Chapter Four: Pursuit

           Wraith awoke to the faces of Taria, Jarek, and a stranger all staring down at him. It took him a minute to blink the crust from his eyes enough to realize that it was now nearly noon, and the forest was set alight by the vigorous outpour of sunlight from the sky.

           “You went face first down into a root and almost broke your nose like an idiot.” Jarek said, shaking his head with disapproval.

           The stranger extended his hand to Wraith, who gladly took it to pull himself upright. Both shoulders protested the movement and the only reason he was able to stand upright was Jarek supporting his back as he stood up. Wraith touched at the wounds he’d suffered only to find the most serious ones scarred and knotted as if they had been there for years.

“Orias, Jarek’s brother.” He said simply, shaking Wraith’s hand.

           “We pulled this out of your back.” Taria held out a knife remarkably similar to the hammer that he had used to fight off all of the soldiers. It had strange runes engraved onto the side, along with a slight curve almost like a fang and a material that looked nothing like a metal he’d ever seen. The hammer was laying exactly where he’d cast it before, as if no one had made any attempt to move it so that it wasn’t laying in the middle of their makeshift camp.

           Jarek nodded his head towards the hammer. “We can’t get it to budge and you carried it here like a cane. Not really sure how you managed that one.” He walked over to it, and placed his foot on the haft that was hovering parallel to the ground by the head of the hammer. He then proceeded to stand on top of the hammers haft only to have it not budge even the slightest.

           Jarek jumped off the haft when Wraith limped towards it. Taria went to follow him to discourage hurting himself picking it up.

I don’t want you to tear-

            Without a thought, he bent down and lifted the hammer with a single hand, pressing it back down to the ground again so that he could support his weight. The hammer felt even lighter than it had before, like he’d grown so used to its weight, it was like an extension of his own arm. Curious as to why it felt so light, he picked up against and tested its weight, giving it a few playful swings back and forth.

           The wind rushed past the head of the hammer letting off a strange, deep hum, as if it approved of the motion of battle. He set it down again and took notice of the heavy thud it landed with, as if the weight it carried was far more than it appeared to be.

           Jarek turned his head, and a look of excitement and surprise lit his face. “I can’t believe it…” He approached Wraith, and placed one hand on the head of the hammer, it seemed to hum just as it did when it had been swung, with a deep resonance that vibrated up into Wraith’s hand as he held it.

“This weapon is a principle!”

“I have no idea what that means Jarek.”

           He kneeled next to the weapon, and examined its head more closely, running his hand across the runes carved into the side. The light caught it so that Wraith could get a better look at it, no longer obscured by the darkness of the night before.

           The hammer haft was notched with long, dark gray pieces of what looked like steel. Each separate piece was fused together by a slightly lighter looking metal that looked more like sinew than steel. The sinewy separations made for a comfortable, tight grip like leather, so that Wraith could spread his hand so two fingers sat in every space, giving effective control over the whole weapon.  The head of the hammer was rounded at the top making up an elongated oval. Both ends were flattened for even striking surfaces, except for one side having a curved fang like projection that looked as if it had been newly added. It gleaned with a newer, more polished sheen than the rest of the hammer.

           After inspecting the runes more closely, Jarek again tried to lift up the hammer head, only managing to raise it off the ground mere inches before letting it drop back down with a dull thud. “This was the first weapon forged from an elder dragon’s remains. I can’t read all the runes but I know that this predates the war with the dragons. It has to be at least four hundred years old!”

           The stranger knelt next to Jarek and ran his hand over the runes, scratching his chin. “It’s much older than that.” He pointed to a rune right where the haft of the hammer met the head. “This references the orcs in the north, and most of them died out two hundred years before humans arrived here this has to be…”

           “It’s over a thousand years old.” Taria knelt to, inspecting the ancient weapon with close scrutiny, meanwhile Wraith looked down at the three of them with a skeptical glare.

           “You’re telling me this weapon I used to beat twenty some soldiers to death is made of a dragon carcass over a thousand years old.” He tapped his hand against the end of the hilt, patiently waiting for someone to validate his statement.

           Jarek granted his unspoken wish “Yes! It was the first one hewn from the bones meaning it could have any number of hidden abilities that are only unlocked by the most worthy user!”

“Sounds like bullshit.”

“Which part?” Jarek inquired

“Basically all of it.”

