Chapter 20

Tabia lead the way toward Erridda. Out of the three, she was the only one that had been to the stronghold. The occasional breeze would shake the branches and make them forget that the snow had tapered off around midmorning. The sun stayed hidden between the clouds ruining hopes for a warmer day of travel. As they progressed, the trees themselves had gotten taller and the flora had gotten denser. About midway through the day, Oren picked up on the decline in both visible wildlife and signs of their presence.
A silence was growing as they continued on the path. Tabia and Martell agreed that there was something amiss. Martell did not sense any sprites when Oren asked her to check. Oren did not notice anything different in the spirits. Tabia agreed that something was off, but did not know what. As a precaution, Martell got on her remaining bits of armor.
The trio progressed cautiously with horse in tow. They took turns jumping at the most random of forest noise in anticipation of an ambush. The day ended with no encounter and everyone on edge. It was a restless night that followed.
The next day progressed much like the prior, with the sun remaining hidden all day. It was late afternoon when the menace reared its head. A lone figure emerged some distance ahead of them and spoke, “These are my woods; you must pay to travel through or turn back now.” The voice was gravelly and forced. Two flames appeared above him, they slowly morphed into the shape of ravens on fire.
Oren took in the man’s appearance; he looked as tall as an ogre but far less distinguishable characteristics. It was almost like Senkoo’s skill to hide, but the energy radiated from within him. He was not calling on spirits to aid him. There were two piercing red eyes that glowed at them. “What is your toll for passage?”
“Varelle’s servant.” This time the voice hissed out, its eyes growing larger.
“I am sorry but we cannot part with our companion,” spoke Oren.
“You can’t pass.” The voice changed to back to the more gravelly sounding. The birds of flame moved closer to Tabia. “You must now pay to leave these woods.”
Martell moved closer to Tabia, her swords drawn in a defensive stance.
“We will not pay you any fee or toll for movement from this place.” Oren spoke defiantly. He was trying to figure out his next move.
“Then you will all pay,” it hissed again. The flaming birds dove at Tabia and Martell.
Martell swung at the birds as the closed in, disrupting their flight, but other than that causing no harm to them. They flew past the ladies and then repositioned to attack from two sides at once. The pair dove in at them. Martell swung at one while the other zipped by and seared the Tabia’s robes.
Oren tried to push back whatever spirits were serving their foe, but it had no effect.
“You are the one who drew me to you,” it spoke to Oren. “You woke me from my sleep in these woods and reminded me of what I desire. Now you try to push me away without even a snack.” The voice did not sound like it came from the shadowy figure, but was talking to him in his head.
Oren moved away from the women, trying to have the man’s attention on to himself.
The flaming birds continued their assault on Martell and Tabia. Tabia knelt down and started chanting a hymn to Varelle. The birds dove again at the two but this time stopped short, as if the song was interfering with their desire to continue attacking. Martell took the small distraction as a moment to make sure Tabia’s robes were not on fire. She could see that Tabia’s song contradicted the pain she saw on her face.
The figure moved after Oren hissing, “If you called and have nothing to give us then we will take you.” Within a blink the figure moved next to him. As it raised its arm he saw the hand transform into a blade. The creature swung down at Oren. He countered with his staff, blocking the blade. The blade dented the metal band on the staff. Oren then took a quick step to give him distance to swing with a counter attack. The staff hit the mark, but felt to Oren as if he had hit a pillow.
The attacking birds were slowly weakening in defined shape. With each approach to Tabia’s song, their fire faded in intensity. Martell was uncertain as to how much longer Tabia would keep this up as she could hear breaks in her voice.
Oren’s adversary swung again at him, and Oren tried to call spirits to shield him but none answered his call. He blocked again with his staff.
“You want us sent away, then you call us to do your bidding. You are a confusing human.” The figure hissed. “We are already here, the others fear us. Now spill your blood so we may feed.” There was another swing at Oren. This time distracted by the words spoken to him he was hit in the right arm. The cut left behind was cold and painful.
The birds had dissipated. Before running over to assist Oren, Martell checked on Tabia, confirming she was tired, but okay.
As he looked down at his wound, Oren saw the ring on his hand. He focused as best he could on it, commanding his assailant to back down. It wheeled backward, as if something had pulled it off balance. It raised its arm to strike at Oren again, but Oren commanded it to halt. Mid swing the spirit creature stopped. “You will halt your assault and go back to your slumber.” Oren vocalized.
The creature shuddered as it started to lose shape. “You cannot banish me so easily. I will have my reward for answering your call.” The creature hissed and lurched forward at Oren.
Oren grunted, feeling fatigue from focusing. Blood started to flow from his wound and drip down his hand. “You will retreat back to your slumber and harm no more. No one here will be your payment.”
“Command him to rest in your staff Oren. It will obey.” Martell shouted. Oren looked vexed by the command from her. “Trust me on this. I will explain later.”
The creature looked at Martell, then to Oren. “Do as she says and I will feast on what you provide,” this time going back to its gravely sounding voice.
“I command you to rest in this staff. You will cease your assault and struggles against my friends and I.” Oren spoke as his staff came in contact with the creature. The creature slowly receded in size as Oren repeated his command. Tabia and Martell could see a greenish-white glow coming from the ring on Oren’s hand and the metal binding of the staff.
Once the creature was gone the two went over to Tabia to check on her wounds. Her skin was burned where the birds had touched, but otherwise she was not harmed. “What was that all about?” Tabia asked. “You were acting as if it was talking to you but I heard nothing.”
“Oren, would you care to explain what it was saying?” Martell commented. “I did not hear the words it spoke to you either. But I have read about beings like that.”
“I didn’t know you could not hear it.” Oren said with surprise in his voice. “Apparently it was a creature of spirits. Though, I have never seen one visibly like that before. He was asking for your life in exchange for passage through the woods. When I denied it, it then asked for it to leave the woods. If I understood Martell, it now resides in this staff.”
“You do not know as much as I thought you do Oren,” Martell responded. “When I saw you reading Penumbra of Nature, I thought you were further along than you are. In places where there are no wards there are spirits of great power. These types of spirits are one of the myriad of things wards protect against. In your practice one of your calls to summon spirits close must have reached this one’s ears. In exchange for answering your summons it expected payment. I think its language barrier was the reason it said toll.”
“That explains the conversation,” said Tabia, “But where did it go then?”
“The spirit is now in Oren’s staff. This is similar to an enchantment by an enchanter. I do not know if it is exactly the same. I had heard a channeler could request a spirit to assist him, but had not seen it done before. An enchanter would typically have to forge or craft the staff as he did the enchantment. Normally, this would be done with the assistance of one of a variety of Invoker’s lanterns available. They would then need the artisan or smith present to help with the crafting the final item. It would appear that Oren was able to add the spirit to an existing item and without the lantern. There is far more to enchanting than my summary, but that falls in to knowledge I lack.”
“Do you know how it was able to take a physical manifestation?” asked Oren. “It also may have been multiple spirits. There were two voices that it talked to me in. One was more chaotic and in search of blood while the other was slightly reasonable. It even agreed with Martell’s suggestion to have it rest in the staff.”
“It may have been the power from the multiple spirits that gave it form. But I do not know what allowed that,” responded Martell.
“Much is not understood of the spirits Martell,” spoke Tabia. “They are to be respected for their power according to the teachings of Varelle. It is my understanding that I was dwelling in their realm till you released me. Oren you seem to have an affinity or connection to them, is that correct?”
“Yes.”
“That connection is possibly the same as the first priestess of Varelle had and how she contacted her. Stories tell of her talking to shadows with red eyes, Servants of the Gods. To clarify, they were not the goddess Varelle, nor were they Casapaten, Latl, or Dahl. The gods transcend the spirits as they all use the servants. For the first several priestesses, this skill was mandatory, but things changed as the view of the servants changed. Somewhere around the thirty-fifth priestess, this ability was no longer sought out. It appears in the history that occasionally a priestess may be blessed to also communicate with the servants but for only short periods or times of need.”
“That continued with them after your time as well,” added Martell. “The one-hundred-eleventh priestess is the most recent one to have had the power. She was seen by many as the reason for the Temple of Avo being spared when the town was pillaged by The Mountain King when the Drémore Vales attempted to break from Iseb.”
“I would have guessed Varelle’s continuation in its use. I was never granted that favor of hers. I am still left with no knowledge as to why she has me guide you to Erridda. What I last recall of Erridda is the tall walls and the arrival of a fresh garrison of troops from Drémore Castle. I had been summoned to give Varelle’s blessing on the stronghold with the completion of construction. There was a kingdom to the southeast called Timus after the ruling family. At the time they completed the stronghold, Timus had a new king on the throne and he had already declared war on two of his neighbors. The Drémores were afraid they would turn north next.”
“They never did turn north,” Martell responded. “The kingdom of Timus was overrun with a plague from one of their campaigns south. It came back with the soldiers and spread from there. Drémore was so afraid of it reaching his kingdom that trade was cut off with Timus. There are accounts of anyone arriving from there being killed and the body burned. It was a sad state of affairs, if true. The kingdom of Timus fell apart from there. It is now several baronies and principalities, but they have not unified since that time. “

