CHAPTER V

A SANTHARIAN FANFICITION

 
Adventure of the Northern Shadows   
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Introduction. The group heads north, but while on the seas, are attacked by a strange darkness. They’re journey becomes even more dangerous, and they must rely on both the goodwill of others and one another.

 

he morning came cool and clear over Darooth. In a display of faded yellow and orange, the sun rose, shedding its light across fish shops, stone streets, and half-constructed ships, and pulling eight sleepy travelers from their beds to meet at the dock where their ship was set to sail. Deklitch and Seeker were already there, loading their things into the ship while the captain and his small crew loaded cargo for the journey.

The captain glanced up as the crew approached. He was an older man with a full beard and a friendly disposition. It had taken quite a bit of negotiation, but they had managed to convince the sailor to take them as far north as Kant’ram. “Good to see ya’ll made it! It’s a beautiful day, and if we set off early, we’ll be able to take advantage of the calm morning winds to get us out to see. Come now, and get yer things aboard!”

“Thank you, sir,” Fox replied, and then inquired, “How long do you think it will take us to get to Kant’ram?”

“Well, it depends. I’m going to try to use the river to get to Eight Winds Bay, which is somewhat dangerous, but will probably still be quicker than trying to go around the Peninsula of Kr’uul. Once we get to Silven, it should be a straight shot to Kant’ram. If I had to journey a guess, I’d say two weeks to get to Silven, and from there another two and a half weeks to get to Kant’ram. And that’s assuming the winds are in our favor.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” noted Silfer wryly.

“Now once I drop ya’ll off at Kant’ram, I plan on gettin’ my ship back to Darooth.”

“Do we have a way back home?” asked Twen.

“Assuming we’re able to return from where we’re headed,” added Eldor, under his breath.

Azhira chimed in: “I have connections with the Kaaer'dár'shín; they will help us get back.” Here she paused, and then added, in the same vein as Eldor: “Assuming we’re still sane enough to desire it.”

The captain looked doubtfully at the group of them with an expression that did not hide his befuddlement at their decision to journey into such a tenebrous place. “Well, suit yerselves. Let’s get ready to sail.”

The boat, a modest vessel with tall masts and an even keel, set sail. For seven days, Silfer spent the daylight hours out on deck, his focus on the wind. Under his magical influence, the sails remained billowed and full. The captain, unaware of the magical presences aboard his ship, noted that his passengers must be good luck, because in seven days, they arrived safely in Silven.

The group bid goodbye to Deklitch and Seeker, with promises to one day meet again in Santharia. Making good time in fair weather, the ship set sail to Kant’ram.

“I don’t understand it,” said the captain to Coren as the Nybelmarian scholar passed near him on deck in his casual perusal of the ship’s activities. “Clear skies, calm seas, steady wind--a sailor couldn’t ask for better conditions. Ya’ll ‘re good luck, for sure.”
 

“Well, not all our luck has been good,” replied Coren, who could not help but glance at Sordoc, who was practicing his interpretive dance on deck. One moment the self-proclaimed minstrel was posing, the next shaking his hips, the next twirling like a top. His dance was impressive through its complete lack of rhythm, its bricolage of conflicting styles, and its poor execution--in short, it was impressive through having absolutely no redeeming quality.

“However,” Coren continued, turning back to the captain who, having followed his companion’s gaze, was now staring at the minstrel in transfixed repulsion. “Most of our luck has indeed been good.”

The captain shook his head to free himself from looking any longer at Sordoc. “For your sake, I hope so, too. Hm. But it seems as though we may have spoken too soon.”

Coren looked up to see what the captain had already descried: just ahead of them was what appeared to be a looming storm. To Coren, it looked like an eerie shadow, where all the sunlight had been snuffed out. And it seemed to be moving toward them at breakneck speed.

“All hands on deck!” shouted the captain, grabbing the helm. “Get yer sorry selves up here, you sea dogs!”

The men hurried up to spy what the captain had seen, and immediately set to work preparing the ship for the storm. The activity above deck caused the passengers to emerge: Silfer, Twen, Fox, Azhira, Rayne, and Eldor, bid by curiosity, came to see what all the shuffle was about.

