By: Timothy Law
The year is 514, Vladimir the Young is Sage-King of the human kingdom of Thuraen.
The year is 5,297, Ulan is High Prince, Derek is Low Prince and Sienna Alknown is Mother Druid of the sylvan princedom of Greenwood Vale.
Paechra Lightheart, sister druid of Greenwood Vale sat beside a small campfire feeding it the occasional log to keep it burning brightly. She did this more out of habit than necessity, the night was warm and still. She watched the yellow and orange flames dance, looking for signs from the spirits that the world was fuming and agitated just as she was, but such signs could not be found. For the moment, at so late an hour, those around Paechra were at peace, slumbering soundly and deeply. The crackle of the happy blaze gave the druid the chance to reflect back upon the journey she and so many of her sylvan kin had undertaken.
A full day had passed by since her conversation with the human, Head Truth Keeper Anton of Andrapaal, capital city of the human kingdom of Thuraen. Paechra's friend, and sister druid Heidi had been present also when the discussion was had. It was a conversation in regards to how best to test capabilities of the army of just over a thousand sylvan people that had chosen to gather and leave Greenwood Vale. Paechra had been in awe to see just how many chose to leave after Mother Druid Sienna Alknown had made a passionate speech in the Greenwood Vale Sacred Grove. So many of Paechra's kind now followed towards certain battle.
Both Heidi and Anton had suggested doubt at the battle worthiness of those simple forest folk who had never picked up a weapon. This doubt had been of no surprise to Paechra to hear it from Anton, but to hear Heidi agree with the Head Truth Keeper had caused Paechra to second guess her plan, this had led to Paechra's frustration, a feeling she just could not seem to shake. Since initially discovering the presence of the vorsurk in Thuraen, and in Andrapaal, the heart of the human kingdom, Paechra had thought of nothing else but asking the sylvan people to come to the aid of humanity, just as they had over five thousand years before. It had been challenging to bring a small representation of Thuraen to Greenwood Vale, but Paechra had managed to accomplish this feat. It had then been a greater challenge to convince High Prince Ulan to willingly send sylvan to the aid of the invaded kingdom, a challenge that Paechra still could not believe she had failed. Out of such a failure though had come something beyond the young druid's hopes, with the support of Mother Druid Sienna Alknown, Paechra's army had gathered and grown. The people had made their own decision, sylvan heart coming to the fore at the cry for support of what had to be a worthy cause. What could possibly go wrong? And yet Anton and Heidi had both agreed that Paechra's army was not yet capable of facing vorsurk forces.
"We are fierce," Paechra told herself. "We are ready."
Paechra was alone, sitting by the fire. There were a number of tents and other makeshift shelters spread out like a moving village, each shelter holding three or four humans or sylvan, the gathering making a pilgrimage from Greenwood Vale to Thuraen, and eventually to Andrapaal at the heart of the human kingdom where Paechra suspected they would find hordes of the wolf-like warriors and sorcerers battling with humans for control of the city.
Centuries ago, the vorsurk had enslaved the whole of humanity and many of the other races as well. History recorded that the sylvan race had driven the vorsurk back from the lush lands that bordered the mystical forest groves like Greenwood Vale and hounded the wolf pack to the sandy deserts in the far east.
Thanks to a tome of dark magic, smuggled into Andrapaal, the vorsurk had been allowed to return. Paechra was determined not to let them stay long enough to get settled again.
"Sylvan of history were able to drive back these beasts, I myself have fought some on occasion," Paechra muttered to herself. "How dare Anton suggest that we are not ready How dare Heidi, my faithful friend Heidi She has suggested that we will flee "
Paechra shook her head, the flames catching her blonde locks and making them shine.
"I know that we will prove them wrong," vowed the young Lightheart. "I have faith in my people and in the humans who we travel with, we are indeed ready, and I will find a way to prove it."
Staring deep into the flames of the campfire Paechra felt herself begin to doze. In her mind Paechra knew that she had a way to seek out the wolfish enemy, they were always seeking a way to join minds with and then overcome the sylvan, especially druids who had a magical connection with the world. The vorsurk sorcerers were always hunting for an opening, seeking prey to devour, mind, body, and soul. Traveling with the small group of humans Paechra had almost been caught out, her personal mission finished before it had truly had a chance to begin. Paechra had been able to drive back the sorcerer though, she had proven herself strong enough. Considering Anton and Heidi's words, Paechra now wondered if her strength would be enough for all. There was a tingling in Paechra's mind as she felt that same sorcerer who had battled her before trying the same again. So far from Greenwood Vale and the sacred grove there, the protective spirits that watched over the sylvan and hid them away from enemies no longer had that capability, the sylvan had travelled too far for that. The wolves were hunting, and they rarely hunted alone.
"No, this is not the time or the place," the druid said to herself, she tried to fight the feeling and disengage. "I need rest, we shall try this during the daylight of the morrow."
