CHAPTER III

A SANTHARIAN FANFICITION

 
Adventure of the Northern Shadows   
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Introduction. Through the help of a lady of the dragons, the travelers continue their journey beyond the mountains. In a recluse Kuglimz village, they find an unlikely ally who comes to join them on their quest.

 

he party awoke the next morning as Kalina entered the cave, her warm clothes pulled tightly around her. She carried with her a large bundle, which she sat down by the door as the group rubbed their sleepy eyes and sat up. Silfer inquired of her, “Have you already been out this morning?”

“Yes—speaking to the dragons,” said the graceful woman as she put up her coat.

“What is it they said?” asked Coren curiously.

“They told me, I believe, why it is you have all come through such harsh terrain.”

Twen tilted her head. “They know of the Sleep?”

“I do not know what the Sleep might be, but the dragons have spoken of a darkness forming in the north, a darkness that has reached out its cold fingers into the south and compelled you to journey very far to find it, and stop it.”

“The dragons, then, have felt what we have felt,” spoke Rayne. “The darkness came months ago to Ximax, and has caused many of our young magi to be taken by a great Sleep from which they do not awake. There have yet been no deaths that we know of, but whatever this is, it is spreading.”

“It is very brave of you to come so far to try to stop this shadow.”

“For all we know,” said Silfer, “We could be the next. It began with the young magi, but it was beginning to take some of the mid-levels when we left. There’s no telling when any of us might be taken with it.”

“How many have been taken?”

“Fifty last we heard,” said Twen, then glanced down, shaking her head. “I can no longer communicate with my Ximax Cat at the Academy. The distance is now too far. But we can only assume that the situation has worsened since we left.”

Kalina nodded. “And the dragons sympathize. It is not often they entangle themselves in the affairs of men, but they have agreed to help you all.”

“Help us?” ask Fox quietly.

“Yes. They have offered their wings, to take you wherever it is you need to go.”
 

“We’re gonna ride DRAGONS?” The party winced a little, and no one had to turn around to know that it was Sordoc who had asked the question. “This is marvelous! Let me sing a celebratory song to honor this occasion—”

Twen, glancing to the side innocently, caused the air in front of Sordoc to faintly glow. So taken was he by the illumination that he completely forgot about the song, and stood there staring vacantly at the little lights.

Everyone sighed with relief for disaster averted, and turned their attention to the dragon woman, who began speaking again, “Yes, the horned dragons have agreed to give you passage as far as the edge of the Mountains of Oro.”

“That will shave weeks off our trip—and prevent us from having to journey through the Hovel Frond forest,” said Azhira happily.

“The Hovel Frond Forest?” asked Coren.

“The Diorye’oleal Tribe,” said Kalina.

Azhira nodded. “Dark elves. We are better to bypass them and move into the Celeste Lowlands, where the Kuglimz Tribes are.”

“And these Kuglimz—they are safe?” asked Rayne.

“Constantly in battle, always warring… they’re not the most peaceful bunch, but better than becoming a slave for dark elves,” Azhira explained. The group had to agree. “From there, we can get to the Shaded Forest. The Injerín elves live there, among the tulmine trees, and you will not meet a more peaceful tribe in all the north.”

Kalina smiled. “They are a noble and wise people. I’m sure they can help you get to wherever you need to go.”

Rayne glanced at Kalina. “Would you like to come with us, Kalina? I’m sure your knowledge and aid would be much help to this expedition.”

Kalina smiled gratefully, but shook her head. “No. I would love to journey into the dangers of the north and partake in all of your adventures—but my place is here, among the dragons, and here I must stay.”

Rayne smiled. “I understand.”

The woman smiled. “The dragons should be here soon to take you. While the flight will be far quicker on the backs of dragons, it will still probably take a near week to reach the edge of the Mountains of Oro.”

The group nodded and began collecting their things, gathering up their supplied and putting on their warm clothes for the cold that awaited them outside. There was no doubt when the dragons arrived: the ground shook as they landed, and even from inside the cozy cave you could hear the sound of the great beasts breathing.

The group filed outside, and found themselves face-to-face with three fearsome horned dragons, their nostrils smoking and their eyes peering at the group that must have seemed so small to creatures so huge. Kalina approached them and spoke to them in draconic, the words slipping off her tongue with a sound like falling rain.

Kalina helped each person on to their dragon: Rayne and Silfer rode one; Fox and Twen rode another; Azhira, Coren, and Sordoc on a third. One dragon could have carried all of them, but there was safety in numbers.

