The afternoon of that surprising conference, Exarse left Nienna and Frederick to their own devices. His usual haunt was the library, and while Frederick fancied himself a good reader, Exarse’s books were thick with arithmetic and models Frederick did not understand. His own powers came from faith, not from mathematics.
He showed Nienna to his room. There was nothing but a bed, a drawer and two chairs. The room existed solely for the bed. At first he felt awkward about it, especially with Nienna’s cheerful demeanor as she followed him in. He was emboldened when he saw other clerics entertaining guests across the hall. Some rather embarrassing nicknames were being spoken aloud between the lady cleric and her friend, which revealed the context of it all to Frederick quite plainly.
“I can’t believe in all this time I had never been to your room once.” Nienna said, sitting down on the bed then bouncing once.
Frederick laughed, “Well, it’s only good for sleeping alone. The few times you’ve been around, there’s not been a use for it.”
Nienna smiled at him, her tail wagging behind her, thumping lightly against the bed. “Of course,” she said, and laid back on the bed kicking her feet. “The last time I came around you were just lazing away your days with that stuffy Dromidae. I want to know all about what you’ve been up to! Are you close to getting your collar yet?”
Frederick did not even bother wracking his brain for anything exciting, because he knew nothing of the sort had happened.
“Well, that stuffy Dromidae taught me a few ritual spells. That was about it.” Frederick replied. “There’s no test for the collar. All I can do is wait to catch someone’s eye.”
“You’ve already done so,” Nienna said, “Canon Lisvarde seemed rather interested in you.” Her fangs seemed somehow more visible while she spoke, than before.
“Right,” Frederick said, hoping to brush over the topic.
“You’re tense.” Nienna said. She raised her hand, and a seemingly discarded chair, facing the wall in a corner of the room, shifted a few steps and bumped into Frederick’s leg. “Sit, you don’t want to get sick of standing straight already.”
“It’s going to kill me, I’m sure.” Frederick replied, sitting down on the bed rather than the chair Nienna offered. The last few times he had traveled it had been over wagon or horse, across roads that led to the villages and towns which the temple gave service to. He had never even been to the capital, never even seen the Queen from afar. Now he was going to tramp over hills with no mount or vehicle to aid him. He was not the most physically fit – even if his race was known for strength.
“Don’t say that! Just think of it as a walk with me along the garden.” Nienna said, her hand falling upon his own. “I would tell you what I’ve doing for the past few months, but it’s been a lot of nothing.”
“Exarse is right – low clergy really do get a lot of mundane busywork.” Recalling what she had said earlier this morning, Frederick squeezed her hand a bit more and said, “Where are you planning to go on your pilgrimage?”
The instant his voice settled and his breath had been released, Nienna bounced again, this time wrapping her arms around Frederick. At first Frederick tried to challenge her, grinning as he kept her at bay. But Nienna only became bolder and his strength was no match for hers, and she took him down, coming to lie over him. “I’m staying right here.” She whispered.
* * *
Exarse Gaul wandered the small library, up and down the aisles. Someone had moved the books. This was inevitable, because the other people handling the library were nowhere near as respectful of the delicate order of books, the sanctity of the tomes in their ordained positions in the collection. Young clerics looking for hymn books and trainee wizards coming to borrow tomes would pick a book out and drop it into the nearest gap in the collection. Exarse hated that practice.
The Cardinal Light Temple had two libraries. The secret collections were stored one floor below ground. These scrolls were so old it was said that light and open air would damage them. So for anyone to get a glimpse of them beyond the caretakers, specific tomes and pages had to be requested, which would be reproduced by hand. This library was the only one he had seen with his own eyes. While it had a wealth of information, he had already digested it thoroughly.
New copies of the old texts would be given to the one filing the request for them. Exarse had been denied any such honor. He had filed the requests exactly as instructed. He knew what he wanted to see, down to the title, year of publication and the author. He had done his research on that, but received none of the fruits of his labor.
Exarse removed a book of hymns and sat next to a window, opening to a page on the three greater magics – Sotarias, Armegido and Acheros. Spirits could wield these words to extreme power, so much so they rarely ever wielded them. The versions he and other mortals could use were weak in comparison but nonetheless potent, difficult to learn. This book had watered-down versions of the hymns and a small piece of the recipe for Armegido, the only one that could only be approximated through arcane magic, rather than Divine. The locked collections held all of what this book did not.
