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?”
“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. “