Vicissitudes in the Dark Woods (pt. 12)

As sun rose at their backs, Telfor and Vahkragg were already several hours into their third day of travel. Feeling the warmth on his neck, Vahkragg pauses for a moment to look back across the long road they had travelled from Verwich. At their current pace they expected to arrive in Capital before nightfall, the journey had been swift with neither bandit nor monster but for some reason the large man simply couldn’t shake this feeling of dread that had hung over him since they’d first laid eyes on Verwich.

“Vahkragg?” Telfor’s voice echoed loud in the quiet of the morning, “What’s wrong?”

Unable to put his worries into words, Vahkragg simply pushed them to the back of his mind and shrugging his pack, turned his back on Verwich. The time to act on those concerns had passed, now he could only trust in his companions.

***

“They will arrive in Capital tonight, after that I won’t be able to scry them again.”

High Priestess Nella nods, those who didn’t know or her people her would think the news angered her. Her large jaws distort the shape of her face, built to be able to bite and kill, for more flat-faced people her resting expression can seem startling. Having spent scarcely a week with her, Oliver still hadn’t gotten over that initial discomfort.

“Thank you, Oliver.” Her gentle, but otherwise normal voice another layer of strangeness, “And the others?”

“Rubin has just awoken from his illness, he’s with Pan now. Edda expects they will be coming to visit you today. The Necromancer is with Edda now.”

“When will we know the result?”

“Edda told me that she’ll have the girl here before the others arrive.”

“You seem less certain.”

Oliver shrugs silently. The corners of Nella lips upturn slightly, provoking Oliver to suspect, as was often the case, that she knew more than he did. And of course, she did. Since escaping his first captors, Oliver had been free for hardly a day before wandering into this new cage.
After barely escaping death at the point of Pan’s dagger, Oliver had managed somehow to survive his flight through that demon infested woods and decided that taking refuge in the second largest city of the Kingdom was a good idea. What’s more he’d managed to find the one Inn in the city where they were waiting for him. The Valiant Retreat, he thought he’d chosen it because of it’s out of the way nature. After entering, he’d been attracted to the girl, Lily, and with boldness completely out of character for him, asked for a room with a view.
He’d awoken that night after sensing the magic being sucked from the ether, just in time to feel Edda’s spell bind him. What followed was a blur, but when he came to, he was in the ‘care’ of the Temple of Atyx. They knew exactly who he was. It should have been impossible, but they did. They promised they could protect him from both his Father and the Earl. Since then he had become the High Priestess’ personal sorcerer, using his magic to help orchestrate bringing his original captors into a trap even he didn’t properly understand.
He had no love for those bounty hunters, but even more he despised being used as a pawn like this. The one gift his mother had ever given him had been to send him away before he was trapped by it and now here he was.

“If that’s all you needed from me?”

Nella stared at him, “Yes, that is all for now. I shall have you sent for when our guests arrive.”

With a bow, Oliver left Nella’s office. He hated it here at the Temple, everyone was so dour and serious, and every drop of magic was constantly being drained from the air making the ether feel lifeless and sickening. The areas he was permitted to go were always eerily quiet when not filled with prayer or hymns. He had no issue with Atyx, but his house was not where Oliver wanted to spend his time.
With nothing better to do Oliver returned to his usual routine of walking the cloister. The arched halls and garden were the only pleasant place in the Temple, despite their unfortunate overabbundance of priests, monks, and whoever else the Temple keeps. With a weary sigh, the sorcerer settles down on the grass in the sun. Eyes closed, hoping sleep might help with the boredom.

***

“Zsófia… Zsófia. It’s time for you to wake up.”

Words coated in soft magic destroyed the darkness which had suppressed her consciousness. A sickening feeling, waking without having been awake, Zsófia opened her eyes and seeing Edda reached for her magic only to find it would not come. The shock at not being able to find it, like trying to walk only to discover you have no legs, sends Zsófia into terrified despair. Backing away from the older woman along the floor, she finds a wall barely inches away and with no more options she covers her eyes and wishes to be somewhere else.

“I know you must be frightened, and confused. I am sorry for the deception, but it was the only way I could help you. You carried a powerful curse within you, a seed of your Horned God’s corrupting influence, like what I removed from your companion, but much more entrenched and powerful.”

The words made sense, they were enough to draw Zsófia’s attention, but still she feared the woman who had attacked her with magic. While Edda paused, Zsófia looked up from behind her arms to face her, an invitation to continue but not yet acceptance.