“What’s going on?” Fox called to the captain.

“Looks like your good fortune has just run out,” called the captain, and nodded to the shadow that was now overtaking the ship. “A storm is upon us!”

Everyone caught their breath--in a single instant, the sun was gone and the air grew cold and wild. The mages turned to see the ocean swell unnaturally. It looked as though the waters were coming alive with something dark and brooding.

“This isn’t any storm,” Rayne said in a low voice, and before her the water surged upward, like a tentacle from the depths. “Fox, Twen!”

Fox and Twen needed no instruction--seeing the arm of water, their car’all flared powerfully. As the wave of water descended upon the ship, Fox pulled away the influence of her element, and Twen turned what remained into steam that blew upward and away.

The captain looked at the group in awe. Coren read his expression. “We are magi from the south; forgive that we did not inform you earlier.” The captain looked at the Nybelmarian uncertainly, and Coren added: “Right now, in this storm, we are your good fortune.”

The mages spread out across the deck. Silfer and Eldor battled with the gusts that spun around the ship like flocks of wild birds, while Rayne and Coren shielded the ship as best they could against the chaos of the sea. Azhira used her modest abilities to support the straining car’all of her companions, and Sordoc, with great skill and ingenuity, hid.

Near the bow of the ship, Twen and Fox, the storm roaring around them, faced the monstrous sea. The water surged again unnaturally, bending and churning like some unworldly creature. They stood before the storm with the fearlessness of Chosen, their wills transforming and diverting each watery blow, protecting the ship and all aboard her.

The crew stood captivated by the sight. They had disregarded the small elf and dainty human as fragile and feminine; now they saw a beautiful and ferocious power in them--a power great enough to bend and fight the monstrous ocean that threatened their ship and their lives.

The battle raged, through the darkness of that unnatural shadow, when suddenly, as quickly as it had come, the seas calmed and the shadow dissipated. The chaotic winds stilled, and sunlight returned. A relieved silence fell on the mages, each wearied significantly from defending the ship, while the crew stood bewildered and amazed by what had transpired.

The mages caught each other’s eyes, and silently retired below deck. The captain watched them in awe, but quickly recovered himself enough to bark orders to his stunned crew, trying to return to normalcy. The crew, still shaken, did their best to comply.

Below deck, the mages convened in Rayne’s quarters. All of them were exhausted, their energy spent, and still visibly shaken by what they had seen.

“It wasn’t natural,” Azhira said, shaking her head. “In all my travels, I have never seen anything like it.”

“At least we finally see it now,” spoke Eldor, his voice gruff and somewhat labored. “We finally see the shadow.”

“Do you think that’s what it was? Do you think whatever caused that storm is also causing the Sleep?” asked Twen. Her weariness had not softened her concern.

“What else could it be?” asked Silfer, leaning against the doorframe of the small room.

“I agree,” said Coren. “It seems whatever we are pursuing is now trying to thwart us.”

Fox nodded. “Well, I suppose we can guess what this means, then.”

“Yes,” said Rayne, looking out quietly. “We’re getting closer.”

***

An early darkness stretched over the northern lands. Candles shown in windows and lanterns threw dim beams into the streets, but no light seemed able to lift the sullenness and brooding of the city of Kant’ram. The denizens who traversed her streets watched quietly and suspiciously as eight figures moved past them in the cold evening.

The presence of these strangers added a tinge of instability to an already precarious peace, like blowing softly on a house of cards. Kant’ram teetered along the edge of a quiet and tenuous harmony between its variegated residents. Dark elves, haughty and cold, comprised the most numerous segment of the population, with orcs a close second, though human traders were not uncommon. The dark elves, with their sensitivity to car’all, regarded the group distrustfully.

The eight found warmth and board in a tavern whose upper levels served as an inn for weary travelers. The bartender and innkeeper, an orc, projected a demeanor that was both genial and guarded, and he welcomed the eight with a tempered smile, speaking to them in an orcish tongue. “What can I do for you travelers?”

“We’re looking for room and board here,” Azhira said. While her orcish was heavily accented, she was the only one among them capable of speaking the language.

