Chapter 25 - Going East

Artorias’ sudden appearance made Roland do a quick double-take.

“What?”

“That statue you’re looking at, it’s of a Thunderbird.”

Roland quickly collected himself.  He was so transfixed at the quality of the statue, that he had been nearly startled out of his skin.

“Oh…  It is a truly spectacular piece of art.  And, come to think of it, there are similar depictions of Thunderbirds in the cities of the Great Plateau, just south of the Frozen Mountains.”

Artorias smiled at Roland.  “Indeed, they come from similar legends.  It’s probable that the people of the Plateau and the Valemen share ancestors, who passed their stories on to their children.”

“…Makes sense.”  Roland tore his eyes away from the statue.  The rest of his knights had been meditating or resting while waiting for their guide, and now they were getting up and preparing to move out.  It was clear that they had the same assumption that Roland now found himself making.

“You two are our guides, I take it?”

“Indeed.  We’ll be taking you east, through a pass in the Frozen Mountains, into the neighboring vale, and then on to a Heartwood Glade.  The trees there are incredibly ancient, and I all but guarantee that you’ll find some amber there.”

Roland was ecstatic, but he clamped down on his excitement, as he preferred to indulge in those emotions only when the job was done.

“Good.  Then we’ll be in your capable hands.”

It didn’t take the party long to ready themselves, as they were waiting when Artorias and Leon arrived.  They set off in good time, due east.

Artorias and Leon led the way, moving quickly, but not so much that Roland and his party were annoyed.  The squires were second-tier mages, as was Leon, so it was at their pace that the group traveled.

The first few hours passed in silence.  The initial happiness at getting underway with their real mission had died down, with none of the party willing to let their guard down in front of their guides.  No one knew where they were from, or even their real names.  The squires had fought alongside Leon during the raid on the bandit fort, so there were some good sentiments there, but Artorias was another story.  There had been no real introductions to break the ice, either, as Artorias had insisted that they leave as soon as everyone looked ready, so everyone still only knew the two as Wraith Killer and Little Lion.

So, the silence continued.

Roland was the one who finally broke the silence.  The two guides had an aloof air to them, preferring to stay separate from the party, but Roland couldn’t stand awkward silences, so he sped up a bit, and caught up with Artorias.

“So… I heard the tribesmen call you ‘Wraith Killer’.  Do you have a nickname or anything shorter we can call you?”

Artorias glanced over at Roland and thought for a while.

“Hmm…”  His face began to curve into a frown, and Roland could sense Artorias’ aura begin to roil and churn.

“I-It’s no problem if you don’t!  We can call you Wraith Killer if you want.”

“No… No, it’s fine.  I suppose you can call me Artorias.”

“Ah!  Artorias, that’s a good name.”  Roland smiled and continued to converse, but he didn’t notice that behind him, Adrianos had overheard Artorias state his name, and suddenly started looking their way and paying attention to the conversation.

“So, where do you come from?  You don’t have the same accent as the tribesmen, and you certainly don’t look much like them, either.”  One of the first things that Roland noticed about Artorias that didn’t quite seem right was the lack of facial hair.  Almost every tribesman had some kind of facial hair, but Artorias was completely clean shaven.

“Why are you so curious, Sir Roland?  Who I am and where I come from ought to be of no concern to a paladin.”

“You’re clearly very strong, and you don’t come from the vales, so I’m just curious about why you would come so far north.”

Artorias wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  He didn’t want them to know who he was, but he was a naturally friendly person, even if his circumstances had forced him and his son out into the wilds for so long.

“Training.  We came here to train.”

“Can’t you train down south?  There are plenty of good mage guilds that would gladly take in and finance your training, I’m sure of it.  Why don’t you come with us when we go back south, I can- “

“No!”  Artorias cut off Roland, and the paladin felt a wave of killing intent wash over him, and he felt like he had been submerged in a freezing lake.  But, the killing intent was gone as quickly as it had come, and Artorias looked a little embarrassed.

