When we had emerged from the Hlofolk Tunnel, Sig produced a bottle of Old Law with a satisfied grin.
"We should have a toast. This is the furthest I have ever been from home." He said as he raised what was about a thimbleful of the strong spirits.
There weren't enough glasses, so the toast went in stages, but it was well received. Danin, Bromm, and Floki all exchanged glances with smiles and nods. I couldn't say the same as Sig, since Hlofreden was likely the furthest I'd ever been. However, this was a new land with different rules. It was strange that as we had cleared the Hlofolk tunnel, we hadn't taken the time to savor the victory by stepping through into the light on the other side.
Perhaps we just overlooked that part?
We did manage to meet the masked woman earlier. She had resided in the rooms at the end of the long tunnel. The Oracle, as she called herself, but there was more to her. While she was kind and accepting of our company, there was a menace about her demeanor you could feel, like an itch you couldn't scratch.
She wore a shroud that covered her head to the tip of her nose. She appeared young, but there was no telling her true age. The woman's lips wore a sad beauty, expressing an aching half smile that spoke of difficult circumstances. Her words were light, but her lips drew into a tight line as we had explained the purpose of our visit. She had glanced around, seeing another home begin to fade. The shroud that covered her head bubbled and shifted eerily with her discontent, but she seemed to accept what fate had come and resumed her genteel approach at our company. It may have been her tight connection to the threads of fate may have ultimately softened the blow.
Only after we had left the first time was I told that she was a Gorgon. And we had found a hallway for those who were either unfortunate or who had faced the brunt of her curse.
Now she had moved on, the room she had occupied just before the Southern exit had been cleared of all finery to the stark stone walls. We had left our horses outside in the hallway. They were stalwart mounts, mine was impressively tall and bulky to hold my frame. Still, it felt odd to me. I found myself wanting my feet on the ground as much as possible, which was unfortunate for how much I'd paid for both the horse and the saddle.
I looked the creature in the eye, narrowing my eyes and it pawed the ground impatiently. I'd have to name him before long.
Our trip into the dark woods beyond was moody. While we often joked along the path, the darkness clung to you. The grand trees standing overhead swooned with the gusting winds overhead, but light rarely touched the ground leaving carpets of moist pine needles, mushrooms, and shed redwood bark. While the darkness didn't bother me, it seemed to have a dampening effect on everyone as the day wore on.
At one point we had encountered discarded wagons that were deposited at a tricky point in the road, leaving behind signs of traffic this far South. One of the wagons had run headlong into a large cut stone. From Floki's eye, he said that it had been nearly a month before. Great claw marks shredded the surface, leaving an indication of what had happened to both the occupants and the horse that had pulled it.
The woods began to thin and the grasses rose. Floki stopped as we rounded a particularly brightly lit corner. A gloriously clear pond opened up to the sky above. On the far shore, a large stag, flanked by several other deer, stood absolutely still. They all held impossibly still as we milled around the boggy shore of the pond.
"Are those real? I haven't see them move." I helped Silah down, then dismounted myself.
"Shhh…" Floki hissed angrily.
He didn't make a move to draw his bow, he just watched calmly. The stag was majestic, crowned with an impressive array of horns. It stood quietly until, in just a moment it turned and bolted with such speed it was gone long before the deer that followed chanced to turn and run. There was a moment of wonder as I looked on before I heard shouts behind me.
I spun to see a flurry of white, orange, and black tear Sig from his horse, spraying his saddle with his blood. Another beast towered over Danin. This time I could clearly see a large striped cat attempt to unseat him, slashing repeatedly at his armor, tearing skin and spilling blood in the process.
I could hear Danin's voice rise up and power emanated from him. I couldn't see Sig, but Danin's worried face looked less drawn with his actions.
Floki responded with a number of arrows and gunfire erupted from Bromm's drawn weapons. I charged into their midst, pushing past Silah in the process. I lifted my hand to strike and called out to her, but she didn't appear in my hand, as she was supposed to. The look on her face showed she was just as surprised about this as I was.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Her voice stammered as she looked at her hands and looked back to me in disbelief.
