Ontrothon - Saga of the Frozen Glass

The Vamaloan Cube

 

The nameless was now named. Unsure if that revelation was enough for the ancient Atranaar to sense them, the companions registered the name inside their consciousness and prepared to depart the village.

“What will you do now” Thalldon asked prince Vexandaris. “I will extract my vengeance upon the world of the Atranaar, and claim my birthright as befits my legacy. I am no Atranaar anymore. Instead, from me another lineage will spring. Allied neither to the High elves nor to anyone else. A Third Path. An empire for the forsaken and betrayed of this world! You can join me Blackguard. I see inside you a similar fire.”

-“I have another duty to uphold, but in the days to come, in the face of a new world, I see no direct reason for us to be enemies. Maybe we can even work together.” Thalldon replied diplomatically.

Kiko had grown aesthetically fond of the elves and of the Prince but was also becoming bored of such constant serious talk and Ylva did not appreciate the direction that this conversation was assuming, so they both exited the cave.

-“This could be the case. Time will tell. In the meantime take this advice. You are a powerful man. The useless ramblings of a child troubadour and the ego of deluded woman will only drag you down.” He said smirking and left. The very rainclouds formed into a griffon steed beneath him and he flew away into the glorious winds of vengeance and retaliation.

Finally the three left the dark village behind them. Who knew what sorrow and pain still lingered, and for how much longer, within the confines of Spine Ridge.

They took the northwestern hike trail that after a day’s walk would lead them to the basin of the Helmaer lands. During Greylight they happened upon a narrow gorge filled with human and animal bones. It reeked of decay and rotten flesh. Half torn carcasses of goats, mountain foxes and even humanoids, comprised of a rather grim spectacle. Suddenly a great shadow fell upon them from above and the swooshing sound of wings slashed the mountain air.

“On your guard!” Ylva commanded.

The shadow came and went a few times and a blood curdling screech resounded. Then another.

Immediately after, a huge form descended on the floor of the gorge. It was a winged reptilian denizen of the rocky slopes. A wyvern. The companions were now facing a fierce defender of its own territory.

Claw and bite, the huge dragonoid wasted no time and threatened to prey on them as it brought about such serious wounds, that the companion’s blood fell abundant on the carcasses of those who had made the same mistake before them, entering this chasm.

“Stop hurting it!” Kiko pleaded while the wyvern, ignoring the child, continued rampaging on its animalist rage. It had chewed part of Thalldon’s shoulder armor and the flesh beneath it, clawed viciously at Ylva’s back, and gnawed at Kiko’s collarbone. The bard attempted to magickally tame the beast and conjured the appropriate spell at the very moment that the wyvern was charging at it with an open mouth. The child could smell the beast’s rancid breath from afar. As if held back by an invisible leash, the dragonoid stopped on its path, mere inches before smashing onto the bard. It hissed and rotated its head in confusion.

Thalldon wasted no time and taking advantage of the wyvern’s hesitation, plunged Onxar through the neck of the predator, destroying it. The frostfire of the black blade roared as it burned the scales and the ochre blood of the beast, which now boiled as it rushed out of the blade wound. With a soul crushing cry, the wyvern fell dead.

“Why did you do this? It is our fault that this happened. We entered its territory.” Kiko shouted in opposition to the wyvern’s demise and started climbing the rocks to where, evidently, the wyvern kept its roost.

“In case you hadn't noticed, the beast assaulted us in the first place. I have no more time for your inexplicable objections.” The former paladin retorted while cleaning his helms visor from the blood.

“Kiko get back down here, this is dangerous!” Ylva added and started climbing after the bard.

But the child’s mind and heart were full of turmoil as of late and as it reached the nest, it started tossing the large eggs over, sending the younglings within, to their crushing deaths.

-“THERE. NOW THEY WONT HAVE TO LIVE WITHOUT PARENTS.”

-“That was wrong and unnecessary Kiko. Maybe the other parent is still alive.” Ylva shouted in disapproval.

This time, Kiko’s fit went undiscussed. The inner workings of its psyche were, after all, an uncharted territory, one that the bard itself had the only bearings to navigate across.

The companions tapped into the realm of spectral whispers to deliver a telepathic message to Elonkara.

“Meet me at the stables behind the frozen bog in the first hours of the morning.”

Soon, and as the night fell, the whole Helmaer basin opened up to them from over the mountainside – scarred by this ominous new phenomenon – the bloody chasms and gashes on the earthen surface. Miles of flat frozen lands extended radially, showered in the hazy starlight, enveloped by the slopes of the northern mounts. In the middle, the castle town of Cewick Tower stood barricaded and unwelcoming. But that was not all. It wasn't just a lonely city sitting in the frigid solitude. All over the area – from the front of the gates all the way to the northwestern passage where the companions trekked, a massive tent city unfolded. At first it seemed like it might have been some sort of a siege army encampment, but the travelers soon realized that it was a refugee camp.

Thalldon decided to pose as a monk and hide his true identity. He wore the robes of the Sharakhil and they agreed that they would appear as a Helmaer monk returning from pilgrimage along with his scribe and logkeeper and his jester friend. Indeed they entered the southern part of the refugee camp and walked around for a while, drawing various looks. Some of uncertainty and others of fear. There was much misery about. Peoples all over Barastir encamped there. Humans from Damorach, troll and dwarf Faeriefolk, half elven tribes from the Neobaria polynesian complex, and many other inlanders and lowlanders of the Ysteriona and Heriomel Steppes. Even some Rahmat cat people were there. The companions could only speculate in amazement on the reason behind this grand exodus. Was it the shadow of war brought about by the Atranaar? Has the Glass opened its devouring icy grasp further and faster? Did the bleeding of the earth have something to do with this?

While Kiko merrily rushed ahead to play with the children, Thalldon and Ylva spoke to an elder man who was cooking his frothy meal inside a rusty and battered kettle.

“I am Harrun. We have been here a tenday. Me and my family were of the first wave to arrive. Only a hundred tents back then. Now the camp has more than two thousand. I am an Eodoth man. I came from the fishing villages near Damorach. The frost has swallowed dozens of communities. My own was next. Our livelihoods are ruined. No fishing, no plants, no animals. Nothing.” He tried hard to hold his tears back.

“The doomsayers of the Twisted Rune started aggressively recruiting people under pain of death, and the lords were divided between going to war against the Atranaar or siding with them to secure new lands for themselves and their noble families, further north. Either way we the simple folk were done for.”

The old man seemed to take comfort in the presence of the company, and Thalldon tried his hardest to suppress his dominating aura. The interwoven magick of the robes helped in that effort. The man told them that the Helmaer and Atranaar patrols murder and/or abduct people every night since the first arrivals and many refugees consider taking the mountains or traveling to the northeast in hopes of joining with the Golagonds. He informed them that such matters are discussed every night in a large tent in the middle of the camp, where emissaries from every folk convene and address the issues at hand.

They took their leave of the man and decided to set a tent of their own further away near the mountain where they came from.

-“I sense clairvoyance Thalldon. The sources are multiple. Someone is watching these people.”

-“I sense the extended reach of the realm of malevolence Ylva. We had best be cautious.”

Kiko enjoyed itself playing with the children. These young souls either were unaware or their horrible plight, or had the remarkable courage to transform it to an adventure. They laughed and ran and rolled in the frozen mud. The urchin knew these children. All the children were itself somehow. Then again It was never allowed to be a child. Time was not given to it for such a gift. A mother took Kiko in her tent and fed it from the few scraps she had for her and her daughter. The bard gave her its amulet. She offered freely and Kiko offered freely. Offering freely is a blessing it thought. Its mind went off to the tragedy of some other children. The children of Spine Ridge. They were themselves offered freely by their own parents. Offering freely isn’t a blessing after all. Not always.

The bard walked back to the mountain pass in tears. Frozen tears. Tears of eternal solitude. It remembered the Archdruid. Solitude. Yes, solitude.

 It sat near the fire Thalldon and Ylva burned, and slept without uttering a word.

The others woke it up a few hours later, in order to attend the meeting.

This grand pavilion was filled with people. Around it refuges gathered to hear the discussion and others deliberated why they needed to enter and report their ideas, thoughts and information. A few mildly armed refugees guarded the four entrances.

“I am a monk from the Sharakhil monastery. I am sent by the other monks to assist you in your dire times and offer counsel. These are my assistants. Allow me to enter and record your discussion. Your voices must be heard around the world.” Thalldon told the guard who shrunk beneath the brooding majesty of the blackguard and showed him in, more afraid than convinced.

“No matter what, do not reveal who you really are!” Ylva warned Thalldon.

In the middle of the tent, around which benches were set, half a dozen people sat one next to another. A half elf man of at least a hundred years old, a dwarf faerie, an old Damorach woman who wore ragged clothes but had the eyes, the complexion and the hands of someone who had not seen much hardship, a middle aged woman from the mountain villages of the midlands and lastly an imposing Rahmat tigerman wearing the regal black cloak of his peoples. The conductor, who sat in front of them, addressed him as Emihfhiz the “Rulash” – the vizier – of the Rahmat feline peoples hailing from the Gamrava islands. Thalldon and Kiko had heard of them. Not many of that wondrous race exist anymore. Many sages suggested that the Rahmat are the direct descendants of Goddess Elel herself. If even their tropical paradise has fallen under the effects of the Glass, the world was indeed dying.

The old half-elf, Zaos, spoke of the plight of the Neobaria peoples. He mentioned tides as high as hills drowning island communities and a mysterious oily substance much like blood in hue and odor, washed ashore along with dead fish. He declared that he and his two hundred people will leave the camp and head west to join the Golagonds. Many of his folk had died in Atranaar or Helmaer hands already, and the nomadic life of the strong Goladond nation was their salvation.

The middle-aged woman, Thada, described how her people, the Maeru – cousins of the Helmaer, were constantly persecuted by Atranaar loremasters who demanded of the natives to show them to the hidden Atalak ruins of the days of yore, a tradition and culture that the Maeru deviated from in the last seven thousand years, adapting to a moral rural life of stock raising and cultivation, befitting the climate change. That infuriated the Atranaar who posed the ultimatum “Honor the glory of your ancestors or perish as uncouth vermin.” The loremasters were then followed by slavemasters who imprisoned some Maeru and killed others, forcing the rest to flee the already harsher and cold ridden hills of the midlands. She informed the counsil that her peoples will head to the sea in hope to flee the persecution and find suitable islands to inhabit.

Rukkad the Faerie Dwarf also painted a grim picture. The ancient Faerie Bodagot tree communities of the south became literally uprooted in the past moons, and frothing black oil rushed from beneath the trees. The flora and fauna equilibrium plunged into disarray and so, many Faeries fled in despair as the creeping frost soon followed, making the nights much colder than before. He announced that he and his people would move further into the mountains to join with their Giant brethren and resume their life within the rock, as in the ancient times.

Emihfhiz the Rahmat tigerman, rose and spoke last. His dark cloak spilled evenly around his feet like an ebony waterfall. His amber eyes gleamed in the dim light of the pavilion. His voice was coarse but flowing, like the fresh stream turning into a roaring waterfall.

“I will not say many things different than you, but for one.

It is also our own fault.

When have you last cared for the air and the water and the fire and the wood and the sound of beasts and the flesh of rock around you? When have you not seen the world as a womb of tools to use and discard and nothing more? When have you thought of the struggle of the pine cone before the pine and the blessing of the pinch of salt before the sea water? When have you loved the young lamb as much as the old goat, and the egg as well as the hen? When have you elected not to fence, and mount, and tie, and slaughter and skin and devour the Hefrou – the animals – even horribly throwing away most of their butchered and uneaten corpus, but instead embraced them as your equals beneath the stars? Even for a day. When have you tried to serve THEM further than just to prepare them for your own needs? When have you prayed to the spirit of the log as you maimed it from the tree that bore it and when have you praised the summoning of the most holy and ancient fire who hungers and consumes at YOUR bidding? When have you wept for the stone as it is equally bitten by your pick as by the fierce wind and the endless sea, and when for the ocean that awaits the tears of the clouds to sustain itself against the constant harvesting of its children by your nets? THIS is your true legacy as beings beneath the stars. THIS is what you have forgotten. Yet many of you weep only for the glory and the ruin of days passed within high walls and great halls and grand castles and glorious banners. Now you see the folly.”

It was as if the air from the pavilion was suddenly depleted. Emihfhiz stood there gazing intensely at the crowd, which would only murmur.

“The Rahmat will fight for the future. We will breach the walls of Cewick Tower and demand freedom in the world, as the world is as much theirs as it is ours. Then the Rahmat will fight for the world. You can join or not join the Rahmat. The Rahmat will love you either way.”

Thalldon stood up.

He let his cloak fall and unleashed his domineering emanation.

“People of Barastir! I stand in front of you humbled by your heroic journey and the painful uprooting of your lives. The vizier is right! You must fight! WE must fight!”

“Yeah sure.” Kiko whispered to the guy next to it.

There was a sudden uproar.

“And who are you to dictate anything?” Many asked.

“I am Thalldon, exiled son of King Kantagor, lord of Cewick Tower. I am here to tell you that you, ALL of you, are welcome within the city, to live and settle!”

Ylva fixated her arcane focus towards the Damorach woman. She emanated a source of magick both intense and foul. Maybe she was a spy for the Helmaer. Suddenly, as the magick pried her aura open, she turned and looked at Ylva and rapidly left the pavilion. The warlock followed her outside but lost her in the crowd. This would not bode well, Ylva thought.

The refugees within the pavilion went into a heated discussion.

-“Thalldon! So you are spying on us!”

-“No he is an exile. He has been disowned by the throne.”

-“Regardless he knows nothing of our dire situation. He is just here to gloat and act like a philanthropist or sway us into helping his schemes to win office!”

-“This is not true! I have no desire to use you. I have a vision for a new Helmaer country. One of acceptance. Fight with me!” Thalldon retorted.

-“Fight you say, yet you have no grasp of what has befallen us. Most of us are not warriors and even if we were, the Helmaer and the Atranaar would still crush us. They already kill and abduct us every day.”

-“Have faith in my words! I am in contact with the Golagonds. Their tolerance of the Atranaar has waned. They will come to our aid. Also the giants of the mountains seek to settle the basin as well and have harbored animosity against the Helmaer for their cruel stance towards them. They will also prove to be allies and I have been in contact will them also.” The blackguard pressed on, more and more confident of his case.

-“Then let the Golagonds do the fighting. We are in no position to wage war.”

-“I am not trying to patronize you but hear this. Even if you flee today, you might not reach the Golagond trail in time, let alone their two pilgrimage sites. And even if you reach the mountains around us, sooner or later the Atranaar will find you and employ more ways to oppress you. They might be arithmetically fewer than the Golagonds but they have been harvesting dark and awesome magick. Only united we can destroy them. Hear me!”

As Thalldon uttered this final address, two distinct war horns sounded in the distance. He recognized one of them. It was a Helmaer battle horn. The other was unknown. They were accompanied by a great hum and the desperate shouting of the refugees outside. Could it be that the revelation of his identity was intercepted by the clairvoyance around the camp?

There was big commotion and unrest as Kiko, Ylva and Thalldon exited the pavilion. They witnessed an astonishing spectacle. Above the middle of the city of Cewick Tower, fuming a deep crimson fog, throbbing and droning loudly in a tune mysterious and unfathomable, hovered a massive cubic structure – perfectly symmetrical, as big as the city if not even larger, seemingly made of dark rock, its surface gruff and embossed. It rotated slowly around itself and the red fumes apparently were coming out of a huge hole on one of its faces.

Further to the western mountains, descending the slope, they saw a blanket of torches. An army or a procession.

The refugees were in a state of horror. Some cowered within their tents, others ran to the mountain passes and most wandered aimlessly unsure of what was going on. Soon the word came out – maybe just wishful thinking – that that procession was the Golagonds descending upon the city. None knew what this colossal thing was. Many said that it is a doomsday machine sent by the Glass. Others that the Atranaar manufactured it in order to serve as a weapon of mass destruction.

“I will lead some of the people towards the forests near the mountain pass, for safety!” Ylva declared, and with the help of Harrun, a few dozen people followed her.

Thalldon saw that above him the golden hawks Algaragan the giant had told him to look for, were circling the camp. That was a good sign.

The Helmaer had unleashed an offensive and as Thalldon strode towards the western entrance of the camp, he saw bodies of slain refuges and a few of them, maybe fifty, led by Rukkad, were fighting back against the forty or so Helmaer and Atranaar foot soldiers. Thalldon joined them. His brooding power fell upon his kinsmen with unrivaled fury. With each death Onxar was pleased.

YES MY LORD. EVERY DEATH IS THE GROUNDWORK FOR YOUR LEGACY.”

Kiko, as if possessed, started walking towards the basin, to cross the thousand steps distance that divided the refugee camp from the walls of Cewick Tower. The child was drawn to the Cube. So was its best and most unique musical instrument of the whole wide world.

As the child neared the walls, Thalldon and Rukkad had slain or pushed back the Helmaerites and started tending to the wounded and burning the dead.

The camp was near abandoned within hours. Most refugees had fled to the sea, or to the western mountains and the ones that still remained, withdrew back to the forests to reconvene. Only four hundred people stayed behind. Some grieving for their dead, and many fatherless, motherless, childless, hopeless.

Ylva, who remembering that Elonkara would be waiting for Thalldon in the stables behind the old walls, decided to take this quest upon herself. She slid and crawled and used her arcane affinity to blend with the environment and sure enough, reached the sparsely guarded area near the frozen swamp that Thalldon mentioned.

YLVA!” She heard a voice.

Kiko reached a few feet away of the main gate, wounded by the arrows of the guardsmen, shooting at it from the battlements. They thought of the child as a game. As shooting practice. The bard was filled with protruding arrows and it fell dying. Above it, the Cube fumed its crimson mist towards its dying body but the urchin was not ready to depart the world of the living just yet. It gathered its last spiritual resources and healed itself pleading to the stars, and started running towards the walls. Before the guards could react it, it put its back to the wall and crawled slowly parallel to it, to remain out of sight. In front of it a familiar site unfolded. It was the frozen bog from where it and Thalldon entered the city a few weeks ago. It saw Ylva trying to do the same.

YLVA!” It yelled at her.

The guards from above heard them and Ylva was forced to plunge the bog into thick magickal darkness. Enshrouded by the black void they run inside.

“Are you out of your already minuscule mind? Are you trying to get us killed?” She reprimanded the child.

The stables were empty. Obviously the horses were taken to the battle that was raging over to the northwest. But the stable master was still there, sitting on a bench over to the other side.

They crept upon behind him, but as soon as they were ready to grab him, he turned and stood up, changing form. Now Elonkara stood in front of them. She waved in the air, and across the motion of her gesture a portal leading to the forests appeared.

“Quickly friends! Kiko I hope you have you musical instrument still. The Cube of Vamaloa must be reversed and unlocked.”

 

 

 

 

 

View
The Father, The Prince and the Children.

Kiko Impatiently wanted to claim its prize like the others did.

Sacra Satar nodded subtly towards the tavern.

"Your price awaits you there child".

Eagerly the urchin rushed to the mesh hall and saw a hooded figure sitting inside. He had stark and elongated features – a man in his seventies. As Kiko approached, he raised his arms as if to casually stretch and looked at the child much like how people look down upon a pariah. Kiko felt its heart freeze, but despite the apprehension, walked over.

 "Long time no see, friend." It spat, half mockingly, half detached.

It knew this person very well. They had travelled together for many years. People called him “the Fisherman”. He was a performer of sorts. Ventriloquist, magician, pickpocket, troubadour, storyteller. Kiko considered this man to be its patron given that the child had met no parents.

They toured together giving musical performances to settlements and highway Inns. He had taught the child to play the flute as well as other musical instruments and had also handed down other skills more obscure and roguish to it. Everything that the child had seen in the world, it had experienced it together with this mysterious man and every such experience was interconnected with him both as a feeling as well as a memory. It was a connection of nostalgia and dependence.

The child’s astral heritage boiled and hummed inside the veins of its body as it neared the man. Kiko remembered the recurrent dreams it saw. Dreams of silver wings.

"You will not like what you are about to hear, child. Regardless, I have no issue in revealing an experience that shaped things to come. As you very well know I am known as ‘the Fisherman’. In my younger years I was indeed literally that. I would live on the coast near the sea and would fish for a living.”

Kiko stood motionless and stared at the man as a sudden uneasiness gripped it.

“One day three radiant glows plummeted from the sky. I imagined they would be a long-lost phenomenon ages dead, that the sages call shooting stars, manifesting as grim remembrance of what it is for the light to perish, but the Threefold Glow grew as it was falling through the air near the coast from where I was sitting. The radiance was so bright, so blinding, that I covered my eyes in desperation and then heard a splash and then a second, and a third one. Heat, sudden warmth, and the showering of sea droplets enveloped me."

 Kiko felt a noose tightening around its wee neck.

“Hesitantly and as the phenomenon subsided, I dove into the waters having in mind to swim towards a vortex, orange and magnetizing, that was swirling a few feet from the shore, but as I was wetting my feet, I saw two bodies of pure light being washed on the beachhead. They had the silhouettes of humans but dozens of sets of wings sprung from their shoulders. Fiery wings but also dull and moist. The bodies started burning through the sand, but I could see – I could feel – that they were dying. They seemed to be holding hands, I thought at first, but upon further inspection I noticed that they were holding a fetus. Raising their arms they held it high, as the glow, the warmth and the fire from their bodies, slowly but steadily, were transferred to this gloomy newborn. They spoke in a language that I did not understand – the vowels and the consonants were alien to me – but I felt a plea. I knew that they were asking for a pyre. For an offering of Fire that would invigorate them. Not a fire from the lightning that crackles in its awesome might, neither the lava that smolders within the ancient Rock, but the Fire within me. Just a sparkle of my humanity offered freely, would be enough for them. I knew it. But as you very well know, I do not offer freely. The world is harsh and unfair. Nothing that is mine will ever be anyone else’s, and so I watched them die and diminish into a faint shade forever, but the fetus shone bright and survived.  It bristled with power. ‘Now that is worth keeping’ I thought to myself. And so I did. I watched your father and mother die, saving you. It was their choice and I had no business saving them. The rest is history."

 

The bard felt nothing, said nothing, did nothing. It just stood there glaring at the man who stood up and whispered to its ear just as Thalldon and Ylva, entered the room.

“Now you know. Your grief is just further empowering the amulet.” He said, and Kiko saw that a pendant he was wearing across his neck, hummed and flickered.

“This was meant to be yours. A gift from parent to child. But since I saved you – this is now MY reward.” The man hissed and grimaced.

Kiko witnessed this being spouting hatred and malice but it only added to further the sorrow that already this universe was enshrouding everyone in, and so the child just pitied the man. He was from this moment on, meaningless to it.

“Are you all right youngling?” Thalldon inquired worried, dropping angry looks towards the man who just now was casually walking outside, leaving Kiko standing there mute and numb.

“Hey wait a minute stranger.” Ylva declared pointing at the Fisherman. “What is this all about?”

What transpired next was just a distant haze to Kiko. A silent event bereft of meaning and necessity. The man was cornered by Thalldon and Ylva and was questioned persistently on the nature of his meeting with Kiko.

“Let him go. He is insignificant. We just traveled together once upon a time is all.” The child implored but the others would not comply. This person had everything wrong about him and then some.

“Your parents are insignificant. Live with it. You yourself is insignificant. They bestowed NOTHING at all to you. They just died. Everything you know, I taught you. The monks were right though. I will indeed find my true calling here. There is still useful essence inside you to harvest.” He announced and held this weird amulet high in front of his face.

Thalldon and Ylva charged at the man, sword and spell blazing, but he was prepared. A magickal aura twirled around him in protection and empowerment. An aura that came from this very amulet. Kiko attempted to put the man under a sleep invocation but the child’s magick was not effective at all. Finally the vile stranger was overcome when Thalldon wrestled the man and removed the magickal phylactery from his neck. In the end he pleaded just like the starfolk he once left to die at his feet, but neither Ylva nor Thalldon accepted his plea, and he was slain then and there, as the monks ignored his presence. It was only Sacra Satar that spoke.

“He lived and died under the same tenets he held dear. He must be pleased.”

Kiko still felt nothing. The fisherman’s memory was entirely unimportant to it. It did not wish his death and so the urchin did not celebrate it.

The companions silently left the scene and retreated to the privacy of a room prepared for them. They needed to rest and decide on their course of action. Thalldon unfolded the world map that they carried and updated every step of their saga.

 “We need to bring all the stars together.” The former paladin noted confidently.

“Indeed we do. I would like to accompany you, this world is still a big questionmark to me, and the desires of my goddess still need to be revealed.” Ylva announced. She was intrigued by the relationship of the two and by the aura of this world. She wanted to stay. "The nearest star is to be found in the city of giants. There is a myth describing the crowning of the fire Queen the jewel of whom was a Heavenly glow. Α star."

Kiko remained silent and in deep contemplation.

"We could also pass through Cewick Tower on our way there. I am still expecting to receive word from the race of giants in the Helmaer lands and from my sister. Uctun though, seems far away to the east." Thalldon said scratching his chin.

“We can go over the mountains to the west; we are so high north that we can let the circumference work in our favor.” Ylva deliberated.

“Circumference? What do you mean? The World is flat and great perils await those who reach its end! We will take the normal route!"

Ylva did not contest it further. Those worldviews were considered obsolete where she came from, but this was an unknown world for her. If it was one thing that she considered good advice, was to keep an open mind. Regardless, she giggled internally with the notion that an educated noble held beliefs such as this.

They decided to rest for a day within the ancient monastery and tomorrow they would depart aboard a small caravan that passes under the monolith each twelveday bringing supplies to the monks but also to the nearby villages on the mountain. Unfortunately, due to recent events regarding the Helmaer alliance with the Atranaar, the caravan avoided Cewick Tower.

The leader of the caravan was a faerie lady called Milva, who told them that the nearest Village before the Tower, was a village called Spine Ridge.

“You should not go to spine Ridge.” She said emphatically. There is an ancient curse upon this village, I'm warning you.” Kiko knew what she was talking about. There was an old story concerning Spine Ridge. It mentioned a young warlord of the High Elves nicknamed “the Frozen Prince”, who supposedly still haunts the jagged mountainous formations that surround the community. Regardless, the companions decided to visit the village since its proximity to Cewick Tower would prove a worthy sacrifice even if the superstitions we're true.

The mountain spires seen from within the carriage loomed around them much like stone daggers thrust inside the earthen body. One after another the twelve moons of Barastir assumed their positions in the Sky dome as the caravan drove its lengthy body through the evening.

Ylva was preoccupied with the skull of the demon that she had taken as a trophy, and Thalldon was contemplating the future of his legacy. Kiko was still brooding. Since the sunken pyramid and his meeting with Death, the child grew colder and more transfixed to the darkness of existing. This reunion with his former patron was yet another wound in its already bleeding psyche.

Soon they reached a highway fountain. It was elaborately carved on the facade of the stone under which the water poured out of the bowels of the mountain. It depicted a male nymph, from the eyes of which the eternal liquid streamed luminous and pure.

Thalldon stepped out of the carriage to take a sip. As he neared the fountain, the waters of the basin started boiling and the figure of a man formed beneath them as if he had been swimming upstream.

The former paladin stopped for a moment and rubbed his eyes but the man was still there. He was unfamiliar, yet welcoming. His distorted face was beautiful and joyful under the soft wavelength of the basin.

-"I will grant you anything that you desire if only you yourself promise to grant me a wish in the times to come. Do you accept?"

-“Who are you spirit and what wish is it that you require?"

-"I require nothing yet, but I will in the future. All I'm asking is for a collaboration – for a trade."

-“What if what you wish for is not within my powers or my will to grant, spirit?"

-"That would not be the case. I would ask for something that you would be able to deliver."

Thalldon paused and instinctively declared the following desire. He already had the emotional and mental imagery of such a future. Time and time again he waited for this aspiration to actually transpire.

-"I wish for the reins of my family to be handed to me so that my legacy will be fulfilled."

-"It will be done." the spirit replied and disappeared clearing and calming the waters.

"To whom where you talking to?" Ylva asked as soon as the Helmaer noble entered the carriage.

"No one. I was just thinking out loud. I have a lot on my mind regarding my family."

Kiko raised its tired face and addressed him. “First you are talking to your blade and now to a fountain. You keep too many secrets. Hopefully their revelation is to our benefit.”

They continued on their journey and soon reached a clearing wreathed in gray, thick fog. The mist ran deep and covered the tall Hrasstuk pine trees like a large hazy blanket. Behind the small forest, the jagged peaks of Spine Ridge extended their menacing granite fingers towards the sky in defiance.

The caravan stopped and Milva exited the carriage. She loaded a cartwheel with various goods and started rolling it across the mist. The three companions followed closely behind. They noticed a strange circle made out of twigs from the absinthe tree. They were arrayed in the middle of the clearing like a nest for a very large bird. "Is this to keep things out or in?" Kiko asked rhetorically, inspecting the space. It obviously had some ritualistic purpose. Milva started unloading the contents of the wagon inside the circle. They helped her out and finally she looked at them intensely and repeated her warning.

“I am bidding you farewell, unless you have reconsidered.”

“No it’s fine.” Thalldon reassured her. “Farewell and thank you.”

Milva took her leave. The caravan rolled downhill like a lazy snake and they were left alone in the frigid cold of the night, standing around the circle. As they started walking towards the forest and hopefully to the village beyond, they saw the flickering light of two torches. Kiko was the first to hide. Two men, grim and silent, walked up to the circle. One of them was very tall, with birdlike features, long nose and chin while the other was stout and short and very-very hairy. They dragged a cartwheel of their own and started loading the goods, without exchanging a single word.

