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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Dark Portal Trilogy: Book 1 - The Gathering Storm

Once I was one of the Wardens of Dal Riata, but that was long ago. The power of the dark god Crom turned us against one another, and only a handful of Wardens loyal to the gods survived. The wisest of us, Oisin, led five others back to Dal Riata with the discs that held Crom’s power. The rest of us stayed here, to buy them time to escape. Once he had gone, Oisin sealed the portal behind him, and those of us that remained were stranded here in the Otherworld.
I am a Warden no more. Now I am only Jowan.

The sweet summer breeze swirled around Jowan, as he knelt before the crowd. Cherry blossoms rained down upon him, torn from their trees as if even the gods were celebrating his induction into the hallowed ranks of the Wardens of Dal Riata. Everything that he had long worked for, had led up to this moment. All of the trials, the studies, the training of abilities, they all have led up to this one moment.

 The Wardens of Dal Riata have long protected the land as servants to the gods. They are the first line of defense against the dark god Crom Curach. They are the watchful eye that never sleeps, the hand that wields the morning sun, the light that dispels the darkness. The gods have given them a sacred trust to protect the people of Dal Riata from the ever lurking evil of Crom, and they have always prevailed over the darkness.

 “Rise,” spoke Warden Gawain lifting his hands to the sky “and begin your fellowship in the Wardens of Dal Riata as Warden Jowan.” The air exploded with cheers and applause, as a band of fiddlers and flutist signaled the end of the ceremony with a celebratory tune.

 The feast lasted long into the night, under the multicolored silk pavilion. The Council of Wardens sat at a banquet table on a raised dais in front of the crowd seated on roughhewn wooden benches arranged around campfires.  As day turned to night the crowd became wilder, the music became faster, and the laugher became louder. After the Council had retired for the evening, the Highlanders cleared the benches from the middle of the pavilion to create a makeshift dance floor on the green. The elder Wardens took to the outskirts of the pavilion, and regaled all those in earshot with tales of glory in the firelight. Tales of giants in caves of stone, of dragons on mountains of gold, of battles where all seemed hopeless, and tales of love unending. The ones that Jowan enjoyed the most were the funny ones, particularly the one where the gods transformed Warden Meadghbh into a braying ass for a night, as punishment for thieving a golden apple. The wine flowed freely, and before he knew it, it was morning and Jowan was awoken by a foot in his ribs.

 “Owww… my head... What time is it?”

 “You are being summoned before the council for your first assignment… Warden,” said the mountain of a man standing before him, in a gruff tone of voice with a hint of condescension. Clearly he wasn’t winning any favors by sleeping until midday. “Clean yourself up first. You are expected without delay.”

 With a hand to his head to shield his eyes from the blinding daylight, Jowan bounded from the paddock upon which the wine determined was his bed for the night, and bolted for the stone circle in the center of Lir’s Reach. After stopping at a nearby stream to splash some water on his face, Warden Jowan arrived before the council’s circle smelling of wine, and wearing the same grass stained clothes that he had slept in the night before. However, there was only one person in attendance to greet him.

 “Well now, I see that we are putting our best foot forward today?” snidely remarked Warden Davian with a smirk to his longtime friend. Jowan and Davian had been like brothers since they had grown up together in Highshore village. They fast became friends after Davian rescued Jowan from the brink of doom for thieving an apple pie from the windowsill of the housewife Malvina. It was fortuitous circumstance that they were both accepted into the ranks of the Wardens. Davian had been named to the Wardens a year prior, because of his age. Being a year older than Jowan, Davian sometimes acted as a friend, and sometimes as a big brother. With his head buzzing from last night’s wine, Jowan wished Davian would act a little less like the chiding brother today.

 Jowan smiled as he took his friend’s hand, pulled him close and clapped him on the back in greeting. “I was summoned before the council today, but why are you here?”

 “I was summoned as well,” explained Davian, “but you are a little late to receive their message because we have already met. No matter. I was told to tell you that I am to accompany you on your first mission. We are dispatched to the Stonevale farm, to gather information on a remarkable young boy who may well turn out to be one of the most powerful Wardens we have seen in a century.”

 “What is his name?”

 “The boy goes by the unlikely name of Falgren, the son of a common farmer, and he lives in a shack in one of the outlying farms. We are charged with meeting him and determining if his powers are great enough to begin his training as a Warden. I’ve made all of the arrangements for our journey. We leave Highshore village within the hour.” Davian looked at Jowan’s clothes with a raised eyebrow.  “You may want to bathe first.”

 Flashing his friend a wide grin of excitement, Jowan bounded toward the village. Before him lay a bath, a change of clothes, and his destiny.

The rickety horse cart trundled down the two track dirt road leading into Stonevale. As the pair of companions surveyed the landscape, they could tell that something was not right. The usually lush and verdant pastures of Stonevale were now replaced with arid fields, full of failing crops. Dirt and sand whipped against their clothes as the wind buffeted them, as if some fell power was bidding them to leave. 

 “Are you sure we’re in the right place?” asked Jowan as he narrowed his eyes to slits, to avoid getting sand in his eyes.

 “Yes I’m sure.”

 “Didn’t take a wrong turn back there?”

 “No we did not.”

 “Even when I told you that we should stop and ask for directions?”

 “We are in the right place. I have been here before, but this place looks… different.” said Davian with a quizzical look. “The air does not feel right here. See the way that even the trees are failing along with the crops? Something is definitely not right with the land. It’s as if a shadow has fallen over it. We have plenty of time to meet with Falgren, I think we should go visit the master of this land to see what has befallen it.”

 “Who is that?” questioned Jowan.

 “That is the unicorn king Spirehoof. He makes his home in the grove just over that ridge there. We should be able to get all the answers we need from him. I’m sure the council will thank us for looking into this.”