“Of course, though I only have two rooms. They’re large enough to lay down bedding, though.”

“That’s fine,” she said, as she placed the payment for the rooms on the bar. The orc, nodding, fetched her the keys to the two rooms.

“What did he say?” inquired Twen, a bit perplexed by a exchange in which so few keys were given.

“Two bedrooms is all they have. Looks like there’ll be a guys’ room and a girls’ room tonight.”

The group shrugged their consent, and began heading upstairs. As Rayne passed by Azhira, the half-elf pressed the keys into the mage’s hand. “I’ll be a moment.”

Rayne glanced at her, but didn’t question. Upstairs, the group split into guys and girls, with the Coren, Silfer, and Eldor looking mildly unhappy to spend the night with Sordoc. While the self-proclaimed minstrel had to constantly be held in check, his overall ebullience had lulled. For all of them there was a foreboding of the future.

Each group set their beds, but bid by hunger and sleeplessness--and curiosity (for Azhira had still not ascended to meet them)--they moved quietly down to the lower-level tavern and found a table to seat them all. In the far corner of the bar, Azhira was speaking intently with an orc in a language none of them knew. The group ordered food and drinks, but only Eldor, hungry and apathetic, seemed immune to the intrigue of their companion’s orcish conversation.

Azhira and the orc finally shook hands and the half-elf turned and met them all at their table, taking a seat at the end.

“What was that all about?” asked Silfer as Azhira settled in.

“I’ve gotten an orcish trader to agree to take us up the Gothkin River to Mount Osthen,” smiled Azhira, and motioned to the bartender to get her a drink.

“You seem to have a plan in place,” noted Coren.

“Well, something of a plan,” said Azhira thoughtfully. “While Kant’ram is relatively safe, the surrounding area is not. Cartashian bears and giant spiders, not to mention dark elves, inhabit Cartash. The safest way to get to Mount Osthen is up through the Gothkin River.”

“Why is it we are headed to Mount Osthen?” inquired Fox.

“It’s our best bet for finding someone who can guide us into the Mists.”

A heavy hush fell over the group, the feeling of dread hanging in the air. Twen’s words came soft and quiet: “So we really headed to the Mists, then,” she said, voicing the realization that was coming slowly and eerily over her companions.

“Where else?” asked Eldor gruffly. “Something as dark and evil as this could only reside in such a place as that.”

Sordoc cleared his throat, and everyone prepared for the worst, but to his companions’ surprise, it wasn’t to sing, but rather to ask, with the innocence of the ignorant, “What is such a place as that?”

“A fair question,” noted Coren. “What will we face when we journey there?”

Azhira sighed, glancing down, her arms crossed in front of her on the table. When she looked up again, her emerald eyes were glistening with the sad and frightening truth of what she had to tell them:

“The Mists are some of the most dangerous lands in all of Caelereth, a place where the fabric of the Dream is thin and weak from the influence of the dreaded Dark Winds Portal. The Portal was built long ago, the legend says, by rogue dark elves after the fall of Fa’av’ca’lar with the intent of bringing the darkness and chaos of Coor into the world. From the Portal, the mists seeped out like a deathly plague upon the earth, and the influence of darker beings from the netherworlds sunk their claws into the ground, stealing from it all fertility and life.

“Nothing beautiful grows in the land anymore. The trees have turned black as coal, and almost all shrubs have withered away. The only things left are eerie and putrid. The creatures stalking through the mist are dangerous and foul. Slimers are one of the more dangerous--pools of ooze that kill in truly sickening ways, and beings like the G’hun’Murta-oc, or Cursed Dead, who walk lifeless, haunted, and festering. The Mists blanket the land, a poisonous vapor, infecting everything, deranging those who journey too deeply into it, twisting the mind until it can never find peace again.”

Azhira had trailed off, her eyes looking misty and haunted as thought she were recalling a nightmare. She blinked and returned to the present, in the small, cold little tavern-inn in the shaded city of Kant’ram. Her companions, though, were silent, a deep feeling of dread passing shadows over their hearts.

Silfer was the first among them to speak. “It sounds as though we have much against us. We will need to be prepared for what lies ahead of us.”