“Ahem.  Sorry about that.  We’re not going back south.  That’s the end of it.”

Roland was shocked at Artorias’ reaction.  He had been trying to offer the man a position back in the capital, and even the possibility of a knighthood.  In fact, Roland firmly believed that Artorias was much stronger than he was, so there was even a good chance that if he came south, he would be made a paladin.

“… I should be apologizing, not you.  I perhaps overstepped the limits of our relationship, and I apologize for that.  Please, disregard my previous statement.”

Artorias smiled back at Roland.  The group had stopped moving, and Leon was watching Artorias with an alarmed look on his face.  Artorias looked over at his son, and nodded to him, showing the younger man that he was all right.  Leon gave a slight nod in response, and slowly turned back around and continued onwards.

“Listen, Sir Roland, we ought to speak of the dangers of where we’re going.  If all goes well, then we won’t encounter anything of note, but we should still plan for what may happen if all doesn’t go well.”

“I’m all ears, Artorias.  Any advice you can give us would be most appreciated.”

“Good.  First off, we’re only going to travel during the daytime.  We’ll arrive at the pass before the day’s over at this pace, and that’s where we’ll spend the night.  We could proceed further into the eastern vale, but there are a number of creatures we’ll want to avoid that come out at night.  Ice wraiths and banshees are the two big ones, but there are also packs of wind wolves and tree sprites to watch out for.”

Roland frowned.  “How would we avoid these creatures at night, then, or will we be able to reach this glade then leave the vale in a single day?”

“We’ll make for my home.  My son and I live there, and we warded our small fort to repel those nocturnal creatures.  I know a few temporary wards that could be used if we are caught away from the fort during the night, but they won’t cover up the presence of so many people.  We’ll make for our fort, then the glade, then back to the fort, and finally the mountain pass.  All told, it shouldn’t take more than three more days.”

“Then I thank you in advance for allowing us to stay at your place.”

The two men continued chatting about the eastern vale, with Adrianos listening in the whole time.  Leon continued to lead the group east, while the others in Roland’s party talked amongst themselves.

They kept walking east and reached the pass in good time.  The group pressed on, as Artorias wanted them to camp near the eastern end of the pass, not quite close enough to provoke any of the beasts in the Forest of Black and White, but he didn’t want to waste time tomorrow either.

Fortunately, this mountain pass was nowhere near as harsh as what the knights had experienced coming north.  There were no frozen forests, no fields of sharp jagged stone they had to climb through, and no sheer cliffs they had to scale.  It was just a thin rocky path, just wide enough for two of them to walk side-by-side.

The place they decided to camp was a slightly wider part of the pass, and they all settled in for a peaceful night.

The following day saw the group arrive in the Forest of Black and White.  Roland and his group were struck by the beauty of the place, with so many colorful trees and plants.  But, Roland remembered Artorias’ warnings about the creatures in the forest, and the need to get to his fort as quickly as possible, so he kept the team moving.

The forest was thinner near the edges, so it was quite the pleasant walk at first.  There was a gorgeous canopy of green, blue, and even the rare red or purple leaves, and the plants and flowers they saw around had equally diverse colors.  Even the nobles in the party were awed, as it would take an experienced gardener a long time to bring such vibrant colors out of an estate’s garden.

But what truly struck the group was the Divine Scar.  It was near midday when they approached it, and the trees were still thin on the western side of the Scar, so they saw it from a good distance away.

“What is that?”  One of the men-at-arms shouted in wonder.

“I call this canyon the Divine Scar.  It’s very deep, and it gets wider as you go south.  It possesses a unique aura I couldn’t identify which made me think that an absurdly powerful mage made it with an attack.”

Roland walked up to the edge and stared down towards the bottom.  He was a sixth-tier mage, and his eyesight was superhuman, but even he could only see a deep black abyss.  It gave him an eerie feeling, like even his light magic would hit that darkness and be completely swallowed.

