horror of the Paladin, Elias was surrounded by two others. Twirling warpicks, they suddenly vanished from sight.
“Got it, Dolin!”
The voices resonated out of thin air moments before Elias was sent flying through the air, blood splattering on the nearby trees. The Gnome’s body lay crumpled on the ground in an unnatural heap at the feet of the man with the longsword. The man reached down to grab Elias and as he did a gold band running from his left shoulder to his breast became visible.
“Another Captain,” though Stoyan, “same as the last patrol. Gotta take him down!” Just before the man grabbed Elias, two arrows found their marks in his shoulder, a moment before Stoyan intercepted him, his blade slicing at the man’s forearm. “Now, don’cha want someone who’ll put up more o’va fight?” The thrill filled Stoyan’s heart, the same unusualness that greeted all Paladins of Tempus who thrived in conflict.
Alaiya watched the initial attacks unfold before her and instantly recognized the arcane reverberating throughout the air and not just from the “Mage” Stoyan had identified. The two men who vanished had used the Gift, in a way that she had vaguely recalled hearing about from Cyrxx.
“There are those, Allie, particularly in the Violet, who use the shadows to move. It is similar to a Gnome’s innate power to briefly vanish and meld into the background, and it was a Gnome who had developed this particularly powerful magick. It was initially heralded for the practicality of it, though there were those who obviously misused and abused the power. To avoid temptation, the struck it from the remedial curriculum and only once a Mage of the Violet passed his Trials would he have permission to study the magick. That did not, however, prevent the corruption and misuse, though the High Council could not take away what had been learned. These people are known in the Orders as Mistwalkers and should not be taken lightly – ever. Even when you think you have the advantage, you don’t.”
“Oh no,” thought Alaiya. “We need to get out of here. We need to run away! I didn’t think Lan had Mistwalkers with her!” As she wrestled with herself, wanting to scream out, she noticed that Stoyan continued to fight, to press on to take Lan down. Watching him eased her fear and strengthened her resolve. Her mind made up, she concentrated another orb of magick and unleashed it on the only man she could see.
Behind him, Stoyan heard Elias groan and stand. “Alright there, El? Your eagerness caught us all a bit unawares.”
Elias scoffed. “I thought we were taking them by surprise, not waiting for them to find us.”
Stoyan thought about snapping back, but he felt the cool touch of the Gnome’s rod and the dancing bolts of the static discharge. Stoyan’s attitude instantly changed. “Now this is more like it!”
A charge of magick ripped through the woods catching Stoyan on the left leg, hobbling him slightly. Turning, yelling into nothingness, Stoyan cursed both the Mage and de Geffriel for not taking care of him. Turning back to the Captain, his eyes darting side to side, Stoyan grew anxious. “Where’re your two little friends, huh? Scared of a fair fight?”
Magick burst across the chest of the Captain causing him to bellow in agony. Also yelling was one of the Mistwalkers, who had moved to Stoyan’s flank, who had been caught in the burst.
“Kolin,” yelled a concerned voice from behind Stoyan; the Paladin had them.
He wheeled, catching Kolin in the arm. In perfect synchronization, an arrow appeared out of nowhere in the Mistwalker’s leg, bringing him to the ground. Stoyan did not have long to savor the moment as the Mage appeared before them, forming a seal with his hands in front of her mouth. Without warning, the air shook around Stoyan and Elias, vibrating at such high pitched frequency that it ruptured their eardrums. Blood seeped down their jawbones as both fell to a knee, the loss of balance overwhelming. Unable to protect themselves, the two Mistwalkers struck relentlessly at Stoyan and Elias, managing to severely wound the Artificer.
Meanwhile, the Captain had made his way to Alaiya, his longsword effortlessly dancing in his hand. Blood soaked his armor, and his right arm hung uselessly at his side, but he walked with a singularly focused intent. With an unexpected movement quicker than the eye, the Captain had slashed through her robes, cutting into her torso. Fear and anger rose within Alaiya as the magick became visible and tangible before her. As it coalesced, the air shimmered and cracked, the natural energies warring with one another. Then, without warning, the Captain collapsed at her feet. When the shock of what happened subsided, Alaiya spotted the feathered end of an arrow slightly jutting forth from the meaty part between the man’s collarbones. Glaring up into the trees, Alaiya suffered one of the most unusual thoughts of her life. “You stole my kill!”
