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CALDORA: Chapter 4: Wizards, and Dragons, and Weres (oh my!)

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Wizards, and Dragons, and Weres  

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           Raven and Jason walked southwards through the Open Field. True to its name, it was a vast, grassy plain, broken only by huge, jutting spikes than ran like a mountain range along the Earth Dragon’s back. This was the land left behind after Dinictis dispersed the primeval waters, an uninhabited area lying in the center of Caldora. Scattered in a great circle along its edge were the ten Crystals of Power, each of them a different color. Since the prairie was flat enough to see across great distances, and the crystals were fairly large, travelers used them as a geological compass for navigating between the four forests.

“So you’re from the North Forest, huh?” Jason spoke up.

Raven never bothered answering rhetorical questions.

“What’s it like?”

“They call it the Forest of Big Birds,” said the half-elf, still walking at a determined pace.

“Why’s that?”

 “Because there are many dangers lurking in the trees,” he answered in a markedly ominous tone.

“Just in the trees?”

“And on the ground, and under it.”

“Then why don’t they call it the Forest of Big Rocks?” Jason laughed, “No, I know! The Forest of Big Moles!”

“Call it what you like, my King,” Raven replied, growing irritable, “But it all spells death if you are caught off guard. You must always be alert, always know that your enemy could be laying in wait behind every bush.”

“Sounds awfully nerve-racking,” Jason groaned, “You sure even you can pull that off after living in Nastra for twenty years?”

That comment stopped the half-elf dead in his tracks. It was true, he was gone for much too long. No doubt suspicions would be raised, and his skills would be tested before he was acknowledged first rank again. “All the more reason to be prepared for anything,” he warned.

Jason held back his barrage of questions, seeing how these matters were weighing heavy on Raven’s mind. They kept on walking in silence.  Though During the Yi Faiye Balaam countless groups of travelers trekked across the Open Field towards the Mouth Cave, most other times not a single soul could be seen for miles around. The empty plain did not feel lonely, however. Rather it was quiet, relaxing, and serene. At night they camped out under the stars.

            “I remember a time – not too long ago! – when there was no moon in the sky!” Jason remarked, staring upwards, “Just one big carpet of stars from horizon to horizon. I used to love looking at the stars, but now that we have two moons it is that much more beautiful! So many new things in our land since Caldor had collided with Lossi! Think about it, there’s a whole new continent of people right across our brand new ocean! Isn’t it incredible?” He waited for Raven to reply, but when he looked down, he saw that the warrior was fast asleep. Following his example, Jason decided to turn in as well.

            They started up again at dawn. The sun was riding high in the sky and a gentle breeze stirred the flowery grasses under their feet. In the distance they could see a colossal chunk of black crystal, a beacon to all who journeyed towards the North Forest. Raven moved swiftly and silently, only looking back from time to time to make sure Jason hadn’t fallen behind or gotten lost. To his surprise, the King had no trouble keeping up. In no time at all they were at the foot of the crystal.

            “Wow!” Jason gaped at the gigantic crystal, “I remember this place! Lynn took me here when I was supposed to collect pieces from all ten of the Crystals of Power. Then we made them into a –” he paused, seeing that Raven was long gone and heading for the treeline. Sighing at yet another failed attempt at conversation, Jason ran to catch up with the half-elf.

            Raven took a deep breath and stepped into the North Forest; Jason warily followed. After a few paces inside, the half-elf’s posture began to notably change. He slipped between the trees as inconspicuously as a forest shadow – not a single leaf or twig snapped under his feet. His eyes darted about with acute alertness, his ears were perked up attentively, and his hand never left the hilt of his sword. Raven sniffed the air, then slowly laid his hand on a tree. He frowned, for it did not throb with vibrant life energy as he had expected.

            “Something is wrong,” he whispered.

            “It speaks!” Jason gasped sarcastically.

            “I don’t feel a life force from the trees,” he turned to Jason sadly.

            “What does that mean?”

            “I don’t know,” the half-elf replied, “But it can’t be good.”

            Raven made a mental note to investigate the matter further on his own, but for the time being he gestured Jason to follow him deeper into the forest. The canopy above them grew thicker and thicker the farther they went, the forest consequentially becoming darker and darker. So little sunlight got through to the floor that most of the grass had wilted away, leaving the ground hard and rocky. Formations of glowing crystals could be seen here and there, bathing patches of the woods in eerie light. Hungry growls, threatening roars, and bone-chilling screeches sounded from the forest’s murky depths. Somewhere nearby, they heard the creaking of treants – trees that had adapted to the lack of sunlight by becoming mobile, catching and suffocating their prey like pythons.

            “Ugh, it’s so damp and dark and dreary here,” Jason grimaced.

            Raven plodded on.

            “Where are we going?” Jason dared to ask.