 The cart continued to creak down the road as Davian clucked the horses into motion with a flip of the reins. Within the hour, the duo was standing outside the thicket of trees where Spirehoof makes his home, in his magical grove.

Jowan stared in amazement to his left and right, amazed at the herds of unicorns frolicking in the grassy grove, startling flocks of butterflies and they pranced. This truly was a magical place, for even the normally skittish rabbits came right up to the party to greet them, instead of darting away as they do in Lir’s Reach. “I’ve heard stories about unicorns, but I never believed they were real. Are they all supposed to be colored purple?” asked Jowan.

“Yes,” replied Davian, “All unicorns are purple, with shining crystal horns. That is part of the blessing that the gods handed down to them, so that they could be differentiated from the common mare. I assume that you will see quite a few things that you have never seen before by the time we are done. ”

“What about that herd over on the far ridge? They seem to be all white.”

At that moment, Spirehoof emerged from the grove of trees to meet his visitors. His hooves thundered on the ground, and his horn brushed the treetops. As they gazed up at the majestic beast, they saw his hide was colored the deepest purple, as were all the other unicorns; except his legs were white, as if the color had been drained out of them. “Greetings Wardens,” boomed the giant unicorn. “It has been too long since I have seen your kind in my grove. What purpose brings you here?”

“Your grace,” replied Davian with a deep bow, “we are travelling to Stonevale to visit a boy, who may one day be among our number. We have journeyed to your grove because this realm has much changed since I have last been here. What has befallen it?”

The unicorn sighed deeply and tossed his head before responding, his flowing purple mane shimmering in the sunlight. “The earth speaks to me that a great shadow has entered my realm, though I know not what it is, nor how to fight it. But it seems to be coming from the Western boundary of my grove. I have sent scouts to investigate what it is, but all have come back… changed. Upon their return each one has lost their purple hue, and turned completely white. Their hearts are filled with rage and anger. Their horns do not shine with the crystalized light that they once did, but instead have grown dark. I know not how to respond to this, and I refuse to put my herd in any more danger. I will move the herd east, away from the danger. You see though, that as my herd is afflicted by this evil, so does my own color disappear,” his head bowed as if to point to his gleaming white legs. “I imagine that as the last of my herd turns, so will I turn and then my realm will be lost to the evil forces that corrupt it.”

“If it pleases your grace,” answered Davian “is there a message that you would like me to carry back to my fellow Wardens?”

“Yes…” Spirehoof paused. “Tell them the earth speaks. Tell them the earth speaks of evil.”

The normally bustling streets of the Stonevale farm were deserted as the Wardens entered town. The only movement breaking the stillness of the landscape was a lethargic, slat-ribbed cow. The sand-strewn wind blasted the pair, as the midday sun beat oppressively down upon them. A ragged dog laying in the shadow of a tumbledown shack slowly lifted his head at their passing, thought better of chasing after them, and went back to sleep. As they crossed the bridge spanning the thread of water that constituted the river now, even the chickens they passed scratching in the dirt looked dirty and tired.

The cart quivered to a halt outside a ramshackle house, to which they were directed to by the council of Wardens. The grey, sun-bleached boards of the walls had numerous holes and gaps, to where the two Wardens could see movement inside the house. Even from ground level, the missing shingles, ripped from the roof by the high winds, were notably visible. Clearly, whomever lived in this house were not of wealthy means.

The door made of thin boards trembled under the weight of Jowan’s fist as he rapped on the door, to announce their arrival. “At least I didn’t cave the whole place in with that knock...” Jowan murmured to his companion with a roguish grin.

“Hush, someone’s there.”

The door opened slowly to the daylight, and a small slip of a boy, squinting in darkness stepped out to greet them. His hair was black and stringy, his complexion pale and sallow. One glance at the boy revealed that he had clearly missed a meal or three. As he rubbed the sleeve of his grubby shirt under his nose, the visiting Wardens wondered if they had come to the right place.

“This is a waste of time…” Jowan said under his breath, as his friend flashed him a look of disapproval.

“What is your name boy?” asked Davian to the youth before him.

“Falgren, sir,” replied the boy as he wrinkled his nose quizzically and asked “Are y’ Wardens?” Despite the dirt and sweat that clung to their clothes, the white with gold trim jerkins that both the visitors wore marked them as members of the Wardens of Dal Riata.

“Yes we are son. You are an observant boy.” remarked Davian, as his companion yawned and scanned the area for any hope of a shady respite from the sun. “That is good. You will need to be observant if you are the person we hoped to find. Do you know why we are here?”

Falgren paused a moment before responding, then kicked the dirt absentmindedly as he replied “Me friends sort of told me y’ were coming.”

Hand to his dagger, Davian looked warily around as he asked “What friends are you speaking of?”
“There are some faeries that visit me from time t’ time. I give ‘em what fruit and berries I c’n find, and they help me out wit’ things.”

“Do your parents know about this?”

“Me ma disappeared when I was but a babe, and me da drank too much wine and fell off th’ horse one night. I’ve been on me own since then,” explained Falgren. How did the Council find out about this boy? It was very interesting to find a boy befriended of faeries. What else could he do?

“Falgren, you know about the Wardens of Dal Riata?” Falgren nodded vigorously. “We are here because we test young men of a certain age, to find out if they possess the ability to join us in the fight against Crom Curach. It is not an easy life, but if you possess the abilities I think you do, you may come with us to begin your training as a Warden, learning all of our secrets and seeing all the fantastic things the world has to offer. Would you like that?”

Falgren looked back at the shack behind him, and then met Davian’s eyes with a steely gaze. “More than anything sir.” Jowan was leaning against the cart now, paring off pieces of apple to eat with his dagger, but still wary of his surroundings. Although he looked aloof, his eyes leapt back and forth surveying the yard. And with those words his attention focused on the boy to see that would happen next.

