The Jester’s Song

Brilliant are the torches, so regal the hall,

Decadent and blissful I speak to you all.

Me, a fool, and a Wiseman,

An urchin busking so gallantly.

 

In this land of devils and men

Will we ever be free of the garden of sin?

 

Out from their homes made crudely of stone,

Demons and Gargoyles stalk our own

While horrors and beasts prey on us all!

Come let us hurry, we’re late for the ball!

 

Walk through the capital square

Dark is the night, streets so silent and bare.

Here’s where the hangman, the cutpurse will prey

Here’s where the depraved, the hopeless shall stay.

 

The gilded ones they cower

In their high castles of stone so old

Watching and worrying upon a mountain of gold.

 

In this land of Devils and men

Will we ever be free from this garden of sin?

 

Beggars and hopefuls from their rustic lands

Cart their way into our walled estates and cast up their hands,

Begging and pleading their hungry mouths will pine

For pity, protection from those so divine.

 

Yet demons and monsters, hunting our kin

Flourish and grow in our garden of sin.

Listless and dirty the vagrants’ cast out!

Tribute to the land no doubt!

 

In this land of Devils and men

Will we ever be free from our garden of sin?

 

Now hours have passed, so dark are the halls

The land is so empty and bare!

When all is depleted their cravings give in!

The blood moon rises, they hunger for sin!

 

Demons and Gargoyles

Terrors and beasts

Will besiege your own fortress

And make of you lavish new feasts!

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Another Bloody Day in Lorigav

The sun rises once more over Volkshaven, the shining star of Lorigav, where its denizens seldom sleep.

Its golden rays peak over tall, wall-like buildings, their coarse red brickwork robust and charming. The gilded light refracts off of broken glass and blackened pools which tinge the street with a pungent odor of iron and rot. Bodies once belonging to zealots and revolutionaries lay huddled, cold and pale. Banners of war and banners of law drape over the slain as tattered blue and crimson blankets.

The sun rises once more the capital, a place where dreams once thrived.

It’s citizens, indeed the survivors of the night, tired and weary stumble from their homes into the aftermath, no amount of sunlight can disperse the shadows in their hearts. The children are locked away in their rooms, safe, there will be no school this day.

At once, they take to moving bodies from their porches, washing stains from their stairwells all the while salving the pain with nostalgia. Indeed they remember a time, before the nightly struggles, when horses trotted down the road leisurely, taxiing wholesome folks to the market before it had been burned. Children could walk down the cobbled paths to their schools, where they could enrich themselves and bloom into something great and noble, something more than refugees in their own homes. Once the smith’s bellows belched smoke into the air from its chimneys, guardsmen were signs of hope, and people could dream at night.

That was before they were forced to take sides.

The Sun rises once more over Victory Road, laying just in the shadow of the Senatorial District, where the Hangman has made his hunting ground amidst its tall, gilded building. Their sharp points cradle the sun high like a pedestal as if it were a curious eye looking down on the horror.

Strangers come, to attend to the dead. The lawmen in their dark blue coats, grim and frustrated frown at their lost brothers who lay tangled in the remnants of an ill-fated melee. They stoop down low and silently mourn, before loading them onto a cart prematurely hearing the weeping of another condemned family afflicted by a devil’s game.

Across the way, men in plain jackets, wearing scarlet scarves tied thick about their necks congregate. They clutch rifles tightly as they mirror the misery of their foe. Once they were youths driven by tempting and powerful ideas, now, however, the only reason for their fighting is the eternal mourning war that pushes them to vengeance.

The lawmen make squinting glares, urges primal and desperate calling their judgment to war. Yet no shot is fired, for there has been enough for the day.

The sun rises on the innocents, its warmth their only comfort.

A child no more than fourteen looms over a body, sprawled wide about the cobbled road. His palm, ivory in the light, extending, presenting a rifle. The boy’s face turns scarlet and puffy, tears pouring from his face as it twists and inflames. His head jerks about wildly as he cries “Father…father…” in an almost inaudible moan.

His neighbor watches, numbness paralyzing him. He stares as if at a statue, listless and cold despite the sun. He knew the boy, he knew the father, the blacksmith, a quiet and charming man. Once so robust in character and skillful in his trade the surreal calm of death wrapped the onlooker’s soul in existential agony. In truth, much of the deceased bore familiar faces. They were neighbors, merchants, officers of the law.

Once the city mourned, but this was long ago. Oceans of tears had been spilled, voices cried out until they were hoarse and mourners congregated about the bereaved. Now the dead were a normal feature of Volkshaven just as the crimson brickwork and cobbled roads now paved in flesh.

Once they attended to the bodies, hauling them to the cemeteries, initiating proper farewells. Yet as casualties mounted, mourners and graves became scarce forcing those left behind to pile them high and burn them like primordial sacrifices. Pillars can be seen all through the districts, onyx rising high carrying their souls up to the heavens.

Even the priests ceased making their journeys under fear of the erratic violence.

The neighbor desperately wanted to feel pity for the boy, he wanted to reach out and comfort him, but he could see little use, how long would be until he himself was victim to it? None were left to mourn him, not his family nor his friends. Numbness chews at his mind as the world pulsed and blurred the buildings into one hellish wall, closing in slowly like a vice.

The sun rises over pain, the wicked product of strife.