He turned his head to the window. He thought the branch outside had moved, something stirring its green leaves.
“Rustling?” He whispered to himself. He knew he had heard something.
Half-expecting Frederick to be pulling a prank on him, Exarse scanned the room over. He saw faint blue lines, trails of essence leading nowhere and everywhere. He sighed. They vanished, tied to nothing around. Or perhaps he merely could not tell what they were attached to. Seeing essence had its faults. He sat again, knowing that with Nienna around Frederick would opt to spend the night with her rather than pestering him. The noise quickly left his mind.
He put down the book, thinking about his surroundings. The ways of the holy men were strange to him. Their most beloved texts were hidden away from all eyes. Exarse, and he felt this was rightly so, made few friends in the Cardinal Light Temple. He was himself, not abhorrent but not really endearing, and his requests were probably bothersome. Frederick though, seemed to take a liking to him. Nienna too, though it could be said that she took a liking to anyone who did not mind her temperament.
“Oh ho, who’s this person by the window?”
Exarse turned his head over his shoulder, glancing out the corner of his eye at the approaching Canon Lisvarde, a large book held against her breasts. “What a coincidence.” She said, smiling at the Dromidae.
“Don’t be disingenuous.” Exarse said, his antennae falling with his mood, “You came here because you want something.”
“Why yes, I do.” Lisvarde replied. She sat across from Exarse. “Everyone who comes to a library wants something.”
Suddenly, Exarse wasn’t feeling quite up to reading books. He thought he’d get ready for supper instead.
“Excuse me.” He said.
Lisvarde laughed delicately, covering her mouth. “You misunderstand. I only wanted to ask you something.”
Exarse stood, leaving his book on the table as though it were a mess for the Canon to clean now. “Ask.”
A more dire tone seemed to come from the Canon suddenly. She was still covering her mouth, the gentle lady’s way of stifling a false laugh, a gesture Exarse had nothing but contempt for. But her eyes seemed to darken. Her aura seemed palpable, like the surface of a bubble. Her words were the same voice yet they reverberated with the power that Exarse felt when Frederick sang, but it was a darker power. A power meant to menace. “I want your word that you will loyally defend my pupils. I’m not fond of the arcanists who have come to this temple, especially if my pupils seem fond of them. I included you because you would have followed anyway. But I want to catch no wind of the cowardice and disloyalty that runs even in your Primordial speech, Wizard.”
The words seemed left to fall, like a stone between them.
To this simple gesture, there was a simpler reply. Exarse smiled.
“Frederick and Nienna are my friends,” He said, still smiling, “I don’t know what cowardly Wizard betrayed you, Lisvarde Schmeil. But perhaps it would behoove you to be more like your High Priest. I know he has forgiven that slight.”
He turned his back and left Lisvarde then, hoping the gesture would stick. But he could not help but shake off the feeling that he had not managed to put her in her place – that behind his back, she was smiling and content with his answer like she had expected it all along. But he did not see her, did not turn back to satisfy his curiosity, so he would never really know.
* * *
Night fell and it was Frederick’s turn to put out all of the scented candles around the temple exterior. The candles were said to ward off pekor and other small spirits that could not be reasoned with. For the most part, that was correct, except one or two little ones might enter nonetheless. Frederick traveled the front plain, where a group of trainees were performing extra training on their own, and the back garden, using a ladel-like instrument for putting out the candles. He was not allowed to touch them with his bare hands, or he might mar the delicate patterns woven in the wax.
Nienna followed behind him. She very rarely did not, when she was actually around.
Whenever they were alone there was no sense of urgency to talk, as though things unsaid were still understood between them. The way he calmed her was incredible – without Frederick around she almost felt like a different person. Sometimes this person appeared, like when she tripped him. But ever since they first met, Frederick had gone a long way to helping Nienna.
“Watch this,” Frederick said.
He extended the instrument to put out the last candle of the back garden, where they had taken their food in the morning. After the candle was extinguished, new lights started blinking in and out of existence from the trees and grasses. Nienna’s eyes, adapted to the dark, recognized the colors flashing perfectly.
