The party left the cabin some hours later, feeling rested and ready to continue their journey…
“Let’s get out of this gods forsaken forest as soon as possible,” grumbled Zoltan.
Edward Grey peered into the Orb of Hagoph, seeing in its centre the slightest glow as he held it vaguely northeast. The black Orb had seemingly grown inert since the discovery of the blue globe, the image within it gone and its weight strangely decreased.
As the group studied the map Edward had found in The Smuggler’s Rest, Kazdan pointed to a hole in the paper, to the northwest of the region of Naiju. Zoltan explained that during his travels, he had heard reports of strange, unnatural goings on in the area beyond Bethelgane.
“So unnatural,” Zoltan said quietly, looking at Edward with a mischievous glint in his eyes, “that it’s burned itself off all the maps.”
Edward offered Zoltan a scornful look and continued through the tangled forest of Phaelin.
As Alyaa hacked her way through the thorny undergrowth and intrusive branches of the forest, a barbed bough snapped back, striking Lilith in the face. Lilith cursed in ethereal, and Zoltan said in the same language, apologetically; “Maybe you should step back a little.”
Around an hour-and-a-half later, the forest began to thin out around the group, and shortly after that, they found themselves once again in open fields. Zoltan breathed a visible sigh of relief.
The party continued northeast, until they spied a low wooden fence ahead of them. The group cautiously approached, debating whether to pass through the fenced off land or head around it.
When they reached the fence, however, they saw that it was rotted and covered in moss and lichen. Alyaa kicked out at the fence, and with a wet crunch, a section of it fell to the floor.
The group headed through the gap in the fence and began to trek across leagues of muddy, furrowed arable land. After a few minutes of walking, Alyaa stopped the party and gestured to what appeared to be a rusted metal trap, half-buried in the mud.
The party approached the trap, and Kazdan dropped a muddy stone onto the pressure plate in the centre of the trap. It creaked and reluctantly snapped closed.
“I might be able to mend it,” Zoltan observed. Nodding, Alyaa pulled the bear trap up from the mire and hung it from her pack.
After another ten minutes or so of carefully picking their way through the field, avoiding more sporadic traps, one of which was closed around a small severed leg, the group found themselves at another wooden fence. This one seemed better maintained, with no rot or collapsed sections.
Kazdan put a foot on the bottom lath of the fence and climbed up, only to find himself face to face with an elderly man who levelled a crossbow directly at Kazdan. The man was wearing a battered grey coat, and his hair hung in filthy grey ringlets about a face so weathered and craggy it could have seen a thousand winters. A stub of cigarette poked from the corner of his mouth, and one eye was scrunched closed against the blue smoke which curled up to the sky.
Kazdan’s eyes opened wide, and he held up his hands defensively. “Sorry! I’m not meaning to trespass. Just looking for directions. We’re a bit lost. Apologies if it’s your land.”
“What’re ya doin’ here?” the man asked in a gravelly voice.
“I’m following the man over there,” Kazdan said, nodding towards Edward. The grey-haired man looked at the party suspiciously.
“What do ya want!?” he growled.
“None of your gods damned business,” Alyaa hissed.
“It is my business,” the man snapped. “You’re on my land.”
“We’re not looking for a fight,” Edward interjected.
“You’ve got all those weapons,” the man said. “Looks like you’re spoiling for a fight.”
“Well, we got attacked by a massive wolf yesterday,” Kazdan said, and when the man shot him an icy look; “I’m sorry.”
“A wolf?” the old man asked. “Where?”
“In the forest,” Edward said.
“It still alive?” the man asked, peering in the direction of Phaelin.
“No, we killed it.”
“What do ya want?”
“We just need to pass through. Or go around. Whichever’s easiest.”
“Pass through? Where ya goin’?”
“What do ya want northeast? What’re ya lookin’ for?”
“Trade. And stuff.”
“Trade? Ya goin’ to Kagen?”
The man once again cast a cynical glance over the group. “What business do ya have in Kagen, then?”
“I’m looking to buy a new sword,” Kazdan ventured.
“Sword, eh?” the man grunted. “You’ll be goin’ to see Bromine, then?”
“I’m not aware of him, but if you recommend him, I’ll go and see him.”
“He’s about the only merchant in Kagen.”
“I’ll take it on your advice, then.”
“Ya look weary,” the man said, looking at the assembled group. “Tired. Hungry.”
“We are, a little,” Edward admitted.
“You can come into my house,” the man said, lowering the crossbow for the first time, “if ya promise to leave your weapons outside and cause no trouble.”
Edward turned back to his companions and mouthed that he did not trust the man. Kazdan eyed the old man, and then glanced around at the five on this side of the fence. Taking his meaning, Edward nodded and turned back to the grey-haired man and smiled.
“We’ll be happy to, good fellow,” Zoltan piped up.
“Okay,” the man said. “Come down the fence a ways.”
The party followed the old man a few metres down the barrier, where there was a turnstile which they used to clamber over the fence.
As Kazdan leaped down from the turnstile, the man said; “And what’s ya name, stranger?”
“Kazdan,” said Kazdan.
“Not from around these parts, are ya?” Alyaa was the next over the fence. “And what’s your name, girl?”
“None of your damned business,” Alyaa grunted.
“That’s not the attitude to make friends,” the man chided.
“It’s an even better attitude to make enemies,” Alyaa retorted. The man narrowed his eyes at Alyaa, until Zoltan hastily clambered over the fence and apologised on her behalf.
“She’s not the most talkative of people. Zoltan Kaufmann, at your service.”
“Murtogh Muggrah, of Kagen.”
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Edward climbed down next to Muggrah. As they shook hands, the grey-haired man studied Edward closely, and somewhat unnerved, the former policeman moved on. Lilith was the last to climb over the fence, and when Muggrah asked her name, she looked at him blankly.
“As far as I can tell, she doesn’t speak our language,” Edward explained.
Muggrah glared at Lilith for a moment, before addressing the party. “You leave your weapons outside. Understand?”
