The Night Before the Storm – A Pathfinder Story

“Stay vigilant brothers and sisters! Keep the beacon of Amenel burning bright at all times, lest we fall to the darkness beyond the horizon! For more than 2.000 years it has been warding our shores from the Great Unknown, keeping our ships safe in the coldness of the misty seas…” – Arakil Icethorn, the Great Builder.

The gates of Amenel shined with majestic splendor in the distance. Horril scratched his head in confusion as he and his companion, a man of around 45 years of age approached it in stride. Horril was feeling sick and nauseous, barely able to follow his companion. He literally dragged himself across the stone paved road, falling behind the man who kept a permanent scowl on his face, regarding Horril with what he assumed was contempt. Horril glanced at the man, but find it hard to hold his gaze on him for long. The man wore an ornate dark suit with a brown west and gray shirt underneath, tucked in a pair of brown cotton pants. The cloak that covered the man was black with many intricate designs sewn into it. They resembled some sort of a script Horril was unfamiliar with. A pair of black leather boots with iron heels clinked with each step the man took. His long hair was caught in a ponytail and a masterfully tailored dark brown hat with a single feather on its right side sat comfortably on his head. The man had a well groomed beard but Horril could see scars hidden beneath it. So, the man has certainly seen some violence in his life. His fingers were adorned with gold jeweled rings and he held a lavish dark-wood cane in his gloved right hand. Horril’s attire wasn’t nearly as rich, he wore a simple pair of leather pants and jerkin, and even though the cold wind blew from the east, he didn’t mind it. A lifetime in the forest made his body sturdy against the elements. His disposition was ragged, borderline-feral. He was after all a child of the forests on the northeastern edges of Sharaam, the land far to the south, beyond the Ifaby Sea. He was raised in the forest, and he grew up in harmony with the wildlife. Rishark, his faithful bear companion followed him even now some 50 meters off the road, in this strange land he had no knowledge of. The last thing he could remember was the sudden waking in the night, in H’randel and after that… nothing. Now he was following this strange man whom he didn’t know for a reason he couldn’t quite fathom. But he was certain in one thing, he had to follow him wherever he might lead. The man spoke little, he only informed Horril that they were approaching Amenel, the jewel of the east, and if the gates were any indication, the man was telling the truth.

‘Why are we going at this Amenel place again,’ Horril asked uncertainly while he surveyed the surroundings with curiosity. He could feel the quiet power of the nature churning impatiently all around him. It comforted him in a strange way, it was somehow… friendly. He couldn’t quite explain it but this place felt strangely familiar, not so much in scenery but in the way that it felt like… home. The man however ignored his question and didn’t even bother to glance in his general direction. This made Horril feel uneasy and he stopped. The man did not.

‘Hey, can you tell me at least why are you being such a cold bastard? Did I step on your toe or something,’ he raised his voice, ‘I just wanna know what in name of the Old Trees am I doing here?’

‘We are running out of time child, stop dallying and follow me. We have to reach the city within the hour,’ the man said without raising his voice, but echoed inside Horril’s head as loud as an alchemist fire explosion. This made Horril recoil. He felt power in the voice. He picked up his own pace and made an effort to catch up to the man’s swift stride. The finality of the words made Horril keep any further questions to himself.

‘This is one strange old man,’ Horril thought while he studied him,‘and I don’t even know his name… yet…’ his thoughts trailed off as his mind tried to remember something… something vital to the purpose of his journey. But as soon as a thought began to form in his head, it dissipated into nothingness before his consciousness could grasp it. However, a growing sense of urgency began building within him, a kind of a drive that reinvigorated his body, making it easier to follow the strange man. Was the man somehow influencing his emotions in some arcane way, or was it figment of his own imagination? The eastern wind whooshed around him bringing with it the smell of the sea, and something else… something that just didn’t belong. The pungent smell of burning oil. The strange man’s cloak flapped freely in the wind and Horril noticed the end of a sword scabbard peeking beneath the cloak. He turned suddenly to the south as a bolt of lightning split the cloudy sky, outlining the contours of the clouds of the gathering storm. The roaring thunder followed a moment later. The wind grew stronger and the man was forced to use his free hand to keep the fancy hat on his head. The man looked at the sky and scowled, then he looked in the direction of Amenel. Horril could see a glint in the man’s eyes, and a sudden wave of dread overwhelmed him. He had seen that glint before, yet he couldn’t remember where. The man turned to Horril and pointed with his cane towards the city.