The thought lingered briefly as de Geffriel’s scream rang out from the tree tops, leaves smoldering were the lightning blast had struck her. Alaiya recovered quickly enough and blasted the only adversary she could see. Kolin’s body slumped to the ground, leaves and shrubs around his body turned to dust by the massive collision of magick. Alaiya had caught the Mistwalker as he tried to fade away, creating an implosion of magick, too chaotic in nature to leave anything in the near vicinity intact.
“Kolin!” Dolin, the second Mistwalker, turned in Alaiya’s direction quickly before vanishing. “You’ll pay, you bitch! I’ll show you the power the shadows yield. Eternal darkness!” The voice seemed to come from everywhere all at once, and the silence following was death itself.
Dolin stepped out of the shadows momentarily in front of Elias, hatred in his eyes. “Your life belongs to the darkness.” Before the Gnome could react, the Mistwalker vanished. Before Stoyan could even raise his blade to help, the right side of Elias ripped open, exposing itself to the world. Entrails spilled out as the Artificer groan and fell to the ground, his blood soaking into the forest floor.
Stoyan slashed around the body of Elias, hoping, praying that it would find its mark, but it was useless. The rustling of leaves and the creaking of tree branches caught his attention as de Geffriel’s voice called out a warning.
“Stoyan, the Mage!”
But the Paladin’s back was turned, his body exposed. The corrosive acid struck, piercing his armor with ease, and he felt his flesh start to melt away as the magick ate away at his torso. Gathering the remainder of his strength, he looked into the cold, dark, soulless eyes of the Mage and charged. It was valiant, pride and honor propelling him forward. If it was to be witnessed by a Bard, perhaps the courage Stoyan showed would be eternally remembered in song and lore. As it was though, the mighty Paladin did not managed to kill the Mage. Though the blow from his longsword struck true, he merely crippled him, the strength needed having wilted from his body as the acid ate away.
de Geffriel, seeing Paladin fall at the feet of the Mage, ran through her options. “Flee, and I might live. Fight and I might die. Fight, and I could live, while being rid of my debt to these fools.” She turned to Alaiya quickly; the Sorceress was preparing another spell and focused intently on the Mage standing over Stoyan’s body. “Well, it’s just the two of us. Stoyan, you better be worth it.” She ran forward, slinging her bow over her shoulder and withdrawing her rapier with fluidity seen only of dancers. She struck the Mage in the torso, causing him to cough up blood, but he remained standing. Pulling away, she shifted into a defensive stance.
“Now!” screamed a voice from the shadows. “Kill the woman! Show her the darkness!” The Mage turned on de Geffriel, fingers outstretched. The gnarled digits a grotesque sight to behold up-close. A green mist swirled around them, condensing on each point before shooting out in rapid succession straight for the Scout. de Geffriel eluded the first three, but was caught by the others as the magick burrowed into her. The acid quickly tore away at the clothes on her back and the flesh of her bones and lost consciousness from the pain quickly.
Alaiya, her last hope for assistance gone, unleashed the spell she had been preparing. It flew across the wood with such speed and ferocity that when it struck the Mage, he flew back from the impact, colliding with a tree fifteen yards away. The front of his chest, bare and exposed, had been burned away leaving a gaping maw of an opening – a visible window through the man to the tree.
As if to celebrate the death, a howl broke through the forest, singing in the trees all around her with naturally powerful ambiance. Alaiya’s heart sank. “Not now, not here and not now.” Looking around, the prone, dying bodies of her friends awoke something deep within. Her resolve strengthened and fortified itself. “Not here, and not now!”
And then the pain erupted through her shoulder as the pickaxe tore through her arm. Alaiya reeled in pain as the sickening laughter of Dolin filled the forest. Sensing the magick of the Mistwalker before even hearing his voice, she got off a quick orb of magick just before disappeared.
