Morning Thoughts

What scares you so?
Your insecurity drives you
You take out your anger
To hurt those you never met.
You give voice to the fears,
They lurk in shadows
Afraid of being hurt
Not understanding the irrational
Longing for safety

Look out to those that suffer
You need not feel it to sympathize
If I am wrong,
Will my reaction be the same?
You lash out with power
I stop and wonder what I missed

Chapter 17

Oren and Martell went out the gates of Abbysta. Martell reminded him that they needed to find the temple for Varelle in addition to scouting the area. They started with walking the perimeter of the place, looking out through the woods to see if they saw a structure that matched what they were hunting. With everything overgrown and tree roots that had peaked above the ground and sunk back in, it was a slow paced march around the outside of the keep. They were fortunate in that the ground was dry, as mud would have prolonged the trek. Three quarters of the way around they spotted the clearing where the ogres had made camp. The place still had a fire pit and some crude lean-to structures, but no signs anything had recently camped here. From here they could see what looked like a small stone structure with old trees growing above it. It reminded them of the Avo temple, though this time they were ash trees and not oak.
The two went over to the temple; the front was open and let in enough light to see the altar. It was eerie how similar the two temples’ interiors were, save for the lack of candles in this one. Oren went and placed down the bowl. He had Martell pour the water into the bowl. Martell chanted the prayer she was instructed. When finished, they exited the temple as they had been instructed. They waited, watching as a fog filled the inside of the building. Then it started flowing out the door. As it exited, they saw a candle light emanating from inside. Out walked a woman with short dark hair and brown eyes, dressed in a white dress and ivory robes.
“Thanks to you and Varelle I am finally free. I am Tabia, the eighty-third priestess to Varelle. I have been lost among the spirits for so long.” She ran over and embraced Martel. “I knew Rowenn would be the one to free me as Varelle said she would.”
“My apologies, but Rowenn was not able to do so. I am Martell, her sister.”
“I see it now,” Tabia spoke. “My eyes are still adjusting to all this.”
“And what are you to do now?” Oren asked. “We are not staying here at the temple nor at Abbysta long.”
“My job is the goddess’s will as her priestess. I will not return to Avo, as there is only a priestess already there. I shall stay at her temple tonight and await her inspiration.”
Oren and Martell headed back into Abbysta after finishing the patrol on the outside. Teman and Devlin had finished clearing out the second floor and moved up on the third. They had gathered a decent amount of loot to carry out of the stronghold. Their plan was to collect, then evaluate, and then finally cache what they could not carry and come back later for it. They were certain it would take time for word to circulate that the place was free of dangers. And it was just as likely some other problem would move in here with its prior tenant being around.
As daylight started to come to an end, the quartet turned toward adjusting the doors at the entrance as best they could to keep out nighttime visitors. They actually swung shut pretty well, though there was still a gap between them. The four would take turns standing guard while the others rested.
Oren was woken up for the third watch. He was not sure he would get back to sleep afterwards, though staying awake would be just as trying. He added some wood to the fire, and the shadows renewed their dance along the walls. He paced around the yard in to both stay alert and stay warm. This was not how he preferred to spend this time of year. He was starting to long for his cozy house and its warm hearth. He closed his eyes picturing happy memories from last year curled up…except they were not happy, he was feeling alone. A familiar smell came back to him, as he heard a rapping on the door. He walked over to see who was calling, peering out the window he saw a trio outside his house. It was two men and an older lady.
Oren shook his head, he must have dozed off. But had they found him again? He scanned the shadows around the fire and saw nothing. He grabbed a burning branch and lifted it up to cast light at the gates. Nothing was there either. Perhaps it was just fatigue getting to him. He looked over at an hourglass that Teman had found and they were using to keep track of time. He was only halfway through the granules.