Davian knelt and grasped both of the boy’s hands, and spoke his directions to him. “Falgren, I want you to close your eyes and focus on me. Imagine in your mind a leaf bud on a tree. Imagine that bud growing larger and larger, until it uncurls into a full, green leaf. Sense the life force flowing through it; flowing out of the earth and into the leaf. Feel the sun’s heat as it gives the leaf energy, and feel the water as it feeds the leaf, making it stronger.”

Falgren’s eyes were squinted shut with all his might. His teeth were gritted, and his knuckles had gone white from grasping Davian’s hands with all the strength he could muster. Suddenly, Davian felt a tingle on the back of his neck. Nothing large, but it felt as if a cool breeze was ruffling his hair. Suddenly, some of the weariness that Davian had from travelling washed away, as if he had just gotten a good night’s sleep. Falgren let go of Davian’s hands and collapsed to his knees, his energy expended.

Kneeling down beside him Davian said “That was very good son. I think we will need to take you with us back to Lir’s Reach for further tests. You did well today.” Davian ruffled the boy’s hair, as he stood up and declared to Jowan “It seems we will have a passenger for our return trip. It is getting late. We should get some supplies for our return trip, so we can make it back before sundown. Can you find someone to buy provisions from?”

“Yeah boss, I’m on it” Jowan said with a mock salute. Davian shook his head smiling. Maybe this would turn out to be a good day after all.

“I can’t wait to get out of here,” Jowan thought as he stood in front of the house that served as the mercantile store at the Stonevale Farm. The arrangements were all made for their return trip back to Lir’s Reach, with one little passenger in tow. The store had been hard enough to find, with all the doors closed and windows shuttered, and once inside Jowan found that the prices were astronomically high. I guess that’s what comes from living in a dust bowl in the middle of nowhere.

A crow called out in the distance; one single lonely cry that seemed to put an exclamation point on the emptiness of this arid land. Taking a swig from his water skin, Jowan glanced over to the store porters loading the wagon, and strapping feed bags to the horses. It would not be long until this place was long behind them, and they would be back in the green, temperate land that he was more accustomed to.

Another bird’s call pierced the twilight; a raven, perhaps. This time it was closer. It seems as if some scavengers have found their next meal. Perhaps a sheep had been separated from the flock, and had met its fate in the rocky steppes beyond the borders of the village. It would not bode well for any creature to be caught out in the open, given the heat that was still upon the land, even now as the sun was setting. Jowan described this land as a prosperous farmland, full of magical creatures living in harmony with the human inhabitants of the village. All he had seen so far was a dry riverbed, and fearful people with distrust in their eyes. What had happened here?   

A starling chirped from the rooftop in front of him. Or so he supposed, not seeing the any sign of movement from the shattered roof tiles that dotted the red brick building in front of him, sticking up at odd angles like broken teeth. “This boy had better be worth all this trouble,” Jowan thought as he saw the porters going back inside the store, having completed their work. “I became a Warden to fight fire breathing dragons,” thought Jowan, “to save damsels in tall towers of stone, to explore the reaches that no man has ever seen before. Not to come to some wreck of a village and babysit a snot-nosed pipsqueak.” Despite seeing his first unicorn, this trip was markedly uneventful. Jowan wondered why the Council decided to send Davian with him. Surely one Warden could have retrieved a boy as easily as two. “No matter. In a few minutes we will all be on our way home. Maybe the next assignment will be more exciting.”

A wren squawked behind Jowan as he closed his eyes and tilted his head back to take another swig of water from his skin. He never even saw the garrote being slipped around his neck.

The open water skin flew into the air, spraying precious drops of water onto the dusty ground that drank it thirstily. Jowan’s hands flew to his throat to stop the garrote from biting deeper. He staggered left, then right, trying to shake the attacker’s hold from him. Whomever this was, had inhuman strength, yet never made a sound. Round and round the pair went, kicking up clouds of dust as they careened into the side of the brick mercantile building.

Seeing that this was not working, Jowan dropped his hands and tried driving his elbows into the ribs of the man choking the life out of him, again, and again. But there was nothing that Jowan could do. The cord tightened around his neck further, not having any competition from Jowan’s fingers. 

Darkness was closing in on Jowan’s vision. He was losing consciousness as the attacker’s grip tightened on the ligature. Jowan’s face was now bright red as he fought for a single breath of air. But it was too late. Sagging limply, as the darkness clouded his eyes, Jowan saw three men in black hooded robes closing in on him, and his friend, Davian, in the distance calling his name.

A bug skittered across Jowan’s left hand, waking him with its slimy trail. Clearly, he wasn’t in Stonevale anymore. Where he was now though, he could not tell, for the room was shrouded in complete, pitch black darkness. If his hands were not bound to the chair he was sitting on, he wouldn’t have even been able to see them if he held them in front of his face. Trying to forget about the burning sensation on his neck, left by the kidnapper’s garrote, Jowan tried to focus on his surroundings to determine where he was, and what to do next.

 Although his sight was failing him because of the darkness, Jowan called upon his other senses. A dripping sound was coming from somewhere nearby, and the arms of the chair were damp with moisture. The smell of mildew and rats hung in the air. Great. He hated rats.

 When Jowan was a boy, not long off of his mother’s apron strings, he decided to go exploring. Jowan had always been an explorer, it was this ideal that attracted him to become a Warden to begin with. On this occasion, Jowan’s explorations took him to the woodpile behind the tavern. Jowan would climb to the top of the heap, and then jump to the ground, laughing at the exhilaration of flying through the air. On his last attempt, Jowan’s foot struck upon a loose piece of kindling. Arms pinwheeling, he fell backward over the opposite side of the pile. Pinned between the tavern wall and the massive tower of logs, and nursing scuffed hands and a twisted ankle, Jowan heard a faint hiss come from within the darkness of the pile. He saw two eyes, burning like coals in the darkness, over a furred snout housing a row of needle sharp teeth. Then another, and another. Before more could emerge Jowan was scrambling up the heap, with the rats weaving their way toward him as he climbed. By the time he got home, he was out of breath, terrified, scraped and bruised. Since that day he had avoided rats at all costs.