“The darkness! Sleep! Sleep in the darkness for what you have done!”
He flashed in front of her before disappearing again, his delusional laughter bouncing off the cedarglenn. She concentrated hard, focusing on the magick, trying to follow the trails of the Mistwalker as he walked in the shadows unseen.
A quick explosion of magick behind her and she knew where he was. Contorting her body around, she managed to greet him with a blast of energy as her stepped forth. Despite the massive amounts of blood, Dolin’s intent was unwavering as his pickaxe pierced her thigh, tearing the muscle from the bone. Sinew flew through the air as he disappeared once more.
Alaiya knew she would not get a second chance to attack. It was down to the final moment – either he would die trying to avenge his friends or she would kill him trying to save hers. She followed the strands of magick, the violet aether streaming like a thin thread in the world invisible to most. When it stopped and gathered, she knew where he would appear. She prepared herself for the conclusion; mentally exhausted and physically drained, she willed herself to conjure the spell.
Time slowed to a crawl, each of her senses heightened to superhuman levels. Alaiya had him, knew his movements and what his intent was. She could hear the malice of Dolin’s heart as it beat amongst the purple magick. She had never felt so in tune with the Craft as she had at that moment. Then came the burst, the appearance of the Mistwalker within the fraction of a moment, and she unleashed her spell. The power of her magick blinded her for a brief split second, but it was enough to see Dolin. And her horror was realized.
The Mistwalker had jumped as he emerged from the shadow, staying fixated long enough to establish his position and effectively bait Alaiya. There was no laughter as he soared over the Sorceress, only murderous intent in his eyes. The pickaxe struck her in the lower back, curving up and under her ribcage. There was a flash of pain, but it subsided quickly as she faded into darkness. On the ground, she could feel her warmth flow from her, uninhibited. The strength to hold her eyes open fled her, the lingering image of the Mistwalker standing over her, forever etched in her mind as the last moment of her life.
As her eyes closed for the final time, a flash of silvery white broke across Dolin, taking him to the ground. The last sound Alaiya would her was a wolf tearing the throat from the Mistwalker, his gurgles of protest lost amidst the snarls of the creature.
Alaiya woke to the sweet aroma of something burning. As her eyes fluttered open to the welcoming ballet of shadows prancing across a hastily constructed wall. The shadows themselves seemed full of life and independent of the ties of the light that created them, weaving in and out of the cracks in the wall, eternally searching for an escape. She craned her neck, a movement that sent pain racing down her spine, and saw the source of both the light and the aroma; suspended from thick reeds from the thatched ceiling, was a large iron basin, wisps of smoke plumming in the air, curling in on themselves, floating gingerly throught the room. As the smoke meandered its way over, Alaiya inhaled and the pain coursing through her spine eased.
“Where am I?” Alaiya wondered aloud. The room she found herself in was empty, save for the basin. As she struggled to sit up, she gasped for the smoke inundated air, much like a fish to water. “Whatever…is in this smoke,” she winced as she swung her legs over the side, “really helps.”
Her tiny feet dangled off the floor as she realized for the first time that she had been lying in a cot. At the foot of the cot, crumpled up into a jumbled pile, were three or four high quality pelts. As she slowly lowered himself to the ground the pain shot through her right leg and she had to catch herself on the cot. “That’s right, the Mistwalker’s pickaxe,” she thought as flashes of the battle quickly returned. Hesitantly, she forced her eyes to look down and assess the wound. To her surprise, it was wrapped in a large leaf swathe, fastened with stalk fibers and coated with a reddish-brown clay mud. Alaiya involuntarily poked at the wrap, flinching with the touch, but marveling at the stability of the bandage.
Looking beneath the cot, she noticed her grimy robes and backpack had been stored with her, much to her surprise. Grabbing a pelt from the foot of the cot, she wrapped herself in it and made her way to the other end of the room. A large leather flap hung before her and she noticed traces of moonlight playing with the edges. She peeked outside and saw that she was in a make-shift hut, one of five in the area. On the exteriors of the other huts she could see shadows flickering in what looked to be the light of a fire.