Muggrah led the party around a grove of trees to a farm house which, despite its size, had clearly seen better days. The paint was peeling, and Kazdan noticed that one windowpane was broken. Alyaa elected to stay outside, and while the group unloaded their weapons, Lilith attempted to conceal her dagger. Muggrah, who was stomping his boots on the doorstep, spotted this, and grimaced at the darkling.
“What ya doin’!?” the farmer snapped.
Lilith looked up, shocked, but Zoltan hastily said; “I’m sorry, she doesn’t understand the common tongue.”
Zoltan spoke to Lilith in ethereal, and she reluctantly handed her daggers to Alyaa handle first.
“I don’t want no trouble from her,” Muggrah said, glaring at Lilith.
“Don’t worry,” Zoltan said as reassuringly as he could.
Muggrah led the party down a narrow corridor into a spacious kitchen, in the centre of which was a table with six chairs around it.
“Are you here on your own, friend?” Edward asked, pulling one chair back.
“I am now,” Muggrah said.
“What happened,” Edward inquired, “if you don’t mind me asking?”
“My wife’s dead. My son’s gone off to join the military to fight in the war. You can sit down, if ya like.”
“Who’s the table set for?” Zoltan asked, taking a seat.
Muggrah looked at Zoltan cantankerously. “It’s not set for anyone anymore. It’s set for me. When I’m here to eat, that is.”
“Okay,” Zoltan said meekly, looking down.
“I’ve got bread and beans,” Muggrah said. “That do ya?”
“More than enough,” Edward said politely.
“Adequately, ser,” Zoltan said, equally politely. Muggrah grunted and moved over to the oven.
After a few moments, Muggrah placed ceramic bowls of beans and hunks of black bread in each person’s place, before sitting at the head of the table and tucking into his own bowl. The group watched him eat for a moment, before starting on their own meals.
“Can I take some food out to my friend?” Zoltan asked
Muggrah lit another cigarette and squinted at the turron. “Don’t worry, I’ll give ya something to take on ya travels. She doesn’t want to come in and enjoy the hospitality of my table, she doesn’t get to eat.”
“She’s not really house trained, that’s the problem,” said Kazdan. “It’s not you, it’s her.”
“So where ya come from?” Muggrah asked, tearing a chunk from his slab of bread.
“Tephilin,” Kazdan said.
“You’re comin’ the wrong way from there,” Muggrah noted with a sly half-smile, bean juice dribbling down his stubbly chin.
“I… didn’t come straight from there,” Kazdan murmured.
“Well, where ya comin’ from!?”
“I met these guys down at Shedhmi.”
“Shedhmi, eh? What’s it like down there? Not been down there in… ten year.”
“What was it like then?” Edward queried.
“Quiet, pleasant town.”
“Still pretty much the same.”
“I heard that Narshair business didn’t do well for it.”
“It’s maybe a bit quieter,” Zoltan mumbled. “Maybe a bit less pleasant.”
“It’s a shame. Entat and Leeza still running The Smuggler’s Rest down there?”
“Well… Entat is,” Edward said.
“What’s that mean?”
“Leeza… died in the attack.”
“A shame. This war has affected us all. I used to have many tann here. I used to sell them. I was quite well off. These days, since that attack, half me stock comes out mutated and I can’t sell it.”
“Can we maybe see a couple?” Kazdan asked, mopping up bean juice with the remainder of his bread.
Muggrah glared at him for a long moment, then said; “What you want to see ‘em for?”
“I haven’t seen one in this part of the world before,” Kazdan said. “I was just wondering if you breed them differently.”
“We breed them differently because we have to!” Muggrah growled, slamming both hands down on the table. “You think I’d have mutated stock if I could help it!? I want to make some money! I want to make a living! Take joy in other people’s misery, do ya, boy!?”
“I’m an assassin,” Kazdan muttered indifferently. “It’s what I do.”
“Assassin!?” Muggrah yelled, his hand going to the crossbow by his chair. “Is that what you’re here for!? Here to kill me? Who’d want me dead, I’m just an old farmer!”
“No one’s here to kill anyone,” Zoltan said anxiously. “We’re just passing through.”
“He just said he’s an assassin!” Muggrah snapped. “I don’t invite assassins into my house.”
“I think he’s deluded. He’s never actually killed anyone, as far as I’m aware. He’s all talk, no action.”
Muggrah grunted, his hand moving away from the crossbow. “I think you better eat up and leave.”
“Yes, I think we’d better,” Zoltan agreed, shooting a glare at Kazdan.
Muggrah moved over to a cupboard, keeping one eye on Kazdan as he scooped down several tins of beans and bits of black bread. These he handed to Zoltan, Lilith and Edward. He also passed an extra hunk of bread to Zoltan.
“Give that to ya friend outside,” Muggrah muttered.
“I will,” Zoltan said. “Thank you.”
Edward held out twenty wairs, which Muggrah snatched up greedily. “I thank ya, stranger.”
As the group left Muggrah’s kitchen, he hissed at Kazdan; “I don’t want you killing no one in Kagen. They haven’t done anything wrong.”
“That’s entirely up to the contract,” replied Kazdan. “I’m not here for right or wrong.”
“Just get out!” Zoltan exclaimed, punching Kazdan in the back of the leg. “Stop talking! You’re not helping!”
As soon as the last member of the party stepped out of the door, the old farmer slammed it closed, and everyone heard the agitated rattling of a chain. Zoltan tossed a bit of bread to Alyaa, a stormy look on his face.
“You see, Zoltan?” Edward said with a forced smile. “For following me, you just got a free meal.”
“Yeah, and just got kicked out of someone’s house!” the turron grumbled, glancing over at Kazdan. “Think how many free meals we could have had.”
“Well, next time, we don’t go in with him,” Edward said.
“Agreed,” Zoltan muttered. “I say we push him into the next trap we find and leave him.”