‘The beacon of Amenel is getting dimmer. We have to hurry,’ the man said and took off his his hat and cloak. Confusion was painted on Horril’s features, yet he looked in the direction the man pointed at. Indeed, something was blinking behind the walls of the city, but Horril couldn’t make up the shape of the thing. Then he turned to the strange man who was already unbuttoning his shirt.

‘Okay, are we going to sprint to the city… why are you taking off your clothes,’ Horril asked, wide eyed, with grimace of confusion and amazement. The man folded the clothes in a neat bundle and handed them over to Horril with a hint of a smile creasing his lips.

‘Yeah, something like that Horril,’the man replied, and grabbed Horril under the arm. Horril stood dumbfounded in the wind and before he could react he witnessed something he has never seen. The man’s dark, leathery skin changed shape and scales began to grow from the man’s scapulae. The arm that was holding Horril suddenly bulged with muscle and the fingers turned into scale-covered claws. With and awful cracking of bones, a pair of gigantic leathery wings easily 4 times the size of the man sprouted from the man’s back and the man’s eyes turned golden, with cat-like slits the color of the deepest black. The wings featured claws at the end of each of the 5 main bones the length of Horril’s torso. He wanted to say something but at that moment shock and awe stole his voice.

‘Hold tight child, this is going to be unpleasant,’ the man said with a deeper baritone voice, almost growling. Horril felt the power suppressed in the man’s form bursting forth in waves washing over his senses.

‘W-what are you… wait,’ Horril yelled as he was suddenly jerked upwards by the mighty flapping of wings. He almost felt nauseous as the man… or the thing held him like a piece of prey meat and ascended in the skies. Horril clutched the bundle in his hands tightly and observed the land below. As they ascended further and further he saw the mountains beyond the forest stretching to the north and south of him, their peaks lost in the clouds. to the south east, beyond the city, the vast sea stretched  endlessly. Clouds roiled above it, and even though the strong air current made his eyes water, he saw the beacon of Amenel for the first time. It was a tall tower made of stone, glazed with marble and in the center of it, something lit the sea with piercing rays. It was not mere flame, he was sure but something else, something magical no doubt. Did it look like a shining, swirling oktaeder? The tears in his eyes blurred the image and he felt the cold winds stinging his skin like thousand ice shards. The pain was excruciating but they approached the city with immense speed. By his estimate, Horril guessed that it would take no more than 10 minutes to reach the gates.

‘This is just not fair,’ Horril complained, ‘Do you treat all of your friends like this? No wonder nobody likes you!’

‘Stop being petulant, all will be explained in good time Horril,’ the flying man growled through the wind as clear as a morning dew. ‘Once we reach the gates, say nothing, stay close, and do not gawk too much. The soldiers of Amenel do not take kindly to strangers.’

‘And they take kindly to wing-sprouting shape shifting freaks? What exactly are you,’ Horril strained as his voice trailed away in the violent whoosh of the current the man’s flapping wings created.

‘I’m… somewhat different,’ the man-thing said. Horril could swear there was a hint of sarcasm and mockery in the tone of that voice but did not push the subject.

‘Do you have a name at least?’

‘You can call me Alex. Alex Delage.’

They were almost at the gates when Horril felt Alex suddenly folding his wings and pivoting his body downwards, like an arrow. The land rushed to greet them and Horril braced himself for the unpleasant landing. Alex grinned and let gravity pull him down wards but when he was some 5 meters above ground he flapped his wings forcefully, creating a pillow of air current to slow their descent, and he threw Horril to the side. He landed gracefully on his toes and with a thought his wings retracted violently, scales disappearing.

‘That was insane,’ Horril exclaimed as he coughed dust and fixed his meager clothing. Alex stood in front of him with a sly grin on his face, expecting Horril to return the bundle he gave him earlier.

‘You gotta teach me how to do that one day,’

‘One day, maybe,’ Alex replied as he took the clothes and began putting them on, ‘but until then I’ll have to confirm something about you.’

‘Confirm what,’ Horril asked.

‘What do you know about the Shadowplague, Horril?’

‘That it’s quite unnatural and bad and turns people quite insane…’

‘Not much. When I was travelling with Aihal and Guillaume we encountered some of the affected. They didn’t look good.’

The mentioning of his former companions turned his thoughts to them for a moment. He had passed the terrible feast in Utera with them as well as the treacherous journey through the Ifaby Sea and that cursed island of Anduran. He had just reached the shores of H’randel when… he couldn’t remember. He wondered if they were alive and well, after all they saved his life on multiple occasions, bar that time when Aihal shocked him into unconsciousness at the feast when he discharged the magic in his sword in the spilled ale Horril had his feet in. It was quite unpleasant experience… His reverie was cut short when he heard Alex’s voice talking to him.