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Chapter 19

The clearing they stopped at was large enough for the three to spread out and sleep with a fire going. Martell liked that there were a few downed trees to act as short walls and block the wind from two sides. Oren was able to catch a rabbit for dinner. While they prepared it and the fire, Tabia chanted a prayer over the camp asking for her goddess’s blessing and protection.
Oren took the first watch. Uneventful, it allowed him to finish reading the Meditations on Umbra and start Penumbra of Nature. The new book theorized that out in the wild there were far more spirits to call to your assistance, despite not being able to sense their presence. Further, sometimes you could seek out a spirit that may be more inclined to assist in the task you desire to accomplish. For example, if one wanted to send a message a long distance, charging the right spirit could cut the transmission time down or could delay the message to the point it may not be delivered in the recipient’s lifetime. Finally, he stopped on an entry that theorized, if a method were deciphered on how to talk to the spirit directly then the person could get a spirit to do anything he imagined as soon as he found the one capable of doing the task. These were all great ideas to Oren, but far beyond what he felt capable of. He would for now focus on being able to see those spirits which may not be readily seen and focus on calling them close and repelling them back.
Martell was woken up to relieve Oren. “Time for you to watch over the rest of us while we sleep”
“Already?” Martell commented groggily.
“Yes, you are as bad at getting up in the middle of the night as Sonia was.” Oren sat down near Martell.
“Really? You are going to compare me to your wife?”
“You would have liked her,” Oren gave a slight smile. “She wanted me to go into my father’s business. I was set in my ways and comfort was an easier route than the adventure on the roads. I also didn’t want to be away from her.” Oren paused taking a deep breath. “Looking back I think she would have gone with me, but I never asked her.”
“You should have. The roads are not as bad when you travel in a group with others.” Martell sat up and moved a little closer. “In large caravans, and definitely with what I saw of your father’s, the two of you would have been safe.”
Oren got silent, her words pounded on the pain of regrets he still held tightly to.
“She would be proud of you now. You have done what she requested, and more. Not all men are suited to leave their home. You are no longer the humble shop keeper I met back in Aleto.”
“I suppose I am not.” Oren went over and tossed some more wood on the camp fire and then got into his bed roll. “You are not the same person I met in Aleto either.”
Martell thought for a moment and was going to add to his comment but Oren had drifted off to sleep.
While on her watch for the night, Martell saw a few different animals look curious or aggressive and approach the camp. Whenever they got within the light of the camp, they seemed to relax or mellow. It was as if whatever urged them to approach the camp had faded and they had lost interest in it and its inhabitants. She was curious if this was due to the prayers of Tabia or if she had a talisman that kept their camp safe. Martell knew the question would be just as futile to ask of Tabia as it would have been to Rowenn. The priestesses maintained a certain amount of ambiguity in where the powers of the goddess began and ended. She recalled asking Rowenn how the temple maintained the candles lit in such quantity and at a constant height. The only answer she received is it had always been that way and was just unknowledgeable as Martell to if it were an enchantment or her goddess that had an ability to do so. She spent the rest of the time listening to the creaking of the woods as the wind pushed branches slowly against one another and watching as Oren slept a peaceful rest.
Tabia took the final turn watching the camp. She woke up before Martell had gotten to her. Across the fire Martell could see she looked troubled. “Varelle is concerning me. She sends signs in my dreams that a problem will befall me in the days ahead. I do not know if it is inevitable. I do know it is where she directs me. I wonder if it is, why she let me linger for over a thousand years, was it for this.”
“How did you end up trapped in the shadows?”
“I was at the temple near Abbysta. Back at that time, there were usually three priestesses at a time. They were stationed such that the novice was at the temple in Avo, the junior in Drémore Court, and the senior at the temple near Erridda, then Abbysta. I had just finished five years of training the novice, and moved out to the temple at Abbysta. Initially, all was calm in the area, but then raiders started to assault the logging camps in the area. The soldiers requested I move into the stronghold for safety. I disregarded their request and obeyed what I thought was Varelle’s will. I stayed at the temple as many still visited seeking her blessing. One day, my visitor was one of the raiders. He wielded a maul and attacked the altar smashing a bowl that had been there. When it shattered, the place started to darken and a mist settled in. The assailant died from what looked like the vapors seared his lungs. I feared for my life then and recited my prayers to Varelle. She appeared to me and told me to not fear. She would take care of me and I would live to serve her another day. But my body faded. I was there but not there. I saw time pass and I witnessed changes always trapped in the temple. I heard the fall of the world and the tranquility of nature take over the temple. I saw as those seeking riches came and left disappointed by the empty chamber. Then earlier this year I heard from Varelle. She spoke to me and said it was time to serve again. She would send her priestess Rowenn to free me before the first winter’s snow. As it got closer I got antsy, I desired to move in the world, and I wanted to feel the cold of a snow fall for the first time in forever. I was tired of seeing shadows shorten and lengthen with the passing of days. I wanted to live.”
After a pause to take it in, Martell finally spoke “That is a long time to wait. I do not know if death would have been better after so long.”
“Now she tells me it might end soon. I had hoped to open the temple and again minister to her followers. It feels unfair, but I did reach out to her for help and she did answer.”
“Sometimes prayers are better left unanswered. She spoke to me when I wanted to leave the Tethinger Order. She showed me that this was the path to take when I asked. If she had not showed me which way to go, I would have the ease of being in the King’s court. I would be comfortable advising his knights and have a warm bed, not out in the cold…” Martell spoke calmly. She looked over at Oren and smiled to herself. “I cut many bridges when I left the order. But those I have met since have made the trials easier. I now also know I would be restless at the beck and call of the king, serving his interests only.”
“I see,” Tabia thoughtfully spoke. “In hindsight, you see the wisdom that Varelle had in sending you on this difficult path. Perhaps it is not my end she is foretelling, but preparing me for a change I would not otherwise make. Thank you Martell, I will meditate upon this while on watch tonight.”