Reds and blues, greens and yellows, whole rainbows of colors blinked on the crowns and branches of trees like bejeweled fruits. The sounds of wings beating, legs scratching, branches shaking, accompanied the lights. It was as though the forest only truly awakened when sure that nobody could see it. The colors were Pekor bugs, tiny spirit insects with glowing carapaces.
Though she wanted to say something to convey the beauty she was seeing, Frederick hushed Nienna and led the way around the temple to the shrine at the edge of the pond. Nienna maintained her peace, staring from the corners of her eyes at the dancing lights and frolicking shades she could see on the edge of the forest, just a dozen yards away from them. The spirits and animals were out now, playing at night, perhaps observing them, or perhaps occupied with their own unknowable business.
Where the grounds of the temple met the large pond adjacent to it, stone had been laid to make for more comfortable walking. This slate grey path led to a raised platform, at the top of which stood a red gate over a wooden altar, each decorated numerous scrolls. These scrolls, each about the length of a person’s arm, were written in the supernal tongue by the clerics of the shrine. Frederick’s hung from the upper right corner of the gate.
Nienna and Frederick climbed the stairs and paid their respects in front of the altar before putting out its candles.
They climbed down the way they came and sat on the edge of the lake, removing their shoes and letting their feet touch the water. Frederick looked out at the red gate, his scroll confirming his membership in Arcline’s clergy, and seemed so overjoyed.
“Back when I was younger, my parents kept pushing me to become a cleric. My mother said she had seen Arcline herself promise that I would not grow to be poor. That I’d do something with myself. Whenever they told me that, it sounded so stupid. I wanted to be with them and help them. I hated that they kept pushing me away to the temple.”
He let himself fall back on the stone, feet dipping in and out of the water as he laid and stared at the sky.
“It’s so sad that they’ve gone now, just when I realized how much I want to be part of all this.”
Nienna laid back beside Frederick, staring at the sky herself. The void of purple and muted red above them contained hundreds and thousand, maybe millions of stars trapped in its vast, gluttonous expanse. Such a dire place, but so beautiful from aground.
“I’ll be part of all this with you.” She said. “And you may not feel them, but they are still part of it too.”
* * *
The next morning, Canon Lisvarde waited for the would-be adventurers at the red gate leading out unto the road. Her cassock today was a different color than before, a light purple, perhaps for a gathering. She had a plate of flatbreads in one hand and in the other a plate of tall drinking cups with soup in them. Frederick, Nienna and Exarse each took their share of the meal and bowed their heads in thanks to the Canon. They had spent the morning preparing backpacks and had missed breakfast.
“I wish you luck on your journey,” Lisvarde said as they ate.
“Thank you,” Frederick replied. He bowed his head in respect.
The Canon nodded, and she addressed Exarse with a smiling face. “Take good care of them.”
Dispassionate as always, Exarse gave an almost dismissive nod to the question.
Finally, she addressed Nienna, putting her hand on the Setah Paladin’s shoulder. “Mind your temper.”
Nienna opened and closed her fists nervously, nodding in acknowledgment.
“I’m sure you will find Nitaya Maus,” She said, of the man they were meant to find. Beyond his name and familial connections, nothing else seemed clear about him.
Lisvarde retreated from them a few steps, enough to have the whole group and the backdrop in her sight. She clapped her hands together, bowed her head to them, turned and marched back up the road. For her, there was nothing more to be said. She had faith in them and so, there was no need for more a farewell. At least, this was how Frederick understood it.
He drew out his japa bag and shook it as he walked up to the road, giving a silent prayer. Nienna would navigate – she was more used to travel than he, and Exarse seemed absorbed in the surroundings or perhaps just unwilling to hold the dusty old map.
Immeasurable groups of thin-trunked pines and maples flanked them along the road, creating a landscape that never seemed to move along with them. They saw the same branches and leaves, the same carpet of twigs, leaves and branches over the soil, continuing endlessly. The sky above appeared frozen, painted on like a portrait on the wall. But the temple, shrinking behind them over time and eventually disappearing all together, gave them that unsettling feeling of distance – if they looked back.
“We follow the road,” Nienna said, map open in her hands, “South to the red pines, then we have to move into the forest itself.”
Exarse closed his eyes and breathed in. “Into the forest, you say?”