“I was able to remove the malediction from Rubin, because it was still immature. Yours is so deeply enmeshed with your being that even here, in Anir’s House and far from the forrest, it was all I could do to isolate it. I wish I could have asked your permission first, but if He knew, He would have protected himself.
The Horned God still lives in you, but he cannot touch you, nor can he perceive you. But also, you cannot draw upon your magic without weakening his bindings. I have temporarily restricted your access to the ether, just long enough for you to meet the one who organised this. If you will swear not to call upon your magic until after this meeting, I will lift the binding. Will you?”

Zsófia nods. She didn’t understand most of what Edda had said, but she was scared. She wanted her magic back, even if she didn’t use it, being without it made her feel helpless and still shaken from Edda’s assault, helpless was the one thing she didn’t want to feel.
She couldn’t even feel the ether shift as Edda formed the magic to release the binding, but the moment it was, everything the old woman had said immediately made more sense. As the ether flowed back into her, she could sense the twisting black presence inside her. Uncertain how she’d never noticed it before, it horrified her and left her feeling sick all over again.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t do more, my dear…” The old woman sounded genuinely heartbroken and Zsófia realised that she’d forgiven the older woman and desperately needed to be held.

Clambouring to her feet, Zsófia threw herself into Edda’s arms and the old woman hugged the girl tightly, all of her usual hardness gone in place of a motherly warmth.

“You really scared me,” Zsófia spoke flatly, unable to put her emotions into the words and still form them. With no answer good enough, Edda just held the poor girl as silent tears ran down her face.


Featured art credit: Sunrise – Maurice Sapiro

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Vicissitudes in the Dark Woods (pt. 11)

“Tell me, little girl,” Edda’s rough voice cut through Zsófia’s awe at the bustling city, “Do you love your Horned God?”

Startled by a mule drawn cart that seemed to come from no-where, Zsófia clung tightly to the older woman. The city felt so much bigger, louder, and more frightening now that Rubin’s malediction wasn’t hung so imminently over their heads. The vibrant, attention grabbing colours that loudly proclaimed the presence of merchants, taverns, and other stranger stores were overwhelming when trying to comprehend them all.
Edda had taken Zsófia under her wing these past few days, during which she had shown the girl a significant amount of the city while she tended to her patients. The entire experience had been exhausting for Zsófia but at the same time she had learned a lot about the subtleties of using magic to bolster the sickly and alleviate suffering. She’d developed a strong affection towards the older woman, while learning the vast gulf between their knowledge as healers and a healthy respect for her force of personality.

“I…” The question was difficult, not for finding the answer but for delivering it without defying His precepts, “Am grateful to the protection He has provided my family.”

Edda barked out a laugh, “I see, I see. And are you looking forward to returning to His domain?”

Zsófia remained silent. The truth was that she wanted nothing more than to leave the forest behind and see the world outside, but if she didn’t return He would punish the villagers in her stead. Her thoughts were her own, but to speak them out loud would leave her as Rubin.
With no answer given, Edda’s jovial expression hardened into it’s resting state, indistinguishable from a glare. The rest of their walk was made in silence. Zsófia’s attention was once again so swept up in the commotion that she didn’t even notice they had arrived until Edda announced it.

“Here we are dear,” Edda’s voice was lower but still just as clear, “This is The Resting.”

Before them was a humble, but large building. Similar to the store houses Edda had called Warehouses, but with a corner of the top of the building lowered to form a large balcony that overlooked the street below. With the only symbol identifying the building being a white circle with a crescent painted over a grey background which resembled either a closed eye or waning moon, Zsófia couldn’t immediately understand the purpose of this building the way she could most others.

“What is this place?” She asked.

Edda led Zsófia through the door into the building. Inside The Resting was almost as open as the warehouses, but instead of stores of goods stacked on shelves, The Resting was a chaotic mixture of kitchen, dining hall, sitting area, beds, and library. In spite of this assortment of services, and the large number of people, many with children, using them there was a strange serenity.
Giving Zsófia no time to stand by and try to figure out the building, Edda guided her without slowing her pace after entering the building. Weaving through the people eating, sleeping, and reading, they reached and ascended a staircase at the deepest point of the hall where the light from the massive windows along the front and side had begun to fade. Something about the shadows and Edda’s silence made Zsófia nervous, but still she followed.
At the top of the stairs, the only light came from a row of candles that flickered along the walls and the quickly receeding sunlight that just barely peeked over the lip of the steps.

“The Resting is a community hall. Built by Earl XYZ and blessed by Lord Anir, the God of Darkness, this is a place for those who fortune has overlooked.”

“And why have we come here?”

“Why? Aren’t you one who fortune has overlooked?” Edda barked out another laugh.