Chapter 18

The next morning, Teman and Devlin brought Oren up to the third floor. They had found what must have been a commander’s room as there were several books, most of which were related to tactics for battle and against siege. Oren arranged for Teman and Devlin to drop them off at the shop when they came back through, if the books were still there. The title that did catch Oren’s attention was titled Penumbra of Nature. He flipped through the book; its author seemed to be the same as the book Meditations on Umbra. This one started on the premise that spirits in nature were not visible, but still could be called out to assist. Perhaps alluding that one not gifted like himself could still use them. Oren took the book with him for further study.
After viewing the books, Oren discussed with Martell and it was decided the two of them would move on today leaving Devlin and Teman to continue their endeavors here. The men understood the reason for departure, but it did not prevent them from teasing Oren about being too scared to spend another night in the place. They could not offer any advice as to what was at Erridda as neither had been. There had been no recent expeditions out that far into the woods as of late that they heard of.
After parting ways, Oren and Martell headed over to the temple to see Tabia. She was waiting for them outside the temple. “Good day to you and the blessing of Varelle upon you. I see the lizards did not harm you last night.”
“Good day to you Tabia,” replied Oren. “They were no problem for us. I am impressed they did not come for you at all. We are headed out to Erridda today. There are two, Teman and Devlin, who are staying behind here. Has your goddess directed your path to you yet?”
“She has done so. After keeping me safe from harm last night, I am to travel with you to see something,” she responded calmly. “If you allow me to travel with you, I am to assist you as I can, but I may not cause harm to anything in doing so. She will let me know when I have seen what I am to witness. At that point I am to return here for further instruction.”
“You are welcome to travel with us,” responded Martell. “We are not certain what we will find at Erridda either. We also may not be free to escort you back here after we finish there.”
“That is okay if you are unable to do so. Varelle will guide me safely in my travels.”
Tabia took some time to gather some items located within the temple. Martell and Oren assumed it was like the one in Avo and had some hidden chambers or storage with items hidden within. She emerged wearing some heavier robes, carrying a backpack, a walking stick in her hand, and hanging from her waist was a lantern. The robe had the insignia of two crossed ash trees. Tabia would explain that there were always two trees over the Avo temple. Currently the oaks; back in her time as head of the temple, they were ash trees. If someone had been priestess at the time of transition between trees the emblem would have been one of the old on the right and one of the new on the left.
Eston was finally proven right on the predictions for a snow coming. The sky got darker as the day’s travel progressed, with the sun retreating far earlier behind the growing clouds, instead of over the horizon. The cold crept in behind the sun’s retreat, making Oren happy for the cloak Martell had gotten him. He noticed she had not put on any additional layers with the cold, yet was unbothered by it. Out of concern, he mentioned something. In response she held out a beaded necklace she had been wearing under her clothes.
“Each one of these is enchanted. One protects against cold, another against heat, another will keep me dry despite the rain falling.” Martell explained. “They protect against but do not prevent the long term effects exposure. For example, I will still get frostbite in cold enough temperatures, but with what it is now, I am ok in lighter clothes to stay just as warm.”
The trio made decent progress, despite the snow starting to fall. In the evening, they made camp in the shelter of a rocky outcrop. All three knew the forest would be covered in snow by the morning. Tabia had been useful in guiding them through the forest. Though she claimed no knowledge of the woods, she managed to direct them past any dangers and to proper places to refill water and make camp. Her explanation was simply that Varelle guides her steps.
During the following day’s travel they found a place where remnants of stone walls stood. The construction looked like a crude or earlier version of the walls of Abbysta. They speculated as to if this was where the original Erridda stood.
“There was something larger here at one point,” Oren commented as he followed the length of the wall.
“Agreed, I don’t expect to find much in the remains here to indicate one way or the other as to what it was.” Martell chided back.
Tabia paced around what had probably been the center of the ruins. She was periodically hitting the ground, and then listening to the stone or dirt complain about the hit. She finally found something that made her pause, a hollow din from some stone.
“Did you find something?” asked Oren.
“There is a something under here. Come help me find the entrance down to this place. Maybe something to assist you in your travels will be in there.”
The three of them poked at the soil till an entrance was found. It was a wooden door that pulled up from the floor. Based on the age and wear of the wood, this cover was made sometime in the past decade. Martell decided to wait above the place and keep watch while Oren went in to have a look. The stairs went down a good ten to fifteen feet. The passage opened up into a single room basement. The one wall had drawings depicting a fierce battle between two armies. Another had the crests of numerous legions on it. In the corner furthest from the stairs was an Invoker’s Lantern, similar to the one that had hung in his shop, spreading light across the room. He went over to inspect the corner to and further inspect the device and a workbench near it. There were tools present that felt as if they had recently been used given their warmth.
It was almost reflexive as he called the spirits to shield him from the arrow that came at him from the dark. The arrow bounced off harmless. He turned to see what had cast it at him. He made out the shape of an elderly man, but could not focus on the details. It was as if his eyes could not decide if he was really there or just a mirage. To Oren, it looked like he was reloading a crossbow but he didn’t see the weapon in the man’s hands. Then Oren heard a speech like noise come from the direction, but if it was words he did not comprehend them.
In order to see his adversary better, Oren focused on the spirits to move. Slowly, they pealed back from obscuring the old man. Oren saw the old man, he looked old and feeble. This image was betrayed by the steady hand he had on the crossbow he was aiming at Oren. After catching this glimpse, the old man was again obscured by a rush of spirits.
“You are not one of them.” Oren could hear the man say. “Let us put down our weapons and talk.” He then laid the crossbow down on the floor.
Oren dropped his hands to his side, still with his staff in hand. “Who are them, and why attack me?”
The shadows started to recede, letting Oren get a good look at the man. Between the hunched back and the long beard he looked ancient. “”Them” are the group of bandits in the area, they call themselves the Wolves. They have been looking for me to make them more talismans. I told them no, they said they would be back. The name is Enchanter Senkoo.”
“Senkoo, we are only passing through the area. We are looking for Erridda; research had indicated that one of the places with that name was around here. We are not here to take anything from you.”
“That I can see, you must be a young enchanter to have control over spirits like that. What is your focus? Or do you have a talisman that does disruptions?”
“I have a ring that I use as a focus,” Oren thought he was referring to that. “Though I must admit, I am still learning the boundaries of its abilities.”
“Young man, you are doing well with it if you can make such disruption in my shield. May I come closer to have a look at it?”
“Approach slowly,” Oren said, still not trusting the man. He held it out for the man to look at.
Senkoo looked over the ring, and rotated it around Oren’s finger to look at it from all sides. “You have favor from Varelle? The band is her workmanship. The pearl on it has strong bindings on it; I see why you were able to push harder than I, a fine Focus. Best you hide it from the bandits. They have something that can detect a talisman’s presence. Their master stole it from an enchanter named Vargas Armiger. I saw the device function and I know Armiger work when I see it. I know they stole it because they brag about it as if it is something to be proud of.”
“So did they steal your work as well? I see several empty shelves here.”
“Mine, yes they will take anyone’s. However, they did not get it from here; no they stole it from my house when I lived above ground. But if they come down here, are they going to be sorry. They will be sorry if they bring that detector down here,” Senkoo spoke with a mischievous grin.
“Do you know anything about the stronghold Erridda?”
“Yes, you are standing in the last usable structure of this one. As to the one that still stands, it is locked up tight. The Wolves walk around it wanting in. They have forces growing outside it, but its wards are too strong. Many have died trying to enter, but the Drémore Kingdom cursed the place in addition to the wards. There is something strong inside and they are drawn to it. I do not think they can control it if they let it out.”
“Do you know what is inside?”
“Son, let me tell you, there is power that once locked away should be left alone. You have a promising enchanting ability. I suggest you pursue that. Now if are bent on the power inside Erridda, I can offer no other guidance. Please just return the door the way you found it on the way out.”
“One last question, does the name Casapan mean anything to you?”
“Casapan? I know of Casapaten, he is the one who fought with Varelle to the obscurity she now knows. But no Casapan.”
“Thank you for your wisdom Senkoo. I will leave you to your work and will conceal your door. Good luck in your endeavors.”
Oren came out from the chamber and relayed to Martell and Tabia his discussion with Senkoo. Tabia looked concerned. “You are against Casapaten?” she asked.
“No, from our best understanding is that there is an Enchanter with the name Casapan that we are after, or are at least trying to confirm is alive,” spoke Oren as he started to cover up the door way.
“A Casapan was killed in a great religious war that occurred during the sixty-fifth priestess’s time. He claimed to have a link with the Casapaten and was doing his bidding,” replied Tabia. “He had no such connection, but Casapaten’s followers here in the south believed the stories the Casapan spun. He knew the god’s legends and teachings. The sixty-fifth priestess did not know of the lack in communication with the god until she raised her own followers and allies quelled the uprising. There was speculation at the time as to why Varelle would not have directed her priestess to remain neutral. The conclusion by Varelle’s followers was that she watches over those who do not know Varelle. Their ignorance of her does not deny her protection.”
“That is very kind of the goddess,” Oren commented.
“Yes, but what they did not know was that like Casapaten to his priests, Varelle had gone silent to her priestesses for several generations. Since then, she speaks as that which banished her weakens, but only the priestess knows if it is her own voice or the goddess who is talking.”
“So which was it for you and your decision to come along with us?” asked Martell.
“It is both. She shows a path and I must make the call on whether to follow it. To do no harm is my vow from when I became her priestess.” Tabia paused a minute, contemplating something. “You freed me from captivity, Varelle has her reason it was you and now. She will show me why, when the time comes.”
They finished covering up the entrance to Senkoo’s lair, and then proceeded on their way. The snow fall started as they left the area. If not for the forest canopy it would have hampered their progress and visibility more. It would be a few hours more till they would find an area suitable for camp. Along the way, the trio collected what would work as wood for a fire and packed it on to the horse to carry.

