The heart of the eternal

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Caves and rivers

Wenja was trembling by the time they reached the caravan, the warriors were gathering to form a shield wall and the wagons were driven together into concentrical rings. Rhawan did drop her off onto the wagon she lived inn and Sefa did come running, obviously upset. Wenja was crying and Rhawan did yell at Flint which was running around in circles still. “Stay with her!”

The grey stallion did nicker and started circling the wagon, Sefa grasped Wenja by her wrist and pulled her inside. “What happened?”

Wenja gasped and sobbed. “There are beasts out there, huge monsters! I…”

Sefa had seen that Ahravan wasn’t with them and she knew how to put two and two together. “He will be alright, do not worry my sweet, please!”

Wenja just gasped and Sefa did stick her head outside of the wagon and yelled for Imh and some soothing tea. Before long they had managed to get a whole cup into her and Wenja was so upset the brew made her pass out like a candle in the wind. Imh and Sefa remained by her side, both were scared and Sefa did sigh and ran her fingers through the long burgundy locks. “The dwarves and the two orcs are to leave tomorrow, I just hope that this won’t disturb their plans”

Imh shook her head. “I know Balgar Stonecarver and the two others, they are nothing if not stubborn, and strong. They will do their job no matter what, believe me”

Sefa sighed and stared out of the window. “I just pray that it will be enough”

The warriors did not need to protect the caravan for long, the zahar and the other predators had turned the entire pack of scorpion monsters into pulp and the warriors who still stood had seen how the zahar did lead the animals like a general leads his army. The huge S’haga had crushed scorpions and the massive wolves tore the legs off the beasts. A group of warriors from the caravan did reach the battle field and started to gather the wounded and dead, the sight filled them all with dread.

Rhawan had been staying by the wagons to organize the defense in case more monsters did show up and his heart was hammering like a drum within his chest. He was sweating and shivering and he had to really fight his urge to ride back to check upon Ahravan. The women were preparing to receive wounded warriors and the wagons had been placed like a veritable fortress now. The animals did return, some were hurt but not many and Rhawan did see that Frostfoot did run by Wenja’s wagon, as if to check that she was there. Could she be the cause for this? He remembered the incident with the troll yet again and his soul did feel a sort of wonder at the idea.

After a while a huge row of warriors did return, also carrying wounded with them, some were placed upon stretchers which had been attached between horses and Rhawan did stare at the line, trying to see the huge dark stallion and its rider but saw neither and dread did fill his heart. He gasped and ran forth, one of the front riders was a friend of his and the elf did turn his eyes towards the ground as Rhawan did approach him. Rhawan was panting. “Ahravan?!”

The tall eternal made a grimace. “Alive, with the wounded at the back, but he is in a bad state”

Rhawan let out a whimper and ran, he ran so fast his feet barely touched the ground and he did see that some of the healers were working on several of the wounded. He did see that some stretchers were covered with blankets and his heart felt like lead, they had lost many, too many. Ahravan was in a stretcher, unconscious and very pale and one of the healers were standing by his side, trying to conteract the effect of the scorpion poison. Rhawan wailed and grasped onto Ahravan’s hand, held it tight. It was cold and clammy and he could barely feel a pulse at all. The healer was making a grimace. “We are trying but do not put too much faith in hope, he got stung pretty bad!”

Rhawan did lift the blanket, the sting was in his thigh and the wound was ghastly, black and oozing and horrible to look at. He flinched and the healer tried to cover the leg again. “He fought well Rhawan, if his horse hadn’t been felled…”

Rhawan felt tears running down his cheek and suddenly Ahnriel was there, adding her healing powers to those of the other healer. “Rhawan, find Wenja. She has to know, if this goes the wrong way…”

Rhawan couldn’t bare the thought but he nodded and told one of the warriors riding by that he had to go fetch the Eth’ir. Ahnriel was chanting, her voice trembling with the effort and Rhawan sank to his knees, one of the other warriors did run by, his face rather pale. “We lost Yahlen, and twenty more”