Determined to find the others, and subsequently flee this strange encampment, she took a step out of the tent. As soon as she did, her legs felt weak and pain tore through her body. Wishing for the sweet aroma of the smoke, Alaiya began to lose consciousness to the pain as she fell. But it was not the ground she landed upon as two massive arms swept under her, lifting her up into the night air.
“Not yet, little one. You have not recovered to the point where you should leave the smoke. Come, I shall take you back inside.”
The warmth of the man’s body set Alaiya at ease as she relaxed into his arms. She could feel the beating of his heart through his chest and soon her breathing was mimicking the steady rhythm. As they reentered the hut, the smoke swept into her lungs, vanquishing the pain that had crept throughout her body. Fighting unconsciousness as the man glided effortlessly across the hut, she managed a single question, though she would later be unable to recall such a question. “Who…are you?”
“Do not worry, little one. Everything will be okay.” The man placed her on top of the cot, pulling the furs over her delicate frame. As her head rocked to the side, strands of platinum-white hair fell at will across her pearl-white face. Alaiya’s cheeks had grown rosy now that she was back inside the hut, breathing in the healing properties of the smoke. Her breathing grew calm, a slight undulation beneath the furs indicative of her slumber. Leaning down closer to her face, the man tenderly brushed aside her hair and softly kissed the top of her forehead at the crest between the brow and the hair.
“Your lives are safe here now, little one.” The man spoke to the night as Alaiya had already fell into a deep slumber. “You are as protected as any can be at this time.”
Elias’s eyes burst open as he awoke from his nightmare with a start, air rushing into his lungs like water down a cascading waterfall. His body’s initial reaction to the suddenness was to splay out, trying to catch himself and prevent his fall. As his limbs struck the edges of the cot, anguish washed across his face, the agony of his wounds ever present.
“Guess that means I’m alive…”
Elias first noticed the smoking basin, the solitary light source in the hut. Its smoke billowed and swayed in a wind blown through an opening in the hut’s frame. Groaning against the pain, he forced himself up and out of the bedding he found himself in. He clung to his side as he plopped to the floor, feeling the hardened clay coating his side. It cracked a bit as he landed, flakes of dried mud falling into his hand.
“That’s…unexpected.” Examining his bandages, he became more curious than perplexed, wondering how the properties of the clay interacted with the loosely stitched fabric underneath and how the combination managed to keep his insides from spilling everywhere. Finding his belongings underneath the bed, he rummaged through his pack until he found a piece of charcoal and a few pages of parchment. He proceeded to write down as much as he could hypothesize at, making sure to include a brief description of the varying degrees of pain.
Once finished, he stuffed the notes back in his pack and made for the entrance. Pulling the leather drape partially open, he immediately saw a roaring bonfire, its yellows and reds spiraling toward and endless night sky. As the forks of the flames lashed out at the stars above, numerous figures could be seen milling about, talking, laughing, eating, and the like.
The struggle for Elias at that moment was fighting the urge to partake in the festivities. Gnomes are sociable creatures by nature, and having a small, intimate gathering seemed the most proper opportunity to introduce himself and get to know to whom he owned his life. But at that moment, Elias thought better of his merriment and instead circled around his hut to see what else there was to observe.
He found himself staring at a semi-circular ring of five huts, each crafted in the same rushed manner as the one he found himself in. They partially enclosed an open area, perhaps meant for gatherings or foot traffic, and it was barren, the people obviously all at the bonfire festivities. But then he saw a rather large man enter the hut furthest from him, only to reappear quickly and head in the direction of the others. “Gotta be careful,” thought Elias. “They’re rather large.”
Elias made his way to the closest hut to his, keeping as stealthy as he could, which meant biting his tongue and hoping he did not tear open his side breathing. The short walk, no more than thirty feet, caused significant amounts of pain and he felt like lying down and passing out after a few steps. Despite each step being an embrace of Death itself, he willed himself on, eventually making it inside the next hut, being instantly greeted with a cloud of smoke as he stepped inside. As he inhaled, his pain subsided and he felt unusually calm, given the circumstances.