The sound echoed against the stone. At first, Oren thought the sound was from outside, but now was filled with uncertainty to if it was in the courtyard or not. He held still trying to listen for another noise. It sounded as if something was walking about outside the walls. He listened to the sound of claws of some sort scraping along wood and stone. Oren walked back over to the fire and grabbed his staff while still holding the branch in his other hand. He then slowly paced over to Martell and tapped her lightly with the base of the staff. There was another sound of wood creaking outside the hold. Oren could see Martell was now awake. He proceeded to wakeup Devlin and Teman in similar fashion, quietly nudging each awake while watching the door.
Oren saw something reptilian look in at the camp through the gap in the gates. He saw the eye and then a bit of snout. Then a second set leaning over from the other door. He motioned left and right, hoping to indicate to the others that there were on both sides of the gate. The rest of the party had slowly been setting ready for a conflict. Martell had about half her armor on and sword in hand. Teman had his bow at the ready and Devlin looked like he had slipped a bit into the shadows to the side.
The two lizard creatures pushed at the gate trying to get in. The gates creaked at the weight pushing on them but held against the push. They then scratched at the gates and let out a trilling screech. This was followed by several more hits and scratches at the gate. The bracing that had been done earlier in the evening on the gates did its job keeping them at bay. This went on for a while before they gave up and went to go find something easier to play with.
“Salamanders,” said Devlin after a bit. “At least that’s what they looked like; though they are not usually nocturnal. They also were not breathing fire. But this is all based on what I have heard, not witnessed.”
“I think you are correct, from what I could make out through the door,” Martell commented. “But now back to sleep. Who knows what we will deal with tomorrow?”
Teman stayed up for the rest of the night, he let Oren call it quits on his watch early.

Chapter 16

The three of them made short work of the ogres. Afterward, it took them a little while to find where Devlin was hiding. Devlin was a couple inches taller than Teman. He had a younger face than Teman, but the same black hair and goatee. After they were certain of no more ogre threat in the area, Oren and Martell retrieved their horse and the quartet continued to Abbysta. Teman and Devlin were amenable to the terms of treasure found. They also let Oren and Martell know that there were more forts and ruins in these woods than had been previously thought. Though some predated the Drémore kingdom, others were from times after the kingdom and various forces and bandits that have sought to make the woods their home.
Teman and Devlin were treasure seekers, in their words. Others may not be so kind in their description of the work, putting them little above thieves. They were currently employed by the trade house Tristan in the acquisition of artifacts and curiosities from the old Drémore Kingdom. Devlin was Teman’s apprentice to the business and catching on quickly. They had lists of items that were highly demanded, but everything else was hit or miss. In high demand were art and jewels, this was followed by weapons and armor. Enchanted objects were anybody’s guess as they could be cursed or it could take some time to figure out what they did.
They camped in the woods that evening. It was then that Devlin began the more direct questions, “Martell, you have the crest of Velgrey on you. Are you of that house or are you employed by them? “
“I am employed by them.” She answered plainly.
“Wait, I do know you.” Devlin said looking at Oren, “You run a book shop in Aleto. I had seen you there when I was in there doing research on locations. I did not think your type would go out and actually retrieve their own merchandise. You are after something, what is it?” The growing excitement was evident in Devlin’s voice.
“That is a bit rude,” Teman interjected, correcting his cohort. “You never ask that of a fellow traveler unless he volunteers it.”
“I normally wouldn’t be out here,” smiled Oren. “You are the types who normally keep me stocked. But I got the bug to actually see where these tomes and papers lay. I often wonder if you just retrieve a book at a time and go back when you need more money or if they are truly that scarce. I am sorry for not being to open earlier about it. This is my first venture outside the big city and it is so much to take in. I have had a few rough encounters already so I did not know how much to let you know.”
“Quite alright,” Teman added. “First off, books you would want to pay for are often scarce. Most of what we find has fallen victim to time and decay. Secondly, I am fine with the deception. After all, we have to all protect ourselves out here. Ogres are not the only thing one encounters in the woods. The ogres did a good job of scaring off a fair amount of the wildlife. But I am worried as to what we find inside Abbysta.”
“What do you think would be in there?” asked Martell.