“Hello friends!” Ylva shouted merrily. “Could you direct us to the village?”

The tall one slowly turned towards her, still holding a very large crate, as casually as one would hold a piece of cloth.

“Sievayies kargim xrafiz?” He replied.

“My brother says that you can follow us through the forest. The village lies beyond.” The short one added, clearly misrepresenting the tall ones reply.

“Is there food and lodging in your village?” Thalldon inquired.

“Yes, food and bed. Yes.”

The three companions followed the denizens of the village through the misty forest. Kiko noticed that they were wearing peculiar amulets around their necks. They were also made of absinthe wood sticks. Those two brothers did not address the companions, they just spoke to each other in a weird language idiom. Snappy and thick and uttered like a ritualistic curse. Thalldon tried to remember if he had heard it before in the mountainous communities of the Helmaer lands, to no avail.

When they finally reached the village, they saw that it was basically a collection of derelict huts and shacks. Only one house was built using bricks as well as wood.

A large, three stories building into which the two brothers headed towards. Prior to entering through the main door, they both spat on the ground and leaned over to mix the saliva with the dirt using their index finger.

“Now that is a merry picturesque little hamlet if I ever saw one", Ylva remarked.

“One with very strange habits too.” Thalldon said wearing a grimace of disgust.

No other villagers were present and no smoke came out of no chimney. The cobbled streets of the village were full of weeds and grass and evidently, they were not used very often. As an otherworldly overtone, there was an eerie song echoing through the nightly wind. It was being sung by the voices of children.

“What shall we sing to our Prince and his throne?

What can we say to the grim grip of day?

What can we sing when the greylight is gone?

When can we dance above the bodies that lay?

Eons have passed 'neath the darkness and frost.

Eons threefold since the vile elven host.

Dark are the deeds by the hands of the Fathers.

Sealed by the roots and the seeds of the Others.

Give praise to our Prince and his dark icy throne.

Give praise and rejoice ‘fore the nightime ‘s all gone.”

The facial expressions of those younglings were stern and hard as if they never experienced the joy of childhood. As the companions walked through the village they saw them dancing and holding hands around the trunk of a huge tree. An absintheene tree, as Kiko informed them. On its branches a multitude of similar amulets like the ones the brothers were wearing, hung like myriads small wooden bodies executed on the noose. The children were of various ages. Even newborns that could not stand on their own, were more of less dragged along in this dance by the others. A grim and heartstopping spectacle, one that the companions did not dare to intrude or interfere with.

Apart from the younglings though, no grownups could be seen anywhere, no parents. There was something terribly amiss in this community; it was evident, unmistakable, and palpable.

The lowly tavern contributed to this atmosphere. It had no patrons and only a very old woman sat behind the bench, wearing an empty look across her time-worn face. She glared at the travelers and responded in broken Goladondish to their questions. It was as if she did not exist in the there and then.

“This is either a very bad joke of a horror story or a rather gruesome reality hidden in plain sight.” Ylva remarked.

“We should explore the hills where this Frozen Prince supposedly lies, before we seek to camp. I see no logic in staying in this inn even if it indeed offers logging.” Thalldon was quick to add.

Kiko saw itself in these children. The ugliness of the world threatened them but they still danced. “I want to play and dance with the children.” The urchin sprang up and announced.

“NO.” The other two retorted sharply. “It is neither safe nor wise. Not until we get to the bottom of this mystery.”

And so they left the tavern and hiked towards the granite hills behind the village. An uncanny hum originated from the bowels of the mountain and resounded over the treetops hissing like the woes of the ghosts of the dead. Their path lead them to a cave frozen and dark, opening up like a gaping maw, like the cranium of a frigid dragonhead. The inside of the cave was dark and an elaborate stone gate decorated the northern wall. It depicted the carving of a tree set ablaze by the fiery breath of a tiny bird. Scattered on the frozen floor the companions noticed various amulet tokens, just like the ones they had seen on the branches of the tree in the village square.

As they entered, the whole cave shook.

“We are clearly not welcome here. I sense a powerful entity within.” Ylva declared in warning.

“Indeed, there is an ancient power about.” Thalldon concurred. His connection with the nether aspects had now introduced him to a newfound affinity with the nature of good and evil. They were no longer absolutes to him but rather a wide and variable spectrum.

The cave shook again, this time more violently. Stalagmites and stone boulders cracked and fell around them and much to their dread they started forming into a monstrous figure. First the torso then the hands and legs. It was a primordial elemental. This hulking Guardian immediately attacked them hurling boulders and rushing ahead with the speed of an avalanche.

ONXARRRR!” Thalldon shouted and charged to meet the stone hulk head on.

He hacked and mauled at the giant, chipping bits off of its granite torso right before a severe blow to his shoulder brought him to his knees and dented his armor that was now smothering his lungs making his breathing harder and harder as he gasped for air. Ylva rocketed Eldritch blast after Eldritch blast further deteriorating the behemoths composure, but the giant was strong and powerful in its own element. Completely ignoring the other two, it fixated on the bard and with a vicious horizontal stroke sent the child crushing across the wall. Disoriented and hurt Kiko labored to regain its composure and stand up.

Drawing upon its stronger invocations, the child addressed the elemental and stated a magickal suggestion.

“Why don't you bring us before your master? Go ahead and open the path for us to appear before him.”

Immediately and as if stricken by some sudden realization, the giant halted its offensive and turned to the gate and started punching it violently only for its own arm to be crumbled into dust. The rest of the elementals body was returned to the cave that bore it.

“How dare you mingle with powers that sleep for ages long?” It was the voice of a young man, but echoed dominating and confident.

“We seek audience with you, Prince”, Thalldon demanded.

At the same time Ylva had found a small bundle of absinthe twigs that burned like incense. The smell of the burning wood entered her nostrils and she was entranced and enthralled. She just stood there paralyzed and motionless.

Go ahead – smell the offering from my children and you shall be admitted to my inner Sanctum.”

Far away down the path they heard the song of the children – they were nearing the cave.

“We would not do that. Explain yourself. What have you gotten this village under?” The former paladin retorted.

“You are in no position to make demands, Helmaerite. Leave or stay it makes no difference to me, my children must and will feed, regardless.”

As Kiko skulked behind a rock and Thalldon deliberated with the echo, Ylva that was coming to her senses, drew upon her inner wisdom and manifested it through a spell simple but unmistakable.

“Portal or gate or passage shut and sealed, Open now and at once be revealed!”

Immediately as if being drawn by an invisible hand, a hidden passageway opposite to the elaborate gate was open!

Wasting no time the three companions rushed inside to avoid the approaching children. Inside the corridor that ran behind the gate, they saw a frozen altar covered with dried blood, which was in the middle of a circular room and had no apparent exit. The body of an old man in traveler’s clothes lay on the altar. He was dead and frozen. A subsonic hum resonated within, and its pulse became stronger and stronger with each passing step they took.

“I can stay and mingle with the children” Kiko declared and immediately hid inside a rocky crevice before the others could react. The children walked across the corridor in religious procession.

“We need to hide!” Ylva declared. In her desperation she noticed that a part of the wall was fixated into the multiplicity of dimensions. She had seen portals like this in her sojourns.

“Thalldon there! Follow me.” She whispered and touched the metamaterial surface of the portal, opening it. They both entered, seconds before the children arrived at the altar. It mysteriously led to a small room. One bedroll lay on the ground in front of a small wooden desk. On a chair a half elven man sat with his eyes open wide – he wore the robes of an arcane practitioner. He seemed dead as his hands hang to his ribs and his head leaned to the side. There was dust everywhere. Nobody had stepped inside this room for a very long time. Ylva noticed that another such portal overlapped the wooden door of the room, found on the back side.

“That damned child will be killed. We must get it out of there fast.” Thalldon roared angrily.

“I can see through the portal, it operates like a window to the trained eye. I will try to speak to Kiko’s mind telepathically and convince it to come to the door. Be ready to grab it and pull it inside as I open the gate.” Ylva directed. The former paladin did not need to be asked twice. Kiko had a habit of bringing him to the edges of his patience with its senseless impulsiveness.

The children formed a circle around the altar, and like beasts or famished carnivores, fell on the body of the man and started devouring him. They rend flesh and chew bone. They drank blood and swallowed sinew and marrow. Kiko horrified, assumed the guise of one of them hoping that it will not be detected.

"Eat, EAT!” A child to its side commanded the bard. It was no more than three years old. Torn fleshy parts hang between its small youngling teeth.

“You must feed!” It demanded again and resumed its meal.

Thalldon and Ylva, witnessed the feeding in terror.

“Kiko, stop this folly and crawl near the eastern wall NOW. Quickly before they consume him entirely and notice your deception.” The child complied, and after a synchronized effort, Ylva opened the portal, Thalldon grabbed the bard and then the warlock re-shut it.

THIS IS THE LAST TIME I COME TO YOUR RESCUE. WE HAVE GREAT TASKS AT HAND AND NO TIME TO CATER TO YOUR SILLY MELANCHOLIC DEATH WISHES.”

Thalldon bellowed. He needed to blow off steam.

“I just wanted to dance. That’s all. Stop shouting!” Kiko replied in tears.

“Leave it be Thalldon. It’s over now. Let’s focus in this gruesome mystery.” Ylva said stepping in to defuse the situation.

All three then turned towards the man on the chair.

As they neared his mouth they noticed that he was breathing. Whatever brought about this condition of his, it had trapped him into this immobility for quite a while. His fingertips and mouth had turned purple and his cheeks were full of moist tears running above dried ones, but he could neither speak nor move. Upon further inspection they noticed that he was holding a crumbled peace of an old papyrus in his left palm. It was torn from a larger piece. There was an aura of protection from fire that enveloped it.

“I came here during (…)

after the fall of the (…)

did not tolerate (…)”

A quill miraculously levitated from the desk and lay suspended mid air in front of them.

"I tire of this constant treacherous sorcery." Thalldon declared grabbing the quill which immediately turned as if it was a compass directing or pointing outside.

“We need to help this poor being." Kiko implored.

“First we need to get bottom of this, I have a feeling that if we do, we would be able to help him as well." Ylva noted.

They exited the room through the wooden door and realized that it existed within a pocket dimension. It was invisible from the outside. The quill brought them to an abandoned house devastated by the passage of time. Inside they saw shadows growling. They were unsure if these were men or something much more sinister. Careful to emulate the customs of the village as they saw them being demonstrated by the two brothers, they spat on the ground and mixed their spit with the dirt.

“That’s not enough!” Ylva warned the group. They were wearing these weird amulets, remember?”

And so they quickly run to the tree in the middle of the village and picked off some of those tokens that hung from the branches and put them around their necks believing that this would protect them from the perils of this nightmarish village. They returned to the house that the quill directed them, and entered.

Much to their dread what they feared was true. The decaying bodies of a couple sat across each other as if getting ready to have dinner. As soon as they saw the companions, they hissed and fell upon them like rabid dogs. Upon seeing the amulets that hung from their necks though, they cowered and were quickly destroyed. Truly, they found another piece of crumpled parchment on the corner of the house.

It was incoherent without a grander context. It mentioned something about ancient seeds, stillborn babies and someone who was at the age of sixteen.

"The prince! This must be the prince." Kiko happily said. This game was very enjoyable to the urchin.

"We can never be sure until we find the other parts." Thalldon declared as he was exiting the house following the directions of the quill which was now turning elsewhere.

It was pointing towards a second house. Within it they found the rotten corpse of a man hanging from the main horizontal beam of the roof. As soon as they entered, the body was animated and was frantically trying to reach the companions bellow, squirming and growling and re-snapping its already dead and broken neck. Thalldon called upon his blade and burned the poor wretched man with Onxar's frostfire, putting him out of his misery. Right beneath him, lost and stashed inside some debris, they found yet another piece of parchment. It divulged random information again. It mentioned a village – possibly this one – being the neighbors of elves and something about intolerance.

The next site that the quill revealed, was a half destroyed and possibly dry, waterwell.

“I am too big and stiff, and Ylva is too … well … full of horns to go inside. Therefore we will tie you child. Look for the paper inside, AND BE CAREFULL!” Thalldon announced and started tying all their ropes with eachother and then Kiko with one end.

“Fun, fun, fun?!?” The child was unsure of the endeavor and climbed over the ledge as the other two held counterweight.

The stench of moldy grass and filthy waters invaded Kiko’s nose. The inner walls were therefore slippery but the bard was thankfully agile and nimble enough and managed to maneuver the dark well that ran at least forty feet deep. It used its minor magick to light the brooch of its cape and saw that much to its horror, many sets of skeletal palms protruded through the bottom of the well constantly grabbing the air above them. They had long, dirty and broken fingernails. Crumbled between them was another piece of parchment.

AAAAA.” The child cried.

WHAT? What do you see?”

“Hands! Many-many evil hands!”

“Quickly look for the parchment and call for us to pull you up.”

Using its ambidexterity the child quickly baited the hands using one of its arms as a distraction, and grabbed the parchment with the other. One of the bone hands though, managed to snatch the child from the wrist, and started pulling it down violently using uncanny strength, but thankfully the other two combined were stronger and pulled the child to the surface.

The piece read:

with the orders to invade spine Ridge, raze it, (…)

the Frozen Prince was ruthless and bloodthirsty like his father(…)

for seven days, the village defense(…)

It started to make sense to them but they needed to find the other pieces and so yet again, following the quill they went towards the tavern. It pointed to the fireplace that was lit. Ylva froze her palm, a beginner’s invocation, and effortlessly retrieved the parchment.

"the battle lasted (…)

The ancient Hum within (…)

Trees that flourished (…)

The quill now pointed towards the forest through which they first entered the village.

As soon as they reached the gloomy slender trees, a reality shift sucked them into her bosom. A real as life, they saw opposing armies battling. Mounted Atranaar elves charged towards the village only to be met by a volley of arrows that sang the song of death between the trunks. When this vision subsided, the quill pointed towards a stack of pinecones. Beneath them, they found the sixth parchment.

A story of blood and hatred unfolded. Only a few more sentences and the companions would have the whole picture. The quill sent them back to the extra dimensional room of the half elf.

"Poor man. Who knows what he had suffered to find himself in this state." Kiko’s voice carried the sentiment of true empathy.

Crumbled inside his other palm they found the seventh – and final –  piece.

I came here during the last moons after the fall of the Akrokar Empire. In this secluded village, families of peoples of the human Lathkuun lineage resided since the olden times, families that the neighboring Atranaar did not tolerate. But they knew of the inherent magic that existed within the bowels of the surrounding hills and so they waited for the opportune moment to strike. One night their tolerance was depleted and one high elven warlord deployed his young teenage son, with the orders to invade Spine Ridge, raze it, and then investigate the magical Hum within its hills. Despite his young age, "the Frozen Prince" was ruthless and bloodthirsty like his father. The battle lasted for seven days, but the village defense which comprised mainly of archers using arrows made from the absinthe – trees that rampantly flourished within the village – held, and the intruders were either killed or forced to flee. Vexandaris himself – the real name of the Frozen Prince – was captured by the villagers and was doomed to be sealed alive within the magickal caves that his father craved. On the night of the following day, all the members of the community younger than the age of sixteen – the age of the prince – disappeared from their cribs and their beds and got lost in the Darkness. Even babies that could not even walk disappeared. The newborns were either mysteriously lost or died falling from their cradles. The community never recovered. All the babies in the years to come were stillborn in the village, and in time the community became desolate and abandoned. No one visited it for ages, until an old conjurer with his family and his followers decided to settle in the deserted hamlet, and planted an absintheene tree in the middle.

 

Soon my hands will freeze, I will not be able to write anymore and consequently I will dive into the eternal embrace of catatonia between life and death – a price to pay for mingling with the magic of the hum and the absinthe. Ye who reads this, beware of the prince as well as the family. Falhroun implores ye.”

It was obvious that the plague of this village was not only the prince, but the family also had a role to play in this tragedy.

“Lets pay them a visit. They have answers to give.” Thalldon proclaimed.

“I agree. We must watch our steps though. They seem to be keeping secrets of their own. It must have been some hidden knowledge regarding the absinthe or the Hum that they exploited, in order to either avoid, or employ the children and the prince.” Ylva argued.

"Or both.” Kiko stressed in sadness.

Tears ran down the elf’s cheeks yet again. Thalldon drew his blade.

“NO. NO. We can help him.” Kiko yelled and stepped in between. I can heal him.”

The child touched the body of Falhroun desperately trying to mend his motionless body.

“You cannot heal that which is not wounded. His body is not hurt. His body is cursed beyond any of our capacities to undo. There is only one thing we can do for him.” Ylva explained and nodded at Thalldon who raised his blade poised to strike.

“I SAID NO. I WILL NOT ALLOW IT.” The child persisted and in an act of pure empathy, blasted its own body with its own magic, attempting to establish a connection with Falhroun through the revelation of pain and sorrow. The blast was so sincere in its ferocity that Kiko fell to the ground, near death.

“Mindless child!” Thalldon cried and drove his blade through the heart of the elf, mercifully and rapidly ending its pitiful life. As the essence of Falhroun departed the cage of his body, exhumed, it manifested in front of them in its spectral form.

ARISE CHILD. NO MORE YOUNGLINGS WILL I ALLOW TO PERISH IN THIS LAND. ARISE!!” The words of the ancient half-elf, were uttered with such candor and earnestness that Kiko stabilized and raised its big wet eyes to meet the ghost.

The bard’s wisdom and foresight regarding the afterlife was growing in volume but also in toil.

“I thank you strangers for freeing me from this chained existence. You now know what has befallen this village. My spirit will soon depart to project its everlasting essence en route to meet the silence of the Voice Beyond The Stars. Beware of the Prince, but also beware of the Father. Every father…” He declared and shifted to a hazy gloom that diminished into obscurity.

Thalldon boiled in anger with Kiko’s foolishness and self-destructive impulsion, but this time he held his anger inside. His fury would be unleashed elsewhere.

Exiting the arcane sanctuary of Fahroun another vivid memory unfolded before their eyes. The vision overlapped reality like a flawless filter. They saw a family of many servants and horses, entering the village and settling on a large piece of land. Builders worked to erect a tall brick house above the black and scarred earth. A man and a woman and three young men preceded the group. This robed man seemed like a sage or a scholar and wore rich garments. He walked across the pathways and the vision reproduced a scene of him dropping a handful of seeds right where the Absintheene tree is now. As the vision dissipated they knew what needed to be done.

Determined to lift the darkness that has befallen this village, the three companions scoped and spied at the huge brick house. As they approached they saw a beast of a man, very tall and broad, with hands as large as small tree trunks and very wide facial features, dragging two dirty brown sacks through a back door. The two brothers, as they soon found out, stood in front of the doorway. The tall and the short one.

“You go speak to them at the front door, stall them as much as you can and I will attempt to break thought the back door and surprise them. We need to reach this ‘Father’ Falhroun mentioned.” Thalldon deliberated addressing Ylva and Kiko.

“I think I will try to climb the outer walls and reach the top floor”. The bard announced and hid in the bushes. Ylva casually walked to the front door and the brothers stopped her midway.

-“You leave. Father sleeps. Go.”

-“I have questions that demand answering. What is the matter with the children? Where are the other villagers?”

-“Children play. Nothing is the matter.”

-“Where is your mother?”

-“She is in the tavern.”

-“Bring your father down.”

-“No. You don’t want to wake father.”

-“Yes I do. Your exploitation of this place ends here.”

-“Are you threatening us? In our own home? Sartur go call Ogron.” The short one directed the taller brother.

Thalldon slowly crept through the backyard and opened the wooden door to the rear of the building. There was a small storage room that led to a large hall, on the left side of which, stairs lead to the higher floors. Inside this storage room, the former paladin saw the sacks that the big man carried earlier, slacked on top of each other. They smelled like rotten meat. He could see one of the brothers talking to Ylva across the hall, on the front door. Suddenly the second brother, Sartur, turned and saw Thalldon. He let out a shrieking caw, like a possessed bird, and his elongated features started stretching further and wider. Dark plumes sprang from his back and a black long beak formed in the middle of his face, where his nose once was. This man transformed into a large ebony raven and flew outside and peripherally to the house.

‘On no, Kiko will be in trouble’ Thalldon thought, and wasting no time, charged to the other brother, the short one, who was going through a morbid and monstrous transformation of his own. He dropped on all fours and the bones of his spine recoiled and bolted, spreading and widening his shoulders and tearing his clothes. His face oozed and grimaced unnaturally and thick black hair grew and covered his already hairy skin. He turned and bared his enlarged teeth and pounced towards Ylva, in his wolf form.

Thalldon did not have a chance to cross the house and come to the warlock’s aid, as an enormous bear growled and leaped in front of him. It came from the upper floors. Caught in the moment, the former paladin received two brutal gashes from the paws of the bear before he could gather his composure and assume his battle stance.

Kiko maneuvered masterfully around the bushes and started climbing the cold stones that were mortared around the wooded planks of the outer walls. The child reached the second floor but then started slipping. Regaining its balance it continued, but a huge raven came swooping down upon it and threw it on the ground. Unable to continue the bard was forced to hide yet again, for this bird was fixated on preying on its young flesh.

Ylva, prepared for a fight, drew her weapons and started hacking at the wolf, spell and blade, jaw and tooth, and the battle raged on. Those adversaries were not by any means the hardest they had ever faced, but they were ferocious and fearless. The huge bear battled Thalldon long and hard and mauled him relentlessly, even chewing bits from his plate armor as if they were mere tender flesh. The blackguard foresaw that this was not a just a mindless beast but rather a calculated fighter of great strength and brutality. But he was brutal as well. Since the claiming of Onxar the Invincible, Thalldon had become a force to be reckoned with.

He would answer cruelty with cruelty threefold.

Savagery with savagery threefold.

Ruthlessness with ruthlessness threefold.

He hoisted his blade above his head as if it was a war banner, and roaring, he drove it through the chest of the beast. Right down to its hilt the blade went in the body of the bear and showered the former paladin with warm sanguine blood. He kicked the carcass of the monster, now transforming back to a man, to the side, as he drew the sword out of the wound and wasting no time, charged at the wolf.

As Kiko was bidding its time hidden, Ylva was wearing the wolf down, with careful maneuvers and sudden bursts of eldritch might. Thalldon on the other hand was not so careful, and leaned in for the strike leaving his neck open to a counter-attack. The wolf seizing the opportunity, bit him on the base of his shoulder and a sickening feeling overtook the blackguard. Being unable to control his body, he transformed into a wolf himself, dislodging the mantles of his breastplate that fell to the ground. Still the black gauntlet remained around his paw, never releasing him from bondage. Regardless, ‘a tooth is still a tooth and can kill as good as a sword’ he thought to himself and started biting at the other black wolf. Ylva finished it off with a sinister blow to the forehead, dropping him dead on the ground, and forcing him back to his human form.

Harnessing his willpower, Thalldon suppressed the canine curse and returned to his humanity. All three of them now, walked back inside the house as the raven flew away, and a raspy ancient voice called from the top floor.

“Who dares awake me from my slumber and slay my servants? Who seeks to experience the awesome wrath of the Father?”

The upper floor was covered in thick green smog that smelled like sulfur and burned mandrake.

“I am meant to be your bride!” Ylva suddenly declared. As you can see I am young and beautiful! Your household is diminished, but with me, you can rebuild it!”

She sounded confident and unwavering and the being of the top floor was convinced.

-“Come to me then, bride, and let me inspect you from up close.”

-“Remove the smog so I know where I am stepping.”

The green mist suddenly parted and Ylva walked upstairs and into a room that housed an upright sarcophagus that depicted the image of a young man wrapped in rich and kingly garments. He held two thin blades decorated with gemstones. Right in the middle of the cask, the image of a human heart was drawn. Above the cask the light from a vitraux window shone through. It represented a large blossoming tree.

-“Your former companions can either serve as my new henchmen, or provide for the folklore of the village. They can be food for the children.” The voice echoed from within the sarcophagus.

-“Either/or. Makes little difference to me. I just used them to get to you. It was unfortunate that I had to slay your sons but they would not allow me to see you.”

Ylva spoke to the minds of her companions, sensing that only by a small psionic margin did she elude the awareness of the Father.

“Kiko go to the village and speak to the woman inside. Ask her about the Father.”

“Thalldon, pretend that you are a faithful strong-arm of mine. Be ready to strike at the opportune moment.”

They both complied. Kiko went to the tavern and saw that the woman was standing in her usual position seemingly soulless and devoid of any sentiment or responsive capability.

"Madam, hello can I ask you something? What can you tell me about the Father? I am a child and I feel for the other children. You are a kind woman, I know it. Please help me. Please!"

The woman stared at him and her eyes became red as if she was trying to cry but couldn't. She just lowered her sight towards her neck. Kiko climbed a stool and stood upon it. It extended its little palm and gently caressed her cheek. It then removed the absinthe amulet from its own neck and wore it on the neck of the lady, whose eyes became filled with unforeseen life and energy and then burst into a woeful lament. She softy took Kiko’s little head in her palms and kissed its lips. She then touched her own chest with both her palms, and driving her fingers into her body, ripped her beating heart out and gave it to the shocked bard. Immediately after, she was reduced to ash and Kiko that held the organ of love as it bled and pulsated, started running back to the house trying to keep itself from collapsing. Moments before he reached it, he heard a roaring crash and saw the building exploding to bits and pieces.

Thalldon slowly climbed the staircase when a deep and profound thud send him whirling to the garden floor. His ears were searing with pain and everywhere around him, pieces of wood and stone lay suspended in the air as if something had burst the house apart to its lowest molecular synthesis, and elected to freeze everything at the very moment of its detonating outburst.

WOULD YOU BE CALLING DAWN THE MOMENT OF EXPLOSION?”

The voice of the Father came exactly when Huor, the first and grandest of the three suns – “the dawnfire” – rose in the morning sky. His horrible shout thundered as he levitated inches above a black oily pool right where the foundations of his home once were. Ylva did not have the chance to react as the blast hit her and send her plummeting in the murky black pool.

Kiko saw the devastation and immediately dove inside the pool.

The Father now revealed Himself to them in his true form. His deteriorating semi rotten body was wrapped in a yellowy linen cloth. He wore a grand golden crown and held two magnificent and elaborate blades. In the middle of his chest the ribcage bones were open and a black gaping hole yawned were his heart would once reside.

NOW YOU FINALLY REALIZE THAT THE POWER OF LORD RALEAROTH IS NOT FOR THE FEEBLE AND THE FOOLHARDY. COME COME, I HAVE A CRAVING FOR BATTLE. I WILL USE YOUR VERY BONES AS THE FOUNDATION FOR MY NEW ABODE.”

Ylva and Thalldon sprang into action still aching from the blast. One powerful energy beam from the warlock caught the Father in the forehead and spread its cackling arcane burn across its paleolithic bones.

Onxar burned with searing might as it cleaved the body of the mummified lord.

Kiko swam inside the blackness of the puddle.

Regardless of the valiance of their attacks and the cunningness of the efforts, the Father was near indestructible.

Kiko swam inside the blackness of its soulmatter.

The arcane might of the Father burned and wounded the unprotected flesh of Thalldon, and the Helmaer noble’s blood, seeped and mixed with the oily substance. Ylva was spent and near death. Her attunement to the spelldom was waning and her life-force dwindled as the blades of the Father slashed and opened her.

It was at that moment that Kiko’s arm holding the heart, pierced through the blackness and the child leaped on the Father’s shoulders faster that a lightning strike. It held the heart inches away from the gaping hole but could not reach to plunge it deep, but two more palms – those of the urchin’s companions – met the child’s in determined unison and finally pushed it inside the black gap.

Never had they felt such wonderful serenity. The heart sprang crimson tendrils that draped the skeleton of the Father and consumed it. Such is the force of true love betrayed. After a sudden flash, they found themselves lying on an empty field, as if that house and that family was never there to begin with.

Smiling, the three collected their belongings that had been scattered during the blast, as well as a few more items. The crown of the Father. The blades of the Father. The shroud of the Father, and finally a love letter addressed to the Father from his wife.

“Come to me and take me as your bride. I will give my heart to you. Keep it and do not betray it…"

Kiko weaved and summoned its magical house and all three of them went inside to rest and collect themselves. Thalldon having forgotten his own nudity just sat there polishing his armor. Ylva looked at the body of this warrior. It was full of scars and war marks. It was forged in the heat of battle – “much like his mind” – she thought. She noticed that his black gauntlet was still on him.

-“Don't you ever to remove this? Can it even be removed?”

-“No and I do not mean to be rude but this is a subject I would rather not discuss.”

- “Why so?"

-“We deal in life and death and that would be a much more appropriate and pressing subject.”

-“Only my Goddess deals in life and death. We deal in each other. Companionship is important."

She spoke true. In Thalldon’s mind that was correct, and he revealed to her the story of the Archangel Solarian and Onxar, the Black Blade of Legends. Kiko felt joy as it saw those two people coming closer to each other but also to itself. Where they trying to emulate its Father and Mother? Maybe. Why not?

They awoke to a spectacle – to a phenomenon bizarre and daunting. The earth itself was torn and split open everywhere. Huge cracks opened up across land and rock and hill alike, and blood gashed from the fissures and the ruptures as if they were wounds.

A dragonsparrow, a very rare species of bird, usually the companion of magicians, flew above them and landed on Thalldons’ shoulder. It spoke in Elonkara’s voice.