            “To Trellia,” the half-elf answered, “If anything is happening anywhere in the North Forest, it would be known in Trellia.”

            Rustlings could be heard over their heads as tiny creatures scuttled from branch to branch and tiny footsteps scurried between the trees. All around them they could hear whispers. Jason could tell that his partner already knew what they were saying, but he was too embarrassed to ask. Upon listening closer, the King was able to discern that they were chanting ‘Raven.’ The raven was still perched comfortably on Raven’s shoulder.

            “So why do they call you Raven, anyways?” Jason laughed sheepishly, “Is it because you have a raven following you?”

            “No,” Raven glowered irritably. The raven cawed.

            Jason shrank away from such a harsh reply and decided to not try starting conversations any more.

            They kept walking. One by one bonfires were lit, visible as sparkling red-orange lights amid the trees. The wild rhythms of a primal drumbeat saturated the air. Raven tactfully informed the King that it was night.

            “Night?!” Jason gagged, “Well where are we going to stay? You don’t mean to sleep out… out here, do you?? We’ll be eaten alive! Are you waiting until we get to Trellia? Are we going to stay with your contact?”

            Raven stepped aside to reveal the shaggy form of a rather large, happily panting wolf. The King caught his tongue and gaped, motionless.

            “My contact,” the half-elf grinned smugly.

            “Is your contact going to eat me?”

            The wolf arched in a lupine howl as he fluidly morphed into the form of an elf dressed in tanned hides. He was shorter than both Raven and Jason, and far more slender. His shoulder-length auburn hair was streaked with striking blond highlights. His eyes were a mesmerizing blue-violet, and he shone with elven beauty and charm.

            “Welcome to Trellia, King Jason,” the elf smiled and dipped into a graceful bow, “I am Keramis, fifth rank of the North Forest. Looks like you will be staying in my family cave for the night.”

*          *            *

            Keramis led them a ways into the forest, towards a glow which turned out to be the entrance to a cave. Firelight reflected off the walls in flickering waves, casting looming shadows of the dancing crowd of elves, orcs, and goblins. When they stepped across the threshold, the festivities died down and all attention turned to the newcomers. The crowd erupted in a series of deafening cheers and trills. “Raven! Raven is back!” they chanted, throwing their hands up in the air in salute to their first rank.

            They turned to Raven’s companion, squinting in vague recognition, and then broke out into a disorganized and somewhat less enthusiastic salute to Jason.

            Jason waved.

            The drums resumed their beat and the party carried on in full force. Overflowing jugs of ale were passed around the cave, Keramis drenched himself with a bucket of wine and tipped the rest to spill across the ground upon which goblins and orcs wrestled over tidbits of food. Soon enough, the revelry turned into a drunken orgy. In all the chaos, Raven spotted Keramis howling and prancing in circles around the room. He caught him by the arm and spun him about.

            “We need to talk,” the half-elf told him.

            “Huh?” Keramis asked as Raven tugged him towards a tunnel that branched off from the main room. Jason decided to follow. They entered a much smaller cavern, lit only by a pot of flame. The raven flew off to the side and settled on a protruding rock. Keramis, Raven, and Jason sat on the leafy cushions that lay on the floor. Keramis stared at Raven attentively while picking his teeth with a chicken bone.

            “I am–” Raven glanced to Jason, “We are here by direct orders of Queen Dinictis.”

            “Yes!” Jason added excitedly, “Aloquin has returned to Caldora!”

            “You don’t say,” Keramis twirled his chicken bone.

            “We were sent here as scouts,” Raven continued, “And we need to find out two things–”

            “One thing at a time, please,” Keramis interjected.

            “Firstly, what has been going on for the past twenty years?” Raven asked.

            “Well,” Keramis rolled back his eyes in recollection, “From what I remember, one day some old man claiming to be Aloquin appeared out of nowhere mounted on the dragon Kranti, declaring that this forest was now his and anybody who had something to say otherwise would die. Now, of course some people told him otherwise – they died. A few more people had a problem with those people dying – they died, too. Nobody questioned the old man after that.

            “When somebody that powerful comes in, sides begin to be drawn up. Naturally, you want to be on the winning side, or at the very least on the living side,” Keramis smirked, “Second rank Kranti the half-were was among the first to run and grovel at Aloquin’s feet. With him came third rank Kentabri. A horde of no-ranks followed, and the next thing you know Aloquin has an entire army of brainwashed morons.

            “Most of the North Forest is on Aloquin’s side, but not everybody. Fourth rank Kasheri, representative of Lynn’s cave, is not. Sixth rank Lianna is not. The karaci people are not. Our cave, with the exception of Beyati, is not either. We are what you call Neutrals,” Keramis flashed a toothy grin, “There is no side against Aloquin. All who were openly against Aloquin are dead.”