The boy catches the dull eyes of an officer and this snaps something delicate within. Overwhelmed by grief, overwhelmed by hatred, a devil takes possession of his actions. He sees their rigid stature, their apathy not as a product of pain but arrogance. The rifle calls to him, vengeance calls to him, his father’s rigid corpse calls to him with a loud and ghastly cry!

His neighbor watches, silent and cold as he takes the rifle in hand. He wants to yell to the boy, he wants to reason with him and say “No! Don’t do it!” but he could hardly muster up the will to bear that desire in its infancy.

He watches, accepting. He watches, knowing. All the onlookers watch, knowing. He takes the rifle and aims it, then in his desperation pulls the trigger for more pain, more agony, more vengeance. A plume of smoke consumes him as thunder rumbles down the way, blue is stained red while the scarfed men ready themselves tiredly.

The sun rises on another tragedy.

The lawmen, the soldiers, they retaliate in hatred. The boy is smitten by lead, tearing apart his once innocent figure, pounding it into a bloody pulp, another body laid prostrate in the mounting piles. The revolutionaries, they see youth wasted, youth torn by oppressive and brutal means. Their minds cry for retribution, cry for an end.

They return their malice, bystanders watching on grimly. The boy’s neighbor does not return to his home, he simply sits on his stoop, watching the battle unfold.

He silently prays to Devos, to Tamir God of the Norse, to every Angel in the pantheon and even to every Elven Demon. He prays to all the Gods, to all the elements.

He prays that perhaps one bullet will go astray and like the child will take him away from all the violence, the vitriol, the cruel and unrelenting suffering.

The sun rises on another bloody day in Lorigav where smoke and death reign supreme.

The Devil in the Mist

All who live in these valleys live in fear of the Winter Solstice. After the cool of autumn has long faded into callous winter and the countless snowstorms have blanketed all the paths and roads with mattress thick snow, the mist in all of its mystic horror rolls over the villages for its yearly tribute.

The wolves, the harbingers of this mysterious event, are unknown as to their origins. One of the few myths we are told when we are younger is that once the Elves used to roam the mountainsides between the robust pines, their caravans carrying wares and crafts most exotic. One winter, during the solstice a terrible snowstorm fell upon them and they lost sight of their trail, being forced to take up shelter amidst the caves. As many became frostbitten and exposed they began to chant wild prayers to their Gods. Strange as the Elven pantheon is, Evit-tirrian the Night-wolf, transformed the caravan into the horrible, twisted beasts so as to brave the winter and they have remained just as that since.

Yet I’ve never seen a wolf nor Elf around here outside of the solstice.

Another popular tale is that they were born of the mountains themselves. The dwarves in one of their many excursions along the borderlands cut deep into the rock and uncovered an ancient crypt of which the beasts had been trapped in by the divine for millennia.

Yet never has there been a dwarf nor sign of the expeditions.

Yet regardless of their origins, the fact was the same, the wolves, mist, and fear that they brought rattled our village into a frenzy and made us fear the high gray peaks. Few men dare to walk in the mountains, for fear of the wolves. Hunters, forced to travel the crooked paths will only do so after receiving extensive blessing from Father Brelzac and even then they never stray too deep so as to avoid the caves and ruins scattered amidst the crags.

This standard of weary agony had become normal over generations, traditional for our folk and as a result, we adapted to it in what little ways we could.

Once during one such event, I was acting as local constable and had the responsibility of assembling a band of watchmen for when the time came. It would not be my first time with such a hefty responsibility, but it would be my last for greater purpose was granted to me on that evening.

It began as it always had, the week leading up until the yearly culling was filled with hurried carpenters boarding up homes at nominal costs, all the while storefronts became armories selling old firearms from a half a century prior. What little silverware we had and what few valuable heirlooms remained where melted down and turned into bullets, the one thing that could smite the wild monsters.

During this panicked time, I had chosen for the greater part the huntsmen of the village for their experience both in marksmanship and dealing with wily beasts. One exception was poor Gregor, the village blacksmith. He was a stout, burly man with a leathery, tired face. He’d lost his wife to the wolves six years ago and raised his dear son Aston on his own all the while still providing for the entire village. In fact, I had not chosen him myself, intentionally so I’m afraid for this reason, but rather he insisted for weeks to come until I mournfully folded into his request. The day of, he locked Aston in his cellar and joined us in arms.

Our militia, a ruddy ensemble of firearms, mostly old flintlocks and muskets with a few newer rifles as well as my revolver which I’d traded my horse last summer for to a traveling caravan from Lorigav. We then proceeded to procure wood from the surrounding forests and made a square palisade in the village center and fixed a pole from which we strung a rusty old lantern so as to draw the beasts unto us.

The mob of moth-eaten coats watched on as the sky glowed orange and the village grew steadily silent. Father Brezlac came down from his hill and blessed us with incense and prayers before retreating home. Families clung to the darkest corners and cellars of their drafty homesteads, huddling close with whatever weapons they managed to afford or inherit. I only wish that in these times we’d have enough silver to provide to them, for lead disruptive as it is, would only stammer the unholy wolf.

Once the last tinges of the sun’s holy rays departed and the shining snow-drifts faded to gray, we looked to the crown of the mountains high above. Then, as if produced by a volcano, the opaque, grey cloud began to take shape, rising fast and swallowing the horizon. Like a crashing wave, it rolled over the forests, smothering their conical tips in danger and lament, until finally it cascaded into the cobbled streets, between the humble stone cottages and covered us in its cold embrace.

