CHAPTER VI

A SANTHARIAN FANFICITION

 
Adventure of the Northern Shadows   
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Introduction. The adventurers journey into the mists, and there face perilous dangers, nightmarish creatures, and unseen terrors. However, they know the worst is yet to come.

 

gainst the mountain, the mists lay thick and imposing. The journey into them was nothing like the journey into a wood, whose adventurous, youthful trees sprout up along the rim to create an easy transition from the open sunlight of the plain into the shaded twilight of the forest. Stepping into the mists was like stepping into a lake, whose dark brooding waters jolt into one’s bones a harsh chill. One step into the mists was as a thousand steps in any other terrain, so drastically did the scenery change.

The group huddled together, keeping watch over the outlines of companions and seeking out the stray, unfamiliar figures seen out of the corner of the eye. These eldritch shadows, coupled with the deep, distant calls of some otherworldly creature and the thin, soft sound of rustling all around, filled each member of the group with a numb terror. They walked in silence for several hours until Eldor finally spoke.

“What an eerie place,” said the earth mage gruffly.

“It’s so… imposing,” commented Twen, who seemed uncomfortable, fidgeting slightly as though with an itch. “I can feel the mists messing with my car’all.”

“Me, too,” spoke Silfer as the group slowed down. “I keep trying to readjust, to undo the damage, but we cannot do this forever.”

Coren spoke as the group huddled around to discuss the options. “We need to figure out how we will battle this mist, or we’re done for.”

“Done for?” asked Sordoc fearfully.
 

“Yes. We’ll go insane,” explained Azhira. “If we don’t do something soon, we’ll all lose it—start singing crazy songs and playing invisible instruments and dancing without rhythm or mus—” Azhira halted, realizing who she was speaking to, and then said, “We’ll go insane.”

“Oh,” said Sordoc obliviously.

“What can we do?” asked Rayne.

After a moment of perplexed silence, Fox glanced to Rayne with a look of gentle curiosity. “Rayne, whatever happened to those vials the Injerin gave to us? Those that turned clear with the addition of Swing’s tears?”

Rayne’s expression turned almost child-like for an instant, and then she immediately dug one of the vials out of her bag and held it up. It’s clear contents seem to glisten, and the Xeua mage looked at Fox. “… Do you suppose?”

The two mage’ eyes met for an instant, and Rayne looked at the vial and took in a breath. “Well, here goes nothing.” With a quick swig, she swallowed the contents of the vial.

The party gasped a little—all save Sordoc, who could tell no difference. All about the dark-haired elven mage appeared a kind of ‘dummy’ car’all, the illusion of a car’all that acted like a reflection of the mists around her. For those who knew Rayne, her true car’all shone through, beyond the fake car’all about her.

“Ingenious!” said Silfer, fascinated by the effect.

Rayne reached her willpower into the false guise about her, but changed nothing. She could feel how delicate it was. The others watched her with fascination—again, save Sordoc, who had found the tracks of some strange beast, and was marking them with a stick.

Azhira spoke to the others with concerned insistence: “Everyone, drink!”

Sordoc looked up. “But Sordoc isn’t thirsty!”

“It will…” The half-elf paused, and rather than try to explain, Azhira decided to convince, “It’s good for your vocal chords.”

“Oh! In that case…” Sordoc took and drank the vial.

As the illusory car’all materialized, the true car’all of every member of the party slowly returned to normal.

“Well, at least that’s one thing we don’t have to worry about,” said Coren.

Fox glanced at the Nybelmarian. “What other things do you think we might have to worry ab—?”

The water mage’s words were cut off as, from the mists, what appeared as a giant snake leapt out of the mists toward her, its jaw open wide showing razor teeth. Sordoc squealed in terror, diving behind Azhira as Eldor, showing surprising speed and dexterity, froze the creature in mid-leap, along with strange webbing coming from a yellowish skin flap along its back.

There was a moment of shock, both from the creature’s sudden appearance and from Eldor’s surprising celerity.

“What is it?” asked Twen. The creature looked like a giant snake with putrid green skin and a bone spine trailing along its back.

“The spine wyrm,” said Azhira. “I’ve never seen one—only heard of them from rumors.” She was staring, her eyes following every detail of the beast, from the slitted, yellow orbs of its eyes to the slender, tapering end of its tail. “This here,” she said, pointing to the webbing that was emerging from the creature’s skin flap, “this is a poison, they say. I know that it can trap and entwine prey. It may have other uses, too. No doubt nasty stuff.”

