Soren read through the passage on the wall multiple times. He was sure: the mountain is called Slumberkeep. The rest of it, however, seemed quite vague – as if it was part of some other legend, or the summary of one.
He made his way out of the temple, and was blinded momentarily by the bright sun, shining high in the sky. The snake that resided on his shoulder jumped away as his vision returned.
A raven sat on a tree branch watching him.
“What do you want?”
The raven did nothing.
He searched the ground and picked up a pebble before throwing it at the bird. He shook his head as it flew off in fright. “Don’t know what else I expected.”
As he made his way back into town, he was met by Maya running up to him.
“You’re back!” she yelled excitedly as she walked alongside him. Then she squinted at the instrument sticking out of his backpack. “Did you go to the temple without me?”
Soren rolled his eyes. “Yes. Because I don’t want to put anyone in unnecessary danger for what may well be a fool’s errand.”
Maya huffed. “Well, the madam would like to see you. Says it’s important.”
“She thinks everything she says is important.”
Nevertheless, Soren still made his way to the madam’s house, a good deal larger than most of the other houses in Ortus.
It was the only one with two stories, built by the hands of the madam and the servants she’d brought with her on her way to Mikron. Attached to the side was a small shack where the madam’s mutt lived, gnashing at any passersby, though, if the madam greeted them, he would suddenly turn friendly.
As the pair approached, the dog ran out to greet them. He spat saliva everywhere as he growled and barked, his howls heard throughout the town.
The two stood, just outside the length of the anchor chain that held him, as they waited for the madam to come outside to greet them.
After several minutes, she walked outside. She was a fierce woman, both on and off the battlefield – it only made sense why she came to be known as Leondrea, “the Lioness,” among the nobility of Shelez. And the town she built with her own two hands shared the same name, even to this day.
Soren remembered seeing her when he was a child – how it was that she came to be a noble in the court of the king of Ingaard (and, by extension, the emperor of Shelez) was a mystery to Soren. She had some Shelezar blood, sure, but her hair wasn’t quite curly enough to be fully so, and her black hair betrayed some Birik in her lineage. Her facial features, too – her full lips and naturally wide eyes indicated there was some Mikri in her. She was perhaps even more of a mutt than her own dog. The one feature that Soren didn’t recognize from when he was a child was the massive scar that she had on her cheek from an animal’s claws.
As soon as she’d shaken both their hands, the dire wolf calmed down, and retreated back into its shed. She led the two into her house, which was the first time Soren ever saw the interior.
The entry hall wouldn’t have been anything to gawk at if it were back in Shelez, but, in a town like this, it certainly surprised Soren. The entry hall itself was roughly the size of the rest of the houses in Ortus, and several servants wandered through the house, cleaning and tending to other household chores.
She led them through a door into an other room, where there was a long table, with ten chairs around it. In two of the chairs sat the Shelezar couple, now sitting with their newborn child, born during the two weeks that Soren had spent healing from the ordeal with the raft.
Now, they were losing the child. It turned out what Leondrea needed to see Soren for was important. She may have been the self-proclaimed sovereign over Ortus – but at least she took the title seriously. Now, she needed Soren to travel into the forest of Perdinitium – which bordered Ortus to the west – to seek out a woman, knowledgeable in magic and potions.
Soren didn’t challenge Maya’s wish to join with him this time. Her fighting skills could be of use in the ork-infested forest, and she always had a fascination with witchcraft. To deny her this would be like denying a probably dead child their final wish.
The two prepared for the journey – nearly a day’s travel – before making their way into the woods.
“So, what do you think she’s like?” Maya asked as they trudged through the undergrowth. She narrowly avoided a twig snapping back after Soren pushed past it.
“She’s not a witch, she’s a medicine woman.”
“Isn’t that just the Mikron version of a witch?”
Soren held up his hand and Maya stopped dead in her tracks. He held his finger to his mouth before pointing to the ground in front of them.
A rope was barely visible, pulled taught across the path and covered in leaves. Up above was a large grate made of lumber, covered in wooden spikes designed to impale whoever tripped the rope. Chances are, where ork traps lie, orks are soon to follow.
Soren motioned for Maya to move quietly and carefully stepped over the trap.