We clung to our weapons and seized our battlements, waiting silently filtering out our own breaths from the void like fog. Gregor quickly lit the lantern, bathing us in a citrine glow which flickered as the metal body swayed on its hook. Moments, agonizing and ceaseless passed much akin to stripping the trunk of a tree, layer by layer.

Suddenly the silence was broken by an uncanny source, the bubbly high-pitched jingle of a child’s laughter reverberated through the street.

“Damn! I thought everyone was locked away!” I said to my watchmen.

“That sounded close” muttered Gregor who stared with a wide expression about him.

In the distance, we saw a small figure shift, prancing and playing without fear. It had golden hair and a fair frame which blended nearly into the veil and I immediately recognized it. “Bloody Hell, is that Aston?” I gasped.

The blacksmith, revolted by the thought lurched forward in terror. “Devos! It is, I have to-“

He started to speak but I cut him off “-I will go after him Gregor, you stay here.” I said, wishing for neither a father to foolishly lose his son nor a son to foolishly lose his father.

“Please! Bring him back safe!” he yelped.

“I will return with him, you have my word,” I said before vaulting the barricade my body rigid with determination. How in the name of Devos and all the Angels he escaped from a locked cellar I may never know. Aston never had a reputation as a troublesome kid, he was quiet, shy, did as he was asked, yet to see him in such a jovial state was unnerving.

I ranged the mist silently not wishing to attract the attention of the hounds relying on little more than my own dilated eyes to see the shifting blankets around me. I seemed to stay just in sight of Aston. “Aston!” I cried out in a hushed tone “Aston, your father is scared for you, come back here!” He appeared deaf to my request and carried on in a sort of wondrous stupor, leading me towards the perimeter of the woods scaling up the side of a snowbank.

As he entered I doubled pace, I would drag the insolent child back home if I had to, for poor Gregor’s sake. My boots crunched and squeaked and I chased after, I made great stride and clasped the boy on the shoulders. At first, he seemed to resist me, trying to carry on as if I weren’t a present force, until I finally turned him around, forcing his pale blue eyes unto me. “Aston! How did you get out of the cellar? Come on do you wish death upon yourself?” I asked him hurriedly starting to tow him back.

“The Stone man has something to show me!” he replied in a loud, cheerful chirp. I was puzzled at his expression, and then noticed the drooping, listless expression of his face.

“This is no game, come and I’ll return you to your father.”

As I enticed him forcefully, the forest erupted with a scattered and wild rhythm. The underbrush bristled and rattled forcing me to seize up and guard over the boy with him in my shadow as I peered the woods watching for the beasts.

Several more agonizing moments passed then from amidst its obscurity a set of gold-stained teeth, sharp and malicious opened wide, lunging for me. With a quick twitch of my revolver’s trigger, I slew the creature with silver and thunder as its beastly mouth bucked skyward and its gnarled, matted fur cradled itself in a pillow of snow at my feet.

I went to resume my quest, but as I turned the boy was absent. I cursed to myself and looked about the ground for any human disturbance. Thankfully the boy’s feet left small impressions and I trod along them kicking aside clumps of ice as I did so. The trunks of the trees seemed to hover as I passed them, their sharp needles extending like the wings of bats.

I was eventually led a sandstone awning presenting itself to me as a sort of square navel in the rock face, from its darkened halls billowed forth the wind’s ghastly echo which moaned in a sort of depraved wail. Steeled only by my promise I entered despite better judgments and I found myself in a large empty chamber with only black fog.

As I moved swiftly whispering out the boy’s name, I heard a tell-tale patter amidst the stone tiles. They scurried about me like rocks thrown against the wall. Readying my weapon I narrowed my sight, catching swift shadows dart about me. I waited, and as soon as one changed its path towards me I discharged a silver bullet straight unto its heart, that is if such grotesque canines could have such a thing. In the flash of the muzzle I could see just beyond a low threshold, the still miraculously unscathed Aston standing indifferent in the presence of a stone statuette perched upon a pedestal.

Another hound charged and under the grace of fire and smoke, he was smitten soon followed by his peers. I trod to the statue’s chamber standing within feet of Aston and found we were flanked by several more of the grey, gnarled wolves. They stood breathing heavily, their barrel-like chests rising and falling as they rested upon peaked shoulders.

Then Aston became alight under a pale energy which seemed to seep forth from its very etching. As it brightened I could see its details in greater magnitude. It was simple, almost cylindrical in its crafting and much reflected the statuettes I had seen in the chapel. Its sharply carved face stared judgmentally at the boy. About the sides of its studded gown were indents that appeared the shape of a crooked knife in one hand and a long branch in the other.

Soon its energy reached its peak and before the boy, a spectral figure appeared. It stood tall over him wearing an ivory tunic casting doubtful eyes upon him. From its back stretched broad snowy wings which simultaneously brought me ease and terror.

Its eyes slithered up to me, their dark pupils sending an icy sensation through my being. “Did you come for the boy?” its voice boomed, vibrating the stones so as to shakes loose dust.

I remained frozen, awed by the angel’s majestic and powerful voice.

“How tragic, but fear not for he has been marked! His purpose is both holy and necessary!”

“What are you doing with him!” I was finally able to shout, wavering in tone.

“He is the price of our protection!”