Alyaa handed everyone their weapons, and the group moved off. Beyond Muggrah’s land, they could see the beginnings of a small town.
“Let’s keep moving,” Alyaa grumbled.
As the group approached the town, they passed two pens containing tann. There were a couple of tann which looked normal; tall and blue-feathered with bright red inquisitive eyes. Most, however, were discoloured, had stunted wings or twisted legs, and one appeared to have a sac containing its organs hanging from its gut.
Alyaa fell back as the party stepped from the marshy land of Muggrah’s farm to the cobbled streets of Kagen, a nervous look on her face. Many of the buildings looked abandoned or at least closed.
Edward briefly consulted the Orb, which continued to point north-easterly. The group wandered through the desolate streets until, finally, they came across a sizeable market stall which was open. Its sign pronounced it “Cartheisen’s Goods,” and its proprietor was a short, older man with long grey hair and a thick moustache. Zoltan recognised the name and smiled. The Cartheisens were the most powerful trading family in Yokurgin.
“Hello,” the turron said personably as he approached the stall.
“Hello,” the merchant returned affably. “What can I do for you?”
“We have goods to sell, and possibly to buy,” Zoltan said.
“That’s what I’m here for,” the vendor replied with a kindly smile. “What have you bought me.”
Zoltan asked for the kehlet skins, and as Alyaa produced the pelts, the trader regarded her coolly. “Do I know you?”
“Probably not, no,” Alyaa replied sullenly, turning away from the stall.
“You sure?” the merchant asked.
“No,” Alyaa said, her hand slowly moving towards the shaft of her axe.
“Been around these parts recently?”
Zoltan looked at Alyaa with a cocked eyebrow, before handing the skins to the vendor. The moustached man laid the skins out on the stall and stroked them approvingly. “That’s a nice pelt. Where did you get these?”
“Off a kehlet,” Zoltan said matter-of-factly.
“Salvaged it yourself?” the merchant asked, sounding impressed.
“Absolutely. Me and my companions.”
“Very impressive. Those things can be quite vicious, especially around newborns. Quite impressive that you could get these.” The vendor continued to inspect and pick at the pelts on his stall. “Yes, yes, that’s quite good. I could offer you, say, 100 wairs for the two of them?”
“These are brand new. Fresh.”
“When did you get these?”
“Two days ago.”
“Hmm. They are quite exquisitely skinned. Not a lot of gristle or bone. Call it 150, I think that’s fair.”
The merchant handed Zoltan two small bags of coin and secreted the pelts behind the stall. “Did you have anything else of this quality? I’m always looking for goods of this nature.”
“Perhaps not of this quality,” Zoltan said thoughtfully, “but there are some other items.”
Alyaa handed over the helmet, spear and tapestry that the party had found at Fort Braegande.
“This isn’t the best quality helm I’ve ever seen,” the merchant mumbled, inspecting the helmet. “Where did you get it?”
“Scavenged,” Zoltan admitted. “From Fort Braegande.”
“Not sure about these two, but this,” the merchant said, holding up the tapestry which displayed the six coloured spheres and black star of Marsheusis, “this is exquisite craftsmanship. Did you get this from the fort as well?”
“I like this. I know there’s a few people around here who had family at Braegande. I’m sure they’d be quite happy to see this. I could give you 75 wairs for it?”
“How much do you reckon the helmet and the spear are worth?”
“I’m not even sure I could sell these. I could take them to the smith, I suppose. I’ll give you 25 for the both of them.” Zoltan nodded, and the merchant passed another bag of coin to the turron.
“Was there anything else?” the vendor asked, stroking his moustache.
“This is also from the fort,” Zoltan said, handing over the longsword the group had found.
“That’s a bit nicer,” the man said with a smile as he accepted the sword. “Yes, yes, I can see that this has some history to it. Mm. I think I could give you 50 wairs for this.”
“Agreed,” Zoltan said.
“Was there anything you were interested in buying? I’ve got a fine selection of goods.”
“Sabres,” Kazdan said, stepping forward. “What have you got?”
“Sabres?” the merchant mused, searching in a chest behind him before bringing out a beautiful sabre with a black jewelled pommel. “This might be to your liking. It’s got a very fine blade, as you can see. It cuts deep.”
“And how much will that be?”
“250 wairs for this sword.”
Kazdan opened his coin purse and frowned. “I’ll think about that.”
“We might need some food for the road ahead,” Edward mumbled.
“Food, yes,” the merchant said. “I have a wide selection of food, and most of it, you’ll be pleased to know, comes from outside of the province. I don’t sell any mutated stock, I don’t sell any vegetables that are less than perfect. What have you a taste for? Meat? Sweets? I’ve got a wide selection.”
“I’ll take some meat, please,” Kazdan said eagerly.
“I’ve got gealas meat, I’ve got lampique meat, I’ve got tann meat. I’ve got smoked habarett, which is beautiful. It’s just been caught in the River Fienedoar, two days ago. It’s a beautiful fish. Smoked to perfection.”
Kazdan purchased some gealas steaks, but no matter how much the vendor pushed the fish, no one would buy it. Zoltan purchased a slightly larger crossbow, trading in his own, which Edward promptly purchased. Lilith also traded in her daggers for a set of fabulous design.
“We don’t get many darklings around here,” the trader said.
“They’re quite rare everywhere, really,” Zoltan agreed.
“We also don’t see them chumming around with many turrons and humans,” the merchant continued.
“It’s an interesting setup,” Zoltan admitted. “Surprisingly, seeming to work quite well so far.”
“What’s your game, then?”
“To tell you the truth… I’ll get back to you on that one when I figure it out.”
“I’ve been there my friend. Given the nature of my family, I was always expected to go into the trade business, but I tried farming for a while. It wasn’t my game. This is what I was born to do.”
As Zoltan nodded understandingly, he handed 50 wairs to Alyaa, Lilith and Edward, calling it salary.
