OF THE DEMON
he canopy of darkness covering the plateau surrounding Hol'mangar caused the moon to cast darts of light sporadically in and out of the trees. Together the wyvern attack had been unwarranted and without warning. The teeth of the monster had sunk into his leg, more than he had expected. In time a scar would appear, but he would include it, with the many scars that already decorated his body. It was rather surprising that even though the bite had removed some of the flesh and came close to crunching part of the bone the venom for the most part had left his leg intact, and he was still able to walk. The fang-like teeth had come within a whisker of disabling him permanently. These are not a pack of misguided wyrms, he thought, but they have been trained.
Another inch more perhaps, and he halted in conscious thought as his horse bolted maddeningly away, knocking him from the saddle. The giant wyvern swooped in, pulling its huge wings out to come from a heavy dive. It cast a momentary shadow of darkness, in a night that save for the light of the moon, had already given in to the dark long ago. The pressure of its wing blew forth like a gust of a strong air, blowing him sideways. He quickly wheeled around and impaled it into its soft underbelly. The wyvern grimaced with pain, and screamed in its final moment of mortality. A deafening roar that shook the very ground around Ergoth's body. The serpent lashed its tail out in desperation at him in a futile attempt, nearly wrenching his sword away. He raised his shield, but thankfully watched the barbed tail whistle aimlessly over his head.
The wyvern entered the fray in the shimmer of the moonlight, littering the forest floor with broken branches, and bits of foliage with its massive wings. The green colors of its scales glistening in the moons reflection, seemingly impenetrable plates of armor. From its mouth and nostrils shot forth raging flames, lighting the trees like dried parchment. The immenseness of its body moved with all the heedlessness of a bushhog, but with all the purposes of rage. Without hesitation, he grabbed his crossbow and fired. The deadly bolt sailed swiftly through the air on its fatal mission, impacting the wyvern in its breast-scales, and bowling it over, splashing its darkened blood on the littered rocks of the clearing. It was dead before it hit the ground. As he turned, another drake suddenly appeared. This one tried to plunge its venomous fangs into his chest, but he managed to grasp it just on the knob of its chin. It was close enough, so close that he could feel the heat of its body. Its hot breath burning his face, and its acid-like spittle blinding him with every grunt and spray, while it sought a toe hold with its hind legs. The thermal crackling of its nostrils rented the nighttime as it readied to launch a fiery attack. He groped for his dragon-dagger in the folds of his belt, and gripping its hilt, with a last second maim-lunge, sent the creature to its death.
For a moment there was silence, while he searched the sky for more. There was a temporary lull and the silence was broken as his horse came rushing on, screaming in fear with a smaller wyvern attached to her neck. Its fanged-like jaws clamped on, like a vice. Its ravenous thirst for blood burning in its eyes. The wyvern's scales were like bright green tiles of sharpened slate, composed to produce a much more sleeker look. A view no, less deceiving, then if it were ten times that size. It's, crocodilian jaw twisting, right and left, in a rapid snarl. The mare crashed down with small splotches of indigo and crimson, already forming on her neck. Her reins had become entangled with the bramble on the ground, in her struggle for freedom. The wyvern looked up from its frenzied grasp, and Ergoth could see through the glow of the moonlight, the red coloured froth and the sickly drool, forming around the serpent like lips. He swung his crossbow around once more and fired. The bolt glided toward the drake, the sharpened metal tip puncturing its long winding neck, and Ergoth smiled as the gushing blackish bile spewed forth. He watched, as the soulless eyes turned to grey, and its spirit left.
While he stood, and considered the loss of his mount, his ears, which were abnormally keen, almost didn't hear the stealthy approach from behind. Ergoth crouched and rolled to the side, but not in time, for he felt the warm trickle of blood dampen his tunic on his neck. Any deeper and... Again there was no time for conscious thought. The enemy sword flashed, but he blocked it with the hilt of his own weapon. He butted the foe back with his shoulder, almost knocking the breath completely from his lungs. Ergoth gasped at the realization. This was no ordinary foe. It walked on two legs, but it also contained a type of agility not found in an ordinary man. The clatter of armour alerted Ergoth to his presence and another slash nearly nicked his arm. The figure, although dressed by the nights darkness, was silhouetted by the moon. He could see a grimace of fury in every swing as another came slashing through the air, but he was ready this time, and seasoned fingers found the hilt of a cleverly concealed poniard in his boot. His shield blocked the enemy, and on his follow through, thrust the blade into its ribs. (It was like breaking the ribbon at the finish line.)