“The world bleeds. This in not written in any ancient text of manuscript. Not even the great prophets have foreseen it. But the Hum of the mountain spoke to me and warned me of my legacy as well as yours and your companions. This is Volgir, the dragonsparrow. The Hum revealed to me, that she will be useful to you. I will contact you again brother. Farewell.”

The wee bird was indeed as small as a sparrow and legend says that was the offspring of truly the grandest and the smallest of the winged creatures. When the greylight passed and night time came, they walked up to the cave of the prince and shouted his name.

"Vexandaris come forth and face your judgment." Thalldon shouted.

-"MONGREL. HOW DARE YOU ADRESS ME IN MY TRUE NAME?"

-"You have brought enough evil to the children of this land. This will end now." Ylva added.

-"Is that what you think mortals? You are mistaken. It was not me who cursed the children, it was their own people. Yes they defeated my army and knowing I was immortal just sealed me within the confines of the arcane hills to rot in eternal solitude, but they could never defeat my father’s army and so feeble as they are, having in mind to save their own skin, offered their own offspring in exchange."

-“You are lying.”

- "I have no reason to lie pitiful Helmaerite noble. The humans knew the magic of this place. They also knew the power of my kin. Do you think that the human race is some pure and impeccable example of existence? It is not. The family you just erased from this sorrow ridden hamlet is a perfect example of exactly that. I would go as far as to say that they are the same wretched folk as the Atranaar. They accepted my father's offers, idiots as they were, believing that that would save their lives and give them power. They willingly sacrificed their own children, intoxicated by delusions of grandeur. The children did not simply ‘get lost in the darkness’. They were brought to the village square and slain by their own fathers – their true tender blood soiling the dirt. Babes and youglings alike. Thirty three children in total. It was me who catered to the broken spirits of the children and used my – amplified by the Hum – control of the elementals to bury their bodies in the same place of their torment – above which later that opportunist planted the absinthe tree in order for it to feed on their souls and to use the blood from their suffering so as to emulate immortality for himself. After this sacrifice my father simply cursed them never to bear children again and just let them fall into Oblivion. He then harnessed all the power he could, before the Voice Beyond the Stars fell silent, as just left the magick of the hills, near depleted, only a hum remaining."

-“And why did he not save you? His own son?” Kiko asked earnestly.

-“YOU HAVE NOT BEEN PAYING ATTENTION HAVE YOU? BECAUSE I FAILED AND BECAUSE I WAS A MERE EXPENDABLE PAWN IN HIS GRAND SCHEME. THAT IS WHY I ASK YOU TO ASSIST ME AND I WILL IN TURN ASSIST YOU, MORTALS.”

The companions did not expect such a turn of events and just stood there confused. They had realized who this Father of the Prince really was. It was the Nameless Atranaar.

Thalldon finally spoke.

-“What is it that you ask of us?”

-“Burn the tree. Burn the Absintheene tree and I will be released. So will the spirits of the thirty three children. I will then be on my way to claim my revenge on the fiend I once called father and I will also let you know of his True Name. I know that he is haunting you too. I can feel it. Burn the tree and bring its ashes to my throne inside the cave.”

As they spoke, they heard the song of the broken children, echoing from the cave. It reverberated in the night breeze like the wailing of unborn souls.

“What shall we sing to our Prince and his throne?

What can we say to the grim grip of day?

What can we sing when the greylight is gone?

When can we dance above the bodies that lay?

Eons have passed 'neath the darkness and frost.

Eons threefold since the vile elven host.

Dark are the deeds by the hands of the Fathers.

Sealed by the roots and the seeds of the Others.

Give praise to our Prince and his dark icy throne.

Give praise and rejoice ‘fore the nightime ‘s all gone.”

Unanimously they companions accepted the offer of the Prince and reached the ancient Absintheene tree. Huge and glorious and foreboding it loomed, with its myriads of thick braches, full of tokens, stretching wide to enshroud the village in grief.

The dragonsparrow flew merrily high inside the braches, and like a true child of its parent, roared and unleashed a flaming breath so awesome and magnificent that the whole tree was reduced to fine grey ash within seconds! They now saw that on the ground where the trunk once was – lay thirty-three graves sealed with stone boulders.

The three companions gathered the ashes of the tree in their hands and brought them in front of the frozen gate that was now open. A room with an icy throne appeared behind it. A young Elven man sat on it wearing a wonderful golden armor. They stood in the presence of the Frozen Prince. His face was young and beautiful but full of bitterness and hate. He drew his sword and not even uttering a word, pointed at the ground in front of him.

Ylva let the ash fall at his feet.

Kiko let the ash fall at his feet.

Thalldon walked slowly over, holding the ash clenched tightly inside his fist as if he would hold Onxar in battle. His hatred for the Atranaar was reaffirmed inside him yet again. Regardless, he opened up his palm and the ash fell at his feet.

The Prince stood up, while the icy throne started melting behind him.

With a graceful motion of his sword the scattered ash rose and swirled like a small typhoon and then subsided to vaguely form a name.

A name never uttered.

A name never heard.

A name never written.

A name forever dreaded.

LOROVOXEVAR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View
Hybris of the threefold path

Immediately, a fiery Inferno, a wall of flames manifested in the middle of the room and started expanding outwards both to the front of the cavern and towards the back. The urchin was determined to defy what it perceived as the Authority of this place, and moved through the flames creating the illusion that they had engulfed it. Ignorant of the fact that Kiko had passed safely through it, Thalldon thinking that the child was in danger, rushed in in order to pull it away from danger while the figure with the golden robes levitated above the flames and spoke.

“It was you yourself that freely elected to follow the path you chose, and again it was you yourself who freely elected to abandon the same path. Now you come before me asking and demanding things that were not offered to you in the first place. Entrance and sojourning within the halls of this monastery is not forbidden neither enforced, but the tenets under which we live our life are non-negotiable. You chose to view it as a game and must now face the consequences that you yourself have summoned.” The voice of the golden robed figure who levitated above them announced, addressing Kiko who was being dragged out of the flames by the former paladin.

Thalldon pointed towards the deepest recesses of the cavern thus declaring his desire to explore further but Kiko did not share the same desire. Instead the bard rushed ahead towards the wall of fire which had now engulfed the whole room burning the shadows of the monks within.

It aimed to exit the lower levels and reach the surface of the monastery, but as the child maneuvered around the tongues of fire, it saw that on the opposite direction the emancipated shadow of his own person was moving diametrically towards it. It stared it down with wide eyes and willed itself to pass through. This proved even harder than maneuvering around the wall of fire and as the shadow and Kiko merged, the child felt ripped and it was unclear if its soul was still one or if it had been dichotomized.

Outside, the monastery was silent. No movement could be seen anywhere and the twelve moons gleamed high on the night sky.

The child ran through the paths of this castle town and became obsessed with finding Al’ Fahrazul. It explored the walls of the graveyard and then reached the gate. In front of it, the mysterious shroud wrapped woman who was somehow impervious or ignorant of the Calling, was still standing guard and announced that Kiko may enter. Inside it found all the tombstones unmarked apart from one. On it it read:

Al’ Fahrazul

Protomonk, and keeper of all three paths.

Silent but eloquent –

Blind but visionary –

Deaf but understanding.

The child frantically started digging up the grave and inside it found a headless skeleton. Kiko continued its search and found the cell of Al’ Fahrazul. Inside the urchin found a box of matches and a few candles.

“Where are you Al’ Fahrazul? You admitted me in here and you must show me out!” The child yelled, receiving no response.

“Stop wasting time!” Thalldon screamed at it. He had appeared out of nowhere. “We have a lot to accomplice yet. Pick up your things and let's go.” The Paladin was for one speaking and not gesturing, and had taken off his black robes, and was now once again clad in his battered steel armor.

Kiko suddenly heard voices echoing from beneath the huge rock. A group of torch bearing men neared the monolith, shouting in formation. The child leaned over the battlements to take a look.

“There! There it is. Quickly we must bring the Machine in order to reach the walls and burn it down. By the glory of Harraam all faiths and every religion will be purged! I see a monk in the basket!” They shouted and started firing flaming arrows towards Kiko who had telekinetically used the rope level to wheel itself down, but got stuck midway.

“You are behaving like an idiot. Ignore them – they cannot reach this high.” The former paladin shouted and started pulling the child back up on the battlements.

“I want to leave this place, there's nothing for me here anymore.” Kiko announced.

“This is nonsense, pull yourself together we have important tasks at hand.” Thalldon said and with a strike of his frostfire blade, he burned the ropes after grabbing the child by the neck and pulling it up.

“There, now nobody can exit this monastery or enter it. Quickly, conclude whatever it is that you are seeking and let us move on.” The blackguard barked and suddenly became drowsy and slept on the spot. Of course the bard's magic was what brought about this condition. The child had seen its own shadow self. Maybe this one was Thalldons’.

The library was the next stop, but inside Kiko found that no books where on the shelves. The library was empty. On the halls of the scribes, the hooded figures of the monks sat crouched above parchments and hummed an uncanny and devout tune seemingly originating from their stomachs and reverberating inside their throats. It was a melodic groan.

The child had searched long but was not able to find the Monk.

“Go find Thalldon.” A voice called out. It was the voice of the mysterious woman guardian.

“I will but I need to see the sphere first.” Kiko retorted.

And indeed the urchin walked within the halls of the church where this marvelous sphere levitated just inches above the ground. Beneath it the bard saw numerous candles, all flameless. Immediately it used the matches it had found, and lit them, and the sphere started moving rapidly each passing moment, until it was now rotating on every possible axis so fast, it appeared motionless. Instantly Kiko was extracted from the boundaries of its own flesh and was teleported miles away and able to see and observe the monastery from afar. Within it, it saw levels upon levels of cavernous rooms, and beneath them, as if a mirage, the bard saw the top of the monastery which now seemed to be its bottom at the same time. Kiko returned back to its flesh laboring to catch its breath.

In the meantime the robed Thalldon explored the lower caverns and reached a room in the middle of which the spectre of Al’ Fahrazul stood wearing his grey robes. Three paths branched into the rock behind him.

Within the confines of one room under the looming presence of four statues, three of which gestured the symbols of the triangle, the square and the circle – and the fourth of which had its forearms connected in front of it as if begging or praying, Thalldon noticed a sealed gate made of stone. On the gate, the same symbols appeared in a circular fashion as if depicting the phases of the Moons like an astral calendar.

The former Paladin soon found out that the statues responded to his gestures and their responses were instantly depicted on the turning wheel on the gate. Gesturing to the final statue Thalldon mimicked the forearm pose and slowly began to distance his arms from one another, alluding to a door being opened and indeed the fourth statue responded to that gesture as well, and the gate was indeed unlocked. Within it he discovered a timeworn skull. The jaw was missing and inside its mouth he found a piece of cloth, much like an antique grimoire bookmark.

The second room was filled with a subsonic hum. No visible doors or passages inside. Following the sound as it pulsated through him, the Helmaer warrior managed to locate a secret gate that revealed itself as the blackguard touched the right part on the wall. Within, a second skull was found. The sides of its temples, where the ears would once be, were carved or slashed. Inside its mouth he found a key.

As Thalldon was moving towards the third and final room, Kiko appeared.

“I am back, let’s move on.” The child said.

Thalldon looked at it hesitantly. It was wearing its red robes once again. He was unsure of this sudden change of heart, but Kiko had done this before, time and time again.

This final room was completely dark. They felt out the floor and realized that a large chasm, a gaping maw, covered the largest portion of the floor. The only way to go around it was to slide across the walls.

“There, behind you.” A voice told Thalldon. “There is a small switch protruding on the wall.” It was the voice of the guardian woman again.

————————  ‘  -——————-

Υlva had been trapped within this dimension overlapping void for a while now. She had no power over her limps but she felt both the power of an entity close by as well as the resonating guidance of her goddess Ashthu. The images of numerous statues of the same woman, flashed inside her consciousness. They seemed interwoven by the same forceful ritual.

Υlva realized that the psyche of this female entity still resided within the void and the confines of these statues. The aspirant warlock realized that she was trapped inside a statue – or a group of identical magical statues.

The way out had something to do with candles ritualistically placed on open palms. That was her vision. Υlva was unsure where she had landed passing through the dimensions. The goddess of life and death had visited her dreams for months, offering visions of a colossal frozen expanse of cosmic proportions. Of a world being torn. Of a land in dire need of the wondrous power of femininity.

She soon noticed two Seekers. They were traversing the boundaries of her acute consciousness. They both had brushed off death before.

————————  ‘  -——————-

The former paladin managed to locate this object on the wall following the directions of the voice and placing it on a slot nearby that he felt out in the darkness, he opened the final gate and within it he found the third and final skull, whose gapping sockets where the eyes once were, had been slashed deep inside the bone. Within its jaw the two companions found a mysterious figurine depicting a man with three faces.

The first facade had palms over the ears, the second over the eyes, and the third over the mouth.

“Are we done? Let’s go! I want to explore!” Kiko exclaimed with joy.

They returned to the main stone hall where the image of Al’ Fahrazul stood in the middle. Now two more images appeared. They had the same face and each one wore one of the three different robes. They all opened up their arms as if seeking an embrace and a mechanical noise sounded revealing a staircase that descended even lower.

“That is the way.” The voice of the woman directed. She was standing right behind them.

“How can you be everywhere at the same time?” Kiko asked her, while Thalldon dragged him in expeditious fashion. While he dragged the child, he felt that it dissipated into smoke. Unbeknownst to him the “real” Kiko decided to leave the surface, switching places with its alternate self, and now both the paladin and the bard delved deeper into the bowels of the rock.

They reached an old chamber. Three statues stood in front of the faraway gate. They were grotesque in form and appearance.

One of them depicted a monk whose body was covered with countless eyes. It had no other facial features; its limbs were excessively long and twisted.

Another was filled with ear canals. Gruesome holes carved everywhere on the torso, and on the heads and legs of the statue.

The third was a bipedal mosaic of horrid mouths.

“What is this nightmare?” Kiko said grimacing in disgust. The child had worn its robe again. It thought that this would shield it against the dangers below.

“These are the guardians of the final level. We will defeat them together.” The voice of the woman warrior announced. She was right behind them.

Thalldon looked at her in amazement.

“You are unreal!” Kiko said pointing at her.

One after another the atrocious statues became animated and attacked.

The hideous eye statue was defeated after a blinding blast from the shrouded woman collided with its body.

The ghastly second sentinel was beaten when Kiko wove a deafening conjuration.

The third aberration was beaten in a flurry of brutal strikes by Onxar, which slashed and gnawed at the abhorrent lips and tongues of the blabbering mouths.

“There, behind the final gate, your task and my own, converge.” The shrouded woman announced speaking inside they minds.

“Your task? Which is your task?” Kiko and Thalldon pondered but received only the repetition of the same direction by her.

This Final gate was an embellished doorway inside the cavern that radiated with silver light. It illustrated an astral chart the core of which was a mysterious constellation that looked like a two hooded figures bearing the same candle.

Before they could even touch this large gate, it opened up before them and revealed an astonishing and also implausible spectacle. They saw the upper part of the monastery- the castle town – once again as if they were just pulled over the battlements and not descended inside the bowels of the rock. Sky, stars and all.

Monks walked around and their whole society bristled with the vigor of activity.

They noticed though, that everywhere around the area, the intricate statues of a wholly shrouded woman, decorated the front of nearly every building and pathway, assuming the same pose. Two statues also stood to the left and right of the waygate. All of them, instead of holding blades like the woman above, they had their palms shifted upwards as if expecting an offering. On every palm of every other statue apart from these two, candles burned.

“This, this is the woman! The woman that we saw upstairs, or downstairs – I can’t tell anymore.” Kiko remarked.

Silently Thalldon placed his candle on the palms of one of them, and then turned and looked at Kiko in expectation.

“What? I don’t have my candle anymore… But wait! I have the candles of Al’ Fahrazul!” The child declared proudly, and after lighting one of them, placed it on the palms of the remaining statue.

————————  ‘  -——————-

Υlva felt the faculty of her body returning to her. The statues extended their ontological farewell and released her. She felt less imprisoned and more nostalgic of her inconvenient yet priceless reciprocity with this ancient female entity.

She shed the dust of time from her vigorous body and opened her magenta eyes to gaze upon the Seekers that stood in front of her amazed.

————————  ‘  -——————-

“Have you been traveling long together? You seem to love and hate eachother at the same time. You nag a lot, but it is obvious that stepping away from one another seems harder than leaping over a mountain for you. Don’t answer. That was not a question. It was an observation.” A spirited and forceful woman with almond shaped potent eyes that had just revealed to be under the shrouds, stated. She had a striking, edgy face and two glorious and twisted horns sprang from the sides of her temples.

-“I am Υlva. I came from afar. Yes – don’t ask – I was trapped within the statue.”

Thalldon looked at her intensely in bafflement.

“Υlva? Afar? Trapped?” Kiko whispered with googly eyes.

“Yes I am a dimension hopper. I travel worlds. Or rather, I travel ‘possibilities’ of worlds. My goddess called me to be here. This world is in a dire state and as a seeker of answers myself – I came to ask questions. NO! I said ASK questions” – She said smiling and placed her long callous finger on Kikos lips in a hush-hush manner.

“There is a ritual to be complete and an entity of power to speak to.” Before she could finish her sentence a monk neared them and addressed them.

“Your paths are complete Seekers. You have reached the final level and Al’ Fahrazul wants to speak to you.”

The Three were brought in the presence of an aged monk leaning on his gnarled and twisted staff. He had the appearance of the monk who admitted them into the monastery last morning. But older. Much, much, MUCH older. His dark grey skin was wrinkled and dry but yet his eyes gazed with the collective wisdom of a thousand dying planets.

He spoke telepathically in a voice smooth and mellow.

-“Seekers, welcome to the monastery of below and above. The sanctum of eternity. I am Al’ Fahrazul the first monk. I know your faces and have gazed inside your souls. You have completed your paths in whatever way you saw fit. The universe has responded in whatever way IT saw fit. Would you fulfill the fate of this conjecture? Would you do one last thing for me?”

-“What is it that you want sage?” Thalldon asked removing his black robes.

Kiko was very happy to see the protomonk and was already nodding its head, thinking of the song it would write about him.

-“This place is not where our demons go. This place is where WE have always been. Our demons reside above. This had always been the way of the Sharakhil. The demons – or daemons – are not now, neither have they ever been, malicious manifestations. Daemons are true aspects of knowledge, of cosmic query, so their domain overlaps ours freely. We are they and they are we. We all walk the Path. But I have here contained the offspring of my vast vision which is also my Hybris. You see, confident in my masculine potency I overtook all three paths. It was not denied of me as I could indeed complete and incarnate them, becoming effectively immortal. But my daemon was indeed, a Demon. A dominating masculine entity named Azhazhul. My son, Sacra Satar the Golden, stands guard above his prison. This grimoire  – the threefold keys to which you hold – is the seal of his banishment. Will you banish him for me?”

The old man said and placed a large antique tome on the ground.

-“We will.” All three retorted.

-“I thank you Seekers. Know this. The Sharakhil will be forever your kin. We share the same pain, the same hope, the same path.” He said and departed their presence like a lonesome and melancholic shadow.

The three spend a few hours in the castle within the castle. Everyone treated them with the freshness of a new acquaintance even if they had seen them before. Even the people in the tavern, the visitors they had spoken to yesterday. The next morning they set out to complete the Final Plea of Al’ Fahrazul.

Beneath the spire of the man with the Golden robes, a magickal seal had been broken. As they stepped on it, they were teleported in front of massive iron door standing in a wall-less nothingness. Across its surface they noticed the appalling engraving of ears, mouths and eyes being torn from the faces of Sharakhil monks whose bodies where then exhumed to an onyx obelisk depicted high on the top. The door opened to greet them into absolute horror.

Within the boundless darkness, a red mist formed. A circle of menhir swam inside the crimson fog. The smell of sulfur and incense was evident. Wordless groans of despair reverberated everywhere. The menhir bore carvings in an unknown language.

In the middle of the menhir circle the three Seekers saw a large pile of swollen and decaying bodies and bones. And then they saw that which poised on top.

A muscular giant of a deep cardinal red body, goat legs, wings of a raven and the head of a dead and decomposing Minotaur. He had seven eyes, seven teeth and seven earholes.

His towering body stood erect as they entered and bellowed. His foul breath reeked as he shouted.

-“TREMBLE MORTALS AND DESPAIR. I SHALL DOMINATE YOUR FEEBLE FLESH AND CHEW DOWN YOUR SOULS UNTIL NOT EVEN A MERE SPECKLE OF REMEMBRANCE CAN BE OFFERED IN YOUR MEMORY.”

He held a long thin ebony spear.

The companions gathered their courage and threw themselves into battle.

Υlva blasted the ancient foe with the might of eldritch chaos, rending its burgundy flesh.

Thalldon hacked and thrust with the Black Blade of Frostfire.

Kiko elected to disorient and confuse the Demon with harmonious tunes so distant and alien to Him.

But Azhazhul was nothing any of them had ever fought before. He was all powerful in his absolute determination, tenacity and brashness.

After hours of battling the Demon, all three were spent and on the brink of demise. His ebon halberd skewered and pierced them ,bloodying the misty blackness.

He called upon Darkness and they were blind. The entity of Azhazhul engulfed them in anguish.

He called upon Silence and they were voiceless. The pulse of Azhazhul encompassed them in sorrow.

He called upon Deafness and they were morbidly alone in their companionship. The entirety of Azhazhul enveloped them in gloom.

In a gleam of intuition, Kiko sped across the mist and started hacking at the menhir on which it had noticed strange and obscure markings.

Υlva had fought with accuracy and efficiency but her magickal capacity was waning.

Thalldons powers were also his vices and even if he denied defeat and fought on, sword at hand, he would soon perish.

The bard hacked and hacked and suddenly the unforgiving brutality of a spear thrust send it reeling to the ground. The child spat its own silver blood. But its efforts were not in vain as the runes had been marred by its hacking, and shreds of vision, sound, and speech returned to them as a boon.

Υlva picked up where Kiko left off, while Thalldon rose leaning on his sword.

AZHAZUL! HEAR ME NOW! HEAR THE GLORY OF THE HELMAER!

ONXAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAR! BURN THE FIRE AND FREEZE THE FROST.

DESTROY MY ENEMIES!” The blackguard shouted and charged.

Kiko had feigned death and had pulled the grimoire from its backpack. It placed the figurine on the ridge of the tome and opened it with the key. Using the cloth mark on it, caused the pages to turn on their own, to the Ritual of Banishment.

“Ahem.” Kiko coughed and cleared its throat.

While Υlva and Thalldon, continued to hack at the runes and engage in melee with the Demon, respectively, Kiko started reading aloud. Its voice was the voice of a thousand monks as the ghosts of the Sharakhil of old manifested in the mist atop their own bones.

“NO. NOT THAT. PUT THAT AWAY YOU VERMIN!” Azhazhul shouted as the assault of the other two Seeker was finally felling him.

The large body of the Demon fell inside the fog in a thud.

“Harkuet, magrass hathuk.

Harkuet magrass xyelth.

magrass xyelth.

MAGRASS.

HARKUET MAGRASS XYELTH!”

———————— ‘ -——————-

Beyond the crimson mist they stepped after the banishment, and beneath the spire of Sacra Satar the Golden. The monastery welcomed them once again.

Across the pathways of the castle town they witnessed a funeral possession. All the monks marched holding the body of Al’ Fahrazul. On his legs, his three skulls were set. The monks hummed an uncanny and devout tune seemingly originating from their stomachs and reverberating inside their throats. It was a melodic groan.

They followed the procession that reached the graveyard which housed a single tomb. The tombstone under which the body was placed, read:

Al’ Fahrazul

Protomonk, and keeper of all three paths.

Silent but eloquent –

Blind but visionary –

Deaf but understanding.

View
The Demon and the Self

 

Ghorreamund smashed the vile vessel housing the spirits of the Fallen, and with the companions on his back the lord of the venerable mountaintop, strode towards the Sanctum of the Stars in order to defend it against the onslaught of the Atranaar. The battle that ensued there was fierce.

The hosts of the sanctum fought valiantly against the Elves and their enthralled giant of frost, and managed to defeat them but not without great casualties as Ghorreamund himself fell in the mountains defense.

Now only the Nameless Atranaar, the orchestrator behind the assault, threatened the altar. Atop it, Elonkara was conducting a forlorn ritual to call upon the manifestation of the mountain Goddess. But she needed more time.

“Kiko go into the sanctum and retrieve the scroll of the Last Verse. It lies within!” She commanded, speaking inside the child’s mind.

Thalldon and Alkanke defended the sanctum against the Harkaanathite Lord. He descended from above, wreathed in magical protection, and coldly charged the former paladin. His two long blades gleamed in the frigid morning as the Nameless Atranaar overwhelmed the defenders quickly, using both sword and sorcery.

His powerful magic, turned wind, stone and fire against them, and even the might of Onxar, was not enough to turn this foe away.

Speechless and relentless the Harkaanathite pressed on, and just as Kiko handed the scroll to the Helmaer witch, he stroke the child brutally. Had it not been for Thalldon’s intervention, this time the bard’s death would have been final.

Elonkara started chanting the Final Verses aloud, and this timeworn ritual was now palpably manifesting around them. The mountain shook and the clouds thundered, and a figure of inconceivably monumental proportions appeared within the mist. Taller that the highest peak and wider than the lengthiest cluster of clouds. Her divinity tangible and present and her bright eyes piercing the foggy haze.

Kharathandara, Avatar of Samuth had been summoned!

"THE MOUNTAIN HAS CALLED OUT TO ME. TREMBLE BENEATH THE RAGE OF SAMUTH AND BEGONE, VILE AND DEGENERATE ELFKIN!"

That resonant and sonorous voice was enough to halt the flight of the wind itself, and even the mighty Elf lord desisted and summoned a gateway portal to serve as his timely retreat.

“He leaves! The day is won!” Alkanke shouted in joy.

The figure of the Guardian dissipated in the same majestic tone as it had appeared, and a marvelous rainfall showered the sanctum at her departure. It was then that Kiko rushed ahead to the now fading portal. The child was instinctively drawn to the High Elves. Their demeanor found Kiko more enthralled rather than repulsed, and so, it searched the snow for the magical residue of the portal magic the Nameless one had just used. There, as if a leftover of bewitchment, or a token of lustful admiration for the Atranaar, the urchin found a golden pin from a cloak brooch. It was smeared with some of the Atranaars blood. It took it and hid it, like it was a relic from a lost love turned to foe. Or the other way around.

Elonkara levitated down to the ground. Her eyes still blazing with the limitless capacity she had just tapped into.

“Come”. She instructed. “We should discuss our next steps.”

Inside the Sanctum they resumed the discussion concerning the Helmaer family and how King Kantagor would be dealt with, but also of the Glass and the fate of the world.

 “I do not believe that the Golagond are considering allying themselves with us. Yes they have shown that they can take care of their own, socially and politically, but we should not expect from them to solve our own problems – we need to take action and do what we have to do ourselves.” Thalldon declared.

“The Golagond have no reason to trust us yet. We have always looked at their culture with suspicion even though their influence in various fields of life has been immense on us. Yet we still view them as the “others” just us they seeked to establish a connection with us. Those bridges have long been burned and their reconstruction is an effort to be undertaken by both sides, mainly by the ones who burned them in the first place. And that is us.” Elonkara deliberated.

The witch informed the companions that she is now able to depart from the Sanctum and return to the land of her birth in order to face, her father and King. Kiko and Thalldon spoke again of the first Stars and of the quest they undertook to unravel the mysteries behind them and to seek out the Movaru women who are out there in the world, with the same purpose – to reach the Glass with the power of the first stars- and so Elonkara agreed with them that before they all returned to Cewick Tower, the two companions should visit a very old and very mysterious monastery in the nearby plateau of Hanging Cliffs, a rocky grouping of large needle-like formations of granite, on top of which the castle monastery of the Sharakhil was built.

“Sharakhil?” Kiko remarked, suddenly remembering that race of dark skinned elves now nearly extinct.

“Yes, those dark skinned elves, in the years past, have been hunted down by the Atranaar and killed by the thousands. Only a handful of them, just a few social groups managed to escape the murderous Alabaster Supremacy of the High Elves and so they formed monastic orders, secluded from the world. Only the most daring of explorers and adventurers would seek out those places and if accepted, they would unlock the secrets found within and consult the wisdom of the monks. Now only one such monastery is left in the world. The one that you should be heading to. It houses a vast library concerning astral magic and lost history, and legend says, that within its confines one would even face their own inner demon. Travel to the east and take the Southern Road until you reach a cluster of huge tall rocks that pierce the sky like needles. In the middle of those formations you will find the monastery. You will recognize it as its candles flicker on the walls, forever.” Elonkara elaborated and bid them farewell. They would reunite in the days to come.

They immediately remembered the ruins were they met the Archangel Solarian.

And so the companions followed the directions of the witch and found themselves come Greylight, in the midst of this great plateau of huge cairns. In the middle, the monastery shimmered like a fiery crown atop a granite needle, a hundred levels in the sky, flickering ominously. They walked towards it and right beneath the massive rock, stood a figure. His skin was dark and his eyes were covered by a shawl.  As they approached, he turned his head to the side as if to listen more carefully. He seemed to be blind. Suddenly he spoke in a welcoming manner, like he was expecting them. At his feet, a candle burned.

