Halwyn stared in silence at the shroud-covered corpse of his mentor, Father Granger. He had taken care to cleanse Father Granger’s body before wrapping him in linens and digging the grave. Like most other things in this world, the soil was blasted, dead, and fought against his efforts with each scoop of the shovel.
Sweat poured down his face, stinging his eyes, yet the pain didn’t bother him. It was a distraction from the rest of the world. The warrior in him welcomed the physical labor. Muscles awakened that hadn’t seen use for a long time. The effort and burn took him back to his days as a mercenary, digging trenches and preparing a defensible position. It was straightforward work in those days. The cleric in him was another story, that aspect of him floundered with questions and doubt.
As gently as he could, he lowered his Father Granger’s body into the ground. Halwyn scratched at his long beard. It was beginning to gray like what was left of the hair on his head. After another moment of rest, he began the arduous task of filling the grave with soil. It wasn’t long before his friend was completely covered. Gone, like everything else that was good in the world.
While Granger’s body belonged to the earth, his soul was a mystery. With the death of their deity, Earung, and the sundering of the heavens, Halwyn no longer knew where the dead could go. He had an idea and it wasn’t comforting in the least. There was a reason why he secured Father Granger’s arms and legs with a heavy rope before burying him.
Thunder boomed in the distance, rolling through the sky and echoing across the valley. The sudden chill in the air told him it wouldn’t be long before the storm was upon him. It didn’t rain much anymore, but when it did, it came down with a fury.
Halwyn shoveled the last patch of earth over Father Granger and started to chant the traditional death prayer that would help usher Granger’s spirit to Earung and Her golden lodge. However, the words were empty, lacking the divine connection he had grown used to.
Halwyn shuffled back to the church, entering the small building just as the first drops of rain began to fall. He closed the door behind him and made his way to the hearth. The fire had died down to embers.
He grabbed the heavy war hammer that hung above the mantle. It used to be Father Granger’s, now it was his. The weapon had been forged by Earung’s chosen smiths from a black metal mined from the Bleak Caverns in the south. Silver filigree decorated the handle as well as the sharp point opposite the hammer end. Before the sundering, the hammer had sung with Earung’s blessing. Now, its silence was much louder.
Halwyn turned and swung the weapon, smashing into the side of an elaborately carved pew. The wood cracked and splintered into several pieces. He tossed the hammer to the floor and used the broken chunks of the pew to stoke the fire back to life. Once the fire was going again, he rechecked his wards. They were intact, the clean lines carved into the mantle of the fireplace, creating a row of swirling symbols and esoteric designs were perfect—no demons would find their way into his hall tonight, at least not through the fire.
Halwyn thought about warming up a pot of stew, but he wasn’t hungry. He couldn’t quite remember when he had last eaten. Perhaps it was yesterday afternoon before he had found Father Granger hanging from the rafters.
He glanced up to the ceiling. A length of frayed rope still hung from the rough-hewn wood as if inviting him to join his mentor.
The wind outside worked in concert with the rain, trying to batter its way into the church with relentless fervor. Halwyn huddled next to the fire, staring at the flames. He lost himself in their chaotic dance. Soon, he began to listen to their infernal whispers.
The whispers told him things. Nasty things that crept into the dark corners of his soul. When Halwyn came to, he had a coil of rope in his hands, the end of which was fashioned into a noose.
He dropped it to the ground as a quiet laugh echoed through the room. Halwyn stood and scanned the darkness. There was nobody else there. He triple-checked the wards. They were still there, but something was with him. The tingle on the back of his neck was more than enough indication.
He held his breath and listened, hoping to catch the noise of movement. The old building creaked in the wind, but there wasn’t anything else. Halwyn was about to return to the debate of dinner when a noise came with the breeze. Quiet at first, then rising to something unmistakable—a child’s scream.
He ran to the door and peered into the darkness. At first, he wasn’t able to see anything through the rain, but then movement caught his eye. Two cloaked figures raced toward the church. They looked behind them, searching for something, or someone.
Out of instinct, Halwyn spoke the divine words, pleading with Earung to grant him the blessing of light. The plea fell on deaf ears and instead of a ball of white brilliance, there was nothing. He cursed, spitting onto the floor.
As they neared, a third figure appeared, a child ran between the two. One of the adults stumbled, falling to the ground.
Halwyn scanned the tree line trying to see what was giving chase. For a heartbeat, he thought he spied a dark shadow slipping through the timber, something with eyes that glimmered a ruby red, but it was gone as fast as it had appeared. He’d seen too much in his time to count it off as a trick of the forest. Something was out there.
The trio was moving again, albeit a little slower as the one who fell was limping. Halwyn opened the door wide and waved them over.
“Hurry,” he said.
As they neared the church’s fence, the trio stopped. One of the adults hunched near the gate. Halwyn was about to go help them, as he knew the latch could stick, but they started to run once again.
They were almost to the door when he saw they were elves, with their pointed ears and angular features giving away their heritage. He almost slammed the door shut out of instinct. His lips curled into a sneer. The two adult elves stopped. The child took a couple more steps, but stopped when she noticed her parents were no longer moving. She cast a curious look toward Halwyn. Tears cut through the grime on the child’s cheeks and she stared at Halwyn with wide eyes. She couldn’t be more than 10 winters.
