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.