“Are you bothered by it? Thinking about the possibility of filth?” Frederick said.
“Dreading the possibility of filth. Dreading.” The dromidae replied, rubbing his hands together.
Frederick and Nienna paused on the road, bursting out with laughter that nearly knocked them off their feet. Nienna dropped the map and Frederick could not continue his silent prayer with a straight face.
* * *
The noctural forest breathe chilling air all about them. The tents swayed lightly and the bonfire’s flame curled and wavered. Exarse snapped his fingers, a blue spark from his gloves igniting the small pile of twigs and branches they had gathered. A small, light pot hovered above the fire as though held by an invisible hand. It hovered over to Frederick and Nienna in turn, pouring some yellow broth into their cups. They had to drink the lentil soup quickly or it would’ve gone cold.
Frederick stared above. As far as the fire illuminated, he saw only the wood, stretching overhead like the claws of a beast. If he strained his eyes he could see trails like strung cobwebs, glowing with spiritual essence. That was as far as he could understand of the spiritual rhythms of the world around them. While he stared off into the sky and shadow, Nienna looked through the map. He was so grateful for her – there were many skills he lacked with she had. Not the least of which was her resolve.
He was already, in his heart, wavering. As he gazed at the sky, he wanted the wood to clear, and to be back in the temple he so rarely left. Even when he fought the Asura, in that dark heart of the world, he was only about an hour away from a village, full of people and life. The strange desolation of the forest frightened him – but Nienna was there, quietly bolstering him with just her presence. For her, he could remain focused. He did not know she felt much the same way about him.
“This man’s trajectory is absolutely bizarre.” Nienna said, examining the map while she ate. “There’s nothing out here but woods. What was he looking for? Not even the tiniest village in this map, and it is a rather recent map too. Is he some kind of indebted herbalist, digging the far corners of the world for a rare herb to barter for his life?”
“He could have been looking for a Spirit.” Frederick said, chuckling at Nienna’s examination. It comforted him to think that perhaps the man wasn’t involved with other people, but that it was a spiritual matter that had taken him. He could laugh about it because of his optimism nothing terrible really had occurred. Exarse offered no opinion. He merely stared above himself.
“Did any of you hear a rustling?” Exarse said.
Nienna was quick to stand and draw her sword, scanning the heights for enemies.
“I did not hear a thing,” Frederick said, trying to usher Nienna down.
“Neither did I,” Nienna said, “And I’m fairly sure my hearing is better than Exarse’s. I see nothing either. Not even essence.”
She sheathed her blade and sat anew.
Exarse shook his head. “Well, fine then.”
* * *
The terrain was uneven, with gnarled roots forming arches over their head and makeshift steps against the hills, jutting out in unpredictable angles. The ground itself was loose and treacherous, so that there was no choice but to maneuver from wood to wood. The trunks of the trees presented more obstacles as they grew from the hill, almost unnaturally, blocking the path entirely and forcing travelers to move around them, a difficult task composed of faithful leaps or climbing with belly to the ground. A cold breeze flowed through the gaps between the trees and roots.
Overhead, the sunlight crept in through the red canopy of leaves. The red forest seemed in a perpetual state of autumn. Perhaps the spirits that resided there wished it so, and their influence froze the seasons. Perhaps there was a time of year when the forest was green, a time that mortals, in the inexorable rhythm of their lives, would continue to miss.
There were scarce birds and small animals in the hill, and sometimes, a spirit above in a tree, looking down at Frederick, Nienna and Exarse, but saying nothing. Many had colorful robes, some dour garments made of leaves, others green cloth as though rebelling against the false autumn. They seemed curious of the mortals wandering the wood.
“Things will be easier after this hill.” Nienna said. She seemed to say this mostly to the Dromidae, who was worse for wear.
Exarse reached overhead, pulling himself to a series of roots sticking out like five fingers from under a thick tree. He laid his back against the trunk and the dirt and soil around it. He wrapped his arms around himself, teeth chattering, dark circles having begun to form under his eyes since two days past. He gripped his cane as though he would need to use it at any moment.
“Is he always like this when you travel?” Nienna asked.
Frederick shook his head, too tired with the climb to speak.
