Part 7: One

8 to Verdant Sun, Voelis

Here’s the rest of tonight’s story. We gathered ourselves together and ascended the stairs again. I led the way with Actaeon and Torag, indicating where Briar and I had scouted ahead. The first door was wear we heard the goatlings bleating. The second door had nothing but silence beyond it. Actaeon decided to investigate the first door, barging through, and Torag followed him. I heard a shriek as two strange women attacked him. I don’t know how to describe them, other than they looked human. But they also looked like the satyrs down the stairs. Much later, I learned that they are called Manaeds.

The women attacked Actaeon with large knifes, injuring him and throwing him back. Clio and Shadow had already moved forward and entered the room, too. I heard that awful bleating sound again. I followed and threw a cone of fire at the monsters. But I… I didn’t know the goatlings in here were… babies.

One of the Manaeds slashed at me with the knife. I guess the injury snapped me out of a daze or something. I warded myself and ran back out to the hallway. I am so weak, I just sat there and stared at my hands. The commotion continued in the room while Actaeon, Clio, and Torag fought the monsters. Shadow and Briar were in the hallway with me. Shadow kept saying something to me, but I couldn’t hear it.

I killed those goatling babies. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see straight. I just looked at my hands.

It was so strange, or funny maybe, what got my attention back to the situation. I guess the last Manaed standing cast a spell or something because Briar suddenly began… dancing. I guess you could call it dancing. It was a confusion spell of some kind because Briar couldn’t control it. Shadow actually laughed, and his laugh brought me out of my daze. I stood up and went to the door frame, fired a blast of magic, and the Manaed fell back.

I am grateful for Shadow. He’s a keeper, Heath. He knelt next to me when I sat down again, wiping the tears from my eyes. He told me that the goatlings were evil, though I contested that they were just children. The goatlings were servants of Khar’shan and were being raised on human flesh, with bloodlust in their education and murder in their training. Shadow comforted me and lifted me up, telling me we had to go on.

I am grateful for Briar and Clio, too. Remember when I wrote about hugging Clio after she was attacked by the harpies? Clio hugged me this time as I cried, though I suspect she hasn’t done much hugging in her life. She smells like trees and earth and flowers. As awkward as Clio’s embraces are, it felt so good to be in her arms, even if just for a moment. Briar knelt down by me, too, gently reminding me how many people we saved from a cruel fate by taking the goatlings out. She’s right, of course. For as long as I’ve known her, I always sensed Briar’s disdain for mortals. This time, she was so gentle and kind.

Briar found more sleeping kids, all still under some magical effect from Demetria. She closed the door and left them to continue sleeping. Our group moved further down the hallway, and I pointed at the last two doors. The one in front of us was from where the smell came. I assume it was a kitchen, and Torag’s nose agreed. The door around the corner led to where Briar and I had heard female voices. We decided to look into the kitchen first.

A lot happened in only a few seconds. Actaeon opened the door and we were met with the nauseating smell of cooked human flesh. Two goatlings were preparing the bodies of a few of the young men. While unknown to me, I recognized that what they were doing was a ritual almost immediately. The intricate carvings, the bones on the tables, the fires in braziers. It was all indicative of a ritual. Clio recognized it, too, later telling us that it had something to do with the fact that only the young men had been killed and cooked. The young women were not here. Clio, with a look of disgust on her face, leapt over Torag and Actaeon, conjuring her purple energy blades and slicing through the two goatlings. And all was quiet again.

Okay, so here’s the part where we finally met Demetria. Torag, Actaeon, and Clio went beyond the kitchen to keep looking around. Briar and Shadow went down the hall where the womens’ voices were. I had stayed back in the hallway and I wish I had hidden myself. When Briar tried to open the door, it was pulled open by a large, six-armed cyclops. It was a gygan, one of the race that was supposedly killed off by Estor Arkelander. It stepped aside as we heard a soft, soothing voice that called us in and asked us to take our seats at the table.

Briar, Shadow, and I entered. The gygan stood behind us at the door, staring intently at each of us. The table was laid out with platters and plates everywhere, though they were full of the stinking meat of the poor young men. The centerpiece of the table was an emerald horn, the Horn of Selesnya. At the far end of the table were four of the young women, looking uncomfortably between us and the woman at the head of the table. Demetria was a nymph like Clio and the Oracle, and just as beautiful. From the other door, Torag and Actaeon entered. But where was Clio?