“Well, if it is not sealed, then who knows what has decided to take up residency. The ogres outside mean it is not occupied by any bandit group. If it is still sealed, which I think is a remote possibility, and then there could be any array of traps and wards. There are ways to detect them, but the hard part is disarming them. That is what takes time.”
“Do you have much experience in disarming them?” asked Oren.
“Teman does. He is teaching me the ins and outs of them. Though he will always say I am better than him. If we encounter any we can show you what we know. Hopefully he won’t need to impart too much knowledge on you,” said Devlin.
“You have a dexterity I lack and an affinity to understanding design kid,” retorted Teman
The rest of the travel over to Abbysta was uneventful. Devlin and Teman were right, that the wildlife was kind of scarce. This made catching something for dinner a challenge, and left them relying on their packed rations more than they liked.
The stronghold rose out of the ground towering three to four stories tall. It was hard to tell where the structure started and the forest ended with how overgrown the place was. The large wooden gates had been battered in. The splintered doors had lost their edges due to decay, but still clung to their hinges. The stone work looked to be of similar construction to the old parts of Avo, with holes patched in with stone and bricks as they had been damaged. The wood supports in many areas still looked strong enough to support weight, but not that they would stand a modern day siege. Looking past the doors, they could see a courtyard overgrown in thorns and weeds. It felt as if the forest was struggling to reclaim the interior in contrast to the outside which was covered in vines and plants growing from the cracks.
Teman took the lead. He grabbed a sturdy piece of wood and poked around at the ground just past the door. Slowly checking each stone, there was a sudden click noise followed by some creaking of ancient mechanics in the works. This was followed by the sound of something releasing. “Trap was already set off,” spoke Teman. He motioned to a hole in the wall where something should have shot out. “Simple trap; it occasionally has an arrow or dart left in it. Most times the poison has decayed and just stings briefly.”
They made their way past the doors, taking in the courtyard. On the far end, based on the plants growing there they could see that there had been a garden inside. Some vegetables were past their prime still on the plants. There were two stairways, one to the left and one to the right, leading to the upper levels. There were doors to several rooms off the courtyard. Some looked as if they had been forced open, others still sat closed and intact. Those were the rooms that Teman and Devlin wanted to check first. They methodically started clockwise around the first floor was as good as any direction to take on these. Meanwhile, Martell drew her shorter sword and started to focus on it starting in the same side as the two men had gone. She moved the blade at a slow rate first at the door they were going to open then to the right slowly.
At the door, Devlin pulled out a crystal and started mumbling something as he held it out. The door started to shake and then let out a hiss. Teman reached out to the handle, and then drew back as if he thought better. He went back and grabbed the branch he had been using earlier and pushed the handle down to open the door. Nothing out of the ordinary happened as he pushed the door open. They looked in the room, and saw it filled with miscellaneous equipment. There were some old spears and a couple suits of armor. Devlin pointed over to the wall; there were some old banners from the Drémore Kingdom. Below that was a statue of one of the knights decked out in full armor, on the top of his pike was a serpent’s head. Oren looked through the couple chests in the room, there were a few old coins and a hand held telescope. Devlin and Teman, took what they thought had value leaving the arms and armor behind. Martell prodded at the armaments and was disappointed. A part of her had hoped to find something to add to her collection of blades.
Devlin and Teman continued checking rooms on the first floor. Martell had meanwhile moved up to the second floor, still slowly checking for something. She had not said a word since entering the trancelike state she was in. Oren poked around in the rooms that were already open, looking for anything that may pique his own curiosity. In what must have been a room or office for the commander there was a map of the Drémore Empire. Far better detail than he ever saw, but too large for him to take. It had numerous scrawls of text across it. The notes seemed to reference troop movements or camps. His eyes lit up when he saw the name Erridda on the map in the direction they planned to travel. Underneath was written a word he did not recognize. He called for the three to come meet up with him; maybe one of them would know this language.