 And now here he was. Stuck in the dark. With rats. Trying to regain his composure, he set out to find any sign of where he was. That was when he saw a light. It was small at first, and flickering. It was definitely coming closer, slowly. With his eyes squinted, Jowan could make out a man holding a torch, with others training after him. The men were garbed in black robes, black as the darkness that surrounded them. As the torchlight touched the area, Jowan could see that it was not a house he was in, but a cavern; dank and stinking. A glance to the right showed him the old bones of the cave’s last visitors. Jowan felt a chill in his spine that no rat could ever produce.

 “Boy...” sneered the man in black towering before him. The most noticeable quality of this man was his voluminous black wool robes, trimmed with gold the color of the sun, and red the color of dried blood. But looking beyond them, Jowan found a wizened tattooed face under the hood, lines and creases in his skin causing the designs to shift almost imperceptibly. The black obsidian dagger at the man’s waist told Jowan one thing.

 “Blackstone.” Jowan growled.

 “Very good.” His gaoler cracked his dry, scaly lips to reveal teeth that were filed down into dagger-like points. “The Wardens have taught you well. But not well enough it seems,” he remarked glancing at Jowan’s bonds. “It is a pity that all your training has come to this end. If only there was some way for you to be free; to save your own life. You would make a grand addition to the forces of the Blackstone Cabal.” The man in black turned his back as if to leave.

 “I will never join you. I know what you are.”

 “You will join us or you will die!” the man in black spat as he spun on his heels to face Jowan. Leaning over the chair where Jowan was imprisoned, he could feel the hot breath of his captor on his face. The man slowly smiled with a mouth full of sword sharp teeth, inches from Jowan’s face, and playfully gnashed once at the air with a low growl in his throat.

 The Blackstone Cabal represented the forces of evil in Dal Riata. Just as the Wardens fought for the just causes of the gods, the Blackstone Cabal waged war for the sole purpose of freeing the dark god Crom Curach from his bonds in the Otherworld. They were everything that the Wardens swore to fight against. Jowan had learned about them during the course of his training, but the reality was much more frightening.

 Turning his head slowly to the right, so that Jowan would follow his gaze, the man in black said slowly “You see those bones there boy? I wonder what the names of those Wardens were. In the end it doesn’t matter. In the end Crom accepts all sacrifices, no matter what names they once had. Do you have a name boy? No… it doesn’t matter. You will end up like them, once Marwolaeth arrives.”

  “Think about my offer boy. But don’t consider it for too long.” The man in black’s eyes burned red, like the rat that had terrified Jowan as a boy. He stood up slowly from his position, crouching over his prisoner like a spider in its web. Turning suddenly, his robes billowed out expelling the stench of mildew and blood, as he stalked out of the room with his torch bearing entourage following behind.

The cave was dark once again, draining all of Jowan’s hope. Who is Marwolaeth?

The howling wind whipped away Davian’s cries for his friend. At a dead sprint, Davian tore around the East end of the mercantile building, where the hooded men carried Jowan’s limp body. He found nothing. It was as if Jowan and his kidnappers had disappeared into thin air. Panicking, Davian swung his head left, then right. Looking, searching for the where the men had taken Jowan. No trace was left that marked their passing. They could be anywhere by now! Desperately, Davian shouted Jowan’s name to the gathering darkness, which only echoed his despair. Mounting the ridge to follow in pursuit, Davian gazed out across the dusty plains toward the setting sun. The small sliver of sun that was left at the end of the day turned the clouds red as freshly pooled blood. This was not a good omen.

“Hey now, come down from there” Falgren called to Davian. “You’re not going to be able to find him in this dark, now will ya?”

“What should I do? This is all my fault. I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off him.” Davian’s mind roiled, thinking of something; anything he could do to find his friend.

“I might have a way to find your friend fer ya. You know my friends? The ones I get berries for?” Falgren asked slyly under his breath, afraid that anyone on the empty street would hear. “They have ways of knowing things. We might be able to persuade ‘em to help find yer friend. C’mon. Let’s get some berries ready before it gets too dark.” With a worried, longing look back over his shoulder, Davian begrudgingly descended from his hilltop perch to the city streets in search of another way to find his friend.

Berries were hard to find in this arid climate, and almost impossible to find in the dark. In a few hours, hands scratched and bleeding from thorn wounds, the pair had about two handfuls of bright blue and red berries loaded into an aged wicker basket. Hoping this was enough, Davian followed Falgren down the stony road that led south from the farm. Where the cobblestones were not outright missing, they jutted up at odd angles, making the journey unbearably slow in the dark. In a moment where Davian wished for speed, it seemed that everything impeded their journey. Still, trusting his friend’s fate to a child, Davian followed Falgren South, with only a tallow candle to light their way.

Close to midnight, they reached their destination: the Southern road leystone. This large stone monolith stood tall against the night sky, and glowed with a mystical blue energy. There were many leystones hidden throughout the land, laid down long ago by Ogma the god of knowledge, and they marked the location where pairs of ley lines intersected. These ley lines are mystical lines of energy that cross the earth and, for one who is attuned to the mystical nature of the gods, they can travel between leystones by harnessing this energy through geomancy. Standing before this symbol of ancient power gave Davian chills, as the stone buzzed and crackled with unnatural energy.