Rhawan did sob, what could they truly do against this horror? This darkness unleashed? He just sat there, praying like never before and he heard a scream and realized that it was Wenja, she came running with her skirts lifted up over her knees and her eyes were wild. He tried to grasp onto her but she was too fast, grasped onto Ahravan’s hand and she wailed, a wild piercing cry everybody could hear. Tears were flowing down her face and there was something akin to madness in the lovely eyes. Rhawan tried to speak. “They are trying to do all they can”

His voice did sound hollow and fake, as if he was spewing forth nothing but lies and yet it was all that he could do. Wenja screamed again, her hand squeezing the bloody hand of her husband and then something truly strange did happen, something which made everybody step back in shock. The ground started to shake, as if in an earthquake and Wenja’s eyes started to glow, a sort of intense green glow which was almost eerie. She was pushing her bare feet into the sand, face turned upwards and body rigid as if in spasms, she was calling out but nobody knew the language. Light danced around her, swirling shades of different colours and Ahnriel did gasp. “The spirits of the land itself, she does summon them?! How?!”

Rhawan couldn’t answer, he just stared, eyes wide open. The light and the shapes seemed to gather around Ahravan before they looked as if they were sucked into the body, and Wenja did tremble and strange patterns of light were visible under her skin, like glowing tattoos. Ahravan did shudder, then he did gasp and the healer had removed the blanket and they did see how the horrible black wound did change. The black goo did flow out of the wound and with it puss and blood and the horrible discolouration of the skin disappeared too. The swelling did go down so fast they could see it and then there was just a clean red wound and it started to close up, as if pulled together by invisible strings. Wenja was panting, her eyes closed still and her voice was strained and yet strong, yet demanding.

Ahnriel was pale. “Nobody does possess such powers, to control the very spirits themselves and make them do their bidding? It is impossible?!!”

Wenja did sigh and let go, and collapsed into a heap, like a ragdoll. Rhawan did grasp her and lifted her, she was breathing but was very pale and Ahnriel shook her head. “She has used too much of her strength, silly girl, and very brave”

Ahravan was breathing well now, the colour did return to his face and Rhawan couldn’t believe it, Wenja had saved him, she had saved his si’ish and his gratitude was endless. He did kiss her and then he did kiss Ahravan’s hand, trembling from head to foot. Ahnriel did smile, a smile filled with a sort of disbelief. “Go, take her to the wagon and we will bring Ahravan over too, he just needs sleep now. He is out of danger”

Rhawan was crying in gratitude, not ashamed to show the world his relief and joy and he did carry Wenja gently to the wagon. Some of the warriors did carry Ahravan and they placed them on the bed, Rhawan was beside himself now, shaking like a leaf all over. Sefa did burst into the wagon and her face was worth a study in itself, a million emotions was being expressed there and then. “What has happened?!”

Rhawan heaved for air. “She saved him, she called forth the spirits of the land and they healed him…she…”

Sefa gaped, she did look like a fish on dry land. “Oh Gods”

Rhawan did pull at the blankets and she helped him get them up to cover the two. “I have never seen anything like it, never! I have no idea how it is possible”

Sefa did bite her lower lip. “Rhawan, I think the Gods have spoken, they chose her when they sent the prophecy. Do never doubt her my friend, they are leading her foot and strengthening her hand”

Rhawan did nod and Sefa made a grimace. “We lost many didn’t we?”

Rhawan did look down, sorrow in his eyes. “Yes, including Yahlen. But we expected that, she was heading for death,one way or the other”

Sefa sighed and took his hand. “Lay down, rest. You need it, the others can take care of the caravan now, you have many skilled men out there”

Rhawan suddenly felt tired, like never before, like he had been fighting for days, he could barely stay on his feet. She did push him down onto the bed next to Wenja and did lift his feet onto the bed after pulling his boots off. “Sleep, I will make sure that food is ready when you wake up.”

Rhawan did only manage to whisper something incoherently before he gave in to the emotional stress and fell asleep, Sefa did sigh and made sure that he was comfortable before leaving the wagon. There would be funerals and mourning but also rejoicing. Wenja was more than the eth’ir, she was their hope now. Nobody could convince Sefa that the animals had come of their own free will, Wenja had drawn them inn, subconsciously, or else they could call Sefa a cow!