The girl followed in kind and the two continued to make their way through the woods, keeping a careful eye out for any traps that might be lying in wait.
For a couple of hours, they continued to trek through the forest, until something else caught Maya’s eye.
A pair of yellow eyes watched through the leaves of a shrub. It almost looked like man, save for the dog-like teeth in its mouth, and the fur which covered its body.
A low growl emanated from it, repeating the same two sounds again and again. “Ah” as it breathed out, “Ree” as it breathed in.
Maya tapped Soren on his shoulder and motioned to the wolf-man.
Soren looked to the poor creature. “I noticed it around when we first left Ortus,” he whispered, “It’s been following us the whole way. I suppose it maybe used to be a man. Or perhaps it’s just a mutant ork who drank a bit too much Trenqil.”
He continued walking without a second thought, stopping again only because Maya pulled on his tunic.
“Don’t you think we should try to help him? He looks kind of familiar.” She studied the man, but couldn’t quite tell where she knew his face from.
Soren let out a sigh. “I think we should stay out of trouble.”
Maya listened closer to the faint growl. “Really, I think he might be saying something.”
“Leave it!” Soren snapped. “We’re getting what we came here for – one thing at a time. As soon as that babe is healthy, we can help that man. But, for now, we need to focus on the task at hand.”
Maya looked to the ground before nodding solemnly. She’d never really seen Soren angry in the month and a half she’d known him – seeing him just about every day.
As the sun began to set, they reached a small shack.
From the outside, it looked rundown and tiny – just a teensy bit bigger than an outhouse. The door looked liked a massive piece of bark leaned up against a shoddy frame, and there were cracks between each of the boards that acted as the shack’s walls. Looking through the cracks, it appeared there was no one and nothing inside.
Soren held up his hand to knock, before a shrill voice called from within, “Come in!”
Soren dropped his hand and shrugged, sighing.
The door creaked open to a dimly-lit room, certainly a good bit larger than the shack outside. Inside, the shack was about the size of one of the houses in Ortus.
In the middle, an old woman – with wrinkled skin and a large nose – stood at a massive cauldron, stirring with a massive wooden spoon. Rats ran through the rafters.
Soren thought he heard words in their squeaks, though certainly such a prospect would be ridiculous.
The old woman smiled at him, baring pearly white teeth. The fact that they looked so healthy in contrast to her pallor skin and thin, grey hair was, quite simply, unnerving. Her lizard eyes also didn’t help. The more Soren studied the woman, the clearer it became that she was no human. Maya was right, this was no medicine woman – it was, in fact, a witch.
“You must be the errand boy I’ve been waiting for. And I see you’ve brought a little friend with you.”
Maya squeezed around Soren through the doorway and took in the room.
“Would you like some sweets, my dear?” The witch asked, reaching into a pocket on her robe and pulling out a small cake.
Maya eyed the witch indignantly. “I’m not a girl.”
The witch smiled weakly. “You are to me,” she said, as she placed the cake back in her pocket. “You are for medicine for the sickly babe?”
“That’s right,” Soren answered.
“Hm.” The witch stared into the cauldron for a moment. “Well, unfortunately, I am missing one last ingredient for the necessary potion – if you would be so kind as to get it for me on the morrow, I will make the potion in a jiffy. And perhaps I will throw in a little extra special gift for the errand boy, hm?”
Soren furrowed his brow at the witch. Errand boy? “I am no errand boy.”
“Ah, but you are,” the witch took the spoon up out of the cauldron before scooping up some of the contents and taking a sip. She smacked her lips before twisting her mouth in disgust. “Needs more salt.” She tapped the spoon on the edge of the cauldron before setting it on a table next to her and making her way across the room, searching through the contents of a shelf. “You are the one looking for the Dreamer, are you not?”
Soren brought in a sharp breath before clearing his throat as he choked on his own spit. “How would you know that?”
The witch grinned, once again displaying her perfectly healthy teeth. “Then you are the errand boy.”
“Mm.” Soren forced a smile as he crossed his arms. “You said look on the morrow; where are we to sleep?”
“Well, here, of course,” the witch answered as she poured a jar of salt into the cauldron, “I have cots already set out.”
She motioned to one corner of the room, where moldy cloth was nailed to the wall.