Tearing his eyes away from the leystone, he followed Falgren as he left the road. The path he took was almost invisible, if you didn’t know it was there. To the untrained eye, this was simply a parting in the trees, obstructed periodically by massive thorn bushes. How Falgren came to know about this secret, he never revealed. Following close behind, Davian’s eyes widened as they came upon a secret grove, unspoiled by human touch. The trees grew tall here, and the grass was dewy and green. Everything seemed alive and breathing here, yet there was no sign of any movement. As if he had done this many times before, Falgren carefully made his way to the far side of a shimmering pool of water, toward a gigantic orange mushroom the size of a grown oak tree. There, in the matted grass, stood a circle of glowing light that pulsed as if it had a heartbeat of its own. Without breaking the circle, Falgren created four small mounds of berries at each compass point, and then returned to Davian’s side to wait. With an eager grin on his face, Falgren extinguished the candle with a breath.

The grove grew dark, and silent. Suddenly, by the slow pulsing light of the mystical circle, they could see the tiny fairies emerge from their hiding. They were small, gentle creatures, wearing leaf-sewn kilts. Flitting about on gossamer wings, the fairies circled their visitor’s heads, and then converged on the circle to accept their offering. The tiny voices, jabbering in a foreign tongue suddenly stopped as an enormous figure stepped from the darkness beyond the gigantic mushroom. The Queen of Fairies loomed above Falgren and Davian, considering them quietly as the other fairies knelt before her. Davian’s awe was broken when he felt Falgren roughly tap him on the leg. Davian quickly saw that he should mimic Falgren as he knelt on one knee. Fairies have a peculiar sense of honour and custom, and demand a certain amount of reverence. It would not do well to offend them.

“Greetings my sweet child,” the Fairy Queen smiled at Falgren, and spoke in a voice that was as gentle as a cool summer breeze. “Your presence is always welcome here in my grove. I thank you for your offering. Please, stand and introduce your companion.”

“Thanks m’lady.” Falgren replied as he got to his feet. “This is Warden Davian. His friend got taken by some bad guys in black robes. We’re looking for were they went. Have the fairies seen them?”

“Yes, we have. There has been an evil disturbance near our grove as of late. A shadow has fallen upon Stonevale, as evil forces have taken hold here. Some of the Fae folk have even seen this shadow take the shape of a living creature, and all who have looked upon it have become changed. We mostly keep to our grove now, to shield ourselves from this shadow. However, our scouts marked the men you speak of passing south down the nearby road, travelling to Shalemont Ravine. There, we marked them climbing the hillside into a crevasse in the face of the mountain, that humans have named Fingal’s Cave. This is  where the Twisted Tunnels lie.”

“He’s there?” Blurted Davian. “Why didn’t you stop them?”

“The affairs of mortals are none of ours, and these beings had a great amount of demonic power surrounding them. I will not risk the lives of my people following this evil into places that the sun does not go. However, we fair folk will aid you in whatever way we can so that this evil does not pass our grove again.”

Demonic power? Davian realized he was outmatched, having only achieved his Warden sash a year previous. He needed help. “My lady, if it pleases you we would like to make use of your leystone to traverse back to Lir’s Reach, to gather the Council and warn them of this danger. May we have assistance in this?”

“I will gather my most skilled loredancers to harness the energy of the earth and transport you to the Temple of Belenus. May your journey be swift, and may the gods protect you in your mission.” With a nod of her head, the Queen of Fairies turned and disappeared silently into the shadows that wreathed the trees. As the pair waited for their winged escorts, Davian nervously wondered how much time they had lost already, and if he would ever see his friend again.

 “We thank you for your information Davian,” boomed Warden Aramiss from his seat inside the white marbled hall of the Temple of Belenus. The Council members were spread in a semi-circle in front of the pair, seated on cushioned chairs. The elder Wardens had grave looks upon their faces upon receiving the news. “We will now deliberate on what actions to take next.”

 Deliberate? How can they stall like this when his friend is missing and may be dying? “Sir! I must protest. We need quick action against this evil,” hurriedly spoke Davian in an exasperated tone of voice. “These monsters have taken one of our own, and they must be stopped. We must find them and crush them in the hole these snakes are hiding in.” The gleaming white pillars that dotted the Temple of Belenus suddenly seemed to weigh down upon him, as the forceful gazes of the six elder Wardens that comprised the council pinned him to the spot where he stood.

 Without looking at the other council member’s angry gazes, Warden Aramiss icily said “Boy, you have already overstepped your bounds by talking with both of the two rulers of Stonevale, and now you presume to lecture us on tactics? Once this matter has been dealt with we will review your actions to see if your conduct warrants a reprimand. Until then, we will keep our own council.” Looking up from his subject of disdain, the Warden continued “This council will recess for an hour, upon which time we will discuss the costs and benefits of a rescue mission. We are adjourned."

 Davian stormed out of the council chambers, livid with anger. Were they seriously contemplating not rescuing Jowan? Clenching his fists in anger, Davian did not notice Councilmember Warden Madoc appear at his side.

 “That was quite a display you made in there Warden Davian,” he remarked with a slight smile.

 “I can’t help it. They have my friend! And now the council thinks it’s better to sit on their hands and deliberate the situation, while one of their own sits imprisoned! It’s not right. They should be rushing to save him, not sitting on perfumed cushions talking about proper procedures.” Davian was fuming with anger. The sun had already climbed high into the sky on the next day. Time was running short if there was to be any hope of rescuing Jowan.

 In a measured tone, Warden Madoc tried to assuage Davian’s ire. “The council needs to see things their own way before they will take action. They worry about the good of the many, over the needs of a few. I will do my best to speak for your friend, for I see how you are hurting over this. I hope we reach a decision before it’s too late.”

 Davian’s attention snapped back to Warden Madoc. “You are on the council. You can do something about this, can’t you?”

 “I’m afraid that I am only one person, but I will do what I can. An attack on one Warden is an attack on us all. The forces loyal to me have been made ready, and once I can convince the council to see reason we will begin our rescue mission. I cannot leave one of our own behind because of their inaction.”

