The Scion of the Echoes
The girl with the violet eyes.
She was about 14 or so, maybe younger.
“Is it really okay for you to be here… with me?” I asked.
“I don’t see why not.” she replied, with absent minded childlike innocence.
“Alone, a young girl. An older guy, like me.” I struggled to find a way to put it that wouldn’t make me seem like any more of a creeper than I already felt, “People might talk.”
“What sort of people?” asked the girl.
“Well, you know… people.” I attempted to elaborate, with limited success. “They’ll notice you together with me, and think I’m up to something. I could get in real big trouble.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” chimed the girl, “People don’t tend to notice me much.”
I blinked at her dumbly.
“You have purple eyes.” I stated, in as even a tone as I could muster.
“Do I?” the girl replied, absently. She peeked around me at the dusty broken mirror that, despite its best efforts, still hung on the wall.
“Huh, fancy that.”
“You have purple eyes”, I echoed, “and you don’t even realize it?”
The whole situation was becoming increasingly absurd.
What was this girl doing in my neighbourhood, let alone in my room?
Her brightly colored outfit, blonde hair and purple eyes made her stick out like a sore thumb, particularly next to me in my dirty old shirt and trousers, my stump arm and one good hand. The slum I lived in was crumbling. The room that I called home was just two walls and half a ceiling in a decrepit building that was barely standing.
The girl had stopped looking at the mirror. She was staring off into space now, and didn’t seem to have heard me.
“You have purple eyes?” I repeated, for emphasis. I think this time it came out as more of a question.
“Hmm?” she replied, “Oh right… that… yes, I wouldn’t worry about it. Are you fast?”
This girl was as random with conversation as she was with her sudden appearance.
“Fast,” she repeated, “Are you a fast runner?”
“No… not particularly.”
“Oh,” she said, rather glumly, I felt. “Well, you’ll probably want to get moving then.”
The girl looked directly at me then, and I swear it felt like those violet eyes were looking right through me.
“Run.” Her voice, rather than conveying urgency, conveyed a sort of certainty.
I was about to respond when something whizzed past my face leaving a burning sensation against my cheek. Whatever it was impacted wall behind me, shattering a portion of it in a cloud of dust.
I ran. I could hear voices, several of them, angry violent sounding men.
The girl, faster than she looked, seemed easily able to keep pace with me.
As we ran, I glanced at her… well, more like glared at her. “What the hell is going on?” I demanded.
The girl blinked at me several times, as though I had just asked a very stupid question. “Well…” she said, seeming to have trouble finding her words “I’d say some folks are trying to kill you.”
“What?!” I blurted, as if that part wasn’t already completely obvious, “Why does anyone want to hurt me? I’m nobody!”
The girl nodded in agreement, “Yep,” she said, “That’s about the size of it.”
She tugged my good arm pulling me into a narrow alleyway that I hadn’t noticed. “This way,” she said.
We crouched behind some broken boxes and I could see the outline of several individuals running by the alley. Each one seemed to be wearing dark clothing, and I couldn’t make out any features, anything to recognize them by.
We remained still for a few minutes, and the sounds of our pursuers faded. At some point, it occurred to me that my young companion seemed to know of this danger before it arrived.
I turned to her, and with my one hand grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her, “Did you lead those people to me? You almost got me killed!”
Seemingly unaffected by my jostling, the girl cracked a smile, “You can call me Arkey, if you like.”
I let go of her. What was I doing, shaking a young girl? A girl with purple eyes…
“Arkey,” I paused to catch my breath, “Forgive me if I seem rude, but Who the Hell are you?!”
“You aren’t very well informed are you?” spoke the girl, tilting her head to the side. She seemed disappointed, but only for a moment, “Honestly, you lot never are. It’s okay, we make do. Let me try again.”
The girl stuck out her hand ready to shake mine, “You may call me Arkey. I’m a… messenger? No no… what’s that other word you use… Envoy! I’m an envoy! You might say I’m THE envoy.”
The girl wasn’t making any sense, and I didn’t hesitate to tell her so. “What in the gods name are you talking about!?”
“Ah yes,” the girl nodded eagerly, “In the Gods name! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’m the envoy, and you’re the Determinant.”
“You’re talking nonsense!” I exclaimed, incredulous. “Those men tried to kill us… and you’re talking nonsense!”
“Well, honestly,” replied Arkey, “They’re not really trying to kill me… just you.”
I stared at her, wide eyed.
She considered my expression, thinking for a moment, “Okay, that was probably not the best thing to say just now. But I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I WOULD worry about it!” I exclaimed, “I would VERY worry about it! I am worried about it! I will continue to worry about it!”
The girl clicked her tongue, disapprovingly, “You’re not being constructive.”
“I’m… I’m Not being constructive?! I’m trying not to be murdered right now! Constructivism is going to be taking a back seat for the foreseeable future!”
Arkey considered this a moment, “Okay, fair point,” she admitted. “Smell this,” she added quickly, holding something towards my face.
“Smell wha- aaaa-chooo!”
Whatever she had put in my face got right up my nose and I sneezed surely loud enough to bring my pursuers down upon me.
Yet when I opened my eyes, gone were the dank and dusty slums, and gone were the streets I called home. I was in a field, full of dandelions, and a hundred other kinds of flowers that I didn’t know the names for.
The girl was there too, but she looked different. Out of focus somehow.
“So I’m Arkey.” She said, again, “I’m the envoy. You’re the Determinant. Got it?” she sounded a lot older now, somehow.
I didn’t have an immediate response coming. I had to collect my jaw from off the ground first.
I wasn’t having a very good time wrapping my head around what was going on. What had happened, where was I, what did any of it mean?
After a while, I could feel her staring at me with those intense violet eyes, and I felt compelled to speak.
“Why me?” was all I could think of to say, “I’m nobody… I’m just some average… below average guy. Some bum down off the streets. I can’t even work anymore, with just one arm. I don’t matter at all.”
Arkey shook her head, “It’s exactly because you’re nobody that you matter so much. When the time comes to make the choice, it has to be made by someone with nothing to lose, with nothing to gain. The Determinant has to be someone who has seen what joy and cruelty the world has to offer.”
“Who were those men?” I said, scrambling to assemble my thoughts, “Why are they after me?”
“They don’t like to play by the rules,” Arkey said, “They aren’t very keen on what we do, you see. So they like to try and kill the Determinant, before the choice is made. We only do this thing once every aeon or so, but they always seem to turn up. Sometimes they're even successful.”
My face was ashen.
"Oh relax, they won't find you here." she reassured me.
“And this choice-”
“Tell me about your arm.” Arkey interrupted.
I glanced at the stump, the question was one I’d answered a million times to a million people, but still it bothered me. “Lost it in a fight,” was my standard answer.
“I KNOW that,” chided Arkey, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “But tell me what it MEANS to you?”
Now there was a question nobody had ever bothered to ask me. Does it hurt? Can you still do stuff? How did you lose it? Did you get the other guy as good as he got you? Sure those questions were common enough, but ‘what does it Mean to me?’ The question itself hardly seemed to make sense.
“It means ... it means the world is unkind.”
I’d lost the arm protecting someone I cared for very much. She’d cared for me too, at the time. But not for long afterwards. In the end, she was disgusted by it. Disgusted by me, and had no trouble saying so.
It was simply unfair. In what world do you sacrifice a part of yourself for someone, and they only end up despising you for it?
“In this world.” Said Arkey.
“I… I’m sorry I didn’t realize I was reminiscing out loud,” I said, feeling embarrassed.
“You weren’t,” responded the girl, quickly, “So, are you ready to make the choice?”
This girl. This Arkey. This envoy. She was in my head… or I was in hers. And the choice she wanted me to make was insane.
“I’m to choose whether this whole planet…”
“Lives or dies, yes.” Arkey finished my sentence, “That's the gist of it anyways.”
“And you’ve done this before? You’ve actually find someone crazy enough to choose destruction?”Arkey smiled, “I guess you’ve made your choice. I like you.” she said, “But yeah, sometimes that is what happens…and sometimes...
...Sometimes even a broken world gets a second chance.”
The Echo of the Fall
I awoke in a field. I’m not even sure if it was the same one, or if the other one had ever existed at all. This field seemed so… commonplace.
She was gone - If she’d ever been there in the first place. From the moment she appeared, everything that followed had been surreal. Surely it was just a dream.
What was this on my face?
Something cool and soothing - sort of poultice upon my cheek. I reached up and peeled it off. It clung to my fingers with leaves and sticky sap and beneath, the skin felt raw and uneven. A scar would form.
It hadn’t been a dream.
I remembered the burning sensation I felt against my cheek when the men had chased me. Some weapon, thrown or fired had hotly scraped the surface, and a scar would form, reminding me of the deeper wound in the world.
I was the determinant. I had been given the choice of whether or not to end this world. Me, and me alone. And despite all its cruelty, I had chosen to spare it. To give it a chance to do better… or worse.
I was the Determinant.
I had been the Determinant.
Who was I now?
I was a man in a field. A man dressed in tattered rags, with one arm, and a bleeding cheek. I was nobody. I had just made the most important choice in history, and the only one who knew it was me.
Again I was nobody.
I don’t think I even considered going back home. I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t a proper home, it was just a place that didn’t belong to anyone else. That was because nobody else wanted it, and, I realized, neither did I.
Arkey, in her whimsical way, had shown me that the world was much bigger than my own problems. I felt the thirst to know more.
I was not a religious man. I certainly never had any use for it. I always felt that if there were any Gods, they’d long since abandoned me. But after meeting her, I couldn’t ignore what I’d learned.
She’d spoken of choices made, worlds destroyed, second chances. And it all felt so unbearably real.
No, I was not religious, but that doesn’t mean I was unaware of religion.
There was one that came to mind. Their doctrine told of an exodus from a doomed world. One where man and dwarf, orc and elf alike had all lived together, before escaping to this one. They even went so far as to claim that the world we lived on was nothing more than a cheap shadow of the original. They called themselves the Cloister of the Echo. Rather depressing really.
I’d always dismissed their lore as fanciful nonsense. After meeting Arkey, though, I felt I needed to keep a more open mind.
I wandered unfamiliar streets in an unfamiliar city, and after a time I found I’d made my way to a chapterhouse of the Cloister of the Echo.
I raised my one hand to knock on the ornate oaken doors. They had been painstakingly painted purest white. Was this in truth, a holy place?
And there I stood, with my grubby, crooked hand. It almost seemed wrong to touch the door with it.
I was not alone in this estimation.
“Filthy hewmung, not touch door.”
It wasn’t clear to me if I was being insulted on a racial level, or one of personal hygiene.
Seven foot tall, and seemingly just as wide, a great orc stood off to the side, clad in a grey robe. He was admittedly hard to miss, but I had mistaken him for a statue.
The orc was leaning on a broom, which seemed more a feather duster, in his meaty hands. It was small wonder that he didn’t want me touching anything, if he were in charge of cleaning the place.
The orc sauntered over without urgency, and glared at me the whole time. Eventually, he stood in front of me, and pushed the doors open.
“In.” spoke the orc, in a voice that did not leave much room for argument.
I entered as commanded, and the orc rudely slammed the door behind me, returning to the business of cleaning, or being a statue, or whatever it was I had interrupted him in.
There were others shuffling their way about the property. They seemed mostly to be orcs, which was not something that I considered to be unusual. For all their strength, the Orcish peoples were unusually spiritual, and quite keen on ideas such as meditation, prophecy and the study of the heavens. The Cloister of the Echo was like a beacon to Orc-kind. It was quite a change from the slums in which I had lived, where local orcs were known only for ferocity and brutality, but then the slums tended to attract a certain quality of individual as well.
The chapterhouse consisted of several buildings, focused around a square courtyard. The word ‘Cloister’ itself referred to the covered walk that extended around the courtyard on all sides. In the center of the courtyard, rose an old gnarled tree, surrounded by many tiny versions of it. These small versions were bonsai trees, bonsai cultivation being another focused activity that orcs seemed to enjoy.
An elderly orc matriarch hovered over one of the bonsai trees with an inelegant looking pruning device. Then, sighting me on the walkway, she beckoned me to come to her.
“Hail, traveller.” She said, in a much clearer voice than I would have expected from an orc, “Hail and well met. Welcome to the Cloister of the Echo. Come and see, come and see.”
She gestured to the tree before her. It was wrapped in various places with wire or with fabric, and it had twisted and turned in many directions, but a steady regiment of pruning had kept it small.
The orc lady considered the small tree for a moment, finally taking her shears and snipping off a tiny branch that had started to grow.
I glanced at my own stump arm impulsively. Shears and scissors tended to make me uncomfortable.
The ancient orc matron flashed what might have passed for a grin. Her mouth was practically devoid of teeth. “Very nice, very nice.” She stated, “You know they’re all the same age? That tree there and these ones here,” she gestured to the large tree in the courtyard and the four bonsai that surrounded it.
“Sprouted from the same stack of seeds, they are,” she went on, “Long before your time of course… before mine too, if you believe it!”
She flashed that toothless grin again.
I wasn’t sure I did believe it. Her face was as ancient and wrinkled as any orc I’d ever seen.
“They don’t really look the same.” I ventured, with a shrug.
“Ah, a skeptic!” crooned the old hag with a hint of glee, “Rare enough a human visits us, but a doubting one at that! Very good, very good.”
“Why is that good? I don’t understand.”
I didn’t understand. To my mind, religious orders should only be interested in the blind and devout.
“A doubtful mind is free and open to learn.” Replied the crone, pointedly, “A mind that is full of certainty and absolutes is a prison of thought, where nothing gets in and nothing gets out.”
“That’s as may be, but how is one to learn something, unless it is from someone who is certain about it?” This old orc certainly had an interesting philosophy, but I was here looking for some real answers.
“So many ways,” responded the orc, with yet another grin. Her face was old and in shambles, but she had this earnestness to her that prevented her from seemingly ugly. “But what brings you to us? Does a human seek to join the cloister?”
“No!” I exclaimed, a little too forcefully, “No… sorry… nothing like that. I’m just looking for information.”
“A valuable commodity!” assured the orc woman, “And what would a young human know about?”
I was far from young by human standards, but this orc seemed ancient by any standards, so I decided to just let that one go.
“I want to know about the world. The one that came before.”
“Before the Echo?” spoke the woman, softly, with a strange glint in her eye.
“Y-yes… I think.” I said with complete lack of certainty, “What is the Echo?”
The orc paused to considered, or at least, I thought she was considering my words, but it became apparent that she was considering her bonsai tree.
“The Cloister believe that a voice will have an echo, long after the voice goes silent. Our voice went silent long ago, but the Echo remains.”
“But what IS the echo?”
“All this.” Replied the orc, despondently, “All you see, all that is. It is merely an echo of what was. This is not the world, but rather an Echo of a world from long, long ago.”
Putting aside how depressing that sounded, I decided to focus on what I was after.
“The world from long, long ago, that’s what I’m talking about, what happened to it?”
The orc cut another tiny branch from the tree. I felt the stump of my arm twitch in sympathy.
“Much has been written on such a topic. You are welcome to peruse our public library.”
“Please, just tell me what you can?” I said, with a slight pleading to my voice.
The orc locked eyes with me, “A human thinks information and learning requires no effort? We provide the books, and you provide the eyes. It is a fair exchange. I will show you to our library.”
“I… I can’t read!” I exclaimed, feeling a flush rising in my cheeks.
“Ah,” responded the Orc, “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
I didn’t see how, unless the orc was only interested in my embarrassment.
“A truth for a truth,” continued the orc, “As you cannot read, I will assign you a task, and you will learn what it is that you seek.”
I wasn’t sure how I liked the idea of being assigned a task, but the promise of an answer was too tempting to ignore.
“Yes! Okay! What would you have me do?”
“Four scholars there are, each steeped in great lore. I will send you to them, and you will return to me with what you have learned. A simple exchange of knowledge. The first master is not far away. He is studying in this very building. I will even give you his name.”
“Yes, who is he?” I was impatient.
“First things first.” The orc stuck up a gnarled old finger.
“Knowledge costs knowledge. I will give you a name, and you will tell me about your arm.”
I glanced at the stump, the question was one I’d been asked again and again, by so many people, but it still bothered me. “I was attacked by a wild beast,” was what I would tell people.
“No, not how it happened. Tell me what does it MEAN to you?” asked the orc crone, with her toothless smile.
Back in a foggy corner of my mind, I recalled that Arkey had asked me the same thing. What a curious question.
“It means … it means that this world only punishes curiosity”
“I’d lived in a small community, at the time, and there had been a magnificent golden creature spotted in the woods nearby. Some said it was like a wolf or a bear or even an elk, but only children had ever gotten a good look at it. The creature had come right up to them, but never hurt them. I was not a child, but I had heard stories of the creature, and wanted to see it for myself. I tracked it through the woods day after day, and finally I came face to face with it. I brought no weapon, and I swear, I meant it no harm.”
“But the creature didn’t see it that way?” intoned the orc, knowingly.
I glanced at the stump where my arm had once been.
“No. It did not… will you now tell me of the Broken World?”
The orc nodded, “A deal is struck,” she exclaimed.
“In the north hall, you will find an orc scholar by the name of Graidd. He has spent years perusing knowledge of the old world. Ask him for the truth of what happened, and once you have your answer, return to me.”