‘Yes, the Shadowplague affects all things, not just people… and it is really bad. But you young Horril, somehow you are immune to it,’ Alex mused while he put and cocked his hat on his head, cane in hand. The sky above them darkened as they approached the gates.

‘Yes, Aihal said something similar… he said that my blood “chased” the Shadowplague… he said it could have something to do with my bloodline…’ of which he had no memory whatsoever. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember what happened before he met Rishark in the forest. He turned suddenly to Alex.

‘Rishark, we lost him!’

‘Do not worry, he’ll find his way here. I’ll tell the guards to let him pass,’ Alex replied with a dismissing gesture. It did not ease Horril’s mind however. The gates of Amenel were some 30 meters high, with thick white-stoned walls stretching towards both mountain chains, effectively cutting the valley in two. The gates were guarded by tall, stern guards wearing heavy armor plates inscribed with the sigils of the Ocerus Confederation as well as the city emblem, long glaives in their hands. The city beyond was no doubt a military stronghold of the Ocerusian Confederation. The guardsmen and women wore no helms but their expressions were stern, disciplined, with no hint of emotion other than barely repressed agression. Horril could hear the noises from the training grounds beyond the gates, and the clamor of city life.

‘Perfect… we ended up in the one place where people have no clue how to have fun… Rishark, don’t make any trouble,’ Horril thought, knowing that it would reach his beloved animal companion, as it always did.

With that thought in mind Horril followed Alex Delage who was already conversing with one of the guards. As Horril reached them, Alex nodded and they entered the city proper.

Horril was amazed at the buildings in the city who were far different from the buildings back in Adabun, or Utera. Where the buildings in the cities of Sharaam usually involved flat roofs, glazed with clay, with wide doors made from simple wood – here in Amenel the houses were made of cut stone glazed with marble and sharp roofs, to avoid retaining rain and snow. The streets were paved with masonry, and featured masterfully crafter sewage and drainage systems. The streets had tall metal candelabras containing a piece of dark glassy material inside a glass container held in the hand-like shaped appendage witch stretched almost to the middle of the street. Horril was awed by the majesty of the craftsmanship. The city did not have many individual houses, instead most of them were rows of barracks built for the city’s sizable garrison. The civilian quarter was situated on the far end of the city near the docks where the great beacon of Amenel stood tall, looming over all other structures in the city. There was another grandiose building just north of the beacon which was similarly imposing.

‘What’s that place next to the beacon,’ Horril asked absently.

‘That’s the library of Amenel, Ger,’ Alex said, ‘in fact, that’s the place we are going to visit.’

‘I see… what are we looking for there anyway?’

‘A person who knows something a thing or two about the Shadowplague… you might like her,’ Alex said with a voice that indicated the contrary. Horril grimaced at the implication but Alex did not make a gesture to acknowledge his discomfort. The men and women that passed them by were all clad in a soldier’s outfit and glanced wearily at Horril as he and Alex passed them by. Some even nodded at Alex. So, the men around here knew Alex and deferred to him.

‘So, Alex is known in this city… and those wings… they remind me of that lunatic Mareak may the Trees keep me from him…’

He felt his stomach lurch at the thought of that night in Utera and their ‘gracious’ host. He still dreamed of the still living human torches running and screaming on the main square as Mareak flew above the great pyre and ordered the guards to toss the poor bastards into the flames. Mareak was a looney through and through. Aihal told him that Mareak bore dragon blood in his veins and that was why he could sprout wings and grow scales not unlike Alex.

‘Trees, are they related? Sweet mercy, my luck…’ Horril thought as he noticed a young soldier inspecting him thoroughly with a sideways glance. Horril scowled at him. He felt his hand being pulled firmly by Alex who glared at him angrily. Alex looked up at the soldier and dismissed him with a nod. The soldier went on his giving Horril a venomous glare. The people really didn’t like foreigners around here. An idea popped inside Horrils mind.

‘So, do you threaten to burn their city if they disrespect you or something? Is that why they defer to you but at the same time look at you with suspicious eyes,’ Horril asked curiously. Alex was momentarily taken aback at the question.

‘No,’ he said, scowling at Horril while tapping his cane on the paved street, ‘I do cannot burn their city.’

‘Good one,’ Horril laughed sarcastically, ‘I’ve seen your kind… that madman Mareak in Utera literally set his people on fire for some imagine slight or another. He could sprout wings and grow scales too.’

‘Damn thin bloods,’ Alex thought, disgust etched on his face.

‘Don’t worry, I assure you that I’m not in the habit of burning cities,’ Alex smiled awkwardly. The expression made Horril even more uneasy.

