The Dance of Seasons

March of the Mad

Introductions

Day 180 of Autum

It was the labored breathing of a small elf that broke the forest’s reserve. Lithe footfalls crunched the autumn leaves in purples and oranges and browns of all kinds. Her voice was hoarse, not just from the recent exercise of running through the trees but further strained by beckoning after her, up until recently, stalwart companion. Only a few days out past the wound and already lost.

Sunako rested against her thighs as she reached an opening in the trees, a meager bid to catch her breath. Light pierced the upper crenellations of the treetops and scattered all around the clearing through the foliage like stars on a cloudless night. The journey thus far had been awful, even by her standards! First there was the cold nights, there was never anyone to talk to and nowhere near enough ingredients to make for a decent pie. And now, her only friend in the world had become prone to chasing after every odd scent he picked up. Isn’t that the icing on the cake?

“Yuki?!” She demanded, pausing long enough to strain her ears for a response, “Oh…where is that silly dog?”

That was when she caught a whiff herself; a sweet smell of autumn berries that tickled her tummy. Famished, the wild elf didn’t even stop to think before gorging herself on the fragrant fruit. Agile fingers plucked them and packed them into grubby cheeks as quickly as they were freed of their stems.

So engrossed in berry eating that the measured disappearance of light didn’t register to Sunako. Nor did she notice the small camp just beside the berry bush. Nor the eerie silence in the small wooded clearing. And nor did little Sunako notice the seven foot dark skinned Orc glaring down at the her with emotionless eyes.

“Is it customary where you come from to eat other people’s food?” A feminine voice demanded. Her purple hued flesh glistening in the soft specks of light peeking in streams through the canopy.

At first the vernacular didn’t register and so another two delicious orbs vanished into the elf’s mouth. Finally, the noxious mixture of events triggered the fight or flight center of her brain, causing Sunako to stop mid chew like a chipmunk who’s meal had been abruptly interrupted by…well, anything.

Mortified, the little elf turned to look.

It had been so long since she last exchanged conversation, her wolf pack had been kind enough to let her practice her words but even when she spoke now everything came out punctuated with a harsh stutter. Timidly, the elf cupped the last remaining berries in her hand and turned to offer them back to the figure. Berry juice smeared across her hands and nose as she displayed an innocent and docile smile. If Sunako were a dog the gesture would be complete with laying on her back with belly exposed.

“H-h-here, you can have it back…” she stammered, hoisting her food filled hands much higher over her head, a few smashed bits falling through the cracks between long elven fingers.

“Didn’t you see our camp?” the voice berated. Waving off the meager gesture in record time.

“N-no…” came the reply.

The orc studied the thief, noting that this conversation felt acutely familiar. What is it with these elves? “You must be hungry. Take them.”

There was a lesson in those heavy words, something Sunako guessed the skins adorning the Orc’s muscular frame would help explain. Something pained that hid behind the eyes, something simple, something… Safe. The many corpses of dead animals had a lingering scent but there was a far more voracious smell around the leather-skinned woods-woman. The familiar smell of wolves.

“Where’s the rest of your pack?” Sunako blurted between puzzling the mystery of the many pelts. She had arrived at the conclusion that the pelts symbolized power, though she pondered further on whether it was meant for other Orcs or, as the aroma indicated, a much more violent pack of wolves?

“Pack? No I-” The orc started, interrupted by a faint rustling in a nearby bush, something was coming through the underbrush into the clearing. An air of panic swelled up in the pale elf’s gorge, afraid that the exchange had alerted a nearby creature. Should she try and fight, or was she outnumbered? Out in the open, unarmed and the last of her family missing, this was decidedly the worst day of Sunako’s life. In contrast, the Orc didn’t bat an eye.

Alistar

A flash of fingers cut through the water’s surface returning a moment later with a handful of wriggling fish. For a brief moment he believed it by magic, but his elation fell when he looked at the paltry catch. It would be more than enough for the fledgling evoker but this meager meal wouldn’t even make a mouthful for his daunting companions.

Alistar’s spirits returned with a shrug of his shoulders and the rush of wind through his long hair which he tucked snugly under a leather hood. Haul in hand, the gangly elf sauntered back to camp.

He wondered what his Orc compan-
YUKI!” A voice exclaimed, stopping him mid-thought.

They say that warriors trained for battle face down some of the most gruesome circumstances imaginable. When you’re watching friends and countrymen fall all around you, or facing some threatening force most men would lose their resolve. In that moment where reality fails you, the only resort is to fall back on training. Alistar’s street training kicked in before his brain could catch up: hide!

Ducking behind a tree proved to be quite the challenge, however, and the hapless elf succeeded only in tripping over his feet. Instead of simply falling he balanced and rebalanced in a perpetual trip before finally coming in for a crash landing in front of the large Orc and a beautiful Elf.

The Orc blinked but otherwise seemed unimpressed by the clumsiness of Elves – and she had always heard of how graceful the fairer race was. Snort. With an embarrassed yelp, the fallen elf scrambled to stand and patted down his pants, knocking free the dirt from his trousers. He offered an apologetic smile to his companion who just rolled her eyes and returned her focus to the newcomer.