The folly of the mountain King
I was growing uncomfortable moving through the dimly lit halls of the cloister.
I felt as though there were something there just at the corner of my eye, but when I turned to look, only emptiness. Shadows and dust.
That is not to say that there were not others wandering the enclosure, for certainly there were. I recognized that both primary orc tribes were represented here, the strong, yet tranquil Ren’kai, busied themselves predominantly with meditative tasks, such as tending the bonsai trees, like the matron.
Other orcs, of the Vek tribe hurried about the place with a sense of urgency, carrying curious devices, some of which smacked of dwarven workmanship. There were astrolabes, and sextants, and other devices I would normally have associated with seafaring and navigation. There were also elaborate collections of lenses of various sizes and colors.
The room I had been directed to, in the north hall, seemed to be devoted to the Vek obsession over astrology. The center of the room was dominated by a vast orrery - a mechanical map of a solar system with planets and moons and moving parts. It was fascinating, but also struck me as fanciful and useless, as it clearly did not reflect reality.
An great armillary sphere was also prominent in the room, and this at least was more sensible to me. At the center, the planet was represented by a bronze sphere, and various bronze shafts twisted around it, representing horizon lines or the equator or any number of other things. I did note that there seemed to be four round disks suspended at odd angles above the sphere with metal rods, and with no clear purpose to them. Each one had a dull blue crystal inlaid in it, the only part of the sculpture that was not cast in bronze.
A number of Vek orcs hustled about with maps and charts, and whispered mournfully amongst themselves.
“I’m sorry,” I interrupted, hesitantly, “Is one of you Graidd?”
A few of the orcs spared me a baleful look, and then the group collectively moved away from me.
“Great..” I muttered, and glanced about the room some more.
In stark contrast to all the astrological paraphernalia , a table was set out against the west wall, and littered with fierce and unclean looking weaponry, ranging from crossbows to halberds.
Next to this, there was a low round table with two pillows, and two steaming bowls of something green and brown.
On the pillow furthest from me sat a very large orc, with his legs crossed and his eyes closed. He did not seem to be one of the Vek, but rather a Ren’Kai, like the old crone in the garden.
Hesitantly, I approached him. He did not stir. I stood there for a moment.
“Are you Graidd?” I asked.
Still the orc did not stir. I began to feel a little frustrated. Was he asleep or something?
“Excuse me!” I asked a bit louder this time, “But do you know where I can find Graidd?”
The orc’s left eye opened a sliver. His iris was a golden hue, and seemed almost to glow in the dimly lit chamber.
“Beggar Human. Sit. Eat.” Invited the orc, in an emotionless tone. His eye closed once again.
I glanced down at the table. There were two bowls of… something. One was set in front of the orc, and one in front of the empty pillow. It was strange, but it seemed as though I had been expected. Either that or I was being invited to consume someone else’s food.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I looked at the steaming bowl. It might have been stew of some kind, but certainly none that I’d ever eaten. It had a sour rancid smell, and there were things floating in it that I was not convinced were fully dead.
The orc’s eye opened to a slit once again.
“Eat,” he stated, “eat be good for health.”
“How do you figure?” I said, looking down at the disgusting concoction, and wrinkling my nose.
The orc opened both eyes this time.
“Graidd trying to decide if he will kill Beggar human or not kill Beggar human”, stated the orc, flatly, “Ren’Kai believe is impolite to kill human while he eating.”
The orc cracked a rather sinister smile, “And so, Graidd say, eat.”
Either cowardice or obedience took over, and I found myself cross legged on the pillow across from the great brute, with a spoon full of innards and the gods knew what else in my one hand, guiding it towards my mouth. It was all I could do not to gag.
Now the orc grinned, and took a taste of his dish. “Beggar human breaks bread with Graidd. Good. Now what reason in this meeting?”
Grateful for the chance not to eat another putrid bite, I put down my bowl to explain.
“I was sent to you by an orc elder who was tending the gardens,” I said, realizing that I had never gotten the orc matron’s name.
“Well.. she said that you were a scholar with knowledge of the old world. I am seeking the truth of what happened there.”
The orc grimaced at me – I think. With orc expressions, it can be hard to tell. Then he spat on the ground. And something in his spit started to crawl away. I shuddered to think what I might have just been eating.
“Sneaky Old hag plays tricks on Beggar human and Graidd both. Graidd is no scholar.”
“Oh,” I said, crestfallen, and more than a little annoyed at being misled.
“Vek are scholars,” continued the orc, ignoring me, “Weakling Vek, always worry, worry… worry worry worry. But sometimes useful. Graidd come for Vek Starsinger. Learn which weapon is best from Starsinger.”
Graidd gestured to the larger table, littered with every sort of weapon I could think of, though the majority had seen better days.
“Starsinger?” I echoed, with a glimmer of hope, “Is that someone who would know what happened to the old world? Why we all had to leave?”
The orc spat again. “Graidd no need Starsinger for that. Graidd know what happened! All orc know.”
“You do?!” I was surprised yet again, perhaps the old crone had not steered me so wrong after all, “Please tell me what you know.”
The orc considered me a moment. Then he glanced around the room, and over my shoulder. He seemed to be expecting something.
“Mother say, you trade like merchant.” The orc said, finally.
I didn’t immediately follow what he meant, until it occurred to me, once again, that I had been expected at this meeting. Had the old crone actually been this brutish orc’s mother?
The orc was looking at me expectantly. But what did I have to trade?
Following the orcs gaze, I noted that he was looking, not directly at me, but rather at where my missing arm would have hung.
As the suggestion came to the tip of my tongue, it seemed absurd, but then, these were absurd times.
“I could tell you about my arm..?”
The orc nodded encouragingly, “Yes, this will be good trade.”
I glanced at the tied-off knot in the fabric of my tunic. I don’t know why everyone I met seemed so interested in the arm these days. Maybe it was time to let the fabric down, and stop making it so obvious. As I reflected upon what happened, I undid the knot, allowing the fabric of my shirt to fall freely. It almost looked like I did have an arm there, but the fabric moved slightly in an unseen breeze, betraying its emptiness.
I glanced at the arm once more. I’d been fielding this question for a long time now, and you’d think I would be used to it, but it grated on me every time I was asked. “It was badly burned, in a fire.” I would tell people. “It couldn’t be saved.”
“Yes,” said the orc with a nod, “But tell Graidd-”
“What it means to me?” I found myself cutting him off.
The orc just nodded.
This was too much of a co-incidence. “Have you ever met a girl named Arkey?” I inquired.
The orc shrugged. “Graidd not think so. IS Arkey what missing arm means to you?”
“No…” I replied, slowly, thinking back to the night of the fire.
There had been a fire in a temple. It was a small one, old and made predominantly of wood. It had been at nighttime, and so the place was empty, and the priests had been away in their dormitory. I happened to be there… I didn’t realize that fire spread so fast, and so I tried to save some old relics, but a heavy wooden beam fell and my arm was trapped beneath. The priests said that it was a miracle I survived at all, but if I’m being honest, I oftentimes think death would have been kinder.
“It means,” I recalled, glancing once again at the hanging fabric, where my arm had once been. “It means that this world rewards kindness with cruelty.”
The orc let out a hearty belch, which I found somewhat out of character. It was followed up with a smirk. “Beggar human trade is good. Human have saying Graidd like. Human say ‘Have to be cruel to be kind’. Is orc way.”
Graidd gestured to his weapon table, “Human tell Graidd, which weapon Human find most powerful?”
I was a bit confused by this change in the direction of our conversation, but I decided to play along. Most of the weapons looked like they wouldn’t need to do much more than scratch you to give you an infection that would doubtless do you in, but I suppose if you wanted to be efficient and thorough about it…
“The great sword.” I replied, “It looks like it would slice a man in two.”
Graidd hefted the Greatsword by the hilt, in one meaty hand, and offered it to me.
“Great sword,” Graidd said, in what could only be described as a mocking tone, “Bad choice for one armed beggar. Choose again. Which weapon most powerful.”
Graidd was right of course, the Greatsword was powerful for some, but useless to someone like me. I scanned the table. One of the weapons was a trigger action crossbow, fit for one handed use.
“The crossbow then. I can fire that.”
The orc smirked and handed me the crossbow. It was empty. He then handed me a small wooden bolt with a metal tip, except I had no free hand to take it in.
“Unloaded crossbow, maybe nice ornament, lousy weapon for one handed beggar,” chastised the orc. “Try again.”
Feeling sheepish, I scanned the pile again. There was a bow, but that presented the same problem as the crossbow. There was a spear and there was a lance, and a halberd, all weapons I could hold but not make use of.. like the crossbow, they had no utility for me, they were just ornaments.
Finally my gaze settled on a plain old dagger. Though old, it seemed cleaner than the rest of the weapons, probably, I guessed, because it never got used much. “That one,” I said, pointing, “The dagger.”
The large orc scooped up the dagger as though it were a butter knife. “Good.” Said the orc, “Least powerful weapon for Graidd. Most powerful weapon for Beggar human. Dagger good. You take.”
The orc tried to hand me the weapon.
I tried as civilly as I could to push it away, “No, sorry, I don’t need a weapon, I need information about what happened to the old world.”
The orc seemed confused, “Beggar human get information, but Beggar human need powerful weapon. Trade is good, Graidd offer both.”
I found myself frowning at the dagger. “I can’t use that, I’m no warrior.””
“We all warriors." stated Graidd.
"Some warriors more successful, some warriors less successful,” admonished the orc, gesturing to my missing arm for emphasis. “Dagger. You take. Outside these walls, not safe for Beggar human. Not safe anymore.” He pushed the dagger towards me, insistently.
I didn’t like the sound of that, and I supposed there was no harm in taking the weapon as a gift. “Very well,” I said, “Thank you… and now, about the old world?”
“Dwarves.” Replied the orc, simply, and then spat again on the ground and fell silent.
I wondered whose job it was to clean up all the orc spit around here.
“Just one word? Dwarves? Could you be a little more detailed? How are the Dwarves responsible?”
“Graidd not require many words to speak the truth.” Responded the orc, with a shrug, “But Graidd understand Beggar Human want old story. No book. Orc Tradition handed down, father to son. Every orc son learn to tell about Greed of Dwarf king. Every orc tell his son.”
The orc’s eyes seemed to go unfocused, and I could see he was thinking back to what his father had told him.
I settled into a comfortable position upon my pillow. The lights in the room were dim, and glinted off the metal of the instruments. Dwarvish instruments, as far as I could tell. That seemed odd, given the story I was about to be told. There was nobody left but the two of us, the Vek had gone off to seek other pursuits.
“Orc and elf, dwarf and man,” began the Orc, “All breathe of air, drink of river, eat of root and berry and creature. The world provides. Orc know. Elf know - filthy elf. Even human, small human, young human, understand. But Dwarf… dwarf shun great sky. Dwarf hide under great rock, not know the forests, not respect the waters. Rely on human trade for creature, berry, root. For Greedy Dwarf, bounty of the land is not enough.”
It seemed to me that he was describing the Dünir ,rather than the Niküa. I wasn’t an expert on dwarves by any means, but I knew that the Niküa did not live in mountians, as the Dünir did, and some of the Niküa were renowned as great hunters.
“Heart of dwarf, away from nature, become hard like mountain rock. Dwarf king is tyrant, always say dig deeper, mine further, more jewels, more metal. Legend say, Dwarf king had weak heart, sought help from human sorcerer. Human sorcerer give him drake heart… Dragon heart. So Dwarf king become greedy like dragon, care only to fill his vault with glitter and shine.”
“That is quite a tale,” I agreed, once the orc paused, “But I don’t see how that has anything to do with the fate of the old world?”
“Hasty human,” chided the orc, “Listen and know. World that was, bountiful landscape, provide all that was needed. Surface provide what is needed. The soil, the garden. This is the skin, the mountains, this is the bones. Body has heart. Body has soul. Deep within mountains, selfish Dwarf King found heart of world and fire of soul.”
This was certainly starting to sound more like the tale that I was looking for.
“Heart of the world unlike any metal known to Dwarf. Not meant for mining. Of course not. Dwarf shovel could not dent it. Dwarf axe not splinter it, dwarf hammer not mould it. Outside heart, fire of soul was whimsical and lively. Dance of flames and emotion. Fire of soul was beauty and serenity and passion." The orc smiled fondly, as if remembering it firsthand.
"Warm fire and cool heart, lovers beneath the mountain. Dwarf admire them, Orc, Elf, even small human, young human, know they sacred, spirit of World.”
The orc, who had till now seemed to be fondly reminiscing, suddenly took on a dark tone, “But Dwarf King, selfish, greedy, with dragon heart of stone.. Dwarf King betray us all. Mad Dwarf King knew fire of soul breathe as you or I, but saw only tool to use. Dwarf king stole fire of soul… killed fire of soul, thinking to forge heart of world. Dwarf King mean to open heart of world, mean to enter heart of world. Foolish, mad, greedy Dwarf King. Of course all his wants could never be. ”
“Soul of fire was extinguished, and heart of world was distraught. Heart of world brought back soul of fire, but she was changed, not full of life, but now full of death, soul of fire was sick and foul and angry and Dwarves fled mountain home, as liquid fire erupted. The end was beginning. Fire sickness spread quickly. The world sickened, no creature spared, beast nor plant nor orc, nor even small human, young human.”
“Vek pray to the sky for help, but nothing is enough. Ren’kai fight brave battles, but nothing is enough. Orc and filthy Elf cease fighting each other, even join with Human and Dwarf to battle the fire sickness, but nothing is enough. Gods take pity, open for us the path of Echoes.” The orc spread his hands in an open gesture, “Here we are.”
“Wow,” I mustered, after a lengthy pause, to take it all in. “That is quite the story.”
The orc simply shrugged, “Is trade. Beggar Human want to know what was. Graidd tell what was. What was is old, done, useless. Graidd care more for what will be. Graidd ask Starsinger, learn which weapon best. Vek see signs. Starsinger see signs. Starsinger know best. Graidd be ready.”
After a very interesting story, Graidd had started talking what, to me at least, amounted to nonsense. “Ready for what?” I asked.
“Return.” Said the orc, “Vek see signs. Starsinger see signs. Path of Echoes open once more. Graidd be ready. Beggar human be ready too.”
I blinked at him, stupidly, “Wait… what? What do you mean?”
The orc sighed, as much as an orc can sigh. He started speaking slower. “Soon. Path of echoes open. Vek say so. Starsinger say so. Old knowledge useless, future knowledge good. Graidd return to World that was. Battle great foes. Win great honor. Beggar Human come with Graidd, join Graidd clan, win great honor!”
I couldn’t tell if the orc was being sarcastic or not, but clearly he seemed to believe what he was talking about. The path of Echoes seemed to refer to the path between this world and the World that was. Did he truly believe a time was coming that the pathway would open once more?
“I uh… I’ll think about it?... I’d better go.” I found myself stumbling to my feet.
“Graidd serious. Decide not kill Beggar Human. Beggar Human amuse Graidd. Begger Human join Graidd clan, or not, is same. But offer stand.”
“Th-thank you.” I sputtered, not knowing what else to say. I still had the dagger he had given me in my hand. “And for this… thank you…”
The orc had already closed his eyes and resumed meditating.
Before long I found myself back in the garden. It was darker now, but the old orc matron remained, waiting for me, it seemed.
“So, what did you learn?” intoned the old matriarch, with a toothy grin.
I hesitated, “.. I learned that not all orcs speak the same. Is he really your son?”
She smirked at me, “Not all humans do either so, why should we?” she asked, “And yes he is. I hope you’ll forgive me sending you to him, the story he told you is one any orc here could have shared some version of, but I thought it best you meet him.”
This revelation, while unsurprising, was more than a little irritating.
“You couldn’t have simply told me yourself?”
“Orc traditions pass from father to son, of which I am neither. So you tell me, what did you learn?”
“You know very well!” I exclaimed, “It was a Dwarf king, who went mad and slew the soul of the fire. He wanted to break open the heart of the world, and so the world defended itself with some sort of fire sickness.”
“A captivating explanation of events,” agreed the old crone, “Are you satisfied with it?”
“Am I?” it was a question I hadn’t considered, “Well yes, of course, why shouldn’t I be?”
“Well, have you considered asking a Dwarf?”
My lack of response made it clear enough to the old orc matron that I hadn’t really thought about that. And so she continued.
“The man of great listening must absorb words, as the bat seeks the echoes of the night. Hear all sides and you will be enlightened.” Stated the orc, “Hear one side, and you will be in the dark.”
“You would have me visit a dwarf, and ask for his side of the story?” I said, thoughfully.
The orc nodded.
“Relax,” she added, “I’ve no intention to ship you off to the Ash mountains. There’s a Niküa settlement less than a day’s journey to the south. Seek there for your second scholar, and learn the truth that you seek.”
I narrowed my eyes slightly. “A true scholar, this time? No tricks.”
"No tricks." The old orc flashed her grin, “Cross my heart.”
The Worth of a Scarecrow
I was offered a simple mat to sleep on in the cloister for which, I’ll acknowledge, I was grateful.
It was by no stretch of the imagination a comfortable sleep, but it was the best I’d had in recent memory.
I’d hoped to speak more with the orc matron in the morning, but I found no trace of her. Again, it seemed, I had neglected to get her name, and I rather felt too foolish to ask anyone else for it.