Outside the wagon the whole group was in a state of light shock, their Eth’ir had done the impossible and if the people had liked Wenja before they now were ready to worship her like a goddess. She had saved their Ath’ir and nobody did question her worthiness nor her right to walk among them. The wagons were guarded still in case of further attacks and as the twelve clans did regain their composure the smaller group which were to leave for the forest did gather to say their goodbyes. The three dwarves had mounted their ponies and Resh’kha had her buffalo while Floth’bha had a strong horse and she was ready beyond doubt. The three men had gotten new horses and weapons and clothes and they were very determined to make up for previous sins. One of Ahravan’s officers were to send them off, they had to leave now and many did gather around them. Bagir and Igkhan had been in the camp during the attack, neither was a warrior and Bagir had been rather shocked by what Wenja had revealed about herself. But he was proud and he was certain that she was stronger than anybody could have guessed. Igkhan was impressed by the vast herds of animals which were gathering still, he had never seen that many living beings in one place before and the fact that none of them seemed to be afraid of the people puzzled him. Normally the gazelle and the deer would be gone within the blink of an eye if they caught the scent of a human being but now they were grazing between the wagons and didn’t even bother moving aside if somebody came running by them.

The dwarves seemed to be very calm and collected and they all knew of the dangers they were to face, the plains were dangerous in themselves now, and the forest was far away. Floth’bha and Resh’kha did seem as if they were excited and eager to go, both were strong and fierce and capable warriors and everybody had seen how the friendship between the two had made Resh’kha flourish and become jolly and more open minded. They could only pray that she would survive this quest. The healers had prepared packs of things they could be in need of and with all the weapons they brought they should be able to fight just about anything. The shamans did pull Floth’bha aside before they left, she didn’t say what they had been talking about but she had a packet in her hand as she returned and she hid it in her saddle pack right away.

The small group left with the first morning light, and the three former mercenaries did trail behind as they had no clue as to where they were going, Ahravan and Rhawan were still asleep so they were blessed by the shamans and officers and Balgar did turn his pony to the northwest and the others did follow. Only the gods themselves knew if they would even reach their goal.

Wenja did awaken when the sun did reach the highest point of its route that day, she just jerked and sat up with a small yelp and Sefa who had been sitting on the floor, half asleep almost toppled over with the shock. She got up and raced over, the two males were still sleeping and Wenja blinked and Sefa did gasp. Wenja’s eyes had changed, now there were sparling points of light within the irises, like small green gems. Wenja grasped her throat and Sefa grasped a cup and poured some water into it, she gave it to the redhead and Wenja did drain it in one go, gasping for air afterwards. “Thank you, I was so dry…What happened?”

Sefa frowned. “You don’t remember? You saved Ahravan, you made the very spirits of the land heal his wound”

Wenja stared at her two sleeping husbands and her face was blank. “I…I cannot remember. I remember returning to the camp and staying in the wagon and then…nothing?”

Sefa did sit down very gently as if not to wake up the two males. “That is odd, but you used too much strength and passed out, how do you feel?”

Wenja took a deep breath. “Ah…I am not sure? Tired? My head hurts a bit, and I feel dizzy”

Sefa took her hand. “I can understand that”

Wenja did sigh. “I was so scared Sefa, if I had lost one of them…I cannot even imagine what that would do to me”

Sefa nodded. “I would be too, but are you hungry? We need to start moving again soon, the caravan cannot stay here for much longer, there isn’t enough food for the animals”

Wenja made a grimace. “Know what? I feel as if I haven’t eaten in weeks? My stomack feels empty as few times before”

Sefa got back up again and grinned. “I will get Imh, I am sure she has something delicious ready for you”