Standing a head shorter than most others of her kind and covered in dirt from an immeasurable stint spent surviving outdoors, she was still clearly an Imperial Elf. Twigs wound her matted hair most likely by accident rather than intended as makeshift hairpins; just whatever debris that must have clung as she marched through the brambles. Her clothes were worn and outdated but stitched shoddily in places, not suggesting ill repair or a lack of concern but rather a labor of love with whatever she could afford. Despite her wilder appearance it was evident that she was just as beautiful as expected of their kind, perhaps even more so and perhaps even a few years older than Alistar. He had only a moment to look her over and it was almost long enough.

“Hey, who’s your friend?” He asked, sprawling his fingers along his hips and smiling sheepishly in a hasty attempt to cover his embarrassment.

“Friend? I just caught her stealing my berries,” The Orc said, flourishing an accusing gesture.

“Oh…you must be hungry! Would you like some of this fish I caught?” Alistar asked displaying his accomplishment proudly, “Er… Don’t worry I plan on cooking them at the fire.”

Bark!

“Yuki!” the young elf girl exclaimed, bending down to gather up a bundle of brown and white fur. The dog licked her face clean of smeared berries and playfully yipped his reply. “Good boy,” she continued, scratching the dog under his ears and giggling at his eager cleaning, “just where did you run off too?”

Almost in an immediate response a large wolf stalked regally from amidst the higher shrubbery, her lupine poise lending an ominous shadow over the group. Approaching with measured steps the wolf pressed its firm body against the Orc’s leg and received a single pat for its obedience. They exchanged no words and the wolf made no advances on the newcomer. They must have met before, Alistar concluded.

Sunako

It was the size that startled Sunako, this creature was but a pup yet far too large for a normal breed of wolf. Certainly nothing like the ones she had known. In one terrified swoop she hoisted her Collie up and out of harms way. Surprisingly, Yuki seemed unconcerned and continued to lap playfully at her face.

“What’s that?” The clumsy male elf stole the words before Sunako even had time to think of them.

When she realized that this was the source of the lingering wolf smell, She broke contact with the massive wolf cub and felt a warm smile pass over her lips, overjoyed to have found her friend again. Sunako pressed her nose against the dog’s cold snout.

“Oh, this is Yuki, my Collie,” she said, “I rescued him from a trap, didn’t I boy?”

“Oh, he’s so cute! Well, my name is Alistar and this is Ekkaia, the wolf’s name is Lumeria. So who might you be?”

“My name i-”

“What are you doing out here, are ya lost? Would you like to stay with us? Can she stay with us?”

“M-m-my, but that is a lot all at once,” the wild elf stammered composing herself before answering, “well-”

“She can’t sleep with me,” the Orc interrupted before turning to stoke the fire. She passively listened to the conversation but felt assured by Lumeria’s presence that this strange elf and her pup were alright.

“Oh that’s great! But if you’re lost then what if we aren’t going the same way? What if we don’t get along very well? Frankly, it’s impolite to not give your name when someone gives you there’s,” Alistar pouted, “but you can still-”

“MY NAME…” she shouted exasperated, “ahem – my name is Sunako.”

Alistar stared at her slack jawed.

“And I’m not lost, I’m going uhh umm…north. Somewhere…ok I don’t know exactly where.”

“Oh, we’ll we’re going north too.”

Raziel

If there was one thing about the crowded halls outside the Chamberlain’s quarters that he hated, it was the dingy tomes lining the shelves in no discernible order. From a cult that prized justice at knifepoint and strung up heretics as part of the accoutrement, where was the reparation from the sordid state of the library? When the musty old men all finally died off and the power of the Church was his, the cleaning crew would be the first to be beheaded, their crime? Treason, aiding and abetting dust.

There wasn’t only one thing however, in fact he hated everything about them. From the ‘holier than thou’ air they donned to the endless lists of things you can’t do. Even the soulless clack of his leather boots against the hard wood floors sounded almost as hollow as one of their sermons. Almost, but not quite. It wasn’t that he was a particularly hateful individual, after all he liked their money and power just fine. Not to mention, the stylish outfits, he thought, it’s just … decorating buildings with bodies isn’t EXACTLY my idea of sanitary.

Wasting no time to stand on ceremony, Raziel Agrivayne pushed open the heavy wooden door and marched inside. He wholly expected another lecture on the value of being more pious or yet another chastising at the behest of one of his peers who expressed displeasure at the way he treated the acolytes. Honestly, what’s wrong with soldering the eyebrows together of an annoyance when they bombard you with all those incessant questions?

The room looked like someone moved their bed into a library, almost as an afterthought and it all reeked of old man smell. At one corner books rested spine over spine in a gravity defying tower, a mausoleum of forgotten old oaks. At the other end an decrepit man sat at a tall desk, the tip of his nose brushing the pages of the musty old volume between his brittle fingertips, his face clung to thin rimmed glasses pushed as far down the bridge as possible without falling off completely. He didn’t budge when Raziel marched in. Nor when he waited at the foot of the desk patiently, or even when the young Inquisitor stifled a cough with a single gloved hand.

“Well,” Raziel prodded, “You called for me?”

The old man patiently selected a red page marker, licked his thumb and forefinger to grasp the page then slid the book closed. His fingers danced like a marionette as he hovered over to a single leaf of parchment on the table. He studied it briefly, then finally looked over to Raziel. The Chamberlain’s entire body convulsed under the rattle of a throaty cough which he attempted to stifle with the knuckle of his index finger.