Martel and Devlin looked at it and shook their heads no. Teman looked at it and thought for a bit. “That is a term the Drémore Kingdom used to refer to frost sprites. If that is where you are headed, you had best watch out for them. Sure, we are talking hundreds of years since the empire, but once they settle in to one of these places it takes an Exterminator to get them all out. I do not know any myself. But the stronghold Ferneray fell to sprites and is still infested with them to date. I would love to see inside that keep, but I am not insane enough to try and go past the sprites there.”
“That is the word, but it might not mean an infestation. It could also refer to a troop regiment with that banner,” commented Martell. “This place has had several visitors over the years. It may be a warning about here, I have sensed something mischievous here but I am still trying to divine a location. It has to be on the third or fourth floor, the first two are clear. This may be why the place has not been fully looted.”
Teman thought on Martell’s words before speaking, “I agree. The traps and wards we are deactivating would have easily been easily bypassed by simple skills or triggered by someone bent on forcing their way in. Not that there has been any wealth really to be found so far.”
“Teman do you or Devlin have anything to protect you from the influence of sprites?” Martell inquired.
“Yes, though as I am sure you are aware, it is just as often what they already have controlled when they meet you as them controlling one of us.”
“Good, that means we can proceed with finding the sprites here before any more hunting. Oren, stay with the horse and our goods. The three of us will continue searching the last two floors for it.”
Oren milled about where they had cleaned up in the courtyard. He was fine not getting into another melee. The one ogre was more than enough bloodshed to last him the year. He waited down in the courtyard, the horse tide firmly to a tree that had grown in the middle of it. He followed the progress of the three as they rounded each tier. The third floor yielded nothing and they made their way up another level. It was when they entered a room on the top floor that Oren noticed a hawk that had been circling in the sky above the whole time the three had progressed up the keep. It was now that the bird came, diving down at Oren and the horse, bearing its claws. Oren lifter his staff over his shoulder and wielded it like a bat. He took aim, trying to judge when to swing as the hawk drew in on him.
Oren’s first swing was at air as he missed the bird by a bit. The upside was succeeding in having it miss the horse. It was afterward he realized it was the intended target. Oren could detect a faint aura radiating from the bird as if the spirits were driven to hide from it. That was something he had not noticed before, and would watch in the future. Unfortunately, he did not think this would be the last sprite he would have to deal with.
Hearing the commotion in the courtyard the three were racing down the stairs. They saw Oren fighting a hawk. Martell noticed the tactics of the hawk were more thought out than one would expect. Watching his stance, she also picked up it was not him the hawk was after. After a few parry’s by Oren, Martell realized Oren had caught on to this as well. He was clearly using the spirits to shield the two of them as the Hawk’s offenses at times would be halted a distance form Oren or his staff.
Oren finally had a strike hit the hawk to the ground. Martell bounded over as fast as she could to plunge her sword into the bird. The hawk died quickly, while the sprite writhed trying to free itself from controlling the bird before succumbing to the wound. Devlin and Teman mentioned nothing of Oren’s combat style or how he managed to keep the sprite at bay. They were however quite thankful to be rid of the threat.
Martell retrieved her sword and went back to concentrating. After some more time passed of slowly circling she announced, “There was no further presence she was aware of. Oren and I will make a round outside the hold and make sure there is nothing lurking outside. You can continue with opening up the remaining sealed rooms.”
“I agree, best to play our strengths.” Teman replied. “Come along Devlin we will go up to the second floor, There should be more interesting collections up there.”

Chapter 15

It was the end of the week and they were down in the temple with Rowenn. Oren spoke, “Rowenn, we are going to leave this week and head to Abbysta first and then Erridda. Your training has been highly appreciated. Thank the goddess for me.”
“I wish you best of luck. However, if you want to truly thank the goddess you will do the following task.” She went over to a pedestal and grabbed a bowl. “There is a shrine near Abbysta; it will look similar to what you see above ground here in Avo. You will need to place this on the altar and fill it with this water.” She handed Oren a canteen full of water. “Martell knows the prayer to chant once you do this. You should leave the temple once this is done as the water will turn to a fog and purify her temple. I would go do it myself, but upon your departure I will need to be here to protect this temple. Someone is not pleased that Varelle’s name was spoken in their house.” Rowenn glared over at Martell.