           Jarek stood to his feet and grabbed Wraith’s shoulders, shaking him for effect. “This has to be real! It’s everything our parents told us about the Drakon-forged weapons! I never thought I’d even see one of these in my entire life, only a few exist outside the elven families or dwarven royalty.”

           “Ok so say I believe you.” Wraith paused “Why would some mold munching barbarian from the southern wilds have it? And why the hell would they be sieging the monastery? As a matter of fact, why the hell do you know so damn much about all this? You never even told me what a principle is.”

           Jarek removed his hands from Wraith’s shoulders and looked northward towards their intended destination. “Come on, we should get moving before it gets dark again. We’ll explain along the way.”

           Jarek and Orias proceeded to explain their circumstance as children to Wraith, and the story of I’min’s fall as they trekked through the forest towards the city of Duridiin. Taria occasionally interjected with information about the dragons’ fight against the hunters that found ways to kill them off, and the dedication of the Preservers who hid away the remains of the dragons, and how they hoped to one day usher in the old traditions of ceremonially forging weapons for the worthy, as the once did before the war.

           After a fairly lengthy conversation, a brief pause allowed Wraith to ask a question of his own, curious now about his own involvement in the history they were now forging. “So you never really told me what a principle is besides the first weapon forged from a long gone dragon.”

           “That’s just it.” Orias said “The dragons, they’re never really gone. The whole reason they give the responsibility to the Preservers is to protect their remains from looters. As long as their remains are properly respected and kept hidden away, they may impart some lasting knowledge or information to those who make the journey to their resting places.”
Jarek continued for his brother “Most of the Preservers disguised their graves as places where individuals from every race would go to get advice. Some are oracles, a few were even made into apothecaries, taverns, and even brothels. The Preservers that couldn’t stay hidden forever, so they became what is the Oaken Order today with the notion that they could use the Dulaaren to protect the remains”

           “The few Drakoniiri that were still loyal to the dragons went into hiding and continued their craft, forging weapons from the remains of their brothers, as long as the one they forged the weapon for was worthy.”

           “So you had to be worthy to receive a drakon-forged weapon? Who determined that? The Drakoniiri? Or the Preservers?”

           “Neither.” Jarek responded “The dragon’s spirit lives on to reveal itself to those it deems worthy. The Preservers let the prospect into the chamber, and either the spirit reveals itself to the prospect so that they may take from the dragon a part of it to have forged by the Drakoniiri or the prospect will leave empty handed.”

           “What if the person just takes a bone and says that it was revealed to them?” Taria asked, wondering if the faith of the Preservers held strong enough to let someone possibly defile the graves of those ancient dragons.

           “A few have tried.” Orias chuckled “Our father told us that anyone that ever tried was torn to bits by the rage of the ancient dragon. Whether or not that’s true I don’t know, but I do know that to even be considered a prospect by the Preservers, you have to exhibit the right qualities. A thief is probably not one of them.”

           They pushed forward in silence for a while after that, Wraith pondered the fact that the weapon had apparently chosen him instead of the barbarian that tried to kill him.

You never told me how many you had to fight off before you could escape

           Twenty before I stopped counting. There weren’t many more after that though. Another explosion off towards where the others from the monastery were fighting scared most of them away long enough that I was able to limp off into the forest and find you.

           I couldn’t hear you coming, like you tried to close off your mind. What happened?

           I wasn’t exactly thinking straight. I had lost so much blood I’m honestly surprised I got as far as I did. I’m not really sure what exactly you did to get me moving but I certainly feel better than I did before.

           I knew enough magic to heal your wounds up and keep them clean, that way you didn’t go dying on me before I could be sufficiently angry at you for being such an idiot and running off to distract the soldiers for us.

You don’t seem mad.

           Wraith could feel Taria searching for a response to him, picking through her words carefully before projecting any thought that was remotely meaningful.

I got over it.

           Nightfall quickly came, along with a light rain that tapped against the forest canopy, rarely reaching down to the forest floor where they were. With the clouds also came an oppressive darkness. Without any moon or starlight shining down, they may as well have been inside a cave. They halted their advance only because they couldn’t go any further without risking any one of them hurting themselves stumbling around in the darkness.

           They stopped in no particular place, as it was so dark it was virtually useless to try and find another enclosed thicket to hide in. Jarek and Orias fumbled around to a tree and both sat against it, shielding themselves from the ever increasing pitter-patter of rain.