“Well, better kill it before it kills you,” insisted Eldor. Twen reluctantly tossed a fireball at it as Silfer sent a lightning ball, and the creature collapsed, lifeless.

“We better continue on,” Azhira said solemnly. “We need to make headway before night falls.”

As day waned, the group found shelter near some ruins of broken columns and a crumbling watchtower. Eldor and Rayne worked to create an invisible shield about camp, one that would keep the creatures of the mists out, or at least deter their entrance. Like all things in the mists, the shield would not last, but it would give them some semblance of security, at least for the night.
***

Despite the shield, the group decided it would be best to have lookouts through the night, and so they arranged shifts. Twen took the first shift, offering to help keep the fire going until the others had nodded off. She sat in the darkness on a broken column, looking out across the mists, her mind wandering to the students she had seen taken with the sleep. In moment like these, when night seemed blackest and the future seemed most dreary, these memories kept her going by reminding her of what she was fighting for.

As the night grew late, she saw shadowy figures wandering through the mists. She squinted to see them, but the haze of Osthemanger hid them from view. They appeared ragged, slow, and lost.

“They’re the G’hun’Morta-oc, the Cursed-Dead,” said a voice from behind her, so soft and gentle that it did not startle the fire mage. Twen turned to see Azhira, who came to sit beside her. “You were suppose to wake me for my shift.”

Twen smiled. “I know, but you looked so peaceful.”

Azhira smiled at the fire mage’s kindness, then looked out at the figures again. “I feel sorry for those souls. Trapped between the living and the dead. How does that happen? What of their car’all keeps them like that?”

Twen shrugged. “I can’t say for sure. Their state is tied to the universal Car’all, the Car’all that binds all things together. In theory, if they have come close to the netherworld, then perhaps some of their links with that world have turned soor, the will of the Mists overriding their own will. Perhaps they are now forever tied to the Netherworld, their bodies and souls overwhelmed by a will greater and stronger than their own, reducing them to victims of its sway.”

“Then they are forced to play by the rules of two worlds? How confusing and draining that must be. How miserable.”

“I would kill them if I could, out of pity, but I cannot break a connection I cannot see. The links between our world and the Netherworld are invisible to us. As powerful as we might become, there are some things we cannot know; and perhaps some things we wouldn’t want to.”

Azhira nodded quietly, and both women sat quietly for a long time, staring out together, until finally the half-elf spoke. “You should get to bed. We have a lot of ground to cover tomorrow.”

Twen nodded. “You’re right. Thank you for relieving me of my shift.”

“Thank you for giving me a few extra minutes of sleep,” smiled Azhira.

As Twen retired into her bed, Azhira lit a small candle in the night and removed her notebook. She began jotting down the description of the spine wyrm, and tried not to wonder quietly to herself if she and her companions would ever find their way to civilization again. She paused briefly in her notes, suddenly thinking of another researcher who had journeyed into the mists, the renown Gratcha Swath, and wondered if she, too, would lose her mind here, if all that would be left of her was a few notes scribbled in a notebook.

The half-elf took in a deep breath of the night air, feeling the mists moving the illusion-car’all around her, and watching the G’hun’Morta-oc wander about restlessly. They would vanish for long moments, and then re-emerge again, like goldfish in large, hazy tank.

Azhira heard soft rustling behind her, and glanced back to see Fox, whose calm gaze and fluid movements made the half-elf smile, relieved to see a bit of beauty in a place so filled with ugliness.

Fox smiled back and came to sit with her. “Are you writing?”

“Just a few research notes, though it’s hard to concentrate.” Azhira nodded to the figured. “The G’hun’Morta-oc are out, half-dead and lost.”

“Half-dead?”

“So they say. Twen said that they perhaps have soor connections to the Netherworld, and it keeps them in this limbo state.”

“She’s probably right.” Fox said, looking out. Her presence was calm and comforting, though her eyes hinted at troubled waters just beneath her placid surface. “I should never wish to come so close to death without being taken by it entirely. It seems like such a tortured existence, to be so cognizant of those connections.”

Azhira glanced at the water mage. “Twen explained that there were some connections we could never know, like the ones between this world and the Netherworld.”