As she sat, to distract herself and break free of the vorsurk's probing, Paechra thought back to Sienna's speech and counted in her mind just how many had answered that call. As the group had made their way through other sylvan forests their number had swelled and continued to grow, the stone tossed into the pond did indeed ripple far and fast.
"We are almost double our initial number," Paechra whispered to the fire, and she smiled, thinking of the size of the army helping her to grow more confident again. "I wonder just how many more will come in support of our cause, to fight for the freedom of humankind."
Paechra considered the lateness of the hour and the long day of travel planned and decided that she would have to eventually at least try to sleep.
Retiring for the evening she joined her friend Heidi in the shelter that they shared with another sister druid. The smell of the smoke from the extinguished campfire still tickled Paechra's nose as she climbed beneath her simple blanket. The shimmering starlight in the dark sky above comforted Paechra and soon she drifted into slumber.
"I see you," hissed a voice.
Paechra, eyes closed tried to discover whether the voice was in her mind or not. Realizing that the sound was spoken, close by, and not a mental message she opened her eyes slowly and discovered that she was again crouching before the campfire. The flames that she was sure she had extinguished only moments before burned brightly. This time though the flames glowed green, purple, and blue, not the normal orange and yellow. Also, strangely there was no heat from the fire although it burned strongly. What radiated instead from the flickering tongues was a bitter cold that sank deep into Paechra's very soul.
"I told you to leave me be," stated Paechra bravely.
"Your wish and what is reality can be two very separate things, little lamb," replied the voice.
Paechra tried to rise from the flames but found she was being held in place by some unseen force.
"Show yourself, that I may truly know my enemy," demanded Paechra.
"You know of me, little one, we have met before."
Paechra cast her mind back to the time only days ago, perhaps not more than a week past when she tried guiding the small group of humans towards the ghoul ship, The Picturesque Picaresque. It had been a short battle of wills then and Paechra believed this encounter would prove to be the same.
"You know that I have beaten you before," stated the druid. "Why have you foolishly chosen to engage with me again?"
"I the fool?" sniggered the wolfish voice. "That first engagement perhaps but not this time "
"What is different this time?" asked Paechra, uncertainty creeping into her voice.
"This time I am not alone," howled the vorsurk.
"Well neither am I," announced Paechra.
With brute mental strength she forced herself to avert her eyes from the strange fire's flames. As her head rose, Paechra found the pressures upon her weaken and she was able to stand up.
"Look about you, little lamb," stated the hooded figure that stood only five yards away from Paechra. "You are surrounded and here in this realm you ARE alone."
Quickly Paechra flicked her eyes around the darkness and saw that behind the vorsurk sorcerer there were well over a hundred wolf-like foot-soldiers. Some bore spears, swords, but all were equipped with the deadly claws that vorsurk were born with.
"One hundred and twenty creatures of death," stated the sorcerer. "Each one of them merely awaits my command to stride through the vale and into your sleeping campsite."
"If that is the case," thought Paechra quickly. "All I must do is this "
The words of power came forth from the druid's lips immediately, a spell conjuring an arcane spider-like web which wrapped around the sorcerer's maw.
Eyes narrowed, more annoyed than angry and the wolf-like vorsurk simply ran a sharp claw through the bonds. They sliced through easily and fell away.
"Who is the fool now, little one?" growled the wolf.
Paechra wrapped herself in the guise of a she-bear, but in this place her magic felt wrong. Instead of a pure blue the shadow that surrounded her was purple, black, grey, \7and swirling not solid. The spell felt as though it was eating away at her, so she let it go. Instead of fading away, the spirit form remained. The spectral she-bear growled deeply and then rose up before Paechra, meaning to strike.
"Jhathrat feeloo tha ghurtnun " stated Paechra in a soothing tone.
The bear was not happy to hear such words though, normally a calming spell. Instead, it gave another deep, throaty growl before raking Paechra with its fore-claws. Paechra gasped in pain as the claws dragged down her front. Hurriedly Paechra stepped back and watched the bear cautiously.
"Your spells do not work as you wish here, my lamb, not as mine do," announced the vorsurk. "Now let us see how well your so called army handles mine "
"My magic has failed me, but I still have my hands and my feet," cried Paechra.
As the sorcerer began to flick through his tome of dark magicks Paechra rushed towards him and threw a punch. The bawled fist smacked into the creature's maw, behind it all of Paechra's frustrations and fears.
"What is the meaning of this?" cried the sorcerer. "One of you seize the girl!"
As one, a hundred and twenty foot soldiers rushed forward to obey their master. The scene was one of undisciplined chaos. Vorsurk collided with one another and tumbled sideways, armor screeched, and spears knocked, one soldier fell wounded followed by two more. Paechra kicked the sorcerer before sidestepping to the left as the bear charged at her. The sorcerer grunted as he was knocked over instead.