His adversary dropped to the ground like a stone, his eyes still open, and his combatant took one last look at this world. In its death, he gave Ergoth one final glare of mortal hatred, his teeth made a formal "rasping" sound and then quickly its eyes closed, never to open again. He was not dead, but his heart still beat, even though his lungs had stopped holding air. Ergoth wiped the moist blood from his neck. He usually felt a heavy sadness at times like these, it was never easy to see death, and yet this was different. He had actually smelled the lives taken. He wondered how many had suffered at these hands, and yet it was true: He felt no remorse. It was a good death...
There was a rustle in the bushes and Ergoth startled. He swung around again, with his sword in hand, but surprisingly it was his mare. He was amazed that her blood still ran. Her whimpering sounds were like that of someone finding home after many years. She neighed with acknowledgement when he knelt beside her. The splotches of indigo and crimson on her neck had grown darker and more prominent. He petted her flank, knowing that the only amount of comfort he could truly give, was to cut the ragged line of life that connected her to this world. Her whole reasons for living at that moment were based on her first and last breath. He grimaced with remorse, at a remembered bond he had shared with the horse. No longer would her hooves flash, or would she feel the breeze of the wind. Her eyes pealed to the right and left, like some hunters. Almost instinctively she looked up as if to ask: ‘Why?’ With a small prayer he cursed the very legions of evil, and doused his sword in the mare's body. When he retrieved it, there was an eerie glow on his wet blade. The blood from the mare still pulsed, with life.
Ergoth descended down into the valley that separated the Karma'Goor mounts and the plateau. The road slowly threaded its way downwards the plateau, shouldered on both sides by the tall mountains. He noticed the temperature was significantly warmer now, but there was still a bite to the air that could not be ignored. The transcending leaves from the usual green of summer to the shifting colour of fall, was just starting to happen. He desperately wanted sleep. Every bone and limb pined with the ache of tiredness, and cast away was any thought of guarding for the night. Far off the spires of Hol'mangar loomed up like large blades of granite. A good three days yet, he thought, considering the strength of the wind. Faint gusts of bitter aeration bristled through the trees, signifying the coming of winter. In time the hills and mountains would be crested with sheets of white, melted only by the warmth of the sun.
The clouds with their slight tinges of blue were just sprouting the skyline when Ergoth finally collapsed on the rocky ground. The last thing he remembered were the sounds of the birds and animals saying their good mornings, and the whistling of wind, trying to find a weakness in the branches of the surrounding trees.
It was late afternoon when Ergoth awoke, his legs and various joints were sore, and he wondered why the cold ground in all its hardness felt so good. An outpouring of memory jarred him awake as his leg started to throb, followed by a piercing bolt of pain rippling up his limb. Still groggy and not wanting to rise he envisioned his house back home, lifting bails of wheat into the cupboard, preparing for the long harsh winter. The lifting made him tired and it was days before he really felt rested, even then he never really recovered from his stupor. Of course it never mattered then and it didn't matter now, and some people even said that his whole life was spent on the edge of madness.
He glanced around at the grey bleakness surrounding him. There was a structure to the rocky floor that he hadn't noticed before. The light breeze was a soothing relief to the brassy pebbles, laying about in there enduring strength. Off in the distance he could see the Caaehl mountains on the island of Kalra'Goor, spotting the horizon like sharply peaked teeth. The plateau of open air was an invitation to stay.
Off in the distance a single, solitary figure was approaching. Not quite the same height as Ergoth but surprisingly enough, almost the same breadth, and yet it was a woman. From his distant vantage point he noticed, that the make of her clothing was modestly uncomplicated. She appeared to wear no armour, as though its need was unnecessary. She wore a dress whose material bounded around her like loosely knit fabric, and yet was as rigid as cotton. Over the dress was a low collared leather tunic, supple and cut at a mid waist to allow full movement. She wore high boots, polished to an ebony shine that gave her a dignified look. Her chocolate coloured hair was separated into two large braids that the sun could only catch in its sheen. A peasant and yet in all truth there was an unquestionable air about her, as though she was more than what she seemed. As she drew near, he noticed a short sword hanging negligently by her side, convenient if the need ever occurred.
"Hello there stranger!" she said, and Ergoth noticed a mild inquisition in her question.
"Hello," he replied.
"Got a name?" she asked, only this time there was more punctuation.
"Yes... " He hesitated... Should he reveal his name so soon?, he thought. It was such a new land, but instinctively he stuttered, "Yes... Ergoth Winlok..." This was half right because his best friend’s name was Winlok.
And before he could ask her about her own name, another question was asked: "What brings you this way?"
His reply was that he was attacked by drakes on his way to Hol’mangar. He added that he was wounded and that he sought an inn where he could rest. At the same time he wondered why she was asking so many questions. When he asked if there was an inn nearby, he asked in such a way that he was actually familiar with the territory, but had simply forgotten, when in fact he had never been here before.
"Yes," said the peasant woman. "Go directly south till you come to a sort of junction and then go west."