“We are sending you out, on assignment,” he exalted, smacking his lips to wet them enough to form the next words, “there is…a guide just outside these chambers – Eh..t-there are some in our order who do not think you are read-”

“I am ready.”

The Chamberlain focused on the young man with a pair of tiny black discs peering out from under a face so swollen up around them, the frames of his glasses almost disappeared. These discs settled on the red head with springy curls framing a pale angular face, who glared back with defiant, almost yellow eyes. Eager and relentless. His nearly six foot wire-thin frame adorned in a tight fitting cleric’s vestment matching the colors of their order in black and crimson reds. If only they could convince him to mete out the divine Justice of Torak he would be the Archon of the Church of Torak, a bastion to parallel the foul dark of Riva to the south.

“Y-es. Well,” the wizened man retorted, breaking the hateful yellow gaze and proffering the rolled up parchment, “take this letter, it will explain everything you need to know…”

Raziel accepted the paper but payed it little regard, “Who is this guide? What do we know of him?”

“I-am busy, child,” came the reply accompanied by a dismissive wave, “Begone.”

The duly charged Inquisitor bared a look of disapproval at his superior then turned on his heels and stamped out the door, feeling the weight of it crash back into it’s wooden frame. It didn’t even register to Raziel that his fingers had clasped too tightly around the paper. Its contents were simply not important next to his seething anger. If there was anything he hated more than a lack of cleanliness, it was having his precious time wasted. Being offered advancement was one thing, but they could have saved him the trouble and had a messenger deliver the charge.

Kaji

Thumbing through the yellowed pages of one of a myriad of tomes outside their High Inquisitor’s chambers or whatever, proved to do little to assuage his boredom. If the money wasn’t so good he wouldn’t even have bothered working for the ‘bigots of Torak’, the thought of being this close to listening to one of their religious lectures was giving him a headache. Still, the money was good. Great even. Considering how piss poor the jobs had been over the last few months it was an outright miracle that he had heard of the offer.

The sound of the door slamming home was his cue, that was expressly how he felt every time he had to talk to these bastards. He casually dropped the lid on the book he had been pretending to read as a man emerged from the shadow of the door. His hot temper matching the color of his hair but otherwise nothing seemed to distinguish him from the rest of these religious zealots. Nothing a cool, hundred gold couldn’t fix after the short field trip north.

“I see by the look of you,” the clergy-man said flattening a palm against the creases in his cassock, “you must be my tailor.”

“I’m. Your. Guide -” Kaji started before reconsidering his position, “Actually, I have some talent in leather working if that’s all I’m being paid for.” Why do I get all the uppity ones, he bemoaned privately.

“That…” the red-head paused after the initial outburst, “actually, that could prove to be quite useful.”

“Great, just great,” Kaji replied with a flaccid smile, “So, when do you wanna leave?”

The priest paused, and drummed his fingers against his chin. It was obvious that he hadn’t the slightest clue where he was going, and judging from the crumpled up paper he didn’t seem too happy about it anyway. After a short while he spoke, “Well, since eating slows me down – let’s just go now.”

“A-heh, you’re kidding right?” Kaji asked dubiously, “sigh… Well, we’re headed to Boron, it’s a four day journey through some pretty rough terrain, saddling right along the foot of the mountains and we are in Autumn. So…pretty cold up there. You may wanna pack some provisions.”

Raziel

Raziel unfurled the parchment clenched between his fingers and followed along with the instructions – You will be heading to Boron where you will investigate the last known location of Nikolai the Mad, all of your expenses will be covered by the church. You have been allowed up to one change of seasons to complete your goal. It bore the seal of the Followers of Torak and a small message about being rewarded with advancement in the church, with that he tucked the decree away and turned to face his guide.

He recognized it as an Imperial Elf, though far more muscular than others of his kind. Elves were a tall race but this one was gargantuan. He wore a heavy forest green cloak over his shoulders and kept his dark hair pulled back into a pony-tail, it’s tresses disappearing into a hood hanging loosely at his neck. The rest of his ornate outfit was wrapped in silvery symbols and markings representative of his kind, though Raziel had very little opportunity to meet one in person and certainly never had the inclination.

“What did you say your name was?” Raziel finally asked.

“Call me, Kaji.”

Raziel made a show of eyeing Kaji up and down, measuring him up to some internal standard, “Yes, you look like you can carry a lot. So be it, you can address me as Inquisitor Raziel Agrivayne.”

“Great…” Kaji lied, “So Raz, we goin?”

“Let me get packed,” the priest replied through clenched teeth while pushing past the elf towards his room.

“Fine, I’ll go check for some rations for the journey,” the elf said gesturing to the mess hall, “meet me there when you’re ready.”

Raziel’s meager accommodations had remained a refuge in his twenty plus years growing up at the church. Everything was tidy, everything had its place. The shelves intended for study materials were well kept and mostly unread in contrast to most of the other rooms around here. The bed was neatly tucked each morning and the wooden floors were inspected rigorously and cleaned to his admittedly high standards. Working quickly, the duty-bound Inquisitor dumped out the shelves full of clothes onto his bed and dumped them all unceremoniously into his sack.

With far more reverence the young man reached under his bed and hoisted out an ornate box. He gently tucked his most prized possession into the sack before gathering up the rest of his traveling gear. With a light grasp he lifted the sack over his shoulder and finished packing all the while feeling a warm pulse from the box that brought a devilish smile to his lips. For what was in the box meant more to him than all the gold in the Churches coffers.