"Can you still become a sword?" I said, incredulous.
There was a quick motion and she turned into a sword, then thumped to the ground.
"What...? Change back and come to me!" I growled.
I was still unaware of where Sig had fallen, but Bromm and Floki had bloodied the creature considerably so I turned my attention to the beast who had just sunk his teeth into Danin. I reached toward the creature, my arms extending an unnatural length, and gouged through the fur with my hardened fingernails.
Tagaern stepped up to help on the other side of Danin and was met with a fury of teeth and rippling muscle. I saw the creature lung and turn it's powerful hind legs against him, raking over his arms and tearing through his armor.
I was focused on the creature in front of me, but heard Floki and Bromm call out as the creature had begun to drag Sig by his head deeper into the forest. I looked around, seeing Danin and Tagaern looking bloodied but still standing.
Just as I started to move Silah's hand slipped into mine and she shifted immediately into her sword form. Her voice echoed repeated apologies in my head, but I didn't have an ear for it. I moved forward and the creature leapt at me, dropping Sig in the process, it's claws ready and slashing. I felt the sting as it tore through my skin. I responded in kind, slashing at it, while arrows punctured and gunshots roared sending the large cat into a bloodied heap.
I turned seeing the other creature also attempting to disengage as Tagaern spent his fury on the beast, pushing it back by the strokes of his sword. Danin struck true as well. I stepped close and sent the blade deep into the creature with two great thrusts. It jawwed absently and its eyes slacked for a moment, then it slid from the blade limply.
I glanced around, looking for threats. I could feel the throbbing world begin to settle with a cool and silent breeze. The wind danced over my wounds and I could feel them begin to sting. I saw Bromm rush forward and help Sig up from the ground. He was barely lucid and showing far too much blood.
It was then I realized that Silah was still muttering bewildered apologies.
"That's never happened before. I'm so sorry. I am not sure how to make it up to you. It doesn't make any sense." Her ramblings echoed in my head.
I cleaned the blade and willed her back to human form.
"Please. Don't. Don't worry about it. We had it well in hand." I said, glancing anxiously toward Sig while Danin stooped to attend to him.
"What if it was worse? What if you were in a dire situation?" She continued her eyes wide.
"I don't think we could be in a much more dire situation than that." Tagaern said with a cough.
Both Danin and Tagaern looked worn. Links of armor had popped with the ferocity of the attack and there was still blood dripping from the armor even though Danin has been focusing his energy on the wounds.
"One more bite and I'd have been another pile of meat." Tagaern said as he pressed a hand gingerly to his bloodied side.
"I think I had you beat." Sig said, pain eddied through his voice as Danin was now focused on him with his hands outstretched. The robes that Sig wore had been shredded showing lacerations underneath that began to knit together with Danin's words.
"Well, I think we know what frightened that stag away." Floki said, looking over to the raised clearing on the opposite side of the pond.
"... I'm not sure what could have happened to…" Silah's voice had dropped to a fevered whisper.
"Silah, please. We'll figure it out." I said.
"What was that, anyway?" Floki asked Silah, "You just flopped on the ground as a sword?"
"Nothing. Really." I said with a shake of my head.
"Nothing? I didn't come when he called for me." Silah said plainly, "And I have no idea why."
"Huh. You couldn't..." Floki said, pausing and looking at Tagaern who smirked.
Floki covered his mouth, but his eyes crinkled with a suppressed laugh.
I grit my teeth.
"Enough of this. Can we go?"
"These are magnificent beasts, I can't just let them lie here." Floki said.
"Why not?" I growled.
"Trophies." Bromm said simply.
Danin made sure that each of us was tended to before Floki settled in to skinning the beasts. I looked on as Floki spread the remains of the large cats—tigers, I was told—all over the forest floor, right along the path. After a few hours, what remained were guts, sinew, and the large, well muscled corpses of a male and female tiger.
"You made a mess of these pelts." Floki said as he gathered up the fleshy skins.