“Greetings Travelers. Judging by your steps, one is grown and tall and the other younger and short. Yet the steps of the young one seem more certain even though the owner would wish for the contrary, and the steps of the older, seem more uncertain even though he would also wish for a different opinion of him to be projected to the world. Is that not so? Forgive my ramblings. I am Al’ Fahrazul, Sharakhil monk.” Τhe figure said cryptically. He extended his hands forward, shaping forms like a sculptor while he spoke.

Kiko walked up to him, fascinated.

“I am Kiko. I am a Bard.”

“I am Thalldon. We seek to enter the halls of your order.”

“Is that so?” the monk asked smiling. His visage was beguiling. “Yes it is so. I can hear it in the soft tremblings of your voice. Since you seek to enter our Monastery, I will not deny you. Enter freely and explore whatever knowledge you seek to find. There is one thing you need to remember, never let your candle go out. Within, you will find alternate pathways to knowledge and wisdom. But you will also find your own demon. There's the basket that will bring you above.”  He concluded and pointed to a large basket mounted on ropes that hung from the top of the walls high above the rock down to the cold earth, and the companions entered, silently succumbing to the mysticism that was already creeping inside their soul. As they ascended, widening below, they saw the valley. It already seemed like a shrunken distant memory.

Slowly they were pulled inside. Myriads of brilliant candles melted away on the battlements as they passed over. Inside the community, they saw glorious bronze structures, green gardens and running waters and yellowy walls, and monks both male and female were walking the pathways and entering those structures and conversed both verbally  but also in gestures and sounds! In the middle of the monastery they saw a slim and tall spire, also made of bronze and on top of it they noticed a silhouette standing like it was a lookout on the mast of a ship, high above the ground of the castle. It was wearing golden robes.

Immediately they were given one candle each. Then the monks lit those candles with the flame of their own. Every monk within the walls wore one colored robe out of three categories. Grey, Black and Red.

Quickly they noticed that those who wore Red and had hoods over their heads seemed to be deaf and would only read lips or hand sign language.

Those who wore Gray and had their eyes covered by a shawl of the same color, were seemingly blind and would respond to sounds and speech for communication.

Those who wore Black had their mouths wrapped and covered and would not speak or couldn't. They would use their hands to gesture and to create sounds for communication.

Thus, apart from speech,  an elaborate system of sign language, and the systemic use of coded sounds – a much deeper and profound connection was evidently also used by the monks to communicate. Therefore instead of a hindrance, the suspended use of their senses was a privilege. Thalldon and Kiko were baffled by this, as it was hard to grasp how a blind monk would communicate with a mute one, just through seemingly random sounds.

The sky above them burned blue and orange in the last moments of the Greylight as the triangular Sun departed from the skydome to give its place to the twelvemoon.

The two companions started walking around the monastery. Within its confines various structures served different purposes. Near the Southern wall three tabernacle roofed buildings stood next to each other. On their doors the following were carved. “The way of the sign” – “The way of the sound” – “The way of vision”.

Elsewhere within the walls, among the gardens and the pathways they saw an amphitheater, a large circular structure that they were informed was the mausoleum, a tavern, a large library, a barred and secluded graveyard to the right most corner the castle, various storehouses and other residencies and a very simple structure shaped like a dome, with a hole on its roof and a small door on its face that emanated a faint pulsating vibration from within.

“Lets go to those weird houses near the spire!” Kiko said happily and blew Thalldons’ candle out.

A dark shade in the form of the former paladin appeared momentarily and then dissipated. Thalldon was taken aback by the omen but pretended to be only rageful towards the child.

The Helmaer warrior, quickly reached out to the nearest monk and rekindled it, looking angrily back at the bard. “Why do you always do silly and random things? Go where you please and lets meet at the tavern in a little bit.”

Then Kiko visited The House of the Way of vision. It was an octagonal stained glass structure. Within it monks were marveling at the warmth of the light on the vitraux walls, showered by the defractions from the illumination, showering them while they meditated. Inside only those who wore gray robes entered. They could not "see" the depictions, but could they?

Thalldon went inside the House of the way of Sound. Inside the building, monks wearing black robes sat on benches arranged in a circular fashion around a pedestal where an older monk was gesturing through hand signs while at the same time clapping his hands, snapping his fingers and producing various sounds with his arms apart from pantomimic movements. The students and the lecturer seemed to be having a complete interaction. Thalldon sat down and observed.

Kiko then visited the house of the way of the sign. The Red robed monks inside, where walking around various musical instruments mainly of the percussion variety, from the tiniest bell the largest gong. They would use them in succession and then they would stretch their bodies to the sound that was produced through them. It seemed to be a process of attunement. They seemed to be trying to “listen” to the sound, not hearing it through their ears but rather feeling it through their bodies. The bard sat in the middle and used the best and most unique musical instrument of the whole wide world to assist in the meditative process. The monks fascinated, passed their palms over the pulsating object.

The Black robed monk addressed Thalldon gesturing to him to express himself. The former Paladin did not understand this convoluted internal classification of signs, but later began to grasp the main tenets of operation. He was offered a black robe, and was gestured that if he would accept it, no other robe would be available to him. He understood and accepted. This method was inclusive. He liked that. It was something he lacked.

Kiko was offered a red robe, and the child too, accepted and wore it.

Now both companions wore the robes of a Path and they met outside the library. Kiko had waxed its ears and Thalldon had covered his mouth.

“You cant speak?” The child asked.

Thalldon nodded affirmatively and pointed towards the urchins ears.

“Yeah, I cannot hear anything. I like that now! I am trying to feel the music.” Kiko yelled, unable to grasp the volume of its voice.

Thalldon pointed at the library and opened his palms in front of him, mimicking the practice of reading a book.

Ok. I will join you also”. Kiko replied.

 

They entered the library. It was a very tall building, pyramidic in its architecture and full of bookshelves arranged in a labyrinthine manner. They had no visual index and no order. The wooden bookshelves themselves towered high towards the peak of this structure, and on their facade, equally tall ladders were attached to this mountain of books. Monks walked around the shelves taking and reading books, while others got lost deeper inside this entangling puzzle of wood, leather and papyrus.

Silently the two companions conducted their research. The former Paladin looked for books concerning demonology and the origin of demonic entities as well as the history of the Golagond peoples, while Kiko after playfully exploring this vast maze looked for books on the origins of Astral Magic, on the First Stars and on the origins of the Atranaar.

Miraculously, even before they would think of the book the desired to read, they would find themselves in front of it and as they opened them not only did they obviously contain inked words but each page was covered with protrusions possibly for the blind monks to be able to trace each letter and thus read the manuscript. In a nearby outhouse within the pyramid, other monks, scribes and illustrators were copying existing books or creating unique ones.

Concerning demons, Thalldon found the following information within a demi-rotten tome of thousands of pages. There are three schools of thought concerning demons – he read.

"One regards them as otherworldly manifestations of one's inner self, another describes them as mirror images belonging to an alternate dimension and a third school of thought portrayed demons as dark matter from dying Stars that fell from the cosmos and infested objects and subjects, living or otherwise, not necessarily with darkness or evil but with chaotic variation."

He also discovered an entry elaborating on the issue of possession, mainly of objects and he found the following passage:

“Onxar the invincible is  the Black Blade of Legends. It is said that swordmaster Sareul – the demon king – once walked Barastir in the guise of a man teaching mortals the ways of the blade.

Some say in order to deceive and drive them into violence and others say in order to weaponize them against their true oppressors.

When Sareul departed the mortal realms and ascended back to godhood, he left behind his black bones. Ikhael, his son, picked up those remains and forged them into a greatsword of absolute power, which he then infused with the unified element of frostfire, as in those mythical ages, flame and ice were indistinguishable from one another, forever thawing, freezing and rekindling the passion for gnosis.

Ikhael chanted and meditated in the hundreds of years that it took for the blade to be complete – entwining the immortal atrefact with dormant attributes that seek to re-emerge.

Onxar – meaning exactly that, frostfire –  then arose inside its own consciousness, because such primordial force is eternal and aware of its own immortality.

Its character is connected with those principles active in its birth but it will also seek to establish a symbiotic state with the moral compass of the wielder.”

Thalldon, shut this book loudly and gazed at his black gauntlet before opening the one about the Golagonds.

He collected information useful that were obviously severely distorted by the Helmaer teachings, as he recalled them.

“The Golagonds is not a race” the passage read “but more so, a form of social structure. Yes, it derives from the race of the archaic Golagonds, those who the humans and elves arrogantly dubbed "orcs" in mockery and jealousy of their advanced collective mind, but many centuries even before the Plunge, this race embraced anyone and everyone who wanted to accept and adopt their customs and their culture. This merge of tolerance and acceptance, known as the “Embrace”, brought the Golagonds to the forefront of world affairs. Their Arts and technology flourished and were preserved after the Plunge and the coming of the Glass, exactly because all their history and knowledge existed within their unified mind. They are the largest group of people in the world and the Golagondish is the common tongue, used everywhere.

Their society, credo and ethos, is formed around this collective conscious and unconscious called Shabathuk literaly “forever there.” The Golagonds of old, came into the world in the valley of Barad Dharma, where Ahraaserah  – the mother thought & Mehattefar – the eternal pyre, the leading Matron/Patron deities of the Golagond nation, walked the world in a time before time and left behind their thoughts, experiences, desires, knowledge, vision and even their own souls, in the form of six babies, now called “Easlu” the Exalted Six, the venerable gurus of the Golagonds. Anyone can become Easlu as this title is not of a leader but rather of a consultant, an advisor.

The Goladonds are nomadic by societal norms, forever adapting to the terrain, living off the land and their instinctual and magickal connection with nature and the stars. They have two major sites of religious, political and spiritual significance that also serve as cities for those who seek a more solid lifestyle. Barad Dharma and The lay of Usham.

Barad Dharma is where the temple city of their deities exists, and where every six years the Golagonds gather to perform a massive communal ritualistic meditation and project their will for their future, to the heavens.

The lay of Usham is a tent city built around a massive sarcophagus, the sarcophagus of Usham, the first non-Golagond to join the collective. He was a dragon and is revered as a pioneer by them. In the Lay, young and new Golagonds receive their rite of passage where their new names and inclinations (or professions) are received.

The Golagond remain within Shabathuk at all times, even after death. They can, (depending on experience and mental power) communicate telepathically with any other living or dead Golagond, anywhere. Respecting other peoples traditions though, the Golagonds will converse verbally, even amongst themselves, when in multicultural cities or even in the presence of a non-Golagond. They are in a constant undeclared war with the Atranaar.

The Golagonds have, in the last 30 years, intensified their study of the astral dome, the stellar movements and the cosmos, for reasons unknown but possibly related to the aversion or the managing of an upcoming destruction of the world. They also gather and mobilize their Algaz, their warriors, against threats mainly by the Atranaar.”

Kiko opened his book on the Atranaar. Mystified, the child read on.

“The ancient Atranaar ( meaning “the Superior” in their tongue) is a race of white haired and fair skinned faerie elves, though they have detached themselves from this family of beings, regarding their race as unique and above all others. They are immortal and appeared in Barastir, when their firstborn, Zaor the immaculate, mysteriously emerged within Alarbaranshad “the plains of Alabaster” (now called Natazaad mountains). Zaor fashioned his kin from alabaster and marble, thus if an Atranaar is slain, it returns to the stone that bore it, becoming a statue depicting its own moment of death.

They were once a vast empire, but most of them perished in the Plunge. Now they are the fewest peoples on the land, but by far the most hateful and power hungry. Their elitist society is based on the glorification of personal prowess to climb the noble hierarchy. They regard all other species and races as inherently inferior, useful only as subjects or slaves. They are ruled by a triumvirate of Kings – the Umbra Atranaara – who claim to be gods on earth. Nobody has ever seen these three Kings. Some say that the King is indeed only one, others that Zaor transfers his consciousness forever, through Atranaar vessels he deems worthy, effectively ruling since the beginning.

Their two main fortresses are found in the Natazaad mountains and in their Necropolis, found in the basin of Turgush. The Atranaar have the ability to end their natural life if they will it, within the Necropolis. By doing so they emerge as Exhenar –  White Lichs – able to shift dimensions and travel the planes. If an Exhenar faces the Greylight and the triangular sun, it is forever destroyed.

They have vast knowledge in magick and military affairs and have amassed great and dark secrets in their passage through the aeons.

The Atranaar travel the main trade cities in the last 30 years, applying hateful rhetoric to convince people to join them or conducting blood magick to get thralls to add to their imperialist cause.

Many deem the Glass as the big threat to Barastir, but others, more wise, realize that the Atranaar are equally, if not more, dangerous.”

The bard pulled out the golden pin and looked at it lovingly, before second guessing itself and putting it away. It then opened a book of the First Stars. The author described them as living entities in the form of tears that fell into the Corpus of the world, directed and perceived by The Voice Beyond the Stars. Their names and their last known locations are:

-Ontrothon –Tower of the astral thread

-Solathon – Wisper of Ø

-Valathon – the sunken pyramid

-Selkathon – Necropolis of the Atranaar

-Ixthathon – Unknown

-Algathon – Crown of the Fire Queen

-Xhalathon – The Glass

They closed their books and returned them to their original positions. While walking amongst the shelves, they reached the center of the library where display cases housed an assortment of relics and artifacts both magical and otherwise. Musical instruments and scrolls, and unknown stones and other marvelous obscure items were stored inside. In front of it, a woman, judging by her silhouette, wearing white wrapping everywhere around her body, stood holding two long fine blades crossed on her chest. Nothing was uncovered, neither her eyes nor her face not even an mere ounce of skin. They wanted to ask her what this cabinet was, but as if she already knew what they desired to know, she replied before they could even utter their question.

This is a display case for the items the visitors to the monastery have a gifted to the monks. You warrior -” She said pointing at Thalldon, “are now going to ask me if I am a also warrior of sorts.” Indeed that was his intention. “The answer is yes. I fight without relying on the surface of my senses. Meet me at the amphitheater now.” She said and resumed her guardianship.

They both left shrugging to eachother. This place was everything they had hoped for.

Thalldon visited the Graveyard, there, amazingly how, he saw the same woman, standing guard. “Entry is forbidden.” She announced. Within the steel rods of the gate, Thalldon saw that the gravestones were mysteriously unmarked.

He then visited the amphitheater and lo and behold! The woman was there also. Unless she was a goddess of some kind, this feat to be at three places simultaneously, was uncanny. Indeed she instructed Thalldon on how to dive into the deepest layers of his senses where his emotions would serve as  perception and understanding and while relying on other means of doing battle, he managed to grasp hints of what the woman warrior had achieved. He left the training wishing that soon he would be able to resume it.

While the bard visited the tavern and met with some other non-Sharakhil visitors inside, a tiny faerie and a troll faerie, and practiced his mischief in the process of cooking springrolls, Thalldon entered the dome shaped structure that hummed continuously.

Within it, a grand sphere levitated mere inches above the floor and rotated around itself on every possible axis. Its surface was smooth and dark, possibly made from some meteoric stone. Monks entered the room and placed candles beneath it. They would reach with their palms extended towards the surface of the sphere, but would not touch it. But Thalldon did.

Immediately he felt as if his body was ripped off of itself and was sent darting away into the atmosphere. He now saw the whole monastery from afar, hovering afloat in the air across it. Beneath the monastic castle, as if his eyes could pierce the stone, he envisioned like a refraction, that layers upon layers of areas extended downwards. Inside them he apprehended figures suspended in stasis.

Suddenly he returned back into his skin as if he had never departed it. The sphere hummed in front of his palm, a hairs length away.

Speechless, literally and metaphorically, he headed towards the tavern.

The two met inside the tavern yet again. Kiko had made new friends. This tavern was the only structure reminiscent of Helmaerite architecture. It had no patron or matron. Everyone helped themselves in there.

Thalldon noticed a middle aged man, sitting alone and reading a book. Using his basic grasp of sign language he tried to communicate with the man.

-“Ye –yes, I am from the south.” The man said. “I come from the Damorach lands. Eodoth lineage yes.”

Thalldon pointed at himself and then at the direction where the Helmaer lands extend.

-“You are a Helmaerite monk? Very good. Nice to make you erm, acquaintance.”

Thalldon rose and assumed a regal posture, imitating a noble and then pantomimed a crown on his head.

-“You are the King? No, you seem too young. What, the son? Oh! You are the young son? You are Thalldon!? I heard you were exiled. Makes sense!”

They both agreed on the danger of the Atranaar and Thalldon wrote a letter and sealed it with his signet ring and handed it to the man to be taken to the land of the Eodoth hoping this would set in motion a line of communication and the possibility of forging an alliance with the peoples who were hit harder by the coming of the Glass, having hundreds lose their homes, and forced to roam the lands as climate refugees.

As the Greylight ended and nighttime came, a mystical song fluctuated everywhere. It was not exactly sound but rather a pulse, an inner throb. A Calling. Everyone stood up and left the room without another moment wasted. Kiko and Thalldon, baffled, followed them out.

The monastery was suddenly empty. The night had come and only the golden figure atop the spire could be seen. Beneath it, hidden stairs leading inside the rock, had now opened. The two looked at each other and nodded and they descended holding their candles.

They found themselves in a cavernous room that lead deeper into the rock. Near the entrance they saw three stacks of folded robes. One of each color.

Kiko’s eyes widened. The child did not want to move further on. It felt constrained and depressed. Thalldon, not noticing the bards confusion, moved on bravely.

“I don’t want this anymore.” Kiko told itself and blew out its own candle. Immediately the shadowy mirror of the bard rushed ahead like a nightmarish shade and blocked its path above. It stood in front of the stairs holding a candle burning with a black flame.

The urchin rekindled its candle with the blackfire from its own projection, and burned the stacked robes, in an act of defiance!

ENOUGH WITH THIS ALTERNATIVE ORDER. ORDER IS STILL ORDER.” It shouted and rushed down. Thalldon had already moved further into the misty cavern around what seemed to Kiko to be an arraying of naked Sharakhil, standing motionless with empty eyes. A hazy blue sun shone above.

In front of them a figure wearing golden robes stood. From his back, two gleaming foggy wings grew. He wore a crown of horns on its head and had the face of a Sharakhil.

Looking at Kiko it charged!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

View
Sanctum of the Stars

She turned her eyes towards them, her fiery hair falling like flames down her shoulders, and as she descended from her levitating stasis, she spoke.

-“Thalldon, is that you?”

- “It is sister. It is nice to see you.” He said, as the four travelers approached the sanctum, navigating around the various petrified Atranaar corpses.

- “How did you reach this place? I am guessing that you found yourself back to the Tower.”

- “Indeed. I am sorry to see the family in this state.” He said embracing her.

She was everything but also nothing like he remembered, six twelvemoons ago when he departed the tower. Actually he had never truly noticed Elonkara. And that was his societies fault. To him, she was now a sight to behold. Proud and confident. Maybe she always was like that, but he did not have the eyes to see it.

- “It has always been in this state Thalldon. That is what we failed to acknowledge in due time.”

- “Maybe so. What is this place, and how did you find yourself here? I was told that you were exiled.”

- “That is what they were allowed to believe. The truth is that I led them to believe that I was getting exiled. That cretin we call “brother”, Aruthir, following our fathers abuse of power and our mothers voluntary inaction, accused me of “deviating from the path befitting a lady of the court” trying to control me and stop my arcane studies. Dozens of Helmaer soldiers died by my hand in self-defense. Soldiers that followed his orders to “seize me”. And so, not wanting to kill them all, possibly a regrettable choice in retrospect, I allowed myself to be “captured” and went along with their farce of a trial. The penalty was lifetime exile to the chasm of Samuth. They thought that the mountain would kill me. After all, no one had ever ventured into the chasm and returned. For me it was not a place of exile though, but rather a place of worship and pilgrimage. I knew of its heritage all along, and through my arcane powers I “suggested” I would be sent there.”

- “I always knew you had an affinity for magick sister, but I did not know for how long you had been harboring it.”

- “Since five years old Thalldon. And it was since then that I knew I had to conceal it. Who are those who you travel with? She asked looking at Alkanke, Kiko and Orsil.”

After the introductions were given and taken, Elonkara brought them to a hidden passage just below the sanctum that led to a hideout of sorts. It was furnished like a library and housed various contraptions and relics. It overlooked the sea of silver tears through an opening in its southern side that framed a large rectangular crystalike transparent material. A large telescope mounted on a tripod was turned towards the horizon.

Orsil the faerie dwarf had taken a great liking to Elonkara, regarding her as the Great Witch Helmaer of old.

Alkanke spoke about the Movaru women, a topic that Elonkara was rather familiar with. She had heard of the three Heroines that roamed the land looking for the aspects of the stars.

“What will you do with the first star Thalldon?” She inquired.

- “We have undertaken a quest to reach the glass and unearth the secrets behind it. Ontrothon is the key. Or so we are told.”

- “What is the purpose of this sanctum?” Kiko asked while looking through the spyglass over to the end of the world – trying to imagine its beginning.

- “It was built by the gods of the giants in the old days. It served as an observatory – as a temple to the stars. The astral energy it amassed was passed on to various ancient runic monoliths scattered around the peaks, connected with ley lines, thus creating a massive network of astral magick around the mountain tops above the chasm of Samuth. Most of these monoliths were rendered inactive through the years after the death of Lady Helmaer, the last human to ever reach the peak and study its power in the years when the Voice Beyond the Stars fell silent. The Faerie and the Golagonds infused them with wards to keep the Atranaar away, but the magic eventually waned and so now the elves return yet again to destroy or nullify the last monoliths in order to easily reach the sanctum to steal its secrets. I, following the steps of our great foremother, defend it.” Elonkara elaborated, tenderly caressing Orsil who was slumbering heavily after his resurrection, inside her arms.

Kiko listened at the archwitches recount and turned the viewing instrument towards the northwest, attempting to scope the Natazaad mountains, ancient bastion of the Atranaar. There between the dark nebula of the rain clouds the child saw the alabaster spires piercing the skies, when suddenly as if guided by an overforce, the dark cloudy nebula concealed them.

-“Barastir is facing its Doom or its Recreation. The Golagonds are taking action and will soon strike. It was not by mistake that their culture remained strong and flourished even after the Plunge. They will not care to distinguish between Atranaar and Atranaar sympathizers.” Elonkara added.

- “The Helmaer lands are in complete disarray. We must stop our father, break the alliance with the Atranaar and provide true leadership to the people.” Thalldon suddenly announced.

- “The Helmaer lands I fear are beyond redemption brother. The very people that you would lead are the ones who allow this to go on. They are the ones who man the armies and the ones who share the speciesist cause that the Atranaar operate on. The Helmear lands must be purged.” Elonkara retorted confidently.

- “Purged? Killing them will not stop the Atranaar.” Kiko cut in. “The common people have no choice in this. They man the army because they need to feed their families.”

- “And while they eat the food that the Atranaar brought to their table, they completely ignore the hundreds of families of humans and non-humans that perish inside and outside our borders, hunted by the elves, by the frost or by both.” The archwitch responded abruptly. “They should grow a conscience or face the consequences of their actions.”

- “That is why they need a strong leader. You. Me. Alkanke. Someone with vision and a hunger for equality and justice.” Thalldon rose and declared with conviction.

- “It is not true that all people in your lands are completely sold on the Atranaar ideology. Some openly denounced it. Many yet may still hold opposed beliefs, but fear the revenge that would strike them if they voiced it.” Kiko explained, still gazing far into the distance, its eyes wandering, through the amplification of the telescope, on the stormy waters of the ocean. An amplification of vision but also of wanderlust.

- “The Helmaer lands are facing a crisis that I cannot yet focus on solving. I cannot leave the sanctum. Not while the Atranaar still attempt to reach it. They hail from a nearby watchtower of the ancient days. They seem to have opened a wormhole within it, and waves of them rush the sanctum each passing day. If I am led astray from its vicinity no one will be able to harness its power and defend it.” Elonkara explained.

Before Thalldon could speak, Kiko announced that they would go and clear that tower of every Atranaar presence. Elonkara gave them magickal potions, restorative and stimulant draughts that she had mixed and enchanted. She also gave them a magickal ring decorated by a vibrant orange stone.

-“Use this to energize any monolith you find in your path. That will awaken the hibernating giants and the snow beasts of the olden times and bring them to the spiritual hub of the runes. It will also destroy existing elven portals and block them from re-emerging.”

Alkanke remained at the sanctum to assist Elonkara and Orsil, while Kiko and Thalldon departed the next morning towards the Watchtower to the southeast, following the archwitches directions. She spoke of a long rope bridge that led to it, beneath a waterfall.

Soon they reached a small canyon on the body of which, the ominous faces of giants were carved on the limestone. Out of the eyes of one of those faces, streams of rushing water fell to the depths of several consecutive platforms down the slope. This was clearly magical water, Kiko felt it. The air and the temperature in the canyon was a lot warmer than the rest of the absolutely frozen mountain that surrounded it. How else would the cataract be running and not solid ice, Kiko thought. Across the whole cascade and down to the first platform, a series of interconnected stone bridges descended. They all led to cavernous entrances.

Kiko started walking on the first bridge and halted half way, observing a mass of thick vines unnaturally hanging and moving over it. They all originated through the walls just above a large green plant-looking mass.

- “This is scary.” Kiko reported worried. “Best be careful.”

- “Let me go first.” Thalldon said and walked ahead.

Suddenly the vines rose and darted towards him extending their length, stretched like spears!

Before the blackguard could call upon his blade, the vines pierced between the shoulderguards of his armor drawing blood.

Kiko remained crouched behind Thalldon awaiting his reaction. Indeed, the former paladin called upon the might of his black blade and slashed at the creeping plants vines, severing them. As they fell, they slithered like snakes and crawled back into the wall.

-“What sorcery is this?” Thalldon yelled, and adjusted his battle stance. A third vine lashed at his arm and whipped him, while a forth slid under his guard and looped around the former paladins ankle, tightening more and more at each passing moment.

Kiko had noticed a skeleton of a humanoid wrapped inside a huge tangle of those vines, just below their point of origin. Preparing itself, the wee bard sped ahead and using Thalldons heel as a springboard, jumped over him, evaded a number of vines that thrashed at it, rolled mid air and finally landed in front of the entangled skeleton.

Thalldon was cutting vines left and right when Kiko felt the encroaching plant tentacles smothering its small body, pressing it against the wall. There the urchin saw a bulky mass, two feet wide, resembling a pulsating lettuce. The bard knew what was required in order to stop the vines but was unable to move as the green tentacles constricted it.

After some struggle Thalldon managed to reach the ledge where the tangled mass was, and started hacking at the vines above it thus loosening the grip they had on Kiko, who taking advantage of the opportunity, pierced the thumping mass that grew inside the ribcage of the skeleton. Thick ochre ichor seeped through the wounds and as if operating on alarm mode, the vines multiplied, lashing violently at the companions.

Finally they managed to destroy the murderous plant and washed themselves on the waters of the waterfall. Apart from washing the toxic ichor away, they felt refreshed and invigorated.

They entered the opening in the wall and there, just above the winding staircase that descended possibly to another bridge, they found a large urn decorated by the same ancient symbols they had seen at the temple of the old gods.

Processions of giants holding mountains on their shoulders or holding huge bodies with arms extending towards the cosmos. The urn was full of mud and dust and other debris, but within it Kiko discovered some relics. A very large belt possibly belonging to a giant and a jewel of sorts, a ring or a bracelet that was decorated by numerous small gemstones.

-"Let me try your magickal die, Thalldon!" Kiko asked wearing a big smile.

-"No. This might be a game to you, but not to me."

-"Oh come ooon. Please!"

-"No."

-"Ok fine". The child said and moved behind Thalldon towards the steps. Passing near him, Kiko attempted to pick the blackguards pouch, but Thalldon noticed and grabbed the bard by the shirt.

-"You seek to steal from me?"

-"No, I just bumped you. I am sorry…"

-"Listen child, I don't want you to -"

-"I SAID I AM SORRY. NOW TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF ME!" The warlock inside Kiko spoke, as its eyes darkened. Thalldon recoiled and let the child go. They did not revisit this issue. Now they knew that the darkness and sorrow of the world had seeped deep inside both their souls.

They continued on their path and finally they reached the platform where indeed, penetrating the thick white mist they saw a narrow rope bridge swaying violently in the frozen wind. The magic cataract was no longer present and the icy nature of the chasm had returned.

To the left and the right of the bridge, two magical pylons stood energized by the power of Iblys. Their magic was meant as protection for the bridge against the elements of nature.

- “I see a dark structure ahead! Let me go first, there might be magickal pylons here, but I doubt that this bridge can hold us both at the same time.” Kiko announced.

The child traversed the length of the rope bridge. Halfway on it, it noticed an old structure over to the other side, built on the edge of the mountain. It featured two dark spires on its slim facade.

Just as the child was getting ready to announce that it could not see any garrison, a distant figure on the other side of it was attempting to nullify the magic of the pylons that were also erected there, sword in hand, possibly meaning to neutralize  the ward and cut the ropes of the bridge.

Immediately Kiko called upon a rare spell that it had discovered. Extending its small fingers a prismatic array of colors projected off to the face of the Atranaar, and the elf bedazzled by the magic, fell paralyzed.

The companions rushed ahead, and Thalldon apprehended the guard and placing  Onxar the Black Blade on the elfs throat, jerked him violently attempting to wake him up. As the Atranaar opened its eyes the blackguard warned him.

-  “Shout and I shall cut your throat immediately. You will answer our questions and the manner on which you respond will make all the difference between life and death.”

The elf terrified but still defiant, growled and eventually complied.

“How many of you are here?”

- “Apart from me one. Just one.” The elf said and started cackling hideously.