Nienna clambered ahead of Frederick, holding out a hand to him. He took it, but remained silent. This climb had beaten the wind out of his lungs. Nienna was less concerned with him – she knew him to be tough despite his looks – than with Exarse. The Dromidae had climbed ahead of them like a beast and was setting up some odd contraption that seemed like a compass with an iron tongue, dancing like a snake while tasting the air. This device pointed something out to him, it seemed.
The Dromidae shouted, “Water! Water!”
It seemed as though a wraith had taken hold of him, because Exarse instantly turned his back from the trunk and resumed climbing, arm over arm and legs deftly catching each foothold. He climbed faster and higher than the Iomadi and Setah. They would have found this amusing, were it not for their fear that their friend would roll downhill soon, paralyzed with fatigue.
Frederick raised his head to the canopy. He saw some rustling above and waved his hand in salutation.
“Don’t do that,” Nienna said, grabbing his wrist in an almost pain-inducing grip, “You’ll just attract its attention.”
Past the steep climb, the terrain became uneven but manageable, with the trees and the ground settling into a peaceful equilibrium. Roots maintained their proper place close to the earth, and the soft rising and falling of the earth, with the largest of bumps being only high as the knees, made travel more tolerable.
They stumbled upon a small pond in which Exarse leaped in, cloak and all. Thankfully Nienna had been carrying all the packs for this stretch of the journey, or else Exarse’s tools and book would have been ruined. Nienna and Frederick watched the Dromidae in confusion, as he seemed to be bathing by forcing water into and out of every article of his clothing.
The two of them settled for washing their faces and hands.
“I’m surprised you have no apprehensions about this.” Frederick asked, his hands together, forming a basin of cold of water. Flecks of dirt and rock swam visibly within.
Exarse settled into the water, until only his shoulder and shoulders were visible. That was as deep as the pond went. “It is the lesser of two evils. Far the lesser.” Exarse explained.
A slight breeze began to pick up. It was pleasant here, and aside from some rustling above, very relaxing. Frederick sat against a nearby stone and sighed. Nienna started rummaging through her things until she found a portable crossbow, much to Frederick’s surprise. She loaded it with a bolt and clipped a small case of bolts to her side as well.
“Where are you going?” Frederick asked.
“Hunting,” Nienna replied. “We’ve had enough dry food.”
Nienna’s canine ears straightened as she said this. Setah needed some bloody meat every once in a while and he could not deny it to her, no matter how much he’d rather she nap in the clearing with him instead of taking up a crossbow. Frederick knew too well how she became when she was angered.
* * *
Exarse watched for a moment and returned to washing himself. Unlike Frederick, he was never in a mood to get between Nienna and whatever Nienna wanted, but then again he was not her lover, so the conflict wasn’t his. He raised his head to wash his neck, but his eyes lingered on the canopy. Something was moving in it. He raised his antennae, trying to pick up sounds.
He heard another sound, but not rustling this time. A sound like numerous iron droplets on the ground, a sound of falling glass. Then a plunging noise and a crack. Gas rose all around Exarse, who did not cough nor panic at the sensation. Frederick bolted to a stand and drew his mace, but he paused. The pond had frozen all around Exarse, who struggled to pull one of his arms and his lower body out of the ice. He was trapped and his spells could not be directed in such a state.
“Above!” Exarse shouted. Frederick dropped under the weight of a speeding creature, taking both its feet and all its weight to his back. He collapsed face-first and quickly spun about to see. The figure soared through the air, having used his back as a spring and clambered up a nearby tree, hand over hand.
Frederick swung his prayer beads. From their wake flew a host of gossamer, snaking projectiles. They raced after the figure as it escaped, swerving through the air, turning and twisting instantly. These harmful spirits of radiance flocked after it, seamlessly following the face of the trunk and crashing one after the other in the creature’s back. But the attack slowed it none, and it vanished into the tree tops. Rustling sounds issued from above, but he could not pinpoint them.
The cleric took advantage of the enemy’s disappearance to stand. He made for the Dromidae at first, stopping by the ice. He stamped it twice, making cracks on the surface. The rustling grew more frequent. The enemy was on the move.
“Forget about me,” Exarse said, whispering the words, “Keep your eyes on it. Bring it down here.”
Frederick nodded once. He cast his eyes about the trees but found nothing but a bird.