“It seems as though you have a clear day for riding,” said Kalina as the group settled in, mounted atop the dragons. “I was almost certain that the day would bring heavy snow fall.”

Coren smiled mysteriously. “Yes, but it would seem such an outcome was simply not as probable as a clear day.”

Kalina hurried to Rayne, carrying the bundle she had carried back with her from her visit with the dragons, and handed it to the archmage. Rayne took the bundle puzzled. “What is it?”

“There is one large bag of dragon scales. They are used often in the making of armor, and being so rare, are valuable. If you are traveling through war-torn lands, such materials might be useful. And there is also a flask in there.”

“What’s in it?”

“A very rare and precious liquid. When you reach the Injerín, mention my name, and give the vial to their potion-masters. They will know what to do with it.”

Rayne was tempted to inquire further, but decided against it. She smiled to Kalina. “Thank you.”

“Good luck on your journey,” smiled the woman.

The great wings of the horned dragons began beating, and their huge bodies lifted into the air. They took to the skies, and headed north.
***

The portion of the Celeste lowlands, just near the edge of the Mountains of Oro, hinted of a soft, dull gray as the sunlight faded from the clear and expansive skies, descending into a calm and restful evening. On a broad yet shallow hill sat the Kuglimz village of Myt’ineira, soaking up the last rays in these final weeks of autumn. The battle season was passed, and the former rains washed the blood and tears from the earth.

Seven figures cast long shadows as they moved to the village. At the entrance to the village, before the gates and the wall that enclosed it, the travelers stopped and the guard there inquired of their business. Just beyond the high walls, the travelers could see the houses surrounding the grand abode of the village leader at the top of the shallow hill. In a Tharian accent, a half-elf with dark hair told the guard in Kuglimz'seitre that they sought audience with the leader of the village.

The guard eyed them carefully, but seeing that they were unarmed, led them through the gates, up the hill, past stables where horses stamped their hooves and sighed into the dusty evening, to where the leader’s house rested. They were led inside, to an empty room, and were asked to wait. Despite being a small village, and a renown war-going peoples, the inside of the abode was richly decorated with dyed cloth. The guests stood admiring the decorations until a man appeared: an imposing figure with dark hair and eyes, his hair and fingers covered in iron rings.

The man wasted no time in inquiring after the group. “Who are you? Why is it you have come here? And what is it you request?”

The dark-haired half elf stepped forward, speaking with a Tharian accent, but pronouncing the words clearly: “We are journeyers from the south. My name is Azhira, and I have come here with my friends. We seek horses and a guide to lead us to the Shaded forests.”

“Horses and a guide? Bah! You have made it thus far as you are!”

“Yes, but the journey is far, and while I have traveled these lands before, I know that the wars fought and won during the battle season may arrange and re-arrange the landscape.”

The man looked at Azhira carefully. “What have you as payment?”

Azhira glanced back to an indigo-eyed elf standing behind her, and the women exchanged a large bundle. Azhira loosened the mouth of the bundle, setting it down and letting the light from the braziers reveal its contents: hundreds of shimmering dragon scales.

The man was obviously caught a bit by surprise, and he looked at the group suspiciously. “Dragon scales?”

The woman nodded. “Enough for at least three full coats of armor—armor that would do you well in battle for next season.”

The man eyed the group, then called back to one of his guards standing in the back of the room: “Call my advisor! He will know if these are in fact dragon scales, as they appear.”

The group waited quietly. Not knowing the Kuglimz language in which Azhira was versed, the rest of the party was naturally curious at the conversation between her and the Kuglimz leader, but took cue from her and were silent as they waited for the advisor.

There was a grumbling from the back, and the sound of wood on wood as a man with a cane appeared through the back entrance to the room. His hair was steel gray and he walked bent-over with the help of a curved walking stick. He grumbled under his breath and came to the side of the Kuglimz leader, peering at the group with dark honey eyes shaded by bushy brows.

The Kuglimz leader glanced at the man and gestured to the bag. “Advisor Delrossa, can you verify that the materials these strangers present are in fact the scales of a dragon?”

Eldor Delrossa glanced at the leader and then at the bag. He motioned to Azhira, “Bring the scales here, girl. Let me see them closer.”

Azhira brought the bag to the elder gentleman, and he picked up one of the scales and held it between his bent fingers, peering at it critically. The indigo-eyed elf’s eyes narrowed curiously at the old man: she recognized his car'áll testing the qualities of the scale—fluctuations and manipulations brought about by willpower.

Eldor dropped the scales back into the bag. “They’re dragon scales.” The Kuglimz leader smiled and picked up one of the scales himself. The old man turned to walk away when the indigo-eyed elf moved forward and addressed him.