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.
Snap.
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?”

Chapter 14

The following two days Oren spent most of his time practicing how to avoid rocks and other things flying at him. The first day he ended up with lots of nicks and bruises, the second he still was getting hit, but less so.  It was easy to draw spirits close, the harder part was convincing the spirits to shield him. A small localized shield was easier than a large one as it equated to hiding behind the spirit.  Larger shields required him convincing the spirit to bend and contort in a manner to protect.  In addition to finding a spirit able to help him, he needed it to stay the proper distance away so he we would not come in contact with it.  If a projectile tore through his shield and hit him, he would start to feel as if the spirit had glanced off him as well.  The end result was him losing focus and control to the emotions it would set off.

Oren was certain the ring was assisting in all this.  When he focused using it the spirits would acquiesce to his commands.  The downside he noticed was the more he used the ring the less the spirits were near him.  It was as if they started to cower from it.  So as a result he refrained from using it when he could.  When he talked it over with Rowenn, she suggested he use it only for greater feats or if it was a dire need for them to respond.

Martell was gone during this time. It was in the evening, when practice was done, that Oren started to long for her company again.  He was distracted during the day, but as time passed he wanted her to see the progress he had made.

He had sent the message to his parents on the investigation into Ziegman’s death.  It would be a week before he would receive back a message from his father saying that he should take advantage of being able to hone his skills.  His father further instructed that once he felt his skills strong enough, he should go to Erridda and see what they could find.  As for his dream, it was correct his house had been burglarized, but everyone was ok.  There was nothing missing but the mess was taking a bit to clean up and repair.

By the end of the week, Eston was curious as to where Oren was going daily.  He also was asking on if and when Martell would be back.  Oren was unable to answer either question.  Instead, he said that he was taking in the area as possible ideas for additional trade may be available.  He mentioned that there was a winery here and they might be able to export the wine.  It was all mere speculation, but it was enough for Eston to back off.

The following week, Rowenn continued training with Oren learning to protect himself with spirits.  Midway through the week they started trying to travel using them.  This was a far more complex concept for Oren.  The idea was for the spirits to first envelope him and then carry him the desired distance.  The problems stemmed from the spirit needing to make physical contact and Oren still maintaining control.  This put into perspective for Oren how easy creating a shield actually was.  The training alternated between the two techniques, as the transportation was taxing and often left him spending half the day recovering from the influence of some of the spirits.

Oren spent one afternoon cleaning the main hall as one of the spirits had decided the place was too dirty.  Rowenn was amused and pleased with the results, but it was a day of training lost.  A second encounter had led to Oren practicing combat with his staff as the spirit had been itching for a fight, but there was no threat down in the subterranean halls.  For that exercise, Rowenn was content with nothing being broken.

Martell returned at the end of the week.  She had brought back a suit of armor in much need of maintenance.  When Oren asked why she had not bought something in better shape, she responded that they were all inferior.  This one, when she finished cleaning it up, would be better.  He held a spaulder in his hand looking at the craftsmanship.  It looked no different from any other armor plate he had seen before.  He tossed it back to Martell and that is when it hit him that the metal felt lighter than it should.  Not thinner or less sturdy, but the actual weight felt off when it was in motion.

During the third week in training with Rowenn, Oren finally had to take a break to attend to matters at the trade house. He went with Eston to the winery to try and barter a deal for wine.  The idea being this was a trial to see if they could sell it up in Aleto.  The owner was more than thrilled with the idea of expanding.  After some haggling over price, Oren left Eston to take care of the logistics.  The hope was to have the wine ready to move by the time the next caravan came through.

After the third week, Oren was able to travel about three feet using the spirits.  This was not something that would progress as quickly as the shielding technique.  He would need more practice and a lot more patience to travel a distance much further.  The ring’s ability to help control the spirits was near useless in the transportation. It seemed to agitate them more than anything; as a result shortening his travels.

The armor Martell brought back was cleaning up nicely.  She said she picked it up from a merchant that deals in rarities and antiques.  She had seen the armor several years back and was not surprised he still had it.  Most people would look at it and think nothing more of it.  Years of dirt and tarnish had hidden the art and craftsmanship the blacksmith had put in to it.  Now, as it came together one could see the shine of the metal and the scroll work design in it.  The breastplate had a giant oak tree on it; the shoulders had a lion etched on the left and an eagle etched on the right.

Both Martell and Oren had a growing concern caused by a lack of contact by agents of Casapan or Dawsil.  No one had seemed to notice the absence of Rab either.  Eston said it was common that help came and went so he was not surprised by one person just up and quitting with no notice.

It was on the fourth week, returning from a day of training, that Oren received an invitation from Lord Hirameki of the Tethinger order.  Martell was not familiar with this person, and unable to shed any light on if this was someone that may be able to help them. He accepted the invitation with note that Martell would be joining him as a personal guard.

Oren arrived in as formal attire would be expected from a merchant.  Martell made a fancier show, wearing the breastplate from her restored armor under the Velgrey Tabard and one of her swords at her waist; she had chosen the rest of her outfit to highlight the white and blue in the Velgrey Crest.  They were greeted at the entrance by a page.  He was caught off guard by Martell’s presence, and then relaxed seeing Oren.  He led them into the order’s hall.

There were no servants; rather the initiates would work through ranks of menial tasks till they reached a point at which their training for knighthood would start.  This period was dependent on skill and initiative taken by the initiate. Also factored in was age, as no one under ten would be given a mentor directly.  The mentor chose who he or she would train so it was in the initiate’s best interest to gain favor with one of the knight’s early on.

They joined Lord Hirameki in a dining room.  According to Martell, there were numerous rooms like this so that business could be handled in more intimate settings than a grand hall.  Hirameki was seated, flanked by two other knights, Vaughn and Siira, as well as his student Clovis.