Inside was much the same, though the smoke was slightly thicker and instead of one cot there were two. Slowly, sluggishly, and dreamily, Elias walked and stood between the two cots. The one on his left was covered in a mountain of furs and pelts, the only thing visible beneath being a tuft of long, blonde hair. On the cot on his right though, he recognized de Geffriel. She was covered in furs as well, though the upper portion of her shoulders was exposed. As Elias gently lowered himself to the floor, his back propped against the wall, he managed to see a few bristles of fur collapse. As they stood and collapsed, slowly, rhythmically, again and again, a final question escaped his lips.
The darkness was unlike the shadows she was accustomed to. They were dark, full of silence, yet lacking. Usually life teemed within the shadows, life that existed and sometimes thrived within its confines. However, de Geffriel could sense the absence of life around her. She fumbled around for an eternity, forfeiting her eyes and ears, hoping to find something to rely on for touch, but there was nothing. She felt as though she was moving, making progress somewhere, toward some unknown goal, but when she concentrated on her feet, it disturbed her that her mind told her that she walked on nothingness. Out of options, she waited, rather impatiently.
The first hint of burning lavender broke de Geffriel of her trance. She did not know how long she had been waiting, but with the lavender to focus on, she no longer cared. She rose to her feet and followed the smell. It was poignant, strong and gentle, soothing yet agonizing. Still without sight, she wondered if her mind was falling into dementia, foolishly giving her shreds of hope when there was none. She had long surmised that she was in Death’s cradle, and wondered why eternal sleep would grant one such a pleasant aroma.
She forged on though and soon every step ached. The pain reverberated throughout her body without hesitation, bringing images of damnation to the forefront of her mind. Where the clergy right? Was this what awaited those who passed – to those who did not believe? Is this what the absence of a god held in store for someone? Eternal solitude? But the lavender, that was real? de Geffriel pushed all of the doubt from her mind and focused on the reality she needed to exist. That fragrance guided her, painful as it was to believe in it, it kept her going. And then, in a sudden wash of light, the darkness vanished.
The room she found herself in was ordinarily ordinary, but caused de Geffriel great rejoicing. Anything, no matter how dismal, would be beyond what she had been facing. The pain, however, had not left with the darkness, and she endured it with newfound pride. “‘Pain is a sign of life,’ the Master preached,” she recalled. “It is merely an avenue for the soul to travel.” A thick smoke hung over her, burrowing into her nostrils with each breath. It reminded her strongly of lavender.
She turned from her prone position on the cot and immediately saw Elias, slumped against the side of the room, sleeping soundly. “Where are we?” she whispered out loud. Instantly, she regretted her body’s actions as pain ran across all of her limbs, needles piercing ever nerve receptor in her body simultaneously and relentlessly twisting in order to accentuate as much suffering as possible.
Then she saw the golden locks of hair protruding from a massive collection of furs across from her. “Stoyan!” Swinging herself out of the cot, her foot caught a strap of her belongings, bringing her attention downward. Rifling through the impressive array of weaponry, she found a dagger and tucked it into a pocket on her shirt. Then, taking care to mind her wounds, she gingerly walked over to Stoyan’s cot. Pulling back the pelts, she noticed that most of his body had been confined to bandages and splits. His limbs had been immobilized to his sides and a thick, dark brown clay coated most of his body. Carefully, she slipped into the cot, nestling herself between Stoyan’s bandaged body and the wall. Pulling the furs back over, she nestled into the tiny nook, finally finding a comfort that she had strangely been yearning for. Within moments, she was asleep, a field of lavenders waiting for her in her dreams.
Sunlight was streaming in through the cracks in the walls of the hut when Alaiya had awoken. Sounds filtered in from the outside and a gentle wind played with the leather canvass, enticing her curiosity, beckoning her to explore. The smoke was still drifting from the basin as she gingerly sat up in the cot. Beneath her, on the ground, was a platter of thinly cut meat and an array of cheeses, fruits, and nuts. She stepped out onto the hard, sun-baked dirt and her stomach tried to persuade her, but finding the others was her immediate priority. The ground felt unnatural beneath her bare feet as she walked toward the entrance, so long ago had she abandoned the carefree nature of her childhood. A brief memory of her parents teased her as she reminisced about running through the woods surrounding her village. The memory lingered as she made her way out of the hut and into the daylight.