If I was to make the journey in a day, I figured I’d best start early, and so I ate a tasteless bowl of oats as my breakfast, which I daresay I was also grateful for. I then took my leave of the chapter-house of the Cloister of the Echo.
As I journeyed away from the cloister, I felt again the chilling feeling that I was being watched. It was difficult to describe… I can only say that it felt like someone or something, something far, far away, something with very keen eyesight... Something was looking right at me, and licking its lips with malice.
That was the feeling at any rate. It felt very similar to the feeling of really, really needing a stiff drink or maybe twelve stiff drinks. I even made it as far as the interior of a dingy tavern before it occurred to me that I’d not a single coin to rub between my fingers.
The bartender was a swarthy pirate of a man, who had developed a preoccupation with tattoos. Even his face was covered with them.
“What’ll ya have?” he barked at me.
“I uh…. I havn’t any money. I travel south, and I thought maybe-”
The man scoffed and cut me off.
“You’re buyin, or you’re leavin’ drifter.” advised the tattooed bartender. “And you don’t look like yer buyin, so I guess you must be leavin.”
In case I was missing the point, the man hefted a nasty looking club in one hand, and pointed at the door with the other.
Resigned to a fate of thirst and sobriety, I made for the door, but as I neared it, a chubby hand caught me by the wrist.
The only other patron in the bar, a rotund stocky man, who could easily have been mistaken for a dwarf (but for the lack of a beard), smiled up at me from his chair.
“Ye travel south, and ye thought something.” Said the man in the chair, “Samuel DeCaire would like to know what ye thought.”
I was surprised, and didn’t know quite what to say.
The bartender momentarily glared at the pair of us, before throwing his hands up and complaining. “Whatever, He’s your problem now, Sam.”
“Well then,” drawled Samuel DeCaire, “Spit it out then. What is it you thought.”
“I… I thought I should have a drink… it’s a long way.”
“And ye thought not of paying for it?” the stocky man said, with an arched eyebrow.
“Ah, I suppose I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” I stated, retrieving my wrist, and reaching to rub the back of my neck awkwardly.
Samuel DeCaire spared a glance at my missing arm.
“Perhaps you should put more thought into your actions. Rufus here can get pretty violent with freeloaders.”
I backed towards the door again, “I’ll just go.”
“Hold on,” said the man, quickly.
“Your little pointed stick there,” he pointed out my new dagger, where it dangled from my belt. “Are you any good with it?”
Instinctively I shrugged; I didn’t see any point in trying to lie about it.
“Probably not,” I said, “I haven’t had the opportunity to find out.”
“A simple No would have sufficed,” returned the man, but not disagreeably. “I have a proposition. We have something in common you and I. We are both heading south.”
I was rather surprised to find the man still talking to me, so I simply nodded.
“You, presumably on foot,” continued the man, “me, with my humble caravan.”
I blinked at him dumbly, “Are you suggesting that you would hire me as a guard?”
The man pursed his lips together a moment and then burst out laughing, “Hire you? As a guard?! Heavens no!”
The bartender, having overheard, also burst into hearty laughter. “The one armed vagrant thinks he’s a knight in shining armor! Ha hah!”
It was not that I was not accustomed to ridicule. Perhaps I had brought this on myself just by virtue of treading where I didn’t belong. But even I had my pride.
“If that’s all,” I said stiffly, “I’ll take my leave.”
“Hold!” demanded the short man again, and again I hesitated.
“As a guard no, but as a scarecrow, you’ll do.”
A show of force, to deter bandits.
“What is the pay?” I asked, cautiously.
“Half a flagon of ale.” Replied the man, readily.
I glared at him.
“Of course I wouldn’t pay you.” Elaborated the man, in what seemed a purely practical and even calculated way.
“Think about it. We’re both going south. You’d be useless in an actual confrontation. We’ll be safer together than separate. I have a whole caravan, you've got half a set of arms. Half a flagon for half a man is not an unreasonable deal.”
I found myself grinding my teeth as I considered his words. They were cruel, but not untrue.
“Essentially,” continued the caravan master, winding up his pitch, “It seems to me you can choose to walk alone, and thirsty, or walk with me and get yourself something to drink. Really, the sensible decision is obvious.”
The man poured half of his flagon into an empty mug, and inched it towards me.
“So, do we have a deal... Scarecrow?” asked Samuel DeCaire, with a knowing glint in his eye.
The ale tasted like stale burnt piss.
I had about an hour to kill before the caravan left from the south gates of the city, and so I decided to go back to the cloister and speak to the old orc matron again.
I hadn’t gotten far however, before I found my way blocked by an unlikely pair of thugs.
The orc was overflowing with muscles, and had a sea of dreadlocks flowing down his back. He wore a scale shirt, and what looked like leather underwear, though I’d dare anyone to tell him so. He wore a pair of sandals that were way too small for his feet. His hands rested on the hilt of a massive stone axe.
His companion was a wiry man with sallow skin and a curving yellow moustache. On his face was etched a permanent sneer. A curved sword swayed at his hip.
“Well, lookie here,” said the wiry man, “What do you suppose, is this the lucky fellow mate?”
The orc grunted.
“I daresay he’s heading to the cloister,” continued the man. “I daresay he’s the same chap we spied leaving the cloister not long ago.”
The orc grunted again.
“I think we have a winner!” exclaimed the wiry man, drawing his weapon.
Somewhere at the back of my mind, a quiet but familiar voice prompted me with a calm and simple suggestion.
The man lunged at me, but I was already on the move, clambering down the alleyway, and doing my best to knock over everything to obstruct the path behind me.
“Aw, I love it when they run!” I heard the wiry man exclaim.
The orc grunted.
“Such good sport!” crowed the man, already closing the gap between us.
As I ran, I tried to think where I could go, what I should do - but my mind was a blank slate. I didn’t know anything about this city. I’d only been there for a day, everything was unfamiliar.
They kept chasing me, but not quite catching up, and I eventually began to feel that I was being corralled.
Sure enough, the pair soon forced me onto a long and narrow bridge, and as I ran towards the other end, my heart sunk.
A man waited there, clad in black, a cruel serpentine blade drawn in one hand, and a small metal cylinder in the other. Over his face, a black mask concealed most of his features.
I turned to go back, but the two thugs had stopped near the other end of the bridge. They weren’t coming closer, but there was no way I could get past them.
“Did we do good there, guv? Is this the fellow?” called the wiry man, from his end of the bridge.
The orc grunted.
On the other side of the bridge, the man in the black cloak walked steadily towards me. He was not observing me so much as he was staring at the cylinder in his hand, which seemed to pulse with a red light. The cylinder had a lid of sorts, which the man eventually flipped shut, and the cylinder disappeared into the folds of his cloak.
“Yes,” the man intoned, in what struck me as a very lyrical voice.
“Jolly fine that,” responded the wiry man, “Can we get paid now, guv?”
“Patience…” intoned the man in black, whimsically. “The other half once I’m finished with him.”
“I… What do you want from me…” I pleaded, “I haven't got any money.. nothing of value… please, just let me go!”
The man in black continued approaching, and spoke a few words in reply, “Such a pitiful display…”
The man was near me now, and I felt I had only one shot, so I took it.
The man seemed quite surprised as I lunged at him with my dagger, and all the force I could muster behind it. Surprised, yes, but he made no attempt to dodge.
My hand ached as the weapon struck hard metal, and the dagger fell from my hand, useless. I quickly made to grab for it, but the man in black already had me by the arm. A tear in the fabric of his outfit revealed shining plate metal beneath.
His serpentine blade hovered inches from my face.
“You sicken me,” spoke the man, which seemed an odd thing to say in such a musical voice. “You’re a disgusting mistake,” he followed up. “And I’m going to put you out of your misery, before you do some real harm.”
“I’m no one!” I found myself pleading, “I didn’t do anything, please, just leave me alone!”
The man behind the mask scoffed, “It’s always the dregs of society. Honestly I’ve no sympathy at all.”
I struggled to pull away but to no avail.
Beneath the mask, the man’s eyes narrowed to slits, “What trick are you up to, wretch. What’s in your other hand?!”
The man was confused by the fact that I wasn’t putting up more of a fight.
Of course, any sensible person would defend himself with both hands, but I was only using one. The man in black had wrongly deduced that I was concealing another weapon, when in fact it was only empty fabric hanging at my side.
I twisted away from the man in black, and he interpreted it as another attempt at attack.
He lunged for my other arm, putting most of his weight behind it, but of course, he grasped nothing - only thin fabric.
With the man off balance, I saw an opportunity and swung the full weight of my body into him. It felt like smacking into a brick wall, but it did the trick.
The man in the black cloak was thrust sideways into a rotted beam of the bridge. The beam splintered and gave way. Loosening his grip on me, he struggled to grab onto some part of the bridge, but his momentum and the weight of his armor worked against him, and his hands grasped only air as he fell down into the water, sword and all, with a shrill cry and a hollow splash.
I scanned the water but did not see him resurface.
Quickly I remembered I was still in serious trouble, I grabbed my dagger from where it lay, and struggled to my feet. I was too tired to run, but I held the dagger in front of me as menacingly as I could.
The wiry man and the massive orc came close, and the wiry man peered over the side of the bridge at the water far below.
“See that mate,” squeaked the man at his orc companion, “Rest of our paycheck just got sunk to the bottom of the Skyre. That’s proper rubbish, that is.”
The orc grunted.
“That’s why I always get half up front, I do - its smart business,” explained the wiry man to the orc. “Not much left to do now, I guess. Fancy a bite?”
The orc poked a meaty forefinger in my direction. “Rob puny human?” he suggested.
“Nah,” said the wiry man, with a dismissive wave of his hand, “Look at ‘im. E ain’t even got a pot to piss in.”
“Take toothpick?” suggested the orc, now pointing at my dagger.
“Now watcha want with a thing like that, get yer head on straight, honestly.” Spoke the wiry man, reaching up and smacking the orc on the side of the head.
The giant orc rubbed his head where he’d been smacked, and looked embarrassed.
For my part, I no longer had any idea what the hell was going on.
“Just a job guv,” said the wiry man, turning his attention to me, “Just tryin ta get paid, see? No hard feelings.”
The wiry man gave what might even have passed for a little bow, and then tugged the orc by the arm, “Come on then, ya big lug. All that running makes a fellow 'ungry.”
In a moment they were gone.. .but I remained. I don’t know how long I stood there holding my dagger in front of me more like a shield than a weapon.
Eventually, once I’d gathered my wits about me, I realized I still had a caravan to catch, and it seemed high time that I got out of the city.
The Price of a Scarecrow
I’d expected to be travelling alone with Samuel DeCaire in a small caravan, but the clever little merchant was full of surprises. He had six guards with him - legitimate ones, not scarecrows. The caravan consisted of three large covered wagons, each supported by a pair of strong horses. He had two other teamsters driving the other carts, and Sam himself drove the first.
My job, if you could call it a job, was to bring up the rear, and dodge horse manure.
DeCaire had outfitted me with a dust cloak, which concealed that I was missing an arm, and perhaps made me look more convincing to any would-be bandits, but everyone involved in the caravan all knew I was there as a Scarecrow, and didn’t hesitate to remind me.
“Scarecrow, watch the horses, while I go take a piss.”
“Scarecrow, run up that hill and check see we’re not being tailed.”
“Scarecrow, fetch us a pipe from the other cart.”
“Scarecrow, don’t touch my stash, or I’ll have your other arm off.”
“Scarecrow, Sam wants to see you.”
I jogged to the front of the Caravan to see what else Samuel wanted from my life.
We weren’t exactly in a desert. At least, not a desert as I thought of one. There were no cacti, or rolling dunes of sand. It was simply a wasteland, where only twisted and desperate looking plants dared to grow. Grass grew in spare patches, but for the most part it was just a whole lot of nothing.
“How can a tribe of Dwarves could possibly want to live in such an inhospitable environment?” I wondered aloud, as I approached the front of the Caravan.
“As opposed to living under a big rock?” mocked Samuel DeCaire.
He had a point.
“Dwarves are resilient folk,” Sam explained, as I walked along side. “A dwarf… well.. a dwarf is basically a rock. Rocks enjoy being parts of mountains sure, but drop a rock in the desert, or the forest, or the field, or the arctic, and the rock does just fine.”
Samuel cracked a smile, “Just don’t drop a dwarf in the ocean. Poor bastard will sink like a stone.”
“But still,” I insisted, “Why live all the way out here? It’s just a barren wasteland.”
“Dwarves are smiths, artisans; they go where the best material is. They say, ‘to hell with the basic necessities of life, give me a shiny stone or something!”
“So…” I pondered, “The Dwarves found something out here in the barrens that isn’t available anywhere else, and they’re mining it and selling it?”
“Trading it yes.” Replied Samuel, “Curious dark blue metal they call Aquastaine. No ideas where they get it, and to be honest, it seems perfectly useless, but stick it in a bracelet, a necklace or a set of earrings and the ladies are falling over each other to buy it.”
“So you trade them what they need, in exchange for the... Aquastaine jewellery and then bring it back to the big city and make a killing!”
“Almost.” Samuel DeCaire glanced sidelong at me, “The Dwarves deliver the metal raw. I design the jewellery myself. If the Dwarves ever got wise and took a trip to the city they’d make a fortune, but they seem content to stay where they are, and I am not complaining.”
“You’ve got a Monopoly,” I pondered thoughtfully.
“You’re not so bad at this, Scarecrow,” chuckled the chubby trader, “maybe you were worth a full flagon of piss-water after all? But that’s neither here nor there. I called you up because we’ll have to stop for a spell. Dust storm’s a passin’ through shortly.”
I judged we were about half way to the destination, and it seemed Samuel was right. The wind was becoming rather rough, and the horses were getting restless.
“We’ll make for the highest ground and hold there. You do what you can to keep the horses calm.” The man chortled at me, “I think they can sense how harmless you are, and it comforts them.”
“Right,” I replied, cheerlessly.
I think I might have refused the drink, had I the foresight to know I’d be the butt of every joke along the journey, but here I was, with a caravan in the middle of nowhere, and a storm was approaching.
The horses did seem glad for my company as we huddled on the top of the hill. The wind picked up and howled powerfully and the air was full of dirt and dust. The storm was intense but brief, and after about a half an hour or less, it had dissipated.
I approached Samuel, who sat upon his wagon, wearing an uncharacteristic frown.
“Anything damaged,” I inquired.
“Hmm? Oh Scarecrow, it’s you.. no, nothing like that. Maybe something worse though.”
He was looking far down the road. I could see a black speck, moving swiftly.
“One rider?” I asked, with a shrug, “What’s the big deal. You have a small army.”
“Hmm..” was all Samuel said in reply, and handed me a bronze spyglass.
I accepted the tool and peered through it, for a better look at the rider. A figure in a dust cloak rode on a dark horse, and seemed to be coming in our direction. I was about to hand the spyglass back when I caught sight of another dust cloud. A second rider, similar to the first was also approaching, from a different direction. I swung the spyglass slowly in an arc. Another third dust cloud. A fourth.
“How many do you count?” asked the trader, with concern.
“Four,” I replied.
“And there could be more we don’t see.” The trader agreed, grimly, “Clever, they used the storm as a veil to get on top of us. We must use what time they’ve left us to prepare.”
Samuel DeCaire ordered the wagons to form a triangle at the top of the hill.
I stood nearby, gripping my dagger in my good hand, my missing arm concealed beneath the dust cloak. I hoped I looked dangerous.
“Your weapon isn’t much, but I guess it’ll have to do.” worried Samuel, “Does it have a name. All good weapons should have a name.”
I thought about it for a moment, and then gave a chuckle.
“Toothpick,” I said, “The blade is called Toothpick.”
Samuel smirked, “How appropriate. Get in your position, and let us hope you don’t need to pick any teeth today.”
Samuel DeCaire positioned his guards in a circle around the wagons. Since I was the most useless, I was stationed furthest from the approaching strangers, told to keep my dagger out and my mouth shut.
Perhaps sensing that they had lost the element of surprise, the four riders came together side by side, and began to approach the Caravan.
Samuel DeCaire stood defiantly in front of the Caravan, and leaned on a knobby shillelagh, which seemed equal parts weapon and walking stick. The other two drivers stood back slightly, each having a blade sheathed, but within reach. The caravan guards were on edge, blade in hand, waiting for the slightest indication of violence.
From where I was standing, I couldn’t see the riders, but I could still hear them.
“Hail travellers,” spoke the merchant, in what seemed an engaging tone, “I see you’ve been riding hard behind the storm. You’d best press on, if you want to reach the city before nightfall.”
I could hear the riders horses pacing at the front of the caravan.
What I heard next was a lyrical voice, and fear rose up in my stomach like a knot of bile.
“Hail merchant,” greeted the musical tone, “Please tell your men to stand at ease. We’ve no interest in harming your caravan.”
“Is that a fact?” returned the squat merchant, with an air of sarcasm, “Well, I don’t pay my men to stand at ease, so I think they’ll just stay uneasy, if it is all the same to you.”
“We’re not bandits,” argued the musical voice, gently, “We’re merely seeking for someone - a friend.”
“I haven’t seen anyone who looks like that.” replied the merchant in a steady tone.
“I didn’t even tell you what he looks like yet.” came the lyrical voice, now with a hint of irritation.
