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.
you’re from the North Forest, huh?” Jason spoke up.
never bothered answering rhetorical questions.
call it the Forest of Big Birds,” said the half-elf, still
walking at a determined pace.
there are many dangers lurking in the trees,” he answered in a
markedly ominous tone.
in the trees?”
on the ground, and under it.”
why don’t they call it the Forest of Big Rocks?” Jason
laughed, “No, I know! The Forest of Big Moles!”
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.”
awfully nerve-racking,” Jason groaned, “You sure even you can
pull that off after living in Nastra for twenty years?”
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,”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
is wrong,” he whispered.
speaks!” Jason gasped sarcastically.
don’t feel a life force from the trees,” he turned to Jason
does that mean?”
don’t know,” the half-elf replied, “But it can’t be
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.
it’s so damp and dark and dreary here,” Jason grimaced.
are we going?” Jason dared to ask.
Trellia,” the half-elf answered, “If anything is happening
anywhere in the North Forest, it would be known in Trellia.”
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.
why do they call you Raven, anyways?” Jason laughed sheepishly,
“Is it because you have a raven following you?”
Raven glowered irritably. The raven cawed.
shrank away from such a harsh reply and decided to not try
starting conversations any more.
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.
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
stepped aside to reveal the shaggy form of a rather large, happily
panting wolf. The King caught his tongue and gaped, motionless.
contact,” the half-elf grinned smugly.
your contact going to eat me?”
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.
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
turned to Raven’s companion, squinting in vague recognition, and
then broke out into a disorganized and somewhat less enthusiastic
salute to Jason.
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
need to talk,” the half-elf told him.
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
am–” Raven glanced to Jason, “We are here by direct orders
of Queen Dinictis.”
Jason added excitedly, “Aloquin has returned to Caldora!”
don’t say,” Keramis twirled his chicken bone.
were sent here as scouts,” Raven continued, “And we need to
find out two things–”
thing at a time, please,” Keramis interjected.
what has been going on for the past twenty years?” Raven asked.
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.
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.
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.”
nodded gravely. “Second question, where are his headquarters?”
are the headquarters of anybody who claims to rule the North
Forest?” Keramis laughed, “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.
leave for Kayintas at dawn,” Raven told Jason.
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
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
goblin scampered breathlessly into the cave. “Jason… King
Jason… in the North Forest… and Raven!” it panted.
is here?” Aloquin cackled, “Leave him be, I want to see how
long he will last.”
Raven! And Raven!” the goblin jumped up and down anxiously.
Raven who?” Aloquin asked offhand.
the first rank!”
murmurs resounded across the assembled.
that Raven,” Aloquin paused, “And?”
goblin looked about nervously. There was another wave of mumblings
followed by much fidgeting and staring at the floor. Aloquin
shifted in his seat.
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!
don’t like Nastra, do we?” Aloquin scanned the room, shaking
his head disapprovingly, “No, we think they are a beehive of
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?!”
was complete and utter silence. The god leaned back in his throne;
their reluctance was more than a bit unnerving.
Aloquin turned to the half-were, “You hate this Raven more than
anything in the world! Not even you dare test him?”
shamefully averted his eyes to the ground. All was quiet, a quiet
that seemed to stretch for minutes on end.
will tessst him,” said a snaky, venomous voice. A bright green
forest dragon slithered onto the foreground, its scales scraping
against the stone floor.
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.”
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.
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.
a smart lizard, Kentabri,” the god told him, “Tell me, why are
they so afraid of him?”
is not fear,” Kentabri explained, “It is respect. They admire
do you ‘admire’ him?” Aloquin asked, winding Lakai’s chain
around his index finger, “Truthfully, now.”
the tamunid hesitated.
yanked on Lakai’s leash, “Finish your thought.”
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
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.”
looked to the woman dejectedly.
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
Snap. Pop. Rustle-stumble-thud.
you try not to step on every single twig?” Raven
snapped at Jason.
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
wish I knew who my father was,” Raven muttered, moving among the
trees with the stealth of a hunting cat.
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…”
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.
mean Lynn is a great guy and all, but sometimes I just want to
Raven whispered to Jason, dropping to a crouch. He could almost
make out if it was padded paws, bipedal footsteps or… scales?
because he’s an Acora he thinks he can decide what others can
and can’t know and when and why and–”
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.
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.
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?!”
Saved your life!” Jason retorted huffily.
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
away from me,” Raven whispered, holding out a trembling hand to
keep Jason at bay. He leapt into the foliage and disappearing into
King stood still for a long while, then plopped down on the
ground, staring into space.
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
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
heard deep rumblings in the underground.
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.