Alaiya shielded her eyes as the morning sun greeted, squinting at the few figures bustling about in front of the huts. The people were Humans, as diverse in size and stature as Fareen. They traveled mostly in pairs, conversing in what sounded like an adapted form of Common, and, from what Alaiya could tell, paid her very little attention. Ignoring the diminutive Sorceress, they went about their business with nary a worry. Most carried some form of material, whether it was skins, lumber, tanned hides, or grasses. A few others carried an assortment of food – a variety of small game, fruits, and nuts. One or two did not possess anything, but they were heavily engaged in conversations.
All of the people Alaiya saw about the encampment were clad in leathers, some possessing the fur of the original owner while others had been shaved clean. Most were barefoot and almost all wore their hair long. Though many people let the sun warm their bodies, she noticed a few who remained completely cloaked, hoods drawn low over their faces shielding them from the light of the day.
The urgency of finding her friends began to weigh on Alaiya as she made her way to the nearest of the four huts, trying to act as natural and inconspicuous as possible. Slipping quickly from one hut to the next she discovered it empty aside from the simple décor that she had been privy to in her own – a small cot and a hanging basin, overflowing with a cornucopia of flowers and herbs.
The third hut was by far the largest of the five, and once she peered inside, Alaiya understood why. Two massive bear pelts covered the majority of the ground, encompassing nearly all of the internal structure. They were contrasting colors, one dark black, the color of night itself, while the other was an extremely ashen grey, making it appear almost white in comparison. Above the pelts was the first mounting she had seen, a ring of cedarglenn branches lashed together with strands of leather weaving its way across, akin to a spider’s web. Locks of feathers, from numerous birds, hung intermittently around the ring, and the entire design meshed extremely well. As Alaiya stood there, staring foolishly at the mount, her eyes began to lose focus. During this blurry flash, a figure seemed to manifest in the center of the ring – a howling wolf’s head – and she could feel the ambiance of the natural itself.
The sudden throb of pain in her leg broke her out of the trance and, noting nothing else of interest, she moved on to the fourth hut in the area. The smell of burning herbs greeted her as she pushed her way past the leather flap and the pain in her leg eased. Aside from the greater amounts of burning flora in the basin, the hut was starkly similar to the one she had found herself in. There were two cots covered heavily in pelts of animal furs and slumped between them was a sleeping Elias. As she made her way over to the helpless Gnome, the smoke was making Alaiya drowsy. She tried to hurry to Elias, to wake him from his slumber, but her steps were turning sluggish. Just before she reached him, her eyelids became too heavy to hold open and she slumped to the floor, peacefully asleep at the feet of Elias.
Elias stirred from his slumber and stretched his feet out, slamming into something unexpectedly. Jarring awake, he saw Alaiya peacefully napping at his feet in a rather uncomfortable position, made slightly more awkward by his bare foot in her face. Slowly standing up and stepping around Alaiya, Elias checked on Stoyan and de Geffriel, who were both still asleep in their respective beddings. Content with the state of everyone, he ventured over to the smoking basin, reveling in the aromatic smoke, basking in the relief it gave him body. A few portions of herbs had fallen beneath the burning basin, scraps of discarded waste that most would pass over in a glance. However, intrigued by the prospect of “alternative medicine” and “medicinal herbs”, Elias scooped up a few for later analysis and headed outside.
No sooner had Elias breached the leather doorway that a rather tall, hooded figure slipped from the side of the hut to stand in front of him, sending the Gnome a few steps back into the hut.
“Oh, morning there. Didn’t quite see you in the brightness of the day.” Elias shielded his eyes as he squinted up into the drawn hood of the person. Their face and features were hidden in the shadows of the hood, something that slightly unnerved him. “Don’t mean to trouble you, so if you’ll just, uh…ugh…” Elias stumbled a bit, his legs still weak beneath his weight.