“The best preparation is a good rest,” Coren added.

“I agree,” said Silfer. “Let us not worry about the obstacles we face until we must face them.”

The group nodded their agreement and paid for their drinks, then one by one ascended the stairs into their appropriate rooms. For long minutes, each individual lay quietly in bed, thinking on the road ahead and conscious that, in the next bed over, a companion, sleepless as well, thought on the very same thing. Not a word was uttered, and soon each fell asleep.

It was in the blackness of the night that Silfer awoke, plagued by the prophesizing predilections of his element. He could not read the signs crisply, but felt something in the wind. The future was a streak of black before him. He felt emotions like echoes moving backward in time. Fear, sorrow, and apprehension overwhelmed him like a cold gale.

He rose from his bed, unable to stay still and eager to ensure his companions were safe and accounted for. He looked across the faces of his companions: Coren, Eldor, Sordoc, all asleep. He left the room and peered briefly into the adjacent room. Azhira, Twen, and Fox all slept soundly, but Rayne’s bed was empty. With the delicacy of his element, he closed the door, and looked down the hall. At the far window, the wind mage saw the lithe figure of Rayne looking out the window. Her eyes were full of something quiet and deep.

He walked to her silently, and she glanced back to see him. They did not speak; they did not have to. He stood next to her, and they both looked out the window to where invisible clouds occluded the moonlight and all the stars.

Silfer knew what she knew. Some horrible was coming. He felt it in the air.
***

The moments passed like hours.

His body decorated with scars and clothes sewn from the hide of unknown creatures, his neck adorned with a necklace comprising the skulls of birds, his expression cold and unmoving, the battle-ready orcish leader of the Noq Vak’hol clan stared at the group with narrowed eyes that glinted harshly in the flickering torchlight. Behind him stood his orcish warriors, silent and still.

He looked at each member of this small party, carefully judging their strength and prowess, and found them each lacking. The group was weary from their journey up the Gothkin River, and had not eaten well while aboard. The orc’s eyes returned to Azhira’s, who stared back bravely, if not somewhat uncertainly. The orc spoke with a deep, cavernous voice: “You wish you journey into the Mists?”

“Yes,” said Azhira. This was the third time he had asked the question.

The orc did not seem to believe what he was hearing. “You wish to go into the Mists of Osthemangar with this group?”

Azhira nodded affirmatively. “We have come across the Tandalas and the Kuglimz land, through the Shaded wood and across Caael’Heroth.”

“The Mists is far more dangerous than anything you have faced.”

“We know the risks,” the half-elf insisted.

“Do you?” the orc shot back, his eyes cold and burning. “Do you know the kind of evil that lies there? I have lived all my life here beside the Mists. I have seen a hundred men meet their death in that tainted land. They were strong and skilled, and then lived and died for the glory of the hunt. What will you live and die for?”

Azhira stood tall; the question renewed in her the dedication to their mission: “A shadow has arisen from that land, from where the Dark Winds Portal stands. It has reached across this world and is taking our young ones from us, wrapping them in a cold sleep from which they do not awake. Our friends and students, it is taking them one by one, and we must stop it before it is too late.”

The orc stared at Azhira and did not speak, but his eyes appeared softer. He glanced away. “Your young ones, you say?” he asked, and Azhira nodded quietly.

The orc paused for a moment. “I have seen many a young orc journey into the Mist and not return. The terrors there have stolen from me my own flesh and blood, my young son who journeyed too close the Mists’ edge. Now I find that, even many leagues away, it is still killing those not yet old enough to know to hunt, or avoid being hunted.”

The orc then gestured to one of his men. “Kmul’uck is one of our best trackers and traders, and he knows a bit of your tongue.” The orc named Kmul’uck obeyed his leader and came to stand beside him, looking at the group. He was taller and leaner than most of the others. “He will take you north along the Mists’s rim, along the side of the mountain range. He will direct you to from there how to reach the Portal, but he will not guide you into the Mists. Yours is not our hunt.”

Azhira nodded. “That will be suitable. We will leave tomorrow at daybreak.”