Fox nodded. “We cannot make soor connections between this world and the Netherworld, because we don’t know how to reach these connections, and we do not know what we’re connecting to.”

“Do we ever? Is there ever a way to connect to them? Other than being reduced to one of these cursed dead?”

“Not really. Only in death does your car’all change, and perhaps only then do you make soor connections to those distant worlds. It is your will that maintains the connections in your car’all. When that will dissipates, the connections shift.”

“I suppose these Cursed-Dead have lost that will.” There was a brief pause. “I should get to sleep.”

Fox nodded serenely. “I will see you in the morning.”

As Azhira took to bed, Fox glanced out into the mists. She signed gently, allowing a soft glimmer of sadness to flutter inside her. She was always so safe, so to find herself in a chilling northern territory, surrounded by beasts and cursed beings who roamed restless through the night, was a peculiar circumstance for her.

She closed her eyes, reflecting fondly on the academy, and felt her heart ache a little to return to the beautiful spires of her home. She wondered how many the sleep had taken now. The desire to help her students and colleagues rose above her homesickness, and she opened her eyes, looking out at the terrain with a renewed strength. Her eyes watched every stirring shadow without fear. She heard Coren rise out of bed and come to sit beside her, yawning a bit.

“Anything of note?” he asked gently.

Fox shook her head with a smile. “Surprisingly quiet. Only the Cursed-Dead roaming.”

“The Cursed-Dead? The creatures Azhira spoke of at the tavern?”

Fox nodded.

Coren took in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “They are an eerie reminder of what might await us.”

Fox looked at them sadly. Then were wandering off, back into the darkness of the mists. “Can you do anything for them? Change the possibilities to give them a gentler fate?”

Coren shook his head gently. “The past is extraordinarily hard to change. Once something happens, it causes a chain reaction, like tri-bones cascading, and the longer the time, the harder it is to reverse. Death, particularly a death like theirs, is nearly impossible to reverse. If I had the power, I would undo all of this.”

“I just wish a place like this never arose to threaten the world with shadow, but I suppose it is futile to wish for things not to be as the are.”

“This is true,” said Coren. “We have what we are given. While we cannot change the past, we all have the power to change the future, whether we are mage or king or peasant. It is the great gift we are all given, to determine our futures, to have a choice in the reality manifested.”

Fox smiled at Coren and nodded. “It is a great gift.”

“So is the gift of sleep.”

Fox nodded quietly, suddenly realizing how tired she had become. “Yes. I think I will retire. Goodnight, Coren.”

“Goodnight, Fox.”

Fox drifted away to bed, and Coren sat upon the broken column alone; restless, he stood up to peer into the foggy mists. His manner was calm, but his mind steered through possibilities, as they often did, and he wondered what the possibility was that they would make it all out of here alive. He glanced back at his companions asleep, and took comfort. After all, he was no stranger to travel, to being away from familiar places. This unlikely group had become like a family, and he knew their friendship would be their greatest strength.

Just then he heard something moving nearby, just behind the invisible wall. He looked to see a spine wyrm slithering past, its yellow eyes cold and dull. It glanced to where Coren stood absolutely still, and seemed to stare straight through him. After a moment, it slithered away into the darkness. The Nybelmarian felt himself breath again.

He moved to the edge of camp and took a seat again. After a moment, he heard a gruff voice from behind him: “You look tired. Go to bed.”

Eldor walked over with his cane and settled down next to the Nybelmarian. Coren smiled at the grumpiness of the old man. “I’m a little tired,” he admitted. “Though I believe that potion the Injerin gave us may hide us from some of the creatures here, or at least mask us a little.”

“Oh?” said the old man, peering at Coren. “That so?”

“I cannot tell for sure, but I believe so. Not long ago a spine wyrm passed here, and though he saw me, he did not attack.”

“Hm!” said Eldor contemplatively. “It’s possible that the car’all may fool, not only the mists, but the creatures within it. They are, after all, probably intimately connected.”

“Yes. I suppose it was our voices that attracted the one who attacked us.”

“Well, as long as we can keep that fumbling minstrel in check, we’ll be fine, then.”

“Heh. I suppose so.”

“You look tired,” commented Eldor again, though this time there was something almost kind in his voice. “You should go to bed.”

Coren nodded. “Goodnight, Eldor.”

“G’night.”