“You told me he looks like a friend of yours.” Samuel, reminded the man, “You’ve approached my caravan in an attack formation. Nobody here is a friend of yours.”
I heard the horses shuffle. Perhaps even the horses were nervous at the situation. Everything was very tense.
“Listen,” said Samuel DeCaire, “I’m a merchant by trade. That means you can’t out-bullshit me, so why don’t you tell me what you really want.”
After a brief pause, the musical voice responded. It maintained the musical quality, but all hint of friendliness was gone.
“Very well. There is a man with a scar upon his cheek. He is missing his left arm. He is an outlaw and we believe he is headed this way. There is a bounty on his head, and we are going to collect it.”
“Ah,” responded Samuel Decaire, suddenly taking on a much more relaxed demeanour, “Why didn’t you just come out and say so. I met such a man.”
My fingers gripped onto Toothpick until my knuckles were ready to burst out of the skin. I thought about running, but where would I run to? I wouldn’t make it ten feet.
“Do tell,” responded the musical voice, regaining some of its friendliness.
“I met him in a bar, in the city. The poor sod didn’t have a penny to his name, and get this. He asked if I wanted him to be a guard in my caravan!”
What could I do against 4 riders? Particularly without help from Sam or his men. He was selling me just like anything else. Of course he was. Why not? He was a merchant, and he’d bought me fair and square. Half a man for half a flagon of ale.
I looked down at my hand, where it gripped tightly on the hilt of my dagger. I couldn’t fight them off, no… but I could turn the blade on myself. Die on my own terms. My hand began to move, to twist the blade inwards, but then I felt another hand rest upon it.
I looked up. The guard next to me – I think his name was Paul – had placed his hand over mine, and was pushing my hand gently back down. He shook his head very gently, and tapped his finger to his ear.
“Can you believe it?” Samuel was saying, “One armed beggar thought he could be a caravan guard? Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing you’ve heard? The barkeep and I pissed our pants laughing. But you know, I took pity on the poor fool, and gave him half my ale. It’s just warm piss, but seeing how downtrodden he was, I wouldn’t be surprised if the bastard is still sitting there nursing it.”
The horses were moving.
“Thank you for your information,” spoke the musical voice.
It was growing closer to where I was standing.
“And if you do come across the one armed man again, I’d strongly advise you to kill him. Don’t be deceived by his appearance. He’s as dangerous as they come.”
I stood still as a stone, gripping my blade as the riders galloped past, in the direction we had traveled from. I thanked every God that came to mind for the cloak that was hiding my arm and my face.
As the last rider past, he glanced in my direction. His face was concealed beneath a black mask.
Samuel DeCaire ordered the caravan to maintain the defensive position, until the riders were long out of sight.
“Do you know who they were?”
“Py’Rai, I should think. Or at least, the leader was. Bloody elves! And leave it to Samuel DeCaire to pick the one Scarecrow with a bounty on his hide.”
Was that it? The men in the black cloaks and masks were trying to collect some bounty? But why would I have a bounty on my head? I was nobody.
“They were bounty hunters, then?” I asked, doubt clouding my voice.
The rotund merchant shrugged, “Maybe yes, maybe no. Heck, you tell me, you’re the one they wanted.”
The little man rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “For Py’Rai to be bounty hunters is not unusual. Their philosophy revolves around balance. They figure a bounty hunter restores the balance by eliminating the source of imbalance. Oddly enough, a lot of them seem to think that means solving problems with violence. Go figure.”
We did not travel together much further. The caravan halted at an old bent tree, a lonely sentinel on the dusty highway.
“I think it best we part ways here.” Spoke Samuel, grimly, “Truly, half a flagon of ale for half a man for half a journey seems a little fairer than our original deal. Here I thought you were the cheapest of labour, but now… now I fear the price to hire you may be higher than I can bear.”
“You could have just let them have me.” I agreed. "And I thought you were really going to... why did you tell them so much?"
"The most convincing lie is the closest to the truth. I could have let them have you, could have yes… “ mused the man, “Should have, probably - but if I earned a reputation for selling out my workers, what man with one arm or two would ever agree to guard my caravans again?”
I could see his point, and it was one I was very thankful for.
I said my goodbyes. The guards and other drivers seemed a bit more personable, now that they’d witnessed my life being just barely spared.
“We’ll be taking the west road from here, and come into the city from the far side” said Samuel DeCaire. “I wish you good fortune on your journey, Scarecrow, and I hope we never meet again.”
“I’d drink to that,” I agreed, “If there were anything to drink.”
We parted with a handshake, and I continued south alone
Before long the caravan was only a speck on the horizon, and finally vanished from sight.
Thanks for your comments!
The Song of the Sons of Solin
I was greeted at a pair of stone columns that served as the gateway to the community. Strange characters were carved into the columns, in what may have been a different language. Not that it much mattered to me.
The Dwarves who met me looked very similar to each other, and I quickly discovered that they were brothers.
“I’m Rorin, that’s Glumbin,” advised one of the Dwarves, and I immediately forgot which one was which. “We welcome you to the Bastion of Solin.”
As bastions went, it left a lot to be desired.
The Dwarven community was constructed very chaotically. I could see a certain effort had been made to bring in materials from elsewhere and build some genuine housing, but for the most part, domiciles seemed to be constructed from animal skins.
The central building in the community was fashioned of wood, which had likely been imported, for that purpose – no other building seemed to be made from the same material. This was a huge log cabin, which seemed to serve as some kind of dining hall.
Rorin and Glumbin took me to the dining hall entrance, but then advised that weapons were not permitted inside.
I can’t say I felt terribly worried as I surrendered Toothpick to the pair. It wasn’t going to do me much good.
Once inside, I found that the Dwarves either had a double standard, or a very curious concept of what qualified as a ‘weapon’. Nearly every dwarf I met, and there were plenty of them, had a hammer strapped to his belt, which could have easily crushed my skull. The table was set for a feast, and each place setting included a serrated knife which made Toothpick look like a… toothpick.
Various Dwarves made their introductions.
“Lobin, how do you do?”
“Scruvin, how do you do?”
“Parvin, how do you do?”
“I do very well,” I told them all, as their names mixed together in a jumble.
In due time, I was led to the head of the table, where a rather eccentrically dressed Dwarf surveyed the room. To me he looked not unlike a Shepard appraising sheep.
This, I was informed, was the leader of the family, and his name was Osrin.
Osrin was clad in blue velvet, with black trim, and bedecked with all manner of gold and silver and bronze. While the other Dwarves wore simple or practical clothing, Osrin was dressed to be visible. He had also surrounded himself with food. He was obese, even by dwarf standards.
Unlike the rest, he didn’t ask me how I did. Instead it was “Doesn’t anyone feed you?”
I was sat down next to him, and given a full cup of mead, and a plate full of meats and cheeses and fruits. Recalling just earlier that day I couldn’t have afforded a cup of ale, I was floored by the banquet bestowed on me.
“Go on, consume,” invited Osrin, “Nobody every accomplished anything useful on an empty stomach.”
Grateful, I dug into my portion, and a number of other Dwarves came to take a seat at the table, all merrily laughing and eating and joking about. Osrin’s attention was elsewhere, and I was able to eat uninterrupted, which suited me just fine. I couldn’t have wanted anything more.
At some length, when I was mostly finished, the corpulent old Dwarf gave me what amounted to a more proper welcome. “You have arrived at the house of Solin. I am the master of the house. I hope you will find our hospitality honors our family.”
“Thank you,” I managed, swallowing a flavorful gulp of mead, “I appreciate it. I wish I had a way to repay you, but I’ve very little to my name.”
“A family’s honor is its own reward,” advised Osrin, thumping a pudgy hand to his chest, “What brings a wandering human this way? It is unusual to find such a one travelling alone.”
“Oh.. yes, I did arrive alone, but I was travelling most of the way with a caravan…” I thought of telling him of the men with masks that I encountered on the road, but then decided against it. “I’ve come from the Cloister of the Echo, seeking for a scholar, who knows of the old world.”
“Ah, a Scion of the Echoes,” mused the dwarf, with a glint in his eye, “We’ve not seen one of your sort here in a Balrog’s age.”
“Uh yes…” I wasn’t sure what he meant but I guessed it didn’t much matter, “Do you know where I might find a scholar here with knowledge of the old world? Is there a particular family I should talk to?”
“Particularly Family? Friend, this is the Bastion of Solin.” said Osrin.
I blinked at him. Apparently that was supposed to mean something to me.
“We are all one family.” Elaborated the dwarf, when he saw that I wasn’t following, “The Sons of Solin, at your service… all forty-six of us.”
What a curious thing to think, this entire Dwarven community was actually one individual family.
“Well then,” I decided to cut to the chase, “I have a question for you, and I’m not sure how to ask it delicately.”
The dwarf glanced about the room with a jovial conspiratorial look, “I don’t think there be any delicate folks here for you to offend.” The dwarf advised.
“Fair point,” I said, drawing breath, “Here goes. Did the Dwarves break the world?”
This time it was the fat dwarf’s turn to blink stupidly at me. “Did they Whut now?”
“The Dwarves,” I attempted to elaborate, “Is it true that the Dwarf king went mad and slew the spirit of the fire and … why are you laughing?”
Osrin had burst out laughing as had several others close by.
“Poor lad,” managed Osrin, eventually, “Ye been spending way too much time around Orcs.”
“He probably thinks the moon is made of cheese too!” chortled another dwarf.
“O, It ain’t?” queried a third, “So where’d this come from then?” I saw that the dwarf in question had placed a piece of cheese over his face, wearing it like a mask.
At length the dwarves regained their composure, and Osrin began to explain, “Orcs are, how shall we put this mildly… primitive.”
“I’ll drink to that!” echoed a dwarf.
“Me twelve! Hic!”
“Aaanyway,” continued Osrin, “The story of the heart of the mountain is something the Niküa made up to frighten children. We respect the Dünir, but our way of life is so much more… alive.. than theirs.”
The old dwarf sighed, “Nevertheless, in every generation of Niküa, there are inevitably children who fancy going back to the mountain. The tale of the Mad King under the mountain was invented to dissuade such flights of fancy… but of course, the orcs got wind of it, and they take it as gospel. No, it was not we Dwarves who broke the world. That was the work of Elves.”
Obviously I was surprised. And more than a little ashamed at having blindly accepted the Orcs’ story, but now I had a chance to learn the truth. “Will you tell me how it happened?”
“Perhaps,” considered the Dwarf, “But if we here are to share such a tale, we should know more about the man who asks… tell us, about your arm.”
I’d thought, given my cloak and what I believed to be my cleverness that my arm might have escaped notice this time, but that was clearly not the case. I decided, given the circumstances, that I wouldn’t bother to hide it, and so I removed my cloak.
There were a few gasps from other Dwarves, clearly less perceptive than their leader. I heard whispers among some about how unfortunate it was, and whether or not I could still swing a hammer.
Balefully, I observed the stump, the question was one I’d been asked again and again, by so many people, but it still bothered me. “It was an accident at work,” was what I would tell people.
“But I’m sure you’d rather I tell you what it MEANS to me?” I added quickly, before the Dwarf could comment.
He merely leaned back, expectantly.
I thought back to the day it had happened. I’d been working in the mill, just doing my job. It was a day just like any other. Work had stopped for the moment, and the boss had put up a sign of some sort. I don’t know what the sign said, and I didn’t like to tell people that I couldn’t read. I guess it was a warning of some sort, but I only realized too late.
“It means … it means that pride is an expensive commodity.”
The dwarf nodded, thoughtfully. And eventually he took a spoon from the table, and made a clamorous noise banging it against his goblet, until the room fell quiet.
“A song.” Commanded Osrin, “A song for our honored guest!”
The room was quiet.
Finally, at the back of the room, a single deep Dwarven voice began to sing deeply and slowly, like a hymn. Gradually a choir of other voices filled in and the song of the dwarves filled the hall.
Oh hear a tale from Dwarven gaol
Of caverns stone and rock and shale
From whence the Dünzenkell most surely hail…
Smoke your pipe and drink your ale
The truth you seek we shall unveil
With boundless cheer, the good Dünir
Forged craft from metal, month by year
With longing for the mountains, so sincere...
Amongst Niküa found no peer
For we most yearned for wild frontier.
On paths untread, our hunters sped.
With no stone caverns overhead.
On wild plains, Niküa, we made our bed…
A people free, our bonds we shed.
And yet free people still know dread.
Children of men, kits in the den
And merry Dwarves upon the fenn
Knew battle loomed, and yet they knew not when…
The Elves and Orcs, at war again
Peace talks had failed, they’d lost their zen.
Freedom of will, meat on the grill
The sons of Solin drank their fill
As skies lit up with magic vile and shrill…
Orcs and elves, they would fight until
Neither side had blood left to spill.
The Elvish faye came Mountain’s way
To plead the Dünir join the fray
But from their mountain home they would not stray…
Elves bade Niküa, come and slay
An order we would not obey.
Wise and Serene, The elvish Queen
Of years three hundred and eighteen
Appealed unto the forest bright and green…
But help from Gods remained unseen
And desperation made her mean.
“The orcs, they yell, the trees, they fell”,
They bade the humans help as well
But human kind would not depart the dell…
“Forest on fire, that awful smell!”
“Orcs are soon coming, sound the bell!”
A human sage, perhaps a mage
Approached her with an ancient page
Forbidden spells which made the Queen enrage…
She sealed the man inside a cage
And yet the man had set the stage.
A henge of stone, a pyre of bone
Things no kind God would e’er condone
The Queen commanded from upon her throne…
The mage had told her she’d be shown
A weapon only Gods had known.
What she became, no Dwarf can name
She tore the earth, and broke the frame
Unleashed a sickness no one else could tame…
We Dwarves do not mean to defame
But Elfkind surely bares the blame.
The world rebelled, the trees were felled
From mountaintops, great fire expelled
Corruption spread and could not be dispelled…
And so we fled the land we dwelled
Yet to return, our hopes high held.
The soothing song came to an end. I’d at once been very focused on it, and yet so lulled by it that I wasn’t absolutely certain I’d stayed awake through the whole thing.
Osrin gathered my attention by waving around a pipe in my face, and began to provide me with a more succinct version of the tale, “We believe that long, long ago, Orc and Elf were brothers… only brothers can quarrel with such ferocity and spite. It really is a sad thing for family to come to such a state. We wanted no part in their quarrel.”
The dwarf let out a puff of blue smoke that formed rings around my head, “But the elves were always haughty and proud, they thought themselves equal to nature, equal to the Gods. The Queen dared enter the Eternal Autumn, where only Gods may tread. In doing so, she unleashed the wrath of nature upon the world, and all were forced to flee, or else perish. The Niküa were fortunate. Many of our Dünir brothers chose to stay and defend, and all perished in the mountain. They are very few, now.”
The dwarf trailed off a moment, staring off into space.
I thought it best not to break his reverie. And so I sat sipping my drink, and watching dwarves make various colors and shapes of smoke with their various pipes.
“The clouds of smoke amuse you,” Osrin asked, after a time.
“T’is the main reason we choose to live here.” The chubby dwarf informed me, with a grin, “It reminds us of home, in the old world. They say that the pipe-masters then had such wondrous stock, and the alchemists would use the same stuff to put on shows of light and color and sound. The Sons of Solin await the time for such things to come again.”
“Again? So you too think that one day there will be a way back?”
The dwarf nodded, “Something like that, an old dwarf can feel in his bones.”
He considered me thoughtfully and added, “Perhaps one day you’ll come with us. The Son’s of Solin are a family, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean we cannot be welcoming to outsiders. Who knows, you could be the next master smith?”
“The one armed smith,” I suggested, blandly.
Osrin shrugged, “Stranger things have happened.”
I smirked, “I think I might be more suited for trading, than creating.”
Then something else occurred to me.
“Hey, did a caravan come through here tonight? The owner was a man named Samuel DeCaire.”
“Hmm? Ah yes.” Said Osrin, giving a nod, “They breezed through some hours ago, must have other stops to make.”
“Ah,” I replied, unsure why I had suddenly had the urge to see the bothersome trader again. “Well, maybe I’ll catch him next time.”
The Cost of a Scarecrow
I decided to stay an extra day with the dwarves, and learn more about their family operation. The idea of joining the Sons of Solin remained absurd to me. I mean, for one thing, they’d have to change the name to ‘The Sons of Solin, plus one useless unrelated not-even-a-dwarf guy’.
In the morning, I was informed that Osrin had business to attend to, but that another dwarf by the name of Pipkin would be showing me around.
Pipkin was a friendly sort, and might have been the youngest Son of Solin. He took readily to the role of tour guide, showing me around the bastion, which was really little more than an outpost.
Everywhere I went, Dwarves were working with the strange blue metal, Aquastaine.
In fact, I wasn’t even convinced that it was metal. A dwarf had given me a pipe to smoke, with the blue Aquastaine powder in it, and it had an aroma that I couldn’t quite describe, but surely it had to be organic?
“Not telling!” squealed Pipkin, with childish delight, “I mean, I could tell you, but-”
I sighed, “Then you’d have to kill me, yes, yes, I get it.”
Pipkin was a bit of a broken record when it came to family secrets.
He wouldn’t tell me where the material was harvested from, since I hadn’t seen anything that looks like a source. He wouldn’t tell me if it was animal or mineral, he wouldn’t tell me how they started smoking the stuff in the first place.