Edda pulled a ring of keys from a pocket Zsófia hadn’t even known was there before she saw the keys pulled from it, and likely couldn’t have found again even after. Twisting one of the keys in the lock, the door opened to a room completely filled with darkness. Immediately she stepped inside and with a rippling in the ether a globe hung from the roof began to glow.
Revealed now by the light, Zsófia saw that the room within was largely unfurnished. Simply a wide open room with some chairs stacked in the corner. Cautiously, she entered. The feeling of disquiet she had felt at the sight of the stairs had grown in her chest to pressing dread.

“Edda, I have a bad feeling about this place.”

“I know, dear. Anir isn’t the most comforting patron even to his own followers, as a Priestess to a god not even part of the pantheon your fear is natural. But you are safe here, as long as you respect the rules of the house.”

“And what are those rules?”

“Nothing unusual. Do not bring violence, respect the other guests. I am sorry dear, that wasn’t meant to carry any veiled meaning.”

Still wary, Zsófia looked about the room. It was maybe ten strides across and roughly square shaped. The utterly unremarkable wooden floor and walls added to the strangeness, especially as the single magical light source didn’t quite reach the corners.

“I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand why we’re here. There’s no sick around for us to treat. This is just an empty room.” Zsófia heard the very slight pleading in her own voice, was she truly that frightened?

“There is a sick person here, my dear.” Edda’s voice carried no emotions, but the moment they left her mouth the ether roared into a tempest.

Terror flooded Zsófia, turning her veins to ice as she hurried to reach out to the ether to defend herself. At the same time, she turned and ran to the door fighting to open it and escape but finding it would not budge.

“Stop!” She cried, her voice dampened as if being swallowed by the shadows that crept. “Please, Edda! Why are you doing this?”

“Quiet child. This will be faster and easier if you do not resist.”

Before Zsófia could answer, Edda hurled her gathered ether. The force of her spell impossibly powerful, Zsófia felt her defences brushed aside as if they were non-existant. Carried away into the dark.


Featured image credit: Brooke Shaden – rapt

Vicissitudes in the Dark Woods (pt. 10)

“Remember.”

Waken from what had felt an eternity trapped in a nightmare, the word reverberated in Rubin’s mind. As memories slipped from his grasp like smoke on a breeze only the unshakable terror and torment remained. Looking around, Rubin recognised the dingy room as one of The Valiant Retreat’s.

What am I doing here? He wondered. There was no sign of his travel companions, nor any others he might have expected to see here. Sunlight shone through the closed window, illuminating a smally folded page that he assumed was intended for him. Reaching out, Rubin took the note and unfoldeded it to examine it’s contents.

Welcome back Rubin,

I am sorry I couldn’t be there when you awoke but predicting the nature of the Malediction you’ve been afflicted by is beyond my skill. Telfor and Vahkragg left for Capital two nights ago. Pan will be awaiting your rousing at the Retreat, while I have taken the forest priestess as a guest. When you feel ready, come visit me but first you should visit Nella. She’ll want to hear about Verumalleus from you directly, as well as thank you for the package.

Edda

After he’d read through the note twice more, Rubin folded the page into a square small enough to fit into the palm of his hand and forming a fist around it, weaved the ether into flames to destroy it. Rubin hoped Pan had chosen to remain as characteristically distant as when he’d been awake. It was foolish to leave that note, if any of his companions had read it they’d have more than enough information to start asking uncomfortable questions.
What Rubin could not believe is that not one of his companions had informed the temple of Lady Verumalleus’ fall. He understood they felt pressed to deliver their report to the Earl and waiting for his recovery must have felt like a risk they couldn’t afford, but they definitely had time to let the church know of their crusader. Something felt off. Perhaps Pan would be willing to get over himself long enough to explain.
No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than the door swung open and Pan entered, standing in the doorway.

“You are awake. Thought I felt your magic just now.”

“Very astute of you,” Rubin answered as he concealed the ash of the destroyed missive behind the bed, “I’m starving, how long was I out?”

“That makes sense, you were out for about half a week, I’ll ask Lily to make you up something. The others left a couple days ago, it’s just me and Zsófia still, we’re to meet up with them in Capital as soon as you’re able to travel.”

“I see. Other than being ravenously hungry, I strangely feel quite healthy. I may even be able to leave as soon as I’ve eaten but I would like to visit the Temple of Atyx first.”

A strange expresssion of discomfort crossed Pan’s face at the suggestion, catching Rubin’s interest.

“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

Rubin narrowed his eyes at Pan, “Verumalleus’ mentor deserves to know that her student is dead. I had the impression that the Lady Crusader was someone important to you. She would want her master to know.”

