A Fork in the Path
… I stood from my waking dream and checked my equipment. I was tired to the bone but knew I could not sleep. I was whole in body and mind in spite of the rush of images from my waking dream. There was work to do: we had a shelter from the storm through which we just passed but for how long? We knew nothing about this ruin except the doom in the air. I went to the Stonedweller I now called, Leader, Ba Rital Amil and explained to him what I was doing and that I would be back at dawn. He went to argue but knew better and turned wordlessly to other duties – the hyiea of leadership. My mother often called it a more polite word, lpyiea.
I knelt at the top of the cliff and touched the soil. I felt its thin dryness tinged with soap and lpurl bilius between my fingers as I picked a path of descent. I looked over my shoulder at the Elfling and knew that water would have to pass between us at first light. Perhaps the two of us would be enough to cut a layer off the sharproot bulb. That Nimbus might be saved would be worth the effort.
For six hours, I scouted this wilderness and only heard the faint breath of Adiya. I had become mother to this pitiful raven that is as tragic as this wood in which I now stood. By Zuras, I would not have thought it possible for something to be so faint of life. Even a sand dune in the driest desert shelters life from the storm. Adiya was a portent of the suffering of Sentar.
The undead army was easy enough to follow. What was frightening and strange was the odd track that cut across that path. A something, possibly undead and large like a hill giant moving with discrimination and intelligence but not really like a living creature would. I did not linger since I was alone, tired and ignorant of the Ways of the Wild so close to e’Dari ur Kiucao, what the humans called Divinity. I buried my cold chuckle as I turned back to the ruined watchtower. From the Enclave, it was a strange land behind the Wall and a continent away but we still knew enough to call it e’Dari ur Kiucao, the Madness in the Forest. The humans called it Divinity? That the whole race could be so addled was almost laughable.
I returned from my scouting and found Thallazar pouring over a book of maps he had taken from Mastof. We studied these wonderous magical maps as we licked our wounds over the day. I set up an observation post on top of the old watchtower to look out towards the ancient aqueduct. Once Thalazzar climbed up the tower to do his studies, I helped Rin set up another lookout on the other tower. We talked as we worked about what had happened to us in the In Between. I think we were both relieved that it was not some mad dream. That it really happened was only slightly less distressing.
At midday, Tyconderoga returned from her scouting to the south. That she was ravenous after half a night’s fruitless hunting only reinforced that this land was dead or dying. I re-checked my equipment as I ate a hurried lunch. I spoke to Ba Rital Amil again as I left camp and he told me of the decision to travel to Eudaemonia between the canyon and the aqueduct. I felt it was even more important to determine what I could about the unnamed beast thundering down below. As it was day, I took a longer way to follow the undead. I did not want to be ambushed by some other hunter that had seen me pass in the night. Finally I found the crossing point in a small meadow. Something had passed from e’Dari Kiucao to the Turninim Senitiaria across the path of the undead army. It has heading the way we were now planning and shedding blood. Prophecy and madness. I tracked it for short league but luckily did not find it. I returned to our camp just after night fall. Arek ordered me to sleep as I trudged in and did not assign me a watch.
In the dark hours, I was awoken by the sounds of a wolf growling and battle. Getting struck by a foul stone, I stood to see an attacking band of rili e’fae, the red fairies or the Red Caps as Argea would call them. I drew two cold iron arrows and shot the one in front of Rin through the throat. As Argea had taught me, all that remained was an iron tooth. As I moved around a ruined wall to gain cover from those above in the watch tower, I saw Tiberio’s wolf-friend cut in half defending his master. Oh that you may pass into the fields of long grass at the end of the path. I came around the wall and killed another as I saw Ts’elf get struck by the scythe of their leader. Ts’elf stepped back and created a protective stone wall. I noticed these fey had T’kel masks on hanging from their belts. I came around another wall, fired and as the fey died, I jumpted across the gap. We had the leader pinned against a wall trying desperately to defeat him. I heard Tiberio’s song call my name and as I stepped in hand-to-hand on the fey’s flank I was inspired to greatness. Finally, he went down. I was able to find nine iron teeth and three masks. Two were of the Raven clan and one from the Jaguar Clan. By Zuras, it was Gralank the Miller, my mother’s cousin. I did not know the others by name but they were a tanner and a farmer. In the morning, I would pursue this band of blood…
The next morning, I woke at dawn and tracked the rili e’fae down into the jungle. I found three dead T’Kel in a grove. They were stripped and mutilated. Gralank had been captured and dragged to this grove and then killed not two days ago. As I searched the scene in detail, I felt a presence behind me just as I heard Glaconer’s voice, “Janarl the Stalker, we meet again. I was unable to protect these ones because it is harder here than in the Enclave that is no more.”