“What are you-“ before I could finish he became impatient and made one quick spinning motion with his torso, striking the boy. He toppled back with a waterfall of blood pouring from his throat. His eyes were like an insect’s as he choked to death on his own fluids.

“Feast my children! Feast!” It commanded, fading back into the statue. The wolves pounced upon his body, which still desperately clung to life. Their twisted golden teeth ripped at his flesh, severing tendon and sinew. They gnawed on his bones and lapped up pools of blood from around him. Their white fur dyed pink as they gluttonously indulged in their meal.

“No!” I shouted. I quickly executed the creatures and in despondency fell to my knees silently weeping over the torn remains of Aston. With my promise as broken as his body, I could not imagine facing Gregor, especially after such a  simple failing. If I had not been so enamored by the divine creature and resorted to acting rather than parlaying perhaps I would have been able to save him, but then what terrible fate could defying such a creature have brought?

I stood up and grabbed at it, trying to pry it intent on throwing it to the ground in anger. Yet, strong as I may be it was cemented to its pedestal and I soon gave up my fury.

I took up the child’s torn body and crept home in shame unmolested by any further creature. As day broke, I lingered on the outskirts, staring at the product of my failure. Lightning struck in my chest and the visage of that statue heckled my very being. Eventually, I marched off and snuck into Gregor’s shop, stealing away his hammer from amidst his tools.

Then, retracing my footsteps I returned to that damned shrine. The bodies of the wolves had vanished, as they often did with the mist. It was then that I noticed in the main chamber, rotted and torn piles of wood and fibers. Amidst them was a banner, bearing two entwined rings upon its surface. Its broken and dirty fabric was strewn over the remains of a humanoid skeleton harboring a tarnished set of plated armor which sheltered the bones a clamshell of metal. Indeed the inquisitor’s remains must have been centuries old, perhaps to the point of the organization’s founding to bear a uniform such as that. Its skull was broad and thick, like that of man’s, while its torso was tall and sturdy

In his hands was an old leather journal, eaten by time. I picked it up, most of the pages had been reduced to pulp and rot, yet a few legible lines remained. From what I could make out was the following:

“Carved a…the angel found us…must save…so cold…Devos save them…betrayed” I could glean little else from it so I carried on with my mission.

I looked the statue in the eyes with a mean expression and with Gregor’s tool in hand I smote it, splitting it into two halves. Not satisfied I gathered the two pieces of the holy relic together and ground it into chunks, then granules and still further into dust. I do not know what good it did, all I know is that I cannot return home. I am unable to face Gregor’s weeping once again, especially in light of my failings. I instead chose to leave his son’s remains in the town center and then I will be away in exile.

However, weep not for me, for this tragedy has gifted me a new, holy purpose. My faith in the angels, now disturbed, is about to perish.  Yes, this is the start of a new journey for me, a new war from which I may never return.

I’ve heard legend that one can kill an Angel, the academics in the Republic will tell me how. I must travel to the universities of Lorigav to investigate why an angel would do such a cruel and brutal thing to an innocent, traumatized youth.

 

The Grave Digger

Even in the wake of the most brilliant light, a grim penumbra will lurk beneath its gilded veil, eating, growing, and waiting. Indeed many horrors stalk our ancient lands, from the Lycanthropes of the Russik Valley to the Gargoyles whose endless stone legions assail the Dwarven kingdoms to this very drop of ink. I fear that I, Charles Halford, may have come across something more sinister in both form and aim than those grotesque phenomena we know. The beastly, while physically imposing at least provide solace in the fact that they too are mere flesh and blood. Meanwhile, more mystical things such as demons and specters are kept in check by the Inquisition and the Holy Order of the Angels. Yet the strange character I will present to you kind folk now, whether you believe in it or think it is mere misremembrance of an old fool, stalks its prey in means previously unfathomable by the most scholarly among us.

Such a beast is what murdered my dear friend, Earnest Cummings, many months ago in the village of Estes Dale. I had not seen dear Earnest for well over four decades, remaining connected via mere postage, yet his most recent correspondence left me distraught and wracked with insomnia for many a night. When I opened its envelope and unfolded the stationary within I was dismayed to find but one line penned upon its eggshell face. “Charles. I must go with her. –The Best, Earnie.”…

I had first met Earnest back in my days as a conscript in the king’s army, during the conflict with Nev’shavot and his Elven dominion. It was here that the infernal machinations of our tragedy began. I never fancied myself a soldier yet without any choice there I was a naïve and industrious youth amidst a well of gruff and muddy strangers. I was not allowed to bring anything else but photographs and my beloved Lute, which for the first day of encampment in Darken Vale I plucked away at idly in my tent playing simplistic, common tunes as I was at the time not so adept at the craft.

It was then that my busking attracted the admiration of a man of bull-like constitution who roamed in under my tent flaps. I paused as he spoke to me, and though a reasonably simple man in temper, he presented a curious synopsis of my piece. He had recognized the tune from a day when he had the luxury of visiting Korren while with his family, something that he would never do again in his lifetime. He had seen a minstrel, dressed in flamboyant satins playing the very same tune and described to me the strange sensation it had made him feel.

The slow, melancholy of the opening strings made him imagine a rose bush rising from amidst the grass, coiling into a wooden knot. Then as the song’s center played in a flourish, the roses bloomed into sanguine blossoms and finally as it wound down the petals began to brown and fall listlessly until all that was left were crude fibers. Charms of a Vivid Lover, as the piece had been called, was a mere children’s tune meant to warn of the dangers of temptation yet his wondrous take had been profoundly disturbing that it intrigued my scholarly mind in its uniqueness.