Pan’s expression hardened to match Rubin’s own, the words hard clearly found their mark and the revenant was struggling to find the words to answer. Rather than wait for him to find them, Rubin climbed out of the bed. His legs shook under the effort to support him, suddenly expressing the toll of many days without using them or eating. Too proud to let the weakness show, Rubin drew strength from the ether as subtly as he could to support himself as he dressed himself. The door swung closed as Pan left, hopefully to speak to the lady he’d mentioned, Lily, about preparing food.
Rubin considered this exchange a minor victory, he seemed to have gotten through Pan’s objections by invoking his infatuation with Verumalleus. What’s more, he should be able to learn a bit more about why they had avoided the temple soon. He was lucky, he thought, that the others had left him alone with Pan and Zsófia. The revenant thought himself so clever, but wore his heart on his sleeve.
As he arrived downstairs, Pan was already waiting for him with a simple meal. While it hardly qualified as a meal, Rubin’s hunger overwhelmed his sensibilities and it was all he could do to maintain proper etiquette as he ate.

“You knew Veru through the temple here in Verwich, didn’t you?” Pan asked.

“That’s right, as a scholar of the Weatherford University we are encouraged to build a relationship with the Temples of The Pantheon. As the Lord of Illumination, Atyx most appealed to me, so I came to the Temple and Priestess Nella who mentored the Lady Crusader did the same for me. Though in a very different manner, of course.”

Pan nodded silently as Rubin spoke.

“Why do you ask?”

Pan hesitated for a moment before answering, “I’ve never really liked you. Mostly it’s that condescending attitude you’ve got about being from Weatherford, but really the reason is that I don’t trust you. You talk so much it’s obvious when you’re not saying something. But for whatever reason, Veru trusted you. And I trust her. My gut is telling me to just take you and Zsófia and leave Verwich as soon as you’re done eating, but you weren’t wrong about what you said before. Veru deserves to have her story told, she earned that. So I’m going to ignore my guy and trust her faith in you just this once. Hope I don’t regret it.”

“Well. That was… blunt.”

“Shut up.”

Somewhat shocked, Rubin actually did as he was told.  Eating the rest of his meal in silence, the mood was somehow felt lighter despite the heaviness of the conversation and just as Rubin was about to finish eating Pan spoke once more.

“I am glad you’re not dead.”

Rubin laughed once dryly, “Me too… Thank you.”


Couldn’t find an artist credit for the Featured Image unfortunately.

Vicissitudes in the Dark Wood (Pt. 9)

As Zsófia and Edda departed to tend to Rubin, Vahkragg made certain the door was closed and they had definitively departed before he spoke.

“We can’t stay here for long.”

Telfor from his seat at the table tightened his fist. Vahkragg understood his leader’s conflict but would not fear to confront him with the hard truth.

“We will stay only as long as it takes to get Rubin back on his feet.”

“And if that takes longer than we can spare?”

The silence was tense. All three of them knew how dangerous it was for them to be here.Vahkragg’s words hung in the air, their weight seemed almost physical with how they wore on Telfor’s brow.

“If he’s not ready to move out by the morrow then you Vahkragg and I will make for Capital and Pan will follow when they’re ready.”

Vahkragg and Pan exchanged looks, but chose not to put their thoughts to words. The conversations path was too obvious to bother discussing. Leaving Rubin in Verwich simply wasn’t an option, but neither was leaving their report of the force of undead and likely an escaped sorcerer, undelivered. Telfor had to go, and Pan had to stay. That was simply the only way. They all understood, but Telfor would consider the decision a personal failing.
With a nod of his head Vahkragg captures Pan’s attention and together the pair head downstairs to the bar, leaving Telfor to his thoughts. With a wave and quick word the giant ordered a round from Lily before fixing his stern gaze on Pan. Unable to read the expression that fixed him Pan waited silently, knowing that small talk was a waste of time on the larger man.
Momentarily, Lily returned with their drinks and from Vahkragg’s blind spot silently asked Pan if he was okay. Slowly he blinked, conveying this was safe, he lifted his glass to his lips and tasted the familiar flavour that sent him back to his service days. As the glass met the table again, Vahkragg still stared intently across the wood but at last his stonelike expression cracked and he spoke.

“You don’t trust Rubin.”

“Of course not.”

“Why?”

Pan chuckled unpleasantly, “Because he’s never given me reason to trust him, and he’s given me plenty reasons to be suspicious.”

“You spilled blood together.”

“And that’s supposed to mean something to me? I was in the army during the border conflicts, I spilled blood with strangers on a daily basis. Most of them I wouldn’t trust, and none of them ever actively betrayed me.”

Again the giant returned to thoughtful silence, honestly Pan was disappointed. He’d always considered to be Vahkragg wiser than he let on, but if he thought killing with someone made you blood brothers, perhaps he was the simple barbarian most thought of when they saw his kind.

“You knew Rubin before Telfor took him on.”