He did have a few tidbits of information to offer.
“Most days we spend the morning collecting it, but some days, like today, we just have a lot of extra, so we can get right to work!”
“Ah, I see, and how do you collect it exactly?”
“Not telling!” chirped the Dwarf, following up predictably with ‘I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you!'
I really wondered if another Dwarf might have been a little less childish than this one, but it was too late to make that trade.
Not all Dwarves worked on the blue material. One dwarf was specifically pounding glowing globs of silver metal into nails. The finished products were organized into piles depending on their size. There were tons of them.
“Is that all he does? Make nails? Doesn’t that get boring?”
“Course not, smithing is never boring!” replied the dwarf, “And nails are doubly exciting! They’re the glue that holds everything else together… except for things held together by actual glue of course… or wax… or tape.. or honey.. or tar..”
Pipkin continued listing a vast quantity of adhesives, and my attention wandered elsewhere.
Dwarves were grinding the Aquastaine into powder, or curving it into bracers, or liquefying it and creating cubic shapes out of it, or perfect spheres. One dwarf was slicing it into paper thin sheets using some kind of machine I hadn’t seen before.
A recent memory rose to the surface. “Hey, I thought you didn’t process this stuff… the caravan master said that you only sell it in its raw form.”
The Dwarf nodded, “Half right. We only trade the unprocessed pieces. Some things just aren’t for sale.”
“Ah,” I said, not knowing what else to say. It was curious though, that the Dwarves clearly were smithing with this material, and yet had no interest in selling the finished product.
The Dwarves as a whole were curious. They lived in the midst of a most inhospitable land, and one that I was very sorry to re-enter when the time came for me to depart the outpost.
Obviously, I was troubled. Whilst I was amongst the Sons of Solin, I had been able to forget a moment that I was a hunted man. Now, just meters outside the stone pillars that served as entryway to the Bastion, I was once again faced with a grim reality.
Somewhere out there people were searching for me, and when they found me, they would kill me.
And there was no girl with violet eyes coming to my rescue.
Grimly, I set foot on the path, heading back the way I came. Perhaps because it was the only way I knew. Going back to the slums never occurred to me.. and why would it? I had been hunted there as well. I had been hunted in the city too, but I felt that the Cloister of the Echo at least, would be a safe haven for me, and maybe I could get some answers.
I was starting to get why they called it a desert. It was deserted by all sensible forms of life, as well as the majority of insensible ones. Even the insects found it too inhospitable to make their home, and had left in search of greener pastures.
I marveled at any sort of life that I found in the wastes, a sapling here, a snake there, some wriggling worms beneath a rock, a mouse-like creature, with long hind legs.
Were they all like me? Out in the wastes, just trying to survive, in a world that didn’t seem to offer them any comfort or safety?
I’d spent a lot of my life alone, but there’s a difference between being left alone with your thoughts and walking through endless nothing.
I think my mind began to play tricks on me. I kept thinking I could see her, Arkey, just up ahead, beckoning me onwards, but when I ran to see, it was just me, alone in the wastes.
The wind picked up, and I was faced with another dust storm. I sought high ground, as before, but warily, for this time I was alone. As the storm raged around me, I kept low to the ground, trying to look like nothing… a rock on the side of the road. The storm passed, and I squinted my eyes scanning my surroundings, but I was alone, near as I could tell. No riders in black masks, no Arkey, just another squall heading my way.
The desolation was full of tempests and dust devils, and I wondered more than once if I should just turn back towards the Bastion of Solin, but even as I wondered, I fancied I saw Arkey beckon me forward a little further, and so I chased, only to find myself alone once more.
Finally, I saw something familiar and welcoming. A caravan, three wagons in a row, halted up next to a large tree. Surely the same tree I had last seen Samuel DeCaire and his caravan at, as we parted ways en route to the Dwarven outpost.
I wondered if it was the same caravan? I began to pick up the pace, and I could see smoke rising from a little fire pit. Perhaps they had made camp there, due to the storms.
I hesitated. Would DeCaire be happy to see me? Would he turn me away? When we had parted, he had definitely not seemed keen on my company any more, and who could blame him? I hadn't exactly brought him good fortune.
I wondered how I should approach the caravan. I expected they must have seen me by now anyways, knowing how careful Samuel was with his Caravan runs. I expected it didn’t matter, they were stopped along the only road, so I would reach them one way or another.
“Ouch!” I exclaimed, as I struck my toe against something on the road. A large rock, no doubt.
I glared down at the offending object, and was a bit surprised to find a large blue chunk of Aquastaine.
Much as I’d seen the stuff at the Dwarven camp, I hadn’t actually occasioned to hold a piece before. As annoyed as I was at stubbing my toe on it, I had to admit it was a beautiful thing to find in such an empty land. It had a scaly quality too it, almost like snake skin, but it was way too hard and thick to be anything other than a rock.
I wondered what its value would be?
Surely it had fallen from the Caravan. Perhaps if I brought it to DeCaire he would see fit to let me travel with them again.
With that idea in mind, I once again picked up the pace towards the caravan where it waited next to the old crooked tree.
Smoke from the fire carried the fragrant smell of cooked meat, and I anticipated the possibility of a full meal. Perhaps the Aquastaine would be worth that much to Samuel? I found myself trying to think of ways to haggle about it. Trying to think of all the things I’d seen the Dwarves working on… if I could convince DeCaire that this rock had more value…
I paused in my thought.
The smell of meat cooking mingled with something much less pleasant, and I looked up to discover the source.
The Aquastaine tumbled from my fingers, landing on the ground with a muted thud.
“By the gods!”
It was the stuff of nightmares.
Throats slit, the six guards lay neatly in a row, looking as though they’d been executed, rather than died in battle.
The caravan had been left to stand, but the wagons had been ransacked.
Swinging from the tree, a trio of ropes, each one hung around the neck of a caravan driver.
In the middle, Samuel DeCaire, face twisted in and distorted, swung to and fro.
The only solace was that the horses seemed to have escaped, for I saw no sign of them.
I felt myself dry heaving. The urge to vomit was there, but I had nothing to throw up.
Tacked to the Samuel Decaire's tunic was a piece of parchment, with a message scrawled upon it.
I ripped the note from the dead man’s, chest, my hand shaking, and I nearly dropped it. Unable to continue looking at the swinging body of the merchant, I turned away, my entire body quivering, and focused on the words, trying to make sense of them.
I might as well have stared at a stone, for all the secrets they gave up; I was no less illiterate today than I had been the day before. I crumpled it up and shoved it in my pocket.
I didn’t need a note to get the message.
All nine men, guards and drivers included, had been amputated, their left arms removed. They had protected the one armed scarecrow, and had been punished in kind.
The smell of cooked meat came from the smouldering fireplace. I didn’t need to look to know what I smelt, but I looked anyways. How could I look away? It was too gruesome to ignore. Some were now nothing but bits of blackened bones, others still had the flesh hanging from them.
Not knowing what else to do, I kicked sand onto the fire pit, choking out the last of the coals. It was the closest thing to a burial I could offer these poor men. The fire was old, but I had no reason to believe I was safe. After this, how would I ever feel safe again?
I had to keep moving, and the open road no longer felt like an option.
Feeling like a thief, I quickly rummaged through the caravan, looking for anything edible or drinkable. I found only a leather water skin, and a few morsels of stale bread. The wagon train had been thoroughly cleared out, and that which wasn't taken was ruined beyond use.
I retrieved the chunk of Aquastaine from where i'd dropped it. There were empty packs, but someone had cut the straps, and they too were useless. I spared a moment to evaluate the stone. Who knew what it might be worth? It could be my lifeline, If I could get it back to the city.
But carrying it now, in my only hand...?
It would just slow me down.
Once again, I let the large chunk of Aquastaine tumble from my fingertips, and this time it stayed where it fell.
There were two paths I knew of that would invariably lead to the city.
The road, on the one hand and on the other, the winding river Skyre, that flowed south-east from the city, through uninhabitable marshlands.
The road was a straighter path, swifter and simpler to follow, but would almost certainly lead me to the same fate as that of the caravan.
I glanced back towards it.
Now that the fire was out and the smoke had died down and there were birds, big black crows and ravens feasting on the remains of the dead. Others gathered in the tree, eyeing the bodies that still swung slightly in the breeze, in an effort to determine if they might be food or not.
One black bird, a little smaller than the others seemed to be having a little trouble getting his share, as the birds were quite violent with one another.
As I watched the small bird, it likewise turned its attention to me, flying up in the air and circling above my head.
“Away! I’m not dead, you wretched thing.” I moaned, “Not just yet , I’m not.”
No, the road was not an option.
The road broke north and west, so I turned east, knowing that if I travelled long enough, I should surely reach the Skyre, and the marshlands should provide me with some cover at least. I felt horribly exposed out here on the road.
“Gawwwww!” croaked the bird, landing not far away on a rock formation.
“Gawwww yourself,” I sneered. Some scarecrow I turned out to be.
Seeming disappointed with my response, the bird once again took to the air, and made his way back over to try his luck again with the caravan.
On the one hand, I felt a little rotten, having left the dead in the grisly state I found them.
A one armed man, with no shovel, and with enemies real or imagined, lurking around every corner, what could I really do to help?
I took some small comfort in my recollection of Orc lore.
The Vek Orcs believe that crows and ravens are spirits that are sent to guide the souls of the lost and the dead..
..by releasing them from the bonds of the flesh.
What a gruesome thought.
I wandered eastward, maybe for three hours, maybe for four. The sky was dark and threatening. Behind me, an expanse of nothingness, peppered here and there with a rock, or a shrub. Ahead the soil beneath my feet no longer seemed stable. Dead trees protruded from the ground at odd angles, I judged they hadn’t sprouted a leaf in years, and most were rotted, covered with moss or fungus or both.
I wondered if any of it was edible. I’d only found a bit of stale bread at the caravan, and that was a few hours gone now. I didn’t know a great deal about fungus, but I knew that a lot of it was poisonous, so I decided not to chance it.
The land here was dead and rotting, but surely that was a sign that I was entering the fenlands to the south-east of the city. If I turned north, I would eventually meet the river, and I could follow it home.
What a strange thing to think. The city wasn’t my home. Indeed, I was without a home now. The city was just a place that seemed as though it might offer some safety. Maybe that’s all a home really is. Somewhere to let your guard down. I sure as hell couldn’t do that out here.
I’d been wandering a long time, and through part of it, I felt as though those eyes were upon me again.. the same feeling I’d gotten when I was still in the city. I didn’t have any spyglass for distance, but I’d kept scanning the horizon, and had yet to see a soul.
Now, the dead trees were there, to provide some kind of cover, and I walked more slowly, keeping low to the ground. I felt eyes upon me, or eyes searching for me. It may have been paranoia, but then again, it may not have been. Or maybe in some way, I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Arkey, as I thought I had in the desert. But out here amongst dead trees, it was just me and the softly humming swarms of gnats.
Gradually, I made my way into boggy territory. I places, the footing was becoming treacherous. I still had no sign of the river, but there were pools and puddles and marshes and quagmires aplenty.
As it grew darker, I wondered if I should stop for the night, but I found the way forward was not so dark after all. The fens themselves provided a kind of dull greenish light, and so I kept travelling as dusk set in.
At length, the last of the sun’s rays had gone beyond the horizon, and I was forced to stop. I chose an area with as many dead trees as I could find, for there was no other shelter. I hadn’t found anything to eat, and my stomach was rumbling. My water skin was nearly finished. It was not going to be a fun evening.
I sat beneath a tree and began to think about everything that had happened.. trying to make sense of it. Arkey showing up in the slums, leading me on a chase and then dropping me in some field.. the cloister of the echo, and it’s strange inhabitants, the Elves in their masks, chasing me and killing those I travelled with… even the Dwarves with their weird culture. It all jumbled together in my mind, adding up to nothing. It all felt connected, but it was like a few pieces of a puzzle, and I was missing the rest.
I was distracted from my train of thought by a softly glowing yellow light, that didn’t seem to be that far ahead of where I was. Had they found me?!
I fumbled for my dagger, and crouched low to the ground. The light source grew dimmer, then brighter again, then dimmer. It didn’t seem to be moving, so much as pulsing.
I considered my options. If it was bounty hunters come for me, I didn’t suppose I had much of chance, but I’d seen them, and presumably they hadn’t seen me.. yet. I saw no opportunity for escape, and so I determined that my best move was to try to use the element of surprise.
Moving as silently as I knew how, I began to move towards the source of the light. I circled around to the side, but found the way blocked by swamp. The light source, though still oscillating between bright and dim, did not seem to have moved.
Could it really be my luck that my pursuers had gotten this far, and just decided to set up camp? The idea itself was too ridiculous.
Moving along the water’s edge, I grew steadily closer to the light source.
Nobody was there. The light source had shone brightly, and then gone dim once again. Dagger drawn, I approached.
There was no camp site, no bounty hunters on my trail. Nothing. And the dim source of the light seemed to be beneath the water at the edge of the marsh.
Curiosity got the better of me, and I peered into the water. Down deep, deeper than I expected to be able to see, there was a soft glow. I wondered what it could be. The swampy water around it was slightly illuminated by it.
I leaned in a little closer, and it seemed to me that the glowing was growing closer to me as well. It almost seemed to glitter and sparkle in the darkness.
It was getting closer, rising to the surface. It passed several white branches, illuminating them on its way up towards me. It was getting brighter.
Brighter still, it passed another white branch, but this branch had a strange curved shape that was eerily familiar.
And then the light passed a skull.
I stumbled back, from the swamp’s edge, just as the light reached the surface, and popped in a great gaseous bubble.
I was a fool!
Instantly I began to feel dizzy.
I had heard of this kind of thing before, how had I not seen it for what it was?
I stumbled, backwards, trying to steady myself, and back away from the water’s edge. Everything was going numb.
I put a little distance between myself and the water, before my legs gave way. My eyes began to lose focus, and the world went dark.
I dreamed a twisted dream, one of running and being chased, of giant orcs and laughing dwarfs and cruel elves. All the while, the ravens circled overhead, waiting for their chance to feast on my entrails. To lead my poor lost soul to the afterlife.
I dreamed of hateful elves in black masks, tying me to a stone table, and approaching me with a branding stick.
I screamed at them, but all they would do was chant:
“Scarecrow…. Scarecrow… scarecrow…”
The elf in the mask looked down upon me. I could not tell where the mask ended and his face began. Maybe the mask was his face.. yet still he chanted with that familiar musical voice ‘Scarecrow’.
The brand came down upon my cheek, and as it burned, I screamed.
My eyes fluttered open. The sky was light, and I had a horrible burning sensation on my cheek. Something was moving on it!
I raised my arm, my aching arm, to contend with whatever creature had taken a hold of me.
“Gawww!” cried the creature, taking to the skies in a flurry of black feathers. It landed atop a nearby rotted tree, and scrutinised me, disparagingly.
It was a raven, the same smaller one from the day before.
I touched my hand to my cheek and it came away dirty and bloody. The blasted bird had mistaken me for dead, and had decided to make a meal of me, starting with my wounded cheek. It was sure to get infected now.
“You have got to be freaking kidding me..” I exclaimed.
Although remembering what had happened, I knew that I was lucky to be alive.
Only seeing the skull beneath the water had saved me. Otherwise, I’d have taken the full brunt of the swamp gas, and likely have fallen into the water, like the previous victim had. Although I had never encountered it before, I had heard about flesh eating algae that appeared as glowing lights in the water, preying on whatever beast or human was stupid enough to investigate.
It was bad enough to be hunted, but in this moment it felt like like the planet itself was looking to end me. But it hadn’t succeeded.
Not yet anyway. I touched my cheek again. I didn’t know a thing about medicine, but I knew that a wound like this, at the very least, needed a thorough washing, if I didn’t want to die from it.. more likely I needed a healer. But how far was I from the city?
Not far in front of me, I saw a bubble pop out of the bog. I hadn’t made it very far once the gas had hit me. I would have to be even more careful now in the daylight, where such gas bubbles didn’t give themselves away by their glow.
I wondered if I should try to recuperate a little longer before I tried to move. My muscles ached, perhaps from being passed out all night on an uncomfortable root, or perhaps form the gas.
“Leave me alone you blasted thing,” I exclaimed to the bird.
But as I shot my glare at it, I saw that the raven wasn’t cawing at me anymore…
The raven had its back to me, and was cawing down at a figure moving towards my position.
A figure clad in black from head to toe.
A figure with its face concealed beneath a cruel black mask.
A figure with a short bow.
My eyes bugging out like a goldfish, I ducked, just in time to evade an arrow whizzing by my head.
My body was still aching, but I made it up, and leapt behind some of the dead trees. Another arrow whizzed by, burying itself in the rotten wood.
It was probably the furthest thing from my mind, but I owed that bloody bird a debt of gratitude.
My heart was racing. I forced myself to be still, but I could hear the thumping of my heart in my chest.
That, and nothing more.
The raven had fallen silent, raven or crow, or whatever it was. What could I do now? I gripped onto toothpick, and tried to slow my breathing.
The whole marsh had gone quiet. And somewhere out there, an assassin was just waiting for me to make the wrong move… or finding a better angle to shoot at me from.
My head turned, eyes darted left and right, but the same trees that concealed me also rendered me blind.
I ran through my other senses.