The merchant watched this exchange of currency and smiled. “It’s good that you’re bringing business into the town. Times are hard at the moment, with the war on and everything. There’s not many people coming around these days, especially since Narshair. People seem to have forgotten about our little province, here at the end of the world.”
As the party walked away from Cartheisen’s stall, Zoltan noticed that Lilith had disappeared. The group briefly looked around for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. Alyaa was immediately suspicious, but Zoltan suggested that the party find a tavern or inn.
Alyaa led the group to where she thought a tavern would be, but all they found was a three-storey building, boarded up and derelict. As they bemoaned this situation, Lilith joined them. Alyaa glanced at her suspiciously, but did not question her.
“Let’s leave this place,” Zoltan groaned. “There’s nothing here.”
“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Alyaa snapped.
“Why are you so keen to leave?” Zoltan asked, eyeing Alyaa inquisitively.
“I’d rather not talk about that,” the woman said bluntly, before walking away. Zoltan frowned, stroking his beard.
The group left the town, following the Orb’s image. Cobbled streets gave way to farmland, which gave way to untouched countryside. The sun moved across the sky as the party trudged in sullen silence, and after three hours, began sinking below the horizon.
The party noticed a forest on the horizon. Unlike Phaelin, this forest was lush with greenery. The trees seemed incredibly tall, even from this distance. Kazdan identified the forest as The Tendechagh.
“Not another bloody forest,” Zoltan muttered.
“Fuck it,” Alyaa hissed. “Let’s skip it. Go around the forest.”
“We could go around,” Edward mumbled half-heartedly, scratching his chin which had grown a substantial crop of stubble in the past few days.
Lilith asked Zoltan if the party were heading through the forest, and Zoltan grouchily replied; “I don’t want to, but it seems that’s the way his stupid ball is pointing.”
“Can we go around?” the darkling asked.
“We should get a bit closer to the forest,” Zoltan said, “and then see which way the ball points.”
Another half hour’s walking brought the party to the edge of the wood, which stretched for miles in either direction.
“Let’s camp here,” Zoltan said, looking into the forest miserably.
Lilith suddenly hissed, and the rest of the party followed her gaze to see two figures standing in the shade of the trees. The darkling pulled her hood forward and tugged her scarf up over her mouth.
“Nothing good has ever come of us going into a forest,” Zoltan continued in a despondent tone.
“I got the Orb, didn’t I?” Edward asked, a little more sharply than he intended.
“But that came from bad things!” Zoltan insisted. “A giant wolf. Do I need to remind you about the giant wolf!?”
“I still have the scars,” Kazdan pointed out.
The two figures began to approach the party. As they stepped from the shadows of the tall trees, everyone noticed that both were men, completely naked, with lustrous leaves in place of hair. Each man held a tall stick, which they leaned on as they walked over.
“Hile, travellers,” one of the garlands called, holding up a hand.
“Hile,” Zoltan returned warily.
“What brings you to The Tendechagh?” the nude man asked.
“Certainly not clothes,” Alyaa muttered under her breath.
“We’re on a course that’s going to lead us through the forest,” Zoltan said, “unfortunately.”
“Why unfortunately?” the garland queried.
“We tend to have a lot of problems in forests,” said Kazdan.
The garland laughed merrily. “There’s no need to be afraid here. You can pass through under our protection.”
“What will this protection cost us?” Zoltan asked sceptically.
“Cost? Why, nothing. We have no need for money here.” Zoltan’s eyes opened wide.
The garlands led the party into the forest. The trees stretched dizzyingly into the sky, their leaves forming a canopy which nonetheless allowed a great deal of sunlight to pour down. Gaps between the trees were spacious, allowing the party to walk two and three abreast.
After twenty minutes or so, Lilith and Edward began to notice what appeared to be homes built into the cyclopean trees. There were staircases carved into the trunks, platforms of wood and holes from which garlands peered. Lilith also noticed the four-pointed symbol of Loreism, carved into the trees and made from wood, hanging from the huge branches. More naked garlands moved through the forest, some paying no heed to the travellers while others regarded them with wonder or suspicion.
“How long have you lived here?” Kazdan asked one of their guides as they walked through the forest.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” answered the handsome, long-faced garland. “I was born here. My parents raised me, the Arkrai educated me.”
“Do you ever venture outside?” the assassin inquired.
“No,” the garland replied flatly. “We’ve no reason to leave the forest. Everything we need is here.”
“Must be a… nice life for you,” Kazdan said unsurely.
“It is very pleasant.”
Another fifteen minutes walk brought the party into a huge clearing, at least a mile across. The glade was full of garlands, talking, praying and milling around seemingly without purpose. In the centre of the dell was an tree which dwarfed even its enormous kin. A colossal archway had been carved into the base of the tree’s trunk, and stairs could be seen within, leading up. On either side of the entryway were two Loreist symbols, carved into the bark of the tree.
Without stopping or slowing, the two garlands made their way into the tree and started up the stairs.
“Oh,” Zoltan groaned. “Do we have to go into the big tree? Who goes into a big tree?”
“Do we need to go in?” Edward asked of the garlands, who stopped and turned to face the party. “We literally just want to pass through.”
“Night is falling,” the more talkative of the two guides said. “We thought you may wish to stay here, and the Arkrai does like to see everyone who passes through the forest.”
“Fine,” Zoltan grumbled. Without word, the garlands turned and continued into the tree.
The party slowly ascended the steps, which had been carved from the shaft of the tree itself. Clay braziers lined the stairway, illuminating where the sunlight did not reach.
“How did this tree get so big?” Kazdan asked.
“It is the way of the forest,” the garland replied enigmatically.
Momentarily, the hallway opened up, and the party found themselves on a wide, open platform. Several garlands occupied the platform, many holding similar sticks to the sentries who had greeted the party. At the head of the platform was an elaborate wooden chair, which like the stairwell had been carved directly from the tree. In it sat a tall, bald garland who was not naked, instead wearing a long, diaphanous cyan robe. To his left sat an incredibly beautiful young girl, slender, petite and nude, with lush green leaves spilling across her shoulders.