Kmul’uck nodded. “I will be ready.”

“You may stay in our village the night, and we will give you food and shelter,” replied the orcish leader.

“Thank you for your hospitality.” Azhira nodded, and turned to leave. The others followed her queue and began to file out the door.

Just then the orcish leader spoke once more. “And young half-elf...”

Azhira glanced back. “Yes?”

There was a strange softness in the orc as he spoke: “Good luck.”

When the day broke, the group arose, renewed and reaffirmed in their mission. With Kmul’uck to guide them, they began northward along the mountain range just west of the Mists. Traveling along the foothills, they espied the Mists below, stretching out like a ghostly haze that hid all features of the land. Occasionally a gnarled, black tree or broken column seemed to emerge from the shifting fog, then the mists would rise like a tide, and it would be gone, swallowed again.

The group hiked during the day and even into the evening. At night, Twen would create a fire that burned hotly but produced only a faint light, so as not to draw attention. Around the dim fire, the group would collect and Kmul’uck would speak to them in broken Tharian:

“Long ago, Mists came not so far. Now it bigger, come farther up mountainside,” he explained, gesturing to help communicate his message. “Since twelve moons ago, it grow dark. Few sunshine. Many shadow. Before loud noises, beasts howling, calling. Now it silent, like death.”

“Or like sleep,” added Silfer, thinking about the students back at Ximax.

“Or like sleep,” repeated Kmul’uck. “Unless you sleep like Hori’shan.”

Fox glanced at Kmul’uck questioningly. “What kind of beast is a Hori’shan?”

“Hori’shan my wife,” Kmul’uck explained, and the group chuckled. Despite the darkness through which they were journeying, their orcish guide, young and cheerful, kept them in good spirits.

“Have the Mists grown more dangerous?” asks Coren.

“Yes, much more dangerous. Harder to hunt. Beasts we hunt now hide. They afraid, but not of us. They afraid for the darkness. The darkness came, the darkness growing.”

Eldor felt the memory of his nightmares re-emerge at the guide’s words: “The darkness?”

“Yes. Darkness come. We see growing. Lies where you go, at Dark Winds Portal.”

“Then you have seen it?” asked Twen.

“Yes and no. I see, but I not see. I see shadow. I see nothing.”

Rayne sighed a little, and glanced to the side. “I suppose we should not expect it to look like anything else.”

“You go to fight it?”

“If we can,” Silfer said.

“I know you powerful mages from south,” said Kmul’uk, glancing around the crowd. “And you,” he said to Azhira, “wise guide and magic-user. But you...” Here he looked at Sordoc. “What you?”

Sordoc looked befuddled to suddenly be addressed--and to have someone ask him what he was! He jumped up with alacrity and posed. “Why, Sordoc the Great is an amazing singer and performer, known throughout Southern and now Northern Santharia for his inspirational music, his innovative dance, and his breathtaking good-looks.”

Kmul’uk struggled to follow the quick-talking minstrel. “You music?”

“Sordoc--Well, yes. Sordoc... music.”

“You play song?”

“Sordoc would be pleased to play for you one of his awe-inspiring arias.” Here he cleared his throat, and the group prepared for the worst. And sure enough, Sordoc began on a sour note:

While traveling through an autumn plain
with grasses pale and flaxen
Sordoc spied a glorious train
of traveling wooly paxen”

Eldor, unwilling to take any more, caused the stillness of Earth to dominate the minstrel’s vocal chords. Sordoc choked, and Rayne reversed the effect, then added: “The air is just too cold up here. You will damage your vocal chords to sing.”

“That singing?” Kmul’uk looked at them in slight disgust. “I glad I no live in Santharia. North dangerous to body, but south bad to mind.” The group chuckled.

After a week of hiking, the group reached the edge of the Mists closest to the Dark Winds Portal. From where they stood on the mountainside, they could see it--a looming tower where shadow churned, surrounded by a sea of mist. Kmul’uck instructed them how best to proceed, but parted with them there. Even for a Noq Vak’hol, this land too dangerous to hunt.

“Good luck, my friends,” Kmul’uck said earnestly as they parted. “And may Durgho protect you.”
 


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