“Thank you for accepting our request,” Oren opened with. He was not certain the reception he would get. He was thinking of a tactful way to approach to the topic. “To be clear on my motives, I am here for matters other than trade.”

“I had assumed as such with the Velgrey name,” replied Hirameki. “Though if you are here for an okay on Martell being under your employment, that is of no concern to us.  She left the order of her own accord.  There is no hostility needed on that front.”  Oren could tell he was being sized up.  Hirameki was trying to lead the conversation to topics where he was prepared to address.

“Thank you, sir,” replied Oren. “No, our business is in regards to old lingering issues.  Do the names Dawsil or Casapan mean anything to you or your peers?”

“I recall we had some dealings in the past suppressing a Dawsil.  But he was killed and the matter was considered settled.” Siira spoke up.  She looked to be the elder of the three knights present.  “If I know your lineage properly, it was a grandfather of yours that helped us in the matter.”

“That is right,” Vaughn chimed in. “Big campaign with King Hannon, some of the lords and even an enchanter got in on the action. I think Casapan was his master or something like that, and was proven to not exist.  Something about them having found the name in records somewhere and then pretending he was still around.”

The group discussed past events for a while as food was served.  The meal was nothing fancy or elaborate but was a pleasant change from daily fare. The servers weaved in and out among the dinners as conversation continued.

“I don’t know the details of the past, but there is potential that they or their agents are not dead.” Oren finally cut in. “I was assaulted earlier in my visit to the city. I am not certain for the exact reason.  Lady Martell was able to rescue me from the incident.  However, I found this note with one of the assailants.”  He handed over the note from Commander Erridda. The three knights each took a look at the note.

“That is quite disturbing,” spoke Hirameki after reading, “if there is someone that has infiltrated the city then we need to have the town guard alerted and they can flush them out.”

“Agreed,” Said Siira, “But how do we know who they are or who this Erridda is?  Have you a description or location they operate from?”

“Indeed, that is a good question.  I do not think we could help if you do not.  Though stories of Casapan and Dawsil relate to a harsh fight, the two of them would be quite elderly now…if they were still alive.”  Vaughn opined.

“That is all possible,” Martell spoke up, “Except that Casapan was an Enchanter.  Many of them have ways to prolong their life.  This would not be the first time one lived over a hundred years and still was young.”

“Again, we would need some sort of proof to devote resources.” spoke Hirameki, “By all means, we will keep an eye out for anything that would threaten Avo.  However, our services to the kingdom are already stretched thin with rumors of Channelers being able to overpower some of our most seasoned Knights.  Martell you know of this and it is why we need new tactics.  But to launch a campaign through the Vales to hunt out rumor is not possible.  For all we know someone else has located these names and is reusing them to spark unnecessary fears.”

Oren took in what they were saying and the subtext was clear to him.  Martell was about to speak when she instead reached down a hand and grabbed one of the initiates that had been working as a server. “Oren, check your belongings.  I think we have a thief in our midst.” She held on to the girl while Oren checked his belongings.  He was missing his purse but nothing further.

“Hand it over,” commanded Martell.  The girl returned it to Oren. “Lord Hirameki, we must be going.  I will leave this urchin to you.  If things have not changed too much, she will be punished rightfully by you.  No need to bring the city in to these matters.”  She paused a moment before adding, “However, if things have really gone the way I fear, do not praise her too much.  She was caught.” The two got up and made their way to leave.

“Martell,” Lady Siira spoke up, “Obedience and faithfulness are still main tenants of Tethinger. Do not presume you know what has and has not changed.  You abandoned your appointment.”

“Lady Siira, the order has stopped the initiates from seeking the wisdom of Varelle. That would give me pause to anything that now transpires in these walls.”  With those words, the building gave a slight shake.  “Obedience and faithfulness are just as common in thieves as they are in nobility.”

“Silence,” commanded Hirameki. “Let us not continue this any further. Oren you and your guest must be on your way.”

“As you wish,” Oren calmly spoke.

The two made continued from the dining hall to the entrance.  For the first time of the visit, Oren realized what was missing inside this building.  There were no spirits anywhere, not in the corners or shadows.  Even the empty rooms they had passed while headed here had not even the faintest sign.  It left him to think about how they had done that.

It would be later that Martell would inform Oren that Varelle was the name the Tethinger Order referred to Rowenn’s goddess as.  Varelle’s name was not to be spoken within the halls as the building had been a former temple to Latl, the god who was the contrast of Varelle.  The story was the Tethinger Order had taken over the Latl temple for Varelle, but in order to forge peace in the halls, they were sworn never to mention her name there.

Outside the Tethinger halls it was still a while before they spoke again.  Martell had clearly been shaken by the confrontation by Siira. She would have never called her departure abandonment.

“The problem is I raised issue to my mentor and my fellow knights.  When outside of the hall, each said I was right in my concerns. My mentor, I understood him staying.  It was his life and the order would take care of him till his death.  In the end, I am the only one that left.  The rest are still there.  I bet at least one of them used me as a step in promotion.  They were never shocked by my stepping down and each question I asked before I walked away they had an answer for.  Not good reasons, but answers.”

“So two of us against whatever is lurking out there in the strongholds? I like those odds. Though I will be relying heavily on you.” teased Oren. “In another week, Rowenn will have taught me all she can.  My mother thinks the threat is still real and that they will approach again in my sleep.  She also has been going through the collection of books and found nothing they should be after this badly.  No mention of anything that would grant power or insight that could not be gotten elsewhere.”

“You are funding this expedition Oren.”  Martell was perking up a little. “Where do you want to lead me to this time?  Erridda? Back to your place in Aleto? ”

“Back to my place in Aleto ultimately.  But I think we need to check out Erridda first if we want some peace. We will pass near Abbysta which is near the original Erridda.  We should look into there before going further into the woods.  We still do not know if the letter is a reference to the holds and if it is which one.”  It was then that Oren realized he had left the note with the Tethinger Knights.

Chapter 13

“Martell, back so soon?  I thought Oren and you had lots of trade and commerce to tend to,” Rowenn teased.

“What do you know about Erridda?”  Martell spoke; she was not in the mood for pleasantries from what Oren could see.

“Erridda…Erridda…” Rowenn closed her eyes, thinking deeply. “It is one of the old strongholds from the Drémore.  It is the furthest south of the holds if my memory is right.  Why do you ask?”

Martell paused, weighing the need and desire to explain the real reason she was in Avo again.  “Rowenn, we are here for more than just trading.”

Martell explained the reason for their visit.  Rowenn took in the new information. It was a large amount to be given from a sister she had not seen in over a year.  “I will need to go consult the temple records to be certain about the location of Erridda.  However I do not want you to be out in the open here.”  She went over to the temple entrance and raised her hand and started to chant.  A stone started to rise from the ground sealing off the front of the temple.  After the entrance was sealed, another stone opened to a stairway behind the altar. “Follow me, and if you ever breathe a word about this place, the goddess will strike you down.  She may only be worshipped here but her reach is far.”

Rowenn grabbed one of the candles and motioned for Oren and Martell to do the same before following her.  The stairway lead about fifty steps, and then lead into a hallway.  At the base of the stairs, Rowenn reached out and pressed stone in the wall.  They could hear the stone above the stairs sliding back into place.

“This goes on for a ways. In a little while we will reach where there is a torch, we will then be able to put out the candles.  Oren you will carry it for us.”