Kazdan, Zoltan and even Lilith were awestruck by the girl’s beauty, and found it hard to avert their gaze from her.
The two sentries stopped either side of the wooden chair and set their staffs to the ground. Small roots spread from the base of the sticks and sank into the surface of the tree.
“Arkrai,” said one, bending one knee slightly and holding out his right arm, and action his partner also performed. “We bring travellers.”
The bald garland looked from one member of the group to another, before levelling a rather stern gaze at Lilith.
“You,” he said in ethereal. “Take off your hood.” Lilith stood still for a long moment, looking around at the garlands assembled in the clearing. “I know what you hide under there. I’ve known since you stepped into the forest. If we were going to harm you, it would have happened by now.”
Reluctantly, Lilith lowered her hood. The Arkrai nodded.
“We have always been wary of strangers in this place. One thing we dislike more than anything is when people try to hide things from us. We have eyes everywhere. It is pointless.” The garland surveyed the group again, before speaking in common. “We know that you do not intend us harm, or you never would have stepped past the boundary of this forest. You are our guests here, and are under our protection. You may stay the night, if you wish.”
“I suppose a night wouldn’t hurt,” Zoltan said hesitantly.
“We have lodgings we can provide,” the Arkrai offered, before addressing Lilith in ethereal. “Darkling. Do you follow the path of Loreism?”
After a long moment, Lilith whispered; “Yes.”
The Arkrai smiled knowingly. “I can tell that you do not. But that is not a requirement here.” He stood, held out his arms, and said in common; “I am the Arkrai Menwyn Vanil, and this is my daughter Varil.” The Arkrai levelled a grave look at Kazdan. “My daughter is the most precious thing in the world to me, and I will do anything to protect her. I felt I should mention this to you, as you are my guests.”
A middle-aged female garland led the party up another narrow flight of stairs to an open-topped room which seemed to be near the very top of the gargantuan tree. Several mossy masses littered with leaves were set about the room.
“What if you need the toilet?” Zoltan asked with some consternation. “Where do you go?”
The garland woman led Zoltan to a small wooden seat with a hole which disappeared into the tree. Zoltan nodded with a frown, and the garland bowed in the same fashion as the sentries, before taking her leave.
The night was cool, and none of the party slept particularly well. Lilith was awake all night, and watched as the starry sky of night transformed into the pastel sky of early morning.
As the party gathered up their equipment, a male garland entered the room, and ushered them down to the very base of the tree.
“You’re welcome to leave, travellers,” he said flatly.
“Yes,” Zoltan said eagerly. “Let’s leave this place.”
The group moved out of the glade before Edward consulted the Orb. When the globe was held almost directly east, the image was clearest. Edward could see green in the centre of the azure Orb, but little else.
The group headed away from the clearing, moving east through the quiet, spacious forest. The garlands became less and less prevalent as the party travelled, until, after an hour or so, they reached the edge of the wood. Zoltan seemed pleased to be out in the open.
The group moved on, crossing the flat grasslands of Hagoph. After around an hour, the flatlands became hills, and an hour later, began to grow steeper. The grass fell away, giving way to bare rock. Consulting his map, Edward deduced that the party had crossed the border into the province of Gredi, and were in the foothills of the Fegedahn mountains.
Zoltan, who had been born and raised in this province, informed the party that the village of Fedelha was but twenty hours away, nestled within the mountains.
As the party headed further east, the way became more difficult. It became necessary for Zoltan to climb some of the more sheer precipices, but he seemed at ease, and did not struggle despite the uneven terrain.
After four hours, the party came across a plateau of flat rock, and decided to rest. As the group set down, pulling out food and waterskins, Kazdan spotted a figure moving behind a patch of boulders and stalagmites. He quietly alerted the party after determining that the shape was not moving any closer.
Alyaa drew her axe, but Kazdan held up a hand before creeping towards the figure. As he snuck closer, he saw a hulking creature covered in white fur snuffling in the dirt at the base of the rocks. Kazdan turned back to the party, only to see that Lilith had appeared silently beside him.
The creature suddenly stood to its full height, turned and looked straight at Kazdan with small, oily black eyes. It let out a whooping bellow and loped towards the assassin.
“It’s a degon!” Zoltan cried. “Run away before it rips you to pieces!”
The degon barged around the protrusion of jagged rocks and clubbed Kazdan around the head with an enormous paw. Kazdan ried out in pain as warm blood coursed from his temple.
“You’ve really got a fucking penchant for trouble, don’t you?!” Alyaa grumbled, grabbing her axe and running at the beast. The degon turned just as Alyaa swung down, the blade of her axe sinking into the creature’s shoulder. Dark blood soaked the beast’s white fur, and it howled in agony and rage.
Lilith was suddenly behind the creature, stabbing it with both daggers. Kazdan also swung out with his sabre, cutting a deep gash into the degon’s arm.
“Alright!” Zoltan roared at Edward. “Let’s fill this thing full of holes!”
Edward nodded, firing a bolt at the degon. The quarrel flew true, striking the creature in the chest.
Snarling, the degon bought a spade-like claw down on Alyaa, before clawing at Lilith. Alyaa hissed, spat a mouthful of blood and drove her axe into the degon’s stomach. The creature doubled over with a throaty bellow.
Lilith drove one dagger into the beast’s side, the other into its throat. Its powerful roar quickly diminished to a dull choking sound, before it collapsed heavily.
Alyaa immediately set about skinning the degon. Kazdan briefly searched the rocks where the beast had been scrabbling, but found nothing of import. When Alyaa had completely removed the degon’s belt, she tied it to her pack with a loop of rope.
A short while later, the party regrouped and moved on. Edward noted his distaste for the province, and Zoltan attempted to extol its virtues.
“Trade!“ he exclaimed. “Commerce! Industry!“
The terrain became increasingly difficult, and after around four hours, the daylight began to fade. The party set up camp beneath an overhang of rough grey rock. Alyaa lit a fire, and while the rest of the group bedded down, she set about tanning the degon skin.