 “Thank you Warden Madoc!” Davian gushed. “Thank you so much. If there’s anything you ever need, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

 With a pleased grin, Warden Madoc mused “There may come a time when I will have need of your services. But for now, go rest at the Smuggler’s Rest Inn. I believe your travelling companion Falgren has completed his testing for the day, and has already retired there.”

 “He is a remarkable boy,” smiled Davian. “I hope he did well.”

 “Yes,” said Warden Madoc with a secretive grin as he turned to leave. “I will be very interested to see his progress.”

 After searching the tavern for his young companion, Davian came upon Falgren sitting on an upended wine barrel in the cellar, munching on a green apple. “These are delicious!” Falgren said with a grin in between crunches of apple. “So are they going to look for your friend?”

 Davian told Falgren about the Council meeting, as Falgren wrinkled his nose at every mention of delay. “That sounds stupid. Why won’t they go get your friend? He’s in trouble.”

 “I don’t know,” said Davian with a sigh. “And they blame me for his going missing. This is all a mess. At least I have Warden Madoc on my side. Maybe he will be able to convince them to action.” Davian leaned against the wall, and was startled when he found that it wasn’t entirely solid. “What is this?” Davian muttered as he turned to gaze upon the massive oak doors he had inadvertently stumbled upon. His gentle tug on the rusted iron lock made the chains holding the door closed jingle. 

“That’s the back door to the Twisted Tunnels,” grumbled the voice of a burly middle aged man descending the stairs. “Been locked for nigh twenty years if I remember right, and certainly hasn’t been opened while I’ve run this inn,” he glanced toward the door with a look that Davian almost would say was fear, but it was gone in a flash as he dropped his gaze to the floor. As he reached the bottom of the stairs with a slab of salted pork over his shoulder, the innkeeper remarked, “I thought I heard voices from down here. What are you doing in my cellar?” He looked over at Falgren who had deftly hidden his stolen apple core up his sleeve.

“I was looking for my friend who must have gotten lost. Did you say the Twisted Tunnels?” questioned Davian.

“Yeah that’s right. The previous innkeeper used to smuggle goods through that door, out through Fingal’s Cave. It hasn’t been used in years though because of the… rats. I wish we could hire a decent rat catcher around here,” the innkeeper mumbled as he hefted the slab of meat from his shoulder, and onto a knife scarred wooden table.

“Please sir!” pleaded Davian, “I need to use that door. My friend is… lost in the Twisted Tunnels, and I fear for his life.”

Looking skeptically at Davian, the innkeeper drew nearer to Davian and looked him square in the eyes, considering what he just heard. He replied pointing to Falgren “I thought you said your friend was right here? Well it makes no difference to me if you use it or not. You’ll have a hard time of it though because I lost the key to the door a couple days ago. If you can find it, you’re welcome to use the door and see your way out of my cellar.” He mumbled something as he glanced at the opened sack of apples, and then trudged up the knotted wood stairs.

The pair began to search the inn high and low for the key. They searched behind boxes in the dusty attic, they searched the gilded bedroom nightstands, they searched the grain sacks stacked high in the store room, and they even searched the cobwebbed area behind the wood piles at the fireplace. After hours of searching, they could not find the key.  Dejected, the pair returned to the innkeeper to report their failure.

“Had enough did ya?” remarked the innkeeper with a smirk. “There’s no hope in looking any more. You’d have more luck looking for the Otherworld than trying to find that key!” he chuckled as he bent over the bar to pour a mug of mead. As he bent, a small iron key slid from his shirt pocket and fell to the bar top with a small clink. The innkeeper moved to hide it with his hand, saw the pair looking at the key, and thought better of it.

“Well now…” the innkeeper grumbled unhappily. “It seems I had it all along. Bah! Take it then and good luck to you.” Falgren snickered as Davian snatched up the key with a murmur of thanks, and dashed down to the cellar. “And remember to watch out for the….” Davian lost the rest of innkeeper’s warning as he descended to the stony cellar floor. With a sharp exhale, Davian jammed the key into the lock and twisted the key. The lock snapped open and fell to the floor with a clang, as the chains tumbled to join it. Davian was about to push the door open, when he felt someone at his side.

“C’mon now. Let’s not waste time,” said Falgren eagerly.

“You need to stay here. I have to do this on my own,” explained Davian as he knelt and reached out to grip Falgren’s shoulders. “The tunnels are too dangerous; I can’t bring someone with me that’s not fully trained.”


“And I need someone to stay behind in case something happens to me. If I’m not back by this time tomorrow, run and tell the Council of Wardens what happened.”

“Alright…” Falgren said doubtfully.  “Be careful though willya?”

“I always am.” Davian said with a wink, but his nervous smile revealed his worry as he cracked the massive oak doors, and slipped into the darkness.

The thick slab of oak door closed with a boom that echoed down the cavern. The high pitched cries of the bats disturbed by the reverberations were Davian's only greeting. But where he was expecting only darkness, Davian found that the room was enveloped by the fiery glow of torches in their wall sconces. Tracks of overlapping footprints In the dirt revealed that many people have been this way recently. But what reason could have brought them here with the door chained closed from the other side? He would have to ponder this mystery later. Right now his friend was in grave danger. Davian wrestled a torch loose from its perch, and proceeded to tread down the narrow tunnel.

Davian wandered for what seemed to be hours. The footprints he was following disappeared into nothingness a long time ago. All Davian had left to guide him was hope. But even that started to waver as his torch started to gutter and die. No, no, no! The torch winked out into embers as Davian blew frantically on the sparks, trying to coax them into flame. Alone in the darkness, Davian's hope died along with his torch.