           Wraith grabbed ahold of Taria’s hand with his free hand and guided them both to a nearby tree, sitting down next to each other in an attempt to stay warm, as the temperature dropped, the rain continued to come down harder and harder.

           Wraith kept his hammer firmly planted in between his legs with the spike pointing away from him as to avoid any uncomfortable positions when he shifted about in his sleep. The apparent weight of the hammer kept it upright so that he could set his hands to the side, making himself as comfortable as he could against the otherwise rough bark of the tree.

           “I’ll stay up and wake one of you to take watch in a few hours, not that there’s much to see anyways.” No one argued with Wraith, and took to making themselves at home against their respective trees. Taria scooted closer to Wraith and used his shoulder as her pillow so that she didn’t have to press her head into the unforgiving tree bark.

           The rain didn’t appear to show any signs of letting up, and as a result the darkness showed no signs of breaking. Not much could be heard except the occasional bird that screeched off in the distance loud enough to make its presence known. Wraith took notice of Taria’s unusually high temperature, and just hoped it was because it felt so cold outside otherwise.

           It was nearly impossible to tell how much progress they were making through the forest, but he knew that it wouldn’t be long before they would start starving. Water was easy enough to come by, as Jarek and Orias both had water skins that they could keep filled pretty easily in the forest. Food on the other hand, was much harder to acquiesce in a forest that seemed to have no wildlife except the plants that covered almost every surface across the whole forest.

           The worry alone was enough to keep him awake to listen for anything trying to harm them. As far as he could tell the army had given up their search for them, content with the many others that they had already gotten to. Still, Wraith stayed as alert as was possible with the small doubt in the back of his head that told him there was still someone out their searching for them. An indiscernible period of time passed before Wraith noticed some movement in the darkness where Jarek and Orias were.

“Jarek?” Wraith whispered at an attempt to not disturb Taria who was now fast asleep.

“I’m already awake.” He whispered back

“Can’t sleep?”

“I just keep feeling like we’re being-”

           Jarek’s thought was cut short by a screech so loud that it seemed even the tree shrank back in response. Both Taria and Wraith jumped to their feet almost simultaneously, only for Wraith to almost trip forward as his boot slipped on a wet tree root.

           “Slyth!” Taria called out. An orb of pale yellow light illuminated the area to reveal that the new wasn’t an animal, but a man in a black cloak whose whitened hooked nose peaked out of an otherwise dark cowl, studded with various piercings of various colors and sizes. In both hands he brandished identical curved daggers, with which he leapt at Jarek.

           Though he was unarmed, he was not to be caught off guard, so Jarek planted his foot directly into the creature’s chest, sending it flying back towards Wraith and Taria. Wraith had only a split second to react, so he brought up his hammer just in time to brace himself against his tree and jam the tip of the hammer directly into the back of the flying assailant.

           Even though the amount of force he hit it with was enough to break a normal man’s back, the creature simply folded backwards and sprung off the head of the hammer with its hands, flipping off back in between the two pairs of Dulaaren. Upon landing the cowl was jostled off to reveal the most horrifyingly warped human face of any Wraith had ever seen. The nose jutted out like a bird’s beak, its eyes were as black as night and it had so many piercings and growths it was unimaginable to even attempt figuring out what it looked like before. The growths were grotesque, oversized, swollen pustules that covered the parts of its face that didn’t have huge piercing rings through them.

           Wraith fought the urge to look away and instead readied his hammer to fight the monster, whatever it was. It retreated a couple of steps before lunging again at Wraith, since he appeared to be the most threatening of the four of them. This time, he was ready and side stepped the creature’s stabs, using his momentum to bring the hammer spike around and planting it firmly into its chest.

           The spike pierced clean through and pinned the monster to a nearby tree, spurring it to flail its arms around, dropping its weapons to the ground in an attempt to free itself. It oozed the same black blood that the soldiers did, confirming his belief that it was one of many agents of whoever was after them.

           After his short struggle of holding the monster in place, it howled at the sky with the same screech it had let out when it first attacked them before bringing its hands to its head, and snapping its own neck with one swift twist. Some ways away several similar screeches echoed back in response.