            Raven nodded gravely. “Second question, where are his headquarters?”

            “Where are the headquarters of anybody who claims to rule the North Forest?” Keramis laughed, “Kayintas!”

            “Kayintas…” Raven muttered. The North Forest took pride in its anarchical system, in which the established hierarchy of fighters held sway over the woods by the people’s respect for their prowess. Yet there was a myth in the North Forest of how in the ancient past, there was a man who had attained so much power that it drove him mad. This man tried to go against the time-honored tradition, declaring himself King and Kayintas his castle. He was a totalitarian monarch who choked the freedom and life out of the North Forest. But the people would not stand for such arrogance. They rose up against him and restored the forest back to anarchy. Ages later, Kranti attempted to do the same. He amassed a large following and made the legendary Kayintas his base. Raven led a revolt against him in what has come to be known as the Raven-Kranti War and triumphed, earning the title of first rank. Kayintas has always been a powerful symbol of dictatorship, and now Aloquin was drawing on that symbol for his own purposes.

            “We leave for Kayintas at dawn,” Raven told Jason.

            “Be careful, Raven,” Keramis warned, “As much weight as your reputation bears, you still have been living in Nastra for over twenty years, and there are many who will try to test your skill.”

*          *            *

            Deep in the heart of Trellia stood the imposing Kayintas. It was the single largest cave in the forest complete with a maze of passages connecting an anthill of cavernous rooms. The uneducated eye would mistake it for a fortress, such was its mass and form. Creatures of all shapes and sizes were gathered in the main chamber, having a celebration of their own. Aloquin sat on his fur-draped stone throne, stroking Lakai’s blond hair as one would a pet’s. Lakai was tied to the throne by a chain attached to his collar, looking obviously uncomfortable in the rowdy atmosphere.

            A goblin scampered breathlessly into the cave. “Jason… King Jason… in the North Forest… and Raven!” it panted.

            “Jason is here?” Aloquin cackled, “Leave him be, I want to see how long he will last.”

            “And Raven! And Raven!” the goblin jumped up and down anxiously.

            “Raven? Raven who?” Aloquin asked offhand.

            “Raven the first rank!”

            Whispered murmurs resounded across the assembled.

            “Oh that Raven,” Aloquin paused, “And?”

            The goblin looked about nervously. There was another wave of mumblings followed by much fidgeting and staring at the floor. Aloquin shifted in his seat.

            “Fine, I am aware that you have this… this testing thing?” he rubbed his temples, “Yeah, and I am also aware of the fact that this first rank of yours has been living in – where was it, Kranti? – in Nastra!

            “We don’t like Nastra, do we?” Aloquin scanned the room, shaking his head disapprovingly, “No, we think they are a beehive of mindless slaves.

            “And your first rank has been living among them for over twenty years!” he leaned forwards from his throne, casting an intense gaze at the crowd to emphasize the point, “Tsk, tsk, tsk. He has grown weak, soft, slow! His senses have dulled! Will you allow this West Forester to just come back and keep his rank without testing if he is fit for it?!”

            There was complete and utter silence. The god leaned back in his throne; their reluctance was more than a bit unnerving.

            “Kranti!” Aloquin turned to the half-were, “You hate this Raven more than anything in the world! Not even you dare test him?”

Kranti shamefully averted his eyes to the ground. All was quiet, a quiet that seemed to stretch for minutes on end.

            “I will tessst him,” said a snaky, venomous voice. A bright green forest dragon slithered onto the foreground, its scales scraping against the stone floor.

            “Thank you!” Aloquin exclaimed, “I was beginning to think my army was a bunch of hypocritical cowards! Go! Go and test him, forest dragon! You are all dismissed.”

            The gathered went their way – some out into the forest, others into the winding tunnels of the deeper cave. “Except for you, Kentabri,” Aloquin added, motioning for the third rank to stay.

            Kentabri could be called a chameleon, for he could change the color of his rough, scaly skin to match his surroundings. But he would be more accurately called a tamunid, a humanoid race directly descended from the great dragons of the South Forest.

            “You’re a smart lizard, Kentabri,” the god told him, “Tell me, why are they so afraid of him?”

            “It is not fear,” Kentabri explained, “It is respect. They admire him.”

            “And do you ‘admire’ him?” Aloquin asked, winding Lakai’s chain around his index finger, “Truthfully, now.”

            “Yes,” the tamunid hesitated.

            Aloquin yanked on Lakai’s leash, “Finish your thought.”

            Both the boy and the chameleon knew this to be a relatively empty threat – the dragon races were highly resistant to mind probes. “With all due respect, Aloquin,” Kentabri, himself a veteran of the Raven-Kranti War, looked Aloquin in the eyes, “Nobody has succeeded in ruling the North Forest by fear.”