Oren and Martell left with their full belongings in Avo the following morning. Oren told Eston that they were going, but would not mention where or when they would return. Eston expressed his concern, but seemed at ease that Martell was going along. In his parting words, he warned the first snow was about a week away. They should try to be back before that happened.
Martell had done a great job restoring the armor to its former glory. She wore the breastplate and parts covering her upper arms and legs. The rest was with the pack horse they were bringing with them. She was again wearing the Velgrey tabard over the armor. At the departure from the Velgrey trade house, she gave Oren a gift of a heavy cloak. It was a deep forest green color, with a wyvern stitched in gold on the back was. The edges were lined in brown fur. It only took a day on the road before Oren was thankful for Martell’s gift. The cloak did wonders for reducing the bite of the cold gusts that crept up.
It was on the second day they left the protection of the wards. It was here that Oren noted his cloak was changing color to match the surrounding forest. He also noted that wearing it became more comfortable the longer they were out of the wards.
It was also on this day they left the southern road to head in a southeastern direction. If the records were correct, they should find signs indicating the directions to Abbysta the following day. There was what seemed like a natural pathway through the trees in the direction they were headed, despite the undergrowth indicating otherwise. Both of them fluctuated between being intrigued and scared of what may lay ahead at the stronghold.
They spent much of the time trading storied from their own pasts. With all of Martell’s accomplishments, Oren started to feel he had squandered much of his time among books. Martell would later remind him that he had actually had a good life. There were many things which he had taken for granted, like his close family ties, that she would never experience herself.
It was four days till they could see what they presumed was Abbysta peeking out of the woods. They were on top of a ridge looking down to what had probably been a clearing in the past. Now it was as overgrown as the rest of the woods. From what they could see there were no signs of life at the hold. It was Oren that finally saw they would not have a clear run to Abbysta. The movement of ogres had caught his eye. The ogres were a ways off, but in the direction they were headed to reach the stronghold. There were at least two from what he could see; based on his last encounter with them, he was certain it meant more in the area.
He motioned to Martell, pointing out the two shapes he had seen moving back into the cover of the woods. “Yeah I see them, she whispered. This is going to be tricky. I can handle them with the swords. My problem is the ones we don’t see.” They watched for a while before seeing a different two in the woods below, a little closer to the ridge. “That is four problems to work out plus what others may still be unseen.”
Martell handed Oren her knife. “Your staff may parry their blows, but in general you aren’t going to stop one of them till you break their skin. My apologies, but you just don’t have the strength to do it. If you get this knife into one of them, concentrate on the blade and imagine it burning. It probably will give you a sensation like you experience with your ring when you control the spirits. Just remember, you won’t be able to channel spirits and use the knife at the same time.”
They proceeded slowly down from their vantage point, trying to make as little disturbance in the forest as possible. They left the horse and the supplies hidden up there to ease their movement. It was a slow and quiet process. They reached the first two ogres unseen. They were talking about something in their own language. Neither Oren nor Martell had an idea as to what. One of the ogres had what looked like the trunk of an old tree with a few thick branches protruding from it. The other had a crude spear, though it would take at least two men to lift and would probably be used more as a battering ram by them.
The plan of attack was for Oren to distract the ogres and Martell would surprise them from behind. Oren was not keen on being bait, but for lack of a better idea he was willing to do it. He started by making some small noises as Martell separated from him. The noises grew louder until he had the attention of both the ogres. Once he had their attention, he moved away from them making sure they were still interested and following after him. Oren remained out of sight, using ropes to shake branches and misdirect the ogres. His presence was further obscured by the effects of his cloak and its camouflage.