           Wraith placed one foot against the chest of the creature and remove his hammer from the tree, allowing the body to slump to the ground. As soon as it hit the ground it began violently seizing. The cloak began to puff out like rising bread as the creature began to instantly expand outward, causing more of the black blood to spill from its eyes, mouth, ears and nose,

           “Get away from it!” Taria yelled out. Wraith took a few quick steps backwards along with everyone else to a seemingly safe distance, at which point the monster bloated so much that it exploded in a black mist with a loud, wet pop.

           They all retreated further back to avoid being showered in the mist. As it coated the tree where the creature had been, the roots blackened and shriveled up, leaving the entire tree gray and sickly looking. Even the leaves darkened and dried as if the life had been sucked from the whole tree.

           The screeches sounded as though they were getting closer, so they all began scrambling in the opposite direction of the screeching, using Taria’s light to guide them onward. Wraith was beginning to feel like someone was tugging him backwards as the light persisted, he fought onward knowing that they needed it to be able to escape.

           Though they were forging ahead at a quick pace, the forest was getting thicker and thicker, as if every branch that snagged their clothes and every root that tripped their feet was trying to slow their escape. The sound of their pursuers was fast approaching even though they were moving so quickly. Their inhuman noises sent chills down Wraith’s spine, he couldn’t possibly imagine having to fend off more than one of those creatures. They were all hungry, sleep deprived, or injured. They had obviously caught a lucky break against the first one, he was sure that if they couldn’t get to safety somewhere, they would not get a second chance.

           The forest floor began to slope downwards at an alarming rate, and their mad run for an escape quickly became a nearly uncontrollable slide downwards. At the bottom of the slope was a small creek, which they could do little to stop their advance towards. Worse yet the few trees that sprouted from the gully were directly in the path of their descent to the creek.

           Seeing the approaching obstacle, everyone turned on their stomachs and did everything they could to slow down or avoid crashing into the tree. Wraith slammed the spiked end of his hammer into the muddy ground almost instantly jerking him into a stop. Taria did the same with one of her knives and slowed to a stop, enough that she was able to get a footing and stand upright to focus her attention to finding a way around the creek. Jarek was fortunate enough to be close to Wraith that he caught onto his leg.

           Orias was not nearly as lucky, and in his attempt to slow himself to a stop, turned himself parallel to the creek and bashed his head directly into the tree trunk with a loud crack, slowing him enough that his unconscious body came to a rolling stop in a patch of ivy below the tree. Jaret saw this and immediately let go of Wraith in an attempt to get to his now unconscious brother, only to slide past the ivy patch he was caught on and get tangled in a mess of bushes below.

           “Wraith, you have to get to him!” Jarek was frantic, they were caught between the bottom of the gully, an equally steep way back up. The ever approaching sound of whatever monsters were nearing to them only hastened his worry.

           Taria’s voice rang in his head

           I’ll try to find a way across. Get down to the both of them and the bottom of the gully. I’ll do my best and figure a way out of this trap.

           Before he could find a coherent response, she stood to her feet just a short distance below him and carefully made her way up the steep slope to get a better view of their surroundings.

“Ok Jarek.” Wraith took a deep breath, trying to ignore the approaching screeches. “Your brother first.”

           Wraith pulled his hammer from the ground above his head and planted the side without the spike firmly between his legs so he could steer his descent downward. Digging his boots in, he made his way slowly toward Orias, whose body was slumped over, muddied and almost indiscernible from his surroundings in the dark, dirty gully.

           Wraith noticed that Taria’s light was floating above him following his advance towards the creek. It casted just enough light for him to see precisely where he needed to stop. Once he was at the patch of ivy, he used his left hand to take hold of the hammer and brace himself against the deep inclination of the gully, and his right hand to scoop up Orias, who hung limply in Wraith’s grip.

           Wraith shouted down at Jarek, trying to make himself heard over the now feverish screeches. Jarek was so tangled inside the grip of the leafless brush that he could barely move his arms, so he kept thrashing about to get loose enough to make an escape to the bottom of the gully. “Can you reach out and catch onto me on the way down? I can’t reach for you without risking losing your brother!”

           “I think so!” Jarek shouted back, wrestling himself free enough to reach outward towards the only clear path to the bottom of the gully.

           “Get ready!” Wraith lowered himself to a sitting position at the edge of the ivy patch and braced Orias’ head against his shoulder to avoid breaking his neck on the way down. This time he took hold of the hammer and placed it behind him, pushing off the ivy and back on to the muddy slope.