Demetria and Briar exchanged words. Clio told her about the ritual, and Briar tried to explain to Demetria that what she was doing was wrong. This ritual was an abomination to all feykind and mortals alike, but Demetria just smiled. She explained that her sister was the dryad to whom belonged the tree in the other chamber. Dragonlord Estor Arkelander had cut it down and used it as the mast for the Gjallarhorn. For that sin, all mortals would pay. Demetria’s young women would be promised a blessed life as they became fey like her.

Torag shouted, interrupting. “You’re eating human flesh, you fools!” Clio, who had been hiding in the hallway and observing the situation, telepathically told each of the girls the same thing. Voices rang in their heads and the young women understood what was happening. They leapt out of their chairs with a shriek, tackling Demetria and demanding answers. Demetria could only shout.

The gygan drew its weapons and charged. It threw two javelins, impaling two of the girls and ending their short lives. It reminded me of… never mind. I reacted, summoning the Morninglord’s power to me and ripping into the gygan with holy power. Despite the strike against it, the gygan lumbered forward. Shadow fired from his bow, but the gygan raised one of its two shields, deflecting the shot. Briar tried to stun the gygan with a spell, but the gygan charged through it, striking down Briar in a splash of blood.

Actaeon rushed at Demetria, jabbing her with a spear tip and telling her to call off the gygan, but Demetria just laughed. She cast a spell at me, Clio, and Shadow, wrapping us briefly in magical vines. She tried a charming spell on Actaeon, but Actaeon just growled, “Out of my head, witch!”

Deflecting a dart from Torag, the gygan reached Actaeon. Actaeon tried to block the strikes, but the gygan was too fast. It grabbed Actaeon and impaled him, holding his limp body in the air while his blood dripped down his legs and onto the floor. The young women were stunned, not knowing what to do. Clio called to them to run away. They did so, releasing Demetria.

In an instant, Demetria moved through the table, appearing far away from the gygan and Actaeon. Torag ran at her to attack, but she raised up her arms and cried out, “Not me! You wouldn’t hurt me, would you?” Whatever magic she had in her, it worked. Torag stopped his attack. He snorted loudly, then shouted again, running onto the table and flying at the gygan. He slammed repeatedly into the gygan’s shields, but couldn’t land a blow. Demetria’s charm was messing with him.

As Torag ran, we noticed that he had accidentally knocked the Horn of Selesnya off the table! I stepped over it and cast a pair of spells. One to raise Briar, and another to burn the flesh of the gygan. The gygan roared, but did not let go of Actaeon. It raised its spears again, but Shadow had darted forward, magically healing Actaeon. The warrior deflected the attack and raised his own spear, piercing the gygan deep in the chest. Its blood mixed with Actaeon’s on the ground. The gygan recoiled, releasing Actaeon, and Actaeon fell to the ground, panting from his wounds.

Briar, alive and angry, had shapeshifted into a velociraptor and scampered away from the gygan. She hid under the table out of his sight, waiting to strike. When Actaeon stabbed the gygan and fell down, Briar made her attack. The gygan was still standing, partially held up by the spear in its belly. Briar ran up the spear and hissed, slashing and biting wildly at its throat. The gygan went pale as the blood rushed from its neck and it fell back, collapsing heavily on the ground, dead.

But Demetria! We forgot about Demetria! As we looked back, Clio was under attack. She tried to crawl away from Demetria but couldn’t get away. Demetria’s eyes were black and her voice was not her own. The twisted voice raged about Clio’s doom, promising torture and pain before death. Clio tried to reach the Horn but couldn’t. In a splash of blood, Clio lay dying on the ground as Demetria raised her weapon again.

Torag, charmed as he was, thankfully still saw Clio as an ally. He fed Clio a magical potion, healing her and bringing breath back to her lungs. Demetria raged again. “No, not her! Get me out of here!” she commanded. Torag complied, pushing her away towards the door. I spun a little miracle spell, slamming the doors behind them to trap them.

Clio tried to teleport away but Demetria, her eyes a deep pool of darkness and madness, followed, clubbing her again and again and again.

And Clio died.

I wasn’t fast enough. Not strong enough. I’m just… not enough.

But something else happened. A wisp of shadow enveloped my friend, and she was made whole again. Not dead. Not…

Something was wrong with that spell. It didn’t come from Demetria. Someone else cast that. I recognized that spell. That damned priest refused… Someone very powerful wanted Clio alive. And not for good reason. Because Demetria hissed, “That’s one.”