Wenja nodded and wrapped the blankets tigher around herself, not remembering was terrifying but she had realized that Ahravan had been very near death and that she had somehow rescued him. Right now he slept next to her and he was covered with dust and blood and didn’t look very good at all. He did stink, that was for sure. Rhawan was on the other side of her, and he didn’t look that much better. Wenja did slither out of the bed but Rhawan did wake up and a strong arm did pull her down again, very abruptly. “Thank you, from the very core of my being”

His voice was gruff and raw and she smiled and tried to be calm and composed but it was very hard. “I cannot even remember what happened so please, don’t thank me”

Rhawan did press his face against her neck. “But I have to, Ahravan would have died without you, you did the impossible”

Wenja felt odd, empty almost. Here she was being praised for having rescued her husband and yet she had no idea of how and why she had been able to do it. It was as if there had been somebody else there, using her body. And it was an unpleasant thought in many ways. Rhawan did kiss her gently and rocked her in his arms. “How long have we slept?”

Wenja did make a nasty grimace. “Too long, my head hurts, and Sefa has gone to get us some food”

Rhawan did release her and sat up, he did look as if he had tried to run through a tornado, his hair was filled with sand and knots and the sheets were a mess. He did look at Ahravan who was stirring, making some faint movements and groaning before he opened his eyes with a yelp. Rhawan did take his hand. “Ahravan? It is me, how…how do you feel?”

Ahravan did blink and groaned, trying to supress some real pain. “Horrible, oh gods, I got stung, I was dying?”

Rhawan nodded, tears in his eyes.”Yes, but Wenja did save you, she called forth the spirits and they healed you”

Ahravan just stared at Rhawan with a blank stare. “That is impossible?”

Rhawan nodded. “Yes, and yet she did it. You would have perished for sure”

Ahravan stared at Wenja who was blushing slightly, his eyes were filled with wonder and gratitude and also some shock. “You…not even the shamans can command the spirits Wenja, I don’t know what to say…”

Wenja opened her mouth to speak but closed it again, the door did fling open and Sefa entered with Imh hot at her heels, carrying trays of food. “Here, you need to eat, all of you.”

She did put down a huge mut filled with ale and Ahravan grasped it with obvious desperation and started to drain it, straight from the jug. He was obviously terribly thirsty and Sefa did shake her head. “Ah, I anticipated that, I have two more outside.”

Ahravan shook his head. “Whoa, I feel so strange”

Imh shook her finger at him. “No wonder, you were at deaths door yesterday, the poison almost got you, but Wenja here is a god send for sure”

Ahravan reached out and caressed her hand. “No doubt”

Sefa placed the trays between them, it was grilled fish and some sort of pudding and Rhawan did tear into the food with obvious appetite. Wenja too seemed to forget all about table manners, she just ripped apart pieces of fish and since the sheets already were soiled she didn’t bother with spilling. All three ate and Sefa grinned. “I will inform the others that we can start moving again, we can make some way before darkness falls again. “

Ahravan just nodded and mumbled something which was impossible to interpret due to the fact that his mouth was full of fish.

Imh was proud that her food was being devoured so fast, all three were on a veritable food frenzy and before long they were laying there again, moaning as they had been overeating. Rhawan did stroke his belly and groaned, and Wenja did giggle and the she too made a moan, her stomach hurt her. Rhawan did get up again after a little and left the wagon to organize things and Ahravan did sit on the bed and tried to finger comb his hair, with no luck. It had been a terrible experience and he felt nauseous thinking about it now, he did have to think ahead and he sighed and realized that he was rather weak in spite of having been healed. He would need at least a week to recouperate and that would be a week spent in the wagon for sure. Ahnriel wouldn’t allow him any sort of exertion and he bit his lower lip and sighed. He had lost his favourite horse and also a good friend and something which was akin to raging hatred did ignite within his chest. He had to stop these monsters, he had to protect his land and his people and those who couldn’t protect themselves further inland. He kissed Wenja’s hands and smiled at her. “From now on you are as much a leader as me, I bet people will listen to you and deem your words as wise”

Wenja just squirmed, unused to all the praise.