"Hey, I also helped with that." Tagaern said, leveling a hard eye at Floki.
"Yes. Yes you did." Floki shook his head, now annoyed with Tagaern, too.
We moved through the trees, finding the path back to their lair which held no surprises. The den itself was empty, but bones were strewn around the grounds leading to it, a warning that we didn't have the fortune of seeing.
We continued South along the path. An unsettling, raucous laughter rattled through the trees ahead of us. The path seemed to continue off to the right where the noises of laughter.
"I want to see what's going on there." Floki said, dropping his hands to his side with a huff and shaking his head. "I don't think I can stand it any longer."
"I'll go with him", Bromm piped up almost immediately.
I shook my head, with a sidelong look at Silah.
"It's unnatural," I muttered, "Whatever it is. I think we should avoid it."
"You know what's unnatural," Sig offered, then looked at Silah seated behind me on the warhorse.
Silah's hand was tucked around my side, and lay flat on my belly. Her body tensed up as she scowled at Sig, and suddenly I couldn't breathe.
"Stop. Stop." I croaked, pawing at her hand.
"Oh, sorry." She straightened, regaining composure, but I could see her mouthing threats to Sig from out of the corner of my eye.
We waited for a long while before Floki and Bromm appeared followed by Tenner, Floki's hulking wolf.
"I'm not sure what I was seeing there." Floki said, his face nonplussed.
"And what did you see?" Tagaern asked.
"Trees. Fruit that looked like they had faces. Couldn't tell where the laughing was coming from." Floki shrugged.
"And a red man that was very intent on those trees." Bromm added.
"A red man?" I asked.
Both of them shrugged.
"Should we continue then?" Sig asked.
"It's up to you. Not really sure myself." Floki said, but he climbed atop his wolf and urged the beast forward.
We fell in line, letting the laughter fade behind us.
The wood faded from around us and we found ourselves on a plain with thigh high grass stretching off to a hilly region to the South and Southwest. The grasslands were starting to resemble the places of my childhood. At least, those that I could still remember. There was a certain foreboding as we spied derelict structures dotting the landscape as well. Remnants of fences and fields that had long since fallen into disrepair. I dismounted from the warhorse and moved toward the closest building.
"It's well built. You could even repair it." Floki said, following me in, "It looks like the left quickly. Nothing valuable, but things you'd want to keep. Cups, utensils, and the like."
"Not a fight, then? They just left?" I asked, picking up a cup that had a crust lining the bottom of it.
"Yep. And quickly." Floki nodded, "I'm sure there's a good reason, too. For a small homestead, a lot of care went into it. That's hard to leave behind."
"Nope, nothing in there." I said as I walked out, followed by Floki who moved to his large wolf and climbed into the crafted saddle.
I turned and looked over the plains and saw an old standing mill with an unmoving water wheel quite a distance out. Just below that was a series of smaller shapes jutting above the tall grasses with a slight haze lingering over them.
"It looks like there are tents out that way, maybe smoke?" I said, pointing toward the mill, "It might be worth a look?"
"If they're friendly," Sig said and his voice quavered a little, "I'm not keen on staying in the forests if I can help it."
As we started across the plains, the sun was nearly touching the bluff that enclosed the area. It would be dark soon. Strangely, the light didn't fade from the skies, but were slowly replaced by shifting colors. It wasn't clear what was happening until Sig pointed out that Osterman Flats lay just beyond the bluff.
"Why would it do that?" Floki asked Sig.
Sig responded with a shrug.
"It's the only thing I can think of. I've never seen anything like it. This is all new territory for me." Sig said, glancing up at lights for a moment then back to where the horses were going.
"It's beautiful." Silah responded, her voice was filled with wonder.
Her response was accentuated by pulling in closer and resting her head on my back, head angled up, facing the lights.