After grabbing the torch, they continued down the hallway.   The walls were of the same construction as the old town of Avo.  A shiver ran down Oren’s spine as he recalled waking up in the room of similar construction earlier in the day.  With the light of the torch, Oren could see more details along the ceiling.  There were intricate carvings and artwork the length of the tunnel.  His mind wondered how long these had been here and who did the work.  His best guess was multiple generations had dedicated their lives to the crafting as the style changed as they progressed along.   Oren also noticed the hall was in a slight decline and was curious as to how far down they were going.   He kept his observations inside though, as their host was saying nothing and he was uncertain if it was safe to speak.  The candle that Rowenn had started up in the temple was noticeably shorter when they came to a large two story room.  There were shelves of books all along the second floor.  The first floor was more to take in.  There were works of art on the walls, several pedestals with sculptures and decorated vases.  The motif of trees and a woman with sylvan features was seen across the works, regardless the age. The floor was made of slightly uneven tile. There were also numerous chambers branching off from this one.  Looking at the walls he now noticed the numerous lanterns burning, shedding light and shadows around.

“This is the work of generations of priestesses. The artwork is from them and items left by followers in the temple.  Each of them was a sign of devotion to the goddess.  If you look at them her name has changed over time, but her depiction is constant.  The books here are records of my predecessors, literature inspired by the goddess and items that we have salvaged when chaos has ruled the area.”

“This is an honor Rowenn.” spoke Oren. He was in a daze like state, taking it all in.  “The wisdom here, I could spend a life time learning it.”

“If it were allowed,” Martell quipped. “Our visit here will more than likely be too short.  We only need her to find a location of a stronghold.”

“That is correct Martell; I will need you two to wait in that room.” She pointed to a chamber off to the side with a table in it. “I will go retrieve some books from the period of the Drémore Kingdom and between the three of us we should be able to figure it out.”

The small chamber had a table and one chair in it.  Rowenn had intentionally put them in one of the sparsest nooks in the place.  Oren could sense the spirits at the edge of the room.  They sensed him and tried to reach out to him, eager for interaction.  He was able to keep them at bay far easier than when he started practicing.  Part of him did miss the spontaneity they had provided in his life.  He also would have liked to see if these spirits were different from the ones on the surface.  Oren’s thoughts then started to wonder if events would have unfolded this way if they had not the same influence on him.  While they waited, he took out his copy of Meditations of Umbra.  He started flipping through the advanced techniques listed.  There was allusion to travel physically through shadows the same way he had sent a message to Martell.  There were other hints of being able to use them to deflect objects flying or falling at you.  He asked Martell if she had ever encountered anything of this nature.  She shook her head, but did not think it impossible for Oren to do so with practice and training.  Her experience with channelers, for better or worse was mostly with Oren.

It was during this discussion that Rowenn returned with a stack of five books.  “Oren, those things are possible.  Though, depending on the person they can take years to learn.  I’m sorry, but it was hard to not overhear you in all the silence.”  She then paused as if listening to someone else and then continued in a different tone, “How long do you have here?  I can train you in both of those arts.” Oren recognized the tone as the same she had spoken in when handing him the ring.  Rowenn paused; her speech then continued in her regular voice, “Apparently the goddess thinks you have plans that align with her goals.  She will not say anything further than to offer to teach them. I warn you it will be her that teaches you despite my body doing the instruction.  I know nothing of the techniques she is referencing.”

“I can take the time,” Oren spoke happily. But then took a different note with realization, “Your sister however has to decide on some things before tomorrow.”

Rowenn looked over at Martell quizzically before Martell spoke up. “Rowenn, may we speak in private?”

Oren was briefly flummoxed by this request.  He thought it was simply her choice to go to back to the Neffian temple per the order sent or stay put.  But it was her sister, so he relaxed; accepting that simple choices could become a world of debate once family is involved.  The two left to another part of the hall.  Oren took the moment to open one of the books and start paging through.  The one he grabbed was called Fall of Drémore.  It spoke of the decline of the Drémore family.

It was a common tale of lack of proper leadership tearing apart a kingdom.  There was mention of choosing to maintain order in the kingdom instead of expanding further into the forests. This writer clearly thought ill of the King’s decision to withdraw many forces from the strongholds in the forest.  Though there was mention it may have been made because of misinformation on a plague affecting the garrisons stationed at two of them, Erridda and Scoria.  These two were located furthest into the woods, but did not specify any further details on their location.

It was in these books that Oren saw the crest that he had seen in the ruins to the west of the Xomen’s inn.  The crest was listed under the houses that were loyal to the Drémore family.  They had been some of the most loyal retainers and had lost numerous members of the family in the defense of the King.  The family name was Katsutaka.  The records did not indicate them residing in the region near the inn so he was uncertain to why the crest would have been there.

He set the book down as he noticed the two returned to the room. “So what has been decided?”

“It has been decided that Martell is staying.  She will send back her decision with the messenger in the morning along with their armor.”  Rowenn answered.

“But I do need the rest of the payment your parents offered as an advance.  I cannot continue to assist you without sufficient funds.” Martell smiled at Oren.  “We should send word to your parents of the status of our investigation as well…but I think you can do that one.”

Oren was relieved by her choice. “I can handle those requests.  Do you know what you will be doing during my time studying under Rowenn?”

“Yes, I will be busy tracking down the armor your parents are buying me.” Martell teased, “I need something that better matches my swords.”

“Glad you two have settled that business,” Rowenn commented. “Now let’s figure out where Erridda is located so we can get on to training for you Oren.”

The next several hours were spent paging through the books with little or no help as to location.  There were numerous pauses as some accounts of things conflicted.  In some cases it was spelling in others it was the location.  As with any history, depending on the author, events unfolded in different lights and ways.  The books did lead to them learning the names of the four other strongholds: Wind Gait, Korrack, Ferneray, and Abbysta.  They also indicated that several of them had been rigged with traps or enchantments to keep them from being used by bandits or those hostile to the crown.  It was somewhere in one of the logs for the temple that a several maps of the Drémore Kingdom were found.  Here they discovered that there were a total of three strongholds named for Erridda.  The first one was located at the south end of three strongholds, after this one fell another two strongholds further south were added on.  The second one with the same name was built north of the line of five strongholds.  This one too fell for some reason not listed in any of the books currently pulled.  The final one was built further southeast of the center line of strongholds, at the peak of the Drémore Kingdom.  And that is the one that still stood at the time of the records.

Chapter 12

Eston went with Oren to the Lariant House, leaving Martell to further look around the Velgrey house with less prying and oversight.  The Lariant house was in far better shape than the Velgrey, though that may have to do with its more recent construction.  The three story house used the bottom floor for business and living spaces for the family were above. As such, the place was alive with several generations living in the spacious manner.  The solid wood columns at the entrance were a reminder that the family was wealthy from the timber.  It took Eston pointing it out for Oren to recognize that two of the columns were actually living trees.

Upon entering the great room, just inside the front door, the two gentlemen were introduced by the butler to Clayst Lariant, head of the Lariant family and trade house.  Clayst was a portly gentleman, with a hearty laugh and a firm handshake.  He welcomed them into the house with all the proper pleasantries.  He recalled early on there had been another family that had reached out to Flynn for trading the lumber.  However, when Flynn came to meet the other family they turned out to be charlatans and were trying to trick him out of his coin.  Clayst had overheard the fiasco and tried to step in, but Flynn had his guard up and initially dismissed him.  Clayst finally won him over but then the following season it was colder than usual and he did not have timber to meet Flynn’s order.  Flynn was going to have to deal with an additional merchant.  But Clayst had his teams scour the country side for anything he could scrounge up and ended up with sufficient lumber and impressed Flynn again. Clayst also gave his regards on the passing of Ziegman.  Clayst and Eston got on rather well with each other; it was as if they were speaking their own language.  One would goad the other enough, but then turned around and had them on their same side again.  The conversation up through dinner turned to the prospects of if Oren would take over the Velgrey business.  He playfully gave no affirmative, but smartly alluded to the Lariants not needing to worry about their position either.