“Sir, you are a mage?” she asked in Tharian.

Eldor stopped, and turned back carefully. The Kuglimz leader looked up, uncertain of what the elf had said. The gentleman peered at her and answered slowly, in Tharian. “Yes. What of it?”

“We are magi, from the school of Ximax in Santharia. My name is Rayne. Please, if you can tell me, do you know of any young magi who have grown weak and fallen unconscious here?”

The man tilted his head a little. “No. There are few magi among the Kuglimz. But…” The old man grew silent and glanced down. His voice grew soft and solemn. “I have felt a darkness brooding in the north. I have had nightmares, dark nightmares, of a shadow that spreads from the north and consumes these lands.”

Rayne’s eyes soften. “We are in search of this darkness. We are trying to stop it. We have—”

“Silence!” yelled the Kuglimz leader in Kuglimz'seitre. “This is a Kuglimz village and you shall speak Kuglimz'seitre! Now, how many horses will you need?”

Azhira spoke again. “Seven.”

“And you will need a guide to the Shaded Wood?”

“Yes.”

“I will be their guide,” spoke Eldor.

The Kuglimz leader looked shocked. “You, Eldor? You are far too old to travel.”

Eldor glared sternly at the Kuglimz leader. Despite his appearance, his skills, and his standing, the Kuglimz leader did not seem to at all intimidate the old man, who spoke assertively. “Don’t you dare tell me what I am and am not capable of doing!”

The Kuglimz leader sighed, his eyes moving from Eldor to the group, his lips pursed tightly as he considered the situation, before he finally spoke. “You joined our village of your own free will. If it is that you wish to leave, I cannot stop you. Tell me honestly, though, that you are certain of your decision.”

“I am certain. Leave an old man alone! I know what I’m doing.”

The Kuglimz sighed and smiled a little sadly. “Then I suppose we shall let you go. But tonight, let us hold a feast. Tonight we shall dine together, and tomorrow you can set out to the north.” Eldor nodded, and the Kuglimz turned to Azhira. “You and your friends shall join us. Eldor is a wise man, and if he deems you to be friends, then so shall I. We shall provide you food and shelter tonight, and tomorrow you shall ride out on seven of our most able horses and a horse trainer who will return them once you have reached the Shaded Wood.”

Azhira smiled. “Thank you, sir.”

That night, the group dined together with the Kuglimz leader and his bravest and more respected warriors. They spoke very little, as most could not understand the other, but there was a great many songs. Music, after all, is a universal language.

The next morning the group, with Azhira and Eldor in the front and the horse trainer in back, journeyed off north toward the Shaded Wood.
***

The group had journeyed three weeks through lands that passed like music, rolling up and down, caught in light that colored the notes of a land passing from the autumn season like a fall symphony into a winter nocturne. They were not verdurous in their hues--nay, the grasses had browned, and the trees had lost their leaves—but the air was clear and cool and crisp. The passing of the season was not a violent affair.

The group of eight moved steadily north. Despite his age, Eldor moved at a steady pace, and guided the group safely through the political landscape of the Celeste lowlands. They had met up with the Luquador River, following it north toward the Shaded Wood. As they rode, Sordoc played quietly on his invisible lute, seemingly lost in his own little world.

“What is he doing there?” asked Eldor, pointing to Sordoc, who rode in the back of the party.

Twen glanced back, and then spoke. “Oh. Playing an invisible and—thankfully—silent lute.”

“What is he? A minstrel of some sort?”

“So he claims. Though his singing leaves… something to be desired,” added Coren.

“Ah, can he really be so bad?” asked Eldor, more as a hypothetical, though everyone almost immediately nodded. The old man glanced back and called to Sordoc. “Boy, come here.”

Sordoc rode closer to the elder gentlemen. “Your friends here tell me you’re a minstrel. I am quite fond a music. Perhaps you would sing me something?”

“I, Sordoc the Great, would be most glad to bestow upon you the joy and inspiration engendered by my rare talents! Sordoc the Great shall sing you a most beauteous song of one of the most majestic beasts to ever walk upon the lands of Caelereth!” Here the poet cleared his throat, and Eldor looked uncertainly to the rest of the group, some of whom had already begun to cover their ears. Sordoc then launched into a song, begun on a sharp note:

“The paxen are such noble creatures!
The paxen have such noble features!
The paxen—”

“Oh, that shall never do.” Here Eldor waved his hands casually, causing the quality of stillness to quickly silence the poet mid-verse. Rayne quickly reversed the effect, and the poet coughed.