"Gotcha!" growled one of the wolfish soldiers as Paechra felt his claws upon her shoulders. Struggling Paechra found another soldier grappled her around the waist, as the third tackled her around the knees and knocked her down to the ground the druid knew she was caught.
"You three, hold her still " ordered the sorcerer.
All Paechra could do was watch and hope as the curtain between the real world and the realm of magic was for a moment cast aside.
"Kill them all," ordered the sorcerer.
"Arise! We are under attack!" screamed Paechra.
The vorsurk ran through the camp with torches lit and weapons drawn. Tents smoldered and then came alight. Sylvan rushed out and were struck down by the soldiers. The smell of fire and blood caused the creatures to howl with lust. Paechra struggled to break free from the trio that held her down. She could see herself kneeling beside the extinguished campfire staring at the dead coals.
"Paechra! Paechra!" called a voice over the sounds of battle.
"I am here!" Paechra cried, in frustration she saw that her figure in the real world remained silent and still.
In the haze of battle Paechra saw a figure approach her and wrench her to her feet. The she-bear spirit struck out at the three vorsurk that held her firm, and they scattered, releasing her. As Paechra felt her soul join again with her body the arcane figure of the angered bear appeared around her. This time the magic was true, a beautiful blue that Paechra trusted.
"To me!" cried the druid and she saw with relief a number of her sisters with their own outlines ready to strike out as a pack.
The vorsurk foot soldiers made a good fight of it but the determination of the sylvan was too much for so few numbers. Eighty swiftly became forty and then ten. Finally, all that remained was the sorcerer.
"Remain and be destroyed," vowed Sienna who had joined the fight as the tide had turned.
"As you say, old one," replied the vorsurk before stepping back through the curtain which then vanished from sight.
"Bury the dead and bring back those who have run away," ordered the mother druid.
"Come, daughter, we have been given our task," suggested Paechra's mother, beckoning towards Paechra.
The younger Lightheart was looking around at what have previously been the village, home away from home. Not one structure remained untouched. Of the sylvan who had answered the call of Sienna Alknown not even half remained. Paechra heard the groans of suffering coming from her people, perhaps fifty or so. Beside them quietly wept those whose kin had closed their eyes for the last time, struck down in the battle, never to rise again.
"I did this," thought the young druid, whispering the words.
"Paechra my friend you must not say such things," replied Heidi, close enough to have overheard her friend.
"I thought that we were ready, we are so not though," Paechra continued, a sadness tinting her voice.
"You were not to know that the vorsurk would attack us this day, none of us could have known that" said Heidi as she gave Paechra's shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
Paechra shrugged off the gesture and turned to face Heidi.
"I did know, Heidi," she said, almost shouting. "At least I felt the sorcerer trying to make the connection and I chose to tell no one."
"Why then, Paechra?" asked Heidi, shocked to hear this admission. "Why ignore such warnings?"
"I thought I was strong enough," whispered Paechra in disbelief. "I thought that you and Anton were wrong."
"And now look at what such foolish thoughts have achieved," stated Sienna as she hobbled towards the pair.
"You are injured!" gasped Heidi, rushing to the ancient sylvan's aid.
Paechra saw the deep claw marks that oozed bloody crimson from Sienna's left thigh. Her guilt multiplied tenfold.
"It is but a scratch, child," stated Sienna, waving Heidi away. "It shall be naught but a scar in a day or two."
Again, Paechra forced herself to look around, calculating the level of destruction.
"I am not fit to lead," she suggested and hung her head.
"Nonsense," spat Sienna. "When you were captured and forced to watch on as we were attacked you risked everything to shout a warning."
"Yes, that is true," agreed Heidi. "Your cry woke us from our slumber."
"Daughter, your actions have saved many," said Paechra's mother with a weak smile. "Your initial cry and then the way you called us all together, they are indeed the actions of a leader."
"But those who have perished could still be alive, those injured could still be whole," the daughter replied. "And that also is because of me, my stubbornness, my determination to do things my way, myself."
Many of those who had run at the first sounds of battle had started to return. They seemed shocked at the state of the army, trying their best to help extinguish the structures that still smoldered.
"Paechra this skirmish was my first experience of battle," said Thomas, the butcher joining the conversation. "You hear stories from truth keepers about war and battle, but nothing prepares you for the real thing, not until you experience it yourself."
"I thank you then Thomas, for keeping your head and coming to my aid," stated Paechra graciously.
"No, Paechra it was not me," admitted Thomas.
"Not you?" Paechra replied in surprise.
"I thought about it, but I do not hold the courage such an action would require," Thomas stated sadly, not willing to meet Paechra's grateful gaze.
"Then who?" asked the young Lightheart, confused. "Who chose to help me in my moment of need?"
"Me," said a voice from the edge of the gathering. "It was me who saw that you needed aid "
Paechra's eyes grew wide in disbelief and her confusion deepened.
"Why, why did you do such a thing for me?" she asked, unsure if she wanted to know the answer.