Halwyn was at a loss. His mind told him to close the door and send them away. For all he knew, they would try and kill him, perhaps even make a meal out of him. There were rumors of wild elves roaming the countryside that enjoyed the taste of man-flesh.
Father Granger would have let them in. He was always better at being a servant of Earung. Besides, the way the child looked at him, her sky-blue eyes a mixture of curiosity, fear, and hope. He’d seen that look before, in his own daughter.
“Come on,” Halwyn said through his teeth and opened the door wider.
The two adults dashed inside, but the child stood at the doorway. Her hair matched the metal of the war hammer and was plastered to her forehead by the rain. She stared past Halwyn, her gaze locked onto the rafters where the frayed rope swayed. The rope moved as it had when Granger was tied to the end of it. Halwyn blinked hard a few times, hoping it would stop, but the rope continued to move. It had to be the wind.
The woman grabbed the child and pulled her in. “Thank the gods,” the woman said.
“The gods are dead,” Halwyn said as he secured the door.
She was about to say something when the man hobbled in front of her. “Well then, thank you, sir,” he said.
They had thick accents. Halwyn had heard that accent before during the Battle of Glyntwood Hollow. The memories made Halwyn’s blood boil. He was regretting not sending them away even more.
The wood elves had killed many of his companions during that battle. However, that was a long time ago, and Earung did not discriminate. Halwyn would try and emulate that. Father Granger would always say, help those in need for we are extensions of Earung’s hope. We are Her will. We are Her hammer.
Halwyn motioned for them toward the fire. The woman ushered the child toward the hearth and removed her cloak. She was tall, taller than most elves he had seen with hair the color of midnight. She had it braided and wrapped up in a tight bun, held together with colorful ribbon and carved sticks. The elf woman had a nasty cut on her hand that was bleeding all over the floor.
“You can find some clean bandages in a box over there,” Halwyn said pointing to some crates. The woman nodded then proceeded to the crate of supplies. The man stayed behind. He was shorter than the woman, though not by much. His hair was cut short, indicating he was a warrior of the Glyntwood. He crossed his arms in front of him in the traditional elven greeting.
“I am Taylik alth Wuld.”
Halwyn bowed his head slightly and cast his gaze at the woman and child.
“She is my wife, Yonwyl alth Indal and our child, Wyla alth Taylik.”
The words came out almost as a grunt, but Taylik didn’t seem to mind. He crossed his arms once again, keeping them pinned to his chest until Halwyn acknowledged the greeting. Taylik then joined his family by the fire.
Halwyn watched them for a moment before moving to the window. Nobody had come out of the timber yet. Whoever it was, they would come later when Halwyn and the others were resting. When their guard was down. It’s what he would do. Whoever, or whatever was out there was probably assessing the situation, trying to figure out how many were in the church. Was it just Halwyn? He was sure once they figured out he was the only one in the place and not much help, they would make their move. He was sure of it.
Halwyn joined the others.
“What brings you so far from the Glyntwood?” Halwyn asked.
Taylik looked to Yonwyl but before either of them could say anything the child spoke up.
“The monsters came and burned it.”
“Burned your home?” Halwyn asked.
“The Glyntwood,” Yonwyl said. “It is no more than ash and cinder.”
Despite the horrible circumstances of his visit to the Glyntwood, Halwyn had always found the towering trees quite beautiful. He understood why the elves had called it home. Before his time as a mercenary, he had built his own home near a similar forest. Towering trees that stretched to the heavens as far as the eyes could see. Before he had become a disciple of Earung, he was not a religious man, but the forest was his church, where he felt most at peace. The news of the burned forest was heavy on his heart.
Burned in the fire. Scorched in ember.
The voice, slippery and soft, slithered into his ears, invading everything. Halwyn looked to the flames at the hearth. They burned strong. Strong enough to bring this building down and consume everything, living and dead with it.
Yes. Burn it. Let the skin blister and the marrow boil. Bring the timber down.
The timber. Halwyn looked up once again to the rafter with the broken length of rope. He rubbed his temples and the voice faded.
“Where are the rest of your people?” Halwyn asked.
Taylik stood and leaned against the wall. An expression of pain rippled across the elf’s face and he let out a sigh. “What few remain are scattered to the four winds. Once demons came, we took flight.”
“And what do the demons want with your small wood?”
Taylik cast a glance to Yonwyl, whose eyes flickered to Wyla. Yonwyl pulled the child close.
“Nothing. They sought to destroy it, like everything else,” Yonwyl said.
Halwyn made a mental note. They were hiding something, and the girl was key, but he couldn’t figure out how. There wasn’t anything particularly special about the child. She was lithe, as was characteristic of her race, with sharp eyes. Nothing out of place, yet, the more he stared at her, the more everything seemed out of place with her. He couldn’t figure it out.
“Do you live here by yourself?” Wyla asked.
Halwyn stared at the girl. Yonwyl pulled Wyla aside, speaking to the girl in elvish. Halwyn knew enough to pick out a few words, understanding that she was telling her not to bother the big man.