“My, Sordoc—” (Sordoc coughed again) “Sordoc the Great must have swallowed a bug. A lucky fellow, the bug, to have met death in such as way: surely there can be no more inspirational death for an insect than passing into the throat of Sordoc the Great. Sordoc the Great shall compose a great requiem for this noble bug!”

“Perhaps you might do this in silence, Sordoc?” proposed Fox. “After all, we would not wish to spoil the surprise of hearing it in full when you are finished.”

“Ah, naturally! Splendid idea,” said Sordoc, nodding. “It shall be a surprise!”

The poet immediately pulled out parchment and began jotting verses down while his horse casually followed the rest of the group. With Sordoc quieted, for the most part (though here and there he muttered rhyming words to his inner ear), the party moved along peacefully.

After a few moment, Silfer spoke, addressing the party’s newest member: “Sir, if I may inquire, why were you living among the Kuglimz? You are from Santharia, no?”

Eldor sighed a little. “Yes, I am from Santharia. It’s been many years since I left. I have encountered too much corruption, too many ill-hearted people in that land. Santharia prides itself on being civilized, but at times I think being civilized means only being better able to hide the shadows of the heart.”

The party looked to Eldor quietly, their eyes softening. The old man, for his part, took in a deep breath and stared off ahead. “The Kuglimz are a warring people: they fight, they kill, and some label them barbarians though they are not so. But I prefer their company, because they do not hide who are what they are. They are noble, simple men.”

The party was quieted, save Sordoc who was now cycling through rhymes for “bug”—“rug, tug, grug,” the group heard him saying. Finally he hit the word “hug” and jotted it down.

After a moment of silence, Twen glanced up: “Is that a forest ahead?”

Eldor smiled. “Ah, at last it seems we have come to the Shaded Wood.”

The party hurried ahead, entering the forest as the afternoon deepened into reds and oranges thrown across a wide expanse of sky. As the party journeyed into the wood, the forest became a pattern of light and darkness, the shadows of the canopies occasionally broken, sending oases of sunlight across the ground. All at once a man appeared: an elf with golden hair and gentle eyes. He spoke in lilting styrásh: “Who are you, strangers?”

Rayne here came forward, responding also in styrásh: “We are travelers from the south, seeking temporary shelter on our journey to the north. The lady Kalina said that we should stop here, and instructed us to present this to your potion-masters.” Here the elf removed a flask of shimmering, clear liquid, and the Injerín nodded.

“The Mistress of the Dragons is well-known among us—that she has sent you to us with a flask of dragon tears speaks to the truth of your words. Come, follow me. We shall provide you food and shelter for as long as you need.”

That night, the group slept amid the trees, but one member remained awake: Coren Frozenzephyr sat in his loft, thoughts rolling through his mind as he considered the languid stillness of the trees.

“You are still up?” called a familiar voice, quiet yet distinct in the cool night air. Coren glanced down to see Silfer looking up at him through clear gray eyes.

Coren smiled slightly, “Yes, old friend.” He glanced up. “I have been perturbed by a thousand rogue thoughts these last few weeks, yet find myself unable to sort them.”

“Clear mind, calm heart, continuous motion. These are all the qualities of a single element,” spoke the wind mage. “Perhaps embracing one may engender the others. Let us walk together.”

Coren nodded with a wry smile, and came down from his living loft. The Injerín had forged an entire village from the trees; their mages influenced growth in such a way that branched bore beds under a roof of shivering leaves.

The two magi walked through the Wood in a calm and comforting silence, until at last Silfer asked, “What troubles you?”

“This darkness we seek. I find I grow uneasy to journey so far from the Academy. At this distance, we have no way to defend the towers. Even now, the School may be under siege.”

“I feel as though perhaps we’d know if this were the case. We have all been there so long; there are links between the school and each of us that will never dull to ahm. To use, of course, Ximaxian terms.” Silfer smiled slightly, and Coren chuckled.

“Yes. I suppose that is so. But this darkness—whatever it is—could it be conscious? Does it know what it does? And if it is able to conceive, how do we know we’re not walking into a trap?”

“We don’t, I suppose. But I have great faith in you, in Rayne—in everyone in our party. As we move closer to the source of the Sleep, we move closer together, and in the unity forming between us, I feel as though there is very little we cannot do.”

Coren smiled slightly. Here they came to a meadow, where the moon shown through the canopy, soft and pale. The two men stopped here, regarding the celestial disk. “I do suppose, if I must journey into the great unknown, I could not have chosen better companions with which to do so.”

Silfer smiled. “Neither could I.”
 


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