Ezra

The porridge mixture of mostly water and beans warmed his innards the whole way down with each appreciated spoonful. Ezra Crenshaw slurped at his meal hoping desperately to shake off the initial shock from his arrival. The few times he had encountered death in the past soured his disposition to it but the people here seemed to exalt the deceased – by hanging them from the trees. It had been a rotten few months, traveling to the mainland through New Riva had gotten him robbed by the locals on more than one occasion and the poor caliber of drink to be had was nothing short of abysmal.

Never mind the complete lack of company, he thought to himself while glancing around the empty room. A woman and her son had greeted his entrance into the establishment, but they hardly seemed like the chatty types. They saw him as a pot of malnourished gold, likely assuming his heavy breathing was a sign of old age and not in response to the outright terror of spotting a rotting corpse just outside the gates. The mess hall itself was in a state of continual disrepair; strange patchwork lined the walls with gusts of wind creaking through the ramshackle floorboards. The only thing that seemed in good keeping was the pair of large doors leading back outside. He shuddered.

“Are you the innkeeper, ma’am,” he asked the woman sweeping casually behind the counter.

The woman turned with a huff and addressed the heavily cloaked patron in a broken common speech, “No, husband is Innkeeper : Javid, Javid!”

Ezra’s grin stretched from ear to ear as the woman continued bleating for her husband. The vibe in this place felt more at home than the one outside those long wooden doors. After all, live people were much easier to talk to than dead ones, no matter how the Followers of Torak made them dance.

Heavy footsteps echoed down a narrow hallway to Ezra’s right and he let his eyes hunt down the tracks to its source. A broad man appeared crammed tightly in the low hanging ceiling, his face stretched in a somber grimace. As he entered the room he allowed his auburn eyes to drift from hers to Ezra then back into his head. The overalls suggested he was more of a stableboy than an innkeeper, but in these times it wasn’t uncommon for someone to work multiple jobs. Another jack of all trades.

“You follow him,” the woman offered up with a haughty wave.

“Much obliged,” Ezra replied, dipping into a bow then clambering off his seat to hobble in line behind the massive man.

The two moved in silence for a ways, the large native shuffling along with a lumbering gait and the old one paying in kind. They passed several doors, shut tight against the cold or otherwise though he couldn’t tell if they were occupied despite the large knotholes in the wood. The hallway itself was barren, devoid of furniture and softly lit and he became acutely aware of the dirt floor they had descended to.

When they reached the end of the passage “Jack” turned and gestured to stop with a single outstretched palm. Ezra politely obliged and waited. The man nervously looked around as if expecting something to happen and when it didn’t he suddenly started counting along the tips of his fingers – onetwothreefourfive.

“Five, you say?” Ezra asked, reaching into his coin purse and pulling out a handful of mixed gold and silver. He displayed the contents of his hand to the man who nervously nodded his head. There was no quicker way to get people to talk than to impress them with money, and no quicker way to coax a haggler into showing his cards.

The Innkeeper worked his jaw open and close a few times before shaking his fingers again. It was an old trick, hoping to con someone into paying more by presenting a barrier, in this case a lack of communication. Only, Ezra had disarmed the barrier.

“Then five it is,” the old man said, plucking out five of the smallest denomination he had and handing it over to the innkeeper.

If you won’t be specific, Ezra thought, then this is what you get. The man’s face sunk deeper into a frown, unwilling to try and ply for more money. Instead he pocketed the change and shuffled into the room with a gesture to sleep. With a clap on the shoulder Ezra exchanged his appreciation and the man left him to his room.

It was a shoddy accommodation, the walls well worn, the floor not much better than the dirt outside the inn and the room had hardly enough space to spin around in place. It was safe to say that it suited Ezra just fine. He was tempted to just throw down a bedroll, pull out the winter blanket and get some shut eye but the longer he thought about those corpses lining the walls the more he wanted to leave this place. And he still hadn’t found any decent leads.

Instead, the old man dropped his satchel and made for the mead hall once more. Maybe he could rile up a patron long enough to hear a good story, or at the very least he could make one. Everyone loves a bar fight, and he needed something fresh that he could send back to Div’nah’s daughter. It brought a tear to his eye.

The mess hall was a sight more populated than when he last left it, this time another patron had arrived and he was in some sort of shouting competition with the innkeeper’s wife. The woman was rattling off in her native tongue and the new customer was berating her in his. As he hobbled over to the source of the commotion he picked up a distinct elven accent.

“Woah there big fella, looks like you could use a translator,” he said in Elvish with his palms raised high in a friendly reproach, “and I happen to speak the language.”

“That would be…helpful,” the large elf replied, it seemed to Ezra that asking for help didn’t come easy to the woodsman. In his opinion, not being able to ask for help was the source of most miscommunication in the first place. Easy work, and such a taciturn personality meant more and plenty.

“Fine, just fine. Now, what do ya need?”

“Rations, enough for four days,” came the reply. The old man smiled patiently, prompting the elf for more, “tsk-I’m heading out on a journey north.”

“A journey north you say? I just so happen to be going the same way!”

“I didn’t tell you where I was headed-”

“Anywhere’s better than here,” he interrupted with an emphatic grin, he then pounded a fist to his chest and started speaking to the woman, “Ma’am, this good elf is looking for rations, how much?”