Holding his beads firmly in hand, picking up his Mace, Frederick stood and closed his eyes.
He began to sing a cleric hymn.
A voice unlike Frederick’s own engaged him in the act. Each word in the Supernal tongue was sang as though by the voice of the Mother Fox herself, the most soothing of her chords accentuating Frederick’s own. The result was a unique voice, divinely ordained. The words sang were so familiar but the voice made them otherworldly, majestic.
Frederick’s sang to the bird, focusing his mind and emotion upon it, feeding its urge to climb to the sky. He knew what the hymn would cause, and at his command the bird soared. At the height of its ascent, a whirlwind of red autumn erupted from around the bird. Glowing red leaves blew in every direction, a crimson wind of light that crushed branches and shook the mighty trees. The funnel expanded to cover an area ten feet across in every direction. The world seemed to shake.
The bird fled through the canopy and the figure dropped from the sky on the frozen pond.
The ice shattered. Exarse thrust both hands towards the enemy and conjured a wave of violent noise that seemed to stir the world like a mirage. The creature flew off the ground and slammed into a nearby tree, its spine arching forward from the impact, the trunk scarring under the collision. It screamed, a wet yelp and gasp of blood drawn from its mouth.
Reaching into the water for his cane, Exarse sought to finish the affair, chanting something in the Primordial Speech.
“That’s enough Exarse,” Frederick said, laying hands on the Dromidae. Exarse calmed, but his gestures urged Frederick to hurry.
Frederick quickly approached the intruder, mace ready to swing if needed. It lay face down on the ground, hands feebly trying to raise its body. He was not above shattering the creature’s face if needed – he knew this Mace could not kill. That was precisely why he wanted to take care of this himself. However, he was forced to pause within steps of the creature, captivated.
She had raised her head to stare into his eyes. She had a beautiful but indifferent look, her girlish face wincing slightly.
She was female – the soft rise of her chest beneath her shawl, the litheness of her figure, the flowing ease of her hair even while trapped in a ponytail. She had a sleeveless shirt, long pants. A small bag was clipped to her side. On her forehead and on each hand was a symbol. All over her body, the wounds left by Frederick’s praye issued small trails of smoke of still. She had a tail, much like him, but it was larger, furrier. It looked more like the end of a broom than even Frederick’s. Her ears were longer.
A fox spirit – a true fox Spirit, unlike Frederick’s race. But like many spirits, she was in a mortal skin.
While he stood silenced by her appearance, the woman’s right hand slipped into her bag.
Exarse raised his hand anew and Frederick shouted.
“We don’t need to keep fighting!” He said, but paradoxically raised his mace out of some newly-earned habit.
The three of them froze, breathing heavily, each battered in their own way.
“I have stopped.” The woman said. “I only wanted to spar, but you really hurt me.”
From her bag, the woman drew a vial of pink liquid. A healing potion of some kind. “Can I?” She asked. Her voice sounded rather old, like what he imagined a grandmother would sound to her children. So different from her looks.
Frederick ran his hands over his face, the pain on his back growing worse from her words. Only a spirit could think that dropping out of the woods on passersby and trading lethal blows was considered sparring.
* * *
There seemed to be no animals in this forest.
Nienna had spent the better part of an hour wandering the woods, crossbow in hand. She could not hunt with her magic – that would have been utterly dishonorable to everything her station stood for. At the same time, any animal would outrun her if she charged out with her sword. She was not a very good shot with a crossbow, but she did not need to be if she had the element of surprise. From bush to bush, around trees, even atop high branches, Nienna explored with her weapon trained on thin air.
There was an eerie feeling, a tingling in the back of her neck. The essence around her was disturbed, quite mildly, but nonetheless. The animals must have felt the same. They had a stronger connection to nature.
She would return empty-handed, wanting nothing more than some warm meat for her troubles.
The instant Nienna saw the spirit in the camp eating their rations, she reflexively pointed her crossbow straight at it.
“Nienna, wait!” Frederick said, jumping up, “She’s harmless!”
Nienna put down her crossbow, looking at Exarse’s frost-covered clothing, the half-frozen pond nearby, the burn marks on the trees and the foot marks and dirt on Frederick’s clothing. She caught a mild scent of blood coming from Frederick, and something inside her burnt. Harmless? She lost all sense of what she was doing, and her face seemed to lose color. Her eyes seemed to see through things rather than at them. She reached for her sword, stepping forward as she began to draw it.