Ergoth was about to ask her to be more specific, but was afraid of exposing his ignorance. As it turned out it didn't really matter. He noticed that in her answer she had already captured the apprehension in his voice.
The path to the inn was more like a network of paths all blemished, with chipped pock marks of uneven ground. Another path with less frequent use was smoother, and the branches hung down like wiffle trees. Large stones were haphazardly placed along the sides of the path, as if on purpose to mark the way. He walked left and then right. It seemed like an endless maze. There was another left, the path arced around the corner and finally he stood in front of the inn. Dangling down in a torn fashion and swinging in the breeze was the inn's sign. The sign was mostly worn away, but he could just make out the last part. It said ‘Tree’.
The building was nothing special really. It was surrounded by few ruined tenements, and jutted outcrops. The windows were called window banes, and had grooved etchings, purposely made in their panes so that it looked more regal. Much to the discomfort of the frequent patrons, because it let little light in. The chimney was surprisingly small, but the dispersing smoke that slowly curled up spoke of a peaceful place.
Ergoth tied his cloak around himself tighter from the chill of the night air, and entered the door. He had never been in an inn before, so the furrowed carvings in the wall mostly went unnoticed. However, the smell of incense that tried in vain to mask the acrid odour of the many merchants and patrons that frequented the inn didn't. The beams, although pleasant smelling, were also overpowered by the smell of the burning incense, creating a distinct sour odour. There were deep draw marks in the wood surrounding the room which implied its usage and usefulness, a time since long expired. Along the walls candles melted away, in some places building up into small neat piles. Insects found the edges of these little piles warm, and more than one made their homes there. The inn was mostly deserted. A minstrel sat by the door playing his lute, a poor attempt at begging for food, although the tune was melodic and comforting. His ballad was a sad one. It was the legendary song ‘The Curse of the Orcs’, unfortunately a rather woeful diatribe, that was not very heroic. So it had the expectant affect - the inn was quite empty.
“In this land, there is a fear,
If you're not careful, it does draw near.
There are no tales of a greater foe,
If one exists I do not know.
With an awful fury it rapes the land,
It does its work like no man can.
The orcs, the orcs,
They outnumber my men,
They attack our fort,
One man against ten!
The fight rages on for days and days,
The orcs, they come, wave upon wave,
My men grow tired, they grow weak,
The orcs keep coming, it's blood they seek,
If not for the sun, we'd get no rest,
For in the cool of night, orcs fight best.
On the fourth full day, of gross bloodshed,
Our prayers were answered, help finally did arrive.
As the units showed, all the cowardly orcs fled.
But this prayer was forsaken, for few men survived.
The curse of the orcs is a vicious one,
They kill everything, they spare none.
But man will conquer, they will win,
For to give up hope is a mortal sin.”
A stranger sat all alone in the corner table, looking up when Ergoth entered, as if expecting him: A gaunt figure with a goatee whose face was partially covered by the shadow of a brown cloak. He squinted his eyes momentarily, and resumed his vigilance on the table. By the bar was a portly red-faced man with patches of grey in his hair, surrounded by a motley apron that was ready to burst at the seams. He had a short nose that had been broke more than once, with beads of sweat streaming down his face.
"Excuse me, sir," ventured Ergoth.
"What... you want?", boomed the innkeeper. At first it startled Ergoth, but he remembered cowering down many times to his uncles same voice.
"I would like a room, please," he remarked overcoming the intimidation. "I was attacked by wyverns and I need rest." He showed the innkeeper his ragged bandage.
The man repelled back in shock. "You're hurt, boy..." His voice was fluctuating.
It had been a long time since someone had addressed Ergoth as “boy”...
He awoke the next morning to the sounds of chirping birds. Looking up, he gazed out the regal windows and thought to himself: How appropriate to call them ‘window banes’... Stretching out, it seemed every bone cracked in relief. Another reminder of a long and arduous journey.
After thanking his host, he rejoined the crisp outside air. By now the sun was a beacon of light, drifting in and out behind the shadowed trees as morning approached noon. He worked his way back to the plateau, but this time he emerged by a narrow embankment. He could faintly hear the light trickle of water, and the sun was reflecting a sparkling trail off the clear slithering surface of a tiny rill. Although most of the time he kept to the path, a sudden dip in the ground had him slipping in the mud and cursing at the water jetting into his boot. Looking up he could see a small clearing with a pile of broken branches stacked in a circle, shouldered by stones as for a fire. The only thing which really registered was the middays comforting. For a moment Ergoth hesitated, took a few steps forward, promptly slipped and fell again on the mossy slope. Face down his foot became embedded in the watery muck. He reached around and pulled, creating a suction noise as he tried to jerk his leg free. Still, face down.