Misses “Jack” the innkeepers wife looked around frantically, perhaps shocked at the strangers knowledge of their language but more likely she was hoping to find her son to foist the question off on. “Five silver,” she replied.

“She says it’s five silver,” the elf nodded his approval of the price and Ezra returned to the woman, “we’ll take four.”

The woman wiped a worn hand against her apron, exchanging an uneasy glance with the two strangers then disappeared into the kitchen larder. A few moments later she returns with a meager assortment of mixed nuts and dried berries, attuned to her work she neatly packages up four bundles and returns to eye the crooked old man and his muscular companion. Her brow furrowed, the innkeepers wife began counting along the tips of her fingers in much the same way her husband had, only she counted far more than she should have.

“Twenty,” she calculated correctly, though she didn’t seem entirely sure how she got there.

A bundle of rations usually weighed about a pound, it also often contained more than just whatever one could forage for out in the wilderness. It would do for their purposes but this now made the third attempt to trick Ezra in so many hours, and she was bad at counting. Donning his best knowing smile, the old man pressed ten silver coins into her hands and patted her gently as he folded her fingers around them. In her confusion she accepted the coins and handed the goods over to the elf.

“Great work! Let me buy you a round, friend! Call me Kaji by the way,” The elf exclaimed with a clap on the elders back.

“My name’s Ezra, so tell me about this journey friend,” he plied while sucking down the vile contents in his mug.

“Huh…what’s to tell? I’m heading to Boron – the church payed me a good wage to guide some religious fop around the mountains-” Cutting him off mid insult came the reverberating footfalls of a member of the cloth.

“So this is where you’ve been,” he said, catching the woodsman’s eye for long enough to express his displeasure, which was punctuated by him tossing the bundle of clothes at his guide’s feet.

“Ezra this is Raz, the religious fop,” Kaji chortled before noticing the pile of punctuating clothes, “What the…we’re only going for four days and you need all these outfits?”

“I’m not sleeping on the ground.”

“I’m not carrying all this stuff.”

“Well now,” Ezra interrupted with a measured tone, “I’ll carry a little – you carry a little…”

“Just how much can you carry old man?” Kaji asked, eyeing the elder up and down.

“A little,” he joked in response.

“Fine, I can take some of it,” Raziel interjected while pulling free his ornate box, “There.”

“Whatever,” Kaji exclaimed, putting the matter to rest before draining the rest of his mug, “let’s just get this over with.”

Ezra hoisted himself off the stool, “Let me just get my things.”

He was happy to be leaving the place, and while he had taken a calculated risk in helping the elf with the rations, he doubted the loss of five silver for a shoddy room was going to weigh much on his mind. Grabbing up his things he said a fond farewell to the room that had lasted him all of a few minutes, as it was arguably the most enjoyable time he had spent in the entire city.

If Ezra ever told you he wasn’t surprised to see the two men still waiting for him when he got back, he would be lying.

“So old man, what can you do?” Raziel asked.

“I can get the hell out of this place as fast as my old bones can carry me.”

“Just…Keep away from me,” the priest sneered with a flip of his fiery hair.

And with that the small party left, and none too soon.

Ekkaia

The night had fallen over their wooded camp and the roar of the fire had died down substantially. Lumeria rested against her back like a child seeking its mother’s warmth. The two elves remained up squeaking into the night with that high pitched language they called elvish, it was concerning enough for the Ekkaia to wonder just how permanent the damage to her eardrums, but not enough to knock both their blocks clean off their torsos.

“Did you like the fish?” Alistar prodded, “I thought the berries were a nice touch.”

“Mmm-hmm, I’ve never had fish this good before.”

“Ha-ha, you’ve never had cooked fish before?”

“Well,” Sunako began, gulping down the last mouthful of food, “I cooked it, but it never tasted as good as that!”

“What were you planning to do with the berries then?”

“I was going to try and bake a pie,” she stated, her eyes glistening with a sparkle of determination.

“Wow! You can bake? Where’s all your stuff to bake then? Is it back at your camp?”

The female elf shook her head from side to side, her determined gaze fading into a look of longing. One the Orc knew well. What was it like to know what you want but have no idea how to get it? Ask Lumeria, she’ll tell you.

“That’s why I was just going to try and bake a pie…”

For a moment the conversation died down, leaving only the crackling of the fading fire to fill in the gaps. She imagined the flames, licking her skin as they had that time before and all the many times they had threatened to surround her, to smother her. The warmth didn’t feel refreshing, even on this cold of a night. The sound didn’t set her mind to ease.

“So what are you doing out here?” Alistar prodded, “Are you on a trip somewhere?”

“Yes, but I don’t really know where I’m supposed to go.”

“How can you be on a trip somewhere if you don’t know where it is? That just sounds silly to me.”

“My pack sent me on a quest, but I don’t really understand them,” Sunako stated, pulling her knees up to her chin.

“Your – pack? You mean wolves? Is that why Lumeria wasn’t scared of you? Oh wow, you can talk to wolves?!”

“N-no,” she shook her head, “no, it’s more like I can just sense it. I sense that they wanted me to go out and find out why the seasons stopped changing. They wanted me to warn the others that something bad was happening south of the wound. That it was spreading.”