That wasn’t a question, Pan noted, “Not exactly, Veru knew him. I knew her. Rubin and I never met, but I knew of him.”

“Verumalleus was a great warrior.”

The unexpected shift stung. They hadn’t been open about it, but she had been someone special to him and now she was gone. With how recent it had been, and how busy they’d been, he’d not really had the time to properly grieve. If he was honest, he’d been avoiding it. As if by not acknowledging it, he could make it so it wasn’t so.

“Yeah.” He lifted the drink to cover his face somewhat, “That she was.”

The near empty room had nowhere for him to hide however, and his drink was far too light to drown it. He restrained himself to only drink lightly, rather than draining the glass like he wanted to. Behind the bar Lily stood, blending in as to almost be unnoticable as she spied on them. Too caring by half, she was.

“How did you meet her?”

The question raised an eyebrow from Pan, “That’s a personal question for you, isn’t it big guy?”

Answered only with an indifferent shrug, Pan decided he didn’t mind talking about her.

“She’s a crusader, I was a scout. It’s only natural we met each other during the conflict. Of course, when I first saw her we were in pretty different worlds. Crusaders are a class above us rank and file, after all. If I wasn’t as I am, I doubt she would have given me a second thought. Maybe she’d still be alive. But maybe not, crusader’s aren’t known for their longevity, and besides she’d be mad at me for thinking like that, so I’ll just be grateful for how things went.
Like I was saying, she noticed me because I’m a revenant. And like most folk she was suspicious, I guess even Atyx’s chosen fall for superstition when it comes to things like me. Thankfully she didn’t just try to exorcise me, instead she had me assigned to her command. That’s how I got to know her. The conflict only laster thirteen months but in that time she came to see me as a good soldier and a friend.”

Vahkragg simply nodded, “Will you be confident handling Rubin and Zsófia alone?”

As empathetic as ever, Pan thinks, “Of course, I can handle a lone magician.”

Vahkragg’s stare intensifies, challenging the flippance of Pan’s response.

“I can handle it.” He reiterates firmly, annoyance at being underestimated.

Another shrug is his only answer. Seemingly done with talking Vahkragg rose from his seat at the table and after paying for their drinks disappears back up the stairs. Watching the giant go, Pan only notices Lily’s approach from the corner of his eye before he feels her hand on his shoulder. The tenderness in her touch affects him in a way the harshness of reality hadn’t managed to and all the sadness and grief he’d pushed down suddenly welled up.

“Come out the back,” Lily whispers. Too caring by half, he thought again.


Image Credit: Thief 4 concept art, Nicholas Ferrand https://www.artstation.com/artwork/Ewb0

Vicissitudes in the Dark Wood (Pt. 8)

At the centre of the small dingy room, Rubin was lain in an equally rough bed. His companions and Zsófia watched in anxious silence as the old woman, Edda, carefully ministered to his health.
Despite seemingly working primarily with mundane tools those who paid attention  could feel the ether breath as she subtly manipulated the magic that hung in the atmosphere. The refined skill amazed Zsófia, whose own magical ability was preeminent in her village, however she couldn’t even follow the intricacies that were being weaved right before her eyes. What’s more, something felt strange about the ether in this place, wrong somehow.

“Come, let’s give Edda space to work, and Rubin room to breath.”

Zsófia pulled out of her focus on the magic to notice that the others had exited the room with only Telfor and his gentle hand on her shoulder returning to retrieve her. She recoiled from him, memory of his decision to have her arrested still raw, but nodded her head in agreement before they made their way out of the room.
In the hall, Pan was talking with the woman who had met them at the bar. He called her Lily, Zsófia remembered and thought, She’s pretty. Lily was a short, and slender woman, with soft looking long dark brown hair and even deeper brown eyes. She had similarly sharp features to the people of Zsófia’s village, though her skin was a smooth, light brown unlike Zsófia’s greyish green. The mixture of familiar and alien left Zsófia feeling an unexpected longing for home.
There was an exchange of coin for keys before Lily returned downstairs to the bar, and Pan led the rest of the group into one of the rooms across from where Rubin was being treated. The ripples of magic still present in the air. After entering, the group dropped their packs and found space to finally relax. After everyone had gotten comfortable, Pan spoke.

“I know Edda and the Valiant Retreat from my time in the King’s Army, she’s one of the best healer’s to never take a Noble’s retainer.”

“I thought Telfor said you were from the North?” Zsófia asked. While subtle, she noticed that the question seemed to bring up bad memories in Pan.

“I was, but not many soldiers are needed to guard The Bulwark. Once I took King’s Coin I was sent on campaign in the east.”

“The East, where Rubin was from?”