It wasn’t much worse than Soren’s cot on the Retribution. Maybe it would remind him of home.
Maya’s expression of intense disgust made it clear she had very different thoughts.
“Makes you miss those straw mattresses you complain about so much, doesn’t it?” Soren whispered as he started walking over to the cots.
Maya scowled at him before following behind.
“Wait!” the witch yelled. “Aren’t you going to eat first?”
The two turned around to see the witch gesturing at the cauldron.
“I’m- uh-” Soren started.
“What- what exactly- is that- exactly?” Maya stammered.
The two exchanged skeptical looks before slowly making their way to the table where the spoon rested.
The witch gave it one last stir before scooping soup into six bowls, setting three on the table and three onto the floor, which the rats quickly scurried over to.
As they ate, the witch asked, “You may call me Chorklenya. What may I call you?”
“My name is Soren, this is Maya.”
Maya gave Soren a cautious look as he said her name.
“Nice to meet you, then. It’s not often I get human visitors. Too often is it orks which come knocking on my door.”
Soren raised a brow for a moment as he ate his soup. It wasn’t bad.
The witch continued to speak and ask questions, often in circles at times while they ate – her favorite question to ask over and over was if they had happened to encounter any strange mushrooms on their way to her. The answer was always no. She always replied to their answer by saying to steer clear, or they could be wandering the woods forever.
After they finished eating, their bowls were handed off to the rats to lick clean as they went to bed.
At the break of dawn, the pair went out into the woods in search of the final ingredient for the potion – a flower, with blue and white petals and purple leaves.
“Still sure she wasn’t a witch?” Maya asked they wandered through the underbrush.
“She most definitely is,” Soren answered, “worse than that, she’s an elf.”
“Really? I always thought elves were supposed to be… majestic… mesmerizing… pleasing to the eye…”
“Most are – and that’s the trick they use to bring you in, before they destroy everything you love.”
The two wandered a bit more before Maya spoke up again. “So, what was with her weird eyes? Like, was that a witch thing?”
“That was an elf thing,” Soren replied as he stooped down to inspect a flower. It certainly looked like the right species based on the flower itself, but the leaves were the wrong color. He got back up and scanned the area around them. “They say elves are the spawn of dragons and men, created by the dragons to be slaves. That’s what brought them to Kithria in the first place – allegedly. Trying to escape slavery.”
He walked over to another flower and stooped down again. He pulled his dagger from the sheath on his thigh and cut it off near the root. “This should suffice.”
“Good,” Maya answered, “now we just need to find nine more.”
“Mm.” He cut a few more from the place where he’d found the first.
“You say allegedly. Is there another explanation?”
“Well,” Soren started. “No. However, from what the historians can tell, elves did enslave humans during the time of their empire. I’m not sure why anyone who was a slave would have slaves themselves – seems a bit odd to me.”
“You have an interesting perspective Soren.”
“How’s that?” He found another patch of flowers, adding two more mature ones to the pouch supplied by the witch.
“You seem to always think that the way a good person is made is that bad things happen to them, and the way a bad person is made is that good things happen.”
“That’s been my experience – everyone on my crew was a good person, every single one of them faced hardship in their life. The nobles I grew up with, who wanted for nothing, were the most selfish people I’d ever seen.”
Maya nodded as she thought on this before noticing the wolf-eyed man from before staring at her from another shrub. “Well, I would say it’s less what happens to someone that makes them who they are, and more how they respond to it. When someone has something taken from them, they have two options: they can do what they can to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else, or they can take from others what was taken from them. One would make such a person good, the other, bad. It’s all a matter of their reaction, not what happened to them.”
“Mm.” Soren crouched down and cut a few more flowers, bringing their total to eight, before standing up to the wolf-eyed man standing inches away. Soren stared into his face, trying to ignore the rest of his very hairy, very naked body, and couldn’t help to think that something seemed familiar about him. Before he could think on it any longer, Maya let out a shout and the wolf-man ran away.
“Did that man seem familiar to you?”
Maya curled her lip. “No.”
Soren bit the knuckle of his thumb as he thought before turning around. “Two more flowers to go.”
It didn’t take them long to find the remainder of the flowers, and they headed back toward Chorklenya’s hovel.