            “That may be, Kentabri, that may be,” the god let out an exaggerated sigh, “But nobody has also succeeded in getting the dragon Kranti as an ally, gaining the support of so many top ranks, and–” he smiled at the radiant woman scrubbing the floor, “–keeping the spirit of the forest herself for a servant.”

            Kentabri looked to the woman dejectedly.

            “You see,” Aloquin grinned fanatically, “I have the strength of the forest, I have the life of the forest, I live in the authority of the forest, and as soon as Raven is discredited, I’ll have the freedom of the forest. There is nothing the North Foresters can fall back on for support except me!”

*          *           

            The croaking of frogs and the grunts of well-fed ogres ushered in the dawn. Raven and Jason left the family cave and began their walk to Kayintas, for though they already knew what had gone on for the past twenty years and knew the location of Aloquin’s stronghold, they still needed to verify the information.

            Crack. Snap. Pop. Rustle-stumble-thud.

            “Can you try not to step on every single twig?” Raven snapped at Jason.

            “I can’t believe it!” Jason said, scrambling back to his feet, “All these years Lynn had never told me Aloquin was my father. And then how do I find out? By being electrocuted and nearly killed!”

            “I wish I knew who my father was,” Raven muttered, moving among the trees with the stealth of a hunting cat.

            “So you grew up around here?” Jason switched topics, “I grew up in the East Forest. My parents – well, my mother, I guess – begged Lynn to take me in and train me as an Acora…”

            Raven flinched. Why Jason had decided to take this time to tell his life story was beyond him. They were nearing Kayintas. He tried to concentrate on the forest, on the subtle sounds that could mean the difference between life and death, audible only to the keenest ear. Suddenly his ears picked up a miniscule noise in the bushes and his hand instinctively closed around the handle of his sword.

            “…I mean Lynn is a great guy and all, but sometimes I just want to slap him.”

            “Shhhh,” Raven whispered to Jason, dropping to a crouch. He could almost make out if it was padded paws, bipedal footsteps or… scales?

            “Just because he’s an Acora he thinks he can decide what others can and can’t know and when and why and–”

            Raven turned around, scowling at Jason, “Will you just SHUT UP!!” In that same instant, the raven cawed as a green blur lashed out from the brush with the momentum of a lightning strike. Jason wrapped his arms around Raven and dove out of the way, leaving the dragon to crash into a tree behind them.

            The forest dragon recoiled, its pearly scales rippling in waves of hearty laughter. “Wait ‘till Aloquin hearsss about thisss!” it hissed and swiftly slithered away. Jason could feel the half elf breathing hard under him. At first he figured it was shock or fear, but he was wrong.

            “You imbecile,” Raven growled, “You idiotic, babbling fool!” he roughly pushed Jason off and shakily got to his feet, “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!”

            “Yes! Saved your life!” Jason retorted huffily.

            “You’ve forfeited my rank!” Raven snarled, “Do you know what the North Forest does to high ranks who are not fit to be high ranks?! Fight or be trampled! That is the Law! I’m better off dead!!

            “Stay away from me,” Raven whispered, holding out a trembling hand to keep Jason at bay. He leapt into the foliage and disappearing into the forest.

            The King stood still for a long while, then plopped down on the ground, staring into space.

            The half elf went a ways away before finding a boulder to rest on. No doubt Jason had interpreted his words as a personal reproach, and perhaps it was better that way. It was not safe to be around Raven right now.

            “Fierce as a dragon, tough as a rock, savage as a troll, cunning as a trickster,” Raven chanted the old North Forest proverb under his breath, “Fight or be trampled.” Though high ranks were widely respected and admired, there still remained many in the North Forest who loved nothing more than the opportunity to crush reputations in order to make their own flourish. He unsheathed his sword, momentarily entertaining a passing thought of suicide. The idea was not new to him – he welcomed death for he had nothing left to live for. But it was a common saying in the North Forest that he who dies by his own blade dies a coward, and the half elf would not give his enemies that satisfaction. He knew his fate was sealed.

Raven heard deep rumblings in the underground.

            “Go home, Jason,” he whispered, readying his weapon, hearing the rumblings getting closer. The ground exploded from under his feet as a host of ground dwellers – hairy brown creatures no taller than his knee – poured out of the opening. They swarmed over him, hooking onto him with bony fingers and wrapping their limbs around him tighter than chains. Thrusting his sword aside, they dragged him along on a bumpy ride through a labyrinth of underground tunnels. He tried to twist and kick but soon lost the strength to resist, finding it hard to breathe. The last thing he knew was the feel of wiry hair against his face.



Copyright © 2003 by Yumeni www.twilightvisions.com. All rights reserved.
Revised: 27 Jan 2013 22:57:20 -0700 .



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