They just laid there for a while and Rhawan did return after having spoken to the officers and other leaders and Wenja did feel as if her skin was crawling, she wanted a bath desperately but there was no way to heat water now. But Rhawan did promise her that there would be some chance for baths when they reached the caves and she couldn’t wait. They started to move the wagons once more, Wenja was used to the motion but Ahravan had to lay down and he did stare at the roof and looked uneasy. Wenja did pack her skirts together around her legs since it was rather cold there now and she tilted her head. “The cliff we are going to, where is it?”

Ahravan sighed. “To the far north east, it will take a lot to get there, I am not going to lie to you”

Wenja frowned. “Tell me more about it, please?”

Ahravan shrugged and placed an arm behind his neck, stretched out. “Well, it is a sacred site but nobody remember why. It is a cliff which looks…strange”

Wenja did move a bit closer and Rhawan did place himself on a low chair, he didn’t have anything to do right now. “How can a cliff look strange?”

Ahravan did made a vague gesture. “They say that its shape is a bit like that of a huge skull, not human though, some animal? But it is very large and they say that the very ground in that area is filled with some sort of very dangerous magic”

Wenja swallowed. “How long does it take to get there?”

Ahravan shrugged. “I don’t know, weeks? And it is winter, it is hard enough to travel here on the plains but we will have to cross some areas which are uncharted.”

Wenja was confused. “Uncharted? Havent anybody been there?”

Rhawan tilted his head. “Oh, there has been people there for sure but it is so long ago that even the elves have forgotten. Now it is all reduced to legends”

Wenja nodded. “That sounds like a very long time indeed?”

Ahravan grunted. “Fifteen thousand years, or more. We have no idea of what we may find up there. The free clans have never ventured into that area, and it has always been odd, like some piece of another world, dropped into this”

Wenja leaned back against the wall. “How come?”

Ahravan took a deep breath. “Well, there are rumours of a huge swamp? It is said to span for many days of travel and it is said to have creatures not found anywhere else. But it is very strange for there are no swamps that far north normally.”

Wenja nodded slowly. “There were bogs where I am from?”

Rhawan grinned. “Yes, but a bog and a swamp isn’t the same thing, swamps have huge trees and are rather warm, a bog is…just soggy grass and moss and mud, and there are no trees”

Wenja made a small apologetic grimace. “Oh, I see”

Ahravan took a deep breath. “So we will have to worry about a swamp, high mountainpasses in winter and also all sorts of wicked creatures. There are goblins in those mountains they say, at least there were goblins there”

Wenja felt nervous. “So I guess that we have to be very careful?”

Rhawan nodded. “And even more so with the monsters on the loose, the area they come from aren’t that far away from that cliff”

Wenja tried to smile. “Let us hope that the dwarves and the two orcs manage to draw them away then”

Ahravan smiled, a sort of melancholic smile. “Yes, they are brave, the forest isn’t a safe destination at all, they say that shadows lurk within its depts, shadows from another world.”

Wenja felt a shiver running down her spine and Rhawan did caress her leg gently. “Don’t worry Wenja, we will make it, becauce we have to”

She managed to smile, but it was a very faint smile.

For the next day and a half the caravan did move forth with as much speed as possible and the warriors were mounted all the time, keeping their eyes out for any sign of danger. The mountains were getting nearer by the hour and the dwarves were excited and eager. There were many cave systems in the mountain range which had been discovered by that race and usually they were in good condition and able to house people right away. Imh did entertain Ahravan and Wenja with stories from her youth and the animals did follow the caravan the whole time. Frostfoot seemed to be a leader and the people did notice that birds seemed to gather and then fly out over the plains repeatedly. Rhawan was sure that they were scouts, looking for the monsters and Wenja didn’t disagree. It was very strange indeed.

The plains had looked even beyond the cliff where the scorpion monsters attacked but the terrain proved to be very tricky, with a sort of worn look. Everywhere they saw pits, small and large and the flat areas between them were narrow. It became a struggle to find a suitable path and the caravan did move very slowly. They sent forth some riders to find suitable caves and the dwarves sent some of their best stone experts. A dwarf can almost smell a cave from a great distance and there should be a good chance that they could find some thing useable very fast. Wenja did ride now, she used one of the small mares she had gotten when she got married and Sefa did keep her company. Now everybody acted as if she was some sort of deity and it made her slightly embarrassed. Ahravan was still weak but he did feel trapped in the wagon and Wenja had to use all her wits to keep him from getting very bored. Playing cards did take up most of the time and telling stories and she learned to know him in a whole new manner now.