Slumping against the hard, wet rock wall of the tunnel, Davian tried to think what he could do next. He had no idea where he was. The tunnels twisted and looped back in on each other so many times that Davian was hopelessly lost. There was no going forward. There was no going back. In the pitch blackness of the tunnels, he heard faint hissing, and the skitter of tiny legs. Jumping to his feet and drawing his dagger, Davian's terror overwhelmed him. There was nothing he could do but stand and fight, whatever it was.

Suddenly in front of Davian, a blinding flash of white light exploded on the ground, illuminating the tunnel. Several spiders the size of small horses, with gaping jaws dripping venom, reeled from the sudden burst of light and retreated backwards into the shadows. The light slowly faded into an ambient blue glow that seemed to come from the rocks themselves.

This phosphorescent glow made Davian's hair stand on end with fright and anticipation. Behind a boulder to his left, Davian saw a shadow grow into the shape of a woman. An old woman, from the way she carried herself. Her back was hunched and her slow, shambling walk betrayed her age. A sound to his right made Davian break his concentration, and he saw a slender young woman in a black silk dress stepped from the shadows. As she came closer, her long blonde hair swayed in a breeze that he had not noticed before. She smelled of cherry blossoms in spring. As she turned to join the old woman, she flashed him a grin like the glint of moonlight off the blade of a dagger. Davian was so intoxicated by her presence that he almost did not notice a third woman joining the pair. This lady was older than the second, and more stout. As she came closer, the shadows fell from her form and Davian could see that this woman was with child. How did these three women get this far into the tunnel? Before he could ask, the old woman spoke with a voice that sounded like an old door creaking open.

"Well my child, you have come a long way from home to find your friend Warden Davian."

"And you still have a long way to go to meet the doom that has been set for you," finished the mother.

"You are clearly lost," smirked the young woman, "but we can help you get on the right path."

"Who are you?" Asked Davian frantically, now very worried about these women. How did they know his name? And how much did they know about his journey?

"We are the three sisters," said the old lady. "Mother, maiden, and crone. We go by many names."
"The grey ladies" added the maiden.
"Trioditis" replied the mother.
"The Fates" crowed the crone.
"The Furies" snickered the maiden.
“The Kindly Ones”
“The Norns”
“The Erinyes”
“The Moirai”
"The Morrigan" they all said in unison. Davian's eyes widened in horrified understanding. He now knew what he was up against. Silently, he wished for the spiders instead. The Morrigan were goddesses, or a single goddess. No one really knew. He had heard of them but never dreamed of every crossing their paths. During his studies, Davian had learned that there is a sect living underground that had dedicated their lives to the worship of the Morrigan. They lived deep underground, in tunnels that no mortal man has ever explored. It was rumored that they congregated with spiders, or that maybe they themselves were spiders, and that their dedication to the Morrigan twisted their bodies. No one had ever known for certain, because no one ever returned from their shadowy lair.

"Wha... What do you want with me?" Stammered Davian.

"You, my poppet, are a most rare creature indeed," cackled the crone with an outstretched finger pointed at Davian's heart. "You ride fate as a man rides a horse. Your actions will determine the course of history.”

“Nations will rise and fall. Life and death will clash in the fray” said the maiden.

“The oldest battle begins once again,” stated the mother solemnly.

“I don’t understand! I’m just looking for my friend. Where is he?” Davian said frantically.

“In the tunnels ahead, at the end chamber. Follow the signs to your friend,” advised the mother.
“Those were the wrong questions. If you chose wisely we could have told you of the dark portal, and Crom,” stated the crone.

“We could have told you of Marwolaeth and the war to come,” said the mother as she shook her head disdainfully.

“Now you will have to find everything out for yourself,” smirked the maiden. The lights dimmed, and Davian’s torch flared again. But the ladies were gone. Sheathing his dagger, Davian stared off into the shadows for some sign of his mysterious visitors. There was no movement. Suddenly, just outside the halo of light emitted by the torch, a rock glowed with a phosphorescent green. Davain walked toward the rock, and where the torchlight touched it, the glow subsided. Just then another rock further down the passage began to glow. And so Davian made his way through the twisted tunnels, guided by the glowing stones sent by the Morrigan. The tunnels turned at impossible angles, looping back in on each other until Davian was completely lost.

Finally, the last glowing stone appeared at the opening to a chamber illuminated by firelight, with mounds of bones stacked erratically throughout. There in the center of the room sat Jowan, bound to a chair. Two burly captors flanked Jowan on either side. Each one dressed in the deepest black, with hoods pulled up to hide their features in shadow. Cruel looking swords forged of obsidian hung at their sides. This was going to be tricky. Davian drew his dagger, and crept silently into the room.

Davian kept to the shadows at the edge of the room, carefully picking his way over bleached femurs and stray humeri. Although the piles of bones offered ample hiding spots to creep into the room, it was difficult to proceed without snapping an errant bone underfoot and alerting the guards. It was unnerving the way they stood motionless, barely seeming to breathe. Thankfully, Davian could see Jowan’s chest rising and falling as he sagged limply in his seat, bound to a rickety wooden chair. Davian gauged the distance from his position to the guards, as he pulled a small vial of poison from his belt and unstopped it with his teeth. Davian never took his eyes off the captors as he applied the poison to his dagger, for fear that they might discover his hiding spot. The poison, harvested from the spiders of Carrowmore, would slowly sap the life from whomever is afflicted by its affects. Davian was hoping that this would be his edge in defeating the hulking monsters in black robes that flanked his friend.

Silently, Davian lept from the shadows to quickly strike his opponent. To the untrained eye, Davian seemed to appear out of nowhere at his targets side. A slash to the guard's back was enough to apply the poison, but not enough to subdue him. As the second guard drew his sword to attack, Davian threw a smoke bomb at him. Blinded, the second guard staggered through the smoke, leaving Davian to deal with his original target.