Smell – the peaty deterioration of the swamp was all around me, offering no hint of anything but decay.
Taste – the metallic taste of blood was on my tongue, having trickled into my mouth from the open wound on my cheek. The urge to wipe my hand against it was strong, but I dared not release my dagger for anything.
Touch – the hard discomfort of the knobby tree at my back, and the gentlest of breezes played along my skin, but my flesh had turned to goosebumps, in anticipation and fear.
Sight – there was nothing to see but the stillness of the woods. I lacked eyes in the back of my head, to see the enemy behind me.
All my other senses having failed me, I strained my ears to hear any sound of approach or movement.. the snap of a twig, the scrape of cloth on wood, the whoosh of an arrow taking flight, the popping of a bubble of swamp gas.
The sound of a sword being drawn.. and seemingly from right behind me!
Instinct took over and I rolled forwards, just as the pointed tip of a steel blade thrust from between the trees into the space I’d occupied moments earlier, impaling itself into the log I’d been crouching on.
Finding my feet, and blade in hand, I rounded the trees, to see my assailant retrieving their blade.
The masked killer turned to me, blade in hand, and stood up straight. He was shorter than I’d expected, but the sword he wielded was certainly long enough.
I held my dagger in front of me. I still felt unsteady after the toxin I’d been exposed to.
My assailant had a quiver attached to his shoulder, and a bow now slung to his back. In his right hand, the sword that had nearly skewered me, and in his left, a bronze sphere, the sort of which I had seen once before.
This one looked a little more mechanical somehow, but the design was clearly of the same origin as the cylindrical device held by the man who had attacked me in the city.
Although this man clearly had the intent to kill me, he nevertheless paused, and considered the sphere in his hand. I heard a clicking sound, and the top of the sphere seemed to open. After a moment’s consideration the man snapped the sphere shut, and placed it somewhere in the folds of his dark cloak.
Desperately, I held the dagger towards him, “Leave me alone!” I cried, “You just leave me alone! I haven’t done anything!”
Unlike the man in the city, this assassin merely pointed at me with his weapon, and gestured for me to come at him.
As though I’d chosen this fight?!
Now we stood in the clearing, with the dead trees on our left and the swamp on our right. Just the two of us, our own little arena in the wilderness.
Okay, not just the two of us. The crow broke the silence, settling onto the highest branch in the tree.
Some scarecrow I turned out to be.
We began to move in a circle, never taking our eyes off each other, each waiting for the other to make the first move. I stared at him and he stared at me. I looked for any sign of his next move, but I was no fighter, and the only reason I was still alive was probably that my opponent didn’t realize that.
As I circled, the other man did too, and his back was to the trees now.. Which I realized meant mine was to the swamp. Knowing that peril now lay in both directions, I held my breath.
The seconds ticked by as I paced slowly in a circle, the poison swamp just behind me, and I finally heard the telltale ‘pop’ of the swamp gas being released behind me and off to the left.
As I finally exhaled, I realized that this was an advantage I had over my opponent. He’d only just arrived, and unless he was some sort of wilderness expert…
I continued circling, until my back was to the trees, my opponent, still looking for the best opening, circled along with me. When I considered he must be nearest to the gas, I paused, and my opponent likewise held his ground.
“Gawwwwww!!” cried the crow up in the tree. Did he understand what was happening on the ground?
I stood there for what felt like an eternity, until I finally heard the telltale ‘pop’ coming from just behind the black clad man.
“Whu-” a muffled exclamation came from the man, and I saw him trying to steady himself. Immediately he dropped the sword, and the bow was in his hand, arrow knocked, he aimed at me, but stumbled, and the arrow flew wide.
A second arrow was already in the man’s hand, but fuzzy fingers made him drop it.
Quickly he reached for it, or tried too. He was having trouble seeing by now, and I dared inch closer.
Somehow h managed to get the second arrow knocked and, down on one knee, he aimed it straight at my chest. The arrow flew, and found its mark. I winced, but need not have, for the arrow had no force behind it, and might as well have been a twig. It bounced off my chest harmlessly.
The man tried to rise, but instead collapsed and lay still.
I waited a good twenty minutes before I dared approach him.
He’d landed on the bow and broken it in two… not that I could have used it. I reached for the long sword, pulling it away from him. The man didn’t move – he was out cold. I hefted the long sword, but I felt it was too heavy to be of any practical use for someone of my skill and ability. I decided the safest option would be to toss it into the water, and so I did.
“Shush!” I reprimanded the raven, and then as an afterthought added, “And thanks…”
The man and black had fallen on his face, leaving exposed his backpack, which I began to poke through daringly. The first thing I found was food, and hunger overtook me. It was just crackers with jam, but to me it felt like the difference between survival and starvation.
It must have looked a curious picture to the crow, the black clad assassin lying face down, bow broken, pack open, and me basically curled up against a tree, feasting on the scraps I’d found.
Then again, maybe this was what a crow thought ‘normal’ looked like. At the moment, I was acting like one of them.
Finally, with something in my belly, I found I had the courage to lift the mask and see my assailant’s face. I tore the guise away, and much to my surprise, instead of the elf man I expected, the face belonged to a young human woman.
She was pretty enough, I supposed, though weather worn and scarred. I could barely fathom what circumstances would possibly have led her to hunt someone like me.
Thinking perhaps to find some more information, I managed to pull her back pack off. Inside were some books, which I couldn’t read, a number of wires and ropes, of the sort that hunters use, some dried herbs and a few tools of the sort that might help in the wilderness. It was possible that the books contained something that would explain the situation, but they were just bricks to me.
That said, I realized I had a unique chance here.
I could ask her myself.
Using the rope and wire that I had recovered from her pack, I did my best to tie her ankles, and tie her wrists behind her back. Tying people’s wrists is a very difficult task for a man with one arm, and I knew that the bonds were not strong, but I had the only weapon now, and I’d be watching her very carefully.
Satisfied that my prisoner was secure as she was going to get, I propped her back up against a tree, and sat myself down on a stump in front of her.
Dagger in hand, pointy end aimed in her direction, I waited.
Many hours had passed, when gradually; the groggy would-be-assassin began to come back to her senses.
She found herself peering down the blade of Toothpick.
Immediately she struggled, but found that her bonds would not break so readily.
“So,” I began.
I’d thought for hours now about what I would say to this woman when she woke. I’d even played out my half of the conversation in my head about fifty times. But now that the moment was here, my tongue felt just as tied as her wrists
“So,” I tried again.
“So.” Echoed the woman, with a mocking jeer.
“Gawwww!” cried the raven.
“Cawwww.” came another voice from above. The birds were gathering again. Only this time nobody was dead… yet.
“So, tell me who you are.” I demanded, rather weakly, given that I was the one holding the knife to her throat.
She stared back at me hatefully.
“Tell me!” I demanded, with a bit more vivacity, “Don’t think I won’t do it!”
I raised the blade so it was at her eye level, hardly a few inches from her face. She stared at it, but the look in her eyes wasn’t one that I associated with fear.
It was more like calculation.
“How long was I out?” she said, at last.
“What? Why does that matter!?” I returned, and waved the blade in her face again, “Tell me who you are!”
“Everything matters.” She replied, with a bit of a smirk on her face. “My name matters to me. If you must call me something, you may call me the Huntress.”
“Well, the Huntress,” I responded, with a meanness creeping into my voice, “It turns out you’re not living up to your name.”
Or had she? I thought, as I remembered the caravan.
“There were good people in that Caravan.” I added, with a bitter tone, “They didn’t have to die! Why couldn’t you just leave them alone?”
At this, the woman actually laughed. “I suppose you found our message?”
“I got your damn message loud and clear! What kind of sick person laughs at a massacre like that?” I demanded.
The woman stopped laughing, and glared at me pointedly, “We warned them that they should have killed you. They chose to ignore our warning. It is just like a Scion of the Echoes, to dole out blame, and take none upon himself.”
A Scion of the Echoes. The Dwarves had called me that too..
“What is a Scion on the Echoes?” I inquired of her.
She considered the look on my face, and the intensity of my words.
“An ignorant fool, apparently,” replied the woman, eventually. “Listen then, if you have ears. For the old words said, some day the earth will weep. She will beg for her life, she will cry with tears of blood. You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die, and when she dies you too will die.”
Choices saving or ending worlds? It sounded to me like she was talking about the Determinant. Was a Scion of the Echoes the same thing?
“I made the choice!” I exclaimed, waving my dagger dangerously close to her face, “I saved the world! I didn’t let it die! Why are you crazy people still chasing me!?”
The woman sneered at me, “Those words are not for this world. Those words were for the world that was forsaken.”
The world that was… could it be possible? Did another Determinant bring about its destruction?
“I’ve told you something,” offered the woman, her voice taking on a bit of a scheming tone, “Now tell me, what time is it?”
I glared at her, “You haven’t told me anything. I don’t know what stupid time it is! You were out for a few hours. What does it matter?”
“Everything matters, Scion.” She replied, grimly. “Every question and every answer.”
“I’m not the Scion!” I pleaded, “I made the choice… I spared the world, and now I’m nobody!”
Now the woman actually looked sad.
“Would that that were true,” she said, after some consideration. “One choice is nothing. Every path of the Scion leads eventually to the destruction of this world. A Scion must be destroyed, no matter what intentions he claims to harbour in his heart.”
“But… but I promise,” I moaned, “I don’t want to destroy the world! Can’t you people just let me be??”
“Listen, before your tongue makes you deaf!” demanded the woman, sharply.
A pretty forceful choice of words for a person bound with a blade in their face.
“Sure,” the woman continued, “There were some who argued for leniency. Humans like you and I mostly. Children, who lack the foresight or comprehension to understand what needs to be done. They said ‘He chose to spare this world, we should spare him in kind’. But you couldn’t just leave it there could you? Of course you couldn’t. A Scion of the echoes never does.”
I didn’t understand what she was trying to say.
“I can leave it there!” I insisted.
“It’s too late for that,” replied the woman, “We know that you have been asking questions about the destruction of the forsaken world. With every answer given, you become that much more dangerous.”
“Now.” The woman asked, as I struggled to process what she was saying, “How long was I unconscious?”
“Five hours…” I muttered, “What does it matter?”
The woman spat and hit me on the forehead. It dribbled downwards and into my eye.
I lifted my hand to wipe it away, and as I did, she moved. Somehow she’d gotten her arms loose, behind her and in a swift motion she pushed me back, and struggled to her feet.
But her ankles were still tied, and in a moment she tumbled to the muddy floor once again.
Out of her robes, the bronze sphere rolled, and she reached for it, but I was on top of her, with my dagger to her throat.
I’d forgotten about the damned sphere! How stupid could I have been. The orb was just out of her reach.
She eyed the device, and eyed my dagger. My eyes too darted back and forth between her and the orb.
“What is it!” I demanded, “What does it do?”
Beneath me, the woman shrugged, “Maybe a weapon. Maybe not. Will you take that chance?”
I saw her fingers flexing, just inches away from the orb.
My dagger blade pricked her throat, drawing a tiny bead of blood, “Don’t do it!” I warned, “I swear! I’ll end you.”
“We’ll end each other,” she spoke, with a grim and accepting chuckle, “I could not end you with my life, but with my death, perhaps.”
“Don’t!!!” I exclaimed, as she moved to reach for it.
I thrust my dagger downwards, into her pale throat, before her fingers could close around the orb. It surprised me just how easily the blade penetrated the skin, as crimson sprayed upwards.
“Gawwwwwww!” cried the ravens up in the tree, a small flock now observing the goings on below.
Beneath me the woman coughed a flow of crimson. Her eyes opening and closing laboriously.
I stumbled to my feet, bloody dagger in hand.
“Why did you do that!” I demanded, disbelievingly, “Why did you make me do that!? I didn’t want to do that!”
Her eyes fluttered open one last time, and stayed that way, staring upwards. I was yelling at a corpse.
“Gawwww!” shouted an excited raven, its cry echoed by a few others.
I found myself pacing in front of her body.
I’d never killed before. I hadn’t wanted to. She had forced my hand. I felt weakened by it. My arm, not the one holding the dagger, but the one that was just a stump seemed to ache, more than usual. Again I yelled at her.
“I didn’t want to!” I cried, “I could have done what you asked for! I could have stopped! This didn’t have to happen.”
“Gawwww! Gawwww!” echoed the crows.
There was another sound. Neither my shouting, nor that of the crows. A humming sound.
A foot away from the body, the bronze sphere lay in the mud. It seemed to me like a red glow was emitting from it, and it was humming softly. Had it been doing that before? I didn’t think so.
Was it a weapon of some kind, as she had suggested? I reached towards it hesitantly. It felt warm to my hand.
On the top of the sphere, or what I assumed was the top, was a small brass button. I pushed it, and the sides of the sphere flew open.
Staring up at me was what I could only describe as a malevolent burning eye.
The red Iris moved around inside the sphere, always staring at me, staring into me.
I knew this feeling. The feeling of being watched from afar, except now it wasn’t from afar, it was right there in my hand. And what before had been a feeling of subdued malevolence was now one of pure raw focused hatred.
I quickly shut the sphere.
I knew it hadn’t been acting like that when she found me earlier. It had changed somehow. After I shut it, I could still feel it watching me… but worse than that, I could feel others. Others like it, far away, but nevertheless, watching me. Tracking me. Hunting me.
I had to keep moving.
I shouldered the woman's pack as best I could, leaving behind the things that didn’t seem of any use to me. I decided to keep the sphere with me. Maybe the Vek astronomers at the cloister could make some sense of it… if I could make it back to the city before other hunters found me.
My first instinct was to roll the woman’s body into the water, and I even made a start, but found the small raven standing between me and the water, cawing at me angrily… or with disappointment?
Some scarecrow I turned out to be.
I considered what I was doing.
Nature would have the corpse, either way. Either the toxic algae would claim her, or the birds... And somehow, with all that had happened, I felt like I owed the ravens something for their trouble.
Sure, they’d gnawed on my cheek, but in doing so they had probably saved my life.
And maybe the Vek were right about ravens guiding the soul to the afterlife.
Or maybe, considering what had happened to the caravan, this was simply justice.
It didn’t feel like it.
“I’m sorry.” Was all I managed to say, as I turned and continued my journey towards the river.
Oblivious to my words, the black birds descended upon their dinner with glee.
Of Hunting and Turtle Soup
A little less than an hour’s travelling brought me to the river’s edge. I splashed some water on my face, blinking blearily. I don’t know if it was the wound festering on my cheek, or some longer term effects of the swamp gas, or just something that had happened during the fight, but I was in a bad way.
My forehead was burning, my stump arm was aching. Sometimes the arm got that way a little bit when bad weather was coming, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and this was much worse than I could ever recall. The sun was beating down, and I was burning up.
I left the backpack by the side of the river, along with toothpick and my clothes and submerged myself on the crisp flowing water. The impact of it felt like ice and fire running headlong into each other, but it soothed the burning, and it eased the pain at my temples.
I dressed and ate what food there was, but I still felt famished. My energy was draining away, and I reckoned that I was still a couple of leagues south from the city.
I trudged alongside the river for about thirty minutes, before my head seriously began to throb again. I made an attempt to keep moving, but nausea set in and soon I found myself weakly bent over the river, heaving up what little food I’d eaten.
I lay there at the river’s edge, contemplating death.
It was actually a topic I’d spent quite a lot of time pondering, over the years. It never seemed very far away. Certainly not in the slums, but ever since I’d left them, it also seemed to stalk me at every turn. Maybe it was time to stop running, and just let death have its way?
But at the same time, I’d just fought for my life, and won. The birds had saved me from death, whether by accident or by design, didn’t I owe it to them to survive?
I watched the river, flowing towards the city. I could just swim home if I had two arms.. and if I wasn’t so weak that I could barely move.
I watched the river, and saw a silver fish trying to jump up the stream, against the current.
“Sure, you make it look so easy.” I muttered.
For a moment I thought of trying to catch a fish and eat it. Then a moment later I thought of actually eating a fish and that thought made me nauseous again.
Branches and driftwood floated towards the city, while fish continued to challenge the river. I supposed I had to try, but how was I even to catch a fish?
I rummaged through the pack. The brass sphere was in there, pulsing with a red glow. Although it was shut, I could feel the eye upon me, burrowing into me, even from within its casing. I could almost fancy that the weakness and pain I was feeling were originating there… but surely that was impossible?
There were ropes and some wires – the type that you would use to snare a rabbit, but I didn’t know how I could use one to catch a fish. I fancied maybe I could try to fashion a fishing rod out of it?
A short wet log drifted down the stream, and I noticed something moving on it. A small speckled turtle. Maybe I could make that into my lunch!
But before I could seriously entertain the thought, the turtle was already washing away downstream, sunning itself on a log and surely travelling faster than any turtle he’d ever known.
“Show off.” I complained.
Yep. I was talking to turtles and fish.
No, it was worse than that, I was whingeing and moaning at turtles and fish for doing the things that turtles and fish are supposed to do.
I made my way down to the water’s edge in search of a branch that might make a suitable fishing rod. I’d never even gone fishing in my life, though I’d seen other do it. I knew I realistically didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I thought, perhaps if I can find a branch the right shape and size, the rest will fall into place?
I soon found that I was out of luck though. The current in the river was very effective, and all the thinner branches that might have worked had been washed along downstream. The only wood I found were a number of large chunks of driftwood had found their way to an inlet. They were all far too big and thick to be of any use to me.