“It’s okay,” Halwyn said. “I used to live here with Father Granger and Earung’s blessing. I am alone now.”
“Well you’re not alone anymore, we are here,” Wyla said.
Halwyn couldn’t help but smile.
“Indeed,” he said.
Yes, more for the ropes. More for the fire.
Halwyn scratched at his head and willed the voice to disappear. Wyla’s brow scrunched up in confusion and she looked about the church.
Taylik walked over to Halwyn and pulled a small leather bag from his belt. He opened it up and offered the contents to him.
“Dried nevis seasoned with ulwa leaf,” Taylik said.
Nevis were kin to deer, but much larger and very difficult to hunt. The meat was naturally sweet, and the spicy ulwa leaf complimented the flavor well. Halwyn’s stomach grumbled and he started to salivate; however, he still didn’t trust these elves. For all he knew, it was drugged and he would be their next meal.
Halwyn shook his head and pushed the bag away from his face.
Taylik’s smile faltered for a moment. Halwyn had just made cultural mistake. Elves were very generous and sharing. To refuse an offering was considered rude in their culture. Taylik turned and offered the bag to Yonwyl and Wyla. They both took a piece and began to devour it. Taylik looked in the bag, reached for a piece, then pulled his hand away with a sigh. He secured the drawstring and put the bag back on his belt. After a moment he limped over to one of the pews and sat down with a grunt.
Yonwyl watched, then broke a piece of her meat in half. She walked over and gave it to Taylik. He smiled, nodded a thanks, and ate the meat. Halwyn’s stomach rumbled and he regretted not taking some of the nevis, so he decided to make the soup after all.
He gathered the ingredients from the back room and began to heat the water over the fire. As he was kneeling next to the pot, Wyla came and crouched next to him.
“You hear the scary voice too, don’t you?” she said, her voice no more than a whisper.
Halwyn’s mind raced to find a suitable answer. Finally, he decided simple was best. “Yes.”
Halwyn stared at the child. How could she hear the voice?
“Have you always been able to hear things like that?” Halwyn asked.
The girl shrugged. “As long as I can remember.”
“Wyla, go help your father check our supplies,” Yonwyl said.
The woman had shown up out of nowhere. Halwyn berated himself for letting his guard down. Either he had been too distracted with the child, or she was that stealthy. He decided it was a little of both. He needed to keep an eye on her.
“She is…special,” Yonwyl said, crouching low as Wyla had.
Halwyn nodded, but stayed silent. If the woman wanted to talk, he was going to let her.
“My life matters little. Taylik’s life matters little. But Wyla’s…her life is everything. She is the key that will unlock hope for this world.”
“What are you raving about?” Halwyn asked. “There is no more hope for this world, especially not hiding within a child!”
The woman was about to say something, but stopped. She cast her eyes down to the floor and turned away.
“As I said, she is special, and we must keep her safe,” Yonwyl said.
Halwyn was about to pry, but the elf’s face scrunched up, as if she were in pain. Her head whipped toward the door and she stood.
“Cleric, open the door!” a raspy voice from outside said.
The child ran to her mother and hid beneath her cloak. Taylik stood, but his face contorted in pain and he slunk back to the pew clutching his leg.
“Stay by the fire’s light,” Halwyn said. “It will keep you safe.” Empty words.
Yonwyl stood, positioning herself between the door and Wyla. She clutched a slender dagger in one hand. Halwyn had seen her type before. Wood elves were fierce, their women faster and deadlier than the men most of the time.
Halwyn walked to the door, each step diminishing the fire’s warmth. By the time he arrived at the threshold, his breath was forming small clouds. It was an unnatural cold.
Halwyn opened the door, determined to let whoever was out there know that he wouldn’t scare easily in his own home. He berated himself for not grabbing the war hammer though. Especially after he saw what awaited outside.
There were three of them mounted on emaciated horses that had to have died months ago. The shadowy steeds had eyes that glowed an unearthly green. The skin pulled tight across their skeletal bodies with patches of bone exposed to the night air. Emerald fire encased their hooves, burning fiery hoof prints into the earth with each step. The riders were even more terrifying.
They wore an obsidian colored mail that ate the moonlight. Halwyn couldn’t’ make out any facial features, as the creatures were shrouded in darkness but their eyes glowed like embers. They were revenants. Shades of warriors that had fallen in battle against demons, only to be raised from the dead to do their bidding like unholy lapdogs. He’d encountered one once, long ago. That encounter had cost the lives of three strong warriors.
They trotted forward until they hit the edge of the rickety wooden fence. The horses stamped their hooves and huffed.
“Give us the child and we’ll let you be,” one of the riders said. Its voice cracked and full of dust.
“Leave this place, you are not welcome here,” Halwyn said. More than ever he wished that he had Earung’s might to bear against these demons. Before the fall of the gods, he was a conduit to the heavens. He could have called down a mighty bolt of lightning and struck these puppets down with ease.
“Perhaps you don’t know who you are dealing with, cleric. I am called Ghor, favored knight of-”
Halwyn grunted and shut the door. The string of curses that came from outside filled the church, but Halwyn ignored them.