He was startled by a clattering sound nearby, and when he glanced over, discovered an arrow had bounced off the facing of the rock. When he returned his attention to the clearing, another arrow had skewered his tunic to the ground. Ergoth reached for his sword but grasped in vain, as another arrow pinned his other shoulder down. Lying helplessly with both shoulders pinned to the ground, he gasped in amazement when he snuck a peak from the corner of his eye.
For before him stood a figure swathed in shadow at the far end of the clearing. It made no threatening gesture, but still its shape and form disturbed his vision. It started advancing toward him, and he thought he was viewing his own death. He mused in his final time of life, surrounded only by the darkness of the small valley. The clouds churned and swirled overhead, but no opening of light was found. The wind had just lifted a musty odour off the clearing. Ironically he had never thought it to end this way. In his concluding sadness he recalled a verse, often told by his mother.
“What hand pelts me with its stones?
And breaks and shears my very bones,
What fire burns, but leave undead?
The things I've done, and those I've said,
If this should be my day of reckoning,
Then what bell dongs its infinite rings?
What life walks within the darkness?
Is it life or just the silence?
If confused or much the same,
Then break the darkness with my name.”
Ergoth struggled, and his tunic ripped open with the force. One arm was free, and he shouted the answer, one word: "LIFE."
A hand snaked as quickly as a cat from out of the shadow. He felt himself being lifted off the ground with utmost ease. Instinctively, he tensed, his hand groping for his sword. However the figure spoke, it was the friendly voice of the peasant woman.
"Don't struggle, transient, I am no harm!"
The sound of the word “transient” stung, like burning whips. He thought he deserved, more than that. Hanging in the air, he gurgled out an order: “Put me down!” As the last word escaped his mouth, he realized its folly and his legs buckled with a thud, sending sparks of pain up his leg. He groaned with agony. It was directed more at him than the occasion. The figure just chuckled. It was the peasant woman again.
Ergoth agonizingly rose up from the ground and dusted himself off. He stood hobbling on one leg. His face was engraved with lines of weariness. Eyes nearly squinted shut from the pain, held open only by pride. A feeling through what seemed and felt like many miles. The moonlight sketched out a crude outline of the figure. It was the peasant all right. Instead of a fragile woman though she was dressed like a regaled warrior. The short sword that dangled from her hip was absent. In its place was a two-handed scimitar gleaming with the effervescence of pure silver, conveniently strung across her back. The collared tunic and light breeches were replaced by an armoured suit of Mithril. She wore soft soled foot pads in place of her boots, good for walking and hunting prey. As she pulled back the hood of the Mithril gown, he noticed the chocolate braids had been wrapped up.
Her eyes read Ergoth's thoughts, so it was not surprising when he asked. "Why are you dressed like a warrior?" He also wondered why she was here.
"You're hurt," she said. “Let me see your wound!”
Pealing away the cloth like bandages, she shuddered back in horror, thankful that her face was averted."When did this happen?" she asked.
He recalled what had seemed like centuries. He told her of the battle with the drakes, the loss of his horse, and his fight with the mysterious dark figure. "Two days ago," he uttered.
Again, a series of distressing spasms launched through the muscles of his leg, and he cried out in pain, as his body hit the ground in convulsions. Wrestling with the enveloping darkness he flinched, and then was still. His eyes closed, and a black veil descended over his vision as he found the sweetness of oblivion.
Samandra took a second look at this pale looking elf. He certainly had the height of an elf. He didn't look wild and yet there was a disorder in his countenance that spoke of inner turmoil. Scored with tightened lines and scars, his face had a dappled glimpse of character.
On opening his eyes, the dizzying effects of the spasms prevented his ascent, many times. He gave up after cursing his fate, and remained resting in an upright position. When Samandra was satisfied that he would not move anymore, she spoke again.
"You might as well get comfortable.Yu won't be moving for a while, and I promise no harm will come to you.
Ergoth relaxed a bit, straining through various positions in order to catch a glimpse of this woman. His mind was racing with a multitude of questions. Reading his mind, she answered in anticipation of his question: "To help you, Ergoth..." And if to emphasise her point she repeated again: "To help you."
"To help me? But... but why?" he asked incredulously.
The peasant regarded Ergoths apparent shock, with little interest. "Seek out the Blue Swarm Inn, in Hol'mangar, and everything will be revealed," she said.
The path to the city wove, in a southerly direction. The gnarled trees arching over the path, formed an impromptu passageway, seemingly beckoning forth. Soon, all of his steps were lost in the darkened gloom. Occasionally slivers of moonlight cut through the darkness, but like the sounds of the night, were very infrequent. Moments later the forest trees became sparse, the foliage thinned, and in places even dropped off. The path itself became more smooth, with round stones aligning both sides. Ergoth's body was still sore, but the grand spires of Hol'mangar were a welcome sight.
Story written by Winlok