Briar, shifting back to her true form, howled something in feyspeech. She leapt onto the table and charged, swinging her staff in a wide arc. It snapped violently against Demetria’s head, knocking her sideways and away from Clio. With a quick move, Briar kicked Demetria and swung again. This time, she wrapped the staff around Demetria’s neck, holding her up from the ground.

Torag was still under her spell, and he tried to come to Demetria’s aid. Shadow tackled him, pinning the minotaur to the ground. I ran to Clio, using the last of my magic to heal her. I cried again as I helped her up, supporting her as she stood. She was confused and exhausted. But above all else, she was furious. Clio just stared at Demetria. Just stared. Tears were on her face. And mine. And Briar’s.

A moment passed in silence, except Actaeon’s heavy breathing. Torag relaxed as the magic finally wore off. Angrily, Clio pushed herself away from me and grabbed Demetria’s club. She struck Demetria’s hand, breaking the fingers. Demetria let out a howl as Clio pressed the club onto the bones. Clio quietly asked, “Why?”

A lot of words were exchanged here, and they’re horrible. Clio is destined to die by Khar’shan. But a scaled book of the dead explains the reason. The Fates will direct Clio to that book, but Demetria promises that Clio will die long before that happens. And Demetria takes great relish in this. She serves Khar’shan, freely and happily.

Shadow had released Torag and approached. He saw something glint on Demetria’s finger when Clio broke it. He pried an ornate silver ring off and put it in Demetria’s face. “How did you come by this? It is a family heirloom, and it belongs to me!” But Demetria wouldn’t say anything, other than her goatlings brought it to her from Shadow’s empty home. Shadow stomped away, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

Demetria’s eyes went black again, and she began thrashing against Briar. She clawed and kicked, screaming that she’ll kill us all. Clio stepped back, trembling and holding back tears again. Actaeon stood up and nodded to me. I understood what he meant. I ushered the two young women out of the room as I heard Shadow draw his sword. I didn’t want these girls to see Demetria die.

I led the girls downstairs to Dia, Corinna, and Solstrate. Dia tried to talk to me, but I honestly cannot remember what she was saying. My head was swimming with the thoughts of you and Clio. I can’t bear this, Heath. I can’t do this. Though I didn’t really hear her words, I just liked having Dia there with me. She spoke so kindly, the same that Briar and Shadow had done. I guess I remember her telling me to breath.

My companions came down the stairs. Briar carried Clio on her back and helped Actaeon walk, a sight until now unseen. Actaeon was still gravely injured and was extremely pale, but his arms were full of spears recovered from the gygan. Torag and Shadow carried some trinkets in their arms, recovered from the bedchamber where Demetria slept.

We decided to finally rest after our labors. Briar explained to the satrys and dryad what had happened, and they were relieved to know that Demetria’s campaign against mortals was at an end. The satyr infatuated with Briar gave her some more flowers before leaving the temple. Corinna and Solstrate said that the rest of the young men and women would need to sleep off the effects of Demetria’s powers.

Everyone laid down to rest in the soft grass of the cave below the Mossy Temple. Clio, though, sat on the stump of the Tree, quiet as ever. I… I felt like I needed to say something. I knew I couldn’t ask her if she was okay. None of us could be okay after all of this. But I offered to help her if she needed it. I told her that you had perished in a similar way, and that I was so sorry I couldn’t do anything. I’m surprised that Clio gave me a small, brief, beautiful smile. She said she had always been doomed for a long time and was still coming to terms with it. Clio thanked me for trying to comfort her and closed her eyes, lost in meditation.

I won’t fail you again, Clio.

I spoke with Dia, too. Well, not much speaking happened. I kind of just collapsed into her arms, embracing her and thanking her for believing in us. She rubbed my back and said some kind words to me that I barely heard.

Torag sat with his back to the wall, rubbing his temples with pained, closed eyes.

Briar was hunched alone, twirling the flower from the satyr. The owl-squirrel form of Herkus chittered quietly in her hair.

Shadow knelt by the stream with the ring from his family, quietly weeping.
Actaeon drank some water and washed his wounds, still breathing heavily from the injuries.

Clio sat quietly on the tree, though I could still see her tremble.

Dia silently wrote in her book. The quill I bought her was still in her hands, scratching softly across the pages.

And I laid down with my blanket. I am shaking, but I am not cold.