He kept this up till he felt sure that they were far enough away from the second set of ogres. At this point he made his presence obvious to them by hurling a pebble at them. The pebble hit the one with the spear on the cheek, and the ogre spotted him immediately. Thoroughly enraged, he charged in Oren’s direction. The other one, slower to react, fell a few moments later. He was unaware the whole time he was drawing his last breath as Martell’s sword cut through its skin.
The ogre was still charging Oren when it heard the sound of its partner crying in pain. It paused and turned to look back at what had just occurred. It saw Martell finishing her kill. The ogre briefly glanced back in Oren’s direction, but could not locate him. Oren had not moved from where he stood. Rather, the cloak had worked in camouflaging his location. As long as he did not move, the ogre was not going to see him until he stepped on him.
The ogre now confused by what had just happened threw his spear and hit Martell in her off arm. Her armor prevented it from breaking her skin, but Oren had no way of knowing the extent of the pain caused by the hit from here. What he did know was the anger he felt erupting inside from seeing her hit. He broke from his cover and charged with the knife at the ogre. Oren focused all the anger and hurt he felt at the blade as he aimed to lodge it in the lower back of the ogre. The ogre howled in pain as the blade melted through the skin.
Oren would never forget the smell of charred ogre flesh. The smell initially made him want to vomit. He repressed the urge as he jumped back from the body, leaving the knife wedged in. He took a couple steps back as he watched the ogre lurch as he no longer could tell his legs what to do. The ogre made quite a ruckus in the forest as he fell forward.
Oren, still feeding off adrenaline, then ran forward. Mid run he raised his staff back and jumped preparing to bring it down on the ogre’s face. With all the force he could muster, he made contact, cracking the skull. It would not be till some time later that Oren would realize the staff showed no signs of wear from the fight.
The noise caused Oren to stop. Reality coming back as the adrenaline faded to where it had emerged. He breathed a heavy breath realizing he had just killed an ogre.
Martell came running over. When she got to Oren, she put her arms around him and gave him a hug. “You did well, but now we have to get out of here. The other ogres will be running here now.” She pulled her knife out from the ogre. They could hear the rustle of something large coming this way. Martell pulled Oren along as his mind was still grappling with everything that had transpired
The two retreated back from the fight toward the ridge trying not to leave a trace of where they had just moved through. They did not run across the other two ogres, but could hear them shouting in rage over finding the bodies.
“You two are making things a little easier for me.” The words came from a rather short man sitting up on a tree branch. “They are looking for me and my friend. He is around here somewhere; we had split up to make it harder to find us.”
“And why are they looking for you?” asked Oren. “And why not just run?”
“Well we want into the stronghold Abbysta, and I assume it is the same for you. They were camping outside it, and when we tried to sneak by they spotted us. We still want in, but no point in going in if we cannot then leave.” The man quipped back, as he made himself more visible. He stood at four feet tall, had black hair and a goatee. He looked strong enough to handle himself in a fight, but not like he had been in one. “The name is Teman, and my friend, if you see him, is Devlin.”
“My name is Oren. And my companion and I are headed to Abbysta as well. Though we are only using it as a navigational point to other places. You see, I deal in books and thought some of these older keeps may hold something that has yet been plundered. I decided to bring along protection,” he motioned to Martell.
“Indeed. I do see, though you do not look defenseless yourself.” Teman commented.
“Records indicate there are traps and wards on these places. Do you have a way around them?” inquired Martell. She picked up on Oren’s ploy and decided to keep up appearances for now.
“That is Devlin’s responsibility. I do hope he is ok. Not saying I will be of no help, but he is just…better. Would you be willing to team up and take out these last set of ogres?” spoke Teman. He thought for a moment and continued, “We could go a step further and work on getting into Abbysta as well. I would be willing to let you have any books we find at Abbysta and we get the rest.”
“Maps too, we would want maps as well.” Oren replied back, “But we can negotiate later. Let’s get rid of the ogres and find Devlin first.”
“I can agree with that. Young lady, you seem the tactician of the three of us. I have my sword and a bow to lend. How do you want to go about this?”