I soon found the man quite personable, despite his grim philosophy he was very grounded and genuine in his speech. A certain transparency characterized his opinions as he smiled broadly bearing his crooked teeth at you. It was my first time dealing socially with one of the rural folk of our kingdom, having only seen them in passing at the Korren markets. To be able to probe the mind of one such specimen could not be passed up for my curiosity’s sake and his good spirits made for wonderful companionship

Trouble began the following fortnight when I and my newfound friend arrived with the Army at the fortress of Beth-Shalahar. The fortification was nestled between the rocks of the Callous Foothills where the great stone shards rose vertically to the heavens serving as tombstones to giants and titans. The rock face shielded the acropolis on all sides except for a funnel-like sloping corridor facing the Neidel forest.

King Alfrus had been known at the time as a particularly brutal and callous figure having happily sacrificed countless divisions for the sake of crushing the elves, yet even he knew the disaster which would unfold if he sent the full extent of his forces into the hills. Instead, he had sent an envoy to the Dragons of the Northeastern Dominion while we were ordered to dig trench. Although led by Knight Commander Freydir, a man of renowned cunning and charm, the ambassadors found the mercurial Lizards to be a frustrating endeavor. Their King Tarkren had a particular weariness of humans and was still involved with his ongoing conflict against the Republic of Lorigav’s poachers along the border. Deals were drafted in great multitude only for the indecisive and paranoid King to reject them outright, despite the approval of his ministers.

In the meanwhile, Alfrus sent a company of dragoons to probe the fortress who were swiftly ambushed by irregulars lurking in the rocky crags and alcoves leading up the hill.

Having seen his sacrifice successfully taken, the king then issued my friend and I that evening to reclaim the bodies of those soldiers. After half a day’s digging in the trench line, we took our cart, flying the banner of Kamish, the Angel of peace, uneasily jumping at every shadow. Even though the Elves had historically respected the insignia, we were both inundated with rumors and myths of Elven Captains who assailed such parties in a campaign of terror, sending the horse back with little more than a smoldering flag pole.

However, whatever horrible things the elves might have done to us remained in our imaginations, the real terror was the carnage we were to tow back to camp. A pungent fervor buzzed in my chest at the grisly state of the bodies. I remember seeing the glassy eyes of a buzzard glare soullessly towards me as it ripped a string of sinew from a victim. Those subjected to cannon fire formed a strange effigy of heads, hooves, arms, and torsos, the fallout of which stained the surrounding rocks crimson like some primordial painting. What was most terrible of all was that no matter how much you peeled, scraped or scrubbed, you were always leaving some part of the poor bastards behind.

The two of us split up so as to cover more ground and here is where the first of Earnest’s fits arose. He would later give me a vivid account of the following: He came unto a small clearing full of yet more corpses and leaning over one in the distance was a darkened figure. Thinking it was an elven scavenger he pulled his revolver from his belt, its ebony metals glowing under lantern-light. “Hey!” he grunted loudly, voice bouncing off of the stones. “Get out of here ya’ vagrant!”

The figure did not appear startled, but instead rose up slowly and turned to him. Its face was that of a pale-skinned young woman with black-rimmed eyes and onyx lips. From about her waist, she clutched in her palms a swirling tendril of pearl light which quickly soaked into her digits, the uncanny energy running in streams through her veins.

The two stared, Earnest intoxicated by her strange beauty all the while terrified by the mysterious nature of her being, He started towards her, but the darkness opened like demonic jaws and swallowed her, leaving not even so much as footsteps behind.

When poor Earnest told me this I supposed perhaps she was an elf, or that their mages were entertaining themselves in our confusion “That weren’t an elf I’d ever seen, her face was broad and round like ours!” he protested, I continued my rebuke all the while we piled cadavers into our cart, until finally he gave up.

I still remember the ghastly words he said to me on the way back to camp. “Charles, it’s quite fascinating” I immediately asked what madness had overcome him. “To see the raw aftermath of battle, where blood has barely dried, bodies barely stiffened and where the scent of gunpowder still carries itself on the wind. It tells quite the visual story, you can see their tactics, their fear, their last moments. It speaks volumes more than any history I can read” The exuberance with which he spoke was like spikes of ice driven into my spine and I refused further discussion of the matter.

Upon our arrival, I retired to my tent to pen some correspondences with my family back in Korren but was interrupted again by the poor soul who thrust himself into my dwelling in a flurry of wild gestures and shouting absolutely nonsensible terms. He told me in an erratic sense that whilst he dozed in his bunk a voice spoke to him from out of the darkness. He described it as a sharp, feminine hiss and it said the following to him “You weren’t supposed to see me. That’s okay I don’t mind. We like your kind.” and that upon lighting his lantern waving it around madly he found only dirt stained fabric about him.

Of course, the foolish man I am, I assumed at this point he was going to great lengths to fool me and so I laughed heartily. I laughed! Devos save me! I laughed at the poor man’s suffering! Some companion I am!

He paced off limply at my rejection and in the following days he returned to his good-humored state as I brushed the matter into the far reaches of my mind, more worried about the elves in the hills than his imaginary voices.