- “What is this place?”

- “An observatory.”

-“What are your Master's plans?”

-“I would not share our vision with a lesser race. Even if I told you, you would not have the capacity to understand, human.” The Atranaar hissed.

Those were his last words. Thalldon slid his blade slowly across the elfs throat cutting it open. The Atranaar extended his tongue outward, drinking his own blood and drowning on it. Its eyes rolled back and from the tip of his mouth, as if it was a liquid that spilled over, the deathly petrification started. Soon his whole body turned into a horrid statue. They kicked it over to the ledge after taking the key chain that he held and a small disc that was hanging on a chain around his neck, mere moments before the items were also petrified.

A light flashed over the top of the tower.

- “We must proceed with caution, he might have been lying. Maybe there is a whole battalion of them in there, hiding.” Kiko warned and crept ahead.

The blackguard followed holding his frostfire blade. The Observatory was completely silent. The large metal door that served as its entrance was closed and had no visible keyhole apart from a disc-shaped recess on its surface. It was there that Thalldon placed the disc they had procured from the guard. With a sudden crack the door opened and the smell of decay rushed inside their nostrils.

The main room of this Watch Tower was completely empty. Only a vessel, a large container made of some obscure silver material engraved with the forms of souls getting exhumed from their bodies stood in the middle, wreathed in a purple light shown from above.

But then their eyes fell on the walls where dozens of chains hung in pairs, attached to cuff locks.  Those chains restrained numerous spectral humanoid forms on their ankles and wrists. Their ghostly bodies and faces transfixed in expressions of anguish and pain. A slow mournful weeping sound emanated from them and a incandescent mist seemed to be rushing out of their mouths and into the vessel.

-  “This terror is surely the work of the Atranaar. We should investigate further.” Thalldon announced in anger.

The two companions investigated the room and then decided to take the left flight of stairs that led to an alcove above. There a large viewing instrument was turned towards the skies. It resembled a series of large circular lenses of descending sizes stacked one behind the other. From the first ten foot one, to the last and smallest which was no bigger than a fingernail. A steel spine connected the whole structure to a seat. Beneath the machine, on the floor, a carving of the stellar dome was depicted and on its lowermost point it bore a circular seal similar to the one on the door.

- “I will take a look.” Kiko declared and happily sat on the machine. The child peered through and saw a dark purple portal open to an unfathomable distance in the skies, magnified intensely. Through it, the phantasmal bodies of Atranaar elves cascaded through the air and into the lenses and then disappeared. The child then turned the machine towards the sanctum of the stars. Much to the urchins dread, a portal had opened there also, and Elonkara was fighting off Atranaar warriors with the help of Alkanke. Kiko let out a cry and sprang from the seat. “They are summoning the ghosts of elves into the watchtower and opening portals on the sanctum!”

At that very moment, Thalldon was placing the disc into the ground. In set the machine in motion. The lenses started interchanging positions with one another, and the cosmic carving on the ground seemed to have miraculously changed its depiction.

- “For better or for worse, I seem to have set something in motion.” Thalldon noted.

- “let’s return to the bottom floor. We need to shut that portal down.” Kiko said with conviction.

As they returned to the lower floor, the chained ghosts on the wall had vanished. Immediately they consumed the magical potions that Elonkara had given them and they felt refreshed and full of celerity. They noticed a tall hooded figure standing in front of the vessel. Through the ceiling the apparitional elven forms collapsed on each other, passed through the container and finally merged with the figure.

They stood in the presence of an Atranaar Soul Harvester. An ancient sect of dread occultists, trained in the necromantic arts. It seemed that somehow the instrument above enhanced a grim ritual of astronecromancy.

The man wore a heavy armor and held a large blade. His straight white hair hung low beneath his belt. A hazy purple aura of dread surrounded him. He raised his weapon and wailing like the deepest astral nightmare, he attacked Kiko descending upon the child like a black hole.

The bard was unprepared and the strike lacerated the urchins body from shoulder to thigh.

-ONXAR!!!” Thalldon howled and the black blade materialized within the grip of the former paladin. He immediately intervened and blocked the Atranaars second swing. Kiko rolled backwards and sped up the stairs. From there it unleashed an Eldritch blast towards the vessel. As the energy from the blast hit the container the ghostly images of the elves halted their procession and the necromancer halted his offensive paralyzed where he stood.

- “Keep hitting him! I will focus on the vessel.” Kiko yelled and recited a powerful incantation that heated the gauntlet of the warrior magus, who cried in pain but clenched his sword even tighter instead of dropping it.

Thalldon suffered severe and ferocious blows from the Atranaar’s blade but pressed on. The blackguard feigned fatigue and pretended to drop his guard as the necromancer fell for the bait and raised both his hands preparing a high strike that left him exposed. Thalldon rushed forward and delivered a tallied compination of blows. One left, another one parallel to the first from the opposite side and finaly a third and mortal strike. A barbarous thrust to the chest. Not even this powerful and formidable opponent could withstand this attack, and black blood rushed through the rend armor and the open wounds of the Atranaar as he fell dead on the floor.

The companions regained their composure and looked around. They still needed to find a way to shut the portal down. Still the ghostly form passed through. The body of the Atranaar started moving again, and his spilled blood, as if magnetized by an inner force, returned back inside him.

-“He is regenerating! Quick the vessel!” Kiko cried and rushed towards the silver container. Thalldon started hacking at it with his sword and the bard pushed it, aiming to tilt it. The blackguard aided the bards attempt and moments before the Atranaar was able to return to life, the vessel fell over and the spectral forms dissipated into the astral weave that bore them into existence!

- “No time to celebrate.” Thalldon declared. “We need to look for monoliths and see if indeed the portal is closed.”

And so it was as they soon found out. The astral portal in the skies had perished as had the offshoot of it on the sanctum. Though there, the two women were still fighting bravely against numerous elves.

They two frantically searched the backside of the tower and discovered a small wooden door. The sickening smell that the main floor exuded was obviously originating from behind this door.

They opened it with the guard’s keychain only to witness a spectacle both terrible and infuriating. Inside this large cellar, dozens upon dozens of hideously murdered and decaying bodies of various races, from humans, to fearie, to even animals, lay stacked on eachother, forming a hill of utter disgust and grim sorrow. Both of them remain silent and felt their fury gather.

It was all obvious now. The rumors were true. The Atranaar had been gathering bodies and souls to feed their dark magick.

Behind the tower they also found a dormant monolith buried in snow. Thalldon touched the surface of the stone pillar with the ring. The hum of the mountain thudded below and the monolith became energized.

“BhhuuuuuuughhhhhHHHUHUHUUUU!” A battle horn reverberated within the ancient slopes.

-“Oh no… More Atranaar!” Kiko said in desperation.

But the child was wrong. Instead of Atranaar, the companions witnessed the glorious cathode of the Giants Of Old. Ancient sleeping guardians of the mountains returning to the call of the monoliths. On their helm strode a Ghorreamund, a Lord of the Venerable Apex.

The wild blew in tune of the giants march.

View
The Roots of the Mountain

 

The three companions again found themselves on the frozen steppes of the Helmaer highlands. Studying their map they decided on a course towards the chasm of Samuth where Thalldons’ sister was self-exiled.

Thalldon pulled out his weird talisman, a bone dice.

“You roll it now!” He demanded of Kiko.

“No, I don’t want to! I don’t feel like it.” Kiko replied abruptly.

-“Why not? You said its effects are benign.”

-“Well, not always. No…”

“You rascal you!” Thalldon barked feeling his rage gather. He willed himself to fabricated calmness and put the dice back into his pockets.

After a two hour hike, in front of them, a winding pathway was escalating the face of the northern mountains and there, inside the gloom, a deep chasm tore the rock in half. It was both deep and wide. That pathway led inside the chasm and opened up to ledges that run across it to either side. The air inside was stale and an aura of unmistakable magick emanated throughout the area. The cold was piercing and a subsonic hum pulsated from the roots of the mountain.

“We better waste no time.” Alkanke warned. “Nightfall will be upon us soon and regardless of your mother’s efforts, we might still be hunted by random Atranaar patrols.”

“Indeed so.” Thalldon said, nodding in agreement.

“I think we need to find a place to rest.” Kiko insisted. “It was a harrowing day for all of us. I have just the spell.” The child announced and started moving its hands in the air as if sculpting a tower of sorts out of nothing. Its gestures were followed up by arcane words and a transparent hut was summoned, one that only the three companions could see but before they could enter, three sudden golden flashes in the form of rifts appeared from the other side of the ledge and from inside them, three Sorrakuth’s rushed and charged towards them, hissing curses and demands in their mysterious language.

“Xrratatxa thaaoh Ontrothon! “Xrratatxa thaaoh Ontrothon ghuis Onxar!”  Their leader, a slim and tall Sorakuth wearing bronze robes shouted, pointing at Thalldon.

"Oh not again." Kiko murmured and entered the hut, only for it to deteriorate around the bard. The robed Sorrakuth had used his magick to dispel it. While Alkanke and Thalldon assumed battle positions, the little bard, annoyed that its wee hut was destroyed by the Sorrakuth, retaliated with a song of sleep. One of the Sorrakuths in the front succumbed to deep slumber, while their leader teleported to the opposite ledge and began weaving a spell of his own.

Thalldons eyes darkened as he uttered dark words that commanded the very mist to form in the midst of his adversaries. From within it blades twirled and flew in circles, ravaging the Sorrakuth warriors.

Alkanke hesitated seeing the black mist, and the Sorrakuth leader wasted no time and extending his long fingers, unleashed an elemental force of lightning that crackled and crashed onto the unprepared companions, shocking their bodies and bringing their bones nearly to a breaking point.

But Kiko’s arcane power had considerably multiplied since the pyramid, and as the child lowered its hazy silver eyes, unleashed a flurry of intolerable dark mumblings towards the leader, confusing, stunning and bringing his offensive to a halt, as the Sorrakuth magus cowered in fear and leaned back towards the mountain side.

Thalldon and Alkanke made quick work of the extraterrestrial swordsmen, and so the leader, realizing that the battle was lost, threw himself over the ledge of the chasm and let a long feather swim inside the mist while uttering a series of occult words as he fell slowly in the deep crevasse, cursing the companions.

"They came again." Kiko said while it searched the dead bodies of the extra dimensional warriors. The urchin found nothing of interest this time.

"They hunt you? What are they? "Alkanke asked.

"Yes! Or rather they hunt the Ontrothon and other rare treasures. They are beings from another dimension." Kiko explained.

"We should rest. This cold will break us if we do not find shelter." Alkanke warned as she investigated the surroundings on the frozen ledge. There were various cavernous openings that would protect them from the unforgiving blizzard and the lashing cold winds. She managed to find a small cave, maybe six feet deep and high, and all three of them nested inside, covered in their winter clothes and using each others bodies as a source of warmth. Alkanke secured her summer cloak on the entrance, covering it, after smearing it with fresh snow to provide camouflage and act as a wind breaker.

In the silence and utter darkness of the cave, the ominous hum from the mountain roots throbbed denser than the breathing of the companions and spread throughout the bowels of the rock. In their dreams they were visited by colossal images of giants. Their long beards running down to their feet and into the ground. They seemed rooted to the ancient stone. With arcane eyes these giants pierced the dreaming souls of the companions, measuring them, judging them, summoning them.

They awoke refreshed but very cold. Still the bosom of the mountain called and hummed, as those dreams faded and became sub layers in the aura of memory. Thalldon raised his eyes on the sky looking for the golden hawk, remembering the words of Algaragan. None could be seen.

They continued on their hike, looking for clues or tracks and reached some winding stone steps that lay on the side of the chasm, next to a massive mountainous body that fell in the middle of the abysmal crevasse, dividing it. Instead of walking into the icy corridor that continued inside this large glacier, they decided to climb the stairs that lead to a frozen rock slab that in turn narrowed down to an upward pathway hugging the mountain. On the slab Kiko discovered the frozen body of a dwarven faerie. It had curled and hugged its own small legs. Its frozen body had turned into a well preserved icicle. It had a horrid gash across its chest and arms. Inside its clutched fingers, the bard discovered a parchment. The child removed it carefully from the dwarfs grasp, fearing that it would crumple if jerked too violently.

“It holds something.”  Kiko announced, thawing the note with magick.

“This seems to be a diary page. It has a dating form that I cannot comprehend.”

“I am near the witches temple – The hum intensifies – the energized Heerriafr are all attuned – My giant brothers will soon awake and uproot the mountains “.

“The entry stops for a number of days or months. It resumes here.” Kiko explained.

“The Voice from the stars fell silent, and silver tears are falling into the ocean – The Mountain calls out to me.”

“What is Heerriafr?” Thalldon asked.

“That literally means ‘Star Rocks’ ”. Kiko informed him. “I don’t know anything else about them.”

“This sounds like an omen or a prophecy.” Alkanke deliberated. “Either this faerie died here a long long time ago, or it had become ridden with madness. Or both.”

“We must take the body of this poor being and bury it according to faerie customs. We need to deliver it to the roots of a tree.” Kiko declared.

“I will carry it then.” Thalldon stated halfheartedly and picked up the dwarf faerie. It wasn't larger than a newborn human.

As soon as they ascended the stone steps, a shriek resounded on the slopes, amplified by the echo of the mountain range, followed up by battle sounds, the clanging of weapons and the flurry of legs running and shuffling the snow.

Thalldon wasted no time and rushed ahead to investigate. Onxar was calling him to battle. He felt a newfound rush for power. For dominion. For the exaltation of victory. The others followed drawing their weapons.

As they rushed ahead on the upward pathway, they lay eyes on the majesty of the mournful clouds as they encroached on a nearby mountain peak. On its cragged slope, laying  with its back on the rock, was the titanic skeleton of a giant of old. Its skull now the nesting place of Murgerheim – giant eagles, and its body that was blanketed in eternal snow, covered the whole mountain side – as far as their eyes could see. A gargantuan sword lay plunged into the rock, inside the ribcage of the skeleton.

The companions froze for a moment, and stood there speechless, as if the mountain itself demanded of them to pay respects to the ancient fallen. After that silent moment of awe, they continued on the path and they reached a small mountain top, a snowy plateau.  On the edge of it, a tall and wide monolith of Greyhuth – a rare type of marble – towered wreathed in the orange hue of the ley lines and the unknown runic markings that run across its surface. In front of it, a Snow beast – or Yeti – as the humans called it, was battling three Atranaar spearmen. The eyes of the beast glowed with the same orange color.

ONXAR!” Thalldon shouted, placed the faerie body on the snow, and charged the Atranaar in the middle. Alkanke crossed blades with the elf to the right while Kiko crept near the Snow Beast, attempting to observe more of its possible connection to the huge pillar.The beast was holding its ground against the Atranaar, flailing its clawed arms, big as tree trunks, and growling menacingly.

The Hum was stronger than before near the pillar.

The third spearman, after blowing his battle horn and sending a boisterous blast across the skies, lunged at Alkanke and skewered her with his spear. She let out a cry of pain, grabbed the spear tip with her right gauntlet and bend it off, breaking it while it still protruded from her side, and riposted the assault with her longsword, cleaving the face of the elf. Her strike was so powerful that the pale blue eyes of her opponent were torn from their sockets and fell petrified on the snow, both gazing upwards at the darkening skies, beneath which, the face that once housed them, fell down to meet them once again in marble unison.

Kiko realized that the Snow Beast had either some sort of magickal shield near the pillar, or its simple mind warded off the child’s spell, exactly because it was simple.

The Beast grabbed the Atranaar from the legs and bit it off from the waist up, chewing and spitting the mangled body on the snow. The elf now lay there, a pile of crumpled steel, hot innards and severed limbs all turning to stone.

"See this Elf?" Thalldon roared addressing the final Atranaar that stood its ground fearless and in contempt. "I bet you can make a better statue than these. I am the better sculptor you see!" The blackguard added, springing into a barbarous offensive. His black blade violently tore down all of the futile defenses that the elf could muster and finally fell through its forehead cracking the skull open. As the gaze of the Atranaar became empty and lifeless and the brain fluids seeped through the wound and down to its legs, the elf stiffened and solidified into a grotesque statue.

Before they could decide what to do with the Snow Beast, an enormous winged creature appeared on the horizon and soon descended upon them. It was a huge dire raven and on its back an Atranaar protowarrior was holding the reins while another elf rode behind. The bird neared the ledge and the protowarrior dismounted and immediately charged Thalldon, while the second Atranaar engaged the wounded Alkanke.

"Ith elebethe oklier jie qyuith! Ethuicarh!" The protowarrior shouted as he delivered two ferocious blows on the torso of the former paladin with his long fiery blade. He moved with uncanny speed and precision, despite, or rather because of, his extended age. The Atranaar were after all, immortal. Wisdom and experience came with no toll to them.

Immediately after his strike, Thalldon felt immense heat emanating from the body of his adversary and before he could react, the protowarrior radiated white energy while a sudden burst scorched and burnt the blackguard and Alkanke, both suffering grievous wounds from the sudden inferno.

When the firestorm subsided, the protowarrior, obviously unaffected by its own magick, laughed and taunted Thalldon. The former paladin reeling with pain and perceiving the huge body of the Snow Beast dropping on all fours to the side and preparing to trample them, withdrew cautiously from the melee.

While Alkanke was besting yet another opponent, at the cost of her now dwindling vitality, the giant Raven hovered above, and snorted heavily, a blue mist forming around its nostrils. Kiko knew what was going to follow. The child sped across the plateau and stood behind Alkanke, gesturing and recalling arcane musings inside its head. It was preparing a complex and strong augury.

The onslaught of the Snow Beast caught the Atranaar protowarrior unaware. When the snow cloud from the yeti’s charge receded, the companions, instead of seeing the Elf stricken and broken, they saw him on the back of the Raven yet again. Evidently his innate affluence to magick provided a timely escape.

Kiko knew that this was the time to act. The child placed both its palms over its own eyes and uttered the final obscure words of the spell. Both the Atranaar and his mount reeled and turned mid air loosing their balance. They were both blinded! The protowarrior tried to regain control of his mount in vain, as the bird went into a frenzy and jerked him off its back while they hovered just above the gigantic skeleton on the nearby mountainside.

The Atranaar paragon plummeted and fell onto the immense blades edge that lay beneath him, and met his gruesome demise as his body was cloven open upon impact and completely torn apart to pieces of pristine white marble, which hailed down the slope and disappeared into the cruel drift of the frigid mesa.

The Raven flew afar, kited by the winds, before regaining its sight and rushing off into the dark horizon.

The companions looked at eathother and then at the Snow Beast which seemed to quiet down as it stood in front of the pillar.

"It seems to be ignoring us, let’s leave it be." Kiko said while mending Alkanke’s wounds with its magick. Thalldon picked up the faerie corpse and the three steering clear of the pillar and the beast, decided to explore the glacier grotto below. After all the diary mentioned a "Helmaer witch". That could mean Thalldon's sister.

“I don’t see the point in carrying the fearie with us. It is highly unlikely that we find a tree in the mountain top.”  Thalldon said, only to receive the disapproving gaze of Kiko who retorted that it was their duty to bring rest to the soul of this brave explorer.

And so, with the frozen corpse in their hands, they entrered the subterrainian cavern that opened next to the stone steps beneath the slab. They found themselves within a very large cave. It was uncertain if there were stone walls beneath the ice or if it was actually the titanic frozen mass that loomed around them. The answer to this question was soon found when they saw the face of a structure opening up deep within the grotto.

It was chiseled out of the same material, of the same Greystone as the pillar on the plateau and on its facade three doors opened up too dark and unknown destinations. The central gate was very wide and tall, an architecture that somebody would expect being made for giants or beings of large stature, while the other two where mysteriously of humanoid proportions. All three doors were covered by thick mist.

"This is the work of giants surely. "Alkanke noted.

"I think we should enter the middle gate." Thalldon said, trying to peer through the obscurity of the passageway.

"Lets take the rightmost door! It is more of our measurements." Kiko insisted.

The other two hesitantly agreed and they traversed the misty door that opened up to a gloomy corridor. From within, the Hum was louder than ever but it felt as if it undulated more as a palpable entity rather than a frequency of sound.

The long passage led to a stone balcony that overlooked a large subterranean hall. That huge cavity had no visible top or bottom. It seemed to be hundreds of feet wide. To the right of the balcony, the mountain rock could be seen, as this area was both warm and illuminated by the afterglow of a large pyre that burned atop a thin colonnade that rose up from the bottomless bowels up to the same height of the balcony but to the middle of the cavity. Further left, another balcony could be seen, probably the end of the path that originated from the other door.

As their senses slowly became attuned to the vastness and the undoubtable divinity of the place, they finally saw the Gods.

Five Giant bodies stood with their backs against the walls of the monumental cavern. Their sublime size, was surpassed only by the antiquity of their immortal aspect. It was tangible, omnipotent, unmistakable.

Four of them had huge long beards falling into the void like the very curtains of the cosmos itself, and within the hair, the projections of the stars themselves intertwined with the curvature. The middle one, possibly a female, wore a striking spectral crown, argent like the bright moons. Their eyes gleamed in an orange hue, much like the markings on the pillar.

As the companions stared with wonderment, the Gods spoke. Their voice booming yet soothing, undeniable yet dreamy, resounding yet hushed.

-“Will you pay your respects to the heart of Samuth?’’

-“We will.”

-“Present your offering.”

Kiko nodded to Thalldon and the blackguard extended his hands and held the body of the dwarf faerie high, and as he withdrew his palms from beneath it, it levitated diagonally towards the pyre and burst into flames.

“We accept our kin in our company. Go. The second path is open. Receive your blessing there.” The unified godly voice announced.

“There!” Kiko remarked in mournful glee. “The roots of the mountain are still roots!”

The companions exited the gateway and entered the leftmost one, seeing that the middle was still obscured by the arcane mist. As they reached the second balcony, they saw that the body of the dwarf was levitating from the fire back to them. Thalldon took it back into his hands and they saw that the faerie was breathing anew, thawed by the fire and resurrected by the love of the giant gods.

All four exited the corridor back to the main entrance, as the dwarf squirmed and whimpered, much like a newborn would do. It opened its hazel eyes and stared long at the travelers.

“Who – where – what?” The creature said bewildered, trying to gather itself.

“Easy there friend.” Kiko told him smilling. “You had been taken by the cold but you are here with us once again. What is your name?"

-“I don’t, I don’t remember… I am… I am Orsil! I was on the trail of the Helmaer witch. I was following her pilgrimage to the sanctum of the stars around here when, when a whitehaired Atranaar descended upon me. Then all went blank.”

“That was a long time ago friend.” Alkanke whispered in his ear in a soothing voice. “Ages have passed.”

“Do you mean Lady Helmaer, the archmage, the matron of the Helmaer lineage?” Thalldon asked in anticipation.

-“Lineage? No It is just her and her three children. She is not noble born. Yet she is wise and powerful!” Orsil replied. The faerie had effectively escaped time itself.

“Yes!” Kiko jumped in. “The Helmaer witch is around here still. We are seeking her out too! Come with us!” The urchin did not want another being experiencing the dread of reincarnation as it had felt it. The burden of life and death was enough on its own. And so the companions let the faerie believe it was never killed in the first place.

The mist was now lifted from the middle gate and the four of them walked through. A staircase ascended in front of them and led to another archway that opened up to the legendary Summit of Samuth were lore says that the Sanctum of the Stars was constructed by the deities of the giants, eternal observers of the cosmos.

Three stone wards hovered on the top of the staircase. Each marked with three shapes.

A triangle, a circle and square.

“The aspects of the voice beyond the stars! United they are a blessing. Divided they represent the potential for destruction. These three symbols separately, are taken up by the three godkings of the Atranaar. The Umbra Atranaara. The Giants and the Golagond placed these wards in the likeness of these symbols to keep the High Elves away from the power of the Sanctum. But now they seem inactive.” The faerie announced.

As they walked under the archway they saw numerous petrified Atranaar in their death poses, scattered around the peak. In the middle, they saw a magnificent structure made of greystone. The figure of a woman floated suspended between its two large obelisks, harnessing its power.

Thalldon recognized his sister. Elonkara.

View
Return to Cewick Tower

 

The magical waters welcomed them once again, and they swam out of the lake that was within the lake and traveled across the sandy expanse in the middle of which the once frozen pyramid had now melted and stood before them in its fleshless, inner, alabaster glory. They entered the ancient structure as if for the first time and within it they now saw that no room, no labyrinth, no trap existed any more, other than a glorious hall, grand and illuminated, in the middle of which they marveled at an imposing monument. It was made of alabaster itself and surrounded by magical nature.

The triangular shape that it depicted was levitating ten feet above the ground and was rotating in the air. Within it, an alabaster cube was rotating in the opposite direction to the triangle frame and within the square, a sphere was rotating in a chaotic manner and on every possible axis.

Beneath that magnificent monument that was as large as a hilltop, the portal that the hierophant created for Thalldon was still standing open and through it the former paladin could discern the northern pass that lay on the borders of his domain.

 “Let’s go.”  He said and all three of them passed through the waygate.

“I should close this if it is within my power.” The blackguard announced.

And indeed he felt that he had a connection with the magic of the portal and with a swift gesture from his hand the gate collapsed within itself and disappeared out of thin air.

They had reached the cold steppes of the Helmaer realm that were geomorphically defined by a large mountain range called Haathoogard “Giants Bones” that surrounded Cewick Tower as natural defense. On the slopes of the mountain, lay a small region of forests, the “ghosts of spirits past” , where it is said that was once the site of a massive genocide that the Atranaar elves conducted on their former cousins, the Faerie. On the outskirts of that forest that lay on the crossroads that connected the Ocean  of Silver Eyes to the northwest with the inland empires of old to the northeast, one could find an old inn, the Black Fox Lodge, whose chimney now smoked in the darkness of the deep winter. It was morning when they passed through the gate and now it was nighttime. The magic of the lake was at play when they went through the wormhole.

“Are we going in there?” Alkanke asked. “If so, we must agree on our course of action. Who are we and what are we doing here?” She added.

“We can pose as a group of mercenaries that seek to enlist to the Helmaer ranks and join their upcoming conflicts.” Kiko suggested.

“That is a descent idea.” Thalldon said nodding in agreement. “In that case though, we should split. You two go ahead and enter the inn and I will scope the area for a while and enter later. It would be best if we feigned that we are unacquainted.”

All three agreed and so Alkanke and Kiko went inside the lodge, while Thalldon skulked about cloaked, and spied the mesh hall from the window to the back.

The cold was piercing even more so than the darkness of the steppes.

“I am Alorna and you are my squire.” Alkanke told Kiko who frowningly agreed to the scheme.

“Squire… Everyone thinks of me as a squire.” His angelic eyes mournfully looked towards the dark skies. The child still kept the vision of its death close to its heart. That Movaru Goddess and that tune were now paramount to its being, to its new life, as the Urchin felt it at least.

The interior of the inn was more welcoming than it was warm, regardless of the rather large fireplace that covered the southern wall. It was as big as a room, housing an antithetical to its size small fire, and its face was almost as large as the main entrance to the mesh hall. Under its cragrock mantlepiece, a dwarf sat, holding an iron rod and shuffling the embers.

A long wooden table made of bodagot root, run across the length of the inn, and on its equally long benches, only a gathering of human male hunters sat, old and younger, conversing and drinking ale.

On the other side of the room, just in front of a small storage room door, the innkeeper, a short-clean shaven man in his seventies, roasted meat on a barbeque slab. Across the place, various mounted heads from animals and beasts decorated the walls, the “crown jewel” of which – resting above the fireplace – was a Jhahkar – a forest dragon long extinct now.

“How rustic and manly. Alkanke whispered and sat on the edge of the table, across Kiko. “The look on their face seeing a woman in armor entering a tavern is similar to the look they would have seeing a Jhankar walk in and order ale.”

“What can I bring you, strangers? “ The innkeeper asked.

“Ale and food.” Alkanke replied, removing only her left gauntlet.

“Coming up. What brings you to our icy steppes? You are not from around here are you?” He asked smirking, in his heavy accent. He spoke a variation of the Golagondish tongue which was the human dialect.

“We are!” Kiko rushed to respond before Alkanke could.

“Oh! Where from? From Pine Fang to the west maybe?” The man continued, in an interrogating manner.

“Yes! That’s my homeland.”  Kiko declared happily.

“We are mercenaries. We come to enlist to the Helmaer army. Heard they seek swords. I am actually from Cewick Tower. Returning after some years. This here is my squire.” Alkanke cut in to announce, kicking Kiko’s leg below the table.

“I see, I see. “ The innkeeper said and went back to the slab to prepare the order. Thalldon who overlooked the scene from outside, saw him whispering something towards the small storage room in the back.

“Pine Fang is not in the west. It is an abandoned village to the southeastern hills. He was testing us.”  Alkanke whispered to Kiko. “Let me do the talking from now on.”

The hunters across the table regularly looked over towards the two travelers, giggling amongst themselves.

“Ok I will!” Kiko replied, got up and walked over to the fireplace where the dwarf sat.

While the child was walking across the room, a group of three men, soldiers, wearing the Helmaer colors, walked in. One of them was an officer of sorts, Kiko could tell by his snobbish demeanor. Another was an older man, gruff and moody, and lastly a youngster, with a red nose and barely any facial hair. Immediately the innkeeper brought a small table and two stools and set them up near the corner next to the fireplace.

The officer and the older man sat down and the youngling stood behind them, tense and nervously looking at the ceiling. Kiko sat next to the dwarf. A thick and long dirty cloak hung over his shoulders. He wore a long mustache that moved funnily in a wavy motion while he chewed on something. Possibly a herb. Kiko could smell it. It had the odor of mint and orange flakes.