Glaconer looked at me squarely and glanced at the iron tooth of the rili fae around my neck as he continued:
“There is no more ‘Enclave’ as such. The old cities were split up and the clans scattered amongst several settlements. The In Between men have placed them in e’Dari Kiucao so that it will not be someday. Others, perhaps the elves, will take your old home. The length and breadth of this scattering I do not know. The nearest band, whose small group your Red Caps marauded, is two days away. I was swept up with them when they left, as was a band of Red Caps. Those you destroyed was a smaller group split from the whole. I can only assume, then, that Argea and other fairies were swept away as well. I do not know, however, where they are. Those I left were under siege from humans, though of what faction or creed I can only imagine. They captured a small group of children the first time they came and took more when they came back. The T'kel made them pay a heavy price, though there were more of them the second time and they used undead minions in their attack. The Red Caps set upon the remnants of the band while I tracked the second group of humans to find where they had taken the young and the others. They had slaughtered many and captured four (three of whose bodies you found). I had hunted them now for three days. I imagine they sensed an old ruin nearby where they thought to establish themselves. When I left the T'kel, there were only twenty left. Under the direction of Ezuras, of Raven Clan (you know of him, a carpenter and champion wrestler), they are building a fortress and awaiting the next siege of human marauders. Of the Order of the Claw and your mother I know nothing, though I daresay, the tiny band I left could sorely use their strength. And yours. I fear that the next time the humans return, they mean to take them all.
“Of the Inbetween Men, I have only just learned more myself. One who claimed to have made your acquaintance on the banks of the River Styx advised me. He said that it was a faction of meddlers amongst his kind that moved the T'kel here - he called it "re-sowing them in the garden of the adversary" - in an effort to advance their own cause against the One, though the logic of this is beyond my ken. We faerie knew that the In-between Men existed but did not fathom either the extent of their strength or the extent to which we were subject to the vagaries of their whims. In guiding the T'kel, we have always believed we were acting upon the will of the Wild.
“The T'kel may be scalyfolk, but they are no kobolds they may live in cities, but they are no humans. There is more than a hint of the Seely Court amongst your people, and we noted it when first we laid eyes upon you all those years ago. It was the Elves you once marauded that asked us in the time of Zuras to act as your guardians and guides.
“Your people - your mother - are lost and scattered in a strange land, without leaders, without compass, without knowing what has happened or why. They are besieged on every side, the young and the old dragged away in the middle of the night; the Wild only knows their fate.
“Janarl, I could give a mortal's milk teeth about those masks you carry, magic and prophecy. I know little and care less. Such questions are for you and your companions to figure. I can teach you to hear the thundering march of the tiniest ants or to track a swallow in a windstorm, but I cannot teach you to listen to your heart. That path, including its choices and consequences, is yours to travel.
“Janarl, I will return to that small band of T'kel I left dying bravely in the woods at sunrise. I am bound to them by something more powerful than blood or magic - I made a promise. When the fey can be moved to take an oath, a true oath, it will not be broken.”
I thought for a moment, “I need your advice, fae. Is my Path to the New Enclave or with the Companions?”
“Your decision of what to do next is yours alone,” the fae said.
“I will go with you. There is a fork in the Path and my way now leads back to my folk.”
A Hero Depars