They were a grueling few days, mud and steel are all that I remember as we burrowed through what little soft land there was. Gradually the cannons were brought from the robust tree line of Neidel and began to fire in a tumultuous harmony at the acropolis. The further our siege trenches extended the less cover we had and those sent to continue the digging came under fire from the elven skirmishers, undoubtedly the very same brigands who assailed the dragoons days prior.

The king decided it necessary for those stone redoubts to be cleared and so he ordered our Lieutenant to organize a fleet force to counter. What this meant for us was that small platoons were formed, given drab, burlap clothes so as to blend into the rockwork and for weapons, it was pistols and sabers only.

We were assigned the Northwestern most cluster, a large potato shaped outcropping which rose above the trench line like a strange earthen pimple. At nightfall, we left our trench and the elves fired from atop, sprawled out above its smoothly rounded peak.  Quickly we conformed to its walls having taken very few casualties. Slowly we rounded the great stone, but Earnest hesitated, that horrific voice whispering in his ear. “Bring them to us.” I prodded him forward with the pommel of my saber harshly growling in his ear “This is no time to be messing about Earnie, go!” He then swore to me that he saw in the deep blackness of the moonless night, a waifish figure dance about the shadows. I waved my head at him and finally, he continued.

Soon we rounded their position and in a storm of lead and steel, we felled the elven defenders. As the fog of our guns cleared, Earnest heard her again “Where do they go? You wonder. We can show you.” I saw him physically wince and I merely patted him on the shoulder and beckoned him home, trying all too much to avoid eye contact with the freshly deceased.

Soon morning came and with it bitter news from our Lieutenant. “We’re makin’ the charge” he grunted, then ordered us to form ranks. The king as it so appeared had become impatient with both the indecision of our dragon allies as well as the lengthy campaign. Row by row, column by column we formed a mass of gray and red uniforms between the sprawling trenches, tension binding us together like magnets. The drummer began his nerve rumbling rhythm and in a thunderous march, we scaled the hill, soon taking fire from the Elven artillery. The projectiles whizzed overhead like overgrown gnats and pummeled the rocks, pinging off of their stony facing. I made the mistake of looking a few degrees to my right as we passed an outcropping for I witnessed a ball hammer into its rigid face and at an alarming speed and as result, it bounded down into our regiment taking Devos knows how many young lives.

The corridor heralded only more torment, for upon passing its wide lip the parapets of the fortress erupted in a cloud of smoke and like bees, lead rained upon us. Men burst into bloody pincushions and fell to the ground screaming, crying for Devos to save them whilst their brethren callously marched over. I would be a liar if I still didn’t hear their blood boiling words in my dreams on the odd night.

Earnest, as robust and firm as ever simply remained forward, his face folded in on itself in determination as he silently counted out the drummer’s beat. He hardly winced at the oncoming volleys, yet I could see that with every round and every casualty his broad chest rose and fell with greater tempo.

What meager force reached the base of the fortress walls attempted to establish grappling lines along the parapets, thrusting their tri-pronged hooks with all their remaining effort all the while avoiding bolts of lightning and balls of flame cast by overwatching mages. Yet it was in vain, for any who dared to scale the brickwork were immediately repelled in man to man combat.

We had been about to make our own ill-fated attempt when miraculously a great shadow swept over the field. I looked to the sky and saw the leathery wings of the great lizards soaring above in a fearsome V. At their head were the bronze scales of General Vek’num who with a mighty, ground shattering roar swept towards the fortress. Cannon, rifle, and magic tried feebly to repel him as his great maw opened and from the depths of his throat, a great inferno sprayed forth. The conflagration swallowed the brickwork and was soon followed up by his companions.

I would later learn that the deal was struck when Freydir offered his services to range the woods and sabotage further poaching efforts. While not in the King’s best interest to service troops to a foreign power, it was a relief to see the fireball the fortress had become.

We came within feet of its path, feeling the searing heat burst forth like an exploded shell. While we recoiled horribly, watching flailing slim figures fall smoldering as a heap of char. It became difficult to recognize them as sentient beings the more you stared.

Then, as if one with the fires themselves that vixen emerged arms outstretched whimsically, an ivory grin exploding from her face. “Yes!” it squealed “Yes, all of this! Thank you!”

“Who are you?” Earnest spoke in a strangely comfortable manner.

“We’re the answer. Come to me Earnest. I can show you the answer!”

It was then that my friend gave a sedated look and began to wander towards the flame. If it weren’t for my quick realization he would have met his fate much sooner.

“Earnie you whelp! What do you think you’re doing?” I asked, exasperated under the growing heat.

“I…uh…she’s beautiful, isn’t she Charles?” he said drearily.

I beat the man on the head and said “Nothing beautiful here, only the war!”

“Yes…the war…” he muttered back before silencing himself.

Once the smoke cleared, and the charred halls were probed by scouts the proclamation of victory was delivered. We cheered in an exasperated cry, all except for Earnest who stared mournfully into the smoke. “Why Earnest my dear fellow, we have won! Why so glum?”

“I’ve lost her.” He said, face falling. At this point, I had given up trying to make sense of his dribble and commented to our celebrating comrades.

“Damned Earnest, keeps goin’ on about that lady doesn’t he?”

Our platoon gave me a confusing range of expressions. “We didn’t know the man spoke,” they said between cheers.