“Hey there lad.” The dwarf said without raising his eyes from the fire. “I would be more careful ‘round ‘ere. The Helmaer lands aren’t so welcoming as of late.”

“It seems so! Who are you?” Kiko inquired while rubbing its small palms near the fire. Its knuckle cut mitten gloves were nearly frozen.

“I would be Kloverdan. And you?” The dwarf said and spat a blackish blob into the fire. It scintillated and flared up, scenting the room with spearmint.

-“Kik- I mean Starly.”

-“Nice to make your acquaintance Starly. The dwarf remarked and smiled.

-“What are you Kloverdan? A warrior?”

-“I am a naturalist of sorts. I collect and sell rare gems and herbs on the side.That’s the only reason the humans still tolerate my existence here.”

-“What’s YOUR cover child?”

-“Well, ehm. We and the lady there are mercenaries.”

-“I see! Well, be careful lad. And stay clear of the main road. Atranaar and Helmaer patrol it. And trust me; they are more inclined to break the peace than keep it. If you know what I mean.”

Kiko nodded, stood up and walked over to the soldiers. It stood in front of their table, cleared its throat and spoke.

“Are you with the Helmaer army? Me and my companion wish to enlist!”

Everyone in the tavern started laughing.

“Is that so child?” The officer said, wiping the spilled ale from his beard, using his beard.

“Yes! It is! We-“

Before the bard could finish the sentence, Thalldon walked in.

The patrons turned towards the door. Some of them knew Thalldon and recognized him, while others had heard of him but never saw him in the flesh before.

“Prince Thalldon!” The innkeeper exclaimed. I did not know you would be honoring our lowly establishment! Please have a seat.” He said and rushed to bring plates and mugs for the Helmaer noble, behaving as if overcompensating for something.

“It was not a planned visit. Nor do I usually need to announce my steps. Do I?” The blackguard said and looked straight at the soldiers table who were still sitting down.

The officer noticing Thalldons' glare, dropped his half eaten mutton in the plate he was holding, stood up and ordered the other two soldiers to stand attention in the presence of the former paladin. They complied as hesitantly as the order was issued by the officer, except for the youngling who was already as stiff as a cane to begin with.

“At ease. Bring the soldier here a seat. Why is he eating standing?” The former paladin directed pointing at the younger patrolman. “Eat and then you will escort me to the Tower.”

-“We cannot do that my lord. We have orders coming from the king. Specific orders.”

-“What orders are those?”

-“We are not at liberty to divulge details to anyone.”

-“Anyone? I am not anyone. I am the king’s son.”

The soldiers remained silent.

“There have been rumors.”  A hunter remarked.

“Rumors of what kind?” Thalldon turned and asked.

-“Regarding your travels and the Atranaar.”

-“And you would hold rumors coming from the Atranaar as more valid than the history of what I personally have done for this land?”

-“The Atranaar are our allies. Much needed allies if you ask me. We need to reclaim our lands and secure them from unwanted trespassers like the orcs and the various raggedy nomads and refugees that come and go. This is OUR land.” The hunter said and grimaced grotesquely, his face displaying both pride and hatred, as if he had just killed an elk with a headshot.

“Clear thinking is our ally. Not the Atranaar. I have seen their ways. They do not befit our heritage. YOU best remember that.” Thalldon said and walked out, knowing where this would escalate had he stayed.

Right after his exit, the patrons resumed their murmuring and the innkeeper, after spiting on the ground in contempt, leaned in the storehouse once again and whispered something, that sounded incoherent to Kiko who was eavesdropping.

“We need to leave also.” The child told Alkanke who agreed and dropped a few coins on the table.

“Where can we rent a horse around here?” She asked the innkeeper.

“A horse? How did you come all the way here in the first place?” He responded confused.

“Our horse died of exhaustion a few hours before we reached the inn. We continued on foot the rest of the way.” Kiko responded swiftly and with conviction.

-“I see… Well there is a farmer right outside who keeps a couple of horses. Maybe he will rent you one, if he is still awake.”

“Thank you.” Alkanke said and the two left the tavern within nerve-racking silence.

The two met up with the former paladin just outside, near the farm and away from the prying eyes of the patrons of the tavern. The snow was falling rapidly while they were inside and now it had covered the main road that run between the mountains all the way to Cewick tower. They stood there ankle deep into the cold powdery whiteness, in Kiko’s case, knee deep.

The Stars hung from the sky hazy and dim while the twelve moons of Barastir reigned above them like an argent crown.

As they were conversing in the dark of midnight, a lone rider sped inside the gloom and got lost into the night over the horizon. “The Innkeeper send him off, I am sure. He had been preparing something with someone in the small room behind the counter. He's trying to inform the authorities of our arrival.” Kiko explained trying to make out the riders features to no avail. Had the child succeeded, it would have recognized Crane, the old errant man that met with Thalldon at Olsahir.

“I think we should take another road not the main one. The dwarf inside informed me that there are Patrols there.” Kiko suggested.

“Yes that would be a good idea, provided that we do not run into wild beasts or worse.” Alkanke added.

“There are not many things that I would call worse than the Atranaar elves.” Thalldon noted as he looked at the dark slopes of the mountain Haathoogard. I agree that it is best we took the longer way around and took our chances. It is after all just two hours more than the main path.”

And so the three companions traveled in the last hours of darkness and through the first light near the forests that run to the side of the mountain and through the path within them. Soon they reached a clearing where strangely how, a few tree trunks were severed and others completely uprooted, lying covered in the snow that was now melting away under the morning light.

These are signs of neither lightning nor a rockslide. This must be the work of a large animal.” Alkanke deliberated.

Kiko went ahead to scout the area and the other two followed behind.

They came across the following spectacle. A giant was engaged into melee with a Helmaer soldier who was barely standing his ground. The giant was bellowing curses in the faerie language and was pointing towards a pile of logs that were formed into the base of a house. Nearby across the clearing, a cart was running in circles pulled by a horse which was evidently startled by the event. Inside the cart the companions saw two tied up humanoid figures, possibly Sarakhil – dark skinned elves. Rare, reclusive, forest and mountain dwelling elves, in a long standing war against the Atranaar.

Kiko sneaked towards the cart to investigate while Thalldon and Alkanke neared the skirmish.

“What is the issue here, why are you fighting? I am Thalldon, heir of the Helmaer!” The former paladin shouted.

The giant pushed the soldiers shield aside and then lowered his arms. The patrolman took a few steps back and looked at the companions disoriented and perplexed.

“This… this giant seeks to build a house in the steppes using our trees. Both of these actions are illegal and I am forced to stop him. Thalldon you say?” The soldier explained.

“I AM NOT DOING ANYTHING WRONG!” The giant bellowed. “This is our land as much as it is yours, and so is the timber!” He added and raised his huge sword once again, this time more as a warning rather than a threat.

“At ease soldier. The giant is right. There is no such law. Everyone is free to use the natural resources according to their needs, so long that they respect the needs of others.” Thalldon clarified.

“This is not so my lord. The king has issued other orders altogether. I am obliged to keep them.” The patrolman insisted, and maneuvered to keep equal distance both towards the giant and towards Thalldon.

“You will cease at once, soldier. That is an order. My order.” Thalldon retorted and stared angrily at the soldier who hesitated and then started withdrawing cautiously towards his horse and cart.

“Friend!” The blackguard announced addressing the giant. “What is your fair name?”

-“I am Algaragan from the mountain tribes! I came down as many of my kin do in the months of frost, to build lodging in the steppes. This is our way of old.”

-“I understand and you have the right to do so.”

-“Thank you Thalldon. I hear you are the king’s son. Do you not agree with him?”

-“No. I do not. And I need your help Algaragan! You are my kinsman as much as any Helmaerite and I want to maintain those bonds intact.”

-“That is good to hear Thalldon. I hope your vision is accepted by the Towerfolk.”

“Why don’t you join me? I am on my way there.” Thalldon replied while Kiko crept beneath the cart and climbed on the axle that connected the wheels. While the giant conversed with Thalldon, the Helmaer patrolman had sneaked back to his horse and was about to mount it.

“Stop where you are!” Alkanke shouted.

“We must stop him, he seems to be carrying prisoners.” She exclaimed.

The soldier wasted no time, hopped on his horse and galloped away. Kiko, unable to hold on, fell flat on the snowy grass, while the cart sped away in the distance, where the ancient Tower pierced the skies.

-“It seems you will reach your homeland, announced. Unfortunately for you, not in a manner befitting your position it seems.” The giant said to Thalldon smiling. He was a massive man. Giants live to be hundreds of years old. This one seemed middle aged. Various crafting tools hung from his belt and his boots had seen better days. He must have been hiking for days to descent from the mountains and build his home on the frozen flats.

“Unfortunately, I cannot escort you to your castle. The humans are hostile towards my kind lately. I would be less intimidating and more of a target. Regardless, you have an ally in me Thalldon lordling. I will converse with my kin and decide our course of action. Look to the skies in the mornings to follow. If you see the golden hawk circling above you, come and see me here.” The giant announced and continued building his home.

The three companions took their leave of Algaragan and continued on their course and reached a rocky hilltop, underneath which the town of Cewick Tower appeared in its gray depression, surrounded by the granite cracks of the highlands. Less than a mile ahead, Kiko noticed a patrol approaching. The child saw one Helmaer pikeman, one Atranaar and one bulky creature, possibly a hill giant.

The companions hid behind a rock, while the patrol turned and approached them. They took a closer look. Indeed that creature was a hill giant. Around its neck a blue energy in the form of a rope was tied. It was a weapon of some kind. A magical whip perhaps that the Atranaar elf was holding. The giant started sniffing the air intensely as the patrol passed near the hiding place of the three, and then the startled elf jerked the whip causing the giant to stride straight towards the companions.

"We have no choice but to fight." Thalldon announced and called upon his mystical blade.

Kiko rolled to the back and started whispering a spell.

Alkanke rushed ahead towards the elf drawing her longsword.

The Helmaer pikeman, ignoring Thalldon's orders to fall back, attacked with his spear but missed miserably and fell flat on his back, while Thalldon suffered a severe blow from the hill giants club and retaliated with a vicious strike to the creatures belly. As the former paladin was getting ready to deliver the mortal blow, the bard interfered and directed his dissonant whispers towards him causing his strike to fail!

 “The giant is a prisoner, we need him on our side, do not kill him!” Kiko telepathically  implored Thalldon who instinctively turned from the giant and assisted Alkanke who was trading blows with the elf.

The child then heated the metal handle from the elf’s weapon causing him to drop it on the ground and thus released the giant from the shocking grasp that was enthralling it. Immediately Kiko healed the wounds on the giants body and the creature nodded in gratitude, picked up a boulder from the ground and let a thunderous cry resound in the steppes as it let it fly and land on the pikeman who lay prone, crushing him and sending him to meet a very gruesome demise.

Alkanke picked up the magical whip, with her battle gauntlet that could withstand the heat from Kikos’ spell and snapped it towards the Atranaar's legs, giving the perfect opportunity for Thalldon to strike. The blackguard raised his sword above his head in a combat pose known as the stance of the swooping falcon and awaited a misstep. The desperate elf extended his arms to cast a spell towards them and Thalldon executed his preplanned offensive, dropping his blade through both the arms of the elf, severing them at the wrists.

It took a few moments of shrieking cries for the Atranaar to die and turn into a marble statue right there on the snow.

“We have no time.” Alkanke said. “We must go.”

“Thank you dweller of the hills.” Thalldon told the giant.

“There is a kinsman of yours to the southeast, seek him out!” Kiko added and bid the creature farewell.

The giant teared up as it run towards the forests, and managed a mere “Thank you”, as it left.

“Who knows what the poor creature suffered under that whip.” Alkanke remarked.

“Indeed. The Atranaar are a true plague.” Thalldon said in agreement.

“Passage! Passage to the north near the marsh.” The hill giant shouted departing.

“I know the place. There is an opening in the old walls there. It leads through the stables. We should be able to sneak in through there.” Thalldon explained, looking towards his birthplace.

“What are we going to do? I suggest we walk straight to the tower and state our minds. I have no fear.” Thalldon professed to his companions.

“I will walk with you as well.” Alkanke declared. “There are things that the people, the women of Cewick Tower, need to hear.”

And so they entered the city through the stables and reached the cobbled path that run though the whole stronghold and led to the Tower gates. Half way on the path, Thalldon removed his casque and let his face show.

The second tenhour of the day, the Greylight, had arrived and the uncanny phenomenon of the triangular sun, arose in the sky once more.

The former paladin walked slowly on the stone paved avenue.

No flower petals decorated his return, but rather the icy snowflakes of the frozen skies that fell on his metal armor as the disapproving tears of Uman the Skylord. All he could hear was the hissing gust of the zephyr.

Wreathed in black determination Thalldon strode, while the onlooking people of the Helmaer town, confused and skulking, gazed at him as his heavy steps sank inside the black snow that blanketed the land. They had heard the mandate of the King declaring his son's actions as “befallen from the grace of the Helmaer family”, but now there he stood striding towards the throne room. Slowly a trail of soldiers amassed behind him, much like when a Lords power is usurped and he is taken to the executioner's block accompanied by the very warriors that he once commanded. He walked in grim silence, only looking ahead to the open metal doors of the Tower that appeared before him piercing the skies, gray and devalued in this age of deterioration and frost, but still alluding to the shadow of a majesty long gone.

A crowd had also gathered around the steps of the Tower.

“It seems they have been notified of our presence.” Alkanke whispered smirking in defiance.

“I will be at your side when the time is right. You might not be able to see me but I will be there for you.” Kiko promised and disappeared into the alleyways of the town.

The grim knight and Alkanke reached the tower and crossed the inner walls as the gathered crowd parted in their wake. Dozens of sets of eyes gazed intensely at them.

“Halt!” A senior officer demanded as Thalldon ascended the stone steps towards the door.

Before Thalldon could push the officer aside, a voice from within the hall, a voice familiar yet not welcoming, directed the officer to fall back.

“Let him pass. Let him face the judgment of the Law firsthand. He is after all, still a Helmaer.” This was the slithering voice of Aruthir. Thalldon’s older brother.

Aruthir was a cowardly person in Thalldon’s eyes. Always eager to nod his head even at the most absurd of orders or opinions that his father, King Kantagor, would spew. He spent his whole life grooming his unworthy self for a throne that was not fit for him as he was likewise, not fit for the throne. He was a person devoid of any non-traditional political incentive other than the structure that was already laid out before him. A person devoid of vision and personal opinion.

Regardless, he was the person that was sitting on the throne right now.

Thalldon looked down at the officer, who shrunk and stepped back allowing the two ironclad travelers to walk through the entryway into the throne room. The Greylight shone through the stained glass windows of the hold, showering the gathered crowd beneath in a hue ochre and foreboding.

The whole of the Helmaer nobility stood there, beneath the ancient banner of the family that was hanging on the rafters above the throne, which like it, was in raggy tatters.

The clothes of the nobles were dim and gloomy like their hearts. To the sides of the hall, commoners gathered from all walks of life – their faces capturing both suspicion and bewilderment – and in front of them, a circle of spearmen surrounded the audience floor.

Atranaar elves stood behind the throne, and next to them, Theshpiah, Thalldons’ mother. His brother Aruthir, indeed sat on it, clad in his boisterous shining armor, holding and casually leaning on his unsheathed longsword with an elitist grimace painted across his middle-aged looking face, even though he was just thirty seven.

“Step forth brother. Step forth and explain yourself. A rider from the borders informed us of your arrival. I am sad to not be able to welcome you on better terms. You see there have been rumors, or rather – reports – that hold you responsible of various problematic acts and wrongdoings.

What have you to say to this?” He monologued while pointing the tip of his blade towards Thalldon.

The blackguard stood next to Alkanke in the middle of the audience floor and gazed at the banner above, then at the crowd and then finally his dark eyes transfixed on his brother’s face. As Thalldon’s looming presence grew proudly, his long shadow cast at the stone, mirrored his resolute charisma that was slowly creeping around the hall. He did not outright speak. Instead he took a deep breath, so deep and resounding that echoed to the back of the room which was suspended in silent anticipation.

Finally he spoke.

“Under whose authority is it that you are sitting on that throne my brother? Have you not understood by now the limitations of your character? And what are these rumors that you speak of? Since when does our family operate on rumor, especially regarding its own son? Long have I traveled the far reaches of the land doing the bidding of our King and father, never forgetting what the legacy of this family is and I return after months of doing what's right, only to be greeted by this threatening atmosphere, by this, may I say, poisonous assembly. I see that Atranaar are amongst the nobles. That means that the rumors that I heard are indeed true, if it is rumors that we are discussing after all. Since when do we need the arrogance of the elves to dictate the necessity of alliances and the future of this land, and since when do you command the manner in which I, heir of my king and father, will be accepted and greeted within my own Hall?”

His voice echoed heavy, and fell like a dark cloud above the tower. A cloud overclogged with rain.

Murmurs spread around the room.

“By the will of our King and father himself, Thalldon!” His brother replied sharply and stood up, still using his sword as a mannerismic supplement for his speech. “It was he who forged this alliance with the elves, a great alliance at that, and it was he who ordered that you should be held accountable and disowned for your actions. It was also he that gathered our forces and is as we speak marching to secure the future of our Land by the grace of our alliance with the Atranaar. In all these, you are the odd one out, to put it simply. You do not belong. Is it not true that you obstructed the duty of our patrols only hours ago and even slew an elven patrol leader? Is it not true that you murdered several Atranaar only to revenge an uncivilized orc? Is it not true that you embarked into some sort of an obscure personal quest to who knows where; completely deviating from your sole purpose which is to safeguard these lands and act as an agent for the well-being of this family? But this does not ring true only now – at this moment – my brother. This has been true since the beginning of your “career”.  Always you placed yourself above others; you and our useless sister alike. I am the only one who will continue to be both willing and capable to do what's best for this family and this is exactly why I am the only one who is still by the Kings side, and that is exactly why our own father gave me this throne to act as his voice during his absence. Now that you know your true position in this equation, given the fact that you were once heir of this family, I give you the following two choices. Either accept your lifelong banishment from these lands forthwith, or accept your death by the hands of the very family that you betrayed and abandoned.” He added raising his screeching voice while subconsciously tracing the sharp edge of his sword with his metal glove.

“What have you done to my sister, where is Elonkara? Mother I see you there behind the throne, what have you to say on this? Is this your will as well as my fathers?”

Thalldon barked, taking one step forward, while the spearmen suddenly lowered their spears towards him.

“She suffered the fate that every woman who is overstepping her bounds, suffers. She thought that she could deviate from her path and become a student of the arcane. The myth that the sorcerer, who gave the name “Helmaer” to us, was a woman, is nothing more than exactly that. A myth. Your sister should have known better than to defy her rightful place as a lady of the court like her mother is.”

Aruthir hissed in contempt.

“You mean her rightful place as interior decoration for men.” Alkanke shouted abruptly at the crown prince, and walked right in front of a spear, pushing it aside with her gauntlet.

“You do not even call your mother by her true title. Queen. This is exactly why your family, the Helmaer line and all the human communities also, have gone to waste. This is exactly why you are rotten to the core and you deserve the utter deterioration that has befallen you. I was once part of this town like my mother and my grandmother before her and I have seen first-hand your blatant disregard for anything that is not male, that is not human and that is not noble, and I am here to declare that this will end one way or another. I am speaking to the women of this town!” She shouted standing tall. “Some of you are in this hall and some outside it. Remember how you have been treated ALL YOUR LIVES. Remember how your existence was always dictated by the will of your husbands, your brothers, and your fathers. Remember that your destiny in this life was to be helpers, servants, second grade caretakers, child bearers as well as objects of pleasure for men. Did you choose that life? Does it fulfill you or does it not? Stand up against it!”

Aruthir turned around and looked at her baffled, unable to grasp the notion that a woman  - an unknown woman at that – was talking back at him. He mumbled a few words and before he could utter them, Thalldon interrupted him.

“People of Cewick Tower, I call upon your intuition. This man here, who calls himself rightful heir of my family, is nothing more than a puppet, than a would-be tyrant. Long have we lived peacefully in these lands. Long have we accepted others in our midst. Yes we have erred many a time but instead of doing what we must to correct our mistakes, what we now do is to elevate hatred as our way of dealing with things. Where shall this path take us? Where shall this alliance with the elves bring us? What will happen when the elves deal with everyone else that is in their path? They will then turn against us and eliminate us in their hunger for total domination. I have seen that happen, I have seen their blood magic at work at Olsahir, where they would demand a bloody signature that would enthrall people to their cause. This is what I defended myself against and now I stand falsely accused. I call upon you people of this town to stand behind me and to stand against this madness that is evidently the workings of my own father. Every man, woman, human or otherwise, is welcome here in these lands and we can defend our rights against those who seek to take them from us. All we need is strong leaders not obsessed and sell-out lordlings like him!”

He said pointing at his brother who was now red with rage. A number of citizens along with an old councilman openly agreed with Thalldon and Alkanke and declared the Kings alliance with the elves “folly”. They went on and stood behind Alkanke and Thalldon.

Aruthir felt a creeping uneasiness. He dropped his fist on the arm of the throne.

“How dare you utter these words? We defend our lands against our enemies. This is exactly what we are doing! And I am doing what your father has envisioned. Long have these lands been ravaged by foreigners. Long have our natural resources being robbed from under our own eyes. The giants descend from the mountains stealing our lumber and building houses on our steppes. Every poor and destitute refugee seeks to settle down here, even the Orcs you call friends, pass through this land in their pilgrimages, using our pathways, hunting our game and even camping down in our fields without even paying tribute. Our heritage as humans is to be leaders and to dominate all the lesser uncivilized races and we will pursue this destiny with no other ally than the pureborn of the Gods. The high elves themselves.”  The prince said and arced his open palm across the high elves that stood there, as if they were in display. Thalldon noticed a familiar face among them. The Nameless Atranaar. “This Is the destiny of this family and together with the Atranaar we will pursue it and we will rule Barastir through true Elegance, Purity and Reason against the savagery and the brutality and the sickening deviation of all that oppose us, be that the Orcs, the Faerie, the Women or anyone else.”

Aruthir said raising his sword. “Sieze him!” He directed and the spearmen encroached the gathering of Thalldon, Alkanke, the councilman and those few that followed.

ONXAAAAAARRR!” Thalldon immediately roared!

His thunderous call shook the walls as a long dark nebula started forming inside his raised left hand. That dark nebula suddenly burst into frostfire that blazed hungrily in the throne room, and took the form of Onxar the invincible, The Black Blade of legends.

YES MY LORD! ONXAR THE INVINCIBLE IS HERE!” Onxar bellowed as its voice resounded not only inside Thalldons head this time, but throughout the walls of Cewick Tower, as if it was the voice of Sareul the Demon King himself, lord and master of swords. Everyone in attendance froze where they stood.

Thalldon dominated the atmosphere completely. The spearmen trembled and labored to maintain their composure as the dark aura around the blackguard seeped around the room like the grim mist of a lightless dawn.

“You will Halt where you stand!”  Thalldon declared. Cease and desist. This audience is not over. Mother, long have you stood silent. This is your time to speak! Stop this madness and take the reins of this family. I hold Ontrothon the first star – the way for the Glass to break.”

Kiko was in the meantime creeping around the gathering, slowly making its way near the former paladin and before either the bard or Thalldon could act, Aruthir lunged ahead with his sword raised and shouted!

“I gave you choices that you would not take and thus I will deliver judgement myself. Kill him where he stands – I will not stain my own hands with the blood of my brother. As for you woman, I will make sure that you learn your position today. It was a mistake to return to this Tower shouting the obscenities that you have marred our walls with! You will both serve as a bloody reminder of what the true law and the true legacy of our family really is!” He said and attacked Alkanke attempting to hack at her with his weapon but inches before he hit his mark, the experienced female warrior casually stepped aside and raised her battle gauntlet capturing the swords blade within it effortlessly, crumbling it in her grip as if it was just a sheet of papyrus and then with a quick move placed Aruthir in a headlock still holding his destroyed sword in her grasp, a reminder of his defiled authority.

“As I was saying I have Ontrothon – the first star – in my possession! Thalldon resumed his addressing of the crowd still holding Onxar in one hand and the gloomy Star in the other.  “Witness its true glory people of Cewick Tower and understand that through the power of our common cause, through the power of tolerance, through the power of true leadership, we will stride in this world guided by the light of the Stars!”

It was at that crucial moment that the bard stepped in and stood in front of the blackguard. The queer looking being called Kiko, opened its small arms as if wanting to embrace the whole universe around it, and with watery eyes looked at the gathering projecting the same amazement that was mirrored in their eyes as well, and only spoke one word.

STAR!

A massive burst of white light violently illuminated the whole room as if the immortal hand of Ahraaserah herself, tore Huol – the brightest of the three suns – and plunged it in the halls of the Tower. That pure radiance that emanated from the stellar body of the child, lasted for a few seconds and when it ended, all in attendance were speechless and sightless, lest for one Atranaar, forever nameless, who exited the room knowing that the crowd was now half swayed to the cause of Thalldon.

Suddenly Theshpiah spoke. “Alkanke I am honored that you returned here with my son. You are both right in your deliberations and the timing of your arrival.”

“Fall back!” She ordered the soldiers who complied, half confused and half afraid of what had transpired.

“I will do my best to restore stability and buy time, but know this my son. When your father returns with the Atranaar in full military power, my best will not be enough. Go and find your sister, she is exiled to the chasm of Samuth. Maybe she will agree to return and save this land from madness.”

“I Will find her.” Thalldon declared and picked Kiko up is his arms.

Alkanke released the crown prince from her headlock and he dropped on his knees gasping for air.

The companions turned and exited the Tower and the stronghold, back to the wilderness in search for Elonkara.

That day was forever remembered in the lore of the Helmaer lands as “The Return to Cewick Tower”.

View
The Darkness within

 

The giant stood across them motionless, gazing intensely not exactly at them but rather through them. The two observed the platform closely. It was a perfect square divided into nine smaller areas also perfect squares of equal size to eachother. On each of those, except the middle one where the giant stood, stalagmites and stalactites vertically descended from the ceiling or ascended from the bowels of the pyramid at various time increments that could not be precisely calculated. Around the platform, a moat promised a very long plunge to the cold darkness, as Kiko found out throwing a stone in it and never receiving its echo.

“I don't think we have a chance against this being, Kiko said cowering at the sight of the giant. “I think we should examine the area more closely. There, do you see those two tentacle-like slides on the left and the right of the platform? They could possibly be connected with the other two rooms above.” The child said and pointed at two warped cylinders made of the same frozen material as the rest of the pyramid, originating from the ceiling and reaching the sides of the central area of the room.

“Let me examine the bridge.”  The paladin said and walked ahead and stood on it looking straight at the frozen giant, while the booming sound from the stalactites and stalagmites moving through the room, was nothing short of a small earthquake. Thalldon examined the foe very carefully. He reconsidered his mundane decision to remove his plate armor before diving into magical water.

He took a long look at the adversary. This guardian was mainly a skeletal hulk, the remnants of his hair and beard still clinging on the icy bones of his skull. His empty sockets now the house of two gloomy purple lights. He had a great sword either made of ice, or frozen into it, and then he noticed the ankles of the foe. Two large chains where attached to them, not in the form of some sort of a clasp or shackle but rather, they were actually driven inside the bone itself. The paladin tried to trace the chain and see where else it led, but he could only discern that it went into two holes in the floor. After gazing panoramically at the room, he saw that the chains were connected to the two slides that Kiko had pointed out moments earlier.

He pulled out a javelin from his quiver, and taunted the beast which seemed unaffected by Thalldon’s curses and mockery.

“Bah! To the Glass with you, cursed one!” He shouted and let loose the javelin, that traveled steadily across the room, straight at the face of the giant, but a few feet before it reached its target, the massive ice pillar which at that time ascended from the square right in front of the guardian, got in the way, and the darting point of the weapon plunged into the ice.

“You are right child, we should check the other rooms above”. The paladin said turning around, and so they did. They walked right back up into the staircase and went into the room to the left. It had three steps in its entrance, and deeper down, the room formed into a cylinder that gradually sloped downwards. Within it, inside the floor that gloomed with a white light from the Ley lines that energized the husk of the pyramid, the two companions could see a large chain frozen inside the floor and right beneath the three steps, they saw a mechanism comprised of two levers and a large metal loop between them.

“Here, let me try to heat this up.” The bard said and started weaving a cantrip that melted part of the ice that covered the mechanism.

“There it's working. I will heat up the chain as well, maybe we can get to it and maybe we can break it, and just maybe it would be better if we broke the giant free so that he possibly stumbles on to the stalactites and stalagmites and gets crushed beneath them! That would make our job all the more easier.” Kiko exclaimed happily while its bardic magic thawed the ice and exposed a small part of the chain and the rightmost part of the mechanism where one lever and the loop could now be manipulated.

“Go ahead and smite it with your sword.”  Kiko instructed Thalldon.

“Why not, that could work”. The paladin replied and calling upon Onxar stroke at the chains links, hacking one of them and severing it. The chain itself moved a little bit inside the frozen floor and a clinking sound echoed in the hall below, but the main mass of the chain still remained suspended inside the slide. Then the companions turned to the mechanism and Thalldon pulled the loop removing the upper part of the chain that he had cut, and after that, Kiko manipulated the level which caused a rotor inside to whir violently and then stop, possibly because the chain that this rotor was intended to coil, had been removed.