By the time the first pale rays of morning sun fell upon the mountains, the party were up and finishing their breakfast. Another thirty minutes or so saw the camp dismantled and the remnants of the fire covered.
Edward checked the Orb, and saw that the image had clarified further. Amongst the hazy green he saw vague grey shapes, some curved, some more angular.
The party pressed on, clambering up rough crags and edging their way along narrow, treacherous pathways. After three hours travel and a brief rest, the party came to a particularly steep mountainside. The majority of the group struggled to the top, but partway up the rocky surface, Edward slipped, landing in a heap and twisting his ankle. Shaking her head, Alyaa tossed down a length of rope and hauled the former policeman up.
The party found the going slightly less difficult as they moved on. The inclines became less severe, and after a while, they found themselves travelling downhill.
The sun was sinking in the sky when the party found a path through the hills. Whether it was natural or manmade was difficult to tell, but as the land around them evened out, most of the party spied the lights of the village up ahead. Zoltan let out an excited bark and began marching towards the settlement.
As the last of the crags and cliff faces disappeared, the party found themselves walking through fields full of grazing gealas. Edward looked at the creatures, part cow, part warthog, covered in shaggy copper fur, with some wonderment.
Just before the first buildings of Fedelha, the group were approached by a slender man with long grey hair, wearing a grey coat and a dented hat.
“Hello, there,” he said cheerily.
“Hello,” Zoltan called back.
“Travellers,” the man said, surveying the party with a smile, “which one of you is Edward Grey?”
“Who wants to know?” Alyaa snarled.
“The name’s Jevi Salerio. It’s good to meet you. We were told that you’d be along.”
“Told by who?” Edward asked tautly.
“By Mother Bella,” Jevi replied. “The matriarch of this village. A very wise woman. She knows that you are working for this sorcerer.”
“Yes,” Edward sighed, stepping forward. “I am.”
“You are welcomed to the village.”
The party walked into the village, past a few barns and farmhouses, and into what must have been the village square. In the centre of the plaza was a well, as well as a couple of benches and a notice board. Around the square were several shops, a tavern named The Green Man, a mail office and a large Daerist church.
Edward walked over to the notice boared and surveyed its contents. Amongst the advertisements, news bulletins and flyers for something called the Day of Honing, Edward noticed what appeared to be a wanted poster. He pulled down the sheet of paper and read it aloud.
“Wanted. Dead or alive. Galian Sial, for theft, murder and unlicensed alchemy. Reward offered. Enquire in any outpost of the Royal Military of Yokurgin.”
“Reward, eh?” mused Zoltan, fingering his beard.
Edward pocketed the poster, and the majority of the party made for the tavern. The sign showed a regal-looking man whose face, beard and hair were all composed entirely of leaves. Lilith handed Zoltan two wairs and asked him to buy her a drink, before heading to the mail office.
The tavern was somewhat crowded. Behind the bar was a balding, middle-aged man wearing glasses. He handed a mug to a lanky young man with long black hair, then stepped over to the newcomers.
“Hello,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“Beer, please,” Kazdan said.
“Biggest bottle of whatever you’ve got,” Alyaa interrupted.
“Biggest bottle of whatever I’ve got?” the innkeeper grinned. “Well, you happen to be in the birthplace of Hadong cider! Hadong cider all around, is it?”
“Not for me, thank you, ser,” said Kazdan. “I’d prefer beer.”
Edward, meanwhile, headed back towards the farm. He met Jevi walking into town, wiping his hands on a filthy handkerchief. The farmer smiled at Edward and asked how he could help.
“I’d like to know more about this Mother Bella,” Edward said.
“She stays in her house, mostly,” Jevi said. “She only sees people she wants to see.”
“And where is her house?”
“It’s at the top of the hill, there,” Jevi said, pointing. “About a forty minute walk.”
As Zoltan stood at the bar of The Green Man, drinking from a bottle of beautiful, lightly spiced cider, he noticed a young boy with messy brown hair staring blankly at him. Zoltan narrowed his eyes at the lad, whose vacant gaze did not change.
“What’s your name?” Zoltan asked. The child made no reply. “Why are you staring? Go away!”
The barman looked over and said; “Ah, don’t mind him. That’s just my son. Partario! Stop staring at these nice people.” The child did not move. Frowning, Zoltan turned back to the bar, just as Lilith walked through the door. “I must apologise for my son, Partario. He’s… a bit touched, bless him.”
“He seems very… inquisitive,” Zoltan said politely.
“Yes, any strangers, he does like to see what’s going on with them. He doesn’t mean you any harm, though.”
Zoltan nodded, passing Lilith her drink.
Edward entered the tavern moments later. He ordered a water, and found that he was almost getting used to its strange, chalky taste.
“Drink a man’s drink,” Alyaa grunted, sliding a bottle of cider in front of Edward.
“No thank you,” the former policeman replied. Alyaa rolled her eyes and continued drinking.
“So, what’s going on around town?” Zoltan asked the barkeep.
“Well, the Day of Honing’s coming up,” the innkeeper said. “There’s quite a heavy Daerist population in the village. All the Daerist priests will be preparing for that. And obviously, autumn’s just around the corner.”
As the night drew on, more and more folk left the tavern. The innkeeper led Partario upstairs, and then returned to the bar.
“I take it you’ll be wanting to stay tonight?” he asked.
“Yes indeed,” Zoltan replied.
“I can offer you rooms for 5 wairs apiece,” the barman said.
“That sounds like an incredibly good deal, my good ser,” Zoltan said, smiling. “We’ll take it.”
“I’ll throw breakfast in as well.”
“M name’s Faron Thorne. If you need anything, you can just ask.”
“Can you tell me more about this Day of Honing?” Kazdan asked.
“Well, I’m not a Daerist myself,” Faron said, somewhat apologetically. “But I know that’s when the Daerists try to hone their control of the magicks they believe govern all life in Yokurgin. It’s on the first of Autonter.”