           The hammer trailed behind him and slowed his plunge down enough to give Jarek the chance to reach out for them both. With his first failed attempt he grabbed at Wraith’s arm, only to catch onto the hammer at the last second instead, ripping him free from the brambles and sending him sailing down the gully wall alongside his brother and Wraith.

           The pace of their slide quickened and tore that last bits of the bush that clung to Jarek from his legs, after which he drew himself as close to Wraith’s side as he could to avoid coming loose and falling behind or ahead which would result in a disastrous trip to the bottom. Even the monster’s unnaturally fast pace couldn’t help them navigate the steep drop off and muddy ground. Their frenzied screeches quieted for a moment and seemed to stay the same distance away, as they probably were debating the best way down.

           Although the end of the slide wasn’t graceful, the three landed with a splash right into the creek bed, plunging their feet into the ankle deep, ice cold water. Wraith steadied himself and stood up, handing off Orias to Jarek who set him down in a relatively dry spot to catch a breath. “We can’t carry him out of here, we’ve got enough to worry about.” Jarek gestured towards the now far off shrieks and howls of their pursuers.

“Wake him up I need to find Tar-”

           Before he’d even finished his thought, Taria came sliding down the gully wall crouched down with two knives planted in the ground guiding her toward the three of them. She came to halt in front of Wraith and sheathed one of the knives, holding the other out toward him.

           “This ended up coming in handy.” Wraith realized it was the same blade he’d been back stabbed with. The blade was completely undamaged as if it was just newly forged. Not even the mud she’d been dragging it through clung to it, so that it kept its same menacing glow.

           Jarek splashed some of the cold water onto Orias’ face, who sprang awake with eyes wide open. After the initial surprise he doubled over holding his head in his hands. “Why does my head hurt so badly?”

           Jarek helped his brother up, who reluctantly stood up, nearly stumbling to the ground again “You decided to stop yourself with your skull. Come on we don’t have much time.”

           Taria beckoned them down the gully. “Our best bet is down the creek, it empties into a bigger river with flat banks on either side, and we could find a way out there.”

           Trudging through the ice cold creek water quickly became even more miserable than the path they had taken through the forest, and Wraith was beginning to lag behind the others. Although the screeching had stopped, and he thought they may have lost the monsters, it didn’t ease his discomfort. His skin crawled, his stomach ached, and his head was pounding so vigorously the sound drowned out nearly everything else. He couldn’t help but stop, only to drop to his knees as they shook so violently he could barely stand. The light above his head flickered out, and the others rushed back to him to help him up.

           Taria dropped to his side, and attempted to help him up along with Jarek. “I’m so sorry” Taria muttered “You’ve been sustaining that spell for too long.”

           Jarek looked behind them, only to turn his head forward again and yell almost directly into Wraith’s ear “HURRY!” He hoisted him up, so that he was able to plant his hammer down again to support himself and limp slowly forward. The screeching resumed, this time right behind them as Wraith looked back to see four dark figures illuminated by a glint of moonlight that shown down from the break in the trees, all of whom charged at them on all fours, splashing about in the water.

           They were gaining quickly now that Wraith couldn’t run, so Taria drew a throwing knife from within her brigandine and pitched it as hard as she could backwards. One of the figures fell behind the rest, but it didn’t halt their pace.

           They were mere feet away, their screeches almost deafening, as they reached out towards the four of them in attempt to trip them up and fall upon them when suddenly they were halted by a blinding stream of emerald light emitting from some unknown source overhead. Both parties were equally bewildered as the light lit up almost the entire gully and forest around them, revealing the evil twisted beasts pursuing them.

           Wraith fell to his knees again, this time sick to his stomach. He turned about in the water, half crouched towards the beasts, fully prepared to have to fight to his last breath to defend his friends, only to see that the unnatural horrors had paused too, seeming hesitant to approach the light. One of them stood back in an upright position and strode confidently towards the light, with a hateful glint that peered out from its otherwise shrouded face.

           As soon as it stepped into the beam, it disintegrated into a pile of smoldering ash that was quickly swept away by the course of the stream. The light dimmed so that it was only enough to see what was immediately around them. The three remaining of the fiends hissed, and carefully skirted around the light. This time their advance was met with a series of loud barks, and two wolves the size of men sprang down to the creek bed from opposite sides of the gully, hair raised with fangs bared towards them.