Oren spent the night with fine dining and getting to know the Lariant clan.  There were several attempts made to find out if he was an eligible bachelor as there were single ladies in the Larient clan.   He sidestepped answering this several times over.  He did not want to admit the vulnerability he had with Martell in a crowd of strangers.  Rather he stuck to the truth that his wife was dead and then added he was not ready to move on yet. In turn, he was introduced to several ladies, and each he politely turned down.  This was a game he knew from his occasional social outings in Aleto.  His thoughts eventually wandered back to concern on how things were going for Martell and the search in his absence.  He regretted not insisting she attend, but knew it was the right choice from social protocol.

After the dinner, Eston and Oren headed back to the Velgrey house.  They both thought the night a great success and had added to the ties for future business.  The truth was there was no one else currently situated to take the trade from the Velgreys.  Halfway back they passed by a tavern, Jess’s Treasure.  Eston excused himself here, he had friends he wanted to stop and talk with.  Oren, who was ready for a few quiet moments, was happy to let him loose on someone else’s ear.

Oren continued on back to the house.  All in all a good night he thought.  And now time to go back to a welcoming face.  He was enthralled with her, the first time in a while he had met a woman that had all his attention.  His thoughts lingered on her black hair down past the shoulders, her black eyes that held a fire when he looked at the right angle, her thin lips…and then things went dark.

Some amount of time passed before Oren came to with a headache.  He was in a stone room, one of the older buildings from what he could tell of its construction.  There were four walls, a door, and a bucket in the corner.  Oren tried the door, but was not surprised to find it locked.  He sat down in a corner and massaged where it ached from the hit.  “What had happened?” He muttered.  He still had all his belongings, didn’t looks like anything else had happened aside from the knock to the head.

After ten minutes of hearing nobody pass by or another noise outside the room, Oren decided it was time to try out his skills as a channeler.  He focused on the ring he had received earlier.  His thoughts were of one of the spirits coming forward from the rest to assist him.  He then thought of the message he wanted sent to Martell and repeated it in his head to the spirit that had come forward.  He then let it go seek her out and bring her here.

It was all he could do, as this was his first time of trying what he had read in Mediations on Umbra.  He could now only wait and see if she or his captors would come first.  In the meantime, he took to practicing calling the spirits to himself and then sending them away at the last moment.  The simple practice did a good job of relaxing his body and clearing his mind, but did nothing to dull the pain from the hit.

“Good Morning Oren.” He heard called from on the other side of the door. He recognized the voice, but did not place it.  “Opening up with your breakfast, stay away from the door and don’t try to get out.”

The door opened and there was Rab.  He set down a wood bowl filled with some sort of liquid. “Hi, you may as well settle in for a while.  You’re here till your parents pay the ransom and maybe a little longer.”

“What is this all about?”  Oren was still confused.

“You see, you are what we call a high value person.  You have at least three parties interested in you.” Rab closed the door.  He continued safe on the other side, “You got your parents, the Wolves and…” the rest was cutoff in garble.  From under the door he saw blood starting to ooze into the room.  There was some movement outside the room, probably Rab’s assailant searching or moving his body.

Oren took as defensive of a stand as he could in the confined space.  His mind was racing as to who might be outside the door.  This time when it opened, his hands went down and he let out a happy sigh.  There was Martell, in full armor.  She motioned for silence from Oren and then dragged Rab’s body into the room.  She cut off Rab’s shirt and tried best she could to get the blood off the floor outside the door.

“You are getting better with you skills.  I got your message, but the path here was hard to follow,” she said in a hushed tone. “Your messenger probably led me back in the same route it found me.”

“Where are we?”

“Somewhere under the town hall, this place is cavernous and has numerous entrances.  It is why they sealed it off from above.  As kids we would all poke around down here, but never this far in.”

She opened the door and looked down the hallway both directions before motioning for Oren to follow.  They made it down the hallway before it forked.  “To the left is our exit, but I suspect you want to poke around a bit before we do so.”

“Yes, I need to know who else is involved with this.”

The two headed down the tunnel to the right in search of any details that may lead to who the kidnappers were or their contacts with the Wolves. Martell handed her dagger to Oren so he would not be unarmed if it came to that.  After checking numerous side corridors and chambers, they found what they were looking for.  There was a room with a couple tables and chairs.  On the desk was correspondence ready to be sent out to Oren’s parents. Oren skimmed through them.

He whispered, “Looks like they would have done the exchange at Xomen’s Inn.  Might be a reason they chose there.”

Martell had found another letter, “Yes, they have another letter trying to ransom you to the Channeler’s Guild.  The meeting is at the same location.  Do they know that you are a latent channeler or are they betting on something with your mother’s family history?”

“I would assume they are betting on my family history.  My guess is I would have ended up with the highest bidder.”

They looked through the remaining paper work, half distracted by every creak or scurry mice in the tunnels were making. It was a few minutes later they found what they were hunting.  It was written as follows:

I do not think you would reach out to the Wolves unless you were certain you would be able to capture the Velgrey heir.  We have agents in town already, and they have taken care of the Velgrey problem in the past.  They were able to do so without alerting anyone to their presence and leave the guard clues.  But if you manage to capture him before us, we will be willing to discuss compensation for your troubles.  Remember, we need him alive.

Commander Erridda.

The two decided it best to get out of these tunnels.  They put back the paper work as best they could remember, though they took the note from the Erridda.  Stealthily, they exited without running into anyone else down in the tunnels.  They ended up in some hills on the outside of town.  They took a minute to poke around before further making their getaway.

The two went back to the Velgrey house.  Oren wanted to get a good meal and rest in himself.  Martell agreed that there was no reason to suspect everyone else at the house only because of one person.  However at her insistence, she would stand guard while he rested.

At the house, Eston greeted Oren.  “Are you okay?  They said you never made it back last night.  Then this morning your guard takes off in full armor without a single word as to what she is up to.”

“Yeah, I got a hard knock to the head while walking home.  I think they were content with my money.”  Oren spoke heading up to his chambers.

“How horrid. You should say something the commander of the guard here.  It is not good that a citizen cannot walk within the city and feel safe.” Eston motioned to one of the servants passing by, “Have a meal prepared for Oren.”

“I might do so. It could have been worse,” Oren commiserated. They were now up at the room. “Eston, you do a good job running this place.  You can relax a little, the job is yours.  You are taking over Ziegman’s post here.”

Eston leaned in and kissed Oren on the cheek.  He then glanced over at Martell, who was about as confused as Oren, “No need to worry young lady. I am not after him; I already have someone waiting for me at home.”  He then left back to his business before anything could be said.

It was a short wait till the food arrived and Oren tore into it.  He had forgotten how hungry he was.  When Eston checked back in to make sure food had arrived, Oren enquired about if anything was heard from Tethinger.  To no one’s surprise, they still had not responded to the request. He then thought to ask if the name Erridda was one he knew.  He passed it off as he recalled one of his attackers say the name.

“Erridda…the name is familiar to me, maybe someone in the guard?  Were they afraid to be caught by them?”  Eston paused.  “You should check with the guard, I can fetch one if you want to.”

“Not yet, I need to rest.” Oren replied.

It was after his rest that Oren recognized the name Erridda.  He went over to his bag and pulled out one a piece of paper had made with a makeshift map of the Drémore Vales.  He looked to the strongholds in the woods and found the name he was looking for.  Erridda was the name of the one closest to Avo.  That is more than likely where they are operating out of.

It was now that Oren looked up and saw Martell was gone.  A slight panic was starting to build, as he had not slept too long to warrant her going off for anything.   He went down the hall and she was not there.  It then occurred to him that downstairs there was no noise of workers.  He went back to his room and grabbed his staff.  As he turned to leave he saw someone sitting in a chair.  It was the same woman that had come to his shop.