At a stone's throw from the tents, it became clear that it was in serious disrepair. Floki's eyes skimmed the horizon, spotting for trouble. There was a smell of burned flesh and the wisps of smoke were rising from a blackened husk on a spit that had been knocked into the fire below. Each tent's canvas had been peeled back from their wooden skeletons, showing scattered trinkets and belongings. The ground was dotted with bloodied spots, but not a single body was found. It was quiet at our approach except for the winds, crickets, and rumble of rushing water from the obscured river.
"Hunting party. Very big humanoids. Probably ogres, by the pattern of the foot." Floki said, as he looked closely near one of the coagulating pools of blood on the ground.
"Do you think they'll be back?" Tagaern said, his hand was on the handle of his sword.
Floki shook his head.
"They probably have enough food to keep them sated." Floki said with a grimace.
The thought made my stomach turn.
"Any survivors?" Bromm said.
He had his pistol in hand looking into the deepening darkness.
"We could check for tracks in the morning, but I don't want any light giving away our position. Anything could spot us for miles out here." Floki said.
"Why were these people here?" Silah asked, bewildered.
"Who goes there?" An unsure female voice wavered from within the derelict mill high above us.
A face peered down from the topmost window. Around the face, there was an unsettling motion, like thick bundles of hair that had of mind of their own. The head tucked back in quickly.
I thought for a moment, suddenly realizing who it was.
"Oracle?" Bromm called up, allowing his voice to carry only so far.
"Come. Come quickly into the mill. I will meet you." Her voice said with a quick desperation.
The inside of the tall building showed the mechanism driven by the grand wheel outside. It had long since stilled, even while the waters still tugged at it. The gears themselves were broken beyond repair. There were a number of floors with stairs that had long since fallen. Debris scattered over the floor and the tracks from the Ogres showing they had muddled around for a bit before they left. A ladder lay on the ground with the second floor a good ways up.
I took the ladder and placed it while I heard stirring up above us, and the oracle's light voice as she mumbled.
"Is it safe to come up?" Sig called out.
He put a hand to the ladder and glanced up warily.
It was a moment before she responded.
"Yes?" She seemed confused for a moment, then a realization crept into her voice, "Yes. It is safe to come up."
I held the ladder as Sig ascended and each of the others followed him. Silah was last, and she gave me a strange look as she climbed. I furrowed my brow at her consternation then mounted the ladder myself.
All seven of us took our places awkwardly forming semi-circle. I assumed we looked imposing, all our eyes on the diminutive and vulnerable veiled woman who stood just a short distance from us. The defensiveness in her stance proved that threat and a concern shown on her visible lips. There was a cautious silence, with all parties suddenly unsure of the other's intent.
"My lady." Bromm said, in his charming brogue. "Is there anything we can help you with?"
She shifted, gazing at us from under her veil. The silks that covered her head bubbled and shifted in the same anticipation. She took a deep breath.
"Sorry. It's hard to know friend from foe these days." She said, her voice halting with the words.
"We, I assure you, are friendly." Bromm continued.
The Oracle visibly relaxed at his words and bowed her head while exhaling.
"It has not been a good few days. As you can see outside, those that follow us were driven from this place. Chased off, or captured. There was little we could do but watch."
She retreated to her soft chair and sat heavily.
"Please. Please, make yourself at home." She said, gesturing weakly.
Her words seemed to carry the considerable weight of her desperation. There wasn't much up in the sitting area. There were a few cushions facing her grand chair. We filled the room easily, as this floor wasn't meant to hold so many. There was a second ladder that went to a third floor above. I could faintly hear wheezing and short, small coughs from up above. The smell of perfumed silks and cushions mixed indelicately with the smells of vinegar and sour medicines that wafted down from above.
"My man has been unwell. Something caught in his lungs and he's been struggling," She continued, "I am not sure what to do. We have no place to go."
"We offered to help," Sig nodded, "We'll do what we can. Danin? Maybe you can check on our friend?"
Danin nodded, standing, and looked toward her silently. She was unsure at first what he waited for, her head tilting with a question, then she nodded quickly at the unspoken request and motioned up the ladder. He quietly turned and ascended the ladder.