Eldor clutched his cane in both old, wrinkled hands, pressing the tip into the earth with the weight of his arms. He took in a deep breath and watched, wondering what was out there and what waited for them. He was so old, and this trip had been so long. All that had occurred wearied part of him, but true to his element, he had remained solid and stubborn. He was grateful to that persevering, unyielding part of him. Though it had taken him from familiar lands into dangerous terrain, it had given him new companions, and though he would not admit it to them, he cared deeply for each of them, and admired them each immensely.

As the night wore on, he could not help but worry over the coming days. Each step took them close to the darkness, and his heart sunk at the thought of losing any of his young friends. His worry was so consuming and thoughts so deep that he hardly noticed Silfer as the wind page settled beside him. The two sat in silence for a moment, then the elven mage spoke: “You look concerned.”

“You look tired,” Eldor countered.

Silfer smiled, chuckling a little. “Has it been quiet?”

“Coren said he had seen one of those damned snake creatures pass by, but I haven’t seen anything. Just the darkness.”

Silfer nodded, then quietly asked, “Are you still dreaming of the shadow?”

“Every night.”

“Nothing changes?”

“They are getting darker… heavier.”

“I, too, feel a darkness,” Silfer said. “It is not uncommon for mages of the Wind school to see what is to come.”

Eldor glanced at his fellow mage curiously through bushy brows. “What is it you see?”

“It is not so much what I see as what I feel. It is an aching, a kind of terror and sorrow, the feeling of my heart sinking. I have a deep foreboding about what we may find at the Dark Winds Portal, and despite all my optimism, I admit I am afraid.”

Eldor sighed. “So am I.”

There was silence between them for a long moment, then Silfer spoke, “You look tired.”

Eldor smiled despite himself. “Yes, I suppose I am, and I suppose I need my sleep.” The old man rose to his feet. “After all,” said the old man as he walked back to his bed, “if I don’t get my sleep, I get grumpy.”

Silfer chuckled a little, and spoke softly: “Goodnight, Eldor.”

Once the old man had retired, Silfer looked out at the mists, taking on his role as lookout. While the presage of things to come weighed heavily on him, he tried not to worry. Pragmatically, he had kept his mind on the task at hand, but when night settled and his thoughts wandered, he always returned inevitably to the echo of that feeling, and the knowledge that the worst was yet to come. And were they ready for what was in store?

He closed his eyes and took in a breath. There would be a battle—but against who or what, he could not say. But whatever it was, he knew it was out there and it knew they were coming. He glanced back just as the lithe form of a dark-haired elf approached. She sat beside him on the broken column, and they looked out together into the mists.

Silfer sighed and glanced to his old friend. To others, it might not have been as noticeable, but to him, who had known her so well for so long, he sensed something in her. “You know something.”

Rayne glanced at him quietly. “You do, too.”

“What is it you know, Alyr?”

“Not nearly enough,” she said, glancing down, then up at the mists. “But I sense what you sense.”

“No, something is different. You know something.”

Rayne glanced at him again, and then out at the terrain blanketed in mist. “I am frightened, Silfer.”

Silfer sighed. “I am, too.” He looked at her, and she met his eyes. “We have been friends a very long time, and I will be there to fight beside you when the time comes. You know this.”

Rayne smiled, her eyes tinged with a sad sort of gratitude. “I know.”

Silfer nodded. “I should be to bed.” He kissed the elf on the top of her head, and then turned to his bed. “Goodnight, Alyr.”

“Goodnight, Silfer.”

Rayne looked out into the mists, deep in thought. They had journeyed so far into such dangerous territory, many leagues from where they had begun. Months had passed now since any of them had seen the tall spires of the Academy, the familiar gardens, the students robed in colors indicative of their school. But she was a Xeua mage, and knew that all things were connected, and that all connections were ahm or soor. The Dark Winds Portal, with its teeming darkness, was only a little ways off, but in the world of xeua, it was neither closer nor farther than the Academy. The links between her and them were the same, and this somehow comforted her.

Rayne sat upon the broken column until the sunlight broke, dull and distant, in the west. As the others awoke, they found her there, tired but travel-ready. While each of the mages was a little wearier for having manned lookout for a period of the night, no one seemed to mind letting Sordoc sleep the night without pulling a shift. There was, among all of them, the fear that left to his own devices he might start singing, putting them all in grave danger, both in body and in mind.
 


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