Alistar’s skin turned almost as pale as hers, the words caught in his throat like they were moving through quicksand but he managed to get out : “Oh, so where are you staying?”

There was a sound after that, one Ekkaia couldn’t quite make out, a sniffling? A dripping sound? Was the elf crying?

“I don’t know…”

“It’s ok, you can stay with us!” Alistar exclaimed, but Sunako’s crying didn’t subside, she nodded in her agreement as Yuki poked his head into her lap, the collie was trying to comfort his friend.

“O-ok,” she finally accepted.

“So you grew up with wolves? How did you learn to bake? Did the wolves teach you?”

“No. N-nothing like that,” she sniffed, wetting her leather cloak as she dried her eyes, “I just saw a human making one once and now I want to try it.”

“We’re going to Boron, got to stop off briefly for supplies. That’s a human town, maybe someone can teach you there? Would you like to come?”

“Yes, I could use the company.”

“Say, maybe I can teach you to cook fish and you can teach me to bake a pie when you learn!” Alistar responded, his contagious enthusiasm had been rubbing off on the Orc, though she might not have shown it, she smiled.

“That sounds delightful,” Sunako responded.

Lumeria echoed Ekkaia’s despondent sigh as the pair nodded off to sleep. What silly little things, Elves.

Alistar

The others had drifted off to sleep as the fire died down, Lumeria and Yuki, cuddled up with their respective owners. And he was just up for long enough to cool his thoughts.

Alistar could still make out the camp as he sauntered out by the nearby brook where he had caught the fish earlier that day. He let his thoughts flow like the serenity of the water, disappearing into the black darkness beyond his vision, wrapping around the bend and snaking off out of sight. The young evoker was certain that his frequent trips would come under question eventually by his companions, perhaps they had noticed his markings on his head had started to glow.

“Just what am I getting into,” he blurted out exasperated and to no one in particular.

A rustling in the underbrush of some scurrying rodent brought him back, just in time to overhear the sound of voices in the distance. Unable to make it back to camp before the troupe headed towards him caught up, Alistar adamantly searched for another solution. He swore silently under his breath. Instead he made for a nearby tree to duck for cover which turned out to be another poor choice as he slipped on the moistened earth sending the gaunt elf sprawling into the brook he had been walking by with a loud crash…again.

Kaji

“What was that,” Raziel Agrivayne asked in shock stopping dead in his tracks.

“Beats me,” Ezra said as a matter of fact with a labored shrug, more concerned with the added weight of a few of the clerics tunics than any monsters out in the dark.

Kaji had his bow slung from his back and an arrow knocked by the time the words left the cleric’s lips. Ezra’s lackadaisical response proffered a scoff, Hmph…tourists. Leave this to the professionals. The forest green cloak covered over his large frame, enough to shroud him mostly in shadows, with two fingers he pulled the hood lower over his face to mask the rest of himself.

“Ugh…useless. Guide what was that?” Raziel demanded, apparently uneducated in the art of shutting the hell up when hearing loud noises in the dark.

“I dunno,” Kaji whispered, “I’ll go check it out. Just…stay here.”

Raziel grimaced back in response with a look that seemed to express that he wasn’t going anywhere. Ezra’s goofy grin seemed to echo : ‘What he said’. The flame from the torch light would draw any would-be-stalkers to the two of them, giving Kaji enough time to spot them in the dark and take them down before any more surprises. Slowly, the looming figure tiptoed outside of view.

Out in the darkness of the heavily wooded forest he felt his senses prime, the hunter was back in the wild, here the forest was his domain, he was in his element. With fabled grace the ranger moved through the darkness, selecting his footing with the finesse of a cat. The string of his bow went taught with the knocked arrow, here he was a machine of pure skill and training.

So lost in these thoughts was he that it caught him entirely by surprise when he felt his boot hook under an exposed root from a nearby tree, the trip sent him flying into the clearing. He bumped into the young elf who’s splash had alerted them in the first place and so too found himself equally soaked.

“Where did you find this guide?” Kaji heard Ezra ask aloud in the distance, Raziel seemed to sigh and shake his head.

Raziel felt his red curls fall in front of his gloved hand as he planted his face firmly in their leather.

“Who the hell put me into this mess?” he asked venomously.

“The Church,” they both exhaled in unison.

I hate tourists, Kaji thought.

Sunako

The second splash woke Yuki up, and considering the excellent pillow he was making for Sunako at the time, she woke up too. Lumeria had already disappeared into the darkness with the Orc freeing her club from under her satchel. What’s happening? Sunako looked frantically from her collie to Ekkaia for an explaination. But it was Alistar who appeared soaked from the brook who provided the answer.

“Elf. Hunter. Bow. Thingy.” He panted before collapsing out of breath.

Then they heard the howl of the wolf pup.

Kaji

Something large and snarling and furry landed atop Kaji brandishing pearly white fangs and a menacing pair of yellow eyes. As if by instinct, the woodsman forcefully shoved at the creature to free it from his body to no avail.

“Get off me you blasted thing!”

The wolf, languishing the opportunity, lashed out at the prone assailant sinking its teeth into his hand and wrist and shaking wildly. Then abruptly, the creature released its grip and offered a warning growl.

Another furry creature broke through the shrubbery and eyed the downed woodsman in the dark. Great, did I stumble onto a pack or something? The dog issued a loud bark in what can only be assumed to be an alert to its master as a female voice echoed out in response.

