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The parchment sealed, Elmyra hobbled outside on tired legs. Wind breezed cold on her face, forcing her to squint as she walked to the small pigeon coop off to the side of her hut. Sunshine felt far away. A fluttering of wings and a bit of twine send the parchment into the sky, and old eyes stare after it. Ancient eyes.
One pair of eyes belonged to the Elmyra. The others? Well.
The bird wasn’t the fastest bird, or the most graceful. But it was the only bird Elmyra Cairon had. The others had fallen to the last winter, and she didn’t care to buy more.
She didn’t believe that she would be around much longer.
The bird fluttered along above the treeline, clumsily gaining altitude. Its yellow-red eyes stared out, blinking quickly. Were it a human, it would wonder if it was able to make it. But instinct drove the bird higher. Farther. The pigeon may not have been graceful, or fast — but it was old and reliable.
The parchment staggers its stride, but pigeon pride ensures that it reaches its destination just in time.
Finally able to descend, our pigeon makes an exhausted dive down toward the treeline, leaving what was left of the sun disappearing behind the Zephyr Mountains and entering the cool of the shade. It seemed to breathe a heavy sigh, swooping to land on the arm of a tall and lanky elf. The man gave a chuckle as he untied the paper from the bird’s quivering leg.
“Ch’arleh, a message came for us. Judging from the bird, its probably your mother.”
A snort-laugh came from a cave entrance behind the tall elf. The sound of a sword sliding into a sheath was followed by a whet-stone thudding on a wood table. Ch’arleh came out, auburn hair pulled into a high ponytail.
“That’s definitely my mother’s bird.” He picked it up gently and stroked its head. The bird cooed pleasantly. “She’s had this thing for as long as I can remember. Its time is almost up though.”
He set the bird onto a branch, and it sat and stared at him as he took the parchment back into the damp cave. Ducking to get into the opening, he stood and walked long strides into the mountain. Candles perched wherever they could, casting dancing shadows over shelves of scroll and tome. The oaken chair that used to be his father’s waited patiently for him, and he sat with a grunt. Cracked wax and rustled paper revealed the words with familiar handwriting:
Halharken East of the Zephyrs and travelling Westward.
Among them is one of your cousins from your father’s side and a human noble.
He has some understanding of the arcane.
Something is not right, son. Please be careful. With love,
Ch’arleh stared at the parchment for a long time, feeling its rough texture between his fingers.
How much magic did she use to get this information?
He shook the concern over his mother aside and set his mind to work. He had little cause to worry for her, considering his plan. The Halharken have exposed themselves on this side of the Zephyrs during the peace.
“Hmph. Peace indeed.” He whispered to himself. Action needed to be taken. If the Halharken were here, it meant that the Crown was willing to risk exposing itself. What made this risk worthwhile?
“J’imh! Send word to the outposts to recall their troops back here.” Ch’ar shouted into the mouthpiece of a wooden tube that ran from beside his chair, along the ceiling and to the mouth of the cave. He removed his hair, and let it hang down to his shoulders. The flickering darkness intensified as the smallest breeze toys with the candles. A poison breeze that comes from within the cave. From the shadows themselves. Ch’arleh smiles to his invisible allies, whispering words that allows their dark energy to flow through him. Words neither human, elven, or even ancient orc.
He felt electric as his hairs seemed to throb with hungry power, standing on end. A power no one knew of but him. Not even his dear, sweet mother.
A fluttering of wings outside disappeared into the darkening woods, calling his Ravens. Ch’arleh opened a scroll he had read dozens of times before — a scroll that had the language he spoke inscribed in harsh, foul-looking scribbles. Scribbles that seemed to shift and change to an untrained eye.
The symbols surrounded an image of a particularly evil-looking mask. He mouthed the words that titled the forbidden paper to himself with a smile:
Robert and Omar smiled at each other and took a swig of their water at the same time. The plan they devised was perfect. They finished with just enough time for the sun to retire and for a crescent moon to rise. With the Halharken keeping guard around the makeshift campground, they both felt comfortable enough to get their rest. They needed it in the day to come. Omar fell asleep instantly, soft snores oozing from a wiry beard.
Hours passed, and the sliver of moon crept slowly above. Robert tossed and turned on the hard ground. He stood with a frustrated sigh. Maybe a walk would calm his nerves.
The Halharken were notoriously silent and so Robert did his best to match as he walked. The night itself seemed to absorb sound, as even the insects held their breath. He felt lonely even though he knew he was under guard. Finally, he saw a hooded figure standing next to a thick tree trunk. Thinking some small talk might just bore him enough to sleep, Robert strode to the silhouette of his guardian.
“A quieter night I have never seen. And yet I cannot sleep,” Robert softly spoke as he walked up. “How goes your watch, tracker?”
Silence replied from the leaning figure. a beat passed and Robert froze where he stood.
He kept his distance as he circled around wide, hand on the pommel of his weapon. A cloud passed over the waning crescent moon, stealing what little light there was. The hood still obscured the face of the figure as he came to stand in front. Roberts nerves were frayed and he shouted over his own thundering heart:
“Speak or I will cut you down!”
The figure jerked suddenly, no longer leaning against the thick oak.
“Oh, Gods! Sir! I apologize, I must have fallen asleep.” The man sheepishly admitted. Robert breathed a sigh of frustrated relief and chuckled as he looked down.
“You scared the iron from my blood!” Looking back up Robert saw the man’s face. Young. Eyes bulging in terror. Robert’s mouth hung open – unable to speak – as he saw a thin line appear across the youth’s throat. A thin line grew thicker and began to spray blood as his head rolled from his shoulders. The head plopped to the ground and rolled enough for the bulging eyes to reflect the light of the moon peeking back out from the clouds. The body remained standing perfectly upright.
Robert steeled his stomach against the urge to projectile vomit and drew his blade with a practiced hand. Glances around him revealed no one. Nothing. The headless body still stood with an eerie stiffness.
Then it shuddered!