"What about you? What can we help you with?" I asked.
"A little company would be nice?" She said, still sounding unsure.
The others began to settle in. I made sure that the decaying floor could hold me by giving it a few thumps before picking a spot to get comfortable.
"Do you want to bring the whole thing down on us?" Floki said, his brow furrowed.
I shrugged as I watched dust fall from one of the cracks above.
"Looks sturdy enough to me." I said roughly.
As we settled in, the conversation began to flow. Bromm and Sig spoke easily with the oracle, drawing her further out until she relaxed and even chanced to smile. Bromm had withdrawn a bottle of Old Law that was close to empty and passed it around. Danin descended and reported that he had done what he could, and that the man's body would have to do the rest. Fortunately, the wheezing and coughing had subsided, letting the man rest easier.
There was very little light in the mill. It came from a small contained stove for making the medicinal tea shone from above us, but little else and weariness from the road had begun to settle in. The oracle herself had been living on the ragged edge of fear for so long, her head began to loll as the fear that sustained her vigilance began to subside.
"I can watch first." I said, standing myself to avoid being swallowed up by the exhaustion, I turned to the oracle, "Get comfortable and sleep. We'll watch."
Her response was quiet, but with her exhale was the feeling of a great weight being lifted. I looked to the others and saw Bromm, Danin, and Floki hold up their fingers for the watch they'd take. As everyone settled in, Silah and I moved down the ladder and stood out in the plains.
While I was feeling the tug of sleep, there was also the wonder of what flitted above us to the West. Colored lights painted the plains below. It was fascinating, like watching a fountain of shooting stars burn up into different colors.
"I should be fearful of that," I said, quietly, "but, for some reason, I can't be."
"You've always been mystified by beautiful things." She said.
I could see and much as hear the corners of her mouth turn up with the response. I nodded with a toothy grin and she flashed her pearlescent smile as she looked to me and took my hand.
"You trust and then you don't trust. Your reasons for choosing to do either are beyond me. I'm sure there's a sort of wisdom to it, but I couldn't even begin to fathom what guides it." She spoke in whispers, but her voice was clear as day in my head.
"Like that woman in there," she continued, "Perhaps you don't know what danger you are in with her. I've seen that you do know this, but you don't hesitate to offer your help."
"Trust is a fickle thing. I can't say I'm good at people, but I know trust is mutual. It's easy for me to open myself to others because I feel I can take whatever danger or disappointment comes from it." I said, mumbling, but also echoing those words in my head.
"I'd say that you are the most dangerous thing to me." I continued, with a chuckle, "Because I trust you far beyond all others."
She thought as she walked, taking long steps at my side. All the while, tapping her free hand on her smiling lips.
"So, should I trust you this much?" I asked with mock concern.
She gave a light mischievous laugh, but said nothing.
"It's my thought to invite the oracle to stay on the property." I said, "Give her a home if something else doesn't fall in place for her."
Silah nodded then shook her head.
"Again. You seem to be ignorant of the danger there and still you'll power through it. It's commendable, in a sort of foolhardy way, but it's also sweet."
"If you didn't have a place to be. If you were looking for a place to call home, I would have invited you as well." I said, feeling certain.
"You say that now. You have changed much since after we first met." She said.
She rounded on me her eyes intent, bringing me to a stop. She then turned my hand over, and looked at them, tracing her elegant fingers along the lines of my palm.
"In all honesty, I may not have accepted the invitation."
She spoke with a certain heaviness and looked up to me again, her eyes reflecting the shifting rainbow above us.
"Time is strange." She said, trying on a pained smile, "While I say that you have changed, I have also changed. You have changed me. It's impossible to know what that really means for me, but..."
She broke off and gave a contemplative pause then drew breath.
"It means everything right now."
I took both her hands in mine, bent low, and kissed them, then looked at her with a smile.
"Perhaps we can call this a sign?" I said, looking up at the colorful star bursts in the Western sky, "And a sign as beautiful as that is a perfect time to make a wish."
(Get to know Akeron.)