With adrenaline pumping through the elf he managed to keep his arrow knocked, the point of which targeted the very large head of the wolf at his feet.

Raziel

“Well, I guess we can stop the whole ‘waiting’ thing,” Ezra exhaled leisurely as the pair marched in the direction of their grounded guide. They could just make out the shadowy silhouette of a large wolf over the prone and soaked ranger, though it seemed far larger than any normal wolf. At their arrival the creature offer them the same warning growl without ever taking its eyes from the armed assailant.

“easyeasyeasy,” Ezra cooed out to the wolf, the snarling creature took a single step back in response, its eyes darting back and forth between the company and the threatening bowman.

If it were part of a pack, Raziel realized, it would have bolted – wolves are opportunity hunters at best and right now it’s outnumbered. The wolf wasn’t attacking Kaji, it was protecting someone else, the growls were only in threat. Someone, somewhere had this thing on a tight leash.

Ezra must have noticed it too. He started to call out to Kaji, “Put your weapon down, I don’t think it’s trying to hurt us -” but the wolf’s growl muffled the rest of his words.

Thinking fast, Raziel set down his prized box and freed a long calcified bone from inside, “Here boy,” he said with a whistle, “If you’re good I have a nice treat for you.” The wolf seemed unimpressed by the offer, which caused a flare up from the priest, “Fine!” He shouted, tossing the bone ineffectually towards the wolf, the femur whirled out of sight as it exited the range of the torch light.

“Lumeria!” A cry issued from out of view, the wolf seemed to respond to the call as it took another few steps back allowing the ranger to finally get back up to his feet.

“Friend or foe?” Kaji cried out in a shaky voice. With a cough he cleared his throat enough to repeat, “I say again, Friend or foe?”

“Yuki!” a pretty elf exclaimed as she broke through after her pup. The smaller of the two creatures eagerly turned and wagged its tail at his master. Both Raziel and Ezra couldn’t help but stare, each catching one another gawking at the sudden appearance of the beautiful girl. They both exchanged a knowing wink.

The clearing was silent for a time, each staring back at the other. A mixture of confused, elated, eager and cautious feelings but suddenly the deluge of desperation was broken by the presence of a rather large Orc. Her eyes surveyed the situation before finally speaking.

“I am sorry my wolf attacked you, here, I have bandages for your wounds in my pack.”

“Do you have somewhere warm nearby that will ward off the chill in these old bones?” Ezra prodded. The Orc issued a nod then turned back towards her camp, with the wolf pup Lumeria in tow.

With that Ezra waddled over to Kaji and extended his hand, careful not to step in the stream. Suppose we don’t need a yet another wet dog, Raziel thought capriciously. The elf accepted the offer with a grunt and freed himself from the blackened stream. With a chuckle, the old man nodded towards the elven girl.

“Looks like a friend to me.”

Raziel stifled a snicker and began a search for his misplaced bone.

Ekkaia

“We will need more wood for the fire,” the Orc said, gesturing towards the dwindling flames and instructing the elf to sit by the light.

“I’ll get it,” Alistar chirped. Disappearing back out into the clearing.

“Uh…I’ll go see if I can help,” Sunako offered and trailed after him, perhaps the leering looks from the two humans had inspired her sudden bout of helpfulness. Not that she could blame her, being around the humans even made her sick to her stomach and Orcs are well known for their constitution.

Judging from the alarming number of wounds the elf had already sustained he must have seen many battles. It seemed odd to her considering how easily Lumeria had pinned him down. Although, being no stranger to battle herself, she knew that there was a certain measure of luck involved. Ekkaia was thus very pleased with her wolf’s performance.

With the back of her hunting knife she made a quick cut down the length of his leather gauntlet and pried it free of the wounded area. “This will only take a moment,” she explained, patiently cleaning the wounded area and wrapping it in her remaining bandages, “in time it will hopefully become yet another that you can add to your collection.”

“Thank you for your help,” was all he managed.

Moments later a flustered Sunako returned with the wood followed shortly by Alistar who seemed to be wearing fresh clothes. The party sat down around the fire as Ekkaia finished patching up the wounded elf. They engaged in more idle chatter, most of it spoken in elvish though it mattered little to her.

“Say, Ekkaia, do you have any more bandages for me?” Alistar asked brandishing his scraped knee.

“No.”

“Aww…” the evoker exclaimed, he whistled over to Lumeria who dutifully licked at his wounds. “So,” Alistar continued, “Kinda strange time to be traveling, huh?”

“I seem to recall us doing perfectly fine until some elves decided to jump into a lake,” Raziel retorted, brandishing his found femur with an accusatory swish before plopping it back into his box.

“My name is Alistar, and that’s Sunako and that’s Ekkaia.”

“This is Yuki,” Sunako said, cuddling up close to her brown and white fuzzball.

“What a cute doggy,” Ezra offered, patting the dog on the head and receiving a defensive growl for his effort.

“What’s an Island elf doing way out here?” Raziel asked.

“Life…it uh you know… it takes you places,” Alistar replied. The cackling of the blazing fire snapped on in the lingering quiet before the elf pressed the clergyman, “What about you, what’s with the box of bones?”

“Life…it takes you places.”

“Oh…well, uh…the wolf is Lumeria,” Alistar finished explaining, “Only -”

“Only it’s not really a wolf,” Ezra interrupted.