Then they reached the mountains and the scouts had indeed found somewhere to stay, a huge cave system which in fact was rather famous among the dwarves. It had been abandoned ages ago but it was still useable and Wenja felt relieved when she learned that it could be defended rather easily. The dwarves knew how to build things which kept enemies on the outside and the entrance could be sealed off rather easily. The mountains were steep there, and they drove into a narrow valley, at the end was a vertical wall which seemed to stretch into the skies themselves and a sort of triangular opening which looked almost natural. The dwarves did ride in front now, beaming with pride and Imh was riding next to Wenja, her eyes were shining. “Oh I have heard so much about these caves, they are called the caves of green light and they say that they harbour great wonders.”

Wenja nodded. “Has it been a city?”

Imh nodded. “Yes, ages ago, it was home to a clan which is gone now, but they were many and they were good diggers. I bet this is a very nice place to stay until the danger is over”

The wagons did enter a long corridor and Wenja was reminded of the dwarven roads they had used on her journey to the plains but this corridor did end rather fast and was replaced by an enormous hall with a flat floor and many poles which were made by stone. It had to be the foundations for some sort of fences. Countless doors did lead out from the great hall, and stairs did lead up to more floors above the first one. The great cave got light from an opening up on the front wall and it didn’t look bad at all. The air was fresh and calm and it wasn’t that cold in there. The dwarves started to attach ropes to the poles to create corrals for the horses which had pulled the wagons and the huge bulls and mules too. The wagons got parked along the wall, it was as if everybody knew exactly what to do yet again and Sefa grasped Wenja by the arm, giggling. “Come, lets get out of the way, the huts will be put back up again in no time at all. “

Wenja frowned but she did see that the wagons and sleds were being emptied as they entered the cave and some were driven back outside again to make room for more. There were people running around everywhere, the huge wall sections for the huts were pulled up the stairs by teams of small ponies and the dwarves were scurrying around everywhere, obviously very busy and very happy too. She saw huge grins and everybody were chatting and laughing and obviously having a good time. The level of noise within the cave was rather large and Sefa and Wenja did go outside again, the entrance was in fact hard to see if one didn’t arrive at the right angle, if you didn’t you would only see a sleep rock wall and Wenja was yet again stunned by how clever the dwarves were when it came to rock and stone. They seemed to understand it as if it was a part of themselves.

Wenja and Sefa did sit down on some rocks and Wenja enjoyed the faint sunlight and the feeling of being safe there. She saw that the entire caravan was entering the cave, one wagon at the time, and the speed with which they were unloaded was amazing. “I wonder how the dwarves can live in such cities? Where do they get the food from?”

Sefa arranged her skirts and grinned. “Oh, they do hunt, dwarves are good hunters and there are plenty of game up in the mountains, even when one wouldn’t believe that anything could live up there. And they do grow stuff too, in vast halls, lighted by glowing crystals”

Wenja frowned. “Grow things? What sort of things?”

Sefa just shrugged. “Mushrooms? All sorts of them, I have tasted a dish made from cave mushrooms once and if they hadn’t told me what it was I would have guessed that it was meat, very good meat even”

Wenja stared at the people who were running by, as if their pants were on fire. “I see, I am glad we are here now”

Sefa nodded. “So am I, now I will have all the time in the world to have fun, the warriors won’t have to be out there all the time, the rock does protect us from attack”

Wenja had to make a wry grin. “So you have got your aim straight?”

Sefa did nod and fluttered her eyelashes. “Oh yes. Khirien is not uninterested and I do have some other suitors too”

Wenja had to shake her head. “Sefa, you are amazing, and I bet you will test everything out before you make a choice?”