They repeated the process in the other room and similarly the second chain was cut off and then a bellowing cry echoed in the hall below.

“Oh no!” Kiko exclaimed.” It seems that we set it free.”

“That was the plan, was it not?” Thalldon reminded abruptly. “Why don't we use the slides to descend into the room behind him?”

“No no that would be too dangerous.” The child replied. “We don't know exactly at what time we will land on the platform and if a stalactite or stalagmite would catch us mid-air and crush us.”

“Let's instead see what happened to the giant then.” Thalldon replied and descended the stairs once again, with the bard right behind him.

Indeed the giant was free and was standing right in front of the doorway where the stairs lead. It had leaped or crossed the platform and was now waiting for them on the balcony across the moat.

"It seems that we have no choice but to actually slide down and take our chances. Both tiles that the slides lead down to, have ascending pillars.  We either pass over them and quickly run to the middle tile, or we grab onto them if they catch us midair. " Kiko instructed and they went on with this dare-devilish scheme.

Kiko used its thawing magic to heat the walls of the cylinders and thus create anomalies on the smooth surface of the slide, to be used as levees for its fall and as the child reached the end of the slide, it jumped and immediately used its uncanny dexterity to shoot a bolt at the upward pillar, which it then grabbed firmly to stand on the side of the stalagmite and casually step off on to the middle tile, using it as an elevator of sorts.

Thalldon employed a much simpler and carefree tactic, as he just hoped that he luckily finds himself synchronically leaping at the moment when the pillar on the tile is on its way up beneath him, and against dire odds, he succeeded. He jumped, stepped on the ascending pillar and leaped on the middle tile at the same moment when Kiko was performing a calculated roll to absorb the momentum of its fall.

Their unexpected success did not last long. The skeletal giant turned to face them from across the room. Surely the fact that he had managed to jump from the platform to the alcove across the moat, was a once in a million fluke, the companions thought. One that he would not be able to repeat. Much to their dread though, this massive skeleton, after waiting for the right moment to leap above the pillar, landed above them, with its tall and broad icy blade looming like a guillotine a few feet over them.

Before they could react, the blade fell on their unprotected bodies, like a lighting strike that skewers a lone tree. The double edged sword run horrid gashes on the bodies of Thalldon and Kiko, and opened deep and brutal wounds as they gathered their senses trying to focus on the fight.

RUN CHILD, RUN TO THE ROOM BEHIND ME!” Thalldon said, calling upon his black blade.

“WE CANNOT DEFEAT THIS FOE. GO I WILL BUY US SOME TIME.” He directed as if some marshal on the field of battle.

But Kiko would not withdraw from the fight and leave the paladin alone to face his doom. An outcome much probable it seemed now. For the both of them.

Kiko saw the giant’s blade descending again, and interrupted the motion of the strike, transmitting disrupting murmurs at the guardian, causing him to pause his strike, just in time for a stalactite to cut in the arc of the swing and halt it as the blade got caught inside the ice.

While the giant struggled to remove it from the pillar and resume his ravaging offensive, Thalldon called upon the Greatlord Uman, Patron of the Skies and mighty King of the Heavens. It would be for the last time. And for the last time, Uman answered.

“I CALL UPON THEE WALKER OF CLOUDS, BRINGER OF STORMS, SUMMONER AND LORD OF THE WINDS.

I CALL UPON THEE UMAN. GRANT ME THE POWER TO END MY FOES!”

Thalldon recited, knowing very well that the divine element of his god, frowned upon his choice to take up Onxar. Still, the paladin was infused with holy strength and his wild swing landed heavily on the bony knee of the giant, warping its posture and nearly felling it flat on the floor.

NOW! LEAVE NOW!” Thalldon shouted at Kiko.

“NO! COME WITH ME!” The child insisted, resolved to stand by its comrade.

“WE CAN’T BOTH TURN OUR BACKS ON IT! IT WILL CLEAVE US IN HALF!” Thalldon barked. “GO NOW!”

LETS TAKE OUR CHANCES YET AGAIN! WE CAN DO IT!” Kiko pleaded in desperation. The child had never despaired that much, never in its life.

But the Paladin, as if foreseeing and ignoring the outcome, elected to fight on, transfixing his fighting posture square against the giant.

“I SHALL CRUSH YOU WERE YOU STAND ICESPAWN!” He said while the giant had just reclaimed his blade from the pillar and was preparing to strike again.

Kiko intervened a second time, and the giant stopped his swing half way, and stood there as if submerged into deep thought. Thalldon wasted no time and hacked at the guardian’s ribcage, nearly smashing it completely. Unfortunately that did not stop the frozen guardian of this pyramid as it raised its sword and brutally dropped it on the valiant companions that stood beneath him.

The strike opened the child’s back as if it was firewood, and Kiko fell in a pool of its own angelic silver blood, while Thalldon fell on his knees broken and dying, as his left shoulder was nearly cloven open.

The paladin’s eyes grew dark and heavy, as the hazy and distorted figure of the giant now seemed a long and forgotten memory. He saw himself young and steadfast as he once was, full of dreams, full of wrongs to right, full of missions and goals. But that was just a flickering vision, soon to die along with him. Next to his feet, Kiko was drawing its last breath, shivering and twitching.

Thalldon gasped for air, and the last thing he was about to see was Onxar, the Black Blade, levitating in front of him, as if in mourning – or in expectation.

He gazed at the sword as it hovered before him, a symbol of defiance and immortality. He cleared his throat as if to make an important announcement, and used up his last breath to bellow a thunderous Dark Calling.

"ONXAAAAAR! I DEMAND OF YOU TO SERVE ME AND KEEP ME IN THIS LIFE. WHATEVER POWER THERE IS BEHIND YOUR MAKING, I ORDER THEM TOO! KEEP ME ALIVE AND I SHALL ACCEPT YOU AS A GOD!"

"YEEEEES MY LORD! LONG HAVE I WAITED FOR THIS REQUEST, BOTH ME AND IKHAEL, MY MAKER, AND I WILL GLADLY DELIVER THIS BOON, IF ONLY YOU DENOUNCE UMAN FOREVER."

“I, I denounce him…”  Thalldon whispered and started falling, but moments before he landed on the ground, his black metal gauntlet, as if autonomously operating the paladins palm, pushed the icy floor in denial. He felt his energy lifted. The gloom was dispersed from in front of his eyes and a boiling power frothed inside his heart.

He rose bathed in spectral foreboding. Wreathed in an aura of darkening. He rose, now a blackguard.

He grabbed Onxar, that was still levitating in front of him, and lifted his gaze at the baffled giant who now seemed shrunken and timid like a wounded dog.

In a flash of frostfire, Onxar smote the guardian and fell its towering body in the midst of the ascending and descending pillars, which smashed and mutilated it – sending pieces of frozen bone flying in the walls – even before it dropped undone on the ground.

The paladin’s breath was running wild. His enervated eyes scoped the room and landed on Kiko. The child stood lifeless at the feet of the blackguard.

"Fear not Kiko. I will bring  you to the great Movaru sage. She will revive you."

He wanted to caress the curly hair of the little child, but he stopped. He could not mourn, or feel sadness. He would instead harness sadness. He would harness ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to reach his goal.

He picked the child up and moved ahead towards the nethermost bridge, taking his time to calculate the motion of the last ascending pillar and jumped above it and across.

He reached a rather ominous room. It was oval shaped and large. The walls were frozen, but a blue glow shone from within, much like how the candle light that diffracts through the glass, shines. Inside the walls, spread all across the room, he could discern seven humanoid figures, suspended in the ice. Their features could not be easily made out from within the thickness of the semi-transparent wall, but they all seemed to wear robes of the clergy, or of a similar cast.

The floor of the room was also icy but in the middle stood a slightly raised pedestal engraved with the same triangular symbol that seemed to be a staple all throughout this structure.

Thalldon set the body of the bard on the floor and went ahead to examine the bodies in the wall.

Two of them – the ones in the farthest left and right, wore somewhat different robes – possibly denoting higher stature or rank. The man on the left wore a white robe with the triangle-square-circle symbol, emblazoned on the chest in a silver color, and the woman on the right wore the same robe with the same symbol, but hers was golden. The most ominous and strange thing about these bodies was the fact that their throats were slit open, except the man’s who wore the silver symbol robe. A dark liquid, possibly their own blood, traveled in thick rivulets all across the wall, connecting all the bodies. Only the woman’s blood remained unconnected with the rest, and seeped around her, forming a circle like a halo.

He then walked over to the pedestal and stood over it. As his boots stepped on, it subsided beneath his feet and a sudden pulse shook the whole room and caused the frozen walls around the bodies to crack in a sudden burst, and then follow through with many smaller and rapid crackles that multiplied quickly.

“What kind of ancient sorcery is this now?” Thalldon said to himself feeling an encroaching frost that stifled his breathing.

And indeed it was sorcery that responded.

“This is a cryostasis chamber for the Order of the Triangular Sun. It ended up being the tomb of the high priestess and her followers. Apart from Me. Hahaha! It will be your tomb also! All you need to do, is die like your little companion there.”

The voice sounded maddened and harsh, as if it was talking to itself for far too long. It belonged to the man on the left, whose throat was intact. Not something that could be said for the rest of his body. His frame walked hunched towards Thalldon. His face was a skull covered with pale yellowing skin stretched tight across the edges of the jaw and forehead. His eyes peeked like a couple of black gloomy dots.

He pointed at Thalldon and shot a dark purple ray that barely missed the blackguards face and ricocheted off of the wall, to the ceiling that absorbed it.

Thalldon charged at the undead and cleaved the skull in half, reducing it to thin ash.

“Enough with you.” The blackguard stated in contempt just as that ash rose in a vortex and darted off to the ice enveloping another body from within the walls and animating it, causing it to burrow through and attack Thalldon, who battled all five of the undead priests and one after the other, smote them all down to their sandy remains.

NOOOOO! After all these centuries, I am foiled by the likes of a mere mortal.”

The voice cried and was carried adrift the same gale that scattered the ash of the clergy to the walls of this ancient structure.

The blackguard was wounded gravely, even from before, and touched the now glowing blood of the female priestess.

An intense rush of healing heat filled his veins and he felt reinvigorated as that same blood, escaped through the cracks and shattered the part of the wall where the body of the priestess was kept. It fell and Thalldon reached and held it in his arms. She looked like a vibrant woman in her fourties.

A second voice echoed in the hall.

“Bring me down beneath the pedestal.” A female voice stated, and indeed the pedestal had receded, giving way to yet another staircase that descended even deeper to the core of the pyramid. Though the opening, Thalldon saw the astral thread falling vertically down.The cold that emanated through the structure, was now depleted and gone.He took the stairs below and reached the inner sanctum.

This small room was built from alabaster. Possibly the rest of the pyramid was alabaster also, beneath that thick layer of frost that was now melting away. On the very middle of the ground, the Astral Thread plummeted like a thin, single, glowing droplet of rain, and gathered inside a gem that decorated the helm of a great staff which spinned eternally around the thread, just a few inches above the floor.

"This is my staff. " The voice informed.

“I am Niamythlond, Grand Heirophant of the Triangular Sun. Bring my hand to the gem.”

Thalldon complied. He had heard the name of this legendary priestess before.

As soon as the palm of the Hierophant touched the gem, her whole body was energized and instantly healed, the gash across her throat disappeared. Only part of the light of the star now remained.

“And you are?” The woman asked, now as a whole person standing in all her majesty in front of the blackguard.

“Thalldon.” Thalldon replied.

-“You must have questions, Thalldon. Ask them as I have the answers.”

“What happened here? Were you not dead?” He inquired.

-“My body was destroyed, yes. But not while my spirit resided inside. Thus I was not truly annihilated.”

“This pyramid was once a temple of the triangular sun. Of The Voice From Beyond The Stars.

Since that voice fell silent millennia ago, the seven last priests of our order that remained hopeful that It will speak again, envisioned that awakening moment in the form of a prophesy that spoke of the Breaking Of the Glass. We decided to suspend our bodies in stasis until the coming of the prophesy, when and where we could awake and serve the world actively, and offer guidance in the great challenges that would come about. That was ages before the Plunge. But there was a traitor in our midst. Shabakhor. He plotted to counter the stasis with a dark ritual that would awake him a few moments after everyone else slept, and proceeded to murder us so that the dark old god Harkoleth – now known as Dorahil, would reward him. But moments before the stasis finalized, I saw his treachery. Alas the great spell had already grasped my body paralyzing it, and so I used all my arcane power before the veil of Gimladen enveloped me, to sever my spirit from my flesh and so cheat death. I remained a traveling pneuma in the world, letting women of the faith be enlightened by me, and they, using my name, spread the prophesy. I could not return to my body since it was broken and destroyed and I could not – neither did I want to – remain inside the bodies of the women whose minds served as my vessel, for too long.

Now you came, and provided an unlikely solution.

Thank you.”

She recounted, while Thalldon looked for what to say.

“What is this Voice From Beyond The Stars?” He finally asked.

“Alas, not even It knows what It is any more”. She replied cryptically.

“Let me ask you Thalldon. Where is the pyramid now? Physically”.

-“It lies within a magical lake in the midst of a Movaru community of women.

This lake seems to be an otherworldly dimension. A lake within a lake.”

-“I see! I have encountered these great women in my sojourning. They must have used ancient magic to hide and shield this place from invaders. It seems you were allowed to enter. I hope you will prove adequate to their trust Thalldon. What of your little companion? I can return it back to life but I sense a darkening in the deep crevices of its soul, therefore I will not interfere respecting both the Great Mother Ashthu but also the self-determination of the child itself. If its soul chooses to return to  the world of the living instead of passing through to the Limbobic Void and beyond, it will. Take him above to the Movaru and use this.” She directed, pointing at the staff.

“It was  once my staff, but now it is yours. Maybe it will also be Kiko's. That is its name is it not?  Kiko?”

“I will return to the Island of Answers and resume my pilgrimage there until the prophecy is actualized.” She said and with a gesture from her hands, an arcane vortex opened up to a portal beyond which, a sandy shore phased in and out like mirage. “Do you want a pathway to someplace. I have this power. She added.

“Cewick tower.” Thalldon said without hesitation.

She repeated the same gesture and the likeness of the gray gloom that is the Helmaer lands, appeared inside this second portal – like a grim memoir of sorts.

“Go Thalldon, and I hope that your path indeed brings you in the Glass, where everything, even the Darkening inside you, will find its reason.” And with these words, Niamythlond stepped into her portal that sunk on itself behind her.

“Time to bring you back, little friend.“ Thalldon said and picked Kiko up, retracing his steps and reaching the dark shore where the two had swam out of, hours ago. Still the sky was the surface of the water, and the massive pyramid behind them was now melting away its frozen skin to reveal its alabaster antiquity.

—————————- * -————————

Kiko walked across a white void. It had no dimensions and no sides. Only black stars interrupted this monochrome domain. Their ebony light sparkled softly as the child traversed this monotonous expanse.

KIKO! YOU MUST FOLLOW ME! WE HAVE IMPORTANT MATTERS TO ATTEND TO!”

One of the black stars, turned and told  Kiko, in the voice of Thalldon. It was a dark and demanding voice. Kiko felt detached from it. Kiko felt detached from everything. Kiko felt confused. Death was confusing.

It saw a woman at the depthless depth. A melodic tune was coming from her direction.

“Sweet Kiko return to me!” Said another black star in the voice of the sage Olayinka! “Bring back your beautiful body to your beautiful name!”

Kiko kept walking. It was followed by Thalldons' star. Kiko did not like what Thalldons' star told it. Death was confusing and Thalldons' star was making even death sound like a responsibility. Kiko did not like responsibility very much.

Kiko liked that melodic tune though. The melodic tune that was coming from the woman in the white depths.

The bard pushed Thalldons' star away but as it  moved away from it, the melodic tunes volume died down, and as it moved back close to Thalldons' black star, it sounded loud and clear yet again.

Kiko felt unsure, but it still walked towards the woman with Thalldons' star at its side. That was a black Movaru woman. She wore golden jewels, on her otherwise naked body. Her eyes stared at Kiko as she continued playing the instrument from which this melody emerged.

It was the best and most unique musical instrument of the whole wide world!

Kiko liked that!

“I am Ashthu child. I am life and I am death. But the path between them is your choice now. Should you desire to return to life, just give me a lock from your curly hair and go back to the ones who call upon you. Should you desire to move on to death, just accept a lock from my own hair. She said and extended both her palms.”

One was empty while the other had a bundle of Ashthus’ black hair on it.

Kiko liked choices. Choices are what life is for. Life.

Kiko liked living.

Kiko found itself in a room with Thalldon. Maybe the child had been there for a while now. That nice melody was still playing and the blackguard was looking at the child in anticipation.

“Come now Kiko. Let’s go. We must go to my homeland and then to other quests. Time is important. Here, this staff is yours. Niamythlond gave it to you.”  He said and handed it a beautiful dark iron staff that had a faintly glowing star at its top.

“OK! Let me bid some people farewell and we will go.” The child said and touched the side of its head where a handful of hair was missing.

Thalldon got up and went to retrieve his armor. “Please ask Alkanke to come with you. I want to extend her an offer – an invitation.” He said and walked out of Lunalight where the women had brought Kiko right after its resurrection performed by Olayinka the sage – two hours ago.

As soon as he stepped foot on the plateau of the cavern, a woman carrying a large leather bag filled with rolled scrolls, came near him and handed him one saying:

“You are Thalldon are you not? This came via Wind Whisper, an hour ago.”

“Who is Wind Whisper.” Thalldon asked, opening the note. It read:

“Atranaareshan

Your Father has allied himself and the whole Helmaer noble family, with the Atranaar. He cast all the foreigners out of the lands around Cewick tower and marches against Faerie and Golagonds.We barely managed to escape.

Jothag & Klovaria"

Thalldon read the note in haste and then crumbled it and tossed it in the water just as Kiko, Alkanke and Matron Ovalsidea neared him.

“Bad news?” All three asked.

“Grim.My father has lost his mind.” He replied clenching his fists.

Kiko weaved a mage hand, retrieved the note just before it soaked completely and read it aloud.

Ovalsidea took the  former paladin aside.

“Now you see that what I told you rings true Thalldon. I  also know that you have found the spirit of Niamythlond within the lake. The two women that I told you before, the ones that hold two more stars, have descended in the lake also in the past, and studied its secrets.” She revealed.

“And why did they not take the star.” He asked.

“Apparently because the spirit of the Hierophant asked them not to.” She replied and added.

“I will give you the names of these two women heroines. Seek them out and prove your resolve to unite our causes. Aedesinac travels the Sea of Silver eyes, and Illisapesia just reached Uctun, the city of Giants”. She then bid Thalldon farewell and took her leave.

Kiko and Alkanke walked near the blackguard and he addressed her.

-“I would like to offer you to return to Cewick tower on my behalf. I am heading there right away to set the record straight.”

-“I would not return to the Tower as it is, not on anyones behalf.”

-“There is still hope for the Helmaer.”

-“And how do you envision this hope that you speak of?”

-“I will return and impose this hope either by word or by sword.”

-“You call this change? You call this different than what your father did? Violent domination is not the answer.”

-“If there is hope in the Helmaer line, you are an important part of it. Not just you, all women. Guide me in my wrongdoings. If you do not want to officially return, act as an emissary of the Movaru in these dire times. I ask this of you in sincere need.”

-“Very well Thalldon, I will come. Remember that I am NOT your subject nor will I hesitate to oppose you should you act in manner similar to your forefathers.”

Silently all three, gathered their belongings and their thoughts, and dove into the lake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View
The Sunken Pyramid

Beneath the statue and inside the waterfall, a bristling community unfolded before the eyes of Kiko and Thalldon. It was built within a large clearing in the granite hill behind the  majestic statue, surrounded by a high conical chasm that opened up to a large crack abovehead where the sunlight shone bright even at this hour of greyness.

In the middle of this secluded clearing, a large lake provided water for the community. It was seemingly surrounded by grass and soil where the women had created patches for cultivation.

On the walls of the granite around this conical chasm, various natural caves were customized as residences and in their entrances stone stairs were built that led to platforms and those platforms in turn, were interconnected by wooden rope bridges that spread across the chasm over the lake towards the other side and back again, effectively aerially connecting all the main areas of this hidden city. Within the granite hill, all sorts of establishments could be found – apart from the housecaves. The two companions could see platforms were large trees sprouted from inside the rock around which stone benches were built and the women gathered there conversing. Inns and taverns were built within the walls, all sorts of shops, and across the surface of the floor level, stone pathways were laid out that connected numerous walkways that lead inside the cavern, possibly to alternate entryways and exits to this community but also to other hidden areas that led deeper in the bowels of the mountain or towards the sea.

Most of the women there appeared to be of the Movaru lineage but from other races also. Elf and faerie and even possibly exiled Golagond females could also be seen.

“This is a sight to behold.” The bard said and the two started looking around. They went near the lake where the light descended from above, and through this light; the astral thread could be discerned plummeting into the waters.

“I will take a walk above at the stairs and bridges!” Kiko declared.

“Fine. I will explore the ground area and then look for Matron Ovalsidea.” Thalldon replied.

Kiko started happily climbing the stone stairs in front of the caves and around them, and it witnessed the splendor and the intricacy of the architecture that housed this community of women. It was masterfully laid out, all throughout this marvelous system of bridges and stairs and ladders that expanded in a weblike fashion everywhere. The child roamed the cobbled streets and stone alleys of the city. The housecaves were very uniquely decorated. Some even had stained glass windows and intricately carved wooden doors. Shrines to various female goddesses could be seen everywhere. Large baskets filled with bones, fruit, and hairlocks from newborns – as per the custom – dedicated to the matron deity of the Movaru – Ashthu – a Movaru herself in her mortal days. Kiko wondered about the newborn hair. Could it be that in this community women still possessed the ability to mate amongst themselves and give birth to other women? This would be lovely – the child thought to itself. Wayshrines to Iblys, in the form illuminated stone pillars with magical inscriptions and prayers were set outside houses and on intersections. Even the Golagond archdeity Ahraaserah was represented by triangles carved on the doors. Kiko soon reached a long bridge that extended across the plateau and over the lake. Just above it, it witnessed a remarkable sight. There was a stone platform that was seemingly levitating mid-air without being supported by ground or stone, only by the bridges that reached to it and extended from it. On that platform a very old Movaru herself levitated with her eyes closed. She wore an iron crown with jewels and she had all the features of the other Movaru women but looked pale as if she was Hujkoi, an albino. Without opening her eyes she smiled at Kiko realizing that the child was fascinated by her and indeed the little bard moved gleefully towards her and greeted her.

“What is your name?” The urchin asked.

“Olayinka!” She replied – her eyes still closed. And yours?

“I am Kiko. I am from the stars. How do you do that? How do you sit on the air?” The child asked happily.

“Kiko, now that I have gifted my name to you, if you want to do as I do, just move into the light beam!” The old sage directed.

And so the little child took a leap of faith and jumped off the platform and into the light but instead of levitating, it started falling but falling slowly – like a feather – in the same way that it fell through the beam within the ruined castle where the Archangel was kept. As Kiko fell, it was filled with joy, showered in the warm light. As soon as it reached the surface of the water, it did not sink in. Granted, it got a little wet but then the water pushed it out, and the bard stood walking on it – standing on the lake as if it was standing on solid ground!

“Pure magic!” The child thought to itself.

In the meantime, Thalldon had found a compound where female warriors were mock fighting and training. One of them, a woman possibly from his race, clad in a glorious armor, was sparring with a Movaru woman, while a group of other women were cheering the two. The paladin observed the fight and noticed how capable and strong and well trained these women were in the art of combat.

“You are the man that the Matron invited aren't you? News travel fast.” The Movaru warrior asked, removing her leather gloves and resting her warmace next to her legs. “Even if men, are old news here!” She added while the others laughed.

“Yes I am. I should thank you too, for this great honor to be here. Your fighting skills are remarkable.” The paladin replied.

“Why don't you step in and take your chances at Alkanke here. You seem to be fascinated by her skills.” The Movaru woman said extending a challenge.

The paladin stepped in the confines of the battle zone to fight this ironclad female warrior. She was wearing full plate armor, a helmet and two very elaborate gauntlets. Thalldon recognized them to be sword snatchers and breakers. They had intricate grooves and locks and edges designed exactly to grab and snap blades and bladed objects. The two fought for a while and Thalldon used a long dull sparring blade, not wanting to call upon his own Black Sword, but Alkanke – the female warrior, proved to be more than his match, and with a swift strike she disarmed the paladin and snapped his blade, while with another strike, hit him hard on his gauntlet numbing his wrist. Thalldon then retaliated with a punch that stroke the woman in the solar plexus and then they both agreed that they had had enough.

CALL UPON ME MY LORD! LET ME FINISH THIS FOR YOU!” Onxar cried inside the paladins head.

“You are a remarkable fighter.” Thalldon told Alkanke, ignoring Onxar.

“Thank you; you're not so bad yourself, man.” She replied while pulling her helmet and lashing her hair in the air, to unravel them, smiling. Her gaze was soft and mournful, yet her posture was stern and spirited.

The two conversed for a little bit and it was revealed that this woman was from the Helmaer lineage as well, but had left the confines of the Tower since she was five, not able or willing to accept the stifling society that it was, as the tradition for human women is to become either maids or housewives or farmer helpers, generally, a support for male dominance. She could not bear to see herself submit to what her mother had endured, and her grandmother before her, and so she elected the path of freedom and left the Tower joining this community.

Thalldon pondered her words as he took his leave, wishing to himself that he could see her again soon.

Meanwhile, the bard went ahead to look for a musical instrument shop and conversed with various women within the community. Pahra the blacksmith, a couple of guardesses, and Milandre, the musician/instrument craftswoman herself, who was at that time building a lute, carving out the echo chamber. She took an interest at Kiko's best and most unique musical instrument of the whole wide world and let the bard borrow her little drum, which the child used in order to play a fast paced heavy music the blacksmith lady required, in order to build him a chain shirt.

Nearby, Thalldon spotted Matron Ovalsidea addressing a group of women on an elevated platform around a large pine tree. He neared the gathering and waited patiently for it to end. Ovalsidea was speaking in a melodic yet commanding voice and in a language unknown to the paladin.

After the meeting, the Matron turned to Thalldon and invited him to sit across her on a stone bench.

“What is on your mind, traveler?” She asked sharply, taking Thalldon aback. He was not used to such direct and short treatment. Usually people rushed to speak to him, address him, and give him attention. Not the other way around.

In the conversation that ensued, Thalldon expressed his thanks that the community accepted them as visitors and the Matron revealed to him that he was not the first man to enter the community.

“Some of the women have had, and many still have, male companions. In the past many of those companions proved untrustworthy in the best case scenario, and outright manipulating and spiteful towards a female run society, in the worst case scenario. Thus men were banned. Since the ban you are the first to enter. Officially. Hopefully you will not also be the last.” Ovalsidea said, transfixing her domineering eyes on the paladins face.

“I understand.” The Paladin said. “Why is it that you invited us in the first place Matron?” He asked.

“We know that you have Ontrothon, the first star, in your possession. We also saw the state that you two were in when you found us, and we understand that you have taken up a quest. I am very curious to learn from your own mouths what exactly is it that you want to achieve with this Quest? Which are your goals? Which are your virtues and your ideas?” The Matron elaborated.

“We, I, recently came to the understanding that in the past decades the elves have grown more and more autocratic an imperialistic. This has to end and it is my personal dedication to do everything in my power towards that goal. We need to stop the despotism and I will do what I have to do in the name of Barastir and in the name of my family.” Thalldon replied proudly.

“The elves are a threat indeed, a great threat, a grave threat, a threat that we ourselves have fought against both in this community but also before it, but you mentioned your family and I ask you, what have the humans done differently than the elves? Nothing. You now choose to go against the Atranaar because evidently you realize that they cannot be reasoned with, nor do they care to share power, but the human societies which you call ‘family’ are not in the least functional societies built on tolerance and understanding. What is the role of women in your societies paladin? Do they have equal share and equal opportunities within your communities? The answer is an emphatic No, and this answer has been NO for hundreds and thousands of years. Your goal albeit a true one, does not include vital components which we the women consider paramount. I think you should take that into consideration while standing for your allegiances without judging them properly.” Ovalsidea stated in a stark declaration.

The human Noble hesitated for a moment and opened his mouth to reply but the Matron interrupted him.

“You seek the star that lies within this community, is that not so? It can be found within the magical lake. Go ahead and take it and consider what you would do with it. It has its own power and a great one at that, but intent is a greater power in this world. What is your intent Thalldon?” She added.

“I seek to use the power of the Stars to do good. To rally the powers that share this common goal, overthrow the elves from their murderous aspirations and melt the ice that is destroying our world. Why don't you join powers with us in this endeavor Matron?” Thalldon declared in confidence.

“There are two women from our community out in the world right now as we speak, holding the power of two more stars Paladin. Powerful women. Dedicated women. They are traversing this ravaged land doing exactly that on which you call us for convergence. But I tell you that it is you who must join forces with us, understanding that it is not just what the elves do that poses a grave threat, it is who has given them the grounds to do what they do and this is no other than the patriarchal communities of the humans in the past but also in the present. They now provide every excuse for the Atranaar to do what they do, with their convenient inaction, but also by tolerating and often even aligning themselves with them. In the very core of that system, is the vile notion that men know and do better but also the notion that humans know and do better than everyone else. If you cannot incorporate that in the understanding of your quest, then we cannot fully cooperate.” The matron concluded, gazing intensely at the paladin who seemed troubled by her words.