I surprised another turtle, sitting on one of the logs, but he quickly disappeared into the river before I could even react.
Unlike the first turtle, this one looked kind of like a log itself. A mossy log. I thought I saw it surface a ways away, merrily drifting downstream, but that might have just been another log.
I sat by the inlet waiting for the turtle to return. Perhaps if I didn’t move, he’d think I was a log too? Maybe he’d climb right up and sit on me?
For a moment I mused, with a life like that, at what point you stop being sure you’re a turtle and start wondering if you’re a log?
I was being ridiculous. I couldn’t catch a turtle; they could clearly just drift along downstream like so much driftwood. I couldn’t catch a fish either. All I had was a bunch of rope and wire, but no branch to fish with. Nothing but logs.
And finally, the obvious donned on me. Trying to be the log was insane. Trying to be the turtle on the other hand, was completely practical. I just needed to fashion a big enough log to sun myself on!
Finding some energy in just the fact of having a plan that didn’t seem completely futile, I set to with the rope and wire, tying the driftwood logs together into a small raft. When I was done, it clearly wasn’t much to look at, but it seemed sturdy enough to hold together.
Around my head I tied a piece of black cloth that I’d dipped in the river. I’m ashamed to say I took it off the Huntress, after she died. But she had no more use of it. The cool water soothed my aching head, but only for a minute before the throbbing returned.
I tossed my pack up on the raft, and pushed it away from the shore, laying on it, and feeling exhaustion take hold. I lay face down on the raft, feet dangling off the end. I’m sure I must have looked quite the fool to anyone watching, but there was nobody to see. My eyes closed and the raft carried me gently along. I listened, and the sound of the water lulled me softly. Aching body aside, it was peaceful. I think I may have even slept a while.
My eyes opened hazily. Another set of eyes peered back at them.
There was a log on my log. A mossy one.
The turtle that looked like a log had joined me on my raft and was sunning itself right in front of me.
My senses returning, I made to reach for it, with what felt like an extraordinarily heavy arm. Everything seemed very slow.
The turtle sensed movement, but stood its ground.
Eventually my hand came within a few inches of it.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “But you’re going to be lunch.”
The turtle pulled its head back in slightly. It looked more and more like a mossy log.
I reached towards it, slowly. Slowly seemed to be all I could manage.
With surprising speed, the turtle’s head shot out and he nipped my finger.
“Ouch!” I cried, pulling it back. The turtle hadn’t drawn blood, but it had hurt nonetheless. “Okay okay, you’re not going to be lunch.”
Emboldened, the turtle took a step towards my finger.
“Hey! I’m not going to be lunch either!” I complained, pulling my hand away.
Nonplussed, the turtle settled back onto the log, and resumed looking like a log itself.
Apparently the turtle had a better sense of his situation than I did. He considered me a non-threat and I daresay he was correct. It was so weak I could barely move.
“So, are you a turtle, or a log?” I asked, after some time had passed.
The turtle poked his head out briefly, as if to self-identify, and then retreated back into his shell.
“Hey, I get it,” I said, to the turtle, “We’re kind of the same you know? I don’t have much either, but I’m carrying it all on my back, and there’s predators out there looking for me too. I wouldn’t mind if they mistook me for a log.”
The turtle made no response, just sat there like a log.
“Yeah, I see what you mean.” I continued, “But at what point do you start wondering if you’re more log than turtle? I mean, how many logs are there out here that used to be turtles but just went log a little too long?”
Perhaps my turtle had joined them. He seemed quite content to be a mossy log at the moment, possibly in an effort to earn my silence.
“Wanna hear a story, log.” I said, wondering if I was as delirious as I sounded. “It’s about a beast called a unicorn. Does that sound fun to you?”
If it did, the log gave no indication.
“The story tells of a beautiful creature of the wilds. It used to live in places like this… places where people didn’t go… scenic rivers, lots of nice trees, fish, turtles, probably.. not sure about log turtles, sorry. Anyways, it was a prince among animals, and no hunter could catch it, for it was too swift for hunters.”
There were more trees now, off to the sides of the river, and the ground seemed more solid. I wondered if we were approaching civilization.
“It was a kind creature though, and it loved the innocent children of men, those too young to be tainted by time’s fell tricks. But there was one hunter, a man too clever by far. He had a daughter, a lovely and innocent youth, and he tricked her into leading the unicorn to a trap.
The hunter lay in wait, as the unicorn approached the young girl, and in the moment when the unicorn was distracted, the hunter hewed the horn right off of its head.”
I think at this point I began to wonder if I was actually talking to a turtle or a log, but I continued.
“Without the horn, the beast was broken and easily captured. The hunter displayed the horn with pride, although few ever believed him that he captured the beast. Without the horn, the unicorn was nothing more than a horse. History forgets a hunter like that… or remembers him as a charlatan.”
The log turtle departed the raft, and disappeared into the river. Perhaps he took offense to the term charlatan.
“This way! Toward the river!” I heard a harsh voice cry in the distance.
Perhaps the log turtle had the right idea.
Gathering my strength I sat up on the raft to get a better view. To my horror, I could see that three figures clad in black robes were heading towards the river on the right side.
Fear gave me a shot of adrenaline, and I managed to paddle to the opposite side of the river, but I could hardly manage more. The raft caught in some reeds, and I waded to the shore, collapsing on the bank and laboring to catch my breath.
”Oi, what limping pile of scrod is that?” came a squeaky voice from my side of the river.
It was a voice that seemed oddly familiar.
Laboriously I turned my head and found myself staring at a pair of sandals that were way too small for the huge feet that occupied them. I struggled to rise, to meet the gaze of their owner.
The orc grunted, then grinned.
“Ulmug take toothpick now!” I heard the brute exclaim, as his mammoth fist connected with my head.
"Aw, whadja do that fer?" I thought i heard the squeaky voice say.
After that, quiet and darkness.
The night Creation was Betrayed.
The space was dimly lit. But I was used to that. As long as I could think back, I’d called these walls home. Just two full walls, and a third that was crumbling. The fourth was gone entirely, but it offered me a decent view of the alleys below. Not much of a roof. That had crumbled ages ago, or been demolished at some point, perhaps the victim of warfare or a natural disaster.
It wasn’t much of a home, but it was mine. I had a mattress propped up on some crates, to discourage vermin… slightly.
There was a dirty mirror with a crack running through it.
Lying on the mattress, I retreated into my log, thinking it might be time for a nap.
“Are you fast? Are you a fast runner?” tickled a quiet voice at the back of my mind.
I didn’t really hear it. It was more of an itch that I couldn’t quite scratch. Something in the corner of my eye, that was gone when I looked.
I glanced about the room. I didn’t have much in the way of stuff. Only what I had scavenged, or stolen.
I looked at myself in the mirror. I was quite a decent log, I thought. Mossy. Mossy was cool. Being a log was cool. I should do this more often. Who needed to be a turtle when you could be a log?
“People don’t tend to notice me much...”
“Notice me much…”
There was an Echo in the back of my mind. It was disturbing my nap. I was just sunning myself like a log ought to. There was no roof, and the room was dim, but between the clouds the sun beat down, and it was warm and pleasant.
I poked my head out of my log and looked in the mirror again. A crack ran from one end to the other. Otherwise it was a fine mirror. It didn’t hold my reflection anymore, which I supposed was fine too.
Instead, there was another mirror in the mirror... how curious - and inside the second mirror, something round - a sphere, slowly turning.
There were other mirrors too, each containing a sphere, turning and turning.
Leaving the log behind, I walked through the mirror, stepping gingerly over the crack so as not to disturb it. The mirror was only the size of a portrait, and hung high on what was left of the wall, but as I stepped through it, that didn’t seem very important.
What was more important than that was that I was in a different room now, with a colorful globe floating in the middle, suspended upon nothingness.
It was a wondrous thing to behold.
The globe was a planet, vibrant and fragrant and lively. It was small, but I felt like I could see so much when I looked at it. Fiery volcanoes and lava flows, snowy tundra and mountains, burning deserts, vast oceans and lakes and rivers and lush rain-forests, teeming with all manner of life.
Curious creatures with strange faces and impossible bodies the likes of which I had never seen before. Maddening creatures with humanoid bodies and beaks and wings and spikes… rocks that walked on four legs, and flowers that were also fish.. or fish that were also flowers. Packs of furry creatures roamed the tundra, and though I couldn’t see it, I felt something familiar just beneath the surface…
In the center of the room, the globe spun lazily on its axis.
I heard a crashing sound, like breaking glass.
Reluctantly I swung my head away from the globe to find the source.
The room was full of mirrors, and each mirror had a globe in it, similar to the one that I was looking at. Similar, yet different. This globe was lively and majestic and vibrant and mystical.
In the mirror, every globe looked the same, but like an artist’s copy, done with charcoal or graphite. A handsome facsimile, but devoid of the color and the life and the energy and the beauty and the feeling of the original.
In each mirror, a world like this one spun, but I rather felt that they might as well have been paintings, and not mirrors. They couldn’t do the original justice. They just couldn’t capture it.
Crash! Again, the sound of glass breaking. I looked around. One of the mirrors… no, two of them, lay in pieces, their worlds spinning no more.
Out in the corner of my eye, I could see something moving furiously. A whirlwind of purple and gold, around one of the mirrors. I turned to try to get a better look at it, but it was gone in a moment.
Out of the corner of my eye again, I saw the whirlwind of purple and gold.
I turned quickly this time, and caught a glimpse. A creature, with violet eyes and a long flowing golden mane, tearing at a mirror with sharp claws, as I looked at it, it turned its head to look at me. I couldn’t see it clearly, but I had the distinct impression of a rabid animal, frothing at the mouth, growling and snarling. But even as I turned to look at it, it was gone from my sight.
‘Tap tap tap’ came a sound.
I turned and looked at the mirror next to me. The mirror I’d crawled out of. It had a big crack down the middle of it, as always. But on the other side of the mirror, a familiar young girl with violet eyes tapped on the glass, gently.
“Help me through?” she asked, invitingly.
I reached through the glass and pulled her over to my side.
Immediately, she took my hand and pulled me around the room to what seemed like a random mirror. Within the mirror, a globe spun lazily on its axis, just like the one in the middle of the room, only the one in the mirror was a dull and dusty looking copy of the original.
“This will never do…” said Arkey, and began pounding on the mirror with her small hand.
I stood there dumbly. It felt like a long time since I’d seen Arkey, but she looked exactly as I remembered.
“It just echoes in my head. Don't you hear it?” Arkey looked up at me, rubbing her temples gingerly. “Aren’t you going to help me? It’s a lot for one girl to do alone.”
I found myself looking down and blushing. I had been letting her do all the work… but should I really be breaking mirrors? I thought that was bad luck.
“Don’t we all just want to go home?” pouted Arkey.
“Not really,” I replied, and returned my gaze to her. “I don’t even have a proper roof where I live.”
But when I looked back up, it was a turtle, with a shell like a mossy log that looked back at me. It hovered in the air next to the mirror, bumping into the mirror with it's nose, and snapping at it.
Arkey’s home was on her back.. but how was a turtle going to break a mirror? That was just senseless.
I shook my head.
“Arkey,” I said to the turtle, “Why are we breaking mirrors? Isn’t it dangerous? You'll cut yourself.”
Arkey made no response.
“Arkey?” I reached out and touched the turtle, but it didn’t move. It was just a log. Nothing more. It was mossy though. Mossy was cool. If Arkey was a log, that was fine.
I looked up.
Crimson filled the sky and there was screaming and yelling. I stood not far from the gate, its soft blue glow the only point of sanity in a sea of violence and carnage.
It was day, but the sun was a black disk in the sky, blotted out by some unseen darkness, and fire fell from the sky like rain. A dark haze of ash and the smell of death hung in the air, and the wind blew with fury, the ground was wet with a murky green cesspool of water that looked and smelled thoroughly unpalatable. Madness was all around.
Creatures of all shape and size ran amok, some with weapons... others simply were weapons. Unnatural designs, or things nature never could have intended. Warriors fought against them. A mage here or a bard there supported their peers, but it was certainly a losing battle.
Giants and things like trees strode about haphazardly, crushing all in their wake. Wild animals with human faces or skeletal features mauled every living thing in their path, including each other. Figures constructed of thorns and rust walked the earth like they thought they were people.
I felt sick and alone. I was all alone in this terrible forsaken place.
Other people rushed by desperately, with whatever they could carry, heading towards the gate.
It was a day for heroes, and a day for cowards. Men stood and fought and fell.. orcs too, elves and dwarves. All fighting as one, and all cut down as nothing.
I didn’t have much with me… I didn’t have anything. Just my arms and legs, which didn’t strike me as odd in the least. In one hand, I clutched a dull old sword. The other hand was empty.
Everyone was running towards the gate, but I was moving slowly. Everything felt so wrong, and I felt so unhappy, so angry and sad and furious and scared and annoyed. Buildings collapsed around me, men and women screamed and died. Whatever Gods there were must have been looking away, for what being of any power and decency could find anything to enjoy in such endless meaningless slaughter?
In the clearing dust, a young girl shivered and cried. Was she lost or forgotten by her family? I didn’t know. In a moment though, I saw that she was unable to help herself… in shock or in misery she was just standing there alone.
I edged towards the gate, and looked back. The little girl looked so pitiful. Should I go after her? What was I thinking? I was no hero. I couldn’t help this person. How could I when she wouldn’t even try to take care of herself?
“Damn..” I muttered, reaching the gate. I looked back. I could barely see her, she was so small, just a shadow of a life, amidst the chaos.. ready to be snuffed out at any minute.
“Damnit.. Damnit all.”
I ran back to where she was standing, “Take my hand!” I shouted to her.
The girl looked up at me, wiping her eyes.
“Come on! Take it!” violence and carnage all around, “Grab on to my hand! We gotta go! Now!”
The tiny girl took my hand.. and we ran for the gate. I held my sword at the ready, but no creature attacked as we made it up to the gate, and the blue haze surrounded us…
The girl was gone, but I was still there, floating in the blue haze. The madness reigned just on the edge of my vision. Maddening thoughts ran through my head as the blue light of the gate washed over me.
‘I bring life..’ I thought, and cast my gaze over some fallen soldiers, who rose up, to fight and fall once more, only to rise again. Death was equally in my domain. With a thought, I created a great fissure in the earth, a rupture that claimed creature and person alike. I let fire flow like water cleansing everything it touched with annihilation. I churned the oceans, with great typhoons, and tidal waves, drowning everything in their path. I tore holes in the fabric of the sky, and let nothingness slither through, devouring what is, was and shall be. From the heavens I called a blazing sun, ten tails spinning in the sky, crashing to the earth, burning all in its wake.
The blue haze closed in around me.
What was I doing? Bringing life and death, fueling the endless chaos. What was the point of any of it? I was accomplishing nothing. Everything I did was just a drop in the bucket.
“Have you figured it out yet?” asked one voice.
“Notice me…” echoed another.
My eyes felt really heavy, and I couldn’t see properly through all the blue haze.
“Whu-gubl…” I struggled to speak, but my lips were like lumps of lead.
“Eh?” spoke a third voice, this one familiar, “I think this bloke is wakin up!”
“Too soon! Too soon!” spoke a fourth voice, also very familiar.
A familiar fifth voice merely grunted.
I turned my head to the side stiffly. Everything was a blue haze, but I think I was in a brightly lit room, lying on a cold table. I felt a sudden prickly sensation on my arm, as if just I’d been stung by something.
“Shhh… hush now..” I could see her now, the old orc matriarch standing next to me, wobbling in the blue haze. It occurred to me that I still didn't know her name, but the thought was fleeting.
“Not just yet, not just yet,” she cooed softly, “Back to sleep you go.”
It was a very inviting suggestion, and in a moment the darkness claimed me once more.
I realize the last two pieces may seem a little disjointed, but i swear there's a method to my madness
The Shield Maiden
When I woke again, I was not alone. A young woman was busying herself about the room. She had pale skin, like a northerner, and tumbling curls of blonde hair that I do not think represented her natural coloring.
I would say I felt weak, but not in a pained way. Possibly in the way a tiny bud feels after forcing its way out of the ground when the winter ice finally thaws. Exhausted, but alive, and free.
The woman identified herself as Luminé. She was a Kaelar shield-maiden from the Legion of the Deep. She wore the same white robes of the Cloister, but her lapel was adorned with a blue broach depicting a cudgel across a shield, a universal symbol of clerics.
Luminé said she was my nurse. She looked me over, gazing for some time at my amputation, and then went back about her business.
Ready to debate whether or not I needed a nurse, I tried to sit upright, on the cold stone table, but she urged me into stillness.
She told me that I shouldn’t try to get up, as I’d undergone a medical procedure that had left me quite weak. She must have been on to something, for the effort alone made me feel quite dizzy, and she had to help me just to sip from a cup of water.
I was being fed like an infant. I lay back down on the stone table. My body was wrapped in the same gray and white robes of the Cloister, and there was a pillow for my head, but it was all very uncomfortable.
“I’ll put together something that will help with the dizziness.”
Luminé busied herself about the room, surrounding herself with poultices and plants and powders and potions. She quickly began burning something fragrant. I shifted my position trying to get more comfortable. In my mind I tried to measure the series of events had led me here.