‘At any rate Alex, can you tell me how did we end up here? Not the city,’ Horril asked as he gestured at the surrounding barracks, ‘but how did I end up with you?  I can’t remember…’

‘Well, it is to be expected Horril. You were exposed to the primal magic forces 3 days ago when we met outside of H’randel,’ Alex answered, ‘such exposure tends to scramble a man’s brain quite nicely,’ Alex said giving Horril a sideways glance, ‘The fact that you remained sane speaks volumes about your endurance,’ he finished. This made Horril smile, easing off some of the built up tension. They followed the street to the east and reached a minor square with a fountain in the middle surrounded by training grounds. The soldiers were doing their afternoon drills regardless of the worsening weather. Both male and female soldiers were stripped from the waist up, covered in sand and bruises. The female solders used long cotton stripes of fabric to cover their breasts. The bruises covering their bodies spoke of the vehemence of the training and its egalitarian nature. They were tall, sturdy people. Horril observed them with quiet admiration in his eyes before he turned to Alex.

‘They don’t go easy on the women around here are they?’

‘This is Amenel, child. The weak do not survive for long here. This city breeds the most elite Ocerusian soldiers. Gender has nothing to do with the harsh regime of living here. Even the civilians are as strong and proficient with a blade as any other’s city soldier,’ Alex added and nodded towards one of the training grounds. A male and a female were sparring with wooden poles on the sandy clearing. The spar was vicious and violent. The man had a livid bruise across his stomach, no doubt from the female’s pole while the female had a black eye. They charged at each other with all they got. Horril watched the exchange of blows and could see no openings in either of them. As they moved away from the training ground he heard a loud crack followed by a stifled yelp. He turned away and saw the girl’s pole broken in half while the man clutched his side. Horril suspected there were some cracked ribs involved at the very least. A sharp reprimand from the corporal observing them made the man rise to his feet and salute. A nasty bruise was forming on the spot where the female’s pole had hit him.

‘Man, that’s vicious… and exciting,’ Horril commented, with a 4 year-old’s grin plastered across his face.

Alex smiled despite himself.

‘So you like girls who can handle themselves huh,’ Alex asked.

‘Of course. Otherwise they are just a burden,’ Horril replied, glancing at the other female soldiers in the vicinity.

‘Speaking of women Ger, what can you tell me about Lady Yellana? The one who sent your party on this voyage in the first place.’

Horril took his time before he answered. They already passed the square with the training grounds and took a narrow street to the northeast leading them closer to the Library.

‘She is a nutter too,’ Horril replied with a shiver, ‘She’s young and pretty, and can play the harp like a goddess, but by the Trees she is one cold ruler. Her gaze still give me shivers sometimes.’

‘I see,’ Alex replied scratching his beard thoughtfully.

‘When I was in Adabun, the rumors said she made people disappear… something about revenge for her family’s death or something. I pity the fool who stepped on that one’s toes though. And weird enough, she seems to be on somewhat good terms with Mareak, the mayor of Utera,’ Horril continued. ‘She sent me and Aihal to search for a cure for the Shadowplague since she has it too… her entire left arm was covered in the thing… as if she plunged it in a bowl of liquid shadow… really weird stuff,’ Horril said with a soft voice, more to himself than Alex.

Alex’s eyes glinted at that as he turned to Horril, grabbing him by the shoulder.

‘Did you actually see the arm exuding shadow like that,’ Alex asked.

‘Yes, it was quite eerie and uncomfortable experience for me. Aihal didn’t like it either. But then the crazy lady grabbed and cut my hand, and as my blood dripped onto her arm, the shadow receded slightly, showing ivory skin beneath it. As it evaporated the shadow returned.’

Alex lips parted in a smile. ‘That’s it! Okay, hurry we have to meat Chamberlain Rynovelle as soon as possible.’

They hurried down the street. The wind smelled of burning oil and trouble. Horril looked up at the sky as the clouds loomed dark and heavy above the city. His thoughts went to Rishark and for a moment he saw through the bear’s eyes. Rishark was approaching the city with a gallop. They would be together soon, however Rishark too was apprehensive of the way the wind smelled too.

‘Don’t worry Rish, everything will be all right,’ he sent. He heard a growl of discontent reaching his mind. Around him, barracks and houses passed him by as he focused his thoughts on the library and what might be waiting for him there. No matter what, he was set on this course by one circumstance or another, and there was no turning back. Aihal and Guillaume probably had already forgotten about him. A strange sense of foreboding stabbed at his mind. Whatever Alex and this Chamberlain lady had in store for him he assumed he wouldn’t like very much.

***

Photo by Rodrigo Souza from Pexels

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