“Uh, yes. I believe so.” Pan answered quickly, dismissively, “The point is, he’s in good hands. I’ve seen Edda bring men back from the brink when the ether was already sucked dry.”

Those words finally crystalised the feeling Zsófia had been unable to put her finger on since they had arrived in Verwich. The ether was much weaker here. In her home village magic was thick in the air, it filled every breath even when you weren’t trying to draw on it but here she suspected that even warming herself would be a tiring prospect. She’d never known magic could run out, the thought was horrifying.

“What happened to all the magic?”

The others’ faces seemed confused. Could they not feel the thinness of the ether? They must have been able to, for it was Pan who’d drawn her attention to it. But then why were they confused, she wondered.

“You said the magic had been sucked dry,” to Pan, “How is that possible?”

The three exchanged glances, clearly uncertain on how to answer. Zsófia filled the pause with fearful imaginings.

“I… well, it’s just what happens.” Pan answered, “There’s just less magic when there’s more People around.”

Relieved that there was no malicious cabal of sorcerers stealing the world’s magic, or curse from the God’s cutting off it’s flow, Zsófia wondered at the reason. Welcoming the distracting thought to keep her mind from lingering on Rubin’s fate and trying to analyse Edda’s treatment by the way her magic rippled.
No sooner had she thought that however, than she realised that Edda’s spellwork had finished. The ether was still once more. Zsófia shot to her feet.

“Edda’s finished her magic.”

Vahkragg intercepted her before she could reach the door, gently but firmly telling her to stay without wasting any words on the meaning. An anxious knot formed in the pit of her stomach as she returned to sit on the bed once more, the stress of not knowing gnawed at her.
Taking the moment to glance at the others she saw Vahkragg seemed as stoic as usual as he stood against the wall beside the door his thick arms folded across his chest. Seated by the window Pan and Telfor sat in tense silence that was much easier to read for its concern. Pan wore his concern openly, it was clear that he and Rubin weren’t close, but that his companions condition wasn’t welcome to the northerner. Beside him Telfor’s grey lined face was much more guarded, though far from the impassive visage Vahkragg managed. Her heart went out to him, despite the anger she felt towards him, it was clear how deeply he took his responsibility as the leader. She understood why the others trusted him.
A sharp rap at the door broke the silence. Vahkragg calmly opened it and permitted Edda’s entrance. At a second, closer look Zsófia realised Edda wasn’t as old as she’d first thought, closer to Telfor’s age than the Elders of her village.

“I’ve done all I can for your friend, for the moment. Atyx only knows why you can never come visit me without forcing me drag someone out of their early grave Pan, you old corpse.”

Her voice was harsh, and Zsófia was shocked by how crudely she spoke to Pan, but he chuckled warmly and crossed the room to embrace the older woman warmly. It occured to Zsófia, that as a Revenant, she wasn’t sure whether Pan still aged like normal. It was possible he could actually be much older than she thought.

“I’m sorry, Edda, you old crone. But if I didn’t bring you something to keep you busy, I’d never her the end of your judging.”

“Hmph. As rude as ever, I see. And don’t you worry, I’m more than spry enough to wring you out once I’m done with the lad. Speaking of which.”

The woman rounded on Zsófia, who froze. Edda was shorter even than Zsófia who’d assumed all outsiders were giants before they’d seen Lily, now before the diminutive but broadly built Edda up close Zsófia somehow still felt much smaller.

“I assume you’re the one who did that hack job trying to cure him?”

Blushing deeply, Zsófia nodded. Her stomach plummeting at the critical description of her work, afraid that she may have worsened Rubin’s condition.

“Stop that.” Edda scolded. “I’ve no time for self-pity, you gave him the strength to make it here but now I need you to walk me through what you’ve done so I can undo it and fix him properly.”


Art Credit: https://www.deviantart.com/tegehel/art/Magic-Potions-497946084

Vicissitudes in the Dark Wood (Pt. 7)

The gentle heat of the sun warmed the travellers as they made their way along the road. It was a beautiful day, a soft breeze kept them cool as they walked, and the wide green plains that streched out in all directions were picturesque. Only Rubin’s fevered groans, punctuating Vahkragg’s steps, could keep moods from rising now they were finally free from the gloom of the forest.
Pan stared into the sky bright blue of the sky trying to remember the way it used to make him feel alive. Another rhasping moan came from behind, but he didn’t look back. There was no point, he couldn’t do anything for Rubin. He hadn’t been able to do anything for Verumalleus. The thought came unprovoked, as it too often did. The pain was too fresh, the wound too bare. He knew he wasn’t to blame for her death, that there was nothing he could have realisitcally done. He’d lost people before. He was familiar with the guilt, the irrational anger, the emptiness that came with it. So he tried to forgive himself, or at least push it out of mind until the present dangers had passed. But it didn’t work that way. In a way, that was the only feeling he felt refuge in. Like his pain proved his love had been real.