Behind the figure, who was inconveniently not leaving Elias alone, stood two large men engrossed in conversation. The first, about Stoyan’s height and build with slender and strong features, was wrapped in leathers and forest-wear. He held a gnarled wooden staff on which he leaned for support, leading Elias to wonder how tall he would have been in his youth. His hair was golden-brown with streaks of grey, worn loose and long, flowing freely like the wind. A wreath of leaves adorned his head, though they looked more like they had appeared as happenstance rather than being placed. He appeared to be much older that the other, reinforced by the body language of his much larger companion.
Elias observed as they spoke and, as he watched, the elder turned toward the hut. Frozen by surprise, he locked eyes with the brown-haired man, enchanted by his golden-yellow eyes. He felt the eyes study him, much like he had done with hundreds of components in his alchemical practices. It was all Elias could do, just to stand and be examined, until the man smiled and turned back to his companion. The moment had seemed an eternity, and he suddenly felt unwell. The pain had seeped its way back into his body and the dark shadow of the person in front of him enhanced the uncomfortable feeling. Turning back into the hut, he heard the soft step of the person behind him, ready to follow. Elias held up his hand in protest.
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Back inside. Don’t have to keep repeating yourself – I understood you the first time.”
Back inside, Elias found his place between the cots and sunk back into a slumber.
“They are the very people we seek to avoid.”
“I am aware, Tereson, Master of the People. But we both are aware of our circumstances. The woods, they cry of treachery. I have heard it as you have seen. We cannot continue this way, ignoring and avoiding everything.”
Tereson sighed, the worries of his people weighing heavily on him. “You speak honest and true as always, Paejin, Master of the Herb. Your council is…much needed. Though I fear for what the rest will think.”
Paejin eased up, happy to have Tereson’s agreement. “Let us drop the formalities,” he said with a smile, “and work on resolving the situation to the southwest. There is strong power there that has been gathering for the last fortnight at least. I was investigating with Dyrr when I ran across this bunch and a few more clad in black. They had the same markings as the others.”
Tereson nodded as the information was presented to him. “I had heard as much last night. It seems the activity has increased as well. In time they might find us. Are you sure of their motives?”
“Not yet, and none of us possess the skill to break this barrier. But perhaps –”
Tereson raised his hand, silencing Paejin. “I know what you would suggest, and I’ll have you know I have thought on it too.”
“Then we are in agreement? Will you send them?”
“You still show you are not ready,” Tereson said with a shake of his head. “They are not ours to command. Forcing our worries on others is not how building a community works. Patience, Paejin. Perhaps Fate is on our side and they desire the same. For now, tend to your flock.”
Paejin looked down at his side as a touch brushed across his leg. A little woman with platinum-white hair looked up at him, a pleading look in her eyes. The two men exchanged slight, indiscernable nods as Paejin swept the woman up and led her away. He crossed the grounds to the hut where she had emerged from in a handful of strides and disappeared inside.
Emerging a few moments later, Paejin worked his way back to the northernmost hut and retrieved a platter of meats, fruits, and nuts, only to return to the first once again. He was gone no more than a few minutes before returning to Tereson. The Master of the People greeted him with a rueful smile.
“Many of us would have left them for dead. But you, you were certain you could save them. Are you sure their wounds will heal sufficiently?”
“Already they have made great progress. My clay plaster is working better than even I could have anticipated. They should be able to manage on their own with the day’s close.”
Tereson looked at his confidant, an approving look on his weathered face. “There is hope for us yet. And I wonder,” his question came off casual as though between two lifelong friends as he glanced back to the hut where the injured lay, “why is it you seem to have taken such a particular interest in the young female mage?”
“Ah, so you have felt her power too?” It is unique, is it not?” Paejin looked back to the hut and then beyond, as if searching. After a pause, he turned back to Tereson. “A shame none here possess such magick.”
“You are avoiding me,” Tereson said with a chuckle.
“Not so much avoiding as…” There was another pause as Paejin searched for the answer. “She reminds me of someone I knew once.”