“I see,” Kazdan said, nodding.
“I know there’ll be a big service in the church. Al the monks will be doing their utmost to control those forces. To tie them all together.”
The party drank and talked for a while longer, then retired to the comfortable rooms on the tavern’s second floor.
The next morning was sunny, but breezy. The party were the only customers in the tavern when Faron bought them breakfast. Partario sat on the bar, gazing vacantly at them.
“Partario?” Zoltan ventured. “Partario?” But the boy just stared.
As Faron was clearing the party’s empty plates away, the door to the tavern opened and Jevi walked in, his coat pulled about him.
“Friends,” he said when he noticed the party. “I see you’ve stayed the night. What do you think to the Fedelha hospitality?”
“Marvellous!” Zoltan enthused. “Brilliant! Bloody cheap.”
“We like to think of it as ‘affordable’,” Faron offered, grinning.
“I’m pleased to tell you that Mother Bella would like to dine with you tonight,” Jevi said. “She’s invited you to her house. It’s an honour bestowed on few.”
“We’d be delighted to attend,” said Zoltan. “Absolutely.”
“Good,” smiled Jevi. “I’ll meet you here. In a few hours, we’ll head up.”
The party headed out of The green man to conduct what business they needed to before their visit with Mother Bella.
Kazdan visited the Daerist church, but found it empty. The rest of the party headed to the market. Alyaa left the degon pelt at the tannery, while Zoltan and Edward purchased more quarrels for their crossbows. Everyone also stocked up on food, most people purchasing sakelimes from a very affordable stall.
The party then returned to the tavern, and after around half an hour, Jevi came in.
“It’s time,” he said. “I’ll take you up to see her.”
Jevi led the group through the village square and ten down a narrow street to a path which wound its way up a steep incline, leading back into the Fegedahn mountains.
The ascent took around forty minutes. The path was illuminated by hanging lanterns, and ever now and again the party passed small water features and fenced off gardens full of statues, sundials and decorations.
Finally, the group reached a small white cottage. Smoke rose lazily from the cottage’s chimney, and by the open door stood a small, elderly woman with curly white hair and a welcoming smile.
“It’s so good to see you,” Mother Bella said in a frail, lilting voice. Edward stepped over to her, and the old woman took his hands in hers, bony, cold and trembling minutely. “Mr Grey. Please, come in.”
Mother Bella led Jevi and the party into her dining room, a large but cosy room centred around a table laden with bowls of soup, pies, and all manner of salted meats. There were jars of homemade pickles, chutneys, jams and preserves. There were vegetables that Edward recognized like onions, tomatoes and peas, and some he didn’t – huge bulbous green things that looked like enormous courgettes, and a bowl of stunted red tubes.
“Please, sit,” Mother Bella said.
The party obliged and tucked into the veritable feast laid out for them. Edward tried almost everything, discovering that the red vegetables, which Zoltan identified as taffets, had a robust, almost meaty flavour. As the group ate, they spoke of their travels and answered Mother Bella’s questions. In turn, she told them about the villahe, its residents and upcoming events.
Afterwards, she served cakes with honey, cream and milk. As he ate a sweet, spongy cake, Edward noticed that the old lady was glancing over at him every now and again, perhaps to get the measure of him.
When the meal was done, Mother Bella addressed the group. “Faron will five you your rooms for free tonight, if you wish to stay with us again.”
She asked the party to help her clear the table, which they did, and afterwards, furnished the party with extra food to take away with them, including a flask of gealas milk and a spiced bun, which Zoltan was particularly fond of.
As the party gathered their gear, Mother Bella took Jevi to one side and spoke quietly to him. Edward glanced over, and got a strange feeling that they were talking about him.
When they were done conversing, Jevi tipped his hat to the party with a smile and left. Mother Bella opened the front door, and the party filed out. As Zoltan passed through the door, Mother Bella gave his hand a kiss. She squeezed the hands of Lilith and Alyaa, though Alyaa brusquely pulled her hands away.
When Kazdan stepped over to the old woman, he asked her to tell him more about the Daerist religion.
“Daerism?” Mother Bella asked with a smile. “Daerism is very popular in this village. I’ve never been sure why. It’s a religion in the loosest sense. We don’t believe in any deity, rather that elemental forces, in everything from water to plants to the air, guide the peoples of Yokurgin. The magicks of the world are governed by these forces, and some, but not all, Daerists seek to harness these forces for their own use. The King himself is a Daerist. Did you know that?”
“I didn’t,” Kazdan admitted.
“The main Daerist church sits opposite the King’s palace in Marsheusis. But most towns have their own church. I hope that answers most of your questions.”
“It does. Thank you.”
Finally, Edward came to Mother Bella.
“Mr Grey,” she said. “May I take you aside and have a word with you?”
“Yes,” Edward said, puzzled. Mother Bella drew Edward inside and partially closed the front door. The party waited impatiently, with Zoltan attempting to trade or buy everyone’s spiced buns.
Moments later, Edward stepped out of the cottage, a contemplative look on his face. Mother Bella followed, and smiled warmly at the party.
“I wish you all the best of luck,” she said, “in all your endeavours.” She turned to Zoltan. “And enjoy those spiced buns, young man.”
“I certainly will!” Zoltan announced.
Mother Bella chuckled, bid the group farewell, and closed the door to her cottage.
“So, what did the old lady want?” Kazdan asked as Jevi led the party back down the hill.
“Did she give you anything?” Zoltan added.
“She gave me nothing,” Edward replied. Zoltan made a little disappointed noise.
As the party trudged back into the village square, they noticed a very tall, very lean man dressed in fine green velvets sitting on the edge of the well. He had long black hair and was strumming absently on a hertite. As the party neared the young man, he looked up with a wide grin.
“Ah, just come back from Mother Bella’s cottage, I see,” he said. “You must have some stories to tell.”
“No,” Zoltan said flatly.