Artorias and Leon seemed a little impatient but gave the rest of the group time to admire the immense canyon, but Adrianos seemed a little unimpressed.  In fact, he was looking around, completely bored and ready to continue.  But he saw something odd out of the corner of his eye, so he spun his head around to have a better look and saw the branch of a nearby tree extending out like an arm, and reached for one of Sir Andrew’s men-at-arms, so quietly that the man didn’t seem to realize it.

“Connor!  Get away from that tree!” Adrianos shouted out and drew his sword.

The tree didn’t seem to like that shout, as it abandoned stealth and wrapped it’s ‘arm’ around Connor.  The man didn’t even have a chance to fight back as he was lifted off his feet and held more than twenty feet in the air.

The tree was a gnarled and ugly thing, leafless and rotten, but showed an unexpected resilience when Adrianos brought his sword down on the branch-arm and left nothing more than a slight scratch on the bark.

The others drew their own weapons, but Sir Roger was the closest.  He brought his mace to bear, and slammed it into the trunk of the tree, allowing his fire magic to ignite the mace and scorch the bark.  Surprisingly, the fire had little effect.

Connor began screaming, as the branch tightened around him.  He felt his arms begin to crack, followed by his ribs.

The tree had three more branches and began to wave them exceptionally fast at the party, forcing them back and away from the trunk.

“This damn thing!”  Sir Andrew’s pale skin darkened to a greyish hue and hardened into stone.  He channeled all the magic he could into his arms and lifted his battle-ax.  He charged forward, allowing the tree branches to fall on him, chipping off a few pieces of stone, but otherwise leaving him unharmed.  He swung his ax with all his might and slammed it into the tree.

The ax blade didn’t chop too far into the tree trunk, but a few more swings brought the blade almost halfway through the trunk.  The wild branches seized up, and immediately stopped moving.  Connor was dropped from the air and hit the ground with a sickening crack.

From the trunk of the tree, a brown bark-like head emerged.  It was wide and flat, with no facial features save for two black eyes the size of eagle’s eggs.  The head was followed by the upper half of a very tall but very thin body.  The entire creature seemed to be made of the same bark as the tree.

Nothing more emerged from the tree.  It seemed that Sir Andrew had cut the creature in half when he struck it, as it was missing everything below the waist.

“What in the name of the ancestors is that?”  Sir Roger exclaimed.

“That is a tree sprite.  Not very strong, but exceptionally skilled with nature magic, and deadly if they catch you off guard.”  Artorias replied, nodding towards Connor, who was now coughing up blood and struggling to rise.

“Stay down, Connor.  Let me take a look.”  Sir Andrew had gone to the side of his man-at-arms and was running his hands over the man’s body, looking for blood.

“He’s going to die.  There’s nothing you can do.”  Leon bluntly stated.

Sir Andrew glared at the young man.  “What?  There are only some broken bones.  A little bleeding in his lungs, but he’ll be fine once we get him to proper healers in the south.”

“No, my son is correct.  Tree sprites like to poison their victims.  He’s going to die, and in great agony too.”  Artorias backed up Leon.  “Check the back of his head.”

Sir Andrew gave the two a dirty look but did as Artorias suggested.  When he tried to turn Connor’s head, he felt a wet sensation and noticed his hands were covered in blood.  The back of the man’s head had numerous pinpricks that were oozing blood, and the skin around them was rapidly turning blue.

“What is this?”  The knight recoiled and wiped his hand off on a nearby fern.

“That is a nasty neurotoxin.  It slowly breaks down the victim’s brain, and they are awake and aware the whole time.  It’s a bad way to go.”  Artorias looked over at Roland, who had come forward to examine the man himself.  “You need to decide what to do with him, and quickly.  We can’t delay too long, or we won’t make it to my fort before dark.”

Roland simply answered, “I understand.”

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Chapter 26 - Identity

Chapter 24 - The Guide