           One off the creatures pounced forward towards the wolves, only for the wolf to drive its head into the creature’s chest and send it flying almost twenty feet back, out of sight of the light. The other two took the sign as a defeat and rushed off yipping and screeching, followed by the third shadow that lifted itself up and away from the group and the massive wolves.

           The light faded away, and two green bulbs of light appeared over either wolves’ head. They turned away from the attackers and towards Wraith and the others. They all tensed up, only to see the wolves walk right past them at a leisurely pace, lights bobbing along with the movement of their heads. One of them paused and looked back, throwing its head forward in a rough gesture to follow them, like it was leading them away.

           Taria and Jarek helped Wraith to his feet, and tried to take a few steps forward, only for him to nearly fall flat forward to his face. A third wolf came bounding down from atop the gully and to Wraith’s side, looking up at him expectantly with piercing blue eyes. The third wolf was even larger than the other two and stood higher than Wraith’s hip on all four legs. Unlike the other two gray ones, its black fur struck a stark contrast with its eyes.

“I think it wants you to ride it Wraith.” Taria said reluctantly

The wolf lifted its head and nodded once in response.

“That’s new.” Orias said, astounded that the wolf appeared to understand them

           Wraith didn’t argue and climbed atop the wolf without question, dropping his hammer forward in front of it without the strength to carry it any longer. Before any of the others attempted to lift the hammer, the wolf bowed its head and plucked it from the rushing water with its mouth with little effort, and bore him and the hammer forward in an effortless trot.

           It didn’t take long for Wraith to fall forward into the soft fur of the wolf and drift into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

 

“Where do you think they’re taking us?” Jarek asked

           “I’m not sure, but I’m not really one to argue since these three saved our lives.” Taria replied, shrugging her shoulders.

           The two wolves that had fended off the creatures earlier now flanked Taria, Orias, and Jarek. They were lead on by the wolf carrying Wraith who was now unconscious on its back. Its massive bushy tail swayed back and forth, leading them onward as the sun began to rise for the morning.

           Orias seemed to have forgotten his head injury in favor of being fascinated with the wolves, who were more than twice the size of a normal wolf. “They must be dire wolves. I’ve never actually seen a dire wolf before.”

The wolf on their right flank barked in response.

“I’ll take that as a yes then?”

           They continued on with Orias asking various yes or no questions to the wolves about being wolves who barked or didn’t in response. This went on nearly the whole time until they got to the river that the creek fed into. They lead them along the river bank and back into the forest where there was an unusually large oak tree that stood much taller than the rest of the trees. The two other wolves bounded off in separate directions, and the one that carried Wraith strode towards the tree.

           Once they were close, Taria realized the tree actually had steps that jutted out of the bark at near even spaces and lead up into the upper parts of the tree. The steps were so wide in fact that the wolf could go on its way up and have almost enough room for a second dire wolf to walk abreast. They ascended into the upper parts of the tree where a small hut was set, as if it had grown right out of the branches. It blended so well that the only thing distinguishing it from the rest of the tree was a small glass window and a rounded door that reached almost all the way to the roof of the shack.

           The door opened and out stepped a silver haired man in tattered green robes. His beard was well kept but long, and his hair reached down almost to his elbows. The steps lead directly to a platform that the hut was perched on, which was also born out of the tree bark, shielded entirely from view by the other massive branches and mass of leaves that hid the spot from sight. The man appeared to be human, and very old. Most normal humans across the land barely lived to be in their fifties, and Taria guessed the man to be somewhere over eighty years old however, he moved with a liveliness and vigor unmatched by someone his age.

           The old man approached the dire wolf and knelt to one knee, placing a hand on its head. “Thank you Senya. Go find your brothers, one will care for this young man.” The wolf bowed its head to the man and dropped the hammer, letting the old man lift Wraith off its back. Senya bounded back down the stairs and out of sight, as the old man took Wraith into the shack, carrying him like a rag doll. “Follow, children.” His voice was deep and rich, and every word he uttered sounded like the beat of a drum, like they all had purpose. The three followed without hesitation through the door.