Sefa laughed out loud. “Oh yes, of course! I will not settle for anything less than perfection”

Wenja giggled and the two remained sitting there for a while, just relaxing and talking.

The last wagon was emptied just before sunset and now there was light everywhere, Huge crystals had come to life and glowed with a soft and pleasant light, and Wenja did discover that the huts had been erected within halls on the second level. Here there were no roofs needed, just thin fabric and the poles which held the walls up were secured with rope attached to hooks embedded in the rock above. Thus the huts were stabile and the ovens were being attached to a system of holes drilled through the rock, like chimneys. When Wenja found her way to her hut Ahravan had already entered and was resting on the bed, the hut was just like before, the roof was the only difference and there was some distance between each hut so there could be some privacy. The dwarven city had room for the whole group and then some and there were stables on the first level and also storage rooms.

Wenja did slump down next to Ahravan, he did smile and caressed her hair, seemingly in a very good mood. “Here our people are safe”

Wenja nodded and closed her eyes, the familiar scent of their own blankets and their own bed was soothing. “I know. I look forward to exploring this place.”

Ahravan nodded. “So do I, old dwarven cities are usually very grand indeed. And very impressive. We will see wonders for sure”

Wenja sighed and curled up next to him, she was already tired by all the new impressions and she knew that Imh would come with food sooner or later so she could allow herself a wee nap. Yes, that would be nice, a quick nap and then food. Ahravan placed his large hand on her hip and yawned and she fell asleep rather fast, feeling utterly safe.

The group heading for the infamous forest had come far over just the span of a couple of days and it was thanks to the fact that they hadn’t encountered any sorts of problems at all. They had seen no monsters or demons of any kind and since they did follow an old riverbed it was easy to just let the horses and ponies run as fast as they wanted to. The dwarves weren’t that eager to speak, they kept to themselves but as they prepared a camp for the night Balgar came over to Geir and sat down, he did nod at Osbord and Than and removed a flask from his belt, offering them all a quick sip. “Here, it gives courage”

Geir did taste the liquor with some suspicion, it did burn and the taste was intense, like burned wheat and rye. He coughed and managed to wheeze forth. “You expect us to need it?”

Balgar did nod solemnly. “Yes, unfortunately. The forest itself is dangerous but tomorrow I will awaken the heartstone, every creature of evil will sense us then”

Than did frown. “Is that really wise?”

The dwarf did lean forth and flattened some of the sand with his foot, then he did find a straw and started to draw a crude map in the sand. “We are here now, see? And the forest is to the west and south, it is very far. What we are gonna do is ride straight to the west until we reach the white river, there we will make rafts and ride the river southwards.”

Osbord tilted his head. “I think I have heard somebody claim that evil creatures can’t cross running water?”

The dwarf did raise a finger triumphantly. “Indeed, you are right. The river will protect us and bring us to an area very close to the forest. But we have to stay on the river the whole time, we will be vulnerable if we make landfall.”

Geir and Than did stare at each other, they started to realize that this could be a very strange mission indeed. “So we will be safe on the water?”

The dwarf shrugged. “Well, from the monsters yes, maybe not so much from the natural dangers the river does contain. “

Floth’bha and Resh’kha did shudder, orcs aren’t that fond of water at all and travelling on a river on a simple raft wasn’t that tempting. Geir stared at Balgar. “You said you would awaken the heartstone, how do you do that?”

The dwarf smiled. “Through an ancient dwarven ritual, very sacred and secret”

Geir frowned and Balgar did laugh out loud, clapping the man in the shoulder. “I am pulling your leg young one, nothing fancy. I will cut a finger and let some blood fall onto it. That is all that it takes.”

Geir did smile, he had long since realized that the dwarves loved to make jokes and that they were surprisingly light hearted. Resh’kha did frown and her face was serious. “So when you have done that, the monsters see us?”

Balgar did nod slowly. “They do see us already sister orc, if there were any here. But they will feel us from afar and be drawn towards us, we will need luck, and skill, to avoid them”

Floth’bha made a grimace. “We are few, perhaps that is a good thing now, not so easy to spot right?”