When they were nearly there, they heard a voice calling to them. Or, rather, voices, as they each heard a different one. A voice, calling out to them. Asking them to be free.
The two exchanged glances.
“Did you hear that?” Soren asked.
They looked around them for something, anything that might be calling out to them, before both their eyes locked on it at the same time: a mushroom, with an orange cap, covered in red striations, and a shiny, white stalk. As their eyes met it, they fell into a trance.
They both walked toward the mushroom – beginning slowly before picking up their pace. Soon, they were racing toward it.
Maya reached the mushroom first, breaking it from the ground and holding it high above her head to admire in the slight sunlight peaking through the canopy.
She pulled the mushroom down to her chest as Soren swiped at it, before bringing it close to her mouth – she couldn’t explain it, but she felt an extreme need to bite into it.
As she opened her jaw, Soren swiped it from her, bringing it to his own.
He was faster about it than she was, but, as the mushroom touched his lips, he felt a burning sensation in his hand and chest.
The symbol that he wore around his neck began to glow, and the mushroom burned from his hand outward. He was overcome with sadness that such a beautiful plant would be destroyed before the witch’s words echoed in his mind.
As the mushroom – now turned to ash – fell to the ground, he stared at the tree in front of him. He had been one bite away from cutting his mission short.
Maya stared at him in disgust. “What did you do to it?”
Soren stared back blankly. “I think it was poison. Remember what the witch said? ‘Eat any strange mushrooms and you could be wandering the forest forever.'”
Maya’s look of disgust faded. “Oh.”
“Yes. ‘Oh,’ indeed.”
The two made their way back to the witch’s hut. They exchanged the flowers and waited while she mixed up a potion. She handed it to them, along with a small bag of powder.
“Take this with you, as a reward. It will help you when everything is for naught. A small pinch in the hand will go a long way.”
She winked as they made their way out of the shack and traveled back to Ortus, silent for most of the way – these were ork hunting grounds, and they didn’t make much distinction between man and beast.
The canopy began opening as they got closer to the edge of the forest, and the underbrush thicker. As they walked, another set of footsteps followed them.
Soren glanced around quickly, but saw no one.
They continued a bit further. It followed again.
Soren let out a yell before they stood silent. Then the footsteps broke into a run.
The naked, wolf-eyed man jumped out through the green undergrowth, grabbing Soren by the head as he flew through the hair.
Soren, fell to the ground, the air knocked out of him. The wolf-man spun on all-fours and stared at Soren with hunger in his eyes. Perhaps he was an orkish mutant. Perhaps the reason he seemed familiar was he looked like one of those which Soren had fended off from that Ingaard village.
Then, he heard the growl again, more closely. “Ah-ah” with each breath out. “Ree” with each breath in.
A dagger flew by the wolf-man’s head as Maya hurled insults at him.
Soren shook his head as he gained his bearings. “Don’t kill him, we can help this man!”
He sprang to his feet as the wolf-man ran at Maya.
She just barely jumped out of the way and he spun on his arms and legs to face her. Then, a name caught his attention.
“Aryia!” Soren yelled. “That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That’s who you’re looking for?”
“Ah! Ree! Ah!” the wolf-man yelled, continuing his previous breathing pattern.
Soren took a pinch of powder from its pouch. She said it would get him out of tough situations – he could only hope this happened to be one of them.
As he dropped the powder into his palm, the wolf-man began running, and Soren waited.
Soren blew on the powder as hard as he could, sending it right into the wolf-man’s face.
He recoiled and spun around, rubbing his eyes as he sneezed, again and again. Finally, he stopped rubbing his eyes and stared off into space, dazed. He fell over with a thud into the dirt as he continued staring at the sky.
Soren walked over to him.
“Can you stand?”
The man’s eyes met Soren as he let out a sigh and sat up.
“Thank you.” He rubbed his temple. “Thank you for freeing me from that curse.”
“No problem,” Soren replied. “Who are you?” He was sure he knew the answer.
“My name is Rolph. I live in Ortus.” Panic struck the man’s face. “Do you know my daughter? Is she safe?”
Soren knelt down and placed a hand on Rolph’s shoulder – the hair that covered him seemed to be falling out, clinging to Soren’s hand.
“Yes,” he replied, “Aryia is fine.”
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