7 to Verdant Sun, Voelis

Well, Heath, I feel much better, but I think I could still use some more sleep. Everyone seemed to feel that way. With no more goatlings threatening us, the Mossy Temple wasn’t as threatening anymore. I can see beauty in it. The moss, leaves, and vines growing across it have a natural elegance that I could not see last night. But that’s understandable, I suppose. There aren’t creatures in here threatening to eat me.

I awoke to the sounds of Briar and Clio harvesting plants from the Tree and mushrooms from the corridor. Corinna and Solstrate had managed to convince all of their friends to return to Altea with us. I say convince because the lingering effects of the late Demetria’s spell were still not fully worn off. Nevertheless, they all agreed to leave the temple.

While Briar and Clio were working, I filled in Dia on the deeds of the previous night. She had guessed most of what happened, but was most interested in the fight against Demetria. Actaeon had been sharpening his spears all morning. Shadow sat quietly by the stream, not speaking to anyone.

Torag was looking through the trinkets recovered from Demetria’s room. There were a set of necklaces, rings, and gems, likely taken from Demetria’s previous victims. They had also found a strange tome wrapped in human flesh. Torag offered it to me if I was interested, so I went to try to read it. The language wasn’t anything I could speak or read, so I showed it to Clio and Briar instead.

They could read it as it was written in their fey language, Sylvan. It was a record of Demetria’s sister and how Arkelander had killed her by cutting down the tree. He used it for a mast on the Gjallarhorn, just as Demetria had said. Demetria, stricken with grief, blamed mortals for the wrongs in the Emerald Isles and swore vengeance. The titan Khar’shan heard her cries and offered her great power and knowledge in exchange for fealty. Demetria’s deeds were awful. Clio and I were right about the rituals she and the goatlings were performing. Explicit instructions for converting mortal women into hybrid fey monsters were written in the book. The women would feed on the prepared bodies of the men. They became the Manaeds, the women we fought yesterday.

Briar tore out a page from the book (explaining to Clio and me that it was a potion recipe) and set fire to the book. I admit I wasn’t thrilled to lose the book. I wanted to learn to speak Sylvan like Clio and Briar, but I guess I didn’t want to learn it from this horrible tome. The idea of carrying a book wrapped in human skin was appalling. I will have to remember to ask Dia if she can recommend a language book for me when we get to Altea.

After a few hours, Actaeon and Torag looked well enough to travel. We set off for Altea with the surviving kids. I will carry the Horn of Selesnya. I’ll write more later.

6 to Verdant Sun, Voelis

A lot of things just happened. It’s morning now, and I don’t know how that happened. Yesterday, we arrived in Altea just as the sun had gone down. Thankfully, I was able to complete the Sacrament of Sunset just in time. The kids all went to their homes. Thericles, the keeper of the God King’s vineyards, gave us a Javelin of Lightning as thanks for saving Corinna. Dia ushered us back to the Dragon’s Tooth Inn for rest. We gathered in a large room and decided to drink from the Horn of Selesnya, completing the first of our three heroic tasks.

After we all drank, my head began to swim. I can usually hold my drink well enough, but something was strange about this wine. Everything went dark around me. I closed my eyes, trying to shrug off the alcohol. When I opened my eyes again, I was on a ship in a vast, cerulean sea. The sky was bright with sunlight above me, warming my body.

I beheld the ship. It was a long and ornate galley with tall masts reaching up to the sky. Ahead of me were rows and rows of sailors, each holding enormous oars and working to glide the ship across the waters. But something was wrong. The sailors were gaunt, gray, skeletal, dead. They looked to me, awaiting their orders. I looked down and saw a brass compass in my hand, pointing me to the horizon.

I woke with a start. Small rays of sunlight were coming in the window now. It was morning, as I said. I lay on the floor of the room with a pillow under my head and a blanket over my body. My companions were here, too. We all awoke at the same time. We looked upon each other, knowingly. We had shared the vision.

Dia was pacing incessantly in the room, worried over us. It was she who had given us the pillows. Her platinum hair was a mess, wrought with concern for our sudden unconsciousness. We related the story, and she confirmed that we shared a vision of the Gjallarhorn, Arkelander’s ship, crewed by his undead sailors. In our hands was the Antikythera, a legendary compass that could navigate without error in the seas of the Emerald Isles.

A new task was laid before us. Reclaim the Gjallarhorn.

Aesop, the priest at the Dragonshrine behind the palace, might know more about the Horn of Selesnya. Perhaps he could explain what had happened when we took a draught of the wine. Perhaps he knows a way to free Herkus from the spell on him.

We gathered our things and set off. I’ll write more when it happens.