Frederick approached and put his hands on hers, both of them grasping the same weapon.
“Nienna, please. Everything is fine, don’t do this, calm down.” Frederick said. He was trying to whisper to her, to mutter in a sweet voice. Nienna’s mind was clouded with rage. Who was this beast and what had she done here? In spite of everything the spirit merely watched with an innocent face, an expression that only made Nienna burn more. But Frederick’s touch on her wrist, his hand on her shoulders, his voice in his ear, penetrated the cloud. Nienna’s expression softened and she shook her head. She felt a sudden shame as it dawned upon her – Frederick had been forced to stop her. It all had happened again.
“I’m sorry,” She said. Nienna paused, unable to comprehend. She put her hands in the center of her breast, gasping for air. Her heart felt hot, her face red. “I lost my mind there. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine!” The spirit shouted, from behind Frederick, “You’re forgiven. I would have been okay with you killing me anyway.”
The Spirit’s voice utterly grated on Nienna’s nerves, causing her to issue a low growl like a threatened dog. Frederick took her by both shoulders, setting his forehead gently against hers, locking her eyes on his. There was a moment where Nienna could feel the warmth of his breath on her. “No harm done. But you should listen to her. Sit down by me, we need to talk.”
* * *
Prompted to talk after her meal, the first thing the spirit said was an apology.
She apologized for lying.
“I’ve actually been following you all this time.” She declared.
It took some effort to keep Nienna from pouncing on her. She was halfway to a stand and with her sword drawn, and both Frederick and Exarse leaped and held her arms down. When Nienna finally settled, promising that this time it was for good, the Spirit, which had not moved despite the threat to its life, resumed her explanation, seated on a rock opposite them. She was curled over it like an animal, her tail waving in the air. She seemed eternally pleased with herself.
“I was headed this way and I thought I could get you to help me with something. But I wanted to be convinced you were heading my way before bothering you with it.” She said. “You can’t fault me for being polite.”
“Your idea of bothering us is attacking our camp?” Nienna shouted.
“I admit, I overdid it.” The spirit replied. “Let us pretend it never happened. My name is Ralah, The Sealing Fox Of Muibu.”
She held her hand down to Nienna. There it hung, until Exarse shook it.
“You’re all no good at pretending.” Ralah said, her fox ears drooping along with her frowning mouth.
“Just tell us what you want.” Frederick said. He was patient, but fast becoming annoyed with the fox.
Ralah drew back her hand, resting her head on her arms and staring out into the forest. “You know humans in these parts are very scarce, right? Well, I used to know a place where there was a whole village of them. My master knew, as well.”
“Your master?” Exarse asked.
“He’s not too illustrious. You wouldn’t know him. He’s also dead. That’s another obstacle to his notoriety.”
Nienna grunted. “There’s no village on the map.”
“There wouldn’t be,” Ralah said, “Who makes your maps? It’s not an infallible entity. There’s things that can hide from its sight. Or perhaps things that it wants to remain hidden.”
Frederick could scarcely wrap his head around the spirit’s point, whatever it was. “Are you saying that cartographers left your little village out of these maps on purpose? Why would they?”
“It’s hard to draw something that doesn’t exist,” Ralah said. “Or something that’s been gone for a while.”
“Stop jerking us around! Where do you fit into all of this? What’s your purpose, if you know where this village is?” Nienna shouted. Frederick put his arm around her in the hopes she might settle down.
Ralah smiled a devilish little grin. “Many years ago the village disappeared. The infallible law that kept it alive was stolen by the man who can steal anything, Nitaya Maus.”
“Nitaya Maus?” Nienna said. “I’d heard tell of the “man who could steal anything” but I’d never heard it by name.”
“Yes ma’am, twas him! You see, that village was already very dead. It was destroyed during the Intolerable War. This is the reason it is not on your maps. Its Guardian has the power of infallible law. That is what allows that village to exist. She decreed as an infallible law that the village would continue under her guardianship.”