The wounded monster of a man charged at him bellowing with fury. Davian tumbled to the right, out of the way of the sudden attack, his dagger clattering to the floor. Falling through the air, Davian sprawled onto a pile of ancient bones with an audible crunch. "Ahhh!" Davian yelled as he hastily scrambled away from the grinning skull that was inches from his face. Seated on the cave floor he turned to see his adversary slowly advance on him with a fanged grin. The midnight black robes filled Davian's vision, except for one thing.

Davian's fall dislodged the broken shaft of a spear. Davian grasped it and sprung to his feet, the spearhead leveled at his target and glinting softly in the torchlight. The guard slashed savagely at Davian, and he turned the blow away with the shaft of his spear. Another attack came quickly, and Davain barely avoided this blow. But he now had is opening. With a lunge, Davain thrust his spear at his attacker. The blow tore through his robes, skewering him, and pinning him to the floor. Unable to move, the guard roared in anger, as the other guard continued to stagger about the cave. There wasnt much time left.

Davian collected his dagger from the floor, and rushed to his friend's side to sever the bonds that held him.
"It's you! I knew you would come!" Jowan rejoiced as he rubbed his wrists from where the rope had been biting his flesh.

"No time for reunions now. We have to get out of here!"

"You can say that again.." How an pointed to the two guards. The smoke had worn off and the second guard was approaching. The first guard violently snapped the spear shaft that pinned his robe to the floor. Both advanced with obsidian blades drawn.

"Lets get out of here!" Shouted Davian, as he turne to escape the cavern. But the passage was blocked. The ensuing battle must have alerted others, for there were now ten blackstone guards crowded in the entrance to the cave, and banging slowly to flank them and form a ring around the two Wardens.

"Umm... Do you have a plan B?" Asked Jowan nervously.

"That was plan B!" Replied Davian frantically.

The ring of Blackstone guards closed around the two Wardens, sealing their fate. "It was good knowing you buddy," Jowan said with a resigned tone. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he was outside of the room, far into the cave's passageway with Davian at his side. "What just happened?"

"Well.." Said a voice behind them, and the Wardens both turned to see Falgren. " I saw you were in trouble, and i needed t' rescue you. I closed my eyes and thought of you being over here and not in th' room. Next thing i knew, you were rescued!"
Davian's mouth was agape. He had never heard of anyone possessing power to do what Falgren just did. "That's great but i think they are starting to realize what happened," Jowan exclaimed pointing at the guards who were once again alerted to their presence.

"Lets get out of here! Follow me!" Davian turned and ran back the way he had come, with Jowan following close behind and Falgren trailing with the torch. The glowing stones left by the Morrigan continued to shine the way to the exit, as the trio sprinted by them. Gutteral yells and howls hounded them as the Blackstone guards chased them to the exit. The tunnels twisted and turned in seemingly impossible angles. Davian placed his trust in the Morrigan's stones, that they would lead him and his friends safely back to the Tavern exit. They scrambled around the next turn, and rejoiced as they reached the exit. Davain hauled open the massive slabs of oak as they clambered through to safety. Jowan and Davian shoved the doors closed as the guards rounded the corner with a shout of alarm. The doors closed with a boom, and Falgren secured the chain with the lock just as they heard fists hammering on the other side of the door. Suddenly, the pounding stopped and all went silent.

"We're safe," gasped Davian finally catching his breath. "They won't touch us here. Not in a place as public as the tavern."

"We've won!" Shouted Falgren.

"For now we have. Come, we need to inform the Council of what just happened. Lets get upstairs and into the sunlight. I dont think I'll be going into the dark any time soon."

"...and we closed the door to the tunnels, and came directly to see you." Davian finished.
The entire Council of all six Wardens stayed silent. Warm daylight streamed in through the white stone windows of the Temple of Belenus, contrasting the icy reception of the news by the Council. Warden Gawain stared at Davian over tented fingers, Warden Madoc’s eyes shifted back and forth as if to gauge his companion’s reactions.

Warden Aramiss stood and spoke first. "So because the Council recommended patience and chose to evaluate the situation, you thought it wise to rush off and not only endanger your life and the life of a fellow Warden, but to endanger the life of a child as well?"

"No... That’s not what I meant to do..." stammered Davian.

"And in the process of risking these innocent lives, you led the Blackstone Cabal directly to our doorstep in Lir’s Reach?"

"Well... Actually..."

"And I suppose you obtained no information about this 'Marwolaeth' ?”

Davian went silent, as Jowan and Falgren stood by looking uncomfortable at the exchange taking place in front of them.

"Enough!" thundered Aramiss. "You have acted rashly and have directly defied the Council of Wardens. You have brought irreparable harm to us with this stunt. You are dismissed to your quarters until your punishment is decided."

"As you wish… Your grace," Davian said icily through gritted teeth, as he turned on his heel and stormed out of the council chamber.

"That boy lacks patience.” Aramiss shook his head. “I hope his training has not been a failure," Aramiss lamented. "Warden Jowan, step forward. How fare you?"

"I’m a bit weary sir. The last few days have been hard."

"That is understandable, given all that has taken place. I will not delay you any further. Please accompany Warden Galwyn to the healers.” Aramiss nodded toward the exit.” Our druids there will tend to your wounds."

"Thank you sir," said Jowan wearily as he slowly made his way to join the Warden waiting for him at the temple door.

"Falgren," stated Warden Aramiss as he rose from his seat. Falgren scuffed his feet apprehensively as he awaited his fate. "You are to accompany Warden Madoc to properly complete your assessment. You will also attempt to reproduce this 'Rescue' spell that you have found. "

Warden Madoc rose from his seat, and strode to the boy's side. Madoc put a hand on Falgren's shoulder, as the pair walked into the blinding sunlight streaming through the doorway. "Come, my boy. I anticipate great things in your future." The door closed behind them.

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