Balgar did grin. “Yes, and we dwarves has magic, great magic in some ways. I am no magician but I do know a trick or two which will make us harder even to find”

Resh’kha did stare at the dwarf with some respect. “Good, that is good”

The two other dwarves, Dharan Granitehand and Kalkar Hammerstone mumbled and smiled, both were very powerfully built and wore a sort of armour. Their clans had been warriors in the days of old and they still had some warrior skills. Geir was nervous for he remembered what they had seen before they reached Ohtanar and he was afraid of facing something like that again.

That night they didn’t start a fire and it was a cold and dark night but they did sleep, wrapped in the thick dwarven carpets. The dwarven females had a special technique and could turn even the roughest wool into something almost as silky as satin. The morning light did come with low clouds and a sour wind, everybody wore good clothing and it was not that cold but Geir and the other men did shiver a bit, they weren’t that used to staying outdoors at this time of the year. Balgar didn’t hesitate, he did take the heartstone out of the bag and he did prick a finger with his knife and then he did drip some blood onto the stone. It immediately started to glow even stronger and the colour changed to a bright purple, there was a shuddering feeling going through them all and Resh’kha did stare at it with respect. “Great magic, old one”

Balgar nodded and packed the stone onto the bag again, hung it from his belt. “Yes, very old magic. But do not worry, we are not in danger yet”

Geir managed to grin but he had a feeling that the safety wouldn’t last very long.

That day they rode due west towards a low hill and it was easy terrain, very smooth with few obstacles and everybody did relax and enjoy the scenery, that was until Balgar did stop his pony with a shout and pointed towards the horizon. Geir stared, he recognized the odd transparent figures with glowing darkeness instead of eyes and Resh’kha did whimper and she got pale. Balgar grunted. “The gods be cursed, that was fast I must say, but never mind. I will shield us”

Resh’kha did tremble. “They have spoken of such, I have seen such, demons! What are they really?”

Dharan did loosen his axe from the saddle. “We dwarves knows of this sort of monster, we call them Khalak-ushryd, soul eaters. They do devour the soul of living beings, horrible things, they tear people apart”

Floth’bha had huge eyes and Geir felt rather nervous. Balgar did grasp something from his saddle bag and then he did spit onto it and mumbled something before hanging it from the mane of his pony. The monsters seemed to hesitate and they started to drift off course, as if they were tracking dogs which have lost the trail. Geir was hoarse. “Can we stop and rest now? With those things around?”

Balgar grunted and his face was a bit sombre. “No, just short stops now, until we reach the river. I didn’t expect them to pick up the scent this fast”

The other two dwarves did look a bit nervous too and Geir realized that things had become more complicated than they had planned for. The ponies and horses were sturdy and strong and could keep a rather brisk pace for days but not if they had to trot or gallop. Balgar made his pony walk on. “Come on, we cannot linger any further”

They rode on and the demons did seem to be stuck to the place where they had first spotted them. Geir rode next to Balgar. “Are they unable to follow us?”

The dwarf nodded. “I hope so yes, at least for a while.”

Geir did bite his teeth together, he had been in many a tricky situation over the years but this? Oh he had never encountered anything like this and he was rather sure that now was the moment when he and his friends would show their true metal or perish trying. He just prayed that his courage would hold, without it he wouldn’t stand a chance.

As the small group rode westwards things started to happen all over the plains. The groups of monsters did stir, their instincts told them to move westwards, that there was something there which they did crave. They gave up the pursuit of humans and elves and started to move, slowly at first and from the mountains to the north a command came, making their minds turn to catching this something instead of killing. Huge packs of beasts had been waiting in the wild valleys and now they were unleashed, impatiently trampling the ground as their feet carried them to the southwest. Demons and monsters alike, they all knew that they had to obey that voice they heard in their minds and keep it satisfied and happy and it wanted that thing which was pulling at them. And so they went, clambering over cliffs and valleys, crossing rivers and gorges. It was a burning need, the voice wanted it, and wanted it bad. The horde wouldn’t stop until it was found for it was just what the voice needed, the missing piece to the puzzle.

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