“Oren, you make things far more difficult than I need them.  And your parents make this even more taxing.  Where are the rest of the books?  Do not worry we have already been to the house and I can assure you those were not what I want.  But you knew that.”  She screeched.

Oren stood in a defensive pose, waiting for her move.

“Your staff cannot help you here.” and with those words it was gone. “Now where are they?”

Oren was fighting something but it was nothing physical.  It was as if a compulsion was building to tell them they were with his parents. He went to run but it was as if his legs had already betrayed him to favor the woman.  His hands groped around looking for something to use till finally in a pocket he felt a small piece of obsidian. It was the small piece he had retrieved after his encounter with the sprite.  Using all the focus he could muster he threw it at the woman.  When it hit her, everything went dark for Oren.

He woke up in bed again, sweating.  Martell was there looking at him, calling his name trying to wake him.

Oren looked around, and slowly grappling what had happened.  His head was still a rush with thoughts and the conversation.  What was it she was looking for?  He explained the bits and pieces to Martell as best as memory would serve him.  Like recalling any normal dream the details fled from his grasp as he reached out to salvage what he could.  The simple fact was she was looking for a specific book, but which one she was not saying.

Oren then went to leaf through the maps he had in his bag. He found the one he had dreamed about and looked at it.  There it was written on the map Erridda, but now it was on the stronghold furthest from Avo not the closest. Oren brought it over to Martell and explained the quandary.

“Normally I would say we should talk to the Tethinger Knights, but they are not interested in talking to you.  Maybe Rowenn knows this place.”

“Should we both go to see her?  I fear I may put her in danger with whoever that woman is.”

“Yes, Rowenn is not defenseless. Her goddess will watch over her.,” Martell snapped. “I do not need you left unsupervised at this time.  Also I told Tsuminoe that we will not be returning with him tomorrow.  I have sent word to your parents on our status with him.”

Oren got the feeling she was holding something back. “What is the rest of it?”

“The Neffians, they have declined your parent’s request.  They want me to return and face judgment as to my future with them.  If they do not hear back from me, I will be determined to have left the order and labeled a deserter.  That means they will not assist me in the future nor will I be granted access to any of their temples.”

“You told Tsuminoe that you are not returning with him.  Does that mean you have made your choice?”

“The message arrived today.  I have till tomorrow to answer, when the messenger departs.  I will send my response to the order with him.  Let us go see Rowenn.”

Chapter 11

At breakfast Eston confirmed that they would be visiting the Lariants in the afternoon and then dining with them at their request.  They were very eager to meet the son of Flynn.  Eston’s meeting with Oren would have to be the day after the Lariants.  Eston had not heard back from the Tethinger Order, but did not see a reason for them to decline the invitation for a meeting.  Oren reassured Eston repeatedly that he was fine with the arrangements that had been made. He went on to confirm that he was satisfied with Eston’s attempts to setup an audience with the Order, and did not hold him accountable for the lack of response.

The night before, Eston’s books were brought up for Oren to review and like everything else he had seen an orderly business was being ran.  There were neither signs that the crew in Avo was skimming profits nor concerns in contraband being smuggled in along with the Velgrey’s shipments. During breakfast, Oren complimented Eston on his work and said he would spend tomorrow shadowing him to better understand the workings firsthand.  Eston was thrilled with the praise and was eager to show off his skill.

Martell offered to show him around Avo in the morning, it being her home town.  Oren accepted the invitation, noting that Eston seemed slightly disappointed he would not have the privilege of showing him around.   Martell started off with a walk through the main town of Avo. The city was smaller than Aleto, but the density was still there at the center.  To Oren, the architecture of the buildings felt as if it were from a different time.  She confirmed his suspicion, stating that some dated back to the Kingdom of Drémore.  Specifically, the buildings including the Tethinger Order’s and what was now the town hall.  Both were of solid stone, and looked like they may have been carved out of the stone as opposed to being built from the material.  It was not until one got close that one could tell that there were breaks in the stone.  Even then it was hard to tell which cracks were a sign of age versus breaks in the construction.  At one point the town hall was a monastery for a religion long dead.  The lowest of the floors, long since sealed off, lead to catacombs where remains of the dead priests still lay, mummified.  It was then a fortress for those preceding the establishment of Avo. Those bits were best seen on the interior walls as they had since been fortified to hold the ceiling and additional floors atop.

The outer ring of new buildings arose from merchants after the resources in the Drémore Vales and mountains west.  With winter coming, many of the miners would be returning to barracks that were currently empty. There was only building of note that was not like the others.  It was a stone, one room building.  The stones were covered in moss and three oak trees grew over the building. Inside it consisted of an altar in the middle with rows of candles along the walls.  “This is the temple of Avo.  It has been here longer than the city and older than the town hall as well,” Martel explained. “There is a priestess, the job passed down at the choosing of her predecessor.  The name of the one worshiped here is that of your choosing. As part of the journey into the Tethinger knighthood, you would spend several days here with the priestess to meditate on if it is where you should be.”

“How long did you spend here?”  Oren asked.

“I spent a week, the priestess’s job is to make sure you stay nourished and otherwise are not disturbed.  The current priestess is my sister, but she is not the one that watched over me.  I was hoping she would be here, but I think we just need to wait a little longer.”

They did not have to wait too long until a woman looking like Martell, only slightly taller and less muscular, entered.  “Martell is that you?” her sister asked with surprise.

“Yes, I am here for a few days.  Let me introduce you to Oren, up and coming son and heir to the Velgrey house.” Martell spoke, fighting back a smile. “And Oren, this is Rowenn, the One Hundred Twenty-Eighth Priestess of Avo.  Though you may refer to her as Lady Rowenn.”

“A pleasure to meet you Oren.” Rowenn bowed to Oren, “Martell, did you know the Tethinger Order has removed you from their records?  They say you left the order for good.”

“Yes I do, let us consider it a difference of opinion on how the world works.  Did they remove anyone else from the Falcon class from the records as well?”

“No, there was a series of demotions that happened when your name was removed, but no one else was removed.”

“Cowards,” Martell scoffed. “They agreed with me upon my departure, but no one else had the courage to follow through.  I expected at least three others to have left when I did.  Rowenn I will stop by later and give you the details.”

“No need, I know what has changed there, but it is probably more than you know.  The most recent candidates are no longer required to spend time here before proceeding into the order.”

“They are now recruiting those with less noble skills,” Rowenn continued.  “The last one that they sent here for discernment tried taking what few objects I leave here.  It was only a candle holder that I caught him trying to take, but the lack of respect for my goddess and her temple was something I could not stay quiet about.”

The three of them spent time catching up on events. According to Rowenn, the changes at the Tethinger Order seem to include other incidents of failure to teach respect for the order’s traditions.  The town was starting to question the Tethinger Order.  Not outright questioning, but if you knew where to listen or lingered in the right taverns you would hear things.  They are not promoting them to knights but referring to them as agents.  The agents are then sent off in service to numerous lords of the kingdom, but beyond that she had no information on what they did.

Before leaving the temple, Rowenn closed her eyes and walked over to Oren and handed him a ring.  Her eyes still closed and she spoke, “Shadows are drawn to you, but something hides you from them.  Spirits can be your ally if you have a focus.  Use this ring to work with them, it causes pain and submission.  Balance should guide you.”  A moment passed before Rowenn opened her eyes, “I do not have any memory of what was said, but the goddess has spoken her piece.  Whatever she has said, trust her wisdom.”

“Thank you Rowenn,” Martell spoke then bowed.

“Thank you both.” Oren followed and bowed.

Outside, Martell spoke to Oren’s confusion on what happened, “She cannot choose when or what the goddess says.  It is up to you if you think it is her or not.”