“I understand.” He finally said. “These words I will take with me and study them very carefully. Thank you Matron.”

At that moment Kiko entered the conversation and sat next to the paladin. “Little Kiko.” The matron asked addressing it. “What is it that you seek to do with your life in this world? Which are your goals and your aspirations?”

“I am a little star!” The child said joyfully. “I want to see this world become better, looking from the skies and floating with my kin.”

“This is a marvelous vision, but the world cannot change from afar while we view it at a distance, safe and uninvested. We need to change things from within.” She said in an austere manner.

And then standing up she added: “I wish you all the best in your travels. Both of you have shown me a hopeful side of what humans can be, and you little Kiko are a very graceful queer being. I hope that you find within your heart the desire to exist in this world and not only in the stars above it. Seek the star within our community – within the lake. The old sage will open the pathway for you, and then remember my words as you travel this world in your quest and maybe our paths will indeed converge for the better of everyone. Farewell for now. You may stay in our community and rest and feed before you leave. Goodbye.”

The moonlight bathed the elevated platform in an argent light, and the glow reached all the way down inside the lake. The two saw the top of a sapphire pyramid within the magical waters.

Then the companions sat on the stone bench silent for a few moments contemplating what they had heard and then smiling to each other they entered the tavern behind them, called Lunalight, to get a couple of drinks and listen to the nice music that was playing within. The tavern was built inside a cave that featured many natural little holes on the rock of the roof, through which the sparkling haze of the twelve moons shone in small beams that bounced on the ground and off to the revelers within. There, many women were singing and dancing and drinking and socializing and flirting amongst themselves. Thalldon noticed Alkanke, the human warrior, that he sparred with earlier and Kiko playfully tried to nudge him towards her but then the two travelers, after a couple of drinks decided to tag along with the band and play a couple of songs much to the delight of everyone in the tavern given that they performed marvelously and got a round of much deserved applause!

“Ha! Said Kiko. “We are a good band you and I it seems! Now go talk to her.” The child said poking Thalldon’s metal shoulderpads. “You need to embrace your softer side, not only the grittiness of the warrior inside you.” And indeed that poke, penetrated all of Thalldon’s defenses. Defenses that he meticulously raised since childhood. Masculine defenses. Hard and unbending.

He was now the child, as Kiko took him by the hand and brought him to the table that Alkanke was drinking alone.

“He likes you!” The urchin said and left, leaving Thalldon standing there as if he had just lost a fight.

“I am sure that if Thalldon wants to make a pass at me, he requires no assistance nor do I need any for that matter.” Alkanke replied.

“I like you too.” She finally said after a moment of silence. “Follow me if you want to.” She told Thalldon and exited the place, while the paladin stood there baffled and devoid of the executive agency he was used to employing. But he followed nonetheless.

Kiko entered the surface thoughts of Alkanke – an intrusive act that the child justified to itself as caring for its companion. Alkanke thought that Baleal would not mind. And indeed she did not, as Kiko soon found out. She was freely also enjoying herself in the company of two other women in a nearby establishment.

“What a great community.” The child thought to itself. “Everyone is free!”

After Alkanke’s affectionate night with the paladin, she bid Thalldon farewell, and expressed her best wishes for his journey.

“We might meet again. That would be nice.” She told him.

“Hopefully yes.” He replied.

Thalldon gazed at Alkanke’s home while donning his armor. She had a large collection of old scrolls but what caught his attention was a shield the surface of which had been extensively scratched – not by the normal use in combat but in purpose. It once bore the symbol of the Helmaer lineage. Now only fragments of the symbol remained.

“Farewell”. He said to the empty house  - Unsure if he meant it for Alkanke, the Helmaer, or both – and left to meet Kiko who had taken up residence for the evening in Lunalight. The two had agreed to enter the magical lake this morning.

“Ready?” Kiko asked jumping up and down in excitement at the lakes shore. “I got some rations for our travels. I also exchanged an order for a chain shirt for my mysterious egg! It is for the best. Whatever is inside will be raised safely here. Let’s hope it’s not a mean dragon!” The child added, smiling at Thalldon.

“Yes. There might be swimming involved so I best remove my armor first.” Thalldon replied and removed his armor, and left it resting on the trunk of a nearby tree. He only kept his black metal gauntlet, the domain of Onxar, something that he could not remove regardless, even if he wanted to.

Olayinka the sage stood on the waters waiting for them. They started walking on the lake, their steps unsure, and came close to her. She raised her hands towards the sky and abruptly shifted her palms downwards. Two violent streams of water rushed from them and a watery pillar enveloped them all. When it subsided, Kiko and Thalldon found themselves standing in the midst of four ebony statues possibly depicting Ashthu. They all held urns high above their heads, the openings of which pointed towards a well in the middle. All these, miraculously, were set on the lake. Below them the waters still looked liquid by felt solid. A cone of water surrounded the scene, which reached high into the crack of the cavern’s ceiling.

“Now what?” Kiko said examining the statues.

“It seems we need to manipulate the well somehow.” Thalldon replied and examined it.

On its side the following words were carved.

“A well to be filled,
from four statues spilled.
When leveled, tis shown,
a dark path unknown.”

The paladin noticed that the dry well was marked inside by five level marks, thus it was divided in fifths. It also had a drain valve in the form of a pressure plaque to its side.

“The statues have buttons inside their armpits!” Kiko announced.

Thalldon pressed one of them, on the northwestern statue and the well filled up to its middle from the water that the urn spilled.

“Here we go. Now what?” He said.

“Try another.” Kiko directed. Thalldon used the button on the southeastern statue and the well became nearly full. Then he used it again and the well spilled over.

“No, that’s not it.” Kiko said and pressed the drain valve on the side of the well, draining it once again.

They used the northwestern statue again and then a second time, filling the well to the top exactly. A faint hum was heard and the water of the lake subsided and they sank a few inches inside it as if it was gelatinous.

“There we go!” Kiko exclaimed happily and peered inside the well. One of the markings – the highest one – shone bright as if some obscure magick had illuminated it.

“It seems that the statues spill different amounts amongst them, but each statue always spills the same amount of water itself.” The paladin deliberated.

“Yes. And it seems we must complete some more fillings of the well, using certain combinations!” Kiko said calculating the possible variations.

After some failed attempts the companions managed to fill the well in six tens, and then four tens, opening the pathway. The well and the statues disappeared and the two sank inside the waters of the lake.

The long dive inside it was cold and ominous. A colossal pyramid surrounded by five large obelisks loomed deep in the dark waters. The rays from the three suns surrounded them as they pierced the darkness like fiery arrows that sank and faded in the lake.

As if a mirage, while swimming, they thought they saw four gigantic palms – like those of the old sage – pressing both from above the surface and from below the dark waters, and finally converging. It felt as if the sky and the deep, juxtaposed on each other, around the surface, and the companions were washed ashore a dark expanse. They could breathe air and above them instead of a sky, they saw the upside down surface of another lake and within it another pyramid – this time reversed – with its huge pinnacle pointing at them.

“Are we upside down on the air above the lake – or are we still swimming inside the lake? Or is this a lake within the lake? Or?” Kiko asked confused. “And why are we dry?”

Thalldon did not reply, instead he walked across the sandy desert of this realm towards the huge glacier pyramid. A hot sandstorm raged around it and also around the five obelisks that surrounded it, but strangely the massive sapphire pyramid and the obelisks – which hummed in a low pitched tone – were frozen and icy.

He wasn’t sure he had really seen it; the wind had slowed and parted the veil of gloom for just a moment, giving him a glimpse of this foreboding structure.

The companions neared the tall obelisks. These five spires were large edifices with spiral, twisting fluted surfaces. “This is what causes the sound” Kiko said. “It echoes as the wind passes through each spire.” Their color was a dark opaque blue and they looked as if they could have been cut straight from glacial ice.

Both Kiko and Thalldon sensed  a very strong magical aura; in addition they saw glyphs carved into the surface of the spires, blazing to life while the sandstorm blasted around, as if fused by a bright blue inner light.

“The harmonic tones echo from the five spires! That is the source!” Kiko screamed in the storm for Thalldon to hear! The companions started running amongst the spires – following the hum – and touching them caused a faint white beam to dart from one to the next. When they successfully listened to the pulse of the spires – and touched their runic structure in the correct order, all five spires were mapped out by the beams that connected them, arranged to form the tips of a white five pointed star, in the middle of which the pyramid stood.

Immediately after the star was formed, the sandstorm moved from the plateau as if blown by a giants mouth and rushed to surround the pyramid itself. While the two gazed up to the monument, a heavily cloaked figure ascended the last step of a stairway that hugged the face of the structure, hurrying quickly into the shelter of a massive doorway.

This vast step-pyramid stretched over a hundred meters into the sky. Its most noticeable feature was a massive sigil graven into the surface of the lowest level of the steps leading to the top. It looked like a large “L” and on its bottom, it finished off to a triangle that housed a square that in turn housed a perfect circle.

“We have seen this before, in the murals at the temple of the old gods at the ancient forest.” Thalldon remembered as he started climbing the steps.

The stairway lead to a doorway at the peak. Closer to the top, the wind was extremely strong, and a powerful gust nearly dropped the paladin off to a harsh demise. Put he stood his ground and reached the arcing entry point.

“Come on child!” Thalldon turned and demanded.

Kiko braced itself and sprung into its acrobatics, hopping and then slithering on the stairs. It nearly reached the top when a sudden gust pushed it off! The child fell flat on the frozen stairs and ached in pain.

“Carefull Kiko! Are you injured?” Thalldon asked. He did not show it, but he feared the child had perished.

Thankfully the bard was sturdier that it seemed and with a calculated jump, it also reached the top of the stairs.

At the top of the pyramid and within the doorway they saw an enclosure, perhaps twice the size of a normal-sized room. One large doorway in each wall opened up to that side’s stairway. There were three stairways inside the room. One went straight down, another curved corridor that seemingly stretched to the left and then down, and a third was a flight of very steep stairs also leading down.

In the middle of the room, just before the paths, lay a pile of frozen bones and on top of them a skull. The bones were carved with runes. Before the travelers could react, the bones swirled into motion and formed themselves into a skeleton.  The skeleton’s eyes, burned with a blue unnatural light. It whispered a conjuration and a frozen blade formed in its bony grasp.

"Hyuixxrgs, ghuirrrt. Hyuixxrgs Xreas! XREAAAAAS!" It hissed and flung its blade against Thalldon, who had just remembered that he was armorless. The strike rended the paladins flesh and it felt so cold that it burned him.

"ONXAAAAAAAAAAAAR!" He shouted, and his frostfire black blade appeared in all its dark power inside his grasp.

Kiko took the opportunity to launch a shattering spell behind the skeleton, that send an array of frozen shrapnel from the walls of the structure straight on its bones, chipping and cracking them.

Thalldon then swept the animated skeleton with his blade in an uppercut motion and shattered it back into the pile that it was. The skulls eyes dimmed and then slowly went out as it lay cracked on the ground.

"This way! "Kiko said and descended the steps of the rightmost path. It reached down to a large cubic room. Within it there was a platform surrounded by a moat, which was connected to the doorway where the two companions stood, by a small frozen bridge. Massive stalactites descended and ascended from the ceiling and from within the ground on this platform as if operated by a hidden mechanism, or worse, making this room a death trap indeed. In the middle, on a small area were the stalactites did not descend or ascend, a skeleton giant stood holding a greatsword as long as a tree.

Kiko looked at Thalldon. “Lets go back to ‘Lunalight’ please.” The child said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Gift of the Movaru

It seemed that only one mask was missing for this ritual to be complete and for the two companions to be able to speak to the ancient druid, and so they touched the mask once again and they were transported in another, far away, obscure dimension. Within it they found themselves standing inside a white limestone cave whose walls had been smoothened by the passage maybe not of time, but of something much grander. It lead down into a stony pathway that in turn opened up to a smaller cavernous clearing bathed in a pale ochre light. From afar they could see the figure of a person sitting on a stone throne. The person seemed carved out of the stone itself, but they could not make out any characteristics from that distance and so both of them decided to slowly descend into the pathway to take a closer look.

“This is the nether realm of the final deathmask. My deathmask. The deadmask of the white shade” – a voice coming from a visage behind them declared.

The figure sitting on the stone was indeed made out of a limestone, and it depicted a large humanoid more than two meters tall, maybe even taller, without any facial features. Instead it had a big cube shaped gap in the middle of its forehead and another rectangular shaped box carved out across its chest.

As soon as Kiko and Thalldon moved near it, it raised its stony arm from the throne, opened its palm and let an array of odd shaped geometrical stones fall on the ground.

“Is this some sort of a puzzle?” The bard inquired picking up the shapes and studying them.

“It looks like it.” The paladin answered and the two started reassembling the shapes in what they thought would eventually form into a stone cube, thinking that it might fit the forehead slot of this weird statue.

Indeed the little child managed to complete the puzzle and form a stone cube out of the parts that the statue had given them. They placed the cube in its forehead and the statue moved once again pulling the rectangular shape from its chest and handing it to them. Another puzzle it seemed. It was a game of sorts.

This rectangle box housed various smaller rectangle stones and a few square ones, all of them surrounding one larger square with a red dot painted on it. All those objects seemed to move within this box, dragged by the fingers of the one operating it, making room for each other to change positions around the confines of the frame that surrounded them. The goal it seemed was for the red dotted square to be moved from the back side of the box to the front where it would exit from a narrow slit on the bottom.

The two companions labored playfully for a good while, but they could not solve the puzzle.

“Let me try alone! After all, I am the kid.” Kiko said.

“You're just making random moves, this is a puzzle equal to my intellectual capacity!" Thalldon replied, as they wrestled over the tiny object.

Then the statue extended its arm as if offering a handshake.

 “What is this now?” Said the Paladin. “Is it offering to help us?”

And indeed he handed the box to it and as soon as the statue touched the box which was still in Thalldon’s hands, there was a spiritual transference. The paladin felt his intellect drained as if swallowed by the statue, and then the statue using the intellectual energy that it had acquired, began to operate the little puzzle and handed it back to them in an advanced, it seemed, position.

After a few moments Kiko managed to solve the puzzle and pull the little square shaped object with the red dot on it, and they placed it back into the chest of the statue where a little similarly shaped opening was carved out for it. That caused the statue to shake violently and rattle, and the whole cave shook in turn while the whole throne was illuminated by an otherworldly light. Immediately after, the statue descended inside the stone wall, like it was being enveloped by it, leaving only its face levitating in front of the two companions. The face then formed into a mask without features, only bearing a single large red dot on its forehead. It seemed that this was the final Archdruid mask and so both of them without hesitation touched the mask and were teleported back into the grove which now seemed completely different than when they first set foot on it. It now appeared like a lifeless husk, sunken in a grey silent melancholy. The trees had just a few leaves hanging on them and their lonely black branches extended mournfully downward like lifeless skeletal claws. Only crows and ravens flew above the grove. In the middle of it, still that limestone slab, smooth and ochre like the walls of the cave, stood ominously, and the two companions placed the final mask where they had placed the previous two. Laeetis’s catatonic body was still there and as soon as the final deathmask was merged with the others, the warlock extended his finger and touched the red dot on the visages forehead and then disappeared before the very eyes of his companions, leaving them astonished. In a sudden flash of energy, all the masks were combined to reassemble the material face of the druid that now looked exactly as it was when they first saw him standing, and the body of the druid also reappeared and sunk itself into the slab that was now revealed to be a large sarcophagus.

“What? Is he dead? Was he dead all along? What now? We still need to talk to him. We still need to find Laeetis.” Kiko shouted in desperation!

“Easy there little child. Let’s remain focused.” Thalldon reminded Kiko and neared the sarcophagus to examine it closer. On its top the whole body of the druid was embossed with his eyes closed as if peacefully sleeping. Now the passage of time which had been somehow magically shielded made its mark on the grave in the form of large, long, gnarled roots that hugged and surrounded the whole surface of the sarcophagus.

“Vakrathar! Vakrathar the white shade!” Thalldon shouted.

Immediately the eyes of the Druid that was depicted on the sarcophagus opened, and the lid of the sarcophagus started moving to the side, as a hand appeared pushing it over and down on the frozen earth.

Vakrathar “the white shade” rose from his “grave” and stood in front of them. He spoke and repeated what he had told them when they first set foot on this ancient and ominous grove.

“Welcome!”

“Are, are you alive?” Kiko asked in renewed hope.

“I am neither dead nor alive. I am beyond Time and Space.” The Archdruid replied.

He conversed with the two companions for a long while and revealed his personal story. How from a young age he was drawn to the spirit of nature and everything that grew and flourished.

"Such sentiments were deeply frowned upon in my despotic community and considered a sign of weakness by the Grey druids who regarded nature as a massive tool in their imperialistic war machine. They manipulated their occult magick not to grow things and revel in natural balance, but to form and bend them to their will, raising high mountain peaks even higher, turning living forests into stone trees-conduits for ley magick and harnessing raw ice and fire elements into great weapons of terror, destruction and dominance."  He said stepping down from the sarcophagus and extended  his long arms, touching the shoulders of the companions. A warm resonating pulse started seeping inside them, and hazy visions formed in the deep layers of their mind.

 "Faellheinar, as I was known then, was quickly subdued by the harsh teachings of his masters and he became cold, merciless and unforgiving while he rose to the ranks and reached the highest level of his order . Then I slew the “Uhkaol”- the Archdruids that came before me, continuing the cruel tradition of the ancient deathmask ritual called “Wuhkaz’xavel – the reaping of the eternal spirit”, during which the victim is killed and then a deathmask woven with an ancient spell is placed on its face, consuming it entirely along with the whole being of it, even the victims own name, rendering it effectively unborn in the first place."  His arms now grasped the shoulders of Kiko and Thalldon like a vice, and visions of terrible faces being entirely annihilated and consumed by dark and unspeakable visages passed through their minds and into their very eyes, as if happening then and there.

"I ruled as Uhkaol for three thousand years but  became ridden with disgust when I saw how far away I was lead from the purity of my original vision – from my reverence of life and nature." His grip loosened a bit, and the two saw the dim spectacle of an elf kneeling in the middle of a vast lifeless obsidian forest, weeping. Kiko wept also.

"I decided to end the line of the Uhkaol and punish myself at the same time.

Ιn the last twelvemoon before the Plunge, Ι summoned a thick white mist that covered the elven kingdom of Natazaad in obscurity for seven days, seven greylights and seven nights. During that time Ι moved as an immaterial “white shade”, wiping the minds of all the young Atranaar druids blank, and destroying all the druidic dark occult lore – thus ending my legacy forever."  His hands now moved from the shoulders of the companions and landed abruptly on their faces. They stood frozen and unable to move. They saw dozens of Atranaar elves running in despair, their eyes blank and bleeding from their sockets, their towers and monuments in ruin and fire. Amongst it all, a foreboding tall white shade swallowed everything in its misty stride. Within it the companions saw the archdruid in all his might but he was spectral and ghostly, only his bright blue eyes sparkled power and determination as he wiped stone and wood and air alike with a single gesture of his white fingers.

"Then I exiled himself from my community and elected instead of ending my own life, to retreat into this ancient and forgotten plateau and tried to redeem myself atoning for my heinous acts, but I found that I had no ability to grow living things but to only manipulate Stone and Rock and the raw power of the Elements, and so I created Voth’Akul, the Obsidian Mountain, and in my despair that nothing living could come out of my hand, I performed Wuhkaz’xavel – the reaping of the eternal spirit on myself and then exited Time and Space forever and arose to a semi-existence in a parallel dimension – a cosmic sarcophagus holding my body and spirit on an eternal threshold-. Around it, the specter of a verdant grove grew, a gift from the Gods for my belated repentance. My existence was forever erased from the minds of mortal beings, but in the echoes of the divine currents, the Archangel Solarian heard my mournful weeping… and answered." He removed his palms from the faces of the two, and the last thing they saw, was a mournful grayness as the druid of ages past placed his own deathmask on his face, and sank in limbonic oblivion.

Then he explained that their companion the warlock had been lost in his dream and while the Archdruid tried to guide him out of it, another presence, a powerful one that already had a deep grasp on him, drew him deeper into the darker recesses of the dreamscape and claimed him for her own. He revealed this presence to be Nicnevin the faerie princess and much to the grief of Thalldon and Kiko, Laeetis seemed to be forever lost.

Then he spoke to the companions about the Essence of the First Star and described how the blood from the Red Dot on his mask is linked to the great voice beyond the stars and that this is only part of its great magical importance, because the mask reveals to the wearer and to the one holding a red mark on their forehead, the True Dimensions of all things, and that would also reveal the dimension in which Ikhael the Desolator is hidden. He then gifted the deathmask to them. It was a white mask with the semblance of himself, a blood red dot on the forehead and two great elk horns coming from the sides.

He also told the companions of his suspicion that the demon Ikhael was in league with the High Elves in their common quest to collect the spirits of the living and break them into submission.

Kiko asked him about the eggs they had found inside the mouths of the obsidian giant heads, and the archdruid informed them that they belonged to forgotten magnificent creatures that hopefully had survived within the dark magick of the chasm of Voth’Akul.

Vakrathar, also told them of a hidden sanctuary somewhere beneath a huge statue whose sword was actually a waterfall, over to the Northeast. Within it they would find a community of peoples who have a long standing foothold in the world of Barastir. Those peoples would help them in their Journey, provide answers and also teach them the secrets of the essences of the first stars.

Then they conversed on the aspirations that they have and what is their purpose in life and the little child said that its purpose is to find meaning in magick, music and companionship in others – and then return to the stars, and Thalldon said that his purpose is to right the wrongs in this world, and Vakrathar told them that he had heard these voices of theirs in his mind while they traversed the nether realms, but he also heard other, minor voices coming from the souls of the two companions, battling each other for dominance and acoustics. Then he finally advised them to keep true to their calling, keep true to themselves but always have a clever eye and a keen insight to the inner workings of their psyche.

"I bid you now farewell Kiko and Thalldon, and if in your dreams a white shade enters, do not be alarmed. I will just be visiting old friends."

Then the Archdruid descended back into the sarcophagus and the whole grove fell silent leaving the two companions to decide their destination. They took out the mask, smudged their finger on the red dot which seemed painted by a bloodstain that never dries, and touched their own foreheads with it receiving their own red sign. After that, they slept near the sarcophagus, and slept long and well, inside the sadness and the solitude of the atmosphere.

The next morning, through their “red third eye”, they instantly saw an astral thread nearby and to the Northeast, just as the Archdruid suggested. They descended another staircase to the opposite side of the grove platform and soon they found themselves in an obsidian forest, silent and long. They traversed it carefully and soon they noticed a golden flash running across the trees.

“Onxaaaar!” Thalldon cried and in a sudden majestic glow, the black metal blade was summoned in the paladin’s left hand, wreathed in frostfire.

 A creature with golden skin jumped out of the woods and appeared in front of them and they both identified it as a Sorrakuth, an extra-dimensional race that travels the Cosmos seeking for long-lost artifacts and aligning themselves with the dominant powers within the realms they visit. It held a silver greatsword and charged head on towards the little bard.

“Xrratatxa thaaoh Ontrothon!”

Xrratatxa!” It cried in an unknown language.

The outsider aimed his blade at the leg of the little child while it attempted a difficult acrobatic move to escape the strike, and failed only by a hairs thickness. Wounded, Kiko gathered itself and stood up.

The bard sprung into action, and using its slender frame, rolled and hid behind an obsidian tree weaving a cacophonous spellsong towards the enemy, while the paladin rushed ahead to intercept the creature. After a few vicious strikes, he delivered the mortal blow that heaved both legs from the opponent felling him to the ground while a fountain of golden blood sprung from the two legs that were still standing on the forest floor, a grim reminder of what Onxar was capable of.

“I WILL PAINT MY ARMOR IN YOUR GOLDEN BLOOD!” Thalldon cried in ecstasy, while two more such adversaries charged towards Kiko, who had since reappeared.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES MY LORD! REVEL IN YOUR MIGHT!” Onxar celebrated.

The little bard wasted no time and rushed to hide again stealthing himself in its silver cloak, while the paladin rearranged his battle stance to face the two opponents that where now coming towards him.

One of the warriors faced Thalldon and the other stood back-to-back to the first, trying to locate Kiko. The first warrior, with a flash of her greatsword managed to slash the paladin but he retaliated with ragefull vicious strikes that wounded his opponent gravely – after calling upon his god – Uman – who answered his plee, this time.

The other warrior weaved an Arcane conjuring that turned himself into mist and then jumped across the forest to a position that aimed to manipulate Thalldons blind spot and while the paladin was preparing to destroy the enemy that was standing in front him, this second warrior crept behind him to deliver a sneak attack.

However the cunning little bard saw this and waited in hiding for the opportune moment to act and while the second warrior slowly reached the back side of his companion, Kiko weaved an elaborate tune that darted from his flute straight to the ear of the Sorrakuth, confusing it, suggesting that instead of Thalldon, it should strike his comrade who was near death, kneeling and prone (due to another accurate spell that the bard had cast moments before).

Indeed the creature, acted like the spell suggested and plunged his blade in his comrade, destroying her. The last remaining Sorrakuth then stood up and shaking his head, attempted to strike at the paladin.

But the might of the Black Blade was not to be taken lightly. Thalldon raised his weapon high above his head in an aggressive posture studying his opponent for a few brief seconds and then bellowing like a berserker, he fainted an upward strike and moved his blade in a parallel position aiming for the throat. Onxar hacked effortlessly through the neck of the Sorrakuth fighter in a lightning fast strike, leaving a frostmark line across it, and while the frostfire burst into flames that enveloped the fighters head, the Sorrakuths neck was severed, and then the whole head fell exploding in a burst of flaming, boiling, golden blood that showered Thalldon.

“Ok, that was scary.” Kiko pointed out.

“Those were Sorrakuths, what could they be seeking?” It asked.

“Maybe the Ontrothon.” Thalldon remarked, picking up one of their blades, while Kiko picked up a strange sphere-like object with geometrical markings on it, that the other Sorrakuth carried in her belongings.

The two companions took a moments rest, tending to each others wounds and moved deeper into the forest where the trees were no longer obsidian but green and with their normal bark. Deeper inside the treeline, and towards the general direction of the astral thread falling eternally from the skies, the two companions noticed a large statue or effigy which resembled a plethoric woman with rich breasts, wearing the head of an elk.

Around the statue a number of naked women stood in a circle, similarly decorated with elk heads and objects of religious significance such as amulets and bowls filled with offerings.

One of them, a tall woman of black skin seemed to be instructing the whole ceremony.

“This woman in the middle is from the Movaru lineage, like lady Ironhand from Olsahir!” Kiko said.

“Indeed” Thalldon said, remembering a manuscript a pilgrim once brought to Cewick tower in his young days while he studied to become a paladin. He recounted his knowledge on these women, a knowledge most human males deny in they lust to maintain their feeble patriarchic concepts of dominance.

“The Movaru is the first human race that appeared on this world. It was a race, a community exclusively of females, which reproduced amongst themselves and gave birth only to other females. Female was their only gender. That community was highly sophisticated in matters of hunting and gathering but also in matters of agriculture and exploration and the study of nature and the skies. It is said that even the advanced Golagond race, that came after them, had a lot to learn from the Movaru and their glorious communion of mutual respect and admiration amongst the women. This old manuscript that I once secretly read, written by a female Movaru scholar ages ago, described that somewhere in time, the Movaru elected, yes chose to, give birth to a male, and thus, human communities evolved as we know them now. Therefore, the story that we did not want to accept as humans and as men, is that we all came from the Movaru women.

The revered goddess Ashthu was one of them, in an age before ages, and that effigy right there seems to be an antique depiction of Her. These women here are most likely keeping to a very old and very exalted tradition.” Thalldon recounted as one of those women neared the two and greeted them sharply.

“Keep your distance from the ritual, man and child. This is a sacred place.” She declared.

“We will respect your land, and we mean no harm.” Thalldon stated and stepped back.

Kiko stood and observed the women and their ritual. Then, mimicking their moves, it took its clothes off, picked a few frozen pine needles from the ground, gathered some Hjui fruit from the nearby bushes and some acorns, and entered the ritual. A woman standing guard observed the child and did not stop it, must to the relief of the on looking Thalldon. When the ritual concluded, the woman who had spoken to the companions, came and spoke to the Paladin, who asked if his understanding that this is an old worshiping ritual of Ashthu, coming from the bowels of the Movaru tradition, is true.

“Indeed so. I am glad that a man recognizes these things. Your companion, the  genderfree child, is a remarkable being, full of sentiment and wanderlust. I am Maraeesa and this is Ovalsidea, our Matron.” She said, and pointed towards the tall dark skinned woman, who neared the paladin, holding Kiko by the hand. She was imposing and charming with a stern demeanor.

"Our community lies ahead, beyond this forest, were the waterfalls meet the river. It is a community that no man ever set foot. You and your companion seem to know and respect our ways and our lineage and you seem to have gone through a lot judging from the looks of you. You are invited to enter our community and rest. Should you accept, watch your behavior and your conduct." The Matron said while the procession of women started walking behind her.

The companions accepted the offer humbly and followed the procession at its tail in a route that went through the forest and reached a river bank at the edge of which a natural pathway of stone steps raised above the water level, lead to an opening under the waterfall across.

This waterfall stemmed through the hilt of the sword of a massive stone statue of a female warrior clad in armor, that was carved from the very granite of the hill,

now showered in the last glow before the greylight.

 

 

 

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