It was clear to me that I was in the Cloister of the Echo, but how I had gotten to be there was all a blur. Last thing I could remember was drifting down a lazy river, and even that seemed like it must have been a dream.
After a time, another cleric arrived. This was middle-aged fellow, with blond hair in the style of tonsure, a bald spot shaven in the middle of the back of his head. This man wore brown robes, adorned with the same blue broach with a cudgel and shield. He wrung his hands fretfully, and whispered to Luminé in a hushed and somewhat conspiratorial voice. He periodically glanced my way as he murmured.
“..Two days in a row..” I was able to make out. The young man seemed very concerned, and Luminé patted him on the shoulder, with what I supposed was supposed to be reassurance.
“What will be will be, Matthias.” I heard her say. “We merely do what the calling requires.”
The young man peered over at me, with a strange look on his face. Fear.. Uncertainty.. Worry? He left soon afterwards.
“Perhaps you’ll excuse my associate,” Luminé said, once the man had left, “He’s far from home, and not… integrating.. as well as one might.”
It seemed to me, once again, that Luminé has displaying a lot of interest in my missing arm. Her gaze made me a little uncomfortable.
My voice was hoarse, perhaps from lack of use, but I managed to croak out the question that was foremost in my mind “How did I get here?”
Luminé cracked a smile at that, “You looked like a three-quarters drowned rat when they brought you in. It was a close thing form what I heard too. I always miss the fun stuff.”
I reached up to rub my head; I seemed to have quite the lump. “I don’t remember any of it.”
“Nor would you be expected to. The mercenaries brought you in unconscious. I could tell you what I know about that, but I’m sure you’d rather hear it from the horse’s mouth. What I can talk to you about is your health. You probably ought to be dead right now.”
My health… that’s right, I’d been… what.. gassed by a murderous algae, nibbled on by a murderous crow, stabbed at and shot at by a murderous woman and then… stared at by a murderous eye?
Consulting my surroundings I soon spied the bronze sphere lying on a bench not far away. Luminé followed my gaze.
“Ah,” she said, “The wraith sphere has a lot to do with it.”
“Wraith sphere?” I parroted, with a little distress creeping into my voice.
“Wraith sphere, wrath sphere… not really sure about the name, but this one really had your number.” She lifted the sphere and peered at it, flicking it open. Within, was a tiny red glowing point, but not the baleful eye that I had come to know and loathe.
“It’s mostly harmless now… mostly.” Luminé tossed the device haphazardly back on the bench, and it snapped shut. “We don’t know much about how the wraith sphere works. My people say it’s ancient technology from the old world, if you believe in that sort of stuff, but at any rate, if you piss the thing off, it latches onto you and drains you dry.”
I unconsciously tried to shrink into the fetal position. “And how did you stop it?” I asked.
“We drained you dry.” She responded, with a shrug, “Had to bring you pretty much to the edge of death, or maybe a bit past it to fool the sphere, but we got the job done.”
Was she serious? It sounded crazy, but it wasn’t the first second or even third crazy thing I’d encountered lately. Luminé was quietly staring at my arm again.
“What?” I snapped at her, somewhat annoyed.
“Sorry…” she murmured, “It’s just that… well… something’s got your arm.”
I sighed, knowing where this was going, “Yes, I supposed you’d like to hear about it?”
“It’s just… it’s just not there.” She continued, distractedly.
What kind of nurse was she, that she’d never seen someone missing a limb before?
“Look, never mind about that, I’ll tell you how it happened, if it’ll get us off this topic.”
Luminé looked at me, with some confusion on her face, and then nodded, “Yeah.. sure.” She said. She was acting weirder than most.
People often stared at the arm, but I’d have expected a bit better from a cleric. It was something I still hadn’t gotten used to, and while the arm was a constant factor of my life, it still bothered me when someone asked about it. “It happened at sea,” I’d tell them.
“There was a time long ago when I sailed aboard a ship, taking goods between one kingdom and another. Our navigator had read the winds wrong on one occasion, and the sea tried to swallow us whole. Our ship was tossed about on the ocean like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn. Me and some others were trying our best to get her under control, but the mast snapped, and the main truck came tumbling down carrying my arm off with it.”
Luminé listened with what did not seem like rapt attention. She seemed very distracted.
“As to what it means,” I continued, although she hadn’t asked, “I’d say it means-”
“Did you kill someone?” Luminé cut me off, suddenly.
“Did I what?” I sputtered.
“Kill someone. Did you murder someone?”
I stared at her stupidly.
“Two days in a row, a delegation has come here demanding that we surrender the one-armed murderer.” Luminé elaborated, “Now I’m a cleric, and I heal who I’m told to, but I would consider it a personal favor if you told me whether or not I’m helping a murderer.”
Luminé’s words seemed civil enough, but I noted her robe seemed to conceal some kind of weapon, and one of her hands now gripped the hilt of it.
“No, it wasn’t like that,” I said.
“What was it like?” inquired the cleric, gently. “They say the Wraith spheres only punish the guilty.”
I struggled to prop myself up, “It was self defense. She was hunting me… I caught her by surprise.”
“And she died then?”
“Yes… well… no.”
“No?” Luminé arched an eyebrow at me.
“Not exactly.” I admitted, “She was unconscious for a time, so I tied her up… to question her, but she escaped, and I had to kill her.”
I could see doubt in her eyes.
“It was her or me!” I insisted.
Gradually Luminé nodded, “That may be true,” she agreed, “but you’ll have to be more convincing than that."
Luminé sighed, “The laws of the cloister offer a certain amount of protection to those who seek sanctuary here, but there are limits.”
Luminé held up three fingers, “A delegation may come once to make a complaint, twice to file a grievance, and thrice to demand a trial. If the delegation comes a third time…”
“I’m on trail for murder.” I muttered, lying back down and staring at the ceiling.
Luminé, sensing that I may need time to process, quietly excused herself, and I was left alone in the room.
The name of my enemy
How long I lay there is difficult to say. Part of my brain was counting the cracks in the ceiling, while another part was juggling the whole ‘murder’ charge. I remembered the last thing that the huntress had said..
“I could not end you with my life, but with my death, perhaps.”
The moment played over in my mind. She had known that her death would precipitate this series of events. How could any one person be so misguided as to sacrifice their own life to kill a complete stranger? They were calling me a murderer, but it was clearer to me than ever that I’d done nothing. I was hunted, for what? Asking questions? People around me… Sam and his caravan… were slaughtered for nothing. Where was the outcry about that? The world had gone mad!
For my part, there was something that I wasn’t understanding. Something that didn’t add up about the eye of wrath. It was staring me in the face, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
The actual eye of wrath was no longer staring me in the face, and thank the gods for that, but as I stared at the ceiling, I felt the little hairs standing up on the back of my neck, and I knew that I wasn’t alone.
A body, too big for the doorway, was blocking the light from the hall. The owner of the body leaned down, poking his head in the door, and gave a familiar grunt.
There was no escape. They had found me. Even here, they had found me.
I tumbled onto the floor, and scuttled towards a corner, upsetting pans and linens in my wake, but there was no other way out of this room, and in the doorway loomed a face that I knew and feared.
It was the same great orc that had chased me through the city streets and nearly to my death at the hands of the man in the black mask.
I tried to call for help, but my voice caught in my throat. I backed myself into a corner looking for something, anything that I could use as a weapon but I saw to my dismay that the orc was holding my very own dagger in his hand.
“Oi, shove over, yer blockin tha way!” sounded off another familiar voice. The orc stepped into the room, and behind him I recognized the same wiry man with the yellow moustache, the one who had chased me through the city, into the arms of the man in the black mask.
“Ha!” barked the sinewy fellow, “Lookie who made it back to the world of the living!”
“Stay back!” I pleaded, “Somebody help!” I cried, as a follow up.
The orc and the man exchanged an awkward glance.
“Stay back, wot?” said the man, “Mate, who ya think yer talkin to? Yer only drawin’ breath cuz we showed up.”
A mixture of panic on my face and confusion in my eyes forced the scrawny fellow to elaborate.
“Look lad, when we fished your sorry carcass out of the Skyre, not only were you on death’s door, but ye had three o’ them black cloaks after yer hide as well.”
“You work for the black cloaks,” I said, backing myself into a corner, in what I could only assume was the fetal position.
“Nah mate, it’s like I tells you before. We’re mercs for hire, we are. Our services to the highest bidder. This here religion must really love your sorry arse. They paid us a bundle just to bring you in.”
The big orc pulled up a small stone table like it was made of air, and sat down on it, propping his feet up on the larger stone table. He was wearing a pair of sandals, far too small for his feet.
Seeing the sandals, my memory was jogged.
“You! You knocked me unconscious!” I gasped, pointing a withering finger at the orc.
He merely grunted, noncommittally.
The wiry man rubbed the back of his neck, with what I could only describe as a bashful look, “At’s true, and he’s sorry bout that, aren’t you Ulmug?”
The little man poked the orc in the ribs. The orc rolled his eyes in response.
“I’m Wheatley, and this big guy here is Ulmug,” the man stated and then continued, “Ye gotta understand, Ulmug, he don’t come from much… he ain’t got much in the world to call his own, right?”
Wheatley tapped a finger to his temple, “Ain’t got that much up here either. He see’s things an ‘e wants em. Like them sandals, right? Don’t even remotely fit him, but some poor sod leaves them under a chair, and Ulmug just takes off with em’ like nobody’s business.”
“I… I don’t believe you!” I stammered.
“S’true!” insisted Wheatley, “Heck, I’d been here when you first woke, but I was out getting this big galoot a toothpick replacement, since it’s the only way he’d agree to give back the one he snagged from you.”
Wheatley produced what could be described as a giant-sized toothpick from a small leather case.
I glanced back and forth between the two potential weapons warily.
“Come on, you sad sack, give it here. We’ll trade.” Wheatley held his hand out to the orc, beckoning him to surrender the dagger.
Ulmug looked forlornly at the dagger, but interested at the wooden stake. Reluctantly he made the trade.
“There we are, done n’ done.” Spoke Wheatley with pride. “Now I just gotsta find some’un what makes really big shoes.”
Ulmug set to picking his teeth with the wooden stake, and gave a grin.
“Minty.” Spoke the orc, picking away.
“Right,” said Wheatley, placing my dagger aside on a counter.
“So, anyways, do we gots an understanding yet, you an’ us?”
What they were saying seemed to add up, but I didn’t like it one bit.
“How do I know… how do I know you aren’t lying?” I asked, hesitantly.
“Hmm,” said Wheatley thoughtfully, “Well now. I reckon ye know we ain’t lyin, cuz if we wuz lyin, you’d be dead as a dernail, and I’d be nestling down with some buxom beauties, instead of waggin’ my gums tryin’ to get a simple idea through yer thick skull.”
“Heh… thick skull.” Echoed the orc, with a toothy grin.
A flurry of motion behind Wheatley was followed by an explosive yell.
“What on earth have you great clumsy oafs done to my patient!?” exclaimed Luminé, shoving Wheatley neatly aside as she rushed in.
“Ah, shucks miss, we ain’t done nothing..” responded Wheatley.
“Out!” barked Luminé “Now!”
It was a sight to behold, this slender and elegant woman scaring a lumbering brute and a sneaky bandit out of the room, but Wheatley and Ulmug practically ran when they saw the fury on her face.
I believe I actually felt sorry for them.
“Are you alright?” queried the shield maiden, gently, “Can you stand?”
I nodded. I actually was feeling quite a lot better, in the physical sense. Perhaps the shock of seeing the mercenaries again had given me an adrenaline rush. I stood up and walked back towards the table.
Luminé assisted me to walk, although I probably could have managed on my own.
Another figure appeared in the doorway. It was the old orc matriarch from the bonsai garden.
“I heard a commotion. Is our patient alright?” intoned the elderly orc in a gentle voice.
“Just a scare, I daresay.” Replied Luminé, quickly. She seemed rather nervous. “Nothing to be concerned about.”
“And the vessel ?” inquired the orc, peering at the counter by the wall.
Luminé and I both looked where she indicated. A blue decanter, like a large vase stood there, and seemed to be full of effervescent liquid.
I’d seen that blue material before. The decanter was fashioned out of aquastaine.
It was almost beautiful. But something about it was terrible at the same time. It was odd, it had been in the room with me the whole time, but at no point had I noticed before. Almost like I didn’t want to look at it. Now that my attention had been drawn to it, it was hard to look away.
“Its… its fine,” replied Luminé, “But do you really think we’ll need it?”
The old orc’s face took on a grim look, “It’s only a matter of time now.” Was her reply.
I didn’t know what was going on, but I didn’t like the sound of it.
“Your patient seems well enough to take a walk,” said the old matron, “he’ll come with me.. you can take the next few hours to yourself.”
“Yes mum,” was Luminé’s brief reply, and she excused herself.
I walked with the elderly orc back to the courtyard garden, and she explained what had happened since I’d left.
“Wheatley and Ulmug aren’t a bad sort,” insisted the orc matron, “They’re just a little bit on the opportunist side.”
“You don’t say.” I replied, sourly.
She chuckled darkly, “Well, after you dumped their employer in the Skyre, a handy feat I might add, they went in search of the second half of their payment. They didn’t find it, but they did find this.”
She held aloft a bronze cylinder.
“That’s an Eye of Wrath, isn’t it?”
The old matron gave one of her toothless grins, “Ah, you already know of them… well, that simplifies matters. Yes, Wheatley is a clever one. He didn’t know who you were, and he didn’t know what this cylinder was for, but he knew that he’d been asked to spy on you, and that you were seen going in and out of the cloister. He put two and two together, and brought the cylinder to us, to sell it. We offered him a better deal.”
“You paid him to find me?” I asked.
She nodded, “Once you killed that girl, the eye led them right to you.”
“I’m not a murderer!” I insisted. “Why does everyone think I’m some kind of killer!?”
“Take heart,” replied the orc, kindly, “We understand it didn’t happen that way, but it’s time for you to tell me everything that befell you since you left us that day.”
I wondered how many days it had been? It didn’t seem that long ago on the one hand, and on the other it seemed a lifetime. I told her about the huntress and how we’d fought, and how she’d died… how I’d nearly died. I told her about the caravan, and the massacre that befell it, I told her about my time with the Dwarves, and how they said the Elves were responsible for breaking the world.
“They even sung a song about it.” I told her.
“And what do you think?” replied the orc, “Do the Orcs have it right, or do the Dwarves know the real answer?”
“Well, the Dwarves… I suppose.”
“So the Elves are at fault. You are satisfied with that answer?” the orc intoned, with a sly look.
“Yes… no.. I don’t know.” I sighed, “You’re going to suggest I ask an elf, aren’t you? Did you miss the part where elves are trying to kill me?!"
“The man of great vision must follow it, as the roc seeks the deepest blue of the sky. If you are satisfied with your answer, then your journey is done, but if you want to look deeper…”
“No, no, I’m done looking deeper!” I snapped, “The huntress said that my curiosity was the reason she was trying to kill me. They slaughtered an entire caravan because I asked the wrong questions! They even left me a bloody note!”
At this, the orc matron arched her eyebrow slightly, “May I see this note?” she asked.
I threw my hands up, “Whatever you want, I don’t care.” I said, and fished the crumpled paper out of my pocket, showing it to her.
But I was curious, after all. “What does it say?” I asked, as the matron considered it’s brief contents.
She glanced from the parchment to me and replied, “Nothing.. gibberish. The rantings of the lunatics who slaughter innocents. Never mind about it.”
The matron began to put the note into her own pocket.
“I’ll… I’ll have that back please.” I said.
The matron paused, with the letter in her hand, “Well.. as you wish.” She relented, hesitantly returning the paper to me.
I looked at her, a little more focused than I had previously. There was something very old about her. Even considering what ages were possible, she just seemed ancient.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.” I said, finally ready to get the name of this mysterious old hag.
Before I could proceed with my question however, a great calamity began, with bells ringing and gongs sounding.
“They’re here.” The matron said, grimly, “You can watch, but stay out of sight.” She advised.
Luminé came running up from somewhere and accompanied me, as the matron drifted off hurriedly towards the entrance.
“You’d better come with me,” Luminé said, “I know somewhere we can watch from.”
Luminé led me to a raised alcolve, where we could see what was going on below, without being noticed.
Four elves decked out in glittering armor strode into the room. One of them appeared to be a lord of some sort, and two others seemed to be his personal guard.
The fourth elf strode up to the matron, with a scroll in his hand, and began to read from it.
As soon as he spoke, my heart leapt into my throat, for it was the same lyrical, almost musical voice that already haunted my dreams. This was the same elf who had tried to kill me. Now he stood here in the same room, just below me out of sight, and there was nowhere for me to run.
“On behalf of his excellency, Keryth Chathangalas , Lord High Magister Militum of Meridian Spire I issue the following demand…”
I looked at Luminé, and whispered, “That is the voice of my enemy.”
The lyrical voice continued, “That the one-armed fugitive be surrendered to stand trial at the Empyrean court, where he will be tried for the murder, in cold blood, of Auacyn, Countess of Quincarnon.
Luminé whistled softly under her breath.
“Your enemies are House Chathangalas and Quincarnon… boy, you sure know how to pick em.”
thanks! It's been fun finding pictures to match (not an exact science). I didn't start off with them either but I went back through the older chapters to add some color