I was sweating, and were it not against the rules of the gods I served to do so, I would have sworn.
The silence that followed was even more nerve wracking; I dared not get up to retrieve the covers, and the light of my night candle seemed too tenuous and meager to venture. Still, sitting up against the headboard and cowering would serve no purpose either, so after some minutes, where nothing else seemed it was going to occur, and the desire to sleep had fled, I got up.
Snatching covers, then? A rather childish prank.
My pounding heart had begun throb once more, and my breathing evened out.
I ran a hand through my hair, more out of distraction than a need to straighten, and went over to my writing desk, where my brandy decanter sat, and poured myself a healthy dose.
I’ve never had them come to me before. They’re after me now, to get to her.
Fool! You should’ve known it would only be a matter of time.
That meant the temple was now at risk too, though it was all but abandoned in patronage and congregants, all stragglers really, like me, who, for whatever reason, just didn’t want to let go.
I possessed no certain powers or gifts that they would need, and I realized the childish prank was a message: they could get to me, and when they did, they would use Xantara’s affection for me to catch and kill her.
I will return overmorrow. The day after tomorrow.
We were now into the wee hours of this day, which was all I had to try to send her a message, though I had no way of knowing how to do that.
Find a way.
There was only one way, and it was not an easy one. It was perilous in terrain as well as the occupants in it, but it would be my only chance.
In the hillsides surrounding the temple was a hidden path, stony and steep, that led into the dark woods, known for having little sun and nothing good inside. It was a pestilence on the land, but we’d defeated them long ago, and they remained there, also in dwindling number, being unable to prey any longer on the populace.
A victory the gods of light had won, at great cost.
But their ancient magic still pulsed in putrid waves throughout the woods, corrupting tree and creature and stream, and it seemed they too, were unwilling to let go.
In this, I was fortunate, for now I could seek a Summoner, one of those who were able to bridge the gap between worlds untold and unspeakable, and ours.
For the remainder of the night, I packed for my journey, though I had no idea how long it would take. I was a fair enough horseman, and handy with a crossbow (which for all I knew they could burn in my hands).
While packing, I shook, and mumbled, and drank brandy, but the overall factor was protecting Xantara. I told myself I was not, in fact, running away; if they killed me, I’d have no further part in things, and therefore would not be blamed for the inevitable, even if history branded me a coward.
Still, it felt like I was doing exactly that: no one would know if I left for good, and when they found out, they wouldn’t care.
They scared you off without even touching you.
I ignored that voice, and checked the crossbow to make sure everything was still working. I didn’t hunt often, but I used this when I did; I liked the feel of it, the swiftness of the arrow, the finality of the kill, and the silence of the falling prey, like Xantara’s falling demon.
It was almost graceful the way it fell, until it crashed.
I admit to being surprised the noise of the table breaking brought none of the other clerics running, but when I looked over, the table had been as it always was, so there was no reason to fear.
Leave now, Harkin. You’re conflicted, and trying to put it off with useless memories.
I began to leave, and the sound of footsteps behind followed me to the door.
I stopped and turned, and said to no one visible, “You can’t have her.”
And once again, the laughter, far more low and sinister, rumbling through the soles of my feet, filled the room.
I somehow managed to close the door with my hand shaking.
The sun was just kissing the edge of the horizon awake when I finally set out.
I would reach the dark woods in the late afternoon; it was doubtful if the horse would go in, or if I could maneuver him if he did, so I’d already resolved to do the last leg of the journey on foot, which meant I would be in the Dark Wood at night.
Since no one had ever explored it to chart it, at least that I knew of, what happened in there at night was even more of a mystery than what happened during the day, but I’d also resolved to make it out alive, otherwise, this undertaking was purposeless.
It would be no mean feat if I survived, but would I be coherent.
I shook my head; too much speculation on the unknown. I’d have to trust myself, and this animal, to deal with whatever came up.
Leaving my thoughts, I gave over to admiring the view.
The hills were yet green, with a tint of autumn in the leaves now, and birdcalls sounded in cacophonous harmonies in the trees, as morning flocks of geese took wing to their feeding places.
The air was sharp, and clean, invigorating me, and I promised myself that if I did live, and remained sane, I would explore the surrounding countryside more frequently.
Duties were binding, and sometimes limiting, and kept one from doing things far more important.
The gods were served were benign, and I would go so far as to say, somewhat ineffective: gods of trees and stones and water, small gods of nature to micromanage what the bigger gods of planets and stars and weather had no time for, or didn’t want to be bothered with.
The people, for a time, seemed to be content with that, and the temple, while not wealthy, prospered well enough until the years of drought, and everything died but the trees of the Dark Wood.
Those brave enough to try and bring out the occupants to help us were never seen again, and the pyres of livestock and people burned high and long during those years.
Those who didn’t get sick, or try to wait things out, packed and left.
With their leaving, the temple, and its useless clerics and ineffective gods, fell from favor, and the offerings dried up along with the crops.
Some of the clerics, like me, who had no other family, simply waited for the end, and lived off the last of the stockpile we’d saved, and somehow made it through the winter.
That spring, the rains returned with a vengeance, and had remained more or less consistent, but the people who trickled in now to try their hand were mostly new farmers, so the land would take some time to turn fertile again for abundant crops; they could still eke meager ones while they worked together to establish themselves.
They were willing to do the hard work in order to claim the land their own, but few had come to the temple to replenish the congregation.
But we had another problem: with the Protectors gone, and the creeping demise of the temple, whose minor gods had now abandoned the faithless, the demons, sensing the absence of power to stop them, were returning.
And with only one Protector left, after they killed her, the clerics were the next line of defense they would take down.
I then recalled the dream of the young boy who’d beheaded Xantara, but whether it was dire prophecy, or just a nightmare, I couldn’t know.
I was on a fool’s mission, to save a world that didn’t deserve it, and to place the burden of that squarely on the shoulders of a young, untried girl who shouldn’t be alive, and trusted me.
You can’t have her, I’d said to the demon that dogged my steps, and even now, was certainly trailing me.
You can’t have her.
And now, I had to make that happen.
At any cost.