“Yeah, he’s as silent as the rocks!” I was taken aback by these assertions, having learned that which I never realized the whole of the campaign. I folded my arms and paced worriedly as they callously continued their revelry. We returned to camp, Earnest only celebrating with a smuggled bottle of Ale in his hands which he sipped glumly. I could not find the words to probe his simple spirit, and so I left it well alone.

It was shortly after this victory that Knight Commander Harjim famously exorcised Nev’shavot at Hinder’s Pass, and the war was over sending me back to Korren, and my friend back to Estes Dale.

…We remained in touch as I had said. Although, as time went on, his correspondences became sparse. At one point a few years in, he mentioned he’d taken up grave digging as a profession, why in Devos’ name anyone would be willing to do such a ghastly task is beyond me! However, if there was ever a fellow I supposed it would be Earnest.

Occasionally he would mention the dark-eyed, black-lipped lady with quips such as “If only I’d taken her hand.” Or “You should never have stopped me”

Then after that damning letter came, my heart stopped, all blood froze in my veins as if suddenly freeze over. I ordered a carriage at once, knowing well what I must do.

After several days journey, listening to the hooves of our horses beat away like the ticking of the clock I arrived in the small village in the evening just as the sun touched the hills in a citrine glow. The township was the very definition of rural modesty. It had but one small general store supplied by a weekly caravan from out of Korren, one schoolhouse curated by one grey-bearded teacher, and one diminutive shed of a chapel dedicated to our lord Devos set atop its Northern Hill. The rugged folk, farmhands, and ranchers, for the most part, trickled down the beaten dirt paths in a leisurely manner. It was certainly an adjustment from the chaos of Korren square, and as I felt the breeze roam freely among the sparse buildings I hailed a young waif and asked her if she had known my dear friend. Her eyes ignited at the utterance of his name and she proceeded to speak fondly of an “Ol’ Earnest” who lived in a small shack behind the Chapel. I thanked her and went on my way, scaling the hill and skirting the border of the clapboard structure then found myself looking down into an earthen bowl which hosted a sea of drab and crumbling memorials to the dead neatly rowed and columned at its lowest point.

I made my descent and ended at the humble dwelling which rested on its southern perimeter. I wrapped at the door but waited several arduous moments with only the faint murmurings of the spirits on the winds. I attempted again, and then upon further silence, I hastily tried the rusted handle and swung the loosely hinged door open. As I did so a strange jingling rang from about my feet, and upon inspection found a mosaic of filthy glass bottles rolling aimlessly about the rotted woodwork. The room itself hosted little more than a crooked writing desk and a barren cot along its askew walls. I moved to its center taking in the foul scent of spoiled ales.

I step back outside and heard a familiar melody being hummed by a twanged throat. I followed its sorrowful notes and found amidst the gravestones a figure rising from a freshly dug hole. The gnarled, hunchbacked remnants of Earnest Cummings lumbered simply about the disturbed dirt and cast his spade into the ground, mounting it like a knight’s blade.

I called out to him, but he did not hear me.

He kept his knotted back turned to me and that is when I finally after many years of laughter and ridicule saw her! That ghastly waif grew from the ground like water falling in reverse and she leaned in close to him, murmuring sharply in his ear. As she did so, he tore from his belt the ebony metal of his pistol and raised it slowly pointing its nefarious barrel towards his temple. I ran to him, screaming and hollering to no avail! Then…with one climatic pop the balding scalp of Earnest Cummings erupted in a geyser of blood and brain matter, misting the ground with its morbid whimsy. As I approached him and the figure he slumped back, falling into his very last grave.

The harlot grimaced at me, licking her lips hungrily, grasping in her hands a strange pearl light, absorbing it into the tips of her fingers. I charged at her wildly as fast as my stiff joints would allow, finding in the end, that I stumbled feebly through nothing. I glanced around, finding only a cool breeze kiss my face.

To my surprise, the whole of Estes Dale attended his funeral. Every head of house and their kin, the grey-bearded teacher, the waif I first met, all were there. They regaled me with tales of their beloved Earnest. He used to take great joy in showing the children around the graveyard, lecturing on the history of all the families buried there. He was apparently apt to visit every bereaved individual before interning their lost ones, speaking in a soothing, insightful coo, salving the pain of grief. At the bar, on his nights off, he sang merry songs with the ranchers. He attended every wedding, and would lend a hand during harvest season to smaller families…

Yet it was all a masquerade, a tormented man loomed just under that giant grin and I rejected its existence outright. I never did know what that creature said to him before his death. Perhaps he had told me at one point those very same words and I had ridiculed him. Sometimes in the dark of the night, when the wind is still and the city rests I can hear her damming words murmuring in my ear, scratching at my wisdom with zealous accusations regarding the fate of beloved Earnest.

 

The Door

It has been three days that I have been pursued down the old road by those inquisition bastards and for three days that I have had to explore the morbid wonder of the Neidel forest. To take the sodden pathways would be suicide for the likes of me, for Sir Freydir continues to pursue me with a magnanimous degree of wit and conviction unlike that I have ever seen, apart from a stubborn hound I once saw in the Korren Square who I witnessed surmount a royal procession simply to reach the butcher’s waste bins across the way. Indeed, I have but the songs of birds and the chatter of rodents to accompany me, their maddening drivel enough incentive to hurry my exodus. It has been more than a day since I have caught sight of the Knight and his hunting party and I hold a faint hope that I have been successful in my evasion.