“It’s beautiful here, the world beyond the forest.”

The tagalong forest witch Zsófia had crept up beside him. She smiled to match the meaningof her words, but her smile never met her eyes. She was scared for Rubin, and being the most familiar with his sickness, that didn’t seem like a good sign.
Ever since he’d comforted her and stood up for her at camp that morning she had kept subtly close by. He didn’t blame her, the others hadn’t gone out of their way to make her feel welcome and it must be frightening to leave your home like this.

“The forest was beautiful too,” she continued, “But this is so different. Everything is so bright, and open. I can see for miles.”

It was true. The Märchenwald stretched out to the south, stalking them in the distance even as they followed the road towards civilisation. While in the far distance to the east the Leibgottes mountains mark the Kingdom’s borders.
Along the road, Verwich could be seen growing painfully slowly into view, still several hours march away. At the head of the party, Pan and Zsófia are far enough seperated from the others that they could speak with being overheard but regardless Pan very subtly increased his pace to gain some distance anyway. 

“How are you feeling?” He asked once they had moved far enough away to be certain.

The question struck Zsófia more than he’d expected. The facade she’d worn while discussing the landscape shattered and the vulnerability she’d tried to hide with it was laid bare. For a moment she is conflicted, but it’s obvious she needs to speak.

“I don’t know. I’m worried about Rubin.”

That’s not it, Pan thinks to himself. Not doubting she’s concerned about his health, her true worries ran deeper.

“Do you think he’d spare the same thoughts for you?”

She looked at him incredulously, clearly not expecting the harsh sentiment after the kindness he’d displayed to her this far. He felt guilty, and questioned if he was being cruel because of his own feelings, but without knowing the answer decided to push on.

“Rubin has been nothing but cruel to you since the start, he’s effectively argued for your death by petitioning for your arrest. I know you didn’t maledict him, but he thinks you did, and Telfor is realist enough to recognise you how you might decide killing him would be justified.”

Zsófia remained silent.

“You saved both of their lives, but that doesn’t mean they’ll just look the other way if they think you put a curse on him. They’re men of faith, but that doesn’t mean they’ll accept your story of the Horned God being the culprit.”

The girl’s expression hardened as he spoke, but emotion seeped through the gaps as she struggled to hold back tears. Atyx take me, I’m just making things worse. Get to the point already.

“I have a way to prove your innocence.” Despite the distance he lowers his voice. Zsófia brightened at the words and with a fierce pleading she faced him. “It’s not something I can talk freely about, but I can’t think of any other options. Will you trust me?”

Zsófia nods.

“Good. When we get to Verwich I’m going to introduce you to some people, but until then pretend we never had this conversation. Tell me about how beautiful you think it is here.”

From Pan’s perspective Zsófia seemed completely off-balance by his brutally honest description of the situation followed by the ray of hope without any kind of explanation behind it. Whatever she’d expected from talking to Pan, that hadn’t been it, but to her credit she was able to control her expression and what curiosity she must have to instead switch to discussing the landscape.

They’re going to be furious at me when I bring in an uninitiated. Gods, I hope they agree with me about her value. I wish Veru was here.

As the two shared words of appreciation over the surrounding landscape, the towering ancient walls of Verwich grow before them as the sun lowers in the sky behind them. Lessening their pace, Zsófia and Pan allowed the larger men to catch up before the four approach the wide open gates to the city. Second largest of the cities in the Kingdom after Capitol, the sprawling, bustling streets immediately swallow the group up. The only one comfortable here, Pan instinctively guides the group down winding, senselessly arranged streets until at last they arrived. A large inn, situated in a relatively quiet section of the town, its entrance almost hidden down a narrow street.

“The Valian Retreat,” Pan announced before entering. The inn was empty but for a single woman behind the bar, “Everyone, let me introduce Lily. Lily, we have a dying friend. We need to see Edda, is she in?”


Featured Image source (I believe): Christopher Rabenhorst http://christopherrabenhorst.blogspot.com/

Vicissitudes in the Dark Wood (Pt. 6)

“Chosen? What on earth are… Telfor, what is she talking about?” Rubin asks, turned away from Zsófia in exasperated fury.

“How in the hells shoud I know?” Telfor says, “Zsófia, you need to make some more sense girl?”

“Rubin was visited by the Horned God. My God. The God of the forest. He demanded Rubin’s worship and took it. He’s branded now, like I am, as His servant.”

“Nonsense! I am a scholar of the Weatherford University. I am faithful to the Pantheon, not some pagan heretic god!”