           As soon as they stepped inside, all of the grime and mud sloughed off their clothes and sank into the wood that supported the house, even their boots dried stepping past the doorway, as some invisible force wrung them clean of their mad dash to safety. The three barely noticed the powerful magic that seemed to pale in comparison to the fact that the shack was far larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside. There was a place for a fire, as well as a hallway that led to several other smaller rooms. The main room they stood in had several cushions as well as large cloth blankets that laid about the room. Three equally sized cots with small tables next to each stood against the wall opposite the fire place. The emerald man had already laid Wraith on one, who had been similarly stripped of all the grime from their escape. The old man sat crouched beside a pot set in the fireplace, preparing a stew that filled the room with a pleasant savory smell.

“Is it a good idea to be lighting fires when you live in a tree?” Jarek asked, finally breaking his attention from the grandeur of the place.

           The old man chuckled, and turned towards them, revealing his strange, purple eyes that swirled about his pupils on their own accord. “One would have to try very hard to set this place alight. Please sit, one has as many questions for you, as one is sure you do in return.” His speech pattern was strange, but he seemed familiar like he was someone Taria had met many times before, and just couldn’t remember anything about him.

           There was a pause as he went about sprinkling various things into the stew. He then went to the wall by the fire place and plunged his hands into the wood as if he were reaching into a bucket of water. The wall didn’t budge, and when he pulled away he drew out several wooden spoons and bowls that seemed perfectly formed.

           He then went about silently distributing sizeable bowls of stew to each of the three, who gladly began to eat without question. Although Taria was slow to trust, she was hungry and this was the first real break that they had caught since they narrowly escaped the destruction of the monastery.

           “One has heard of the dark army that marches through one’s forest, destroying all in their path. One would like to know more.” Taria finally realized, this man very rarely talked to people, and that’s why his speech pattern was so strange.

           “What’s your name? Before I tell you anything else I’d like to at least get to know who we’re talking to.” Taria was hoping she could get an idea of who he was, although he appeared human

           “One would like his question answered to begin this exchange. Then one will answer any questions that you have.”

           “Alright.” Taria hesitated “As quickly as possible, we were attacked at the monastery, we escaped, and the ones that attacked us are some kind of dragon worshipers, they had siege weapons and carried drakon-forged arms. The destroyed a huge swath of forest just to get to the monastery.”

           The old man frowned, his silvery eyebrows nearly covered his strangely colored eyes. “One was called Fenrar. It has been a long time since one was known as this.”

           Taria heard Orias make a strange noise, a mixture of surprise and genuine awe. Before she could respond to the old man’s claim, he beat her to it. “You’re Fenrar! The Fenrar!” The old man nodded simply, wordless in his response.

           “You mapped this entire forest, spending every day here for… Years! Until you disappeared… over a hundred years ago?” There was a brief pause again, where the three of them sat silently in awe of the impossibility of his existence. Even though she’d done years of reading, Taria realized that this showed how little she knew of the world beyond the monastery. There was much more to learn.

           Fenrar nodded again after the pause. “One cannot leave this place, but Senya can take you to the road you speak of. One must tend to his forest, she is hurt by that dark army you speak of. Stay and eat, your friend will be awake and recovered come the light of the next day. One must make preparations for the next day. Much has changed.” He set off into one of the back rooms and firmly shut the door behind him.

“How old did you say he was?” Taria asked

           Orias was dumbfounded “He was over fifty years old before he went into the forest the last time and never came back. Everyone assumed he was dead or was out of his mind. He’s at least a century and a half, if not older.”

           Taria thought to herself for a moment. The silence gave time to Jarek and Orias to eat, she too began to work at her sizeable bowl of soup. No wonder he spoke so strangely, he hadn’t talked to humans for years, and lived in the seclusion with no one besides the dire wolves to watch over him.

How lonely.

           For the rest of the day the three lounged about, falling asleep intermittently throughout the day. Fenrar didn’t leave the room for the entire day, so they had lost any hope of asking more questions to him. Nightfall came far faster than any of them thought, so that when it came time for them to sleep Orias and Jarek took the two remaining cots. Worried for Wraith’s wellbeing, Taria decided it would be best for her to stay close to Wraith, so she took one of the many cushions and a large covering and took her place at Wraith’s side, pressing herself against him in an attempt to stay warm since the room had been steadily getting colder since the sun set, and the fire that had yet to cease burning only casted so much warmth into the room.

This world is far stranger than I had ever imagined.

Chapter Five

 

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