“Wait,” Frederick said, “This is getting complicated. So the village isn’t on our maps because it was destroyed in the War, so it was erased from the maps hundreds of years ago. But somehow this Spirit kept it alive, until Maus stole that power. How did Maus even know about this village? Why would he even want to do it?”
“That’s not your story!” Ralah said, smiling, “That’s Maus’ story. A man who can steal anything must find it easy to get information for these kinds of things, is all I can guess at, and he must be attracted to the challenge of stealing them.”
“Then what is your story,” Nienna said, gritting her teeth.
“I’m here because that woman who’s laws become infallible has been given her powers back by a foolish man who repented too late for his troubles. You’re here to save that foolish man. I’m here to save that foolish woman. Both of them are about to commit the worst sins they possibly could, all in the name of wanting to repent for what they believe was their worst sin.”
She stretched out her hand fast as she had said all of the above, closed her eyes, perked up her ears and smiled. “Do we have an agreement? I’m sure you already feel the tingling. It wasn’t me – something’s happening just beyond this forest.”
Ralah pointed at the sky, and Nienna felt the tingling in the back of her neck, just the same as in the forest.
* * *
Ralah, The Sealing Fox Of Muibu Level 9 Skirmisher
Medium Natural Humanoid (Spirit) XP400
Initiative +9; Perception +15; Darkvision
HP: 72 Bloodied: 36
AC: 22, Fort: 20, Ref: 22, Will: 24
Action Point 1
[MB] Unarmed Attack (Standard; AW) @Weapon
+12 vs AC; 1d8+6 damage.
[M] Quick Hit (Minor; AW) @Weapon
+12 vs AC; 1d8 damage. If Ralah successfully attacked the target before making this attack, she knocks the target prone.
[R] Foxfire (Standard; AW) @FIre
Ranged 10; +10 vs Reflex; 1d6+6 fire damage.
[A] Fire Breath (Standard; 6) @Fire
Area Burst 3 Within 20 squares; Each creature; +10 vs Reflex; 3d6+6 fire damage.
Miss: Half damage.
[S] Cunning Fox (Minor; AW)
Ralah shifts 1 square.
[S] Scurrying Fox (Move; AW)
Ralah jumps or climbs her speed.
[S] Skirmisher Advantage
If Ralah moves at least 3 squares during her turn, she has a +2 bonus to damage until the start of her next turn.
[S] Fox’s Religious Wisdom [Boon]
Ralah can cast any Religion-based ritual as though she had the Ritual Caster feat. She uses 1/5 less components than required by the ritual. She can cast one ritual per day and an additional one each milestone.
Unaligned; Common, Elf, Supernal
Skills: Bluff +12, Diplomacy +12, Insight +15, Perception +15, Arcana +11, History +11, Religion +11
Str 12 (+5) Dex 17 (+7) Wis 22 (+10)
Con 17 (+7) Int 15 (+6) Cha 16 (+7)
Equipment: 1 Creeping Ice, 2 Curing Potions
Creeping Ice Level 7+
The black and blue potion in this vial billows with cold smoke that seeks to escape the bottle.
Level 7: 600 gp
Level 12: 2500 gp
Level 17: 5000 gp
Level 22: 25,000 gp
Level 27: 50,000 gp
Power (Consumable@Cold): Standard Action. You make an attack with the concoction against a target within 5 squares (or more if using the concoction as ammunition). If the attack is successful, the target cannot attack and is immobilized until the end of your next turn. The attack uses the following bonus depending on the item’s level.
Level 7: +10 vs Fortitude
Level 12: +15 vs Fortitude
Level 17: +20 vs Fortitude
Level 22: +25 vs Fortitude
Level 27: +30 vs Fortitude
Dromidae Compass Level 1
A turtle-like box of biological steel from which a worm-like creature emerges to taste the air.
Wondrous Item 360 GP
Property: You have a +2 item bonus to Nature checks.
Power: Daily, but you do not spend a Daily magic item power when using this item. Standard Action. You can set down the Dromidae Compass in any patch of natural soil. The compass can detect the presence of water nearby to a distance of 10 miles. It directs you to the closest source of water. It can direct you to the water by pointing in the appropriate compass direction. The Compass detects pools of water underground or overhead, so it may point straight up or straight down. You can spend a Daily magic item power to have the Compass point to the next closest source of water.