“A good feast,” Edward ventured.” that was about it.”
The young man stood up and bowed deeply. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Danil Lothson, travelling bard.”
At this, Alyaa stormed past and into The Green Man. The bard continued, unperturbed; “And you look like people with exciting stories to tell.”
“Say that we do,” Zoltan said. “What’s it worth?”
“Why, I would accompany you on your journey,” Danil said enthusiastically, “and sing you the songs of the world.”
Kazdan slipped past without a word and followed Alyaa into the tavern. The bard sat back down on the lip of the well and resumed strumming his hertite. Zoltan looked around at his associates, and then launched into a lengthy account of the part’s various financial transactions. Edward took this opportunity to disappear.
Danil listened to Zoltan intently for a while, but soon, his attention seemed to wander, and he began to quietly sing to himself under his breath. Seeing this, Zoltan backed away and left.
Danil looked up, and seeing that Lilith was the onl one left, said; “Ah, lovely lady. Let me serenade you.”
The bard launched into a slow, gentle song about the mountains and the rivers. Lilith listened patiently, and though she did not understand the words, found the song quite beautiful.
When he was done, the darkling handed Danil one wair. The young man pocketed the coin and bowed with a grateful smile.
Lilith joined the rest of the party in The Green Man, and for a half hour, the group drank in silence. Then, everyone spied Danil, sitting in a corner and watching the group with a smile.
“Do you want me to hit him?” Alyaa growled to Zoltan. “I’ll go and hit him.”
“Not yet,” the turron replied.
“Let’s be cool,” Kazdan insisted. “He might just be here having a drink.”
Faron walked over to the group and said; “So, how was it up at Mother Bella’s cottage?”
“Fantastic,” Edward answered with a smile. “Great feast.”
“Delicious,” Zoltan agreed.
“Did she tell you anything?” Faron inquired eagerly. “Did she ask you anything?”
“Not a great deal,” Edward said. “Just general questions.”
“I see,” said Faron, sounding a little disappointed, before moving off.
The party spent a restful night in The Green Man, with Zoltan staying awake into the early hours repairing the trap the group had taken from Muggrah’s field.
After another hearty breakfast, the party left the tavern. When Zoltan stepped out of the door, he heard the gentle strumming of a hertite, and turned to see Danil leaning against the side of the tavern, looking at the party with a smile.
“‘Morning, friends,,” he said cheerfully.
“It was a good morning,” Zoltan snapped, “until you started playing that infernal thing.”
The bard stopped playing, a puzzled expression on his handsome face. “What do you mean? The music of the hertite is beautiful.”
“I’m not a fan,” Zoltan hissed.
“How can anyone not like the music of the hertite?” To emphasise his point, Danil strummed a pleasant note. “Come, let me share your adventures. Let us travel the road together.”
“No. Bugger off! I don’t like your music, and I don’t want you following me around!”
“People tend to die around us,” said Kazdan, a little gentler. “It’s not a good idea.”
“Bards are so pushy,” Zoltan spat.
“I’m not trying to be pushy, friend,” Danil insisted. “I just want to hear of your adventures. I want to see you in action. You seem like a… very colourful bunch of characters.”
Alyaa suddenly drew a dagger, stalked forward and jabbed it under the bard’s throat.
“Listen,” she hissed. “I’m gonna say this one time. Fuck. Off.”
Danil staggered back, looked around the party with wide eyes and bowed quickly.
“Good day,” he said, before hurrying away.
“Well done!” Zoltan said, patting Alyaa on the side.
Edward stepped back into the tavern and pulled out the Orb of Hagoph. He saw at one that the image had filled the Orb, showing what appeared to be row after row of gravestones, shrouded in a green mist. The image appeared brightest when Edward held the orb directly eastward.
Edward stepped back into the street and shared what he had seen with the rest of the party.
“Sounds like Unquarth Cemetary,” Zoltan mused. “just down the way from here.”
“Ah, yes,” Kazdan said. “It’s bigger than this town. Right by Castle Baphette. That was the home of Yokurgin’s first King.”
Edward frowned, and suggested the group press on.
As they headed towards the outskirts of the village, the group met Jevi, who was leading a gealas by a leather thong. He asked where the party was headed next, and when Edward told him, a look of superstitious fear fell over his face.
“The townsfolk avoid that place,” he whispered, “at all cost. It is a place of great evil. Castle Baphette is haunted.”
The group made their way out of Fedelha, and soon found themselves travelling downhill on a rough path which snaked through the mountains.
After some half an hour’s travel, Alyaa spied a figure, which seemed to be clad in black, duck behind the rocks at the party’s rear. She alerted the group to this, and Kazdan crept back up the path, but saw no one.
Another half hour bought the party to the towering walls of Unquarth Cemetary. Before hem was an enormous wrought iron gate, sealed with a thick chain and hefty padlock. Beyond it was the graveyard, impossibly vast. To Edward, it looked the size of a city, thousands upon thousands of gravestones stretching back for what seemed like miles. Beyond them, hazy with distance, was a huge grey castle.
As Edward surveyed the cemetary before them, Lilith struggled to open the lock. After several minutes, there was a snap, and the darkling angrily threw the open lock to the ground. Alyaa pulled the chain from the gate with a deafening rattle, and the black gates swung inwards, creaking loudly as they did.
Alyaa drew her axe and stalked through the gates, followed by the rest of the party. The Orb continued to point east, through the cemetary towards the castle.
The party trudged past gravestones beyond number, some simple stone blocks, some elaborately carved and adorned with statuettes. All showed signs of neglect, and Lilith noticed that no stones showed dates beyond 1199; three years previous.
Edward thought back to what Entat had told him about the Orb of Gredi, and mentioned to his associates that it would be protected by the sorcerer Herod.
Just as Edward finished talking, and eerie silence once again filled the cemetery, Lilith noticed the earth before one gravestone beginning to shift and move. Before the darkling could utter a sound, a rotted, emaciated hand emerged from the dirt.