“It’s a dire wolf pup,” the Orc explained.

“That thing is a pup?!” Raziel lamented, “Can you guarantee it won’t bite my face off while we sleep?”

“No.”

“Right, well, goodnight everybody. If you need me, I’ll be up a tree,” the priest explained, gathering up his things.

“So what’s your names? We told you ours.”

“My name is Raziel and I’m going up that tree, Kenny and Eddy here can fill you in on the rest.”

“You can call me Ezra, and that one there is Kaji,” Ezra corrected.

Ezra

“That’s an interesting bell you have there! What do you do mister…?”

“Oh, a little of this and a little of that, often just very little,” the old man said with a light chuckle, “the bell belonged to my mother.”

“But what do you do? Like for work?” Alistar prodded.

“Well, I’m a storyteller of sorts,” Ezra expressed with pride, “I gather up stories from all around and relay them to people who want to hear that sort of thing.”

“Oh? Like a bard? We had many bards in Riva!”

“Yes, a bard. But I’m not anything like those you might have seen in Riva…”

“Can you tell us a story?”

“I can tell you why I play the bell, actually it might fit in real well given the way this night has been going…” Ezra cleared his throat as Raziel clambered up the tree, Sunako snuggled up close to Yuki and Kaji sat back on his haunches by the fire. Ekkaia rested her head against Lumeria and Alistar stared on in wide eyed fascination. While some rested to wait for the new dawn, the old man told his tale until they all finally dozed off.

~My father was so happy to be training his little boy to become a sailor, honestly I can’t think of a single thing that pleased him more. Every day for supper after unloading our haul at the docks we’d make for the tavern and papa Crenshaw would tell the crew all manner of old yarns. Every evening we’d return to the sound of mama ringing this little bell. That meant dinner was on the table.

I remember asking when I was very little why mom always had to ring that bell, papa always said “When you’re older son.”

One day, my dad took me with him to the market, we didn’t have much of social gathering back by the docks but at the marketplace kids could gather and kick around whatever made for a good game those days. I remember being confronted with a bully, a boy much bigger than myself. He scared the heck out of me, and I ran all the way back to my papa, the other children chasing behind me and laughing as I cried.

Danel Crenshaw was a hell of a man, and he took me by the shoulder and squatted down right next to me and asked what was wrong. I explained how the bully had attacked me and that I had run away scared. My dad didn’t tell me to buck up, or to fight back, or to stop being such a crybaby. No instead he just stood up and clapped me on the shoulder and said “Tomorrow, I’ll tell you why momma rings that bell.”

We went out a ways that next day, out past the first pots. Out there on the calm of the sea my dad pointed to a black spot on the horizon. He said, "Son, I’ve sailed these seas and seen all manner of creature, in those days we had a little bell at the top of the crows nest for the lookout to tell us when danger was near.

I remember one stormy night a mighty sea serpent rose up from the ocean and ensnared this very boat with its winding body. We tried everything against it but it seemed to feed on our fear, and it grew bigger and bigger still as we fought it. All at once it was too big for the ship and it cracked the mainsail with a squeeze.

That’s when we heard that little tinkling sound from the crows nest. I don’t know why but the soft sound of it in that dangerous fight made me laugh. And as I laughed I noticed the rest of the crew slowly started joining in with me. As we carried on cackling and guffawing we noticed that mighty serpent get smaller and smaller, which made us all laugh even more. By the time we had finished having a grand old time the thing was no bigger than an ant and we casually tossed the thing back overboard.

That day I gave momma that bell because I knew that I wouldn’t need it anymore. She now rings it every day to fight off the fear that you and I don’t come back. That’s the idea. Fear can eat at you and make you shrivel up just like that monster. So be brave, especially when you are afraid and laugh your way through the danger."

The next day my father brought me back out to that market, I was still a little shaken up so I stayed within sight of my dad the whole time. When finally the bully thought my dad wasn’t looking he walked up to me and wanted to fight.

I panicked again, feeling that fear swell up in the pit of my stomach. I looked to my dad as the other boys circled around me and saw that he had his back turned to me. The bully thought that this was the perfect time to take a swing at me and I managed to duck out of the way and look back towards my dad. I didn’t realize it then, but he must have known this would happen. In his hands I could see a little bell and he rang it just at that moment when I looked for him. Something about that sound reaching my ears reminded me to laugh in the face of fear. And so I did.

That’s why I have this little bell, to remind me of that day.~

Alistar sat in silence for a moment, the rest of the group had dozed off to sleep during his tale but the boy watched Ezra for a moment longer. He was working over something in his head it seemed. Finally, the elf decided to give voice to his question.

“So did you beat that bully up?”

“Well I…What?!” Ezra exclaimed, startled by the question, “Uh…that’s a story for a different time.”

“Oh…well uh…thanks for the story.”

“Anytime, sleep well.”

“You too,” came the reply, then the last of the little party fell fast asleep.

H2. Day 161 of Autum, Outskirts of Talen
Raziel

The next morning, Raziel awoke much earlier than any of the others. His back was kinked in places and he hadn’t gotten much sleep from all of the tossing and turning in the tree. He hopped down from his perch and felt his knees give.

Crazy old men, a massive wolf, this stupid quest and all these damned elves. Last night was decidedly the worst night of my life, he thought to himself…if only he knew how wrong he was.

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