 However, in my continued eagerness to outdo the proud Inquisitor I seem to have become lost amongst the moss-coated trees and twisting underbrush. I have carefully retraced my steps many a time, although it was made difficult by my own effort to cover my tracks. I scarcely recognize a single tumorous cluster of fungi or knot on any particular trunk. Indeed the forest seemed to shift around me, for every glance yields new information and new vexing wonders that to a mere tourist may be a curiosity but to me all the more damning.

I chose then to simply stick to a cardinal direction, pulling my compass from my pack. If I were to head east I would eventually appear in the Elven provinces where I could slip away into the underbelly of Loth-Nataren.

Wandering for what I assumed to be hours and noticed the sky was beginning to wane into a citrine hue which began to spring crimson lines across its fading form. The forest would surely be a hazard for the evening, and I refused to evade the best in the Inquisition only to succumb to mere wolves in my desperation.

I scoured the nearby land and eventually came across a small limestone ridge which formed a crescent about a sizable impression in the ground. I lowered myself down into the earthen bowl and discovered an opening in the rock face. I took to my pack and dispensed a pitch-soaked torch which I quickly ignited so that I may investigate the cavern for any other vagrants or beasts that may be as wont to use it for shelter.

Through its jagged threshold, I crawled and soon discovered the magnitude of the land beneath the loam and lichen of Neidel. Caverns looped and intertwined like the nest of an oversized insect-like those beetles found to the Southwest along the beaches of Sakarim. Indeed every narrow stone tunnel and hive-like nexus bore nothing distinct leaving only my memory as a means to eventually leave this damp place, however, I hoped the Inquisitor would not think I would be so foolish as to lose myself in these tunnels. Despite that notion, I continued to wander until finally, I came across an end to the labyrinthine madness.

I found an alcove, in the form a large dome with unusually smooth walls that looked as if they’d endured decades of weathering despite their subterranean presence. In its center, a small mound of soil formed a dark mass that hosted upon it a fountain among all things. Indeed, the peculiarly placed artifact was in pristine condition and of a curious architecture. It was around marble pool, brimming with crystal water that even under the infernal glow of my torch shimmered with a strange degree of dignity. From its center was a pillar that rose about four feet high and from four perpendicular spouts poured thin, silk-like streams of water into the placid basin. A strange vine crept from the water and strangled the projection, bathing in the cool humidity it produced.

Beyond the odd mound was something stranger yet. A door, massive, perhaps twelve feet at its apex and perhaps fourteen broad sat flush with the smooth bore walls in a large headstone shaped mass. On its face was a raised pattern that resembled a peculiar tree. It was simple in nature but its branches reached from its trunk in a smooth, swooping pattern that almost resembled the tendrils of an abyssal beast. Posted to its trunk was a blank golden plate that when I approached it hissed and fizzled. An uncanny light soon projected itself across its surface and seemed to engrave the plate with a series of words written in ancient dialect. They read as such:

“To those who wish to join the Madman’s Court,

Pay his tithe and see his folly.”

The strange words sent a dagger-like chill down the back of my neck. Then suddenly I could hear a low thrumming encapsulate the room. It is like a heartbeat pounding a cold, repetitive note into my ears and I must admit I struggle to continue writing as I just know re-acknowledge its persistence.

I continued to look around hoping to find the noise’s source. I soon discovered that as I approached the fountain it only grew louder and clearer. On the faint tip of its notes, I swear I can hear archaic syllables being cast into my thoughts. They speak with a certain hunger and pleading that reminds me of a depraved hound as it whimpers before the butcher. I decided I must leave this place at once for my nerves have endured this long enough.

I attempted to do just that becoming lost once more in the twisting nexus of subterranean maze-work. I lingered for what must have been an hour and yet despite however far I moved from the alcove I could still hear its thrumming tickle the back of my mind.

Suddenly I could hear a tell-tale thunder rumbled through the tunnels. A parade of arrogant boot prints pounding against the silent stones chanted a damning prognostication of my fate. I moved forward, listening carefully to the still distant steps. They became as unsettling as the fountain’s song and what more I could not place their origin making further evasion risky. I paraded around more tunnels until finally, I saw in the distance a figure moving beneath the flickering glow of torchlight. He bore a drab coat, with a crimson undershirt and wore trousers to match. By his waist rested a saber whose gold-trimmed hilt winked at me with opulent light.

His face was unmistakable, the short, dagger-like beard and chevron shaped mustache upon his lips are forever burned into my memory with contempt. Suddenly I could feel his eyes shift onto me; they were a pale blue, cold and clear like a winter morning. He had spotted me and caused me to seize in panic. Thoughts flickered through my head and I took off in the opposite direction wheezing and grunting with all my effort. I could hear his hard boot bounding behind me and I felt as if I were being chased by a grizzly bear.

He soon faded behind me and was overtaken instead again by the awful thrumming. I turned a blind corner and emerged back into the peculiar alcove which sang its beacon-like tune. I fear to emerge back into the tunnels and hope that the Inquisitors do not find this place. The noise seems to blot out all reason, it feels as if my mind has become wounded and is bleeding. There is an itch just beneath my skull and no matter how much I scratch it will never be sated.

No! I hear a sound amongst the hum. Curses! I can hear his senseless bounding; the inquisitors will be here soon! The Door! The Door! I must brave it if I hope to survive! How do I open it? How!?