No sooner had the words left Rubin’s lips then his scarlet skin began to lose its depth. His eyes widened in horror and mounting pain. Mouthing a silent cry trapped deep in his throat, he buckled under an unseen force. His body snapped in half at the waist and he crashed to the ground, eyes rolled back in his skull.
Taken by surprise by the dramatic break by their companion, the mercenaries froze in place. As the others failed to respond, Zsófia lept forward. As Rubin writhed and flailed, she threw her weight on top of him, holding him down.

“Help me! Hold him still before he hurts himself!” She cried.

Shaking off their initial shock the three much larger men took over restraining Rubin’s mad struggles.

“Rubin, you need to recant! Please. He’s punishing you for denying Him, but He will stop if you just recant!”

Sweating and shivering from the torment Rubin silently moved his cracked and bloody lips to mouth the words. Moments pass and the worst of the tremors have passed from the scholar, the men stood from holding him down but Zsófia remained and took his weakly shaking hand in hers. The usually brilliant scarlet of Rubin’s skin was a weak, faded pink that left him looking as frail as a bedridden grandfather. He looked up at Zsófia, his eyes met hers for the first time without hatred instead they were wide with a mixture of wonder and fear and shimmered with tears.

“What is happening to me?”

“I’m so sorry Rubin,” She answered, voice thick with emotion, “I never thought this could happen to anyone else, He has only ever claimed the first born of my family. I never wanted this, I swear.”

Seemingly unable to answer, Rubin simply gasped his mouth moving like a fish on land as he stared at her, his eyes screaming what his words could not before finally they closed and exhausted sleep took him.
Telfor took Zsófia and Pan away while Vahkragg carefully carried Rubin back to his bedroll. The two men watched the Zsófia with the caution she had originally expected from them. That hurt more than any of Rubin’s accusations had.

“Zsófia,” Telfor states quietly from the shade of the tree he had choses to stop beneath. The word seemed at first to have been the start of a longer thought, but soon revealed itself as a completed thought inviting her to explain herself.

“I don’t know. This has only ever happened once in my life and that was when I was claimed to take over from my mother. I don’t know what this means, I don’t know why it happened, I’m just as confused as you.”

Telfor answered with contemplative silence. Zsófia crossed her arms across her body and gripped her sleeves for comfort under the weight of the silence when Pan spoke up.

“I believe her, Tel. You can’t deny this sounds just like every story of the Gods ever.”

Answered with a single grunt, Pan stepped in close to Zsófia and wordlessly offered his arm for comfort. She sensed that he was still cautious of her after the shock, but that just made the gesture more meaningful. She accepted and curled under the profured arm and rested her head against his chest.
Moments after Vahkragg returned to their company. Like a mountain, the giant conveyed only stalwart resolve as he passed Pan and Zsófia to where Telfor sat in deep thought.

“The lad’s feverish. I wouldn’t want to make the journey directly to Capital with him in this state.”

“God’s Blood.” Telfor cursed quietly beneath his breath before raising his voice to address the group, “Alright. Plan has changed again. According to the maps, the nearest settlement is Verwich which should be less than a day’s walk north-east. It’s out of our way, but Tassholm is almost a half week’s journey, and I’m not gambling Rubin’s life on the difference. We’ll give Rubin a couple hours to recover, and then if there’s no change we’ll start moving. Zsófia, can you do anything to help Rubin?”

“I think so, but I don’t have many healing herbs.”

“What do you need?” Vahkragg says, startling Zsófia by breaking from his usual silence. She answered with a short list and some descriptions of the few plants he didn’t know by name and he vanished into dark the forest.
For the next few hours Zsófia stayed by Rubin, channeling the ambient energy into him. It was clumsy work, the body is a complex thing and the energy she gave him also fueled his fever so she had to be very cautious. Before much time had passed Vahkragg returne with herbs. Zsófia wished she knew more of herblore, but ministered them to him as best she knew how.
But in spite of her skill with magic and potion, when Telfor came to check on the scholar’s progress at the end of the hours he had set aside for him, there had been no discernable change. As consequence the old soldier ordered they pack up camp and prepare to move. He and Pan secured Rubin to Vahkragg’s back as securely as they could and in unhappy quiet, the group started the march again. Barely a handful of hours passed before the reached the edge of the forest. This momentous milestone in Zsófia’s life, who had never even seen the edge of the forest, came and went without ceremony or almost any recognition. As the others passed without comment, Zsófia paused a moment to place her hand on the tree she chose to symbolise the forest edge. Eyes closed, Zsófia inhaled deeply her last breath before crossing the threshold and with no time to linger in the thought or marvel at the wide open spaces, she hurried to catch back up with the group as they marched along